I’m busy in the roleplay corner when our headmaster comes to find me.
I don’t see him at first because tying bandages is tricky. Not for me. For Maisie, who’s playing at being a doctor. I’m playing the patient so I stay still until I hear my name.
“Let me find out if Tor can be spared. Hold on here for me, will you?”
I sit up then to see Mr Lawson at the doorway, leaving a big boy there to wait for him.
“That’s Teo,” Maisie whispers. “He’s my Cameron’s best friend. He’s the tallest boy in the whole school!”
I know who Teo is. He isn't only the tallest boy in the whole school. He's the frowniest one too, until he sees Maisie, and I know that feeling. I can’t be sad when she smiles either. Or when she waves like she does now, so fast her bandage roll unravels. “Teo! Come and play with us!”
“Nah,” he says, but he does cross the room as if he can’t help it, like when Charles Heppel showed us magnets. Teo does the same as all those little bits of metal, sliding closer to her. “You don’t want me. I’m not a helpful person,” he says, but I’m not sure about that because he crouches and rolls up the bandage for her. “Besides, I’m way too old for playing.”
Maisie shakes her head. “My grampy says no one’s too old for play time. That’s why I need to knock and wait before going into Daddy’s bedroom.” She reaches for the bandage once he’s rolled it up, leaning too far and wobbling until he grabs her elbow, but it’s a good grab not a bad one. A kind grab that doesn’t let go until she’s steady.
I notice something else too. “You can’t be too old for all kinds of playing.” I know that because there’s a drawing on his wrist where his skin is paler. “Do you like colouring in?” It peeks out from under his shirtsleeve. He shows it to us then, unbuttoning his cuff with one hand like I can never manage without Mummy, then shoving his sleeve up higher.
“Moons,” Maisie says. “And a sunshine like the ones on my Cameron’s backpack.”
“Yeah.” Teo isn’t frowny now. Not one bit. His eyes are soft and shiny. “Cam drew them for me. Thinking about getting them as a tattoo when I’m—” He jumps when Mr Laswon speaks from behind us.
“Tor, would you like to be Teo’s helper a bit later today?”
That frown is back as quick as a flash. “Helper?” Teo asks, standing up. “I don’t need a helper.”
“You might need one to help choose our new librarian.” Mr Lawson is tall like my daddy but he has to look up at Teo. “Tor can help make sure you know what matters to the lower years.” He kneels beside me. “How does that sound, Tor? Can you ask your friends what they want most in the new library?”
“You mean what kind of new books?” I jump up even though Maisie says all my bones are broken. “Like some more by Richard Scarry?”
“Exactly.” He nods fast, then frowns, but his frown is different to Teo’s. It’s Mr Lawson’s thinking-hard face, which means he’s really listening. “What else might your friends put on their wish list?”
Maisie leans on him, whispering, and he nods again. “Ah, yes. The new librarian should be good at storytelling. That’s a great idea, thank you Maisie.” He looks up. “Teo, maybe you could help Tor record these ideas so they don’t get forgotten at our meeting?”
And that’s how I know Teo wasn’t telling the truth about not being helpful because he writes down what my friends say all morning and doesn’t frown once.
* * *
The meeting is called an interview, which isn’t scary, not when the padre’s there. Plus I get to look at books in the new library’s comfy corner while we wait. Mr Lawson says I’m the first person to try out the bean bag chairs, so that’s what I do, testing them all for squishiness with Teo. Then we look at our list together, only now it’s a chart with pictures.
Teo’s voice goes all low when Mr Lawson asks him about it. “Cameron helped me with it. Each picture is what the little kids think is important.”
Cameron drew a stack of books next to Lowly Worm because we’d like a lot of new ones, and a smiley face because we want someone friendly here to help us, and… “That’s Charles Heppel!” The next picture could be a photo. “Cameron’s such a good drawer.”
I didn’t think Teo’s voice could go much lower but it does when he says, “Yeah,” and his face goes all smiley like the one on the chart. “I wasn’t sure how to show that being a good storyteller was important, but so many kids said that Mr Heppel was the best, Cameron thought a picture of him would help us remember.”
It is a good reminder when the first librarian arrives, because when Mr Lawson asks if we have any questions that’s Teo’s first one. “Where would you run storytelling sessions for the junior years?”
The lady across the table doesn’t seem to know how to answer. She has curly hair like Maisie so I give her a clue like I do when Maisie gets stuck on tricky questions. I point to the comfy corner. “That would be a good place for them.”
I don’t think she hears me because she doesn’t answer. Or look at me. She only looks unhappy when Mr Lawson repeats the question. Then she says, “Is telling stories on the job description? I can’t imagine it's as important as tracking down overdue books.”
Mr Lawson speaks quite slowly. “It’s something we’d like a children’s librarian to prioritise. Especially as the students have put it high on their wish list.”
The lady’s lips go all little.
I make the same face as her.
Teo must notice because he drops a pencil and when he bends to get it he whispers, “Like a cat’s bum,” to me. I try not to laugh because Charles Heppel always says people can’t help the way they look, it’s how they act that matters. But this lady doesn’t act very friendly to Mr Lawson.
She sniffs. “I’ve always prioritised efficiency.” Her mouth goes even smaller. “You won’t meet anyone who can shelve books faster.” Then she looks confused when Mr Lawson stands up to show her out, and she talks even quicker. “I haven’t told you about my idea for using detentions to cut the number of late book returns yet!”
I can’t hear her after the hallway door closes behind them so she probably doesn’t hear me laugh when the padre makes the same cat’s-bum face. He says, “Well, let’s hope the next candidate isn’t quite so… efficient. How are you Tor? Do you want to stay or go and play now?”
I almost say I’ll go and play but Mr Lawson comes back with someone who looks like Teo. They’ve got the same hair with a zigzag line cut in the side and the same big smile as when Teo isn’t frowning. He shows it to us even though he says he’s nervous.
“This is my first interview. Going to do my best not to mess up.” Then he drops his folder and papers fly out. “That’s a great start.”
The padre helps him put his folder back together. He asks questions while he does it and I know the voice he’s using. It’s the one that makes big worries feel much smaller. It must work because the man smiles again when he sits across the table. “Hello. I’m Isaac Webber and I love your new library. Great to see some students in it.” He looks right at me. “What’s your name?”
I tell him, and I think Mr Lawson likes that he doesn’t pretend he can’t see me. I think he must like the rest of his answers as well. Mr Lawson is quite wrinkly but all the lines in his forehead smooth out until he asks, “So, Mr Webber, what made you apply for the role here when you haven’t finished your degree yet?”
Those wrinkles come back as Isaac Webber tells us, but that’s not my headmaster’s listening face or his thinking-hard face. That’s Mr Lawson’s Kit Kat face as though he wants to take him to his study and give him some feel-better chocolate.
“I had to stop going to uni,” he tells us, “because my mum went to prison halfway through my degree course.”
Next to me, Teo touches my leg and he shakes his head as if he knows I was going to be nosy, so I press my lips together. Then I put a hand over my mouth. It’s no good. My question squeezes through my fingers. “Why?”
“Why did I have to stop going to university? Because my little brother needed someone to look after him. I got a job instead of studying so I could do that—take care of him like Mum used to. Buy his footy kit and pay for his swimming lessons. Be there for him at bedtime to read him stories like she did when I was little.”
He smiles again but this one isn’t so wide. His eyes stay like Teo’s though, all soft and shiny so I don’t think he’s angry that I asked him. He even asks me another question. “Or maybe you were asking why our mum was put in prison?”
I nod but Mr Lawson says, “You don’t need to—”
“That’s okay. I wasn’t going to tell him.” Isaac Webber looks my way again. “Because that’s my mum’s personal story, so it’s private, right?” He quickly adds, “But it's okay to be curious. Books are great for finding answers so I brought one with me. How old are you Tor?”
He nods. “Same age as my brother when Mum and I made this book for him.” He opens his big folder. “We started it before she went away to help make him feel better.”
That’s what my mummy said about my daddy when he didn’t come home from deployment. He wasn’t lost, she said. He went away for a bit longer than the other army daddies, that’s all. He’d be back before we knew it, but he really, really wasn’t.
I wish I’d had a bedtime book to make me feel better.
I want to see what’s in his book then. I kneel up on my chair to look closer but it rocks back and almost tips over until Teo grabs it and me.
Isaac Webber says, “Maybe we could…” He points to the bean bag chairs and Mr Lawson nods, letting us go while everyone else stays at the table. I get comfy on a blue one and he squishes himself onto a red one, his long legs stretching out and he’s got rainbow socks on. I like them. There’s another rainbow drawn on the cover of the folder, most of the crayon inside the lines. He opens it and I see photos and…
“Is that a treasure map?”
“Kind of,” he says. “It’s the journey from where we lived all the way to the prison. He touches a tall oblong. “It starts here in Tower Hamlets.”
“That sounds like a castle.”
He snorts out a laugh. “I wish. It’s in London.”
“Where the queen lives?”
“Yes, only we lived here, right at the top of a tall block of flats. And this is the first bus stop where we’d start our journey to see Mum. Can you find the rest of the bus stops?”
We count them together.
“Yes. Four buses to get there. And a train. Then we’d walk in this building and hand over our…” He points to a picture of a backpack like Cameron’s, only it doesn’t have a moon or stars painted on it. “Then we’d wait for Mum here.” An X marks that spot like it's where they found their treasure. He turns another page. This one looks like the chart Cameron helped make for me. It has pictures as well. “And this is a reminder of all the things we wanted to tell her about on our visits.”
There’s a drawing of a tooth and a fairy. A shiny trophy and a football. A birthday cake with seven candles. A Christmas tree and so many other pictures as he turns more pages. The last page shows another birthday cake. I count nine candles, this time.
Next is a plastic sleeve holding pages stapled together. “And this is the bedtime story we all wrote together. Mum would email a bit to us each week. Then we’d email her back with another.”
“That’s a long story.” A whole book.
“Yeah.” I’m sitting close so I hear him swallow. “Nearly three years’ worth of bedtimes without her.” He looks up then and speaks to everyone still at the table. “So yeah, I took a few years out, which means I missed too many hours of placement on my degree course. Now that Mum’s home, my tutor says I can only graduate if I catch up on all those missed hours.”
“Why here?” Mr Lawson asks him. “Glynn Harber is a long way from Tower Hamlets.”
“I need it to be.” He shifts and the bean bag chair shifts with him. “I… I just need it to be a long way from there.”
“For your family.” Mr Lawson nods once. “I think I’ve heard enough to—”
“I do have some experience.”
Isaac Webber doesn’t have to speak so quickly. Mr Lawson isn’t hurrying him out like he did with that lady, but he speaks even faster.
“I did finish a placement in my first year. And I still volunteer in my local library. I help there with a storytelling programme that runs in every school break. It was the guy who organises those sessions who mentioned Glynn Harber to me. He said that you're taking student teachers. That you'll train them right here instead of them going to uni. He said if anyone might let a trainee librarian learn on the job too, you—”
Mr Lawson stops him. “I have heard enough. How about you, Padre?” he asks, and I wonder if Isaac Webber can tell they both like him.
I know the padre must do because he says, “I’ve heard far more than I hoped to, Luke. Thank you for sharing, Isaac.”
Mr Lawson asks, “Teo? Are you happy if we stop here?”
Teo sits up straighter and nods.
“Tor? Do you have any more questions?”
Yes I do!
It’s right at the top of my list.
“Do you like Richard Scarry?”
“So much.” And there’s that big smile again. “Lowly Worm’s my favourite.”
He’s mine too, and maybe he’s Mr Lawson’s because he smiles on the way out, only he doesn’t show Isaac Webber to the school’s front door. He stops at the staircase where he puts a hand on his elbow—a good grab not a bad one. “Why don’t we go up to my study? Talk through some options?”
He heads upstairs and Isaac Webber follows, but he turns to wave goodbye, and yes his smile goes just as wide as Teo’s does each time he sees Cameron.
It’s bright, like his eyes, which are extra shiny, but that’s okay.
Mr Lawson will find a Kit Kat for him.
(Unless you'd like to read about Glynn Harber's new cohort of student educators. I'd love to write books for them too, if you're interested. Let me know and I'll make room in my schedule.)
Also, do you know where there's a LOT more Tor?
In Heppel Ever After!
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Con Riley © 2022