The Sharp End

The pencils weren’t going to last. Even as she’d bunched them into the pot with their less-desirable, less-prestigious, workaday blue and red cousins, she knew it. They would walk when she was out of the room, borrowed never to be returned. It is a fact of life that pencils, like books, CDs, and cigarette lighters have a tendency to find their way into other people’s lives, but these pencils were off the scale in terms of their desirability. On the first day back she’d noted the furtive covetous looks from her academic colleagues, and the research students who used the project room that she shared with the other postdoc, Michael. She suspected he was the first to move on them. Either him or Prof, who spent more time in their room than his own office, gossiping and scheming away at his empire-building. Both of them had been consumed with envy after she’d returned from the research trip to Harvard; neither of them had been there, let alone spent time in the rare book room of the Houghton Library.

The Library was very generous with its pencils. As in most special collections reading rooms, ink pens of any description were barred, which meant that pencils had to be used for note-taking. On the first day there she’d heard the whirr of the mechanical pencil sharpener in the corner, and looking up had seen the box of free pencils on the table. She’d quietly stashed the propelling pencil she’d bought specially for the visit back in her bag, and gone over to investigate. Seeing her pause at the sharpener, a clean-cut library assistant had come over to her, smiled knowingly, and told her to take a few.

“They make nice souvenirs,” he said, as he inserted one into the sharpener, “It’s automatic. Like this.”

She’d reddened up briefly, then taken six. The pencils radiated class: light burgundy in colour, with the Harvard Library crest and ‘Houghton Library’ embossed in white. The eraser-holder was gold. She wondered if six was enough.

Within three days of her return to Belfast there was only one left. Michael had openly added one to his collection. It was brazenly displayed at the front of his hoard, inviting comment. How many of them had he actually paid for?  When she remarked about her pencil he simply said,

“You gave it to me. What? You want it back now? Make up your mind, would ya? Jesus. It’s just a pencil.”

She took it back. The next day it was gone again. That morning, after they left, she imagined the conversation, Michael and Prof slagging her off over coffee at Clement’s. They spent a lot of time closeted there together these days. She’d heard the script many times before in their company: bitter, dismissive, and far-ranging. No-one was exempt.

In the evening she took the last pencil home with her, jabbing it in amongst the others in a dark corner of the desk under the gable roof. It was never just a pencil.

Houghton_Library_Harvard

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12 Responses to The Sharp End

  1. Helen Black says:

    This piece of writing struck a chord with me to much amusement.I could smell the pencils and feel their sharpness.
    Moreover I could relate to the pencil dearth-always the way in my singing class when only a pencil will do to mark the score and none are available!
    Great incidental writing.If it were music this would be a little polka or waltz.

  2. Tanya Kempston says:

    Great writing! Perfectly describes the pettiness of the viper pit that academia can be!

  3. Gerry Jones says:

    Very sharply observed Jason.
    Great stuff

  4. Peter McCavana says:

    Boutye, Jason?! I haven’t had time to read this piece yet. I’ll read it asap. But where’ve ye been? Have ye been hibernatin’, or what?!
    All zee best, Peter
    (sorry if this comment gets displayed twice: I had a “glitch” when logging in!…)

    • jasonoruairc says:

      Hi Peter, nice to hear from you. I’ve been working a lot on other stuff, and sorry to say I’ve neglected the Vernacularisms recently.

      • Peter McCavana says:

        Hiya Jason, Thanks for your reply. But I’m a wee bit disappointed in ye, answering me with “Hi”. I mean, like, it’s not part of our traditional Belfast vernacular. It’s more Eastenders or Brooklyn (or even Dublin) vernacular! (;-) But I suppose that, like any form of language, vernacular evolves over time!…

        • jasonoruairc says:

          You’re some craic, answering me with ‘hiya.’ 😉

          • Peter McCavana says:

            Aye, y’see, this is one of the mysteries of Life, faith and (vernacular) language!: for some strange reason, the greeting “Hiya” was a part of Belfast vernacular long before thon mid-Atlantic “Hi” stuff crept in! (;-)
            Also, I was slightly disoriented and taken aback the first time an American greeted me by saying “Hey!”. Bein from Belfast, like, I thought something was wrong! Mind you, if I was from Derry, I might have taken it differently; and if I was from Ballycastle, I cud have again taken it differently again!
            Y’know what ah mean, like, hey?! (;-)

          • jasonoruairc says:

            Ah y’see, I’m too young to have experienced ‘hiya’ in that context 😉

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