Chapter 5

Octavia


“Are we going to lunch or not?”

I nearly jumped. Spinning around I found a tall, imperious woman standing behind me, looking impatient and amused.

It was Octavia, the Head of Rare Books. She was one of the Countway’s most senior people, and she also happened to be Wendell’s boss. He sat up straight in his stool and unconsciously adjusted his cuffs.

“Did I lose track of time?” he muttered. “But no, it’s only eleven…”

Octavia shrugged. “An early lunch would be better, especially if the director decides to close the library early.”

“I wish the director would put us in the loop,” sighed Astrid.

I now realized that Astrid must have returned from her break a while ago and had been quietly sitting behind us, listening to my story about Imogen. I quickly averted my eyes from her, in case she smiled at me or something.

“Yes, the director has a flair for avoiding decisions,” Octavia observed acidly.

“It’s no bother,” said Astrid. “We’ve been sitting here listening to our IT guy tell us how he came to live to America.”

“I know, I’ve been standing over there eavesdropping for the past several minutes. Quantum causality and all that. By the way, that girl sounds like trouble if you ask me. Why didn’t you just tell her to buzz off?”

Wendell and I exchanged understanding glances.

Octavia was a chief librarian at the world’s foremost medical library, and she also happened to be a fiercely determined individual. In the past thirty years she’d breezed through every obstacle in her path; whenever someone had wandered across her trajectory she had knocked them down with the barest quiver of an eyebrow.

I remember meeting her husband back in autumn at an after-work party in the library foyer. An affable bloke who doted on his wife, he took me aside and told me I should get married to a good woman as soon as possible.

“When we first got married, Octavia said I could work anywhere I wanted. I told her I wanted to be an electrician – and she said: go for it!”

I’d whistled appreciatively.

“On Saturdays, if it’s not raining,” he’d confided proudly, “she lets me drive the car.”

Not every man is so lucky. Some of us find ourselves with no option other than to relocate alone to a different continent. Of course, I have always been a quiet supporter of gender equality but the realist in me can’t see it happening in my lifetime. Maybe one-day women will think of us as their equals but until then I’d be content to see men permitted to have more than half a shelf in a bathroom.

Still, as much as I’d have enjoyed explaining to Octavia the inherent societal value of male self-determination, I feared the conversation would get bogged down in intricacies.

“Well, you see, Octavia, it wasn’t as simple as you say. Some women can become fractious when you disagree with them and –”

“What do you mean – some women?” she asked softly, looking at me like I was a spider who had crawled onto her slice of cheesecake.

Wendell seemed as if he couldn’t decide whether to vault the Circulation Desk or just smash his way through the glass window behind us.

“No, I’ll come out and say it,” I declared bravely, voice quavering only a little. “There are some people to whom a man does not say ‘buzz off’, and Imogen is one.”

Octavia, gazing at me sternly, made only a ‘tsch’ sound in her mouth and looked at Wendell.

“Well, are you going to gape like a parrot or come to lunch?”

Without waiting for his reply, I slipped off the tall chair and started in the direction of the STAFF ONLY gate.

“And where are you going? You’re coming with us too. We’re all having lunch.”

“I’m busy, Octavia,” I said. Actually, I was going to go upstairs and look for Piper. My stressed-out student friend was probably lurking about somewhere, reading and brooding about some exam or other. If I was getting arrested later today then I should probably start saying my goodbyes to friends.

“No,” she said. “You’re not busy.”

“I am not going to lunch with you, Octavia,” I told her firmly.

“Yes, you are. And so is Astrid.”

“Sure thing, boss lady,” said the latter cheerfully. I remembered now that Astrid’s own supervisor had gone on maternity leave. Octavia was the most senior librarian in the building, and probably everyone’s boss these days.

But she wasn’t mine. I stared at her pleadingly and she stared at me, like some sort of cryptic mechanical cat.

“Damnation, Octavia,” I whispered. “Have some pity…”

“You’re coming with us, Shea. And, best of all, you are going to continue your story!”

I looked at Wendell for support, but he was looking down at the floor. My eyes darted between the two, back and forth, back and forth. The clock on the wall ceased to tick. Nobody moved or made a sound. I began to wonder if something odd was happening to me.

“Why?” I asked, at last, sounding plaintive even to myself.

“Because,” Octavia replied in a patient and reasonable tone, “we would like to hear you explain how you stole the skull of Phineas Gage.”


chapter 6 continues …