Larkminster was a town that looked like it had been preserved in gelatin sometime during the fifties. Only the flaking paint on the shop signs and the ash-ringed “no smoking” sign on the pub’s gnarled door showed the passage of time. Other than that, a thousand time travellers could visit this town and never be shocked or surprised.
And travellers are often the only people to see the town. Most of them don’t stop. I did. Not entirely by choice.
Luckily, the town had a petrol station- although you still actually had to ask for unleaded. Since I wasn’t expected in Shrewsbury for another four hours, I felt like exploring.
If there’s one thing to be said for the town, the parking is still free. The pay and display meter had yet to reach these distant parts and, no doubt, the last parking warden who set foot here ended up getting a practical demonstration of the town’s historic gibbet. A gibbet which, according to it’s faded sign, had been occupied by none other than five sheep rustlers, a fugitive pirate and one of Cromwell’s generals.
The less said about the pub, the better. Despite the bright sun outside, it may as well have been midnight inside. Not only did The Huntsman’s Bugle not serve food, but exotic imports like wine and lager had yet to grace it’s cellars too.
In fact, the only interesting place in town was the library. It was tucked away in a plain, brick building beside the church. Given that this place barely had landlines, let alone the internet, it shouldn’t have surprised me that the library was so large. Yet, the only sign of human life was a silent librarian – her face hidden behind a large leather ledger.
Finding a dusty book about impressionist art, I sat down in the corner and started reading. If there’s one good thing to be said for old libraries, it’s that they haven’t got those cheap plastic chairs that modern libraries sometimes use to make sure that people don’t stay for too long.
Fifty pages later, the door creaked and I heard slow, unsteady footsteps. It was probably just one of the library’s regulars. Probably an old codger who came here every day to read the same almanac again and again. I returned to my book.
Once I’d reached a chapter entitled “The vile debauchery of Edgar Degas“, the footsteps began again – this time from behind a nearby shelf.
Oh crap, I thought, I hope I’m not sitting in the old guy’s chair! It smelled of must, pipe smoke and soap. Not wanting to profane the sacred relic, I got up and went to put the book back. It was then that I saw him.
He had to be at least two hundred. Far from being wrinkled, the grey skin of his face was pulled taut in a cheerful rictus. His thin hair had obviously got tired of being grey and had turned sepia many moons ago. In the withered fingers of his left hand, he held a nameless hardback book.
All I could think to say was “sorry”. The man said nothing. It was a library, after all.
Gingerly, I stepped past him and began to walk towards the exit. That was when I saw the second one. She was poking at one of the shelves with a bony finger. It looked like she was squinting to read the spine of the book, but I quickly noticed that her eyes were nothing more than dry, hollow sockets.
I kept moving…. and almost tripped over another one. He didn’t grumble. He didn’t even stop to pick up his foot. He just kept shuffling towards the gardening section. I made a beeline for the exit.
As I reached for the door, I heard a quiet tutting sound. The librarian lowered the ledger and, with the one remaining finger of her skeletal hand, pointed to a sign that said “No running!“. I mumbled an apology, before throwing the door open.
To this day, I still can’t understand it. Perhaps I fell asleep in the library and had a nightmare? Perhaps spending an eternity in the nearby graveyard was too dull for the dead? Perhaps a library in a small town is the only place where the dead can walk without getting hassled? Who knows?
But, when you see a picturesque town flash by the car window. Don’t stop! Keep driving, because who knows what could lurk behind the beautiful scenery.