The Common Breath Fiction Series, January 2021

by Gillian Shirreffs

Libbe moved into the old McGlackin place the summer before she died.

Her arrival caused quite the stir.

It was a known fact that a pedigree of ancestors stretching back at least a century was required before the village’s sense of wary suspicion would settle. People said, half in jest, that you could live in the village or the surrounding townland, as it was called, for decades and still be referred to as a newcomer. Not to your face, of course.

Libbe’s spirit, however, seemed not to believe it.

Plague, pestilence and the worst excesses of the modern age, on the other hand, had found the village impenetrable, having been held at bay by the invisible perimeter fence that kept invaders, human or otherwise, out. Good genes, however, was the agreed upon narrative whenever the matter was discussed, which was often.

Celia Campbell talked about little else.

Until Libbe arrived.

The McGlackin house had been empty for fifty years, but people still called it that. Two generations of teenagers had done things they shouldn’t in its forbidden rooms. Apocryphal tales of murder and mutilation didn’t have the desired effect. Young ones continued to climb the hill behind the village and steal in through the back door, as their fathers and mothers had done before them. When talk started of someone moving in people said, no. Never. Who would do that? Why would anyone want to live there? Unless, they said, they were from somewhere else. Didn’t know the history of the place.

People were angry.

The tenant farm was on Kennedy land. What was young Geordie thinking? Renting it to an outsider. Maybe they’d even bought it, God forbid.

George Kennedy upped and left so many years before that no one could agree where he lived now. Some said Perth. Others Aberdeen. There was even talk of Edinburgh. But that company of his, people grumbled, collected rents regardless of where in the world he called home. The Caribbean?

When work began on the place, trucks and vans belonging to unfamiliar companies rumbled up the lane, only to be hidden by the wild, disorder of its unruly hedges.

Children were sent to the cairn to watch the goings on and returned with tall tales of a new roof and a sunroom. It took until the end of May for the last of the tradesmen to leave.

A still settled in the unusually warm air that hung over the hill, as though even the birds were waiting for her.

No one could agree upon the facts.

Details varied wildly depending on who spoke to whom and when it was discovered that a Mary Elizabeth McRae was the one moving in, not one of them came up with a creature like Libbe. Not in their wildest imaginings.

She’ll be from Glasgow. Mark my words.

That was Celia Campbell’s assessment of the situation. What with all that had gone on there, she said, the McGlackin house would seem safe. Desirable, even. She’d heard in some parts of the city seagulls had taken over, screeching and shrieking at all hours.

Other people said it was likely more complicated than that. People like Alice Dunne.

Alice always took the opposing view to Celia. Since primary school. There’d been an incident when they were ten. Alice got the belt over it. She had a phrase about revenge being a dish best served cold that she used more often than might be seemly for a woman of her age.

The afternoon the library parked up, no one went near it. Curtains twitched, landlines rang off the hook and those with social media took to it.

It had Libbe’s Mobile Library emblazoned in yellow on the side and scattered over the body of the vehicle were daisies that danced in the sun. This was how her name got to be known, the one she went by.

Celia Campbell had the best view. Her eyesight was still that of the sharp-eyed girl she’d been, despite having just turned seventy. As for the daisies, she said the child had painted them. By hand. Every one. Must have taken days.

Alice swore they were transfers. Good ones. You can buy anything on that Amazon, she said, to any who would listen.

The child, it turned out, was in her fourth decade but the characterisation was understandable given she had all that auburn hair and those bright dark eyes and her being just a bird of a thing. No one could agree who coined the phrase, but it stuck. Alice said she must have done it because the very first time she saw Libbe she was put in mind of her wee Dora.

Wee Dora was the fledgling Alice had found injured amongst some ivy the previous spring. Her ministrations brought the baby dunnock back from the brink, or so people said, and now it rarely ventured far from her shrubbery and was so tame it would eat birdseed from her hand.

The following Saturday when Libbe parked, she opened wide the door of the library and removed two collapsible tables like those that might be used if you were to wallpaper a room. She set them up on the grass. On them, she arranged towers of books. One table, it was plain to see, was to attract the children; the other, those who might be partial to a murder mystery or a love story. She put a folding chair between them and sat down to read The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, plucked, it seemed at random, from the children’s section of her outdoor library. According to Celia, it was a full hour before anyone went near. Those that did were little ones, drawn by compendium upon compendium of fairy tales.

Libbe clapped with delight when one of the Mellis girls asked if she would read to them. There were three children at first, cross legged on the grass listening as Libbe, bent forwards on her chair, read The Selfish Giant. This grew to five, then seven, then eight. It was unclear whether parental permission was involved, but as it took place in full view of the surrounding houses it was said by the likes of Alice that there was no harm in it.

As the evening chill took hold, Libbe loaded the book towers, tables and chair into the library, but not before each child was given a book, to be read and then returned the following Saturday.

Instructions not to go near the old McGlackin place issued forth from all those parents over whom Celia held sway. It was one thing, apparently, for the children to sit out on the green and listen to Libbe read, but quite another for them to climb the hill and scoot along the long, overgrown lane to her house. When an answer was sought as to why it was okay when the trucks and vans had been there but not now, it was declared that children should, as a rule, be seen and not heard.

Three Saturday afternoons came and went before anyone approached the second table. On that day it boasted four book towers: travel, historical fiction, poetry, and graphic novels. It was not much of a surprise to anyone that it was Alice Dunne who chose to walk across the green.

She ran a finger down the travel books.

Libbe, her face obscured from view by waves of hair, was on her hunkers discussing the merits of Noggin the Nog with the younger of the Mellis girls. Only when the child wandered away, did she stand up.

Alice picked up the topmost book, The Lonely Planet Guide to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick & Prince Edward Island, and began to flick through it.

A full twelve minutes elapsed before Alice, book in hand, turned to head home.

Later, when she was accosted by a small group of villagers outside the paper shop, she revealed their conversation had mainly been about the Confederation Bridge. At eight miles in length, she informed her neighbours, it’s the world’s longest bridge that crosses ice-covered water. It spans the Northumberland Strait connecting the Canadian mainland to Prince Edward Island. Or PEI, as she was now apt to call it.

According to Alice, Libbe had driven across this feat of engineering on a trip ten years before. It seemed she wanted to visit PEI for the longest time having fallen in love with the island as a child whilst reading Anne of Green Gables. Celia snorted that maybe she should have moved there, then.

Alice flashed her nemesis the withering stare she normally reserved for litter louts and continued. It had been Libbe’s childhood dream to visit Green Gables. After her diagnosis, she’d decided it was then or never.

Well that put Celia Campbell’s gas at a peep. For a second.

What diagnosis, she scoffed, one of those Millennial things no doubt.

Alice informed them – presumably delighted it was she, not Celia, who possessed this piece of intelligence – that Libbe had turned forty the summer before last and was therefore Gen X.

The reverently nodding heads of those assembled suggested they were almost as impressed with her knowledge of the finer points of generational categorisations as they were with any prized titbits about Libbe.

No, Alice said, her eyes narrow and trained on Celia, Libbe did not have one of those Millennial things. She had multiple sclerosis.

At this, Alice excused herself. If they didn’t mind, she thought she could feel a wee smir of rain in the air and she had a washing on the line.

The following Saturday both of Libbe’s tables proved to be a hit.

After the first hour, the notebook in which she kept a record of who borrowed what had the names of eight villagers neatly entered into it and by the end of the afternoon another ten had been added.

The final name on the list belonged to Celia Campbell.

Libbe was reading Rapunzel to the Mellis girls when Celia tapped her on the shoulder and enquired what she would recommend to a reader who was partial to the classics.

No, Celia wasn’t in the mood for any of the Brontës. And Dickens didn’t feel right for July. A smile broke across Libbe’s face. How about Spark?

She held aloft a book and said, The Abbess of Crewe? Then she picked up a second, handed it to Celia and said, Loitering with Intent?

A modern classic? Celia said, her nose wrinkling.

She did, however, admit she had enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when they’d done it at school. It would’ve been 1968, she said. It hadn’t long been published. Libbe looked captivated as Celia described her teacher, a Miss Kate Shaw, who was very forward thinking. In fact, she was a bit like Jean Brodie herself.

Celia inspected the book in her hand and declared she’d be willing to give it a try.

Alice, who was a few feet away, caught Libbe’s eye, looked heavenwards and shook her head.

Things progressed in this way for the remainder of the summer. By its end Celia had notched up a slew of Spark novels and was working her way through the collected short stories. Alice had been to Kathmandu and back, thanks to a combination of Lonely Planet and Bradt travel guides.

October was forecast to be wet and stormy.

In the dark of night, as September drew to a close, Libbe slipped a sandwich bag through the letterbox of all those listed in her notebook. Each one contained a handwritten note about the new arrangements for the library as, from that Saturday, it would operate from inside the van.

The villagers, umbrellas in hand, got into the habit of forming an orderly queue in front of the mobile library. They would watch from their windows for just the right moment to join: when it was perhaps six long. The right length for a bit of a chat, without having to wait too long in the elements.

Due to the cramped conditions, those next in line would be admitted in groups of two or three.

Celia became unhappy that, in her opinion, Alice always took too long to choose the destination of her next flight of fancy. She therefore lobbied to have a strict time limit imposed.

Libbe smoothed out this ruffle by suggesting they visit together, which would ensure they each got an equal amount of library time.

It was on one such occasion that, much to Alice’s dismay, Celia asked Libbe about her family. She was an only one, it was later reported, and both parents were dead. Celia was, it seemed, troubled that she’d failed to ascertain the specifics.

The following Saturday, Celia asked whether Libbe was young Geordie’s tenant or if she had actually bought the place. Libbe said she had. The bank was the real owner though, she’d grinned.

She had plans for her savings.


Yes. She’d been fortunate to have enough to cover the mobile library, the renovations to the old McGlackin place and to live on, for now. But if she was honest, her plan had been to use the house as little more than a base, heading off with the library whenever she pleased.

Then she fell in love.


Yes. Head over heels. With the house, the village, the roads that wound around it, the magnificent hedgerows that towered over the lane, the ancient oak tree in her garden and the people of this place. The warm, kind, generous, welcoming people.

She no longer felt expendable.


In the worst days of the pandemic, Libbe told them, along with the fear, she had experienced a sense of being disposable, inessential, unimportant. Talk of the weakest in society. The sick. The elderly. As if illness or old age were synonyms for weakness. Talk of underlying health conditions. As though disease itself were a defect.

That was what had made her move.

That and the seagulls.

At the turn of the new year, Libbe asked Celia and Alice if they would be interested in hosting a book group at her cottage. She suggested it could take place on the morning of the last Saturday of each month and thought perhaps the inaugural meeting might be in March.

An uneasy peace had lately come to exist between the two women so, with what the entire village felt sure was not a little trepidation, they agreed.

There was, of course, the attraction that they would finally see inside Libbe’s cottage. A sanctuary that did not disappoint: terracotta tiles; walls painted with intricate floral murals; overstuffed sofas with hand stitched gingham cushions. Book group duties were duly divided.

Celia would choose the book and the discussion questions for the first meeting and Alice would bake. This would be reversed in the April. And so on.

Once initial teething troubles had been soothed by Libbe, the arrangement worked beautifully. The book group grew in numbers until it spilled from Libbe’s kitchen into the sunroom beyond and by June it was hailed a highlight of the village calendar. For those of a more delicate disposition, you may want to leave Libbe here. As she is now. Her death due to carbon monoxide poisoning having yet to occur. No one would think any the worse of you for it.

It was later that summer that the accident happened.

On the morning of the August book group.

The morning Celia found Libbe’s body.

She recalled later that as she’d walked towards the house, she noted something odd. The birds that lined her way were quiet and still.

She’d wanted to be early. It was her turn to bring the baking and she was hoping to have a cup of tea with Libbe before Alice and the others arrived.

She was carrying a tin of iced fairy cakes.

She’d made the blackberry icing with fruit picked from the soaring hedgerows that watched over the lane that led to the house that was, by then, referred to only as Libbe’s cottage.

The key for the back door was in its usual place.

She’d held the tin in one hand and eased it from underneath the pot that contained Libbe’s favourite geranium. Its vigorous red bloom making it a worthy holder of the title.

Celia rarely spoke about what happened next but when she did she would say that to begin with, she thought Libbe was asleep in the armchair. Having nodded off whilst reading.

It was a blur after that, she’d say.

Alice would often take up the story. She had arrived a few minutes later, suspicious there might be a pre-meeting cup of tea on the go.

Between them they’d half-carried, half-dragged Libbe out into the garden.

After the ambulance took her away, Alice and Celia sat on the bench under the ancient oak tree. Until the police asked them to leave.

The whole place might be a crime scene, they were told.

The following Saturday, the two women walked back to Libbe’s cottage.

Alice removed the keys for the mobile library from underneath the pot containing Libbe’s second favourite geranium. They did this each week until Celia was able to procure a permit from the council allowing them to park the library in perpetuity in its spot by the green.

In the years that followed when Alice and Celia admitted they were no longer as fit as they once had been, the Mellis girls took over the running of Libbe’s Library. Or, as Alice liked to call it, the beating heart of the village.

A term Celia found far too sentimental. ●

Author Bio
Gillian Shirreffs writes to explore the experience of illness. A doctoral researcher, she has an MLitt (with distinction) in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Interpreter’s House literary magazine, thi wurd fiction magazine, the anthology, Tales From a Cancelled Country, and the medical humanities journal, The Polyphony, amongst others. /// t: @SunshineScot