My last session was on 4th January. As it was so early in the new year, I suspected that there might not be many customers, so I had taken along a notebook.
What I hadn't taken along was my phone. I realised about ten minutes away from home that I'd left it charging. I felt a little pang of anxiety. What if I broke down? What if someone suddenly needed to get hold of me because something awful had happened? What if Steven Spielberg wanted to get in touch to talk about a film option?
I gave myself a stern talking to. What about the old days, when you didn't have a phone? Did anything dreadful happen, that a phone would have sorted out? Not that I could recall. What about dipping into Facebook, or checking my emails and messages? Facebook would probably survive without me - and to be honest, the likelihood of any really urgent messages was only just north of zero. Anyway, there was no time to go home. I would just have to learn to deal with the sense of vulnerability. I would have to cope.
The library, as you can see from the picture above, is a large and rather lovely building near the cathedral. You go up an imposing staircase - it's like being in a stately home - and along wide corridors to reach the reference library; usually, we are in a perfectly pleasant, perfectly ordinary modern little room round to the left. But today this wasn't available - and so began my treat.
I was ushered through a door behind the desk - and into an immensely tall room, furnished with huge bookcases made of dark oak and stacked with massive ledgers and leather-bound volumes - you couldn't call them books, they had far too much dignity for such a short word. At the far end of the room was an enormous carved mantelpiece with a portrait of someone in 18th or early 19th century dress at its centre. I've read somewhere since that it was carved by Grinling Gibbons. I hardly had time to take all this in when I was shown into a much smaller room behind it, with a large leather-topped table in the middle and built in book-cases up to about waist height on each wall.
My first customer arrived almost immediately, but then there was over an hour before the next one was due. Normally, I would have fished out my phone and spent some time communing with it, but as we know, I didn't have it with me. So I looked - and prowled - around. The book-cases held a strange mixture of books; law records, boxed, rather beautiful sets of Trollope and Dorothy L Sayers, and 19th century science books from Bristol Grammar School, bound in tan, gold-tooled leather. There was a desk with an ink stand that wouldn't have looked out of place in Scrooge's office, and large portraits of long-dead Bristol dignitaries.
And there was another portrait. This one was in an oval frame. It showed a bewitchingly pretty girl in mid-Victorian dress, with a heart-shaped face, large dark eyes, and dark hair parted in the centre and arranged in bunches of short ringlets. The label underneath said that she was 'Emma Marshall, prolific Bristol authoress: 1830-99'.
Well, I went back and sat down opposite her, wondering what sort of books she wrote, what her life was like - why I'd never heard of her, if she was so prolific. If I'd had my phone, I would have looked her up, but I didn't, so I couldn't. I sat there, staring at her. Then it struck me that she must have been around when the ss Great Britain was launched. I once wrote a book set on the ship*, and I've visited it a number of times. I knew the launch was a great occasion - Prince Albert was there, as well as Brunel, of course - but I couldn't remember the date. Never mind. I began to write. I imagined an observant, interested, strong-minded girl, who saw the ship and imagined all the journeys she would make, all the places she would go to... perhaps Emma would even meet Brunel. And eventually she would realise that perhaps she couldn't go to all these places in fact - but she could in fiction. And so the stories would begin...
Then my next customer arrived. We worked on the important letter he needed to write, and then we talked about this very special room we were in. We both wanted to know more, so we went out and asked the librarian. She told us that all the massive bookcases and the fireplace came from the previous library building - which surprised me, because I thought this one was quite old. No, she said; it was only built in 1906. I looked round. How books must have been valued then, for them to be given such a splendid home! Then my customer showed me one of his favourite things in the building - the lights you can see here. And we agreed that in oh so many ways, the library is a wonderful thing.
I wish I could show you the picture of Emma Marshall, but of course, I didn't have my phone with me, so I couldn't take a picture of her picture. And the only one I can find online is of her as a much older woman, and of course, she looks quite different. But I can still see the young Emma, in my mind's eye. And I feel as if I have made a connection with her, across and down the years. So I'm glad I forgot my phone, and used the time to use my eyes.
I have found out more about her since, She was a remarkable woman. But that, as they say, is another story.
*Emily's Surprising Voyage
Nicola Morgan will be back next month.