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Collateral Damage

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When Edward Longfellow turned sixty-six, he determined that four decades of slaving away in a dead-end job was more than he could take. The next day, he presented the relevant papers to the Pension Service and the eligibility letter he had received a few months back. On March 31, at 5 p.m., he slipped away quietly, just like he had done for the past forty-three years, missed by none of his Minerva Accounting colleagues.

There were no formal goodbyes, no farewell party with a Salted Caramel McDreamy cake, and no signed card from Cards Galore. Because Ed Longfellow had always been a man with an unremarkable face and an unmemorable character, which people tended to forget the moment his back was turned. He was condemned to oblivion when he picked up the cardboard box with his meagre belongings and stepped out of the building.

He walked to the train station for the last time, regarding Manchester with a critical eye. He’d definitely not miss it, and boy, was he glad he’d no longer have to get up at the crack of dawn to catch the 7.15 a.m. train from Marple Bridge. Instead, he could do everything he had dreamed of for so long.

Nothing would be an obligation any longer. He could do as he pleased when he pleased and if he pleased. He could get up at 10 a.m. and walk to the bakery to buy fresh hot cross buns or crumpets. He could get his fish and chips in the Fish Called Rhonda, two streets away from his semi. Or call for a takeaway Madras with a cheese naan and an extra portion of lime pickle from Tikka and Talk. Or get nothing, fry two eggs, sunny side down, and eat them on toast with a big cup of unsweetened coffee.

In the evenings, he could relax watching “Coronation Street” or “Top of the Form.”

But above all, he could finally go to the library every other day (or even every day) and read to his heart’s content. He could browse national and international newspapers, watch people come and go, and breathe in the smell of old and new books.

Because Edward Longfellow loved the aroma of books – a mixture of paper, adhesive, and ink with just a hint of vanilla, or so he imagined. Since he was a lad of ten or twelve, Ed had loved books like he loved their smell. Perhaps because in his parents’ two up two down, there had been hardly any books apart from the Bible with tissue-thin pages and three yellowed copies of “Home and Gardens.” As a child, the only quality books he’d seen were in shop windows – thick volumes with glossy covers and red and silver titles.

He had lusted after those books like others lusted after Walker Mint Toffees displayed in Chocolate Bliss on the High Street. He’d dreamt of owning them, sniffing their papery and gluey scent, and hoarding them under his pillow until he could read them all. Bradbury’s  “Fahrenheit 451”.  Michener’s “Hawaii”. And the best of all – “The Fellowship of the Ring,”  where the author describes in minute detail the exploits of Frodo and his loyal troupe of hobbits. When he’d finally been able to afford it, young Ed had bought the book in its hardcover edition (for one pound and three shillings) plus all the sequels. They had occupied the pride of place on his shelf ever since.

The walk from his Palfrey Close house to the library took no more than eight minutes, but he’d always stop at Café Rouge for a coffee and a Victoria Sponge on the way there. There, he chatted to Charlotte, the waitress,  who made perfect coffees and served them with a smile.

From there, he’d go to Ellis Butcher’s and ask Mr Ellis, whose real name was Azan Hakeem (he’d bought the shop and the flat over it from the original owner, but clients still called him Mr Ellis) for a quarter of a pound of smoky rashers and two pork sausages with extra pepper which he would pick up on his way back from the library.

The village of Marple Bridge would be golden under the spring sun when he finally reached the library in a leafy suburb on the south side where hydrangeas and wisterias grew in tidy rows, ivy-clad houses peeked from behind clipped hedges, and people returning from their jobs in Manchester negotiated bends skilfully to park their Vauxhall Vivas in ample driveways.

He’d sit in the library for an hour or so, immersed in a book or a newspaper article, occasionally looking up from the pages to register the flow of human interactions around him.

When he was done, he’d first drop in for a solitary half a pint at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks where he’d greet his few remaining acquaintances to leave just before eight to pick up the rashers and the bangers which Mr Ellis Hakeem kept refrigerated and wrapped in brown paper.

Whenever he went to the library, he stopped by the reception and greeted the fair-complexioned girl with Mary Quant’s make-up and blonde hair piled on top of her head in the famous beehive style. Her name was Myra, and she was in her early twenties. She always returned his greeting politely but never smiled, her face expressionless as if she didn’t want to permit him or anyone to access her innermost emotions, naïve hopes, or personal doubts.

The other lady who often sat behind the counter was Mrs. Richards, the chief librarian. Her face was bland, with a somewhat petulant mouth. She must have been close to sixty, but time had been gentle. She was always dressed with an obsessive neatness, the ruffles of her white blouse stiff with starch, the grey tweed skirt folded carefully over her knees, the pleats aligned to perfection, her feet resting comfortably in brown patent leather shoes. The words that came to Ed’s mind whenever he looked at her were “poise and refinement.”

Unlike Myra, she always greeted him warmly.

“How good to see you again, Mr Longfellow! We’ve booked the 6 to 7 p.m. slot for you. Table number three, the one by the big rhododendron, with plenty of light, too. I hope you have a good time today,” she said as she hung his coat on the rack behind the counter.

Soon after his first visit, Ed sensed friction between the chief librarian and Myra. Sometimes it was the censuring gaze the older woman gave the younger one. Sometimes it was how Myra bristled up when Mrs Richards addressed her in a hostile manner. But it never went beyond frosty looks and snappy exchanges.

One day, he heard the older woman shout at Myra until she was red in the face.

Bits of angry sentences reached Ed.

“…told you before…”

“… never learn…”


An introvert all his life, on principle, Edward Longfellow avoided meddling in other people’s business. But faced with this blatant bullying, he felt that just for once, he could not remain silent. He could not comprehend how anyone, especially a woman with Mrs Richards’s education and grace, could behave in such a despicable manner, especially to a subordinate and in public.

His face frozen into stark disbelief, and his mouth set in an unforgiving rictus, he stared at Mrs Richards hoping to get a reaction. But the librarian was set on reprimanding Myra, hurling hurtful words like poisoned darts.

Ed, who could stand it no longer, got up and approached the two women.

“Pardon me, Mrs Richards, but I cannot accept your bullying the poor girl like this!” he blurted out, quickly establishing eye contact with Myra. The girl returned a gaze devoid of emotion or, if there was any, Ed was unable to perceive it.

The older woman, her mouth hanging open, turned as if to answer, but said nothing.

“I can’t let you humiliate a person in front of others, Mrs Richards. You will apologize to Myra, or I shall file a complaint,” he declared in a polite but determined tone.

The chief librarian’s jaws snapped shut, a bubble of saliva gathering in the left corner of her mouth.

“You don’t understand, Mr Longfellow. This is the fourth time I have asked Miss Hindley to follow the procedure. She removed all the books I had already arranged on the trolley and left them any which way. It will take me ages to organize them again. She’s supposed to file them by the author and  by genre, but she either doesn’t understand or is too obstinate or lazy to follow orders. Requests, I meant to say. I’ve simply lost my patience with her,” she said with a twinge of regret.

“That might be so, Mrs Richards, but you mustn’t shout at her. The rules of civility require that you curb your irritation and simply explain the procedure again.”

Mrs Richards blinked and looked from Myra to Ed and from Ed to Myra.

“I’m sorry, Myra. I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said in a lukewarm voice with a smile that was just a quick stretch of the lips. She didn’t sound apologetic at all. She then turned on the heel of her shiny patent leather shoe and walked away without another word.

Myra looked at Ed as if she were not a participant but a mere observer of a scene that didn’t involve her. There was no anger, no gratitude. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no comprehension. For a few seconds, Ed wondered if she was fully aware of what had just happened or was so mentally detached that she could not process it.

“Thank you,” she said in the end, but her voice was flat as if she were reading a script written for someone else.

Ed caught a whiff of her sour breath and felt even more pity for her. Not only was she slow,  but she also suffered from halitosis.

“Not at all, love,” he said.

“She’s no right to be rude to you. Should she do it again, you go straight to the top and make a complaint. This place must surely have an official grievance procedure.”

The girl’s mouth rose slightly as if she were about to smile, then returned to its original non-committal position. She fumbled in her jacket pocket,  took out a little box, lifted the lid and extracted a green sweet that she popped into her mouth.

“Thank you,” she repeated and walked off towards the reception.

Ed was bewildered. It was as if she didn’t care about the bullying or his defence of her. It was hard to understand! People needed to feel that they mattered to someone, but Myra seemed indifferent to his intervention. Or the librarian’s annoyance. He shook his head, then logged off and fetched his coat. It was time he went back to collect his rashers and “Corrie” would start in less than an hour.

Two days later, he returned to the library to check the Cheltenham race results and read a new article on J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Guardian”.   He then wrote a note to himself to ask  Mr Hakeem for a pound of extra lean mincemeat for a shepherd’s pie when he popped into the butcher’s later that evening.

When he finally looked up, the library was empty. And then came the crash! The noise was like a minor earthquake or a skyscraper falling.  All the lights blinked and then went off. The place was plunged into darkness, with only a tenuous beam filtering in from a small window by the reception.

His mind was buzzing. He expected the worst. Then the worst came – a scream. A gut-wrenching, blood-curdling scream.

The lights flickered back to life after a few minutes. He ordered his heart to stop racing. When he decided it was safe to investigate, he went towards the place where the noise had come from. As he approached, he saw the P to S shelf on the floor. Under its enormous weight, amidst hundreds of books, a pair of leather patent shoes sticking out like the Wicked Witch of the West’s ruby slippers. Mrs. Richards!

The library no longer smelt of paper and ink but stank of the iron atoms contained in freshly spilt blood.

“What in God’s name…” he took in the body, the head split open like an overripe watermelon, and his hands began to shake.

He heard footsteps behind him. He turned around. Myra approached leisurely, then stopped barely a yard from the overturned shelf and the crumpled body. Her eyes were as empty as a dry well. She was close enough for him to see the pores of her skin, the moisture trapped along the upper lip, and to smell the odour of her halitosis mixed with mint.

She looked at the body, then said in a voice as cold as a drip:  “Dead people are so unsightly, don’t you think, Mr Longfellow? Downright ugly.”

“I think that our justice system is thinking of abandoning the detestable practice of hanging criminals only to avoid dealing with dead bodies. Instead, they will keep them out of sight in prisons. …”

Myra spoke so quietly that Ed strained his ear to catch her words.

“You’ve probably heard the expression: revenge is sweet?” she asked.

“Myra, we’ve no time for old refrains. We must call an ambulance!” Ed shouted.

The girl continued her soliloquy as if had not spoken.

“You see, Mr. Longfellow. No one would jail Mrs Richards for bullying a girl like me. A disposable useless Myra. Myra is not only stupid but also has crooked teeth. She’d probably get a slap on the wrist, maybe a transfer to a different library where she’d keep harassing a Julia or a Brenda. I had no choice but to take justice into my own hands.”

“All good and fine, Myra, but we must call the police,” Ed stuttered nervously.

“I wouldn’t be in such a hurry if I were you, Mr Longfellow,” Myra’s tone was steely.

“It wasn’t me who killed Mrs Richards,” she paused for effect. “It was you…You were having an affair and when she wanted to end it, you killed her.”

“For God’s sake, Myra! What are you talking about?“ His question was a pitiful wail.

She silenced him with a choppy movement of her hand.

“You thought I was gone, so you unscrewed the shelf from the wall. You then called her, and when she approached, all you had to do was to push. Push hard. A small girl like me wouldn’t be strong enough. And besides, I’m useless with tools.” Her eyes lit up with glee.

“And there she is now… squashed like a midget…” she giggled and poked the dead woman’s foot with her shoe.

“You are mad,” Ed gasped. “You are utterly mad.”

She shrugged.

“Perhaps. Or maybe I’m a genius. No one will suspect poor half-witted Myra of planning such a heinous crime. But you… you are the perfect suspect.”

“I’m sorry that I must hurt you in the process,” Myra added with a touch of sadness and distractedly reached into her pocket to take another mint. “I’d offer you some, but I’m sure you don’t want any. And just so you know – I don’t hate you. I just hated Mrs Richards. But no court would have condemned her, so I had to do it myself. And, oh Lord, revenge does taste sweet!”

“You’ll never pull it off! The fingerprints, my testimony….” Ed was getting agitated.

“Fingerprints? It’s been taken care of. Would you mind looking in your coat pocket? The right one, where you keep your keys….”

Ed ran to the clothes rack. He dug into the pocket and took out something that had not been there earlier – a large screwdriver with a red plastic handle.

“See? Now we have the fingerprints. I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, as Mrs Richards might say, but I’m a good planner. And, if you must know, I’ve already called the police.”

All colour drained from Ed’s face. The little bitch whom he had tried to defend in good faith!

A few seconds later, the door to the library burst open while a group of armed policemen rushed in. They wrestled Edward Longfellow to the ground, handcuffing his wrists behind his back.

The last thing Ed saw as he was led away was Myra whispering “collateral damage” through a mouthful of mints.

The moment the police were gone, Myra put on her jacket, picked up her handbag and walked to the door. Outside,  Ian, her lover, was waiting to take her for a drive on the moors.


J.B. Polk (CHILE)

Polish by birth, citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Irish Independent/Hennessy Awards, Ireland, 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women´s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland, IncoGnito. Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America. Since she went back to writing fiction last year, 25 of her stories have been accepted for publication in international anthologies and magazines. Since she went back to writing fiction in 2020, 68 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, have been accepted for publication. She has recently won 1st prize in the International Human Rights Arts Movement literary contest.

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