Around 2001, I worked in a university library. Like most such places, the campus employed security personnel to keep the librarians away from the messy business of letting people into the building. They were contract workers: a mixture of the under-skilled and unlucky, the fallible and hopeless. A woman who hoarded takeaway chicken bones in the staff room, to nibble at when she was on her break. A man with the bleary complexion of a railway inspector on a Brighton postcard, who told the most boring anecdotes imaginable. Another man whose dental plate would slip down when he talked.

The youngest of them was a Finn by the name of Alpo. I don’t know why, but I’ve thought of him at odd points over the years. His gawky nerdish face, and oversized head teetering on his Cluedo piece shoulders. Not physically threatening, maybe, but utterly indomitable because of his attitude of intellectual hostility. He argued regularly with students and staff, and spent his time sneering off into space, sometimes writing into the desk diary they had given him to record visitors’ names. People complained of smelling drink on his breath.

I’d met people like him before, but Alpo remains one of the more memorable of the kind. Lacking experience, and perhaps talent, they dwell on their theories and intellectual grievances. Eventually, they will throw something back at the world: bad poetry, performance art, a manifesto scrawled on a Rothko. They are victims of culture, maddening and slightly sad. And for all of that, they can be fun to be around.

One day a phone started ringing in the library. A perennial problem. As the security guard on duty, it was Alpo’s job to find the offender and give them a warning. Normally, students faced up and turned their phone off. This time, however, whoever owned the phone had left the building. It rang again and again. I could see students looking up from their work, smiling as Alpo stalked the desks trying to work out where the phone might be. His face grew red and blotched under his white blonde hair, his features creased like those of a pained child. Finally he cracked:

‘Someone turn that fucking phone off.’ He turned and walk back to his desk. ‘For fuck’s sake!’

A silence settled across the entire library floor. Alpo took his seat, and, as I watched, went back to writing into his desk diary. I could see the word ‘Kulture’ in huge capital letters across one page. Later, someone would hear him throwing up in the staff toilets. He was fired that evening.

© Daniel Bennett

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