It was not a good start with the library book that I was reading on a bus going through South East London. Not for a committed germaphobe like me. The author’s dedication at the start read "To all those who believe in new beginnings”. All good so far, I thought. I could do with a new beginning. I was feeling that dedication as I started the book. Less than a couple of minutes later, I find myself turning to page 5 and finding a pubic hair in the book.
I tried not to emit a sound to match the horror I was feeling inside. Reading on a South East London bus route can mark you out as a potential vulnerable target to some of the shit you often find gathered on the upper decks and I didn’t want to be attracting more attention than I already had done when I’d pulled the book out of my bag.
So I quashed the sound and sought desperately to work out what I was going to do here. I flicked back to the start of the book to see how frequently the book had been taken out of the library. It'd been borrowed 23 times in 2 years, though not since March 2011, which meets my not borrowed for 2-years library book criteria.
There is no flexibility on my part on this self-imposed rule that I’ve been observing since last year. As I sought to persuade myself to start borrowing library books again after stopping a decade ago owing to an uneasiness about where the books were likely to have been read, coming up with the two-year rule clinched it, and together with the non-fragranced antibacterial hand gel dispenser I keep by my bed to cleanse my hands afterwards, the criteria lies at the heart of my new found tolerance for library books.
I apply this 2-year criteria rigidly. For instance, if a book was last borrowed 23 months ago in April 2011, I wait a month before I try to borrow it. 24 months is 24 months. I need those minimum 730 days between the book’s last reader and myself.
This book just about met that criteria. It was last returned to the library by the 17 March 2011, which means the pubic hair has been in hibernation on page 5 for at least 24 months. How did it get there? A toilet read? I sincerely hope not. It was that very fear that stopped me from borrowing books for the last ten years. It’s a habit I abhor. Alternatively, could it be a bedtime read, maybe. But the book, according to the library stamps, was last borrowed in the final weeks of winter 2011. Which would, you’d have thought, make it too cold to be reading naked even if you sleep under 40 togs worth of bedding as I do every night, well into the summer.
In the past perhaps, you might turn on your heating overnight in the bedroom and remove your clothes if you feel restricted by nightwear, particularly buttoned up tops which are a nightmare to sleep in if you move about a lot in your sleep, but today’s extortionate heating bills make it likely that few working class people sleep with the heating on. So that was my original thinking, until I happened to check the weather records for South London during March 2011 that is, which shed some light on what may have happened.
Interestingly, March 2011 was very dry, the driest March for 14 years. There were several frosty nights, but generally the month, unlike this year’s cold March, was fairly mild. Most of the cold weather occurred in the first 6 days of the month, while the highest temperature recorded during that month was 18.8 Celsius (66F) on the 25th, by which time, unless the last borrower had picked up a fine, the book would’ve been returned to my local Lambeth library.
So there is every chance, on reflection, that the last person to read this book could have been reading naked after all. They must be the culprit because there’s no way this pubic hair could’ve been missed by subsequent readers. No way at all. I mean, I could’ve threaded the fast unravelling coat sleeves on my veteran winter coat with this solitary hair.
What I don’t understand is what kind of reading position, even if you’re naked, do you have to adopt for this to happen? Obviously you’d have to assume a recline of some sort. If naked, even during the mild South London March of 2011, it’s likely you would’ve been under the covers, with the book on top of the bedding. Even if you were laying naked on the bed rather than in, you’d have to be reading the book below waist height.
This would leave you with your genitalia in front of the book, which would be unusual and a distraction, obscuring part of the pages, whilst holding the book from such a position would require your arms to be at full length throughout. Hardly a comfortable reading pose. And besides, why would you choose to read a book naked that’s been read by so many people you’re never going to meet, whose hygiene may be questionable. Why would you even have a book with a questionable history anywhere near your exposed skin?
Despite shaking the hair off, I have chosen to abort the book and return it to the library, barely able to handle knowing the book is in my bag. I feel dirty. I just can’t bring myself to read it. This is just page 5. How many more of these am I going to find? Not wanting the next reader to go through the same experience, I've shaken the page 5 pube off on the South Kensington-bound 345. Somewhere on the upper deck, left hand aisle, 3 rows down, there is a pubic hair belonging to a member of my local library. I know it’ll be a long time before I sit on the third row on the left hand side of any 345 bus.
It's a remarkable journey for a solitary pubic hair, separated from its owner at least 2 years ago, now broken out of its book prison to travel around for free on a bus. I can barely get my head around that. There are shades of Captain America in this, the great Marvel Comics icon was long preserved in a block of ice, if I remember my comic history, before he was discovered by the Avengers in the early sixties.
I don’t know where this leaves me and libraries. I like the idea of them, just as I like the idea of buying clothes from charity shops. But I’m just not cut out for any second hand stuff and books read by people who may no longer even be alive. I wanted to believe in “new beginnings”, but this book may have killed that.