A few days before Christmas, in the early evening, the yellow street lights, the raindrops on the windows, millions of them, each throwing back its single dart of light, the air chill, moist but clean, in a hurry, after work, having to go to the library to get something, anything, to read over the Christmas season, anything to avoid the plastic and the bonhomie. It's a small town library, well stocked with the sorts of books most people want to read, and he's exhausted most of the topics that interest him, but he goes back from time to time to see the new accessions. The ladies recognize him and smile at him.
'Dreadful rain.' he says and they agree with him.
It's just an ordinary evening, in the Winter, rain outside, suppertime, not many borrowers, the lull before the rush, well it's hardly a rush, but a few people do come to change their books after supper, before the library closes at 7 o'clock. There's a new assistant librarian. He looks at her. She is tall and slim and very young. Her face very pale, very symmetrical, with heavy-lidded eyes, is framed by wings of heavy straight dark brown hair. She's wearing glasses with narrow black frames. Her clothes: a long bottle green cardigan, with long sleeves that leave only her fingers visible, a white blouse---He loves to see the material pushed out by the little breasts of young women, pushed, no that's too assertive a term, he loves to see the delicate curve of the material over her breasts. She's wearing a black mini-skirt and black woollen tights on long slender legs, and the kind of men's black, thick-soled, working shoes that all the girls seem to be wearing at the moment: they emphasise slim ankles, I suppose, by making the feet look like boats. He smiles at her and immediately she drops her eyes. He is surprised she should be so shy. There's something about her, he's not sure what, something unexpected, different, something about the way she stands, the way she moves.
He goes to the shelves and starts searching for something to read. He's not really in the mood for it. He knows, though, that he will regret it if he hasn't got anything to read over the holiday, and that he ought to make the effort and find something, but he's not in the mood. The other assistant librarian is shelving books beside him. He looks at her. She too is tall, but tall, and big-boned, wearing a starched white shirt and tight jeans that fit closely round her ample arse. She wears gold-rimmed glasses and has blonde hair fixed into a rigid, swept-up, formal style. He's seen her before and he thinks she's rather attractive in a severe sort of way, but somehow, somehow there is nothing different about her, nothing special about her.
He thinks of the girl in the green cardigan. He looks through the bookshelf over the tops of the books and sees her standing at the issue desk. She still looks very nervous, very shy, almost frightened, like a doe, as she accepts the books, stamps them, and files the library tickets. He looks at her face, and yes, she is not immediately to be perceived as beautiful, she might even be said to be plain, but her expression is very sweet, even if it is sad. He notices that she is left-handed, and then, shock, lightning bolt, he realizes why: her right arm is artificial. It's happened again, the unique emotion. He feels a deep existential gloom which has nothing to do with pity: it is simply the feeling of unhappiness, that the misfortune should have befallen the girl. He sighs: he is often melancholy, and when melancholy he sighs. He sighs and he stares, because as well as the sadness, he is hooked by the sight of her, riveted by the attraction he feels, he has fallen in unrequitable love again.
He moves to another bookshelf, closer to the issue desk, where he can look at her without attracting her attention, and without making what he is doing obvious to the other borrowers. He watches, as, having finished issuing books, she picks up some returns in her left hand and goes to reshelve them. As she passes him his eyes fall on the right hand. The arm is not really a prosthesis, just a cosmetic aid, something to fill a sleeve. The hand, slightly flexed, is not quite the right colour, the fingers are a little too waxy, too smoothly curving where they ought to appear to be jointed, though the nails are realistic enough, but the hand doesn't do anything, it just looks, to the unobservant person, like a relaxed hand. There's a ring on one of the fingers. He thinks 'That's a clever touch: You wouldn't expect her to put a ring on an artificial finger.'
She bends down, as girls who wear mini-skirts always have to bend down, by bending her knees and sinking, body held upright, to the floor. The knuckles of her artificial hand touch the floor, and the arm bends softly back resting beside her. He feels so many things, but most of all he feels tenderness, a longing to make it better, to help her, to shelve the books for her; but he knows he can't do that. It is love at first sight, and he feels vain, vain regret, because he is forty-nine, and she is probably no more than twenty, because in any case he loves his wife and wouldn't betray her, and there is no way he can tell the girl, share his feelings with her, cherish her. He sighs and waits. He watches as she shelves the books. Even if you hadn't noticed that her right arm was artificial you couldn't miss the fact that she doesn't use her right hand at all; she shelves the books efficiently all the same, using the corner of the book to open a gap in the line where it is to go, and then smoothly sliding it into place. She doesn't need his help, anybody's help, and in a way he's glad. She rises up again, gracefully, using just the strength of her legs, as she must if she is to rise while holding books in her left hand. When she has finished, unaware of his scrutiny she goes back to the issue desk.
'Now's the time.' he thinks, picks a couple of books at random and takes them to the desk where, foiled, one of the other librarians issues them for him.
He thinks about her on and off over the Christmas holiday. He wants to see her again, just see her, that's all he can hope for, there's nothing he can offer her, nothing he can give her, but he would like, in his mind, to cherish her, to love her, and seeing her would be an agonizing consolation, a pleasure in itself, and the sharpest reminder of what he can never have, never hope for.
He goes back to the library, and bliss, she is accepting returned books. He opens the books for her, this isn't anything special, he just opens the books as he always does, and she sorts through the files and hands the tickets to him. Never once does she look up into his face, she is so shy, so modest. He wonders if she is shy because of her deformity. He says thank you as warmly as he can, but she won't look him in the face. He spends the following twenty minutes moving, he hopes it looks as though he is moving randomly, so as to keep her in view. Her, face, when she is not interacting with people is calm, almost inexpressive, her complexion milky white, her hair, straight and heavy, in dark wings about her face, the slight, sweet, softly curving figure, with the long elegant legs. He is devouring the sight of her because this is all he is ever going to have of her. He dare not trust himself to ask her for more. When she returns to the issue desk he picks more books at random and takes them to be issued. He lays the books down as he usually lays them, open, where the tickets are pocketed. She's not expecting this, she reaches, and misses as he moves the books at exactly the same time. Her breath hisses sharply in disproportionate distress.
'I'm awfully sorry.' he says, 'I was just trying to be helpful.'
'That's all right.' she replies, her head bent down over the books. She won't look up, she still won't look up, 'Please look up so at least I can look into your eyes.' he thinks, but there is nothing else he can think of to say, standing as he is in the queue of borrowers, with whatever he said, inevitably, overheard.
'Look at me.' he thinks, 'I love you.' but he doesn't say it. He carries his sadness home to a loving wife who notices his misery, and without knowing the particular cause, but guessing the general reason, because it has happened before, and they have spoken about it, comforts him.
He goes to the library more often, and with time becomes resigned to the fact that she is there, and that he will never do anything more than look at her, watch from a distance how she copes so efficiently in spite of her disability, love her from a distance, watch over her, and the pain's intensity fades away.
Months go by and he notices that she is becoming less shy. He is taking more care with his appearance: when he washes his hair he uses his wife's setting mousse to bulk it out where it's going thin. One day in the chemist's shop he looks at a bottle of Grecian 2000, picks it up, reads the label, and puts the bottle back on the display; but he was tempted.
Then she is gone. He goes to the library and she isn't there. The pain is back, worse than before, the opportunities, the endless opportunities, wasted. He still goes to the library regularly; she might come back. One day just as he is arriving he sees her leaving, she has been visiting the library as a borrower. The relief makes him gasp, there is still the possibility of more opportunities to waste.
Later she resumes her work. One day, when it's Summertime, the Sun shining through the gaps in the showers, she issues his books and in response to 'Thank you', smiling shyly, she looks up into his eyes and says 'That's nice.'
He leaves the library singing.