The literary buffet is packed today; must be the recent reminder in the media that public lending libraries are, in fact, free to the public. Gaggles of kids are reaching for multicoloured confections as fast as their little hands can stuff them into their mouths. Parents hover just behind, chanting, "now now, let the little girl try that story too" and wistfully looking at the more grown-up offerings on the tables closer to the window.
I dodge around three boys chasing after each other in a circle and pass through the teen section. The bubblegum-with-everything flavours of my own youth are thankfully gone. They've been replaced with stuff made from ripe cherries and black plums, all covered in thick layers of very dark chocolate.
A dark-haired, pale-skinned girl holds a truffle up to an Asian boy's mouth. "Try this," I hear her say. "It's so sweet and strong, and just so about what's wrong with the world now."
He pulls away and rolls his eyes. "Not into the romantic sugary stuff," he says. "The fantasy section here sucks. The one where I used to live, they had a roast pig and drinking horns."
The girl glares at him and pops the chocolate into her own mouth, letting cherry syrup run down her chin.
Blancmange, macarons, and almost entirely women — I must have got to the romance section. Right, there's the non-fiction tables just beside it, piled with trail mix, jerky, and samples of "astronaut" freeze-dried ice cream. Some of the trail mix has bright specks of candy-covered chocolates in it. That would never have been allowed back in the day. Creative non-fiction has really changed things.
It's as loud as it was in the children's section in this part of the buffet, but it's not the happy squeals of young brains discovering new worlds. There are only grown-ups here, with the odd teen or tween trying and failing to get a word in edgewise.
The only ones who look like they're having any fun are the science fiction and horror fans, who have started a food fight. The people on the SF side of the table are pelting the opposing side with super-frozen spheres of ice cream, while the horror side squirts grenadine syrup all over everything. Many of those involved change sides whenever it takes their fancy, and the whole group flings verbal abuse as cheerfully as they toss the bits of the buffet.
Someone on the buffet organisation committee has a sense of humour, because the experimental fiction comes next. There, readers munch thoughtfully on canapes that look like Oreo cookies, but are made from scallops and black caviar, or sample "sushi" composed of rice cereal marshmallow mix wrapped around Swedish fish. Some grenadine syrup has landed on one of the seafood cookies, and the man holding it only hesitates a little before licking it off, catching a few caviar on his tongue.
"It's not bad," he says to the person standing beside him. "Definitely wins for novelty."
The next table over is for spy and mystery story fans. Not much going on there — everyone's looking at a smooth black dome that is sitting on a tray in the middle. They're all debating whether it's edible, edible but poisonous, or a bomb.
Apple cider, Three Kings cake, tea-time favourites very old and very new... finally, I get to the literary section. It's a bit of a hodge-podge here, as some of the offerings from the genre tables find their way onto this table after a time. I help myself to a maids-of-honour cake and wander around, eavesdropping.
"All this lighter-than-air stuff," says a young man wearing a tweed jacket and John Lennon spectacles. "Real literature has meat to it, substance. It's nutrition for the mind and the soul."
"You realise that's a pecan roll you're gesturing with, right?" says a bored-looking woman who might be his girlfriend.
"And that the brain needs carbohydrates to work properly?" adds another young man, in a t-shirt and Elvis Costello horn rims.
It's noisy here, and there's a lot of sentences that start, "You can't be a feminist if -" or "Unless you come from that culture you can't -", or "The unique experience of Generation Y is that -".
"I was having a discourse about Doritos versus the traditional place of tortillas in Central American society the other day, you know, with Cheryl, and it made me realise about magic realism, the thing is..."
I find a quiet corner and nibble on my cake. Closing time is in fifteen minutes.
At five minutes to closing, the librarians start gently kicking everyone out, and as the crowds thin at the buffet tables, I take out a bandanna I've lined with waxed paper and start to sample from the trays. Vanilla cake with a curl of chocolate icing, a slice of juniper-poached pear, and one of my favourites, a small blue marzipan egg that has a drop of grenadine syrup on it. A couple of things I can't recognise but that look interesting.
There's a back door out, with a garden and benches to sit on. Time to settle in and savour every texture and flavour.