The Boys Who Collected Words

Jack and Phil were nine years old and were in the same class at school. After the summer break they got a new teacher, Mr Barber. First day there he gave them homework: “Write a short essay on your favourite book and why you like it, to be handed in next Monday.”

“No way!” said Phil on their way home after school. 

“What’s he mean, favourite book?” wondered Jack.

“He’ll forget ‘bout it come next week“ said Phil as they ran off to the park to throw stones at the ducks.

Come Monday they had nothing to show. Mr Barber asked them to stay behind after class.

Why haven’t you done your homework?”

Jack couldn´t think up an excuse:

”Don´t know, Sir.”

Phil found a good one:

“Couldn´t decide which book to choose, Sir.”

Jack tried again:

“Don´t have any at home Sir. Books I mean.”

“We don’t either, Sir,” added Phil. “My Dad says reading is bad for your eyes.”

 “Now listen closely, “said Mr Barber: “I want both of you to go to the library and choose a book to read at home.”

“But Sir, what’s a library?

“It’s a place where you can borrow books to read” explained Mr Barber.

“Never been near one” said Phil.

“There´s none here in our village” added Jack.

“No more excuses” said Mr Barber. “There is one in the town. Ask your parents.”

“Choose a book, read it and bring it to school next week and tell the class what it is about.”

“Can´t go down the town. Mum would never let me go.” said Phil on their way home.

“Same here”, said Jack.

“What´re we gonna do?”

“Ask Mum I s’pose,” said Phil.

“Okay”, said Jack.

Friday, when Jack was on his way to school, Phil came running, late as usual.

“I found out ‘cos Mum knows the driver”, he shouted, puffing. “Libr’y bus comes Sat’day mornin’ an’ stops down Chester Street.”

“What time?”

“Nine, Mum said”

“See you there tomorra’ then” said Jack. “Just make sure we don’t miss the footie.”

Jack woke early on Saturday morning. “What´s happening here then? Up with the lark. No school today. Forgotten have we?” said Dad when he saw Jack gulping down his breakfast.

“Libr’y bus with Phil” said Jack between mouthfulls of toast. ”Got to go, can´t be late.”

“Hold yer horses lad, do your teeth first“ said Dad.

“But, I´ll be late for the libr’y bus” said Jack groaning, but to no avail. He knew when there was no point arguing. Dad leaned against the kitchen doorpost, eye on the silver watch which he wore at home. After two minutes he announced “time’s up, off you go and be careful on that bike.”

Jack didn´t hear. He was already on his way, grabbed his satchel and ran for the back door. The dog started barking, expecting a long walk chasing rabbits across the fields. Jack used his foot to trap the dog in the corner by the back door and slipped out, leaving it to bark his head off.

Dad sighed and went back to his racing paper.

“I don´t know where he gets it from at all” said Mum, as Jack disappeared down the back alley.

A deep breath from behind the paper was Dad´s only response, more than she usually got.

Jack speeded off down the alley, wobbling as he slung his satchel over his shoulder, almost hitting the dust bins waiting to be emptied. He wanted to be first at the library bus, beating Phil to it, so he dodged through the estate, cycling on the pavement, cutting corners and getting hooted at by the occasional car.

The library bus was an old scheduled bus that had done duty for many years on a country run, long since withdrawn. The engine was reconditioned but still noisy, with a plume of blue smoke billowing out from the exhaust. The old council colours maroon and cream had been resprayed sky blue and most of the seats ripped out to make way for bookshelves from floor to ceiling. By the door there was a small wooden counter for the librarian, with her boxes of library cards and date stamp. Mrs Carter usually sat behind the counter every Saturday, while Harry drove the bus. Most of the time he sat reading his paper, waiting to drive to the next stop, but known occasionally to help old ladies up or down the steps. He thought kids were a nuisance, running in and out and making a din.

To tell the truth, the library bus was not very popular. It parked in a discrete cul-de-sac in a council estate with drab low-rental houses for tenants who could be described as a non-reading generation. Reading was what you were forced to do at school. Saturday mornings were used for lie-ins, long breakfasts and getting ready for the afternoon football match, not going to the library bus.

Jack was in such a hurry he stood on the pedals all the way through the estate, eager to get to the bus before Phil. He skidded around the corner into Chester Road to find the bus already there, pulled up by the pavement. What was worse, Phil was leaning casually against the bus door. It wasn´t open yet, but he had got there first. Not only first, he was the only one in the queue.

Jack stood on the brakes, jumped off his bike and threw it in the nearest hedge.

“Thought you might come” said Phil with a grin.

“You live nearer that’s all” said Jack, “when d’they open?”

“Nine said Mum.”

“Look he’s coming now” said Jack as Harry the driver climbed down from his cab and marched round to the door, key in his hand. “You’re ‘ere early lads“ said Harry, “what’s up? No footie t’day?”

“Teacher sent us…”Phil started to explain until Jack dug him in the ribs and said “shhh”.

“Well, Mrs Carter’ll be pleased to see you, not many readers in this part of town” said Harry with a satisfied smile as he ceremoniously unlocked the door.  

The lads ran up the steps into the bus, jostling to be first. The librarian, Mrs Carter, middle aged with short permed black hair, a batik smock and friendly smile, was standing waiting behind her counter. Her smile froze as she heard the thumping of footsteps and then saw two rough and not very clean lads rushing into the bus.

“Miss, Miss we want to borrow a book for school” they both shouted at once.

“Good morning boys, the early bird gets the worm!” she said, voice trembling slightly as she tried to regain her composure.

Jack and Phil looked at each other, a little confused, and forgot what they were going to say.

“Have you been to a library before?” she asked.

“No Miss, Mr Barber sent us to borrow a book for school,” said Phil.

Jack was already busy looking around at all the shelves. He’d never seen so many books before.

“Well boys, I’m sure we can help you. What are your names?”

“I’m Phil, he’s Jack” said Phil, shouldering the role of spokesman.

“Live nearby do you?”

“Lancaster Road” said Phil.

“Derby Road”, said Jack, joining in.

“First we have to issue you with library cards. Then you can choose a book to take home with you. Loans are for three weeks!”

“You mean we’s get to keep the books for three weeks? You must be kiddin’ Miss” said Jack.

“No, three week loans, but you have to look after the books and return them when the time is up.”

“Phew!”said Phil, “what’s it cost? We don’t have any money.”

“It’s all free, and you can borrow several books. Now, library cards for you, boys”

Mrs Carter wrote down their names and addresses on library cards and then showed them how to borrow books.

“What kind of books would you like to read?” she asked, in her best librarian voice.

Phil and Jack looked at each other, pretending to think.

Jack broke the silence with a broad grin: “adventure stories, Miss, war, cowies.”

“Y’er got any comics Miss? “asked Phil

“Sorry, no, but we have lots of exciting books here. I’m sure we’ll find something for you.”

“No sloppy girls stuff” declared Jack, suspecting the worse.

Mrs Carter turned away to conceal a smile; “I think we have just what you are looking for” and headed for some shelves at the far end of the bus.

“Here in the fiction department you’ll find lots of adventure books, cowboys, pirates, football”, she said pointing to a shelf which went all the way up to the ceiling of the bus. “Just take your time and look around.”

“What’s fiction mean?” asked Jack.

Mrs Carter managed a smile as she tried to explain. “It means that the book is made up – a story.” Then pointing to another shelf: “Here we have non-fiction books – that’s true stories!”

Jack and Phil looked up at the shelves, then at each other and started laughing as they pulled out books at random, feeling their shiny coloured covers and flicking over the pages.

Mrs Carter sighed to herself and went off to serve one of the old ladies, a regular, who had made it up the stairs with a helping hand from Harry.

“Look at this” said Phil, Treasure Island, pirates and buried treasure.

“Here’s Robin Hood!” said Jack.

Mrs Carter glanced in their direction a few times, worried and fascinated by their loud chatter as they sorted through the shelves. She didn’t want to interrupt them, but soon it would be time for Harry to drive on to the next stop.

“Now boys, how are you getting on? Found anything you like?

Soon we have to be moving, so you’ll have to make up your minds.”

They groaned a little but sauntered up to the counter, both carrying a pile of books.

“Can we take all these ‘ome with us, Miss?” asked Jack, dumping half a dozen books on the counter.

“Of course, if you promise to read them all and look after them” said Mrs Carter with a big smile. “And remember to bring them back of course!” laughing at her own little joke.

“Some long words in them that I don’t get” said Jack.

“Me neither” said Phil.

“Well,” said Mrs Carter, “if you find words you don’t understand, write them down on a piece of paper and bring it to me next time. We’ll look them up together.”

“Thanks Miss” said the lads together.

“How are you going to get all these home with you.”

“It’s not far Miss.”

And off they ran, jumping down the steps, clutching the books in their arms.

“Time for off Mrs Carter?” said Harry, folding up his paper.

“Yes. Made my day seeing those lads running home with a pile of books.”

“Be surprised if you see them again” said Harry, locking the door before climbing into the driver’s seat. 

Next Saturday morning Jack rushed his breakfast and teeth and ran into the back yard, bag over his shoulder, determined to beat Phil to the libr’y bus. Jack skidded into Chester Road, jumped off his bike, leant it against the nearest hedge and ran up the steps into the bus, dragging his bag behind. Phil od course was already standing by the counter, piling up his books with a satisfied smile.

“Hello boys” said Mrs Carter, “finished your books already? My you have been busy. Which book did you like best” she said, turning to Phil. ”Robin Hood!” shouted Phil. Jack cut in: “Treasure Island’s better any time!”

“If there are any words you don’t understand we can look them up in a dictionary.”

“What’s a dickshonary, Miss?” asked Phil, with a snigger. Jack tried to smother a laugh.

“Now, here it is, a dictionary, a book of words” she said, face slightly flushed.”

She lifted up a thick, heavy volume from underneath the counter.

“That looks ‘eavy” said Jack.

“Sit down at the table and I’ll show you how to use it.”

She pulled up a chair and sat at the narrow table at the far end of the bus, with the dictionary in front of her. Jack and Phil sat down on small stools, one on each side.

Mrs Carter explained:

A dictionary is a book which tells you what words mean. Here you can look up any words you don’t understand.”

“Are they all in there Miss?” asked Jack.

“Must be, that’s why it’s so thick” explained Phil.

“Well Jack, most words are here. Let’s have a look. Tell me a word you found and didn’t understand.”

Jack and Phil looked at each other, pretending to think hard. Finally dug into his trouser pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, torn from a school exercise book and folded in two. He carefully unfolded it and smoothed it out on the table. It was covered in ink scribbles. “Here Miss” he said, handing it over.

“Better if you read them out to me I think, Jack.”

Jack cleared his throat and slowly read out “cannonball”.

“Where did you find that word?”

“Treasure Island Miss.”

“All right, let’s see then“

She opened the heavy dictionary with a thud. “See, all the words are in alphabetical order.”

“Alfawhat Miss?” asked Phil.

“They start with a, then b, then c, all the way to z.

“Oh you mean abc Miss!”

“Exactly Jack. Now cannonball starts with a “c” so we turn over the pages until we come to all the “c” words, and then go on to the next letter, “ca”. She ran her finger down the columns of words, flicking the thin pages over quickly. “There we are, Cannonball. And what does it say Jack, next to the word?”

“Can hardly read ‘em! Why are the letters so tiny?”

“It’s to make room for all the words in one book!” said Phil, pleased with himself.

Jack ran his finger along the page and read out: A round iron ball fired from cannons in old warships.

“Clever you, Jack! Now your turn Phil”

“What’s a monk and monastery mean Miss?” said Phil

“Where did you find that one?”

“Robin Hood, Miss.”

“Of course, let’s have a look. Here it is Phil”. She ran her finger down the columns and showed him the explanation for Monk.

Phil slowly read out the entry: a religious man who lives in a monastery.

 “Is it like a priest?”

“Well, I think you could say that he lived with other priests and the place he lived in was called a monastery.”

“Then why was he in the forest with Robin Hood, Miss?”

“Well, that’s not in the dictionary but why do you think he was with Robin?”

“More exciting, firing arrows and fighting with swords!”

“I bet he was fed up with food in the monastery,” said Jack. He was fat and always talking ’bout food”

“Well boys, now you know how to look up words. I have a little test for you: Find the longest word you can in any of your books, write it down and show me next Saturday”.

“Now we are closing. Off you go!”

Jack and Phil ran off, each clutching a pile of books and both keen on winning the test.

On their way back to the central library, Mrs Taylor sat in the front of the bus with Harry.

“Those two are very keen but I wonder how long their enthusiasm will last?”

“Be surprised if you see them again or the books” said Harry

“They are quite unruly and not too clean, but they are just the ones who need the library.”

“Seeing is believing” was Harry’s philosophy.

The story of their library adventures ended when Phil’s family moved down south in his early teens. Jack left some years later, to study. They lost contact, until an energetic classmate traced them with an invitation to a school reunion.

“Well, well! Look who’s here” said Phil, spotting Jack in the crush.

“Hardly recognised you in a suit” laughed Jack. “What’ye up to these days?”

“Editor at Penguin!” boomed Phil in a proud voice and puffed out his belly.

“I say, a man of words it is” said Jack seemingly impressed, “who would have guessed!”

”What’s your game then?” asked Phil in a half-mocking voice.

“Teach Litt at Queens.”

“By jove, another man of words. Well done lad!”

“Remember Mrs Carter and the mobile library?”  

“I was there too” Phil reminded him.

If you have read this far, you already know how it all started. So here we leave Jack and Phil to wallow in a sea of nostalgia, memories and words that flowed back and forth with the tide.

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