At the moment I live on the border of two councils, which means I have two sets of library systems and two library cards. Both library systems are a delight. The Jubilee Library in Brighton is a vast airy place with three light wells in the roof and an upper floor that seems to almost float, unattached to the nearby walls. Then there’s the library on the Lewes side – not Lewes itself because it’s a bit of a slog, but just ten minutes away on the bus. Small and clean with a lovely sort of reading tube for my daughter to sit in. This tube’s padded surfaces and close curves remind me of the future of space travel as envisioned by Stanley Kubrick. All that’s missing is a Monolith at the check-out desk.
If there was a Monolith I would be in trouble, because if I have a secret talent it’s for running up accidentally gigantic fines at libraries. Now I can run up two fines at once. When I go, every few months, to pay them off, such are the baroque flourishes of the fines I run up, the people I meet at the payment desks seem almost impressed.
Here’s the thing, though. There’s a third library nearby. I heard about it a month ago, via a blurry photograph on my wife’s Facebook post. A “Little Library” as the name has it. I instantly knew I had to visit. But I also felt I had visited before. Hmm.
Last time I visited a little library, it was called Supply Cache 202. It was up by Beartooth Point, to the north, overlooking a little valley so that you could see it as a jaunty point of bright colour on the horizon from some way off. Like all the supply caches in Firewatch, the wind-and-wilderness narrative game from Campo Santo, 202 is painted a sort of yolk, or perhaps turmeric: a mixture of yellow and gold. There are quite a few of these caches scattered about the small world that Firewatch is threaded through. 202 is my favourite.
Firewatch has a number of great qualities, none of which need spoiling here. But the supply caches may be my most cherished aspect of the game – certainly the thing I find myself thinking about the most often. In Firewatch you play a fire spotter, spending the summer in the dreamy wilds, living at the top of a sun-bleached wooden tower and on the look-out for trouble. You’re part of a network, but the network is spread far and wide, and is, in its own way, as rickety and patched-up as your tower. The way the game gets all this across is through the supply caches spread around the landscape, each one given a three-digit number and a little mark on your map.
These crates are all locked, but the code for every one of them is the same: 1234. Each of their locks is set to something random when you first turn up, however, which is a lovely little bit of world-building. 202 was set to 5555 on my initial visit. And just as the numbers of the first setting change from one box to another, so do the contents. Each cache has a map of the immediate area inside the lid, but 202 also has a note taped in there along with a guide to local plants and trees. Inside the box itself 202 has a bunch of pine cones and a sprig of flowers that might have been pushing their way up through the bottom.
There’s also a loose board to 202, and when you lift it there’s a book beneath: a paperback potboiler called Six Feet Down Under, written by Richard Sturgeon. Sturgeon’s a prolific writer in the Firewatch world. His books are scattered all over the place, along with a handful of books by other people, all with beautifully lurid pastiche covers that really bring the paperback boom of the 70s and early 80s to vivid life.
These books became the real point of Firewatch on my first playthrough. As the story sent me out across the map in different directions each day, I would get a little too excited whenever I realised I was in detour-range of another supply cache. Some of these spots tie into the plot. An early one, for example, has a rope you need to rappel down a shale cliff. But as a group, they do so much more than that. Firewatch is a lonely, rather devastating game. These caches, even more, for me, than the voice on the radio, made me feel part of a community.
That’s the thing about libraries isn’t it? Even Little Libraries. Yesterday afternoon was bright and clear. I rode the bus for ten minutes past my usual stop, consulted Google Maps a few times, and found the Little Library that serves my neighborhood. The picture I had of it made it look like a roadside affair. In truth, it was practically in someone’s garden: a little wooden book house, set on a pole, painted a pale yellow that still reminded me of that yolky/turmeric cache waiting for me by Beartooth Point.
There were fairy lights running along the little roof and inside there were dozens of books for children, and a few for adults, including one of those thrillers that Richard Sturgeon was so gifted with.There was a little pot of coloured pencils and other art things, and inside each book was a stamp, explaining all about the Little Library. I borrowed an Oliver Jeffers’. And this one I am determined to return before too long, so someone else can have it.