Thamesford public library was a small, square building, tucked away behind a shopping centre. It was known locally as 'The Bunker' due to its utilitarian shape and, generally speaking, it served the local community well, doing what a library does.
It was here that fifteen year-old Kim Gideon came each Saturday to stack books, make the odd coffee and earn a few quid.
By rights, like most other teenagers in the borough, Kim should have been out with her mates celebrating the weekend. Hanging around Lampwick Park perhaps, goggling and giggling at the passing boys. Maybe to the cinema for the latest flicks.
But Kim had no mates. She was one of those people who just didn't.
When she was younger, during some playground spat or other, someone had called her a 'fat, ugly cow.' It had stuck. When Kim looked in the mirror, which was a rarity, that's all she ever saw. She came to believe that was all anybody ever saw. So she stopped looking in the mirror, stopped trying to make friends and stumbled her way through adolescence with an emptiness at her core, to add to all the other problems adolescence brings.
Books were her salvation. She could escape anywhere with a book. Be anyone. See miracles. Live a life other than her own.
So when her concerned mother suggested she needed to get out of the house and meet people the library seemed the obvious choice for a Saturday job. And so it came to pass.
As her schooldays dribbled to a conclusion Kim applied for a full-time position at the library, mumbled her way through the interview and was gobsmacked when a letter arrived, offering her the post.
"You see," her mother had said, "you never can tell."
Kim had been at the library full time for about eight months when the Doctor showed up.
It had been a slow Thursday. So slow that Kim was on the front desk on her own all afternoon. She was sifting a batch of index cards when someone cleared his voice across the counter.
Kim looked up and groaned inwardly.
A tall shambles of a bloke. Bulging eyes, curly-perm and a mouth full of serious teeth. An enveloping burgundy coat and ludicrous scarf that draped down to the floor. As she thought; nutjob.
"I would like to see Miss Timmons." The voice, a deep baritone, hinted of dark chocolate. It was only flawed by a faintly superior, disinterested tone.
Kim guessed he had probably clocked the sign outside; 'Miss J.B Timmons. Librarian'. "I'm sorry, she's busy at present. Can I help?" The standard reply.
He fumbled in his pocket and laid a library ticket on the counter. Kim frowned. It looked like a standard-issue ticket apart from the fact it was golden and almost luminescent.
"Show her that would you. I'm sure she'll see me."
Kim was about to argue the point but there was something about the nutter's intense stare that made her think that perhaps she would be better off seeking advice from her superior.
"Hang on a mo." And off she hurried to Miss Timmons' office, with the strange golden ticket.
You would have thought Princess Anne had arrived unannounced. Miss Timmons ushered the stranger into her office with a beaming smile and shooed Kim back to the front desk.
After a few minutes Miss Timmons and the stranger appeared and crossed through to the fiction section (F-L). The stranger seated himself at a reading desk.
"That gentleman is not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Do you understand, Kim?"
"Yes, Miss Timmons."
The librarian disappeared back into her office.
Kim couldn't quite see what the stranger was doing from her vantage point. He appeared to be reaching out with his long arms, taking a book from the shelf behind him and flicking through it, fanning the pages briefly before replacing it. Then another, and another, and so on.
What the blazes was he looking for?
Kim was sorely tempted to go over and see if he wanted any help but she remembered Miss Timmons' instructions.
At length, as the clock dragged its way towards closing time Kim looked up from checking out a couple of books to find that the stranger had gone.
The following day Kim sought out her colleague Millie during the mid-morning coffee break and told her about the stranger with the golden library ticket.
"Oh, that'll be the Doctor, " said Millie, sipping her drink.
"Doctor? You mean he's been here before?"
"Well, maybe not him exactly. Not the one you saw yesterday. I met him about two years ago. Did just the same. Spent an afternoon flicking through the whole of the transport section, if I remember rightly. A proper gentleman. Very suave. Velvet jacket and frilly shirt."
"That doesn't sound like the same bloke."
"My mate Gemma, who was here before me said that she met the Doctor when he first came. It must be six years ago now. The same routine. Golden library ticket, Miss Timmons falling over herself. Flicking through books like he was looking for something. Only she said he was a little bloke with dark hair, dressed like Charlie Chaplin."
"It can't be the same man."
"Naw, of course not."
"What's going on then?"
"Gemma had an idea that 'Doctor' is just a code name. Passed down. Something to do with the government. Hush hush."
"What's he looking for?"
Millie looked conspiratorial. "Well, you know that this branch was opened by the Queen. Gemma reckoned that some kind of official letter was lost in a book and that these blokes from the government come along here every so often to try and find it."
Kim turned over the idea. "Sounds like a load of bunkum to me," she said at length.
"And to me!" said Miss Timmons from the open doorway to the little store room. "If you girls have quite finished there are customers at the desk."
Along with Millie, Kim traipsed back to the front desk. For a while she puzzled over her strange encounter but as days turned into weeks, months and years, she forgot all about it.
Home-work-home-sleep...the treadmill...mother enrolled her in the amateur dramatic society..to meet people...bring her out of herself....she flubbed her lines on opening night...relegated to prompter...never went back...boys...a couple...no-hopers...the odd sexual fumbling...dissatisfaction all round...Home-work-home-sleep...
It was probably five years before the man with the golden library ticket re-appeared.
Kim had returned from her lunch to find him sitting in the 'Biographies' section. Only it wasn't him. He was much different. Younger, fair and a bit dishy. Bizarrely, considering the October rain outside, he was dressed for cricket.
One or two people gave him curious looks as he flicked through book after book. After watching him surreptitiously for a while, Kim thought what the heck...
"Can I help you Mr -?"
"Doctor," said the man without looking up. "No thank you."
Doctor! Then Millie had been right all those years ago. "It's just that I thought you were looking for something. A lost letter perhaps?"
This time he looked up and smiled briefly. "A word actually. I'm looking for a word."
"I can get you a Thesaurus-"
"No thank you. It's a specific word." He continued flicking.
"What kind of word?"
The stranger shrugged."I'll know it when I see it."
Defeated, Kim returned to the front desk.
The stranger, code name 'Doctor', stayed for the rest of the afternoon before suddenly looking at his watch and leaving.
Home-work-home-sleep...the tempo of Kim's life fixed in amber...a life of two halves...the efficient library assistant and the empty frightened child...tried to change it...lost weight but ended up with an eating disorder...put it all back on...flirted with contact lenses...her eyes rejected them...changed her hair...got eczema on her elbows...no one to talk to..just the books that talked to her..home-work-home-sleep...
Kim missed the next appearance of 'the Doctor'. She was away on a training course.
To her astonishment Miss Timmons had encouraged her to enroll at night-school and go for an Information Management degree. It would stand her in good stead with the library service, Miss Timmons had said. She also started nominating Kim for a succession of training courses and seminars.
On her return Kim had heard from one of the girls that 'the Doctor' had paid a visit. A big man in a carnival costume. Stayed an afternoon. Had tea with Miss Timmons.
Kim was disappointed, in a way. Still, he didn't sound much like the man in the cricket gear she remembered from eighteen months ago. Now if it had been him she would have been really disappointed.
So it was that the next meeting between Kim and the Doctor occurred some two years later. By now Kim was assistant to Miss Timmons and often stood in for her at policy meetings and the like. Miss Timmons was out for the day when the gold library card landed on the counter.
Kim looked up at the little bird of a man. "I think I'll try the children's section today, if I may." he said. A definite Scots burr, thought Kim as he ambled off.
That was the last she saw of him for five years.
Home-work-home-sleep...her life ran along the monorail...then change...but not a welcome one...Mother died suddenly...Kim tried to cry at the pitiful funeral but she was a husk...the house was hers now...big and empty...it made strange noises at night that she had never heard before...creaks and groans...it scared her...home-work-home-sleep...
Over the next ten years four more men appeared carrying the golden library card; the straggly-haired Byron; the skinhead with the crooked smile; the Jarvis Cocker look-alike and the young one with all the hair. All came, saw and went away.
Then came the day that Miss Timmons retired. The Regional Librarian came and made a speech. There was a ripple of applause and a few drinks.
"Well, Kim. It's all yours now." said Miss Timmons as she signed over the keys in her office. "I told you that degree would come in handy. 'Miss K Gideon, Librarian.' How does that sound?"
Kim looked at the old lady who had devoted forty years of her life to 'The Bunker'. She wasn't sure whether it sounded that good after all, but she managed a thin smile.
"I was going to ask you. About the Doctor."
Miss Timmons paused as she was putting on her coat. "Oh him. Tell me what you know, Kim."
"I asked him what he was looking for once. He said he was looking for a word."
Miss Timmons finished putting on her coat. "Then you know as much as I do. That ticket, as I'm sure you've noticed, is authorised by 10 Downing Street. I've just done as I was told. Given him our cooperation. I suggest you continue to do the same."
There was a brief hug and she was gone. Kim never saw her again. Six months later she heard that Miss Timmons had died in a care home.
By that time, though, Kim had met Declan.
She met him at the local school. Kim had been helping re-vamp the little library there and Declan was the assistant Head. There was no sudden spark, no 'Oh My God' moment. And it had come right out of the blue when Declan asked her out for a drink to celebrate the successful conclusion of the project.
As the evening wore on Kim found that they could talk with an ease that she had never experienced before. He was married, but separated. He had nudged into middle-age, just like she had. They laughed together. God, they were flirting!
Things progressed as they normally do in relationships. They had a short holiday break together. During the long days at work Kim found herself longing for the closing bell so that she could hurry to be with him. People at work noticed. There was a spring in her step. She told nobody, though. He was hers. After three short months Declan moved in with her. They were a couple.
On the night of the anniversary of their first meeting Kim rushed home and cooked a slap- up meal. She dolled herself up (she had even persisted with the contact lenses) and lit the candles. She had never known such happiness. such completeness. This was going to last forever.
Declan came in. He looked at the table and then at her.
"I'm sorry, Kim. It's not working for me anymore."
He was gone within the hour.
Home-work-home-sleep...God knows how she dragged herself in every day...the frightened child..the placid duck on top of the water ...flailing legs out of sight beneath...he had gone back to his wife up north...her she knew about but not the two young children... it didn't matter...she should have expected nothing more...ugly fat cow...home-work-home-sleep...
Kim looked up at the relentless clicking clock on her office wall. Half an hour to closing-time. She was supposed to be doing the annual staff reports but they lay in a pile, untouched on her desk.
She watched the second hand sweep around with fearful eyes. That big empty house awaited her. In her mind's eye she could see the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Crammed full of tablets. Whispering to her.
There was a knock at the door and Sophie popped her head round. Ah, Sophie. The new girl. Just like she had once been. Only pretty. She should follow her face and get out of here whilst the going was good, that one. Perhaps that was what she should write on Sophie's report.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Miss Gideon. There's a man out here. Well, he's acting a bit strange."
Kim saw the golden library ticket Sophie was holding and sighed.
"OK, Sophie. I'll come."
He was standing at a desk by the fiction section (A-E), flicking through books in the old familiar way. Kim and Sophie watched him together for a few moments before Kim sent the girl back to the front desk.
Kim cleared her throat.
He turned to look at her, book in hand.
Not bad looking. One of those middle-aged men who won't change much between the ages of 45 and 60. A head of tight curls that belonged back in the eighties. A squarish-jaw, just this side of being lantern.
Clothes that were way too young for him. A baggy 'I-HEART-NY' print T-shirt, faded corduroy trousers and what appeared to be walking boots. On the nearby chair was a discarded duffle coat with, of all things, an egg-timer badge pinned to it.
"Miss Timmons is no longer with us, I understand." His voice was slightly adenoidal with a mild accent. West Country, perhaps?
"I'm the Librarian. Miss Gideon."
He frowned slightly. "You've been here a long time haven't you. Congratulations."
"I'm sorry. The library will be closing in twenty minutes -"
"I know. I'm an absolute clot. Look, I've only got a few hours . I don't suppose you could make an exception for me? Just this once?"
Kim thought of Miss Timmons' words about 'the Doctor' and giving him all cooperation. But most of all she thought of the big empty house awaiting her..
Any excuse. " No problem. I'll stay behind 'til you've finished."
"Thanks." He flicked through the book in his hand and snorted, shaking his head. "Overrated," he said, reaching for the next.
Kim sat at the front desk. The clock was just approaching seven thirty and outside, the sky had darkened. Kim felt tired. She had been due to take her medication at six as her body was trying to remind her. With the repetitive noise of the fanning books she was on the verge of nodding off when the noise suddenly stopped.
He stepped out from behind the shelves, bearing a book in front of him. "I've found it."
He stood over her at the desk. "I'd like to check this book out, please."
Kim looked down at it. An old edition, showing signs of distress.
She smiled a little tightly. "It's my favourite book," she said.
He placed the golden ticket on the desk. Only it wasn't golden any more. It was just an ordinary library ticket. "I shan't be needing that any more. I'll just get my coat -" He half-turned away.
Maybe it was the lack of medication but Kim felt an angry resentment bubbling up.
"Is that it then?"
"I said is that it? No word of explanation? You and your mates have been coming here for decades and all you can say is 'I'll get my coat'?" Her voice echoed around the empty building.
He looked at her steadily for a few moments. " Well, I suppose I did promise Miss Timmons that I would explain it all to her when I found...what I was looking for."
She stood and faced him.
"Well, Miss Timmons is dead. I'm the next best thing."
"I don't know whether you'll believe it..."
He sighed. Then his words came quickly, as if he was embarrassed. "I caught a criminal once, but he gave me the slip. Fled in here to hide."
"A criminal. Where is he then? Behind the curtains, under a bloody plant pot?" Kim snorted.
"It's called 'The Skape', a Trakkatorian shape-shifter. Wanted in four Stellar Systems. He fell to earth by accident."
Kim laughed shortly. Just as she had first thought. Nutjobs, all of them.
"He hid inside a book. This book. As a word. Do you know how many millions of words there are in this library?"
Kim composed herself. "This word. Was it 'bullshit', by any chance?"
He gave her a puzzled look. "Actually it was 'destiny'. There was no way of tracking it other than by a physical search. I could only manage the odd few hours here and there. I'm away a lot of the time. Still, it wasn't particularly urgent. It could wait. In fact I'm surprised I found it so quickly."
"Is that the best you can do? After thirty years is that all you can come up with? I was thinking a Royal love-letter or something ..."
"I'm sorry if you're disappointed -"
Kim waved an accusing finger. "Ha! That load of rubbish doesn't stand up anyway! Why didn't this criminal just run for it when your back was turned?"
"A psychometric field. I installed it around the building. It locked the Skape into it's current form until such time as I could find it. The field is completely harmless to humans. Ultra-sonic. Might have disturbed the odd dog or cat."
Kim's mind wandered to the trouble old Mr Handy had in getting his guide dog through the front door. Christ! Don't start giving this crap any credence!
The man had pulled a device from his back pocket. A thin metal rod. He scanned it over the book which was doused in a watery blue light. "Thanks for reminding me. I've bonded the book now. Safe to take outside."
He pocketed the device and held out his hand. "Well, thanks for the help-"
Automatically Kim took his hand. The man suddenly froze, frowning." Why are you taking anti-depressants?"
Kim bristled. "That's my business. Anyway, how do you know-"
He looked down at her hand that he was still holding. "I can feel it. Washing around in your blood. Way too much of it."
Kim tried to withdraw her hand but he held onto it. Not aggressively, almost gently.
"What are you going to do now? Read my palm ?"
His eyes locked onto hers. "Loneliness...such loneliness...even in a roomful of people...a worldful... still the loneliness...a life unfulfilled... empty...yet the expectations of others...tired...so very tired..."
Angrily and not a little frightened Kim snatched her hand away. "How dare you! Who do you think you are?"
The man blinked. "I'm the Doctor." Kim was surprised to see that his eyes were full of tears." And who said I was talking about you? Simpatico."
He shook his head slightly, became brisk and fetched his coat. " Would you do me a favour and see me off? It's only in the car park. You've got to walk past it on your way home."
How does he know this?
As they approached the main doors the Doctor paused and flashed the blue light up into the frame. "That's the field turned-off, then. That should make things easier for old Mr Handy from now on, eh?"
This is so odd, thought Kim as she locked the doors behind them.
The car park was a small space adjacent to the library, ringed by a wire fence on three sides and overhanging trees from Lampwick Park on the other.
Kim was expecting to see the Doctor's car awaiting his return but the place was empty. No, not quite. In the corner, in the shadow of a tree she could just make out a tall shape in the darkness. A portaloo, she thought at first. For some reason this appeared to be the Doctor's destination.
No, not a portaloo. She could make out writing on the box. Something about the Police.
The Doctor stood with his back to it.
"When you want to escape, Kim, you bury yourself in books. Visit far away places. Lead exciting lives. Have adventures." He looked up to the star-filled sky. "We all do it. That's my library, up there."
He looked down, into her eyes. "But books are not enough for you now, are they? The words aren't going in any more."
Kim shook her head slightly. Her senses were tingling. Her breathing shallow.
Suddenly he smiled. The world seemed a better, more hopeful place because he smiled.
" I thought I was just looking for The Skape but you were there all the time." His voice was gentle, reassuring. "You see, Kim, you're the next one."
Christ! Was he propositioning her? "Next what ? I don't understand."
That smile. "You will, Kim. You will. Let's go choose a book."
Without turning the Doctor raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. Behind him the doors of the box swung inwards. Intense light spilled out onto the car park.
She was momentarily dazzled. When her vision cleared Kim could see that the Doctor was inside the box, walking slowly away from her an incredible, impossible distance. He paused to look back at her. Smiling, he crooked a finger.
Kim looked down at the book in her hand. 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens.
More alive than she had ever been before, Kim followed.
What was that word again?