Glen Hartwell was one of the first towns founded in Victoria, after the foundation of Melbourne itself in 1835, so the local library in Dirk Hartog Place is more than a hundred and fifty years old. Built by convict labour, in a pseudo-Grecian style, the outside is decorated with large stone pillars; two white marble lions stand guard over the front entrance. Once the focal point of the town, the library is now falling into decay; the lions and pillars crisscrossed with a network of fine, grey cracks.
The inside of the library is a single vast room, separated into four large sections by enormous floor-to-ceiling length mahogany bookcases. Although spotlessly clean the library is badly lit by four three-bar fluorescent lights, which do little more than cast towering shadows off the bookcases, leaving the narrow aisles in a permanent state of half-darkness -- as though preserving the books' contents for future generations was important, but being able to read them now was not.
It is just the sort of place where one might expect to see a ghost. So I shouldn't have been over-surprised when one evening my lifelong friend Marcus Faraday burst into my second-storey apartment acclaiming, "Shortland, I've just seen a ghost!"
Startled as much by my friend's sudden appearance through the doorway, as by his exclamation, I looked up from where I was seated in the lounge reading the Glen Hartwell Herald Daily Mail and muttered, "Ha? Eh? What?"
"I've just seen a ghost," repeated Marcus, taking off his thick overcoat to drape it untidily across the back of the sofa. "At the rear section of the local library."
You can imagine my consternation at the news: Here was the hardened, cynical Marcus claiming to have seen a ghost, whereas I, impractical daydreamer that I am, would have given my right arm to have had such an experience. And to make matters worse, the purported sighting had occurred at the library: A place where computer minded Marcus had hardly set foot in the last ten years, since leaving high school. Whereas I, self-confessed bookworm that I am, had spent two or more evenings a week in the library since my early teens, without ever once spotting a ghost, or anything else out of the ordinary for that matter.
"A ghost?" I asked, wondering if Marcus' tale was nothing more than a test of what he liked to call my gullible willingness to believe in the unbelievable.
"That's right," he answered, then noting my scepticism, "all right then, come and see for yourself if you don't believe me."
So, with that invitation, I donned my overcoat, and fifteen minutes later we were standing together in the non-fiction section, at the rear of the library.
"It was over there," insisted Marcus, pointing to three ancient, wooden reading tables a few metres away. "I was seated here," he said going across to the middle table, "when in he floated and sat down beside me."
Looking all around myself slowly, I could see the many rows of books, the three reading tables and, of course, Marcus, but no sign of any ghost."
"Is the ghost here now?" I asked, deciding to humour my friend.
"No!" replied Marcus pointedly. "But wait, he won't be long."
We waited at the back of the library for more than an hour, until the approach of closing time, with still no sign of any ghostly reader.
"But I did see him," insisted Marcus, almost pleading with me to believe him. "Honestly, Shortland."
For an instant I almost thought that he was going to break a lifelong tradition and call me by my first name, "Robert." However, such an act was beyond Marcus. Not because of any lack of warmth on his behalf, but rather as a result of a terrible childhood in which he has suffered at the hands of a drunken, sadistic father, which had left him with a lifelong fear of emotional attachments. Even as eleven-year olds at primary school, while I had called him Mark, Marcus had always addressed me as Shortland; his others friends by their surnames also. Unfortunately this meant that Marcus had no lifelong friends other than myself, since others had always mistaken his quirk as an act of coldness.
"I did see it," he repeated.
"Maybe it's only here at certain times," I suggested hoping to raise his spirits.
"Yes! Of course, Shortland!" cried Marcus, his face immediately breaking out into a broad grin at the suggestion. "Why didn't I think of that?"
With that Marcus dragged me out to the library promptly at six o'clock the next night, then the next, until on the third night success.
It was a little after 7:30 on a Friday evening and we had been seated at one of the wooden reading tables at the rear of the library for ninety minutes. My back ached from the strain of sitting up for so long on the hard, backless wooden bench, so I turned toward Marcus to suggest giving up for the night, when before my eyes materialised a tall, thin figure, in the aisle behind my friend.
Seeing my open-mouthed stare, Marcus turned round to look and whispered, "That's him, Shortland, that's the ghost."
There was no doubt that it was a ghost all right, since the figure was semi-transparent and we could clearly see the books in the shelves behind him through his body. However, he was solid enough for us to be able to make out his features: It was the ghost of a balding old man, who looked to have lived to at least his eighties, dressed in a fairly modern double-breasted suit, wearing wire-rim glasses. All in all it would have been an innocuous enough character, if not for the fact that its legs vanished just below the knees, so that it floated a half metre above the varnished floorboards, and, of course, the fact that his outline was smoky white, like light fog.
"Now what do you say, Shortland?" gloated Marcus standing up as the ghost approached to within less than a metre of where we sat.
"A ghost, all right," I conceded, trying my best to sound casual, although secretly I was every bit as excited by the discovery as was my friend.
For another hour the ghost sat on the left-hand side of a two-person bench pulled to the middle table, reading from a small, ghostly chapbook, which was as transparent as he, occasionally taking notes with a misty pen, onto a filmy notepad.
"Well at any rate he's not some ancient spirit," pointed out Marcus, "since he seems to be using a biro."
"And, of course, his suit is fairly modern," I added.
But that was all we were able to discover about the ghost that night, although we watched him until shortly before 8:30 closing time. Actually it was exactly 8:25 when the ghost packed up his writing implements and started to float down an aisle, heading toward the front of the library. However, he had only gone three or four metres when, without a sound, he vanished.
Of course we were back there the next Monday, sitting in the half-darkness at the back of the poorly lit library, to await our ghostly reader. This time appeared a little before 6:30 and the book he carried to take notes from was encyclopaedically large, although still a semi-transparent, smoky white.
"The book is different!" we said together, the moment the ghost appeared. (And each night for the next ten days, whenever he appeared the book he carried was different.)
"He must be a writer, or a teacher perhaps?" suggested Marcus on the tenth night.
"Must have been," I corrected.
We continued to watch the ghost each evening for another week, without discovering anything more. Until I suggested we try asking the Head Librarian about him.
"Ask Old Miss Pettyjohn?" said Marcus, obviously dismayed at the suggestion.
Glenda Pettyjohn had been employed at the Glen Hartwell City Library for as long as anyone in The Glen could remember. Barely 150 centimetres tall, she was grey-haired and wrinkle-skinned, wore her snowy hair in a tight bun high atop her head and looked to be permanently in her late eighties. Although she never seemed to grow any older, no one could remember her ever looking any younger either.
Regardless of how old she really was, there was no doubt that she was more than a little dotty. My first encounter with Glenda Pettyjohn had been eighteen years earlier, when as a thirteen-year old form oner at Glen Hartwell High I had stopped in at the library to research a school project. Hearing a voice coming from a nearby aisle, I had hesitantly gone to investigate. As I approached I heard a thin, scratchy voice muttering endearments to her "beautiful little treasures". Foolishly I had thought she was addressing other young students: However, seeing her standing alone in the aisle, gazing with undisguised admiration at the rows of hardback books, I realized that they were her little treasures. Children on the other hand were "Those grubby little wretches" whom she did everything within her power to discourage from going anywhere near her beautiful little treasures for fear of them leaving sticky fingerprints all over her treasures. I suspected that she would have long ago declared the library out-of-bounds to all children -- and possibly adults as well -- if only she had had the authority.
"Ask Miss Pettyjohn?" repeated Marcus in awe. On the one hand he realized that if anyone were to know anything about the library ghost it would be she; on the other hand, sharing my own long-held dread of the snowy-haired librarian.
We hummed and hawed amongst ourselves for nearly ten more minutes before summoning up the courage to approach her, then lingered around the check-out counter at the front of the library for another three or four minutes before mustering the nerve to raise the subject of the ghostly writer.
Glenda Pettyjohn peered hard at us through her black-framed glasses for a moment, then slowly looked round the library to make certain no one else was within hearing range before, in a low voice saying, "His name is Bromby. Daley Bromby.
"Daley Bromby?" I repeated. The name sounded familiar to me, but only because of two local towns: Bromby, more than forty-five kilometres away, the last small town before BeauLarkin (a major centre like Glen Hartwell); Daley was much nearer: the next town after The Glen, heading back toward BeauLarkin. In between were nine or ten other small country towns.
Miss Pettyjohn confirmed that the two towns were named after Daley Bromby, then said, "He was a writer!" which added nothing to our meagre knowledge of the ghost.
"He was quite famous in his lifetime, even infamous. Born in BeauLarkin in 1889, he was educated at Melbourne University, where he received a Ph.D. After narrowly missing out on a Nobel Prize for Literature for an early novel, he changed to non-fiction and immediately fell foul of the Church for his magnum opus, The God Myth! published in 1933. A 2,000 page anti-bible, which claimed to prove, through the studies of anthropology, geology, geography, and palaeontology that God does not exist. He followed it up with The Brain Dump! published in 1938, which claimed that modern Western educational institutions are using greatly outdated teaching methods, geared toward driving away the best students and cramming endless reams of useless information into the heads of the rest. After that he released a new book every two to five years, without stirring up any great controversies, until 1972, seven years before his death, when he released The Taswegian War, 1900-1930. A book which claims that the near-legendary Tasmanian tiger wiped out the Aboriginal population of Tasmania, and would have done the same to the white population as well, if the Tasmanian government had not issued thousands of rifles to the populace, who then fought a thirty-year war to destroy the tigers. A claim which cannot now be substantiated, and which Tasmanian historians hotly deny."
"But why does he haunt this library?" demanded Marcus Faraday.
"Possibly because this is where he spent much of his time researching the books that he wrote. Although he lived for almost five years in Tasmania while researching The Taswegian War."
As Glenda Pettyjohn continued, I could see her brown eyes shining almost with reverence at the discussion of a man whom she clearly worshipped. And I half suspected that she would keep us there all night relating to us the life story of the Great Man. Fortunately for us, however, the library closed at 8:30, a fact that Marcus very loudly brought to the librarian's attention, releasing us from her grip.
We returned every night for another fortnight after that, to sit near the wooden reading table at the rear of the library, to watch the wispy figure of Daley Bromby taking notes from his ghostly textbooks, wondering what if any new book he was planning
Although interested in the ghost, I was not totally spellbound, as Marcus seemed to be. Over the previous week he had developed an almost unhealthy fascination in the ghost in the library. He would race down to the library every evening at six o'clock to await its arrival, and would be crestfallen on the nights that the ghost failed to materialise. On the nights the ghost arrived, Marcus would eagerly stand with his back to the shelves of books for anything from thirty minutes to two hours (the time varied from night to night, as it would have done with a flesh-and-blood writer using the library for research) gazing down at the seated ghost as it wrote.
Occasionally Marcus would lean over to peer at the ghost, until their faces were only centimetres apart. Once or twice the ghost stopped writing and looked up at him, as though it had suddenly realized that it was being watched. Then it would squint fiercely as though trying to get Marcus into focus for a few moments, before shrugging in resignation before returning to its reading and note taking.
"Why are you haunting this library, Daley old friend?" Marcus asked on more than one occasion without ever receiving, or expecting, an answer.
Eventually Marcus' fascination reached the unhealthy extreme where he would sit on the two-person bench beside the ghost as it worked. Although there were three reading tables, the ghost always sat in the same seat: on the left-hand side of the middle bench, with Marcus now seated on the right, peering over its shoulder, desperately trying to make out the contents of the ghostly book that Daley Bromby was writing.
"I can almost make it out, Shortland," Marcus said one day, as I entered the library to find my friend already seated at the table beside the ghost.
"Is that so?" I said, trying my best to sound interested, although I was beginning to weary of the nightly vigil, and in truth had decided that unless some new development occurred soon, I would not be spending many more of my evenings with Marcus buried in the shadowy depths at the rear of the library.
"Yes," assured Marcus, "I'm almost certain that it's a biography of someone."
"That's very interesting," I said without much enthusiasm.
It was four nights later that the climax of our vigil approached.
That night I got to the library early, before the arrival of the ghost, although I found Marcus pacing around excitedly in the aisle at the back of the library, his blue eyes shining from nervous excitement.
"Some new development?" I asked.
"No, no, Shortland. I've decided to try to bring things to a head tonight." "Bring things to a head, how?" I asked.
"Very simply, Shortland. Have you noticed that the ghost only ever sits at the middle table?" I nodded my head in agreement. "Never at the outer two."
"And always on the left," I put in, "never the right."
"Exactly," agreed Marcus walking across to look down at the ancient wooden table, whose varnish was black and peeling with age. "Obviously that was where he sat while doing his research while living."
"Possibly," I said a little dubiously.
"Well tonight I intend to try breaking that hold to release the spirit of Daley Bromby once and for all."
"Very simply, Shortland. Tonight when he comes to the library he won't be able to sit at his favourite seat, because I'll be sitting at the left, in his usual spot, and, if you agree, you'll be sitting next to me, on the right!"
Although sceptical about the plan, reluctantly I agreed to go along with it.
As it eventuated, however, we sat at the table near the back of the library from six o'clock until closing time that night, without the appearance of the ghost. And then again the next night.
The library was then closed for three days over a long-weekend, so it took in all six days before we were able to test out Marcus' plan.
Finally the night arrived when Marcus and I were seated together on the bench, as the ghost of Daley Bromby started down the aisle toward us.
Reaching the table it peered down at Marcus in consternation for a moment, then, to my great unease, looked toward me. After a moment's hesitation the ghost obviously decided that it had been mistaken and lowered itself down onto its usual seat: For a moment it hovered above Marcus in a seated position, as though sitting on his lap, then slowly it began to sink down, until it had disappeared from view inside Marcus' body.
Jumping up in shock, I demanded, "Marcus? Are you all right?"
"Yes ... of course," he replied, in a slightly quivery voice.
Despite my great unease at the strange disappearance of the ghost, we stayed at the reading table until old Glenda Pettyjohn came around at 8:30, ringing her bell to signal that it was closing time.
"Time to go," I said, relieved to be able to leave at last.
"Yes," said Marcus getting up from the bench to walk out with me.
Marcus seemed a little strange, not at all his usual talkative self. . However, I didn't think too much of it until we were almost at the front of the library .…
When I turned back to take one last look at the ghost in the library.
To my horror, however, it was not the ghost of Daley Bromby that I saw seated at the table at the back of the library, but my friend himself. Or at least the ghost of Marcus Faraday. His body had already left me well behind, as it strode out of the library, now occupied by the spirit of Daley Bromby.
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia