Monday, 21 December 2020

The Kid Borrows A Book

 This short story took the prize at the 2017 Lowestoft Literary Festival. The prize was a £15 book token, which I spent on some poetry by one of the speakers (George Szirtes, an all-around nice guy). The challenge was to write a story about "The Best of Lowestoft". Well, perhaps there was a tad of sycophancy involved (the festival took place at the Library) but everything here is true. It's been shortened to fit the word limit.

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The kid stood for a time on a rotten jetty and stared down at the ruin of a sunken boat. The boat, and the jetty, and the grey mud, the herring gull watching him haughtily from the end of the jetty where only a fool would walk... all these things made the kid feel alone, an insignificant speck, the last comprehending being in the world. Even the hammering in a nearby boatyard might have been the death throes of an abandoned machine.

Beyond the boatyards was the bridge over the railway. The kid stopped half-way across, adjusted his spectacles (there was tape on one of the arms: a dreamer, he had walked into a lamp post), and sat down facing the west with his legs dangling over the side. When he played this game with mates they would stand on the bridge watching out for an oncoming train: then all would sit down, dangling their legs over the edge. Their feet were probably well clear of the hurtling machine – but it always felt as if the yellow-painted train roof was grazing his heels as he screamed inwardly but not aloud, never aloud.

The kid loved the turquoise and yellow of the trains. He loved the guard, and the massive sliding door that stayed open on the hottest days, the scenery flashing past, three shades brighter than when seen through the grimy old train windows. He had once tried to jump from the guard's van when he and Stoppy had missed their station. But the guard grabbed their scruffs and held them until the train was going so fast that the leap looked suicidal.

He waited on the bridge for ten minutes and eventually gave up. He didn't know what times the trains were supposed to pass, and anyway he didn't have a watch. So he moved on, down the steps on the other side of the line.

Now the path went close to the Ham, a small area of swamp with a tiny island at its heart. Thinking of it gave the kid a shiver even on this warm June day.

He remembered wading out to the island the previous summer. In his mind's eye he saw his shoes, and his mates' shoes, all lined up neatly as if they were about to do gym class at school. The water was shallow and warm, a thin oily layer above a much thicker seam of gelatinous, stinking black mud. Sulphurous bubbles rose as they walked. The kid's chief terror was of pike nibbling his toes. He had seen pike four feet long washed up in the marshes, and in the stirred-up mud they could not have seen such a monster stalking them. Now, a year older and wiser, he understood that his principal fear should have been of stepping on broken glass from beer bottles casually tossed into the water.

The care with which they placed their soft, pale feet!

And then the island itself, a narrow strip of scrubby land with a single near-choked path leading to a single tiny clearing –

And in the clearing, the incongruous sight of an old wing-backed armchair.

And even more incongruous, the man who called out to the three kids: “Well, what do we have here?”

The contrast between the way they crossed the swamp going out and coming back could not have been greater. Their flight was headlong; they splashed and gasped and screamed and did not halt until, back on the shore, they looked back and saw that the man was not following.

They walked up past the tennis courts, carrying their shoes, looking back suspiciously and wishing that they could afford an ice cream. The man was a child molester, that much the three boys agreed upon. His greeting to them became their catchphrase, just for the kid, Jonesy and Howie: “Well, what do we have here?” could crack them all up whenever it was said, leaving other boys bemused at their hilarity, which only added to it.

Once past the Ham, he was into the town's outskirts and onto Denmark Road, which as everyone knew did not lead to Denmark. There were disused railway buildings on his right and ranks of terraced houses on his left. Rising above the terraces was Lowestoft's only tower block, St Peter's, where the kid and his mates occasionally went to ride the elevator when they could think of nothing better to do. His mates thought of the kid as the brains of the gang: he was not athletic, nor strong, nor decisive, but a weedy short-sighted asthmatic.

The kid turned up Clapham Road. On his left was the Social, where you could turn up and take a ticket to be spoken to from behind what looked like bulletproof glass. There was another DSS building ahead, on the right, one where you couldn't just walk in. The kid had been there a few times for appointments with his social worker, Geoff, who sometimes took him to a playpark for some man talk. He remembered walking into the children's department, to be greeted like a returning hero, by what felt like the entire department.

Beyond the second DSS building was Gordon Road and the bus station, and further along a bakery that sold the most exquisite slabs of cake, brick-like things of an unknown brown substance, sweet and delicious – topped by pink icing and bottomed by a layer of pastry.

But today the kid and his 50p were headed not to the bakery but to the library. The library was the building before the DSS. He'd been in there a few times before with mates. They raced each other, some going up in the lift, others sprinting up the stairs. The stair-runners always won, and one or more librarians sooner or later darted out to shout them from the building.

The kid ran up the few steps to the front doors, trying to look more confident than he felt. He was here to join the library.

The tiny middle school library was full of Enid Blyton, a smattering of Willard Price and a handful of Doctor Whos that he'd already read. He read a lot, an awful lot. He had read everything on the small bookshelf of his foster parents, even adult books like Jaws and Ice Station Zebra. Once when laid up with tonsilitis he had read a dictionary from aardvark to zygote. There was a school book club: the kid had saved up for a copy of Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster, but it had cost him a quid. His incessant requests for more books to borrow had led the school librarian to suggest that he try the central library. And so here he was.

The children's library was at the back. He crept past the adult library, assuming that children were banned from the mysterious collection within.

There was only one person within: a librarian, a woman with dark brown hair and a black crocheted top through which another layer of clothes could be seen.

The kid crept towards her over the thin carpet. The door swung shut behind him.

The librarian smiled at him, either trying to reassure him or finding something amusing about his diffident approach.

“Are you here to join the library?” she asked, and smiled again.

The kid listened carefully to his instructions. He was allowed to borrow up to six books for up to three weeks. He must be careful not to lose his library card because there was a fee for a replacement.

The librarian established his interest in science fiction and pointed him towards the shelves where such books were to be found. The kid's jaw dropped: there were hundreds of them. There were books by Clifford D Simak, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Isaac Azimov, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and P K Dick. Best of all there were what looked like a hundred Doctor Whos.

The kid chose carefully: Doctor Who and the Ark in Space by Ian Marter. He had never read a Doctor Who by Ian Marter: most seemed to be by Terrence Dicks.

He approached the counter nervously, his hot fifty-pence piece in one hand, his book in the other.

“You can borrow up to six,” the librarian said, seeing him coming.

I know, the kid thought, but...

The librarian opened the book and (with a glorious thudding sound) stamped the card within, which she transferred to a metal filing cabinet behind her. Then she stamped the book and pushed it back across the counter to him: 12 JUL 1981.

The librarian saw him fiddling with his 50p, and said: “There's no charge, if that's what you're thinking. It's free. Unless you return it late.”

The kid, trying to breathe normally, said: “I might borrow a few more.” He put the 50p back in his pocket and returned to the shelves.

The librarian smiled.



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