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Just Follow the Instructions

by Cornelia 

Posted: 25 September 2012
Word Count: 1237
Summary: An automatic book-borrowing machine starts acting strangely

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“It’s simple – just place your books in the space and follow the instructions. If you need further assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Leaving Jean in front of the machine, the smart young librarian returned to her desk and resumed tapping a keyboard.

‘Just follow instructions, eh? Famous last words,’ thought Jean, whose previous experience with machines had not been positive.

From stamp-dispensers at the post office to self- check-outs at the supermarket, she always seemed to get one with a grudge. No wonder she hesitated in front of the metal box that had appeared since her last visit to the library

Jean remembered a time when library tickets were little brown pockets, not made of plastic and too easily confused with store cards. Still, this was no time to dwell on the past; she took three books from her bag, placed them in the space and crossed her fingers. As if by magic, their titles flashed up on the screen:

Taking Decisions

How to Make Up Your Mind

Stop Dithering

The last seemed to be written with Jean in mind. Whenever she opened the cover, she seemed to hear her mother’s voice: “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Jean, do stop dithering!”

Unfortunately, none of the books seemed to make any difference. There were just too many things to choose from these days, be it washing powders or television channels. At least you could change channels with a click of the remote, but you often had to live with the consequences of a bad decision.

For instance, she still hadn’t decided what to wear at her daughter Natasha’s wedding. Would it be the coral pink suit with the beige hat that flattered her fair complexion or something brighter?

“Mike’s mum will be wearing sunshine yellow – her signature colour,” Natasha had said, hinting in a not-so-subtle way that it wouldn’t hurt for Jean to be more adventurous.

Jean thought of her husband, Tom, who would have been so proud of their lovely daughter. Such a shame he wasn't going to be there. He'd been so young when he'd suffered the heart attack that killed him. He’d have had something to say, too, about women who had signature colours!

Jean looked at the choices on the screen. She pressed Return and then Yes when the screen asked if she wanted a receipt. With a sigh of relief, she took a piece of paper proffered by a small slot underneath.

But what was this? A small bright green arrow, pointing downwards, began to dance across the bottom of the screen. In a panic, Jean glanced at her shoes, than round at the shelves. What on earth was the machine trying to tell her?

‘Pull yourself together, Jean,’ she said to herself, trying to keep calm. ‘No need to bother the librarian.’

Just then, a man who was standing beside a shelf labelled ‘Sports’ turned round.

Jean caught his eye and nodded at the screen. The man understood straight away and said, “It’s telling you to put your books on the trolley. I had the same problem when I used it the first time. Here, let me help.” Something about his kind grey eyes and gentle voice reassured her.

Her rescuer placed the two books he was carrying on a nearby table. Jean caught sight of a photo of mountains on the top one, above the title: Conquering the Peaks

“Thank you so much,” Jean said. "I’m afraid these machines get the better of me. It wouldn’t happen to you, I’m sure." She smiled and pointed at the books he held. "You’d soon conquer them."

“Sorry? Oh, take no notice of these!” He laughed and held up the books. "They’re for my nephew. He’s always trying new hobbies. I’m no mountaineer; I even have to think twice about steep hills nowadays."

"Well, thanks again," said Jean, and headed off to the fiction shelves.

Her knight-in-tweed-jacket was still near the Sports section when she returned. He was flipping the pages of a book on skydiving.

"I wonder if you could help me again," said Jean.

“Of course!” For a moment, Jean had the impression that he’d been waiting for her to return.

“Is it the same procedure for borrowing a book? I’m sorry to ask, but the librarian’s busy. You were so kind before.”

“Oh, yes, it’s the same procedure – put them in –ah, just the one this time, I see – and then follow the instructions that appear on the screen.”

He turned his attention back to the book he’d been looking at, but seemed to wait, as if hoping she’d need further help.

Jean put her book in the box and a title flashed up:

Go for it!

Jean stared at the screen. She’d given up on reading books about making decisions; the new book was a romantic novel. She checked the title on the cover: September Romance.

Jean removed it from the space and then put it back again. This time when the correct title came up, she clicked on Borrow and a message on the screen asked her to put her library card in a slot indicated by an arrow.

Could the machine be giving her advice? With a shake of her head, Jean dismissed such a silly idea.

Her helper had walked over to the History shelves, but as Jean reached the exit he appeared at her side.

“Technology has gone too far,” he said, smiling, “when it deprives men of the chance to open doors for ladies. They all seem to be automatic these days.” He paused, then added, 'But these days that’s old-fashioned, too.”

As Jean felt herself blush like a teenager, he said, “Where are my manners? My name’s Derek Johnson. I, er... wondered if you had time for a coffee at the little place next door.”

Jean felt the old familiar hesitations, before remembering the words she’d just read on the screen. Go for it!

“I’m Jean, and thank you: that would be lovely.”

Some weeks later, Jean stood in front of the library machine once more. Natasha and Mike were still on honeymoon and Jean reflected that she was glad she’d chosen the pink and beige for the wedding, after all. So much more attractive, Derek had said, than the garish colours some guests had chosen.

Soon Jean would have a whole new set of decisions to make. Somehow, it didn’t bother her. After placing the book on the trolley, she hurried off to the Travel shelves.

She soon returned, book in hand, then smiled at the title as it flashed up on the screen:

Honeymoon Destinations

Jean looked forward to discussing the options with Derek. She pressed Borrow and took the book as the machine delivered the receipt. Was she seeing things, or had a new word appeared on the screen?


‘Ah, it must have noticed the diamond on my left hand,’ she thought, before telling herself the idea was far too silly. 'It must have been some temporary fault. Strange that it happened twice, though…'

As she looked around, Derek returned from the Sports section, clutching a book on water-skiing. Really, that nephew of his was far too indecisive.

"Need some help with the machine?" asked Derek.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Jean tucked the book in her bag and linked her arm through his. “After all, it was just a matter of following instructions.”

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Comments by other Members

Bald Man at 15:20 on 26 September 2012  Report this post
Nice one, Sheila! I liked this, particularly the mind-reading machine. Witty, warm and a good ending.

You perhaps need to clarify the point that she is returning the books the first time she encounters the machine, as it only becomes clear later.

'...whose previous experience with machines had not been positive.' This felt a bit clunky. Suggest a semi-colon: 'thought Jean; her previous experiences with machines had been...' painful/difficult/threatening etc.

After '...visit to the library'; 'Conquering the Peaks'; and 'Honeymoon Destinations'
- stops needed.

Suggest you have the following sentence all on one line: "Jean put her book in the box and a title flashed up: Go for it!"

I remember those old library cards and brown card pockets, too!


Ian02Smith at 21:27 on 26 September 2012  Report this post
I love the idea behind the story and think you've produced a very good first draft. Something for People's Friend?

One comment is variable use of 'single' and "double". You could use italics for thoughts, to make it clearer.

The two paras:

‘Just follow instructions, eh? Famous last words,’ thought Jean, whose previous experience with machines had not been positive.

From stamp-dispensers at the post office to self- check-outs at the supermarket, she always seemed to get one with a grudge. No wonder she hesitated in front of the metal box that had appeared since her last visit to the library

might work better if run into one, with the first sentence split and a bit of tightening up. For example:

Just follow instructions, eh? Famous last words, thought Jean. Her prior experience with machines was not positive. From stamp dispensers at the Post Office to self-service supermarket check-outs, she always seemed to get one with an attitude problem. She hesitated in front of the device that had appeared since her last visit to the library.

My local library has a self-service system, but it's not quite as helpful as the one you imagined!

Cornelia at 23:42 on 26 September 2012  Report this post
Thanks so much for comments-good pointers for revions.




saturday at 11:17 on 08 October 2012  Report this post
I really liked this, Cornelia. It was very warm and insightful - I thought it captured the panic lots of people feel when faced with strange machines and also allowed you to see how Jean felt slightly lonely and out of sync with lots of aspects of her life, without making her seem wet.

Cornelia at 11:37 on 08 October 2012  Report this post
Thanks, Saturday. I think I'll make a final version of this and submit it this week.


eve26 at 17:09 on 21 October 2012  Report this post
I really enjoyed this Shelia. Great fun. I could really imagine this in a magazine!

Cornelia at 18:19 on 21 October 2012  Report this post
Thanks, Eve, for reading and for your encouraging comment.


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