Numbers

There was a loud dong sound, repeating three times and echoing around the room with such force that Elliot swore it shifted his chair across the room. It lingered in his ears for a moment longer, making both of them and his eyebrow twitch before fading away and leaving him distracted and irritated. The clock sounded on the hour, every hour so he should have been used to it by now, but for God’s sake, did it have to ring so loudly in the library? Why was there even a clock in here anyway? Libraries were supposed to be quiet, not filled with the obnoxious bell toll signalling that he was now one hour closer to becoming a sobbing mess on the cracked tiles of his lecture hall. That is to say, one hour closer to his accounting mid-sem.

With a growl, he slammed the textbook he was “reading” shut. He couldn’t focus anymore, but his attempt had been half-hearted anyway. Look, it wasn’t as if he didn’t want to study he just couldn’t concentrate. The words were jumbling together, creating long run-on sentences that weren’t sticking in his brain. He’d never been the best at studying hence why he was twenty-five and only in his first semester of university, but tonight had been particularly bad thanks to the mixture of energy drinks and coffee he’d been steadily consuming in an effort to cram.

It was important for him to learn this stuff – he already felt detached enough from the rest of his fresh-out-of-high-school class as it was – but as he’d been scanning over the pages just moments earlier he’d found himself asking just why, oh why did they have to make accounting so dry? Auditing is the process of blah blah blah and in doing so we yada yada yada. Like come on, add some flavour to it! Tell him about some business that got caught embezzling millions of dosh or like, the very first dollar coin or something. Not just plain old, boring old facts.

The clock had stopped now but his patience for the library had left the building, something he hoped to be doing soon too. But he couldn’t leave just yet, no, he had to find the other textbook he needed for the test first. Pushing his chair out dramatically, he stomped quietly over to the accounting shelves to hunt it down. Admittedly he felt a little sheepish fingering through all the spines sticking out the shelves, he was supposed to have bought both books at the beginning of semester. But look, they were one hundred a pop and not everyone was fortunate enough to have the bank of mum and dad funding their studies for them.

He was able to find it easily enough, snatching the copy of Accounting: An Introduction off the shelf as if it were the last copy in the world. His attention, however, was immediately grabbed by a brightly coloured spine two books over and he yanked the heavy tome out so quickly that it bent his non-dominant wrist (damn, could have gotten him out of the exam if had been the other one) back and toppled to the floor. Money: An Illustrated History the title read and that was all he needed to see. Now this is what he was talking about, nothing kept his attention like bright pictures.

The lady at the check-out desk watched him approach through her round glasses that had slid so far down her nose that they probably weren’t serving their intended purpose anymore. An eyebrow was raised at his broad selection of entertaining, vivid, dull and fact-based books but she didn’t question it. She had a kind face, albeit a little awkward which got him wondering if she was a new hire. How cruel, he thought, to have a new employee working alone and at nighttime.

“Can I have your student card, please?” Her voice wavered slightly as she took them from him, a mixture of shyness and uncertainty at how to do the job, furthering his hypothesis. He fished through his wallet pocket, handing over his card with as much gusto as he could summon in an attempt to make her feel more at ease. It didn’t.

She swiped the card and began scanning through the books but came to a halt when she saw the money one and in an instant, Elliot’s cheeks had reddened. Excuse, Elliot! Maybe it’s for my non-existent niece who wants to start leaning the art of accounting early. Big numbers family, y’know? Gotta start ‘em young.

“This is a great book.”

Oh,” He exhaled sharply, all tension suddenly gone. “You’ve read it?”

“I have, read it in my first year of my degree, which I assume you’re also doing judging by…” And she nodded towards the two less-exciting ones. Oh yeah, them.

“Yeah…hey, does that mean you’re studying accounting too?”

“Sure am. Last semester, baby,” She thumbed herself in the chest proudly, accidentally bending her thumb back and wincing. “Can’t wait to get out of here and start earning some real money by sorting out other peoples.” All her nervousness seemed to have vanished now that there was a mutual talking point.

“I envy you…” He peered forward, trying to read her small name tag. These late nights “studying” had really done a number on his eyesight, another thing to worry about. “…Marie? Got my first mid-sem and I am one-hundred-percent not prepared.”

Marie’s face paled and he immediately regretted saying anything, had he accidentally offended her? It wasn’t untrue but he’d just been trying to make a joke! But you know what was also a joke? How much content they were shoving into this exam, ba-dum-tss. Anyway, he felt a strange compulsion to try and impress this librarian who was probably his age but leagues ahead of him in terms of education and probably common sense too.

“Elliot!” She scolded and once again, his cheeks entered tomato territory. “Do you mean to tell me that you’re in here the night before your exam trying to learn half a semester’s worth of material?”

“Um, I wouldn’t not say that.”

Her face fell and she glanced around tentatively, checking to see if there was anyone else waiting. Surprise surprise, there wasn’t because it was ten at night. “Cramming is hard but it can be done – I would know. I’m here till one so I can tutor you until then.”

“It’s okay.” He protested weakly but wasn’t all averse to the idea. She was probably about to drop all this cool fourth-year knowledge on him that he could impress his classmates with, letting him become the awesome technically-middle-aged student that they’d all come to for (probably bad) advice. Oh and you know she was pretty cool too, but he digressed.

“No, I insist. Let’s go sit at those desks over there,” Taking his books over for him, Marie led Elliot to the empty desks by the photocopier machine. They sat next to each other, awkwardly close for two people who had just met, and she flipped to the first page of one of the non-money textbooks. Darn, he was hoping they’d go through the fun one. “Now what are you doing trying to study so much and so late at night? You’ve got to get into a better routine if you want to do well in second year.”

“Ugh, I know mum.” He emphasised the mum and she laughed, tilting her head in mild embarrassment.

“I do kind of give off those vibes, don’t I? I swear it only started happening when I got this job. It’s like being given the power to shush people unleashed some sort of maternal instinct within me.”

“Wield that power well, it’s a big responsibility.”

She nibbled the end of her thumb in a mixture of bashful and thoughtfulness at his joke. “I do, I do…it’s just not cool to be the mum, you know?”

“Aw, I think you’re cool.” Huh, that had come out of nowhere. He blinked a few times, surprised at the compliment but she just smiled then coughed then turned towards the book indicating there was no more procrastinating.

And so, she began explaining all the concepts that he’d probably heard before and uh…how they related to the occupation or something and then…um, more concepts? Numbers? Honestly, he couldn’t tell you what she was talking about because he had zoned out a solid three seconds after she’d started talking. It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to listen and he certainly had been following along with the lilt of her voice but none of the content had stuck.

Gee, he was so self-sabotaging, wasn’t he? But hey, recognising and admitting to it was the first step. Maybe he should have studied psychology instead, heh.

“Hey!” The word was sudden and much louder, and it cut through his self-sabotaging thoughts of self-sabotaging thoughts. In his daydream he’d placed the end of his pen in between his teeth and he extracted it sheepishly. “You’re not listening to me.”

There was a brief pause as he considered lying and saying that no, he had totally fully been concentrating and that his stunned mullet expression was just because accounting was so enthralling. But she had made it to her final year and she would definitely see right through that.

She was watching him, face not unkind. “I was trying to, it’s just difficult and…man, I really need to pass this.” His eyes dropped towards the textbook, suddenly feeling a giant onslaught of overwhelmedness at the stacks of pages they still had to go through. Yet as he stared at them, he felt no desire to actually start.

Could he be totally real for a second? He didn’t think university was for him. Now don’t get him wrong, he really admired those that had degrees and then some, but it wasn’t for him. He struggled to focus and most lectures he found himself thinking he’d be much happier doing a trade. It was a great way to earn money and learn at the same time, and hey, Jesus was a carpenter. He couldn’t say that to his family of accountants though, could he? They’d be so disappointed.

“Everyone fails a unit at some point,” She raised her hand, letting it hover over his shoulder for a moment. He nodded and she placed it down reassuringly. “Don’t beat yourself up too much.”

He lifted his eyes up and towards Marie. What had he done in a previous life to deserve the kindness of this random librarian? Apparently his face was easily readable or perhaps she was just good at reading (heh, librarian joke, get it? He’d be here all week) because she muttered a small ah.

“Accounting isn’t my passion either,” She admitted. “I thought it was but then I got this job and now I think it’s being a librarian. The bookkeeping book keeper they call me and I don’t feel ready to give that title up yet.”

Her joke lifted his spirits and his shoulders slightly. “We’re accounting allies now. Somehow in this big wide world, er…that is, university the two most apathetic accounting students have found each other.”

“Like attracts like, as they say.” She chuckled, glasses sliding down her nose again. She pushed them up, mouth parting slightly as if she was about to continue.

“Go on.”

“It’s just…” She paused. “This is probably unsolicited advice and you can fully ignore it because I barely even know you, but if you hate it that much, switch.”

He’d thought about that, pretty much every second of every day – no joke. He’d be stuck with a semester’s worth of debt but that was better than four years of it, wasn’t it? There was his family to think of too, their accounting firm meant he had a guaranteed job and it would make his mum proud if he followed through, but was it worth it? Right now the answer was a solid nah. Nope. No way, man.

“My parents are accountants,” He replied, surprised at how much his voice sounded like a child. “It would probably upset them.”

Her face and hand that was still on his shoulder softened. “Well, it seems like it’s upsetting you a whole lot more. This is going to sound very live laugh love of me, but you’ve got to do what’s best for you,” He started to respond but she cut him off. “I don’t know your family or anything, so don’t take my advice as gospel. Thinking about that just helps me make decisions sometimes.”

Honestly, he was probably being more dramatic than usual because he was tired, but she was right; it wasn’t for him. He wasn’t sure what exactly was for him, but he’d figure that out later. Twenty five, schmenty five. There was time.

He reached forward and grabbed the open book, suddenly filled with a newfound determination. He didn’t want to be an accountant but he also didn’t want those DNFs on his permanent academic record. He wasn’t a quitter and having a P on there was better than nothing (a C or even an HD would be even better but he knew his limits). Marie raised an eyebrow, trying to work out how her pep talk had caused this sudden motivation to study.

“I don’t think I’ll continue after this semester,” He explained, flipping through to the pages earmarked by students past. “But I’m enrolled, I might as well have a go at it.”

The corners of her mouth twitched up and slowly the smile started spreading until her face looked like it would split in half. “I’m proud of you, I don’t even know you but I feel proud.”

“Must be the maternal librarian instincts.”

The grin turned from motherly to shit-eating in an instant and she socked him lightly in the shoulder. “I’d argue with you if you weren’t so correct. Anyway, I should probably go back and actually do some work for a bit.”

Elliot watched as she stood up from her chair, pushing it in politely just like his mum had always asked him to do. “Thanks,” He called when she was halfway back to her desk, totally forgetting he was in a quiet zone. She held a finger up to her lips and so he continued shout-whispering, “For the chat. That was really cool.”

“Aw it’s nothing,” She replied. “But uh, I’ll be here most evenings if you’re ever around for the rest of semester.”

If he’d wanted to reply, he would have had no chance because at that exact moment, the clock dong-dong-donged again, making them both jump and reminding him it was time for him to go home and sleep. He flashed a thumbs up on his way out but she grabbed him by his jacket sleeve.

“Hey,” She said, a bundle of nerves once more. “Can we exchange numbers? But like, in a non-accounting way?”