A memory. A friend of mine was briefly involved with a woman who worked as a nurse at an old people’s home. My then wife A and I were invited to her place for dinner, probably one of the first social situations where this couple met the world as a unit.
Pretty soon A went to have a look at the bookshelves, which were large and well stocked. But she came back into the kitchen looking really confused. Could our hostess please explain why almost all of the books were in pristine library bindings? And why they were largely quite new titles? The woman was forthcoming and calmly unapologetic in her reply.
Turned out that there was a little library at the nursing home, and she’d been systematically looting it for a couple of years. She seemed honestly surprised that anyone who wasn’t a librarian would think that this was a big deal. “Nobody ever reads those books anyway”, she said. “WELL OBVIOUSLY THEY DON’T AFTER YOU STOLE THEM”, A shouted. “MARTIN, LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!” And we left.
The woman returned the books to the workplace library in the following days, quite a chore given how many they were. This earned her some curt praise from A when she called to tell us. For a while afterwards we made a running joke of using her surname as a synonym of the verb “to steal”.
5 thoughts on “After Hours in the Nursing Home Library”
When I first came to work in HK, I was very confused when one of the clerical staff turned up at my desk, issued me with a roll of toilet paper and told me to lock it in my desk drawer. Sure enough, a quick check of the cubicles in the men’s ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ toilets confirmed that they were devoid of toilet paper (the ‘senior’ male staff had a separate locked toilet, for which I was issued with a key – I could never be bothered, so just used the junior toilet which had no lock on it, and which I discovered was actually a lot cleaner than the senior toilet, because in those days the ‘senior’ male staff greatly outnumbered the ‘junior’ male staff, the clerical staff all being female) . The reason was that the staff kept stealing the toilet paper and taking it home – including, obviously, the ‘senior’ staff. Our ration was one toilet roll per month, and if we ran out, that was our bad luck.
So if I ever needed to go for a crap at work, I had to march across the office clutching my government issue toilet roll in my hand, and every single person knew where I was going and what I was going there to do. I quickly developed the habit of not needing to go for a crap while at work, to avoid the embarrassing cross-office march. Consequently I ended up with a whole drawer full of rolls of toilet paper, the wrappers of which were all printed with HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) and a big black arrow (the meaning of which escapes me still). I ingratiated myself with the girls in the office by handing them out to them, and in return I was given very quick access to government files whenever I needed them, Mr Massey quickly becoming regarded as a ‘good guy’ who kept his hands to himself (unlike some of my English colleagues).
I don’t know what the situation was in the female toilet, but all of the girls (and they were all very young women then; teenagers straight out of school) used their personal toilet rolls to blow their noses, and somehow avoided parading across the office clutching them en route to the ladies’. Maybe they discreetly tore off sufficient sheets and concealed them in their handbags or pockets, I don’t know. There was no separate toilet for ‘senior’ female staff because we didn’t have any then.
But cultures evolve. HK very quickly went from being third world to first world, right in front of my eyes – the first signs I recognised were when my pathetic little local supermarket started stocking jars of Vegemite and frozen Australian meat pies. Long before I retired from the government, the office toilet cubicles were all furnished with toilet paper. For a while the toilet paper holders were locked containers, but then later the locks were removed, no one stole the toilet paper, and the march of shame across the office clutching one’s personal toilet roll became a thing of the distant past. People stopped blowing their noses with toilet paper and started using boxes and pocket packets of tissues – decadent Western luxury! (I always used to carry a pocket handkerchief for this purpose, but was quickly made aware that the Chinese regarded stuffing a snot-filled handkerchief back into one’s pocket as utterly disgusting; in fact, blowing one’s nose in public was regarded as disgusting, whereas hawking and spitting on the footpath for men was perfectly OK – different folks, different social rules. Spitting in public now never happens in HK.)
For some people, stealing from the ‘establishment’ (whatever it might be) is regarded as a ‘victimless crime’, although in reality there is no such thing. Whether the elderly people read the books or not, they were deprived of the option. Perhaps the nurse didn’t think of it as actually stealing, until she was called out for it by wife A. My very respectable looking father was a great exponent of the victimless crime – he only ever stole from the government. Correction, he never stole anything; he ‘acquired’ things, something I was taught to call his thieving ways from a very young age, although I was born with a conscience that would never allow me to do likewise.
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When the Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander (served 1946-69!) retired, his wife returned bunches of pencils to the office, because they were labeled “government property”.
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The sign is the English Crown’s broad arrow https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broad_arrow
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Interesting. Mystery solved. Thanks, Sean.
I keep forgetting to tick the blessed notification box.