The Mundane Adventures of Henri Lefebvre, Waiter

Dean Cracknell



All I could hear was my own footfalls as I walked the wood-panelled corridor, the soft creaking squeak of crepe rubber soles against the highly polished herringbone patterned parquet blocks. The normally near-silent squeal appeared to resonate along the narrow hallway, a noise that would normally be dulled by the wooden panels now seemingly amplified and reverberating, punctuating the silence of the normally quiet passageway so consciously that every step announced my arrival. As I approached the heavy oak door I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, my throat became dry and this annoyed me, I cursed Monsieur Mallow under my breath for sending me on this errand. He could have come himself, that is his right as a member of the Athenaeum club. As it was, this was my second attempt to see the Archivist Bartholomew after Mallow had left the club, having aborted the first on seeing M. Wainwright enter this corridor en route to the Library. He wasn’t the only visitor this afternoon, later an American had waved some official looking document at the Purser and was duly ushered in to see Bartholomew. [Quite why this land-based gentlemen’s club should have a Purser and not a Concierge has never been explained to me, I assume it’s just one of the idiosyncrasies of the club and its founders, not that it carried any nautical connection.]

I stopped at the closed door and stared at the plain but highly buffed brass plaque. A single word etched in copperplate script: “Library”. Behind the door I could hear Bartholomew, the chief librarian and archivist, moving around the office, the unmistakable sound of large books being closed, the sound of leather shoes on polished wooden flooring, a shuffle of papers and the scrape of a chair being positioned. I pulled the note M. Mallow had passed to me from the fob-pocket of my waiter’s waistcoat, a fifty Euro bill wrapped around a business card. I removed the bill and tucked it back into my pocket. The business card it had concealed bore a name and address in smudged blue ink on the obverse side and M. Wainwright’s on the face-side. This was the single cause of my apprehension. Actually, that’s not completely true — M. Bartholomew scares the crap out of me too, but not more so M. Wainwright. Holding the hard between thumb and index finger, I absently tapped the card against the back my other hand as I considered turning away from the task given me.

The Wainwright’s were life-long members of the Athenaeum, their lineage tracing back to the club’s inception and their immeasurable wealth was germane to its existence and continuance. When a Wainwright says jump you never ask how high, you obsequiously comply and smile while doing so. That does not mean heartfelt respect, quite the contrary; their wishes and demands engender much brooding resentment among employees and temporary staff alike. This antipathy is born by the other club members it has to be said for the club’s staff cannot help but overhear their complaining mutterings, invisible as we are to them they forget we also have ears. The Wainwrights and their like may practically own the place but that does not mean that they should act as if they actually do. I fear that could lose my job if discovered or if M. Bartholomew chose to tell him of my illicit breach of protocol and member confidence. However, M. Mallow was neither stupid nor was he reckless so it was a question of trust. He trusted me and he would not have asked me to visit M. Bartholomew on his behalf unless he trusted him too, so I guess I should place my trust in both of them.

Removing the restaurant order-pad from my back pocket I tucked the business card between its pages and returned it to my pocket. My throat was still dry, so unable to suppress the urge to cough I cleared it as quietly as possible and then knocked upon the oak door.

‘Enter!’ — M. Bartholomew’s voice was loud and very abrupt, much like a dog’s bark only more insistent, causing me to involuntarily stiffen my entire body. The door didn’t rattle from the ferocity of the command but it would not have surprised me if it had. I tentatively turned the handle and pushed the door ajar, just enough to poke my head through the gap as I peered hesitantly into the room. The library was huge and never failed to impress me, illuminated with natural light from a single octagonal lantern skylight high in the centre of the architecturally rich ceiling of stylised plaster cornices, corbels and coving painted crisp white like the frosted icing on an elaborate wedding cake, the room was washed in subdued light that rapidly diffused into darkness in the distant corners that made the walls appear to recede into the distance, making estimates of the exact dimensions of the room difficult to gauge. If there were artificial ambient light-sources in the library they were inconspicuous and well hidden and how anyone could see to read any of the countless books was a mystery to me. Lining every wall were towering columns of bookcases that reached up to the high alabaster ceiling and were reflected in the highly polished parquet floor so perfectly that they appeared double their height and created a dizzying and somewhat nauseating illusion. At the left of each bookcase stood vertiginous gangling library ladders, posed like feeding giraffes grazing on the rows of books that filled every available centimetre of wall, each one was custom-made to the precise measurements of the bookcase it served and were fitted with large brass wheels with narrow starfish-like spokes so they could be rolled along to the desired column of books. An ornate mechanism of forge-blackened iron cogs and levers on each axel would lock the wheels in place once weight was applied yet the spindly ladders looked as though they could barely support their own weight, let alone that of the librarian, the mere thought of ascending one of them made me uneasy. The librarian’s desk was some ten metres from the door; it was an imposing monolith wrought in coffee-dark wood that looked as though it had been carved from a single ancient oak tree and appeared to hover impossibly in mid-air as it too was reflected in the glass-like surface of the floor. M. Bartholomew liked to keep his desk clear of unnecessary clutter, on the desktop inlayed with green leather stood a single tiffany reading lamp, an antique candle-stick telephone and a leather trimmed desk-blotter; of computers and other concessions to modern technology there were none.

Behind the desk sat the librarian.

‘Come, come.’ He beckoned, softening the sharp edge to his voice so to sound more reassuring and less officious. ‘Ah, Henri isn’t it?’ He asked upon recognising my face, ‘is it teatime already?’ I cursed myself for not thinking of such an obvious ploy, that is my job after all and no one would have suspected a waiter carrying afternoon tea to M. Bartholomew’s office, but alas... Cautiously I stepped into the room and pushed the door closed behind me.

‘Err, no sir’, I replied my face reddened with discomfort, I cleared my throat again and shuffled in my rubber-soled shoes. ‘M. Mallow…’ I started to say but couldn’t think of how to finish the sentence.

‘A-ha!’ M. Bartholomew exclaimed and indicated to the high-backed chair positioned in front of his desk, ‘Please, take a seat.’ I crossed the room, each footstep screeching on the polished floor as I moved towards the chair. ‘How are you today? And how is dear, irascible Phillip?’ he asked as I sat down, ‘fine I hope’. My face twitched a little and, trying to be nonchalant and casual, I shrugged. Unfortunately I was far from relaxed and the clumsy over-acted shrug must have appeared to be a caricatured Gallic gesture for I saw the trace of a suppressed smile cross M. Bartholomew’s face.

‘Comme ci comme ça… Oui, il est très bien.’ In English you fool, I berated myself and answered again, ‘erm, I mean yes, he is fine… I guess.’ To be honest I didn’t know M. Mallow well enough to say how he was, when I first moved to the city he helped me find my sister even though I had told him I was unable to pay very much. Whether out of philanthropy or pity he waived his fee but with these little errands of his I suspect I’ve repaid him several times over by now. Still, fifty Euros is fifty Euros and that is a welcome addition to my waiter’s pay.

Remembering the business card I leaned forward, raising a buttock off the seat to retrieve the order-book from my back pocket. Flipping the book open I removed the small card from between its pages and passed it over the desk. M. Bartholomew regarded the smudge of blue fountain-pen ink with a little contemptuous distain; he then flipped the card over and raised his eyebrows. As he pondered the two names on the card, I took the opportunity to study the man before me — Bartholomew was the diametric opposite of the archetypal librarian, whatever image that job-description conjures up in your head, he is the antithesis — a brick-built block-house of a man approaching two metres in height and almost as wide he gave the impression of being pure muscle stretched over a chromium-steel frame who would be more at home felling trees with his bare hands than supervising access to the trove of information contained within the ranks of antiquated ledgers, periodicals and journals stored here. The one stereotype he conformed to was that he was old, practically as old as the Library itself, with time-wizened features and shock-white hair. Slate-grey eyes peered through an ancient pair of pince-nez reading glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose, he seemed to take an age to read the few words scrawled on the card and that caused me to feel even more uncomfortable than I already was. I fidgeted nervously in my chair and toyed with the note-pad in my hand, riffling the corner of pages with my thumb. M. Bartholomew stared at me over his spectacles, then at my note pad and then back to my face. Embarrassed I quickly stuffed the pad into my jacket pocket and smiled sheepishly. He nodded politely and returned to studying the card, whatever wheels were turning behind those scanning eyes, no visible sign was evident in his unmoving face.

After a while he rose from his chair and crossed the room to one of the tall rolling ladders that was stationed to the far left of a run of bookshelves stacked with hundreds of identical leather-bound ledgers. Over the years the well-oiled brass wheels had worn two faint parallel tracks in the block wood flooring and the constant polishing by the Library cleaning staff allowed the ladder to glide effortlessly and silently. M. Bartholomew stopped at the fifth column of shelves and scurried up the ladder with an agility that belied his age and physical stature, my stomach tensed as the frail-looking ladder swayed and bowed under his weight and the wood and brass frame creaked and groaned as if in protest. Part way up he paused to realign one of the huge tomes that was a few millimetres out of line in the otherwise perfectly arranged row of books. He huffed to himself, pulled a ruby-red handkerchief from his tweed jacket pocket and used it to wipe the chocolate brown oak shelf. Shaking the dust from the square of cotton he folded it neatly and returned it to his pocket before continuing his nimble assent. Now some nine meters above the floor he had stopped climbing once he reached the second row from the top and scanned the row of books until he found the volume he was after. Shifting his feet on the rung so they were wedged against the side rails he reached out along the shelf edge with his left hand and started to pull himself and the ladder along, at first it resisted and seemed to bow as if it would topple, then with a small jump of his body the cogs of the brake unlocked and wheels succumbed to the pull, jolted into motion with a little skip back half a meter that caused the tower to wobble perilously before the brake mechanism locked again. I found myself gripping the edge seat of my chair tightly as I watched this impromptu display of circus acrobatics and let out an involuntary gasp. This did not seem to concern M. Bartholomew in the slightest for he reached out again and hopped the ladder another half-metre to the left. Satisfied the ladder was correctly positioned he pulled a single volume from the shelf and rested it upon a ladder rung and pulled a small pen-light from his breast pocket to illuminate the book. From where I sat I could not see which ledger he had chosen but knew it was one of the famed “Athenæum Archives” {printed by Arbuthnot and Sons, Ltd. Established 1880}. As he flipped through the pages, occasionally running his finger down the rows of names, dates and other salient facts contained within, the room was silent save for the rain rattling on the glass of the skylight and running off the copper-clad roof of the building to be collected noisily in the cast-iron guttering. Georgian drainage is as distracting as Victorian plumbing and equally as inefficient. The storm had increased in intensity considerably in the past few hours and the ever-darkening clouds gave no indication that it would be abating any time soon. Rather in here than out there, I thought to myself as I waited for M. Bartholomew to finish.

After an interminable length of time, he let out a long sigh, closed the book and slid it back into the allotted space in the bookcase alongside its companions in the collection. He paused a moment to regard the line of matching directories, scanning the row of books with his torch, routinely checking that each was in its rightful place and perfectly aligned with the edge of the age-blackened oak shelf. With his handkerchief he polished away his finger-marks from the shelf edge and then descended the ladder as swiftly as he ascended it. Once back on solid ground he parked it in its customary place at the end of the row of bookcases and sat down in the worn green leather upholstered chair at his desk. He picked up M. Wainwright’s business card again and used it to point at me.

‘Can I rely on your… can we say… discretion, Henri?’ He asked, slipping the card into the mitred corner of the desk ink-blotter as if to signal the denouement of our meeting.

‘Mais oui, but of course.’ I mumbled in reply, edging to rise from my seat.

‘Very well, leave this with me.’ He concluded, ‘shall I presume that I should contact Mr Mallow directly?’ On hearing this I visibly sighed in relief and permitted myself a brief but very broad smile as I alighted from the chair, I nodded graciously and turned to leave the office.

‘Henri.’ He called out as I approached the door, ‘I see that it is teatime now, could you send up a pot of Assam and some of those wonderful little Bretton Sablé biscuits.’ I nodded again and departed, pulling the door closed behind me.

By the time I arrive back in the foyer afternoon service has already started and waitresses are hurrying past me carrying trays of afternoon tea to the members in the main lounge. I check my watch and head off the kitchen to place Bartholomew’s order, where I would instruct one of my colleagues to take it to him as I had seen enough of the library of for one day. En route I pass M. Wainwright, who is talking to Mademoiselle Schaub in the hallway between foyer and the kitchen area. He has his back to me and I can see Mlle. Schaub over his shoulder, so when I approach them I slow a little to allow more time for me to admire her — if I permitted myself a matronly older-woman day-dream she would have the starring role. Up close I can see she is perhaps only a few years older than me though giving the impression of being much older, she is wearing a smart light-grey business suit of matching jacket and knee-length skirt over a cream-white fully-buttoned blouse, a long chiffon scarf in muted lavender tones is neatly wrapped around her neck and carefully draped over her shoulder, on her feet are a pair of expensive highly polished court shoes with impossibly thin stiletto heels and I can see she is wearing her customary dark seemed stockings that cause my libido to flutter. Her chestnut-brown hair is tightly gathered into taut bun that seems to pull her sharp Germanic face into fixed officiously stern expression. Her make-up is sparse, precise and business-like, reflecting the efficiency she is noted for and the haughty unobtainability that attracts me so: a faint touch of foundation to highlight her high cheeks; the merest hint of mascara to emphasise her deep brown eyes and thin pinched slash of rust red lipstick across her sharp narrow lips, only a nun could wear less. As I draw nearer I would not say they were arguing because no one, not even the formidable Mlle. Schaub, argues with M. Wainwright, but I can tell she was being resistive to whatever he was asking of her. He is holding out a padded envelope, insistently thrusting it towards her, that she reluctantly takes and slips into the functional black leather handbag hung over her shoulder. With an uncharacteristic pout that breaks the thin line of her mouth, she reaches up and pulls the pins from her hair and with a shake of her head trusses of unrestrained auburn locks break free of their confinement and cascaded over her shoulders. Framed now by the softening tousles of hair her stern appearance mellows to a brooding smoulder that melts my heart — strict and sultry, an irresistible combination for an improbable fantasy that causes me to gasp quietly. If she heard me it does not register on her face, I’m not sure they even notice I am there. Passing them in the narrow corridor I catch the smell of the eau de parfum that scented her hair, it fills the air like an aurora and I involuntarily inhale the sweet floral bouquet, as rich and heady as the finest Bordeaux wine and just as pleasing to my nose, and I continue on my way to the kitchen, savouring the aroma of her that lingers on my nostrils until affronted by the over burnt-coffee smell that assaulted me as I pushed open the kitchen door.