by Donal McLaughlin
Paisley, Scotland, early 1970s
They were living at the top of the Steps at the time, where the street veered away to the right, round to the shops wi the CO-OP at one end, GALBRAITHS at the other, then came a patch of grass, Liam minds, L-shaped, the wrong way round but, on a slope leading down to a drop, the four- or five-foot drop to the car park that wasn’t a car park, to the loading bay sort-of, in behind the community centre. Grass maybe, they never ever played football there but, no buckin wonder if ye think about it. Next anyway, at street level, came the library, at right-angles to the community centre under it, & the first time he went in – to the library itself lik – he got into trouble twice. First, he was caught at the ADULT shelves, the first books ye came to, on your right as ye entered through the glass. Youngfella, God love him, meant no wrong, was realising himself probably just when up popped a librarian to chase him, a librarian wi hair round her wrist, a band of hair round her wrist, dark hair too, lik a bracelet lik. He shouldn’t be looking at them-there, says she, pointing at the books, they weren’t suitable sure, for youngsters anyhow & before he knew it, she was showing him the children’s bit, had led him over to the children’s bit, to where the Bobby Brewsters were & Enid Blytons. The Secret Sevens were maybe too young for him maybe, she said, the Famous Fives too old, The Mystery of’s were definitely too old, she warned, touching the top of one. Naw : start wi the Famous Five maybe & see how ye get on. An’ at that, she left him to it, left him to his own devices, which is how the weeboy then got into more trouble: didn’t he go ‘n’ pick too many, more than you’re allowed anyhow, not lik that it was even his fault lik, how the hell was he supposed to know, sure she hadn’t mentioned a limit. Not even adults were allowed to borrow that many, says she but, as if that made it even worse & anyhow: he’d have to apply to join first if he hadn’t a ticket, his mother or father would have to fill a form in, it didn’t cost nothing but & was easy to complete. His daddy – he toul her – was still at work & the library would be closed before he got home, that was alright but, she said: it didn’t have to be the man of the house, his mammy could do it an’ all, so he ran back round, Liam, & was back in the library in no time, which must’ve seemed suspicious right enough, even more so than his accent – Irish still, at that point, Northern Irish into the bargain – which, if truth be told, is what had got her suspicions up first-day probably, had made her suspicious in the first place. Seeing the address but, how near-hand it was, she’ll have given him the benefit of the doubt maybe, decided his mother did fill it in & so aye: off home he got to go, all proud lik, wi his first-ever library books, first two library books & as his mother will tell ye, he was back for the place opening the next morning, morning after that an’ all & the day after that & day after that, would’ve been back on the Sunday an’ all, whoever seen him, if the place hadn’t been shut. Devouring the books he was. So much so, they even started quizzing him to check, check was he actually reading them, properly lik. There was no catching him out but but, & so aye: things continued lik that, he turned up every other day at least & eventually they eased off on him, took to him maybe even, the lady librarians anyway & he couldn’t believe his ears so he couldn’t when one day her wi the hair round her wrist toul him – in front of the other two too – to get his mum to apply to join, cos if she – as an adult – applied, she could borrow more books, up to four , the odd one for him an’ all in other words, wasn’t as if she was restricted to adult books, was it. Happy days! Having asked their ages, they even said Ciara & Annette & Bernie & Sean could apply an’ all, Cahal & Orla were still too wee, could apply too but of course in due course.
He loved the library, the weeboy, couldn’t get enough of it. He went round to it so much, became such a familiar face, it went from that to him getting, one time, to stamp one of his books himself, to him getting to stamp all his books himself, to him getting to stamp the ones his sisters were borrowing an’ all. Was no time of course before the girls wanted to too, to stamp their books too & sometimes, if the place was dead lik, they got to. It wasn’t the same but, didn’t feel right, felt awkward in fact. The librarians hadn’t to say nothing, he worked it out for himself: they were overdoing it, overdoing it so they were now, was better to go on his own, there was more chance of getting to help lik if the rest stayed back in the house. That’s when he started slipping out the back, nipping round on his own just, making sure none of them follied him & soon it wasn’t just Louise, the one wi the wrist hair, who let him; naw, soon Alison, the blond one, was letting him an’ all, Heather – her wi the thick-thick glasses – too. Aye, them-three were sound, dead-on lik. He knew but not to ask when the boss was there, him wi “Head Librarian” on his badge, only fella into the bargain. He was a bit wary of him . Louise, Alison & Heather on the other hand did nothing but encourage him.
Youngfella went from stamping books to helping to put them back. First time he asked could he, Alison (it was) hesitated maybe, let him do one but, to see how he got on lik. She let him do more another day & another day after that, always double-checking of course, always making sure he got it right. Turned out: she could rely on him, a dab hand at alphabetical order he was, even when it wasn’t just the first letter but the third or fourth or fifth that counted. Soon he was asking at the desk was the trolley full again yet & if so, could he put them back? They let him, aye & soon the trolley couldn’t fill up fast enough. He’d be standing there waiting, hovering over it, willing more & more people to bring back their books. Especially, lik, the ones who lived across the street. Uri Geller had been on the telly recently, so he stood there, Liam: staring across; willing & willing the neighbours to bring their books back.
Then something else happened. Before he knew it, they were letting him in behind the counter an’ all, he was allowed in beside them for a chat. By this stage, he was stamping everyone’s books: all the books of all the users. To be on the safe side, Alison or Louise or Heather would stand nearby & watch. The borrowers seemed not to mind, would just smile just. ‘Ye’d better watch or he’ll be doing ye out of a job,’ the older ones would joke. ‘Ye’ll end up on the broo.’
Not that the weeboy was paid lik, for all the work he was doing. There was no way they could’ve paid him, short of out of their own pockets sure. He wasn’t looking for payment but.
What did happen one day – boss was off, needless to say – was: they took him up the back of the library, into where it said STAFF ONLY, in behind where Children’s Storytelling happened sometimes & showed him a pile of books that were about to be WITHDRAWN. Liam hadn’t a clue what they meant. His Granda Cluskey had been ‘withdrawn’ sure, wile wile withdrawn, when Mammy Cluskey died. How could books be lik that?
The librarians had to explain. ‘And don’t worry,’ they said. ‘Ye don’t have to pay nothing. We’re giving ye first pick as a reward for all your help. We’re about to put them out for people to take for free. You’ve first choice but.’
WITHDRAWN was already stamped on them, they showed him.
That was hit. He didn’t need a gold invitation & they let him take every single one he picked. As many as he could carry & more. Heather, or was it Alison, turned up at the door wi him, to assure his poor mother he wasn’t robbing them. Some sight it must’ve been right enough: a weeboy of nine-still carting not just storybooks but a three-volume dictionary along the street.
Dictionary was something else so it was. His da let him keep it in the bookcase. A-G, H-R, S-Z. Was all the youngfella could do to lift the bloody things.
As time went on, of course, the dictionaries helped wi his homework. Sometimes a drawing or photo did the trick. Sometimes the meaning of the word. They were a great help to his sisters & brothers an’ all when their time came. An’ once he himself was that bit older got, fifteen, sixteen, say, they helped him wi the crossword in the Record . Any time he got stuck, the clue was too cryptic lik, he’d end up flat on the floor, face-down but up on his elbows, Volume III, say, open in front of him & he’d leaf his way through the U’s, say, page after page of bloody U’s, till – phew! – he came upon the six-letter U that made sense as well as fitted, that was the word he needed.
Phew right enough: some buckin slagging he’d’ve got otherwise sure when his da got back from work. – For starting something lik he couldn’t finish.
Donal McLaughlin writes short stories and translates novels. He is the author of two collections, an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories (Argyll 2009), and beheading the virgin mary, and other stories (Dalkey Archive 2014), which include his “loose sequence” of ‘Liam stories’ that move between Scotland and Ireland. As a translator, Donal was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (USA) in 2013, and awarded the Max Geilinger Prize (Switzerland) in 2015. He maintains a web presence at www.donalmclaughlin.wordpress.com