2. Cloudburst

The memo couldn’t have been clearer. Actually, it could have been clearer, if it had simply stated that all junior staff would be gone by the end of the fiscal year, but it basically achieved the same effect with jargon about overhead costs and staffing and ‘these difficult times’. By some bureaucratic measure, the library wasn’t as profitable as it used to be and there would be changes. More to the point, Sammi, only six months into the job and as junior as could be, wasn’t on the list to receive said memo, so she was left to assume that these difficult times would be offloaded onto her.

‘It’s going to be biblical!’ An unshaven and unwashed prophet was leaning over the service desk, trying to excite Mona about something. From inside the office, Sammi could smell this guy by looking at him: essence of sour ass crack. He wasn’t a regular though. Maybe he was from one of the suburban branches but had taken it upon himself to tour all the libraries with his glad tidings.

‘Are there plans for the inundation back there? Anywhere? This is where they have to be! You must have them stashed away in the deepest part of the stacks and maybe no one’s even told you about them. But you are the government. You better know. You’re right on the river, you’d have to be prepared for this. It’s going to be dog kill dog out there if it hits and we’ve got no plans.’

Good luck with that. Mona, as senior as could be, would not now, nor would ever, be flapped. Sammi watched her boss sit up on her stool, tucking her skirt under her and veering slightly away from the customer's stench. With an administrative-only edge of empathy, she told him, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t believe we have what you’re after. What if you hop on the net and try to find a citation or a specific government department. With a specific title, I might be able to provide more direction.’ She turned her head in the direction of the next customer and softened her expression, ‘Good afternoon, what can I help you with?’ The slumping teenaged boy with the backpack that weighed more than he would ever weigh, stepped forward. The prophet was dismissed.

Mona, while listening to some rambling request related to planaria, stole a quick glance into the office, made eye contact with Sammi and, through her pleasant smile, ordered Sammi to come out to provide backup.

The memo laid there, on the desk where someone (Mona?) had dropped it. Innocent as a piece of paper, menacing as unemployment. Was it left there for her to see, so she could know what was coming, or was it put down in a moment of mental abstraction, when someone at the counter had tapped the little bell?

Sammi straightened the paper on the desk so it squared with the edge. On consideration, she tilted it back to how it was.

A second glance, less friendly but still beckoning, came from Mona, and Sammi went out to do her job. The swiftness of her movement was so efficient and obedient that it almost felt sarcastic. Mona didn’t seem to observe any difference in behaviour and simply waved the next customer over in Sammi’s direction.

A man with a tartan scarf that hid a double, possibly triple, chin. He talked past her, scanning the titles on the Hold shelf, and asked for her recommendation for a book club. Easy, Sammi reached under the counter and pulled out the list of books that might serve the purpose. He took the page politely, but kept looking behind her, as if Sammi might be saving the good books for someone else.

The customers dealt with, Sammi stared off at the drizzle outside. This was not what the radio had promised that morning. The sun looked like it still might break through. If she could get away at five exactly, she might make it to the ocean for a single solitary swim. The tide had been rougher with her lately and she had not intention of letting it get the upper hand.

To keep blood pumping to her brain, she took the stairs up to five to steal a peek at the study group that had commandeered one of the meeting rooms. They seemed to be arguing about literary theory. They had that look about them. One of them caught her looking in and flipped her the bird. Enjoying the brief workout, she took the stairs two at a time back down to the information desk.

Should she to talk to Mona about the memo? If she did, she would have to cop to reading something that wasn’t intended for her. But maybe Mona would have been eager to discuss it. She had enjoyed the motherly angle with Sammi and if she could have helped, Sammi was sure she would have. Not that there was much Mona would have been able to do. Sammi was considering Mona’s powerlessness, Sammi’s powerlessness, everyone’s powerlessness, when the top of a brown frizzed head appeared, just over the edge of the counter.

‘Excuse me, miss. Where have you got books for children about the weather?’

Sammi leaned over and looked at the face of a little girl. Sweet, possibly undernourished, with a few crumbs of snot under one nostril. Sammi automatically glanced around, looking for a parent but didn’t see anyone, except the prophet heading into the men’s toilet, no doubt to shower at the sink.

‘Please,’ the girl said. ‘I need to know.’

‘Don’t fret, we’ll find what you need.’ Still scanning and finding no potential parent, Sammi told Mona, ‘I’ll be back.’ Mona, who seemed to communicate with different gradations of smiles, gave an absent-minded nod.

Once Sammi circled the counter she had the full picture—a red dress with pockets and pink patent leather, scuffed. The overall impression was neglect. Some parents did that, parked their kids at the library for a few hours while they went off on chores. As if it would always be storytime here and the librarians would know what to do when the little darlings cried.

The girl led Sammi to the children’s corner, yammering all the way.

‘Actually, I want to know all about the storms. I want to know where they’re coming from, why they’re coming. What makes some storms worse than others? How come the ground doesn’t just turn into a lake? How does it all fall into the sea? And what will the fish do? Like that. Do you know? Actually, it’s kind of urgent.’

‘No, I studied it myself a long time ago but I’ve forgotten. That’s the good thing about being here is we can find the answer. I think we have a few science books that might be able to give us some clues. Can I ask you something?’

‘If you’ll show me those books.’

‘Of course I will.’ Sammi leaned forward. ‘Who brought you here?’

The girl looked confused.

Sammi added, ‘Here. To the library.’

The girl’s expression didn’t change, as if she had been presented with an illogical question. As if she had always been at the library and would never have been anywhere else.

‘Are you here with anybody else at the library?’

The girl, relieved by a finally sensible question, broke into a grin and said, ‘Yes, silly. You.’

Sammi imagined herself, unemployed and now raising this wayward, amnesiac five-year-old. They would walk along the highway, carrying a cardboard sign that asked anyone driving by to help. Sammi would make the kid carry it, to bump up the pathos.

Sammi prodded the girl along to the single science shelf near children’s fiction. If they were lucky there’d be one book about the weather. This was the plan: she would deposit the girl there, and then go confront Mona about the layoffs.

Perfect, a big illustrated encyclopaedia. The girl dove right in.

Sammi walked back to the overly bright story circle area to get one of those pink-eye ridden beanbags. The girl could at least settle in comfortably until her parents decided to collect her.

When Sammi returned, the girl was stretched out on the floor with the encyclopaedia which was nearly half her size. She was looking at a chart of different types of clouds, with her finger tracing the tallest one, the one that had dotted lines of rain beneath it. She was mouthing its name and then watching the space in front of her mouth, as if she had inflated a balloon. She looked up at Sammi and nearly shrieked, ‘Cumulonimbus!’ Again, she looked at the space in front of her, half in horror, half in amazement. As if some terrible thing had come true and was embodied in the word. ‘Cumulonimbus!’ she said again and tried to catch the word in mid-air with a clap.

Maintain a pleasant and service-oriented air, Sammi thought. Always calming, always detached. ‘Good, good. So did you find what you were looking for?’ Sammi would not attempt to discipline someone else’s child. She’d read The Slap.

‘Cumulonimbus! This is what’s coming. I know this shape!’ She was getting worked up. It was like trying to reach someone in the middle of their nightmare.

‘It’s a big word. Did they teach you about clouds at school?’

‘Stop it.’ The girl wasn’t having a nightmare and for a harsh moment, she seemed to be far more than just a girl.

Sammi quieted herself and prepared her retreat. She had her employment to think about. Let someone else deal with the aftermath with this kid. ‘All right then, I don’t want to disturb you. We’ll be at the counter if you need any more help. All right?’

The girl was not to be consoled and not to ignored. She slammed the encyclopaedia shut and tossed the heavy book across the carpet. ‘All that gave me was a name. There has to be something written down somewhere in this stupid building that tells us more. When will the storm come, how soon will the floods come?’ She kicked over the little stool, for emphasis. ‘Don’t you want to start thinking? Don’t you want to know what you should try to save?’

With visions of pink slips dancing in her head, she had no trouble backing away. The rest of the afternoon was spent shelving at the far end of the stacks. From her safe distance, she observed the girl accosting Mona with similar frantic demands. Mona handled the situation. By five, when Sammi ventured closer to the counter, the girl wasn’t bothering anyone. Her parents must have had second thoughts and reclaimed her. But the little witch’s chokehold on library staff that afternoon meant that Sammi was never able to ask Mona about the memo.

***

The sun came out after all, like they said it would. Sammi made it to Redcliffe in record time. Crowds were gathered along Marine Parade, strange for a Tuesday. They were eating ice cream, playing music, but keeping their eyes on the ocean, as if they were lining up for some expected oddity in night sky. Sammi hadn’t heard of any eclipses of transits or martian landings, and the sun wouldn’t be setting until nearly ten, so she had no idea what they were there for. Not her problem, she was having a swim.

In the concrete changing room, Sammi wriggled into her suit, careful not to let her bare feet touch the clammy floor. A woman was standing nearby at a parallel bench, helping her daughter change into a little frilly bikini. This little girl was whingeing about her hair getting caught and the suit being too tight. When the mother made all the adjustments though, the girl was cute and onto the next thing. ‘Let’s go swimming!’ she yelled, arms up.

By contrast, the girl back at the library may have been a trifle possessed.

Never mind now. The ocean. No surf to speak off and Sammi walked in, as if entering her childhood home. The odd clusters of rocks visible just below the water were all familiar, the rhythm of the surf provided its usual lull. The density of the water slowed her, just enough so she could appreciate where she was. She dove underneath, knowing that this was more important than the library, more important than any job. The water all around her made her consider time and the persistent lie of the minute hand. These seconds under water easily supplanted the significance of the dull parameters of her shift. This was where her life was. The paymasters had rigged up this other system, with watches and timesheets and time in lieu. How could it be that all of us had been conned into looking at our clocks all day long, figuring our worth through the inhuman invention of math and money, deadening ourselves into smaller and smaller units, framing our days with routines that had no relevance to our bodies (breakfast now, lunch later)? How did we let this happen when, just beneath the surface of this ocean that covered so much more of the world, we were perfect and lived forever?

When she came up she was alive again. The library and unemployment and neglected children were the furthest things from her mind. Shaking her head side to side, she unclogged an ear and looked around for other swimmers. She was facing the horizon and must have already swum out past the others. She turned a quarter to the north, facing the strip of condos and the jetty. Nobody there, not even along the shore. She turned another quarter and saw the wall of clouds spinning forward and gathering strength. Couldn’t fate give her one little break today? Just fifteen minutes for her to revel in her immortality? Apparently not. Fate was such a dick.

Swimming back to land, the word 'cumulonimbus' swept past her several times. The wind was sweeping across the water too fast for her to even think about it and her feet were just touching the sand when the rain began.

***

There wasn’t evidence that rain had even grazed her neighbourhood, confirming her suspicions about fate. So it was seven pm, the sun was all innocent, still shining. All she had left for the evening was to consider her job prospects.

There were always private schools that would hire her. She was young for a librarian. Maybe she could put on some heavy-framed glasses when she talked to the dads to clinch the deal. She could seduce the swim team into reading The Brothers Karamozov. Or she could run consciousness-raising sessions with the tweens, making sure they knew how to say no and how to say yes. Then she could pair them off, as she saw fit. Librarians needed all sorts of people skills to make it in these digital times. Whatever it took. So much for being suckered into this by a love of learning.

There was thirty-seven hundred in the bank making six percent. Not bad, but not enough to move to another state. Exactly enough to watch it get washed away by a few months of unemployment.

She looked at her mother’s vase on the kitchen ledge. A jumping spider was scrambling around its mouth. Sammi didn’t mind. The vase hadn’t seen a flower in months. Its presence was decoration enough. Let the spider enjoy.

The blue and white little world painted on it showed some far away monastery. And everything was in motion, the roof of the building, the wings of the birds, the leaves of the willow, their knotty roots—all of them flexing in the wind as if the whole scene was about to burst into an ecstatic flood. It was the exotic fantasy of a different era, when the Orient was the Orient, before Jetsar could take you anywhere you wanted to go in Asia, if you didn’t mind a DVT. She really should keep the thing in a safer spot, where it couldn’t fall or be seen from the back window by prying eyes. The day might come when she would want to find out it’s worth and let it go. This one piece of pottery, exquisitely mute, handed from owner to owner to owner, becoming more expensive one year, finding itself at the Salvos in another, all for no particular reason. People and their ever-shifting sense of value. The vase and its never-changing self. Which would she rather be?

When Sammi was poverty-minded like this, dinner consisted of a two-egg scramble with a few slices of chorizo and some parsley from the planter at the top of the back steps. It made her feel like she was in a café. Not desperate, but fulfilled, with a life populated with employed people with sunny dispositions and other things to talk about besides books and the weather. She had worked out that the entire meal cost less than a dollar if she bought the good chorizo, the one from the Italian market, and sliced half of it thin, so that it looked like a lavish serve.

***

The library had clearly enjoyed a good drenching in the night. Sammi had to jump over a few swirling streams just to get to the building. She followed the grassy path to survey the damage. The lawn all around her looked like a sucked-up sponge, as if one step on it and she would be in it up to her waist. At the edge of the promenade, a quick current of multi-coloured plastic bottles were flying their way down the river, which itself seemed higher than usual.

An emergency truck had pulled up nearby and three men in wet weather gear were cordoning off the edge of the promenade with orange cones and bright orange tape. The effort seemed pointless.

‘Is that supposed to keep us away from the water or the water away from us?’

No one answered. She peered closer, but one of the men used his arms like guide posts, to steer her back towards the library.

‘Come on. I’m an employee here,’ she said. ‘It’s absolutely appropriate that I be informed of what’s going on.’

‘It’s really nothing to worry about,' he said. 'Just precautions we need to take. Listen to the radio. Something should be on by noon.’

Inside, a stack of Courier-Mails had been delivered and scattered across the floor. Most of them had been soaked from the rain.

Mona had no idea about what the workmen were up to and hadn’t heard anything on the radio. ‘Another sweet mystery of life.’

Sammi glanced around for the memo but couldn’t find it.

‘Did you lose something?’

‘No.’ Sammi braced herself, trying to act casual while carefully framing a question. ‘Have you seen or heard anything about the new budget?’

Mona’s eyes looked accusing for an instant, then they reverted to their maternal glimmer. ‘Nothing official. Nothing we can do anything about so there's no point in talking. And that’s another sweet mystery right there.’

Sammi didn’t let up. ‘But you would tell me, right?’

Mona’s expression toughened a notch, but she gave Sammi the assurance that had been requested. Nothing.

The library was busy. More freaks with their backpacks, books stacked up next to them, all looking up facts as if their lives depended on it. All trying to sneak bites of food when they thought Sammi wasn’t looking.

At noon, she listened to the radio, but there was nothing of use, just Brightman and Ferret and their usual rubbish. A warm front was coming. The prime minister was in Speedos somewhere, proving it was safe to swim despite some wild weather. Further north, the banana crop was being threatened by a larger system. The banana crop was always being threatened. And an announcement of some bad-taste competition revolving around a missing child. They’d be dispensing clues over the coming days. Where was this kid? Was the radio holding them some place? Who would dream up a gimmick that sick? With any luck some suburban parents group would pop into existence over that one and put those idiots into the world of pain they deserved. Besides, what would you win at the end of it? The kid?

Sammi looked up and and saw two men leaning against opposite shelves, each one holding up a piece of a Vegemite and cheese sandwich—brazenly, as if they were at a picnic. Mona would have had them flayed if she had seen them. Where was she? Then, as if they were about to clink champagne glasses, they interlocked their arms and each took a bite. One of them noticed Sammi watching, but he didn’t alter his behaviour. They each kept eating and smiling until the sandwiches were gone. Then they each cracked open a beer.

Sammi walked out into the main entrance hall, where she could hear the rain coming down over the atrium. The customers kept coming in, each one shaking off their gear, each one revealing that they had packed for more than a simple trip to the library. There were rolled up sleeping bags and eskies and—since the place was getting so crowded—fold-up seats, as if someone was going to light a fire in the middle of it all.

A man’s voice shouted ‘Get out of the way!’ at the same instant as Sammi heard glass shattering on the floor. It was in the centre of the hall, near one of the entrances. There was a silent second as everyone looked towards the spot on the floor, saw the shards that had shattered there. A few older women nearby with shopping trolleys filled with books were gently feeling their arms and torsos and checking each other’s faces for slivers, but it seemed that, miraculously, no one was hurt.

Sammi looked at the ceiling to find the source of the broken window. It wasn’t rain that had broken its way in. It was sand, and the hall was now getting a steady dusting of reddish powder. If they were next door at the art gallery the orange column pouring in would have been stunning. The entire skylight was covered with the same clay-coloured sand, so thickly that there was only a muffling sound as it continued to fall. The windows could go at any minute. As Sammi took a step backwards, the emergency crew and their orange cones and tape trooped in. They had a brief scuffle with the security guy, but eventually roped off the centre of the hall, authoritatively steering people to the edges of the space or into the main library so they would be safe.

Sammi thought of the crazed prophet yesterday and wondered if there were plans somewhere for how to conduct yourself when the building was being buried in sand.

Sammi saw the little girl from yesterday, at the far end of the hall, still in the same red dress. A man was leaning down to listen to her. Was it her father? Even from the distance, Sammi saw the man’s face shift from kindly to alarmed. He took a step back from her as he watched her navigate into the thickest part of the crowd. He didn’t try to stop her.

She was impossible to track, but when Sammi caught sight of her again she was hugging a stack of books to her chest and pushing past the security desk. Sammi watched as everyone let her go through the turnstile, push for the handicapped doors to open, and escape outside into the sand.

Sammi felt like she was strapped into her skin and the little girl—now running into the storm, holding the books over her head for cover—was too far away to even think about saving. Everyone in the hall was too far away to think about saving.

Stacey slunk back, helplessly to the information desk.

Mona had stacked a trolley with heavy gray blankets and rolled it at Sammi. ‘Here, get these distributed. Couples may have to share.’ She seemed to be adjusting to the library's new purpose as refugee camp.

Sammi wheeled the cart through the stacks, around the people and their belongings. Already, the place was taking on the odour of a food hall. Most of them were busying themselves with making sandwiches, securing their space or implying some sort of ownership of the books they had next to them. Everyone was grateful for a blanket. They folded them up so they could lay down more comfortably on the floor. Couples didn’t ask for two. The air was still warm, almost suffocating now, though Sammi could imagine some skirmishes later on when the night air came through. How many days would they spend there? When she had given away the last of them she glanced outside and saw that the sandstorm had completely stopped.

Where was the girl in the red dress now? What books had she finally found? Did they answer her question about what to pack for an act of God? And, almost reflexively, Sammi wondered if the girl had checked the books out or stolen them. There were too many other people to worry about.

‘Do we have any more blankets?’ Sammi asked her.

‘We’re fine now. That’s all we’ve been allocated.’

‘What about the study group upstairs?’

‘No, dear. Don’t worry about them. Just go. It’s time to worry about yourself now.’

‘What are you talking about? It’s three-thirty.’

‘My little confession. Sorry. As you saw, there’ve been cuts coming. There it is. No point in you finishing the day. I won’t tell.’

There was no voice to even object.

‘Thank you for all you’ve done. It’s been lovely working with you. I wish you the best of luck. I really do.’

Sammi paused.

Mona added. ‘And don’t you worry about me. I’ll be fine.’

***

Outside, people were already sweeping up as best as they could, but the puddles from the last night’s rain turned most of the ground to a sticky mud. The roads were nearly invisible under it all, so people shuffled through the streets and around the stranded cars. Even the air had a cloudy reddish cast to it. People who had been caught in the storm were easy to identify by their grubby coating of dust and an occasional harsh cough. An old man passing by spat out a red wad, as if he’d been chewing betel nut. Even being outside for a few minutes gave Sammi the feeling that she had been dipped in the same stain.

She walked past Avid Reader and saw a tall guy with hair that had been coloured red from the dust, boarding up the front windows of the shop, preparing for some other disaster.

Leaning in close to him, she saw his pale skin and realised his hair was truly red. ‘Is the storm coming back?’ she asked him.

He didn’t stop what he was doing, but he answered her. ‘I’ve learned the hard way and I don’t see the point in taking any chances. Do you?’ The guy kept hammering, not listening for her answer. Time seemed to be of the essence for everyone but Sammi.

***

Further up on Boundary Road, she noticed an abrupt absence of the red dust. The ground was wet, as if a light rain had come past, but the streets were clear and clean. It was like walking back into the real world. A few feet further on, she saw two men boarding up a pub.

‘What’re you doing that for?’ she asked. The men looked at her with the pity you have for a slow child.

Sammi demanded, ‘All I’m asking is this: is something going to happen?’

The older man, in blue coveralls gave her a patient smile and said, ‘No one’s specifically said so, but no point in taking any chances, is there?’

***

No, there certainly wasn’t.

There was no job to go back to. The only thing that waited for her at home was the other half of that chorizo and some eggs. Maybe it was all covered in dust, maybe water. Maybe it was dry. The willow vase was there too, but it had taken care of itself for quite a while. She had no doubt it would continue to do so.

Sammi followed the path of clean streets. The buildings had the freshly-washed look of morning shower. The air had been cleaned of particles. Although there were people shuffling around with nervous urgency, it was easy to imagine that they were the ones who were lost.

Ride of the Valkyries announced itself from her pocket. The soundtrack was apt for scene - people busily carrying jugs of water, carting their belongings to hilltops.

She retrieved the phone and looked at the number. It was Admin. They probably wanted her to return her swipe.

‘Sammi Bernhoff here.’

‘It’s Victor. Where the hell are you?’

She looked at a street sign for a clue, but it seemed to be covered in, not dust, but a cobweb. Weird. ‘Look. I don’t know. Does it matter?’

‘Mona’s dead.’

‘What?’

‘She was in the atrium. Glass fell on her. Through her. It’s a horrendous scene. Can you get back here right away?’

‘I was let go.’

‘Forget all about that. That’s nothing. Someone hit send when they shouldn’t have. We need you to deal with the police, we’ve got people camping out here. No one has done the drill for this kind of thing in years. We need someone with a level head.’

Sammi said she would be there as soon as she could and hung up.

Mona was dead.

Sammi continued following the clean streets until she reached the waterfront, ending up at one of those little outdoor bars that served overpriced tapas. The place had apparently seen neither dust nor rain. It was yesterday there, when she had never been fired, when Mona was still alive. A hostess in a miniscule dress walked over, fanning herself with a menu, saying, ‘This heat. Ri-donkulous. Can I get you anything cool, like a cocktail?’

Sammi smiled, shaking her head, and turned towards the library. Following the winding paths of bougainvillea, she found herself walking backing into the world of orange-coated sludge.

The river looked pristine, cleaner than usual, except for the occasional tree drifting by. It was tempting, all that timelessness right there, just beneath the surface. She could climb over the ledge. No one would stop her. It would be no effort at all to let the current take her. When she got tired she could grab onto a log and ride the water all the way out to the sea. She could float so easily, so far from the library, so far from everything.