The big man perched on the edge of a ragged couch in the staff room, reading a plastic-bound copy of Pride & Prejudice and eating his fourth apple of the day.
Truth be told, Matheus wasn’t really sat on the couch. He couldn’t. His weight was such that he never dared place too much of it on any surface that may not take it. His feet were planted firmly on the ground, and most of his weight was being carried by his huge, trunk-like legs.
Matheus would have preferred to either stand completely or sit on the ground. It wasn’t that squatting for long periods made him feel physically uncomfortable, his muscles could take it. But there were other kinds of discomfort.
Even with his limited weight on the sofa, the ragged cushions pulled down and inwards towards him in a deep valley, and every time he shifted position, the wood would creak. Matheus remained as still as possible.
As he chewed the apple, Matheus tried to lose himself in his book, with limited success. The same sentence passed over and over through his mind without being processed.
In part, this was not his fault, as his surroundings far from quiet. A sizeable chunk of the library’s staff were currently enjoying their lunch break in the staff room, and it was a big library. A group of three elderly librarians sat in one corner discussing what they would be doing with their limited vacation days. A group of custodians took up a section of a long table, chatting about a movie they had seen. Another corner was dominated by a group of archivists, discussing something work-related in hushed and curiously secretive tones.
Matheus was happy that he wasn’t the only one not talking. A few, largely new hires and the part-timers, were reading themselves, or tapping at their phones. Matheus had noticed one young man, recently hired, who had taken to sitting on the edge of conversations with the older librarians, waiting for a point to interject. He would then speak at length about himself in a grating, nasal voice.
Matheus was sat more or less on his own in a far corner amongst a cluster of soft furnishings. There were two armchairs, one of which was occupied by a young lanky woman with headphones who was reading something on her phone that made her smile, and a second sofa, an arm of which was being occupied by a custodian as he spoke to his colleagues at the table. No one sat on his couch.
Filtering as best he could the cacophony of minor distractions around him, Matheus managed to get to the end of the page. Placing down the apple on a napkin he’d left on the arm of the couch, he reached up to the book to turn the page. Matheus preferred to read large-print books when he could, or failing that hardbacks. Anything that increased the size of the pages. This was the only copy of Pride & Prejudice that he’d been able to take out, and it was a small, tatty, paperback, with pages as thin as tissue.
As he raised both hands to it, he thought he could feel the eyes of everyone in the room turn to him. Delicately, and with infinite slowness, he brought thumb and forefinger up. His pale fingers were grimy, vaguely tacky, and far too large. He brushed his forefinger along the edge of the page, trying to bring it up.
It didn’t separate.
He tried again, patiently and slowly trying to roll a few of the pages between his thumb and forefinger. The pages separated, but then he couldn’t slide his enormous fingers between one page and another.
Somebody laughed somewhere in the room. Matheus had to stop moving for a second to focus on his breathing.
He tried again, this time trying to flick the page up from the edge of the book, pushing it from the side. This time he got it. By some miracle, his huge, thick, and ungainly digits had managed to isolate a single page from the book. Slowly, with infinite care, he turned it.
There was a dry rasp, deafening to Matheus’s ears. The page had ripped nearly to the middle.
Matheus stopped moving completely, letting the frustration ebb out of his body. He then released the page, made sure that the two edges of the rip lined up, and then allowed the book to close. Matheus decided that he had had enough of reading for now.
Placing the book down, he reached out to the remaining half of the apple. It slipped slightly through his fingers. Matheus tried to tighten his grasp, and the apple erupted in an explosion of white pulp.
Matheus closed his eyes. Breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth. He would have liked to spend another few moments like that, but he opened his eyes and noticed that some of the apple pulp had sprayed on to the young woman sat on the armchair. She was looking at him. Anger and confusion were jostling for control of her expression.
Matheus’s eyes went wide. He picked up the napkin still left on the arm of the couch. ‘Oh, sh-shoot!’ he said, passing the napkin to her, ‘I’m so…’ he paused a moment, collecting himself, ‘My sincerest apologies. I fear that I may have clasped that somewhat too firmly.’
She took the napkin, and smiled a small, tight-lipped smile. ‘No, it’s fine,’ she said. Her eyes were still confused, and somewhat wary. Taking the napkin, she began to brush the apple from her trousers.
Matheus noticed the custodian sitting on the arm of the couch glance over his shoulder to see what had happened. He turned back without so much as breaking the flow of the story he was telling, but Matheus noticed. Bits of apple littered the grey carpet. He stood up, carefully, crouching so that he wouldn’t reach the ceiling. Navigating slowly through the crowded room, he reached the small kitchenette and found some paper towels. Thankfully, Matheus managed to pull them from the dispenser with less issue than he’d had with the book.
As he made his way back to the couch, carefully got down on one knee, and began mopping up the small white pieces of apple pulp, every muscle in Matheus’s body was tense. He felt that he could sense each person in the room, eyeing every inch of his skin as he awkwardly, clumsily, brushed the white mush from the carpet.
After cleaning up as best he could, Matheus rose carefully to his feet, deposited the paper towel in the trash, and returned to his perch on the edge of the couch.
He was reaching for his book, when he remembered the tear. His hand stopped, and then awkwardly pulled back. The girl had returned her headphones and was still staring at her phone, but Matheus felt certain that her attention was on him.
Deciding that his break was now over, Matheus gathered up his things. He placed the book into a large messenger bag that he had slung over one shoulder. The bag’s strap had been pulled out to its maximum extension, but it was still tight around his over-sized torso. He left the staff room, ducking low under the doorframe to avoid smashing through it.
Today, Matheus was working in the technology department, which he dreaded. Most departments were quiet, especially on weekdays, but technology, which contained rows upon rows of computers, was never empty.
Matheus wandered through the pastel, industrial corridors of the library. To reach the technology department, he had to travel down a flight of stairs. Matheus hated the tight, spiral staircase with its narrow steps and constricting railings, but it was preferable to risking the small, ancient elevator. He treaded carefully, trying to distribute his weight over the steps and the railing, and finally reached the ground floor without incident, albeit not without some unpleasant groaning noises from the ancient metal.
The technology department smelled of industrial disinfectant, over-heated computers, and sweat. There was the quiet hum and whine of the few dozen machines that had guests sat at them, but otherwise the room was fairly quiet. Matheus walked purposefully, but lightly across the polished floor of the department. His appearance in the room drew the gaze of several of the guests, but their eyes returned to their computers with disinterest.
Matheus’s own eyes were scanning the room. He recognised a few familiar faces, regulars who came in to use the computers most days, as well as a couple that he did not. Matheus’s eyes passed over most of the people without a second glance. He was searching for anyone who might be a trouble maker.
The library was not a place that saw a great deal of trouble on a regular basis. But in public spaces in New York, even in a neighbourhood like this one, it was occasionally inevitable. It was something that Matheus was permanently conscious and wary of. He never let his analysis of the room become judgemental. Matheus didn’t want to become the kind of person who would profile people. Instead, he tried to focus on the way people acted. That, and remembering who’d caused trouble in the past.
Part of Matheus’s mind wondered how paranoid he was really being, whether or not it was wrapped up in the recent events since the accident. He quickly quelled that part of him.
Two people in the room stood out. One was a young man with glasses sat at a desk in the corner. There was something erratic in the way he tapped at the keyboard, and the furtive way his head kept turning to scan the room, almost like a nervous tick. As Matheus watched, the young man caught sight of him and then quickly, without changing expression, turned back to his screen.
Matheus barely registered the young man, because the other person who caught his attention was Tom.
Tom was an enormously large man, though not nearly so large as Matheus himself. He was a regular in the library as a whole and the technology department in particular, where he would sit for hours at a computer, watching conspiracy videos and writing on questionably legal blogs. Tom was known to all the staff as being argumentative and uncooperative, both with them and his fellow attendants. Matheus noticed him instantly from the wide berth that the other patrons gave him.
Tom seemed to have a particular distaste for Matheus, something that Matheus was well aware of. As he walked to the front desk, he hoped that Tom wouldn’t turn to look at him. Luckily, his headphones were on and he seemed absorbed in a video. He was not scared of Tom’s attention, but he was scared of the attention a disturbance might bring.
The counter of the technology department was already occupied. Sharon was a tall woman with long white hair that was intricately braided, and thick, black, square-framed glasses. She barley acknowledged Matheus’s approach outside of a slight tilt of her head.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Costa. And how was your lunch today?’ she said.
Matheus smiled back, ‘Wonderful as always, Mrs Frost. Though, I think my summer salad was ill-timed given the weather.’
‘Oh, the weather’s been terrible, hasn’t it?’ she said as Matheus slung his satchel under the table and took up the chair next to her, careful once more to carry his weight on his legs. ‘And what were you reading during your lunch today?’
‘I was deeply engrossed in a copy of Pride & Prejudice that I’d taken out from this very library.’
‘Really! That’s one of my favourites. Which bit are you up to?’
Matheus thought about the tear.
‘Not too far – Mr Darcy has only just been introduced.’
‘You’ve been reading a lot lately. What was that last book you finished?’
Matheus had to think about it.
‘Moby Dick,’ he said at last.
‘You finished that already?’
Matheus was beginning to feel uncomfortable, but he didn’t know how to change the direction of the conversation.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I completed it last week. I enjoyed it a great deal.’
Matheus’s fingers were far too thick to actually use a keyboard, and as such, he was forced to type at the keys with a pen held in either hand. It was slow going, but after a few seconds he’d managed to enter his name and password.
His eyes and attention were both fixed on the computer, but he knew that Sharon would be staring at him. It wasn’t his necessity to type with pens, that was a quirk that she already aware of. Matheus knew what her next topic of conversation would be without her saying it.
‘You are quite the Renaissance Man, aren’t you Matheus?’
Despite his growing discomfort, Matheus could not deny the welling sense of pride he felt on hearing that. Outwardly, he smiled ruefully and said, ‘I do my best, Mrs Frost.’
As his computer was preoccupied starting up, Matheus could no longer find an excuse not to make eye-contact with Sharon. He glanced up at her, meeting her gaze which was fixed on his face. She was smiling, in a way that had a hint of calculation to it.
‘Moby Dick,’ she said at last, ‘You know, one of Lucy’s favourite books is Moby Dick.’
‘Is it really?’ said Matheus, trying to make his voice sound politely disinterested.
‘That’s right,’ she said, ignoring his tone either deliberately or not, ‘You know Lucy, my daughter? Her book club is still meeting every Friday, and they work through a lot of classics. I think they’re doing Huckleberry Finn at the moment – have you read that?’
Matheus’s computer had logged on, so he was able to busy himself for a moment bringing up the library software. ‘Yes, though some time ago I believe – I’m not certain I can fully remember the narrative.’
‘Well, why don’t you come along to the next meeting?’ she said, sending a spike of apprehension through Matheus’s chest, ‘I think you’d really get on well with the others there – what do you normally do on a Friday night?’
Matheus thought back to the meeting with the other eight in the dingy bar.
‘Usually dinner with friends, I’m afraid,’ he said. Politely, he added, ‘I’ll try to rearrange things however to see if it would be possible for me to attend a meeting some time.’
‘Suit yourself,’ said Sharon, turning back to her desktop, ‘I just thought that it might be fun for you, is all.’
After everything was set up, Matheus continued the tasks that he had put off until after his lunch break. He had a stack of papers with countless rows of library accounts that needed maintenance. He would pull up an account, check that the names and addresses were correctly formatted, and then bring up the next one. It was tedious work, made more tedious by typing with pens. His mind grew numb to the endless procession of names and addresses. After twenty minutes, Matheus found that he had brought up and opened the last few accounts without actually checking or changing any of the information in them.
Sighing heavily through his nose, Matheus went back to the list and tried to work out when he’d stopped paying attention.
His pen travelled up the list of names, but paused. Matheus had just heard Tom begin to shout as his computer.