In the Bibliophile’s Library

When Levi Goldman decided to retire to the Norfolk Broads at the age of seventy five, his much younger wife Barbara was disappointed. She had dreamt of peaceful walks and day trips to the coast, the occasional trip to Norwich for a concert or the theatre – more time together. She hadn’t reckoned with his library accompanying them and taking up his every waking moment. He had even bought a laptop, connected it to the Internet and sat at his desk from dawn to dusk researching rare out-of-print books. Her husband was an incorrigible bibliophile. The renovation of the room that housed the library was never started; water cascaded from the gutter and down the wall every time it rained, and there was a pervading stench of damp and mould that lingered on Levi’s clothes like the scent of another woman. He was too involved in his books to bother about getting it fixed and locked himself in when Barbara invited a builder round for a quote. In the end she refused to clean it. She joined the Women’s Institute, made new friends and started to go out. Until she arrived home one afternoon from a lone walk along the river to find Levi lying on the floor by his desk, paralysed down one side, speechless and confused.

After six days on a stroke ward, Levi came home in a wheelchair, which Barbara parked every morning by the French windows. They had a panoramic view of their overgrown garden that stretched down to the water. He could watch the boats, birds and other wildlife while she went about her daily chores. The WI, and the whirl of craft groups, meetings and talks that went with it, would have to wait a while. She had something much more important to do.

Her plan was to turn the library into a downstairs bedroom but before she could do that she had to sell Levi’s books. She knew they were valuable, but not the extent of their worth. To her they meant dust and mustiness, but to collectors they would be priceless. The only person she knew who could help was a nephew, whom she had cared for as a child but now knew mainly from bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. He too worked in the world of books.

Josh arrived on a chilly, grey February day. He was handsome, had a look of Levi about him, and was more than willing to help. He spent half an hour chatting away to his uncle. It didn’t seem to bother him that Levi couldn’t respond, although Barbara spotted a faint gleam in her husband’s eye.

‘So,’ said Josh. ‘Where do I start?’

‘You’re very keen,’ she said. ‘How about a cup of tea and we get to know each other again?’

Josh smiled as she took him by the hand and led him to the kitchen, remembering childhood visits with the beautiful wife of his only uncle, who always seemed so much older than his years. They sat at opposite sides of the table, took careful sips from their mugs and stared at each other. Josh broke the silence.

‘It must have been a shock – to find him like that.’

‘Yes, I always hoped he would outlive me. I never imagined having to wash, clothe and feed him like a child. I’ve started to read aloud to him, something I have never done – except for you, when you were little – and I quite enjoy it. I think Levi does too.’

‘Would Levi approve of the sale of his books, Aunt Barbara?’

‘I don’t know what he’d think. I suppose we could keep some of his most treasured ones in English – not that I’d read them to him. I borrow books from the local library; it means a lovely walk with Levi in his wheelchair and a chance to read something new and alive. His collection is so old and some of it is damaged. It needs proper care and attention.’ Barbara shifted in her chair. ‘Let’s get on with it.’

Josh’s jaw dropped at the state of the library. There were books strewn across the desk and floor. The whole section of shelving by the window was covered with a sheen of mildew and most of the books looked as if they were rotting.

‘This lot will have to go,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I can’t believe Uncle Levi let it get into such a state.’

‘For weeks he was on the Internet all day every day. The day before the stroke, a parcel was delivered and I didn’t see him at all, not until the next morning.  I don’t even remember him coming to bed.’

‘It must have been something pretty special,’ said Josh, who knew the feeling of opening a box of unseen books and finding treasure. ‘Where’s the box?’

The cardboard carton had been squashed into a waste paper basket under the desk. It was hard to tell which books had been removed from it.

‘How about I make some lunch? We can eat it in the sitting room with Levi and you can admire our view.’

Barbara left Josh alone in the dingy study. The curtains hadn’t been drawn fully; he walked over to the window and tugged on the curtain. The rings had turned rusty with damp and they moved reluctantly along the pole. Despite the weak sunlight, the room did appear to be a little brighter, but that only shed more light on the problem.

Josh started by picking up books from the floor and examining them for damage. He stacked them on some empty dry shelves and then went back to the desk, building orderly piles around the laptop. He decided to check the files before making any attempt at cataloguing, in case Levi had already started one of his own. He opened the laptop and switched it on. Luckily, Levi wasn’t that computer-savvy and it wasn’t password protected. Sure enough, amongst the files were several named ‘CATALOG’, numbered from one to fifteen. That would save a lot of work. All he had to do was evaluate the books and update the catalogue files.

He looked up. Barbara stood in the doorway, holding a tray laden with sandwiches and crockery.

‘I’ll put this on the coffee table in the sitting room while I fetch us all something to drink. Why don’t you go and keep Levi company?’

The afternoon passed quickly as they caught up on family news and it was dark by the time Josh got back to the library. The laptop had gone into sleep mode and while he waited for it to wake itself up, he turned to the window to pull the curtains. In the reflection from the pane of glass he caught a glimpse of a small figure crouched – or was it standing? –  by the desk. It looked like a small wizened man – or was it a child? – pale and skeletal, staring at the piles of books. But when he span around, there was nothing but dusty shadows and the blue light from the laptop. Shuddering, he peered out of the window, but there was no sign of movement. He paced around the room, searching the spaces between shelves and behind the door, which he had left ajar. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with dusty fingers. Switching on the desk lamp, he tried to push the figure to the back of his mind and said to himself in a loud, matter-of-fact voice, ‘With the cataloguing pretty much sorted, it should take only a couple of days to pack this lot up and get it couriered down to the office.’

‘That’s good,’ said Barbara from the doorway. ‘I’ve brought you some coffee. I’m going to get Levi ready for bed and watch television upstairs. If you get peckish, there’s plenty of food in the fridge. I’ve made up the bed in the spare room next to the bathroom. We have an en-suite shower, so we won’t disturb you.’

She placed a tray on an occasional table next to a well-used armchair, pecked him on the cheek and left the room, clicking the door shut behind her.

Josh lowered himself into the solid comfort of his uncle’s desk chair. He stared at the screen and then clicked on the mail icon. Levi seemed to have preferred traditional hand-written communication as there were only a few emails. They were all from an antiquarian in Berlin, concerning a box of unseen rare German books that had recently been acquired and in which Levi expressed an earnest interest. Indeed, the box in question was the one he had received the day before his stroke. Josh gasped at the amount of money that had exchanged hands.

On looking up from the computer screen, he noticed that the books piled on the desk all had German titles. That was no mystery, seeing as his mother and uncle had both been brought to England from Germany at the end of the war. They were the only members of the family to survive the concentration camps.

Josh suddenly felt cold and tired, and a feeling of unease came over him. He looked up and, hiding in the shadows on the verge of the lamplight, was the figure he had seen earlier, thin-faced and hollow-eyed – a little boy! He had been mistaken: the child must have been looking through the window. But how had he got into the house? Perhaps he belonged to a neighbour and was trying to find Barbara. He looked so sick and frail, and must be feeling cold, dressed only in pyjamas, that Josh thought he’d better return him to wherever he’d come from. He forced a smile and beckoned to the child, holding out his hand and nodding. ‘Come on, I won’t hurt you.’

The shadows reverted to darkness and the boy was gone. Icy waves of fear washed over Josh, stiffening the hairs on his forearms. When the hammering of his heart had slowed to something approaching normal and there was enough saliva in his mouth to swallow, he decided it was time to switch off the laptop and hit the sack. His eyes were playing tricks on him. But when he lay his head on the pillow, he was teased by questions to which he could find no answers. What was it about the books that was so special? As he drifted into sleep, he recalled his mother talking about another brother, Levi’s twin. He made up his mind to try to communicate with his uncle.

In the morning, he found Levi by the French windows, washed and dressed, and ready for a day of boat and bird watching.

‘Uncle Levi,’ he said. ‘I have a few questions for you.’

Levi’s watery eyes didn’t move. They focused on the sky.

‘Levi – why did you spend so much on that box of books?’

Josh thought he saw the muscles tense in the unparalysed side of Levi’s face. He had asked the right question.

‘Are they very rare?’

The lid of Levi’s good eye closed slightly.

‘Should I examine those books first?’

Levi’s breathing quickened. Josh felt that he was getting somewhere. He patted Levi on the hand and, with a determined spring in his step, returned to the library.

The piles of books were no longer on the desk but strewn across the floor. Only one remained next to the laptop. It was covered in a strange pale material, not parchment but some kind of skin. Josh had heard of anthropodermic bibliopegy but had never seen an actual example. As far as he knew, most copies dated back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and they were usually anatomy texts or volumes created as a bequest from the skin of a testator. This could be interesting.

He knew he should wear special gloves to avoid damaging the cover but he had left them upstairs in in his briefcase. Besides, he wanted to see how the skin would feel under his fingers. He reached out and stroked the title embellished on the front cover. It was written in German, Zwillinge:  Ein Bericht über Experimente in Buchenwald, durchgeführt im Auftrag von Dr. J Mengele. Josh’s knowledge of German stopped at high school level, but the words made his scalp creep. He pulled back his hand; it was shaking and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.  Was this what caused Levi’s stroke? He couldn’t stop his fingers from picking up the book and turning it over. At the bottom of the back cover he could just make out a faint number. Despite a feeling of repulsion and dread, he brought the book closer to his eyes. It didn’t look like any number he had seen before. He decided to see if Levi recognised it and try to work out what it could mean.

He did not expect the look of horror in his uncle’s eyes or the way he jerked his body as he struggled to push himself out of his wheel chair, away from the book. He raised his good arm and pointed to the door. As Josh turned his head to look behind him, a small figure stood on the threshold. The face looked familiar now, especially around the eyes. Josh was torn between reaching out for the child and assisting his uncle, whose frantic gasps broke the silence.

A crash decided for him. Levi was slumped in the overturned wheelchair, his eyes wide open and his arm hanging down with the sleeve caught in the wheel. Just visible, tattooed on his forearm, was a faint, distorted number. Josh bent down beside the wheelchair to get a better look. The number was the next in sequence to the one on the book.