All libraries should have these luminous corners. That space near the blinds, behind the section reserved for the Quattrocento; or that little-frequented mezzanine, obstructed by boxes and half-built shelving; or else that place you find only once, just once, by chance, when you are looking for a book on Klee and you end up in the section devoted to the Nordic novel; those corners where stories throb and dust dances, so that extraordinary friendships can be born.
The Carter-Collins Library is overflowing with hidden staircases leading to tiny rooms furnished only with cushions; staircases which lead nowhere but whose steps are used to house books; wooden and stone staircases to take you to other floors (wonderful lands of the imagination) and onto the roof (a splendid territory of the infinite and of blue sky). There are corridors which only seem to open up on rainy days, stormy days, or very windy days; an unaccustomed route, a detour, a hesitation and the world plays one of its gentle jokes on you, a child’s trick: it opens up a passageway and closes it the next day.
It was at the Carter-Collins Library that Charlie and Alistair met.
The first time was in October. To Alistair, Charlie was still the newcomer, that slender, gawky stranger, the one who drew tulips on his math table and kept to himself at lunch-time, under the great, gaunt elms of the playground. Charlie wondered about that boy, as did everyone, about the blue in his hair, like a poem of color, a froth, a wave released into the ocean of his blonde curls. On that occasion, they were sitting at two facing tables. Charlie was deep in a big, thick book whose title was hidden; Alistair was doing research into Coptic script. Sometimes they would look up, catch each other’s eye and smile awkwardly at each other.
The second time occurred during the Christmas vacation. They still had not spoken to each other, but after a week of passing each other on a regular basis and studying side by side, Alistair crossed the space separating their two tables and asked if they might sit together. Charlie agreed. They exchanged first names with the solemnity of a handshake. For the first hour, nothing was said. Then Alistair looked up and saw that Charlie was drawing. It was a pastel drawing of a woman seen from behind. There was something in the colors, so soft and blurry, that reminded him of Degas. Alistair pointed this out and it was apparently the right thing to say, as Charlie smiled more broadly than he had ever seen him do. As they left the library, Alistair said to himself that they might perhaps become friends.
In January, a new ‘newbie’ arrived at school; then, at last, everyone left Charlie alone.
In February, they arranged to meet at Carter-Collins. Sometimes they worked together, sometimes they read, sometimes they went exploring the nooks and crannies of the library. It was around that time they discovered the merits of the Japanese print wing, with its ‘futon room’ where you could lie down, and the North part of the building, where there was a room whose walls were almost entirely of glass, with a view over the river down below. This was a room to dream and talk in. Charlie slowly began to tell his story: he talked about his mother, who had always encouraged him in art, and of his sister who loved llamas... Then, one day, when they had lingered later than usual, admiring the dusk from the entrance steps, he answered the only one of Alistair’s questions he had always avoided.
“I left my old school,” he said, “because I was being bullied.”
There was nothing more to be said. So they both watched the sun, which was moving away to reign over the other side of the planet, and its royal train, which cut through the clouds as if through a strange cake: here magenta, there gold, here black, then blue, yellow, gold, blue again. A very dark blue, petrol blue. And then black once more, right up to the end.
In March, they found a new corner. As time went on, the parquet square in the recess under the window in the Arabic book section became their refuge. That was what it was. A complete refuge, constructed little by little, from stories shared, a look, a common love of a painter, a place of rest in the light. There they spent the whole of the April vacation, cut off from the world. From their refuge, every noise sounded muffled, as if absorbed by the coolness of the walls: the rustle of the pages of books, the footsteps of other readers, the squeaking of the wheels of the book trolleys in the corridors, the voices outside... Every sound was released slowly into the tranquil atmosphere of the interior.
Klimt was the first to shed his light on their burgeoning friendship and, in so doing, to instruct them in gentleness. Then it was the turn of the Impressionists: Manet, Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot... But it was Monet especially – with his women, flowers, and fields – who brought them together, united them, made them lean towards each other over a painting and give the same sigh of happiness. As for Van Gogh, he took them by the hand and led them through his landscapes. Then came a round of writers and poets, so their friendship then developed around adventures in the city and in books. When July came, with summer nights spent on the roof of Charlie’s house and afternoons on the steps of Alistair’s, their friendship grew even stronger and deepened through the exchange of books, small talk, dinners at each other’s homes, night-time conversations on the telephone creating white noise in the night, meetings in the park, at the zoo, on the beach...
Finally, when August gave way to September, Charlie, with his blue hair and his tulips, had a best friend.
Translated by Wendy Cross