Through the door it was cool and dry and dark. Tag stopped, suddenly blind now that they were out of the bright sunlight. Del ran into him. They clattered over the door mat onto the cold flag stones that covered the floor of the entrance.
“Well.” the woman slammed the door shut and leant against it, breathing heavily. “That was exciting. Grab that lump of wood, could you?” she nodded her head to a long rectangular beam that was lying next to the wall. Tag lifted one end and Del dropped her sword to get the other. The metal clanged on the stone. “Slide it into this lock.” the woman said. Her voice was deep and chocolaty and warm. The lock was a series of four hoops, two on each door that held the doors shut when they were pushed, or in this case battered, from outside. “Ok, you pair, introductions later, up the stairs and we’ll deal with this mess first. Then you can explain what’s going on.”
Del snatched up the sword again. The three of them ran up some frankly unsafe looking stairs and the woman threw open a window. “Pick up some of those stones and start lobbing.”
“So, go on then. What are you doing here?” the librarian sat the children down in a room at the top of what seemed to be her main tower. The stone walls were covered in places by hanging rugs and the wooden floors creaked and groaned under the weight of the heavy oaken table, with its strange carved legs. The table itself was covered in crockery – cups, bowls, plates, mugs, tea pots and jugs.
“We, erm…” Del stumbled over her words.
“Names then. I’m Libby.” said the woman, pouring some tea into a large mug and setting it down. “Help yourself to milk and sugar.” she gestured to one of the little bowls and a small jug. “I look after the library. I look after all of the stuff here.”
“I’m Tag and this is Del.”
“My guardian sent us here.”
“Who?” the woman’s face was written with doubt.
“He has a curiosity shop on Brook Street.”
“That’s him. He sent us…”
Libby frowned. “Ok,” a look of suspicion darkened her pale face. “Who were those men? They looked like Church Street Gang to me. What did you do?”
“I stole a book, well, they stole it first.”
“Book?” libby’s lip curled angrily. “That’s why old man time sent you here? He thinks you can stash stolen property with me just because it’s a book?”
Tag squirmed. This was not going well. He looked to Del. She was looking at the floor. He reached into his rucksack.
“Please, I think they killed my friend to find it, I… it has to be for something. At least look at it. Mr While said we couldn’t burn it, but I don’t want those men to have it.” he handed the book to the librarian.
Her eyes widened. She reached out and plucked it from his trembling hands.
“Oh.” she stared at the old leather cover. “Oh no. This… this is a bad book, it’s, it’s bad magic, kids.”
“That’s what Mr While said.” Tag said, shaking his head in disbelief. Magic indeed‽ “He said that this book being stolen at the same time as the hour going missing was bad news…”
Libby’s eyes widened, “The hour’s gone?” she looked at the book, then at the children. “Do you know about, the… erm… oh, I don’t really know where to start with this one.”
“The hour, the daylight savings hour, the one taken out to make it British Summer Time, and the magic in this book, it’s a bad mix.” Tag said, pouring tea into his mug, trying to ignore the fact that he was up a tower talking about magic with a mad woman.
“That’s a start, I guess.” she looked out of one of the windows to the clearing below. “You’ll want some supper and you’ll stay here tonight?” she said, turning back into the room at last.
Tag suddenly realised they hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Fish on oat cakes with Jen. Now the light was fading, it must have been after 10pm. When he’d had parents, a family, he’d have to be in bed by this time. When someone had cared enough to tuck him in and get him to sleep in time and tell him off for sneaking out of bed. His tummy rumbled.
“It’s toast. And I think there’s some cake somewhere.” the woman stood up and walked towards the door. “Wait here.”
They heard her footsteps on the stairs getting quieter as she walked away.
“Well she’s clearly odd.” Del said. “I mean, I think she’s nice enough, but that Jen woman was right – she’s odd.”
“Umm.” Tag thought back to his own mother, who had tried. He knew that she tried and it was hard for her. She tried but she was odd. And people noticed. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, give her the book, find out what she knows about the hour and who might have it. Maybe we should stay? She asked us.” Del chewed the inside of her mouth nervously.
“I think so, I don’t fancy going out there to face the Church Street Gang in the dark…”
“You won’t be out there at all.” came the chocolaty smooth voice of the Librarian. “You’ll lay low here for a while, let the heat die down a bit and then in a few days I’ll show you another way out.”
The toast was warm and buttery and the cake was hot and sweet. “What do you know about the location and thief of the missing hour?”
Tag looked at Del. She smiled a strange, quiet smile and ate her toast. Tag suspected that Del believed this magic nonsense and was just making him do the talking so that he’d feel silly because he didn’t believe it. How could he believe it‽
“Well, nothing, really. I don’t think it’s the Church Street Gang. I think they were paid to steal the book by someone who has the hour.”
“Good. What else can we assume then? What can we work out?”
“Erm, well, it has to be someone who’s bonkers and believes in magic.” Tag began. He cleared his throat nervously and stared at Del, desperately hoping she would help out. She smiled – she found it amusing, watching him thinking on his feet like this. “And, they also, erm, think it will work.”
“Good. What else?”
“They, erm, they don’t really understand magic, though. They know a lot about it but don’t understand it, not properly anyway.” Del spoke at last.
“Good. What else?”
“They’re callous.” she was angry. “They don’t care about the consequences for other people. Either that or they’re very stupid. Even an idiot could work out you don’t get more time for nothing. Whoever this is, this thief, he’s a total moron or he’s cruel or both.”
“And it’s your plan, now that the book is safe, to get the hour back?”
“If British Summer Time doesn’t end…” Del began. She looked at Tag. “There will be no autumn, no harvest.”
“Old man While has really made your mind up on this, hasn’t he?” Libby sighed and shook her head. “Do you understand everything that’s involved here? I mean, really? Do you know the dangers involved? You could die, doing this. People who will steal time won’t be shy about killing a couple of street kids. They don’t think you matter. They’re bad people.”
“If we don’t do it, though, who will?” Del yawned. She was so tired.
“Ok. You’ll need to go and ask the witch, she’s the most likely to know who would do something like this…”
“Witch?” Tag laughed. “Are you mad? There’s no witch.” he stood up. “There’s no magic. There’s not really a scrap of time that’s been stolen. There are some nutters, some criminals and some nutters who are trying to hurt some people and we’re just caught up in it. This is what adults do!” he shouted. “You mess things up and you get us into things that aren’t our fault and it’s always us!” he rubbed his chin and his mouth. “It’s always us who get hurt. Us who suffer.”
Tag took a deep breath. He looked at Del, she was smiling at him, but it wasn’t because she thought it was funny. She looked proud. “And you lie about witches and magic and missing things and glasses of time. And you say you’ll fix it and you never do.” he sat down again, feeling a bit stupid. “You never do, so me and Del are going to fix it. So, erm…” his mouth was dry and he was suddenly more tired than he thought possible. For the first time in a long time he wished he had a mother to tuck him in and make him go to sleep. “So don’t say ‘witch’ even if you believe it, which you clearly do, but you live in a tower, so, anyway, say ‘woman’ or use her name. We’re twelve, not stupid.”
Tag took a deep breath and leant his head, exhausted and confused, on the table.
“There’s a woman.” the Librarian shook her head and sipped her tea. “She lives in the woods about eight miles north from here. Her name is Lilith, she’ll know who has the hour. Anything like this that happens, she’ll know about it. I’ll get you a map and you can have the run of the Library until you go. When you’re ready I’ll show you the safest way out of the place.”
The rooms were warm and the beds were soft. The children slept soundly. Libby the Librarian worried. She worried about the two strange children sleeping in her spare rooms. She worried about the men that were chasing them. She worried about how the boy would cope with the truth about Lilith. She worried about the truly frightening way the girl went quiet when she was thinking.
It was a perfect dream. He was safe at last. The light flooded in and Tag stretched out under the sheets. Any moment now he would wake up out of his unspoiled slumber into the grubby reality of his waking world where he would struggle and suffer and survive. He turned his pillow over and breathed in deeply. Lavender. Libby’s Library smelled of lavender. He rolled over and buried his face in the cool, crisps side of the cushion.
A knock on a door broke the spell and he panicked. The wooden floor hit him hard when he fell out of bed and he spluttered. He looked up and waited for the dream to fade, like it always did, into smoke.
“I managed to find some cereal.” the voice was warm and chocolatey. “I’ve a goat up on one of the roof top gardens, so the milk’s fresh.”
Tag blinked. The large, deep bed was still there. He struggled to his feet. “What?” he shook his head, bleary.
The door creaked open and in stepped Libby, backwards, pushing the door out of her way with her back. She was clutching a tray. On the tray sat a glass of orange juice, a bowl of dry cereal and a bottle of milk.
“You had a stressful day yesterday, I thought breakfast in bed would be in order.” Libby grinned. “Children like orange juice, don’t they?” she crossed the floor to the bedside drawers where she set down the tray. “I don’t really know what children eat. Mine are erm…”
There was a long pause. Tag clambered onto the bed where he sat staring at the tray.
“Where did you get real orange juice?”
“There’s a little orangery on one of the roofs. You can have a look at it if you like. When you get up. When you’ve eaten.” she smiled. “Little Delilah’s up already. She’s in the main library. I think she’s missed books. Missed all of it.”
“She’s smart. I think she misses school.”
“You don’t need to be in school to be smart. You don’t even need to be good at the things they do in school to be smart.”
Del was sat on the floor in the musty room surrounded by open books, reading intently.
“Del!” Tag shouted from a balcony. “What are you up to?”
Delilah grinned. Then she giggled. “Shh!” her face was bright and happy and her smile was wide. “Quiet please!” she shouted, grinning. “This is a library!”
Tag chuckled and turned to try and find some stairs down to meet her. The Library used to be a castle and the walls were heavy stone things – thick and cold. He found a staircase, there was a worn red carpet running down it held in place with brass metal rods.
“You having fun, Del?” Tag smiled, sitting on the floor next to his friend, surrounded by the books.
“Absolutely, it’s lovely here, isn’t it? So peaceful.”
“What are you reading?”
Tag settled down, leaning back onto his elbows. “Read to me.”
“You won’t like it.” Del said, “You’ll think it’s dull.”
“I don’t care.”
“Ok.” she looked back at her book. “There are no known leaf insects that are native to the UK, but because of their efficiency at camouflage there is no way to know for sure that there are none.” she read.
From a balcony Libby watched and smiled.
That afternoon, as Del read, Libby took Tag up to the roof of one of the towers. It was covered by a huge glass dome and the air was hot and steamy. There were plants up there the likes of which Tag had never seen. There were huge wide leafed things that grew up the supports and thin, tall dainty vines that crept along the ground. In the middle of the greenhouse structure were eight trees.
“Those are fruit trees.” Libby said, smiling. “Oranges, lemons, peaches and those two funny looking ones there?” she pointed to some gnarled, squat trees with beautiful, papery leaves. “They are avocados.”
“They’re pale green and soft, sort of creamy. When there was a baby here she used to love avocado when she was learning to eat.”
Tag and Del spent another day exploring the library’s various rooms and the roof top gardens. Tag was transfixed by the things he saw up above the building. There were open flat roofs with vegetables, others with herbs and spices, and some with soft fruits. He inspected the plants and lay among the foliage looking up at the blue sky. There were tree empty roofs with grass and sheds. There was one that was locked.
On the last roof top he visited had a large shed next to the doorway. There was a large lawned area. There were also three goats and, after he’d counted them Tag was surprised to note, fourteen hens.
He clambered down the stairs and spent a good half an hour trying to find the kitchen. It was vast – far too big for a woman on her own with her books. There were tables and cupboards covered in unwashed pans and pots and plates. A massive chest freezer stood humming in one corner. Strange devices were plugged in to the walls. An animal of some sort hung by its feet from the ceiling. An angry cat yowled at him, hunched over a dead rat. It was like no kitchen Tag had ever seen. He found a basket and got lost again trying to find the correct roof top. He collected eleven eggs and then sat down again in the sun. This was it. He lay on the cool grass and the warm sun beat down on his face. He could live like this for ever.
The animal hanging from the ceiling turned out to be a rabbit. Libby roasted it with vegetables and the children had their first Sunday lunch in years.
“You have fourteen hens.” Tag said, wiping the gravy from his plate with some delicious crusty bread. “But there were only eleven eggs.”
“Yes, not all of the girls lay every day.” Libby said, smiling. “Traditionally when they stop laying you’re meant to kill them, but I haven’t the heart.” she reached out and picked up a jug of purple juice. “More blackcurrant?” she asked, pouring herself some.
“Please.” Del held out her glass. “Your books, who reads them?”
“I do get visitors, still.” Libby said, pretending to be offended. “I’m not a total recluse. I just don’t get as many people through as I used to. There are some people who live out on the flat lands who come often. They bring me sacks of flour and grain. I give them eggs and cake and they read my books. They come whenever they can, when it’s safe.”
“Where do they get flour from?” Del asked. “There are no shops in the flat lands.”
Tag looked at her, surprised. Did clever Del not know where food came from?
“No.” Libby looked at Del and frowned. “No there aren’t. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow?” she changed the subject quickly. “You can stay longer, if you want.” she cleared her throat. “You can stay as long as you like. You, erm…” she trailed off.
“We’d better go.” Tag said, sadly. “If we stay any longer we won’t want to leave.”
“Well you’re welcome to come back here any time. You’re always welcome here.”
Tag smiled. He would want to come back here, if he could. There was something so peaceful about this place, with it’s books and it’s gardens and the animals. Then he frowned. “Can I ask you something?”
“You can, and you may.” Libby grinned.
“What’s up on the locked roof?”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence.
“Well you already know more than is good for you.” the librarian sighed. “You might as well know my secret. She looked about her conspiratorially. “What do you know…” she paused, squinting, trying to work out if she was doing the right thing. “About bees?”
Deli’s chair clattered to the ground as she leapt to her feet. “Don’t be stupid!” she shouted, almost squealing with excitement. “There aren’t any bees anymore, that’s why we can’t grow our own food anymore.”
“Oh,” Libby smiled. “Oh but there are, and we can.”
Up on the roof top, after the librarian had unlocked the many padlocks, the three of them stood and stared. There were hives up here. Rows and rows of them.
“What do you do with all the honey?” Del asked, doing a quick calculation in her head.
“Mostly, the bees eat it. I take a bit now and then for cakes, but mainly they keep it. The real reason for the bees is to pollinate my plants and to help my friends on the flatlands to grow grain.”