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Bodies in the library

BBC Sherlock

Rating: 15 (character death, slash, implicit damage to book stock)

Spoilers: none

Background: warriorbot has recently been writing library porn, while The Game is On challenge is currently calling for dark fic. Owing to crossed wires in my brain, the result over here has been the creation of library dark fic.
 
Disclaimer: the characters and the events portrayed are purely imaginary. St Anne's College library, however, is not, and although I have probably misremembered many of the details about it over the years, none of them are deliberately invented.


 

It was because of two men from St Anne's College, both called Peter, that Mycroft had failed to get a first at Oxford. Though not for any of the obvious reasons.

To be recruited by the Security Service at Oxford wasn't unusual, especially since they'd got so worried about Cambridge men. Nor was it unusual to lead a double life at Oxford. To be recruited by the Service in order to lead a double life at Oxford was, Mycroft thought, a plan that only a particularly weird mind could have conceived. He half suspected the entire briefing paper that had started his career had been an April Fool's joke.

In theory, it might sound good. In a Thatcherite world, the Service needed to show itself as forward thinking, interested in science and technology, enterprising. Not just recruiting from the old boys' network, but finding talent wherever it was located. In practice, they weren't going to let anyone into the Service who they couldn't be sure was sound. It took a certain kind of warped genius to decide that your new talent spotters should therefore be unusually bright 18 year old public school boys and girls, ready to cope simultaneously with becoming northern chemists and hacks studying PPE at Magdalen.

"Northern chemists", as Mycoft had come to learn during his gap year training, didn't actually have to be studying chemistry or come from the North of England. Just be someone from an unfashionable school, reading an unfashionable subject, and without the social connections to make a splash. He was now Martin Hughes, reading maths at Hertford. And nothing to do with 'Mycroft Holmes', a.k.a. Paul Mackay, an extremely talented young actor, who hailed, improbably, from Glasgow. Even Mycroft had been faintly alarmed when he'd first met his doppelganger. An inch or two shorter, hair a little lighter, shoulders a little broader, but the nose and the smirk had been uncannily similar. In five years time, no-one would suspect the change in their old college acquaintance. Mycroft felt a faint worry that he might be less good at being himself than Paul was.

So now Martin Hughes was at Oxford, and had to network with the seven-eighths of the submerged undergraduate body that the Service had never been interested in before. It was less like looking for a needle in a haystack, and more like a search by someone who'd read an article ten years ago speculating on the possible existence of sewing implements. Mycroft waited a month to see  if anyone knew what they were doing, and then unofficially located the six other members of "Operation Pleb Trawl", so they could divvy up the social circles to infiltrate. Tom got religion, as it were, Jon and Annabel were responsible for women and sport, Joshua for drinking, and Caroline and George for classical music and unfashionable journalism. Which left Mycroft with Gay Soc and board games.

It was wonderful. He could go anywhere he liked, talk to anyone he chose, become temporarily any kind of person he wanted to be. And the Service would back him, fund him, brief him, ensure his work was kept up to date (though Mycroft hardly needed help with that). He could spend a day going on all the paternoster lifts in Oxford because a boy he fancied had an obsession with them, and simply report it as 'applied anthropological research'.

Well, it was wonderful till he met the Peters. Big Peter and Little Peter, who he'd met in the unlikely intersection of Gay Soc and the OU Dungeons and Dragons society. Or perhaps not that unlikely – it was possible that there were others in the D and D group whose lack of success with the opposite sex wasn't due solely to a desperate urge to talk about orcs.

Mycroft had quickly worked out the dynamics of the pair, as well as calculating how long till they broke up. Peter (Petros) Marangakis, Greco-French via Birmingham, was a tall, burly chemist, loud about everything but his sexuality. He'd been dragged to Gay Soc by Little Peter, Peter Harper, four inches shorter and half the width of Big Peter, who'd escaped from at least some of the minor public school camp stereotypes by studying metallurgy.

Mycroft observed them when they were together and slept with them successively when they'd split up. As far as he was concerned, he was at Oxford to find out about human nature in all its varied forms: any data might come in handy eventually. Big Peter had taught him some useful sexual techniques, handy insults in six languages, and how to spot the more dangerous forms of alcoholic beverages. Little Peter had taught Mycroft about the varieties of human desire.

Cross-dressing and books. Cross-dressing among the book stacks of St Anne's library, in the curious annexe at the far end of the main reading room. Where the college's BBC micro lurked at the end of one of the narrow passages between metal shelves with Old Norse grammars on. And the shelves of early twentieth century popular fiction that had somehow drifted into the college's collection and become embedded there. Mycroft would never forget one afternoon when he'd listened to the light, flexible voice emerging from Peter's shimmering pink lips, as he read the end of The Constant Nymph, with Tessa Sanger dying of a heart attack in a Belgian boarding house. Afterwards, Mycroft had had to read several chapters of William Le Queux's Spies of the Kaiser in his most ridiculously patriotic voice to cheer up Peter.

That was what happened in the daytime, when nothing but Peter's lipstick, easily wiped off, and the occasional surreptitious move that only the very experienced could recognise as adjusting a bra strap, gave his interests away. If there was one day that Mycroft particularly remembered, there was also one night. That terrible, terrible night at the very end of the year, halfway through the eighth week of Trinity. Almost all the exams over, so there was even less danger than usual of anyone else being in the library at 2 a.m., let alone in the annexe.

Mycroft drifted into the library just after midnight and signed in under yet another alias. Those had been the days, he sometimes thought, when library security consisted of a preoccupied postgrad on the front desk, and the belief that everyone could be trusted to behave like responsible adults: no ID cards or combination locks or security tags. He'd walked through the main library: one or two obsessives still there, like the Malory nut, but once he'd passed through the far door, the annexe's lights were off. He was far too early, of course, but that gave him time to practice. He was getting used now to the discipline of standing for hours in darkened spaces, slowing himself down so that nothing interfered with his observations. But as he stretched out his hand to feel for the way round, a drop of liquid splashed on his hand. And that was very, very wrong, because libraries must always be kept dry. He flicked the lights on rapidly and saw the pool of blood on the parquet  floor in front of him, and heard the splash as more drips slowly detached themselves from the mezzanine above. The bloody mezzanine. Oh, God!

Little Peter had taken him up there once, and Mycroft had refused ever to go up again. He wasn't scared of heights, or darkness, or confined spaces: he'd been fine on the narrow iron spiral staircase up to the mezzanine. But then he'd got to the top, and stepped onto the pattern of iron grilles that were the floor, and looked down onto the people below, and he'd felt each single segment of grille flex and creak beneath his feet as he'd walked along behind Peter. And then the knowledge that the mezzanine had been up for years couldn't outweigh the inner structural engineer in his head yelling: 'Danger, danger, load-bearing failure imminent'. It was only Peter who'd been unconcerned about the mezzanine's dangers. Which had been his mistake, of course, thought Mycroft, as he looked up and saw his view of the shelves through the grilles partly obscured by a crumpled form.

Then , because he might only be 20, but he was already a professional, and Matthew Hall had had work experience in the Radcliffe Infirmary, he wrapped his right hand in a handkerchief and stuck his left hand in his pocket, and went up the spiral staircase. Focus on the body, not the floor around it. He found a way to step over the body without touching it, so he could check, as if he needed to, that Peter was dead, his head bashed against the edge of a shelf. He tore away almost all of the letter clutched in Peter's hand, and carefully placed it in his jacket pocket, after reading it. He'd recognised Big Peter's handwriting at once, but the contents of the letter had still shocked him. A man lying dead because of an argument over a blocked communal sink?

The letter said only to meet in the library: he didn't have the experience yet to be sure if Big Peter had forced Little Peter to come up here in order to kill him, or if it had been Little Peter retreating to a bolt hole, hoping that Big Peter would panic once on the mezzanine. If it had been an accident or not. It didn't matter. Porton Down always needed more chemists who didn't worry too much about people dying.

A few last tasks to do before he left. Write a plausible shelfmark on the scrap of paper he'd left in Peter's hand. They were unlikely to check the handwriting, he thought. He couldn't touch up Peter's lippy, as Peter would have liked, but he could at least straighten out his skirt, to make him look better. And last of all, take off one of Peter's black stilettos and wedge the heel firmly into a grille.

The inquest had said death by misadventure and St Anne's had been reprimanded severely by the coroner: told that it wasn't enough just to warn people to take off their high heels before going on the mezzanine and providing a pair of carpet slippers for them to put on instead. Told that Health and Safety were really going to crack down on the college from now on, although Malcolm Hastings, watching from the court's gallery, suspected that was all just for public show.

He'd naively expected that the accidental death of a cross-dressing Oxford student would be a tabloid sensation, but he'd been wrong. Monkton Coombe School and St Anne's, metallurgist, son of an accountant and a dental hygienist, Peter Harper hadn't been Olivia Channon, had he? A minor sensation in the Oxford Mail and that was all. Almost forgotten by everyone by the time the summer vacation ended.

Except Mycroft. He hadn't been able to enter a library during the rest of his time at Oxford. That needn't have stopped him getting a first in maths, but at the start of Finals, the sight of a girl stumbling in her black stilettos as they all hurried up the stone stairs to the exam hall had brought back enough bad memories to wipe away large chunks of group theory at a crucial moment. He'd always been resigned to 'Mycroft Holmes' only getting a second as well, only appropriate for a would-be minor civil servant. He didn't need the public acclamation of a first anyhow. He was 22 and ready for anything.

Almost anything. It took him three years, three hard-fought years, to overcome his library phobia. And even then it had to remain the policy of MI5 and MI6 for the next decade that all their library staff were female. And wore sensible shoes only.

 


Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
fengirl88
Oct. 7th, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)
oh my goodness - this is amazing! love the humour about double life and the Service and Oxford; and Northern chemists; and /how/ this becomes dark fic; and the need for libraries to be kept DRY. is it weird that the thing that actually made me gasp was The Constant Nymph?

*is resigned to being weird*

I was so pleased to see this - best possible tonic for a low point in the day.

and yes, please, the UL in Cambridge needs library dark fic too. surely the legendary UL Paperchase could feature alongside the green guard books?
marysutherland
Oct. 10th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure it's really a good move to start writing dark fic about a library I currently work in, in case I narrow the gap in my psyche even further between real events and things I imagine in my head. It was bad enough the time I helped write the script for a training video which included someone having an accident while shelving. The next time I had to use the shelves I'd based the story on, I found my body was automatically tensing in order to avoid the repeat of an accident that had never actually happened in the first place.

For adventure library fic (possibly dark), I can think of two very good places to use. One would be the underground bits of the Bodleian, which I saw 20+ years ago and unfortunately can't remember the details of (and which have already been used in Michael Innes' Operation Pax). The other would be the Cambridge UL tower (whose weird Victorian and Edwardian riches are revealed in the Tower Project blog.

But as some point I think I might try some comic Cambridge UL Sherlock fic, if only because I think Sherlock is the perfect person to end up breaking the rule about not going barefoot in the library.
fengirl88
Oct. 10th, 2010 08:40 pm (UTC)
I remember the Michael Innes well - especially the awful part about getting down into that bit of the Bodleian without getting stuck! had forgotten the thing about not going barefoot in the Cambridge UL, however, possibly because I would never have been tempted to break it... the tower is definitely appealing as a possible location. will look forward to comic Cb. UL Sherlock fic!
marysutherland
Oct. 11th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
I actually seriously considered going barefoot in the Cambridge UL at one point, because I was pregnant and my feet had swollen so much that even wearing sandals wasn't comfortable. Barefoot, pregnant, and in the UL working on my PhD - there's a whole history of feminism in that one sentence.
fengirl88
Oct. 11th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
I love your one-sentence history of feminism! very quotable, if you don't mind being quoted...?
marysutherland
Oct. 14th, 2010 06:04 am (UTC)
You're welcome to quote me, but I'd suggest not sticking me in a footnote. Because footnotes are the devil's snares, and I am currently being sucked under checking hundreds of them.
fengirl88
Oct. 14th, 2010 08:41 am (UTC)
thank you! it would more probably be in a talk and therefore not footnoted.

sympathy for the footnote checking. yes indeed, the devil's snares.

love that moment in Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing when she recalls a colleague who has just finished a (?) book (?) thesis and has gone /grey/ with it; when asked what has aged her she says IT WAS THE FOOTNOTES.
ginbitch
Oct. 7th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
Love this so much! Gorgeous writing - dark and subtle. Total love.


I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to join the library!porn meme but I stand no chance of writing anything so beautiful.

<3
pudupudu
Jan. 4th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
Hmm, now I want to make sex happen in the Somerville library, but we only became a mixed college in 1994 (boo, hiss)- though we -do- have the best college library in Oxford *preens*
marysutherland
Jan. 4th, 2011 01:10 pm (UTC)
It depends a bit on your pairing (I have a version of Harry Watson who comes out at Oxford, though I suspect she should have avoided trying to have sex in libraries, because she'd want to stop and go and look up a historical reference halfway through). But I'd have thought either Sherlock or Mycroft would have no difficulty in getting into a library they shouldn't have been in, whether to have sex, because they were collecting libraries, or just because it had a book they wanted they couldn't get hold of in their own library.(What is it about Somerville that makes it the best, BTW?) Certainly, library security in Oxford in the mid 1980s, when I was a student there, was pretty lax - I wandered into quite a few libraries I wasn't supposed to, just by looking as if I knew what I was doing - they weren't bothering with barcodes or combination locks then.

But as a librarian myself, can I please argue for safe library sex if you set scenes there - don't do anything to damage the bookstock. (A former colleague of mine once actually found a used condom in her library, which was extremely disgusting).
pudupudu
Jan. 4th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC)
Somerville has the biggest college library (which is very handy) and it's gorgeous as well (and open 24/7 which is handy for the sexing). Also, college loyalty and all that jazz. I will make sure that any library sex is entirely sage (for the books, at least)
irisbleufic
Mar. 11th, 2011 10:39 am (UTC)
Oh, I like this - that's not a library I've ever been in, but I found myself imagining the rather atmospheric library at my undergrad institution in the US. That last line is haunting, re: sensible shoes.
morelindo
Mar. 11th, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I love everything about this, will say more later. FOr now, just thanks for getting me out of a thoroughly bad mood and brightening up my lunch break.
shezan
Mar. 24th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, this is beautifully intricate and clever and such terrifically atmospheric background for Mycroft! WONDERFUL, this, truly wonderful.
marysutherland
Mar. 26th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC)
I'm writing a Mycroft/John fic at the moment which will incorporate part of this as backstory, though this was originally intended just as a stand-alone piece.
penguineggs
Mar. 25th, 2011 08:17 pm (UTC)
"Mycroft recoiled, staring at the strange inscriptions scratched above the cistern in the toilet they called 'Omen', the one housing the condom machine with the squeaky drawer, so incriminatingly - and audibly - situated behind the JCR bar.

"Collinge is guilty, OK?" one comment ran.

"*Nothing" about Collinge is OK" the riposte ran, with utter assurance.

Mycroft, quaking beneath the brutalist concrete of the Wolfson Building, knew how true that latter remark was. And how unsayable.
marysutherland
Mar. 26th, 2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
Since you are a St Anne's alumna (or have at least close-up knowledge of its architecture), you can appreciate the fictional effort required to get Mycroft anywhere near the college. And this is set during the mid 1980s, when it was probably even more unappealing. I can't say I remember the toilets myself, but the library mezzanine was still bringing me out in retrospective shudders even as I wrote this. At least Mycroft never had to live in the Gatehouse.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )