The Library

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Another in the Australiana series, depicting the coming of age for a young man. As always, it is a draft which needs further refinement


The room glittered and shone with the flood of a pale yellow light from a massive suspended atrium. The endless rows of faux leather spines were like the buckled skin of some gigantic exotic creature, glowing from within. It seemed as though he had never seen such a profusion of knowledge, the countless thousands of neatly arraigned volumes that reached on all sides to the haloed ceiling, itself so high and distant as the stars themselves.

Mick had never been that enamoured by sports. Perhaps because he was never proficient enough to be very good at them or perhaps it was the opposite – he had never been much good at it because of his distinct lack of interest. Perhaps just the fact of his frequent change of schools necessitated by his fathers roaming schemes and dreams had robbed him of the happy bonding of school boy sports.

Of course he had still played, almost impossible not to. Those makeshift colosseums created in the spare green acres that thrived under the hot Australia sun mandated heavy use, a rite of passage where even the most nerdy, intellectual type were called whether chosen or not to become ragged agnostic Christians to the roaring lions and strutting gladiators of coaches, prefects and the physical gifted.

Not that Mick presented as nerdy and though intellectually inclined, hid the fact well under the loose limbs and solid frame built by a steady diet of plenteous dairy, meat and vegetables that seemingly was his birth rite. In any normal youth he should have at least formed the ranks of the middling warriors, the disposable platoons that were dispensable fodder to protect the elite of the Praetorian guards. It was lack of interest, not physique that deprived him of what should have been the natural order of things.

A by-product of the sprawling working class of Sydney’s jumbled western suburbs, by all rights he should have been a brawling angry young man railing against the world, slated to swell the ranks of the indulgent middle class if he managed to avoid goal and alcoholism long enough to settle down. It was only an accident of fate that changed the path of his life.

On one of his father’s posting, the family had relocated to an island kingdom at the crumbling edge of the once mighty British Empire. Commencing at a rambling Public school built to educate the scion of the wealthy expat community, it was quickly discovered that Mick’s brain had the unnerving knack of jumbling up words and letters until they were unintelligible. Dyslexia. In retrospect Mick found it ironic that the name itself was such that any one with the actual condition would be unlikely to correctly spell it, let alone pronounce.

The stroke of luck was that, being a bit of a prized posting for private English teaching staff, they were proactive and fully aware of both the issue and at least one possible method of cure. So at an age where normal boys were learning how to pick the scabs of knee grazes and discovering methods to annoy small animals, Mick was reintroduced to the English language.

Placed in a special class with the other similarly affected, so began a torturous journey of discovery. Using various phonetical spellings, Mick was "cured" and suddenly set on fire by the new unexpected clarity of the printed pages and chalkboard squiggles that he previously had assumed were the hieroglyphics of some alien race. It was both a revelation and a revolution for Mick and the beginning of a lifelong fascination with English language.

At age seven, the previously slow "D" grade student was reading 300 words a minute. By the time he was nine and the family returned to their working class roots, the pace had ramped up to 700 words.  Due to the disparity between the English and Australian educational systems, Mick was put in a lower level class than he had been studying previously – due entirely to the accident of his birthday. Perhaps someone else would have grown bored and disgruntled at relearning a known syllabus but Mick saw it as a chance to re-examine and deepen his understanding. By age 12, it was rare Mick was not collecting at least one award for study excellence, often multiple and was slowly being reclassified into the ranks of one of the “gifted”.

Along with the phonetics of his former school, the environment of that south east Asian country and the wealth of the school meant that swimming was a year round sport. So along with his academic achievements he grew to love the cool isolation of long distance swimming, which further broadened and shaped his genetic physical predispositions towards a deep chest and muscular arms.

Back in Australia, few schools of his social class had the funds for such extravagant luxuries and swimming was a summer only sport involving long sweaty bus rides to the local pool where a hundred or so students of various ages would compete for use of the three lanes reserved for such activities. Mick grew to hate winter where his height and physique would force him towards football which, at the time and in that part of the country, meant the blood sport of Rugby league.

Changing schools every couple of years, it was rare that, at the beginning of each “footy season” Mick was not chosen by the various coaches for possible contender status. It was even rarer that by the end of  season if he wasn’t relegated to the sidelines with the clustered groups of nerds.

“You are in the wrong school”

The overly bright hazel, slightly unfocused eyes of Mrs Hendrik gazed unseeingly through Mick’s own and the statement seemed to be aimed at herself rather than the school boy she was addressing. She remained unnervingly motionless, her eyes still focussed on some distant elsewhere as Mick squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.

“This is a school for coal miners and apprentices…”

She continued, softly, seemingly still transfixed by some inner thought and as though she was addressing some other audience other than the pre-pubescent student in front of her.

“In a town of sheet metal workers and truck drivers”

Abruptly her eyes refocused and bore down on the embarrassed Mick with fierce sadness

“The school is geared up to get you through the leaving certificate and push you out into the workforce. It is not a school geared up for the likes of you and you will never fit in here”

The last words were spoken with a dismissive bitterness, as though the harshness of her prediction were an irrevocable judgement she had no pleasure in delivering. Abruptly drawing the short conversation to a close, she turned and walked out the door, a small stoop to her gait as though the whole conversation had diminished her, a regretful embarrassment to her role as a revered educator. 

Mick had just won the First Form English prize and Mrs Hendrik was his English teacher. She had informed him earlier that he was the first male child to do so in the whole short history of the newly expanded industrial school wedged between repurposed orchards and the town recycling centre. Mick had shrugged, well aware he was a square peg in this newest board of round holes but in his short life experience, he had never been anything else.

Looking around the audience of the awards ceremony, he was disappointed not to see the distinctive bouffant hair and wide flared lips of his mother but not surprised. Excellence at academia was not a recognised life skill – just another thing quirk of his existence to be the academic boy in a family of workers. As far as his father went, well Mick was never foolhardy enough to even bother to look, let alone hope for encouragement there. At least his two sisters sat near the front, waiting for their own prizes and giving him discrete cheerful waves of congratulations.

The end of year excursion for the First graders was designed as both an educational affair and a treat for surviving the trails of their first year of elevation from Primary to Secondary school. It was a routine schedule event, repeated on an annual basis with the premise of touring the major political and social monuments of the state capital less than 100km distant.  Of course, for most of the participants it was just a welcome respite from the tedium of classrooms and a foretaste of the upcoming holiday break.

In that respect at least, Mick was no different and was thrilled by the bubble of laughter and excited chatter in the chartered bus on the journey north. Even the stuffy majesty of the legislative chamber and the echoing airiness of the state art gallery could not quieten the exuberance of the hoard of pre-teens that swarmed over the august monuments of the modern state. Backdropped by the glittering blue of one of the world’s great harbours, it was hard to take anything too seriously.

They had lunch in the lush botanical gardens on the harbours edge, the green grass and trees complimneted the carved stone ramparts and edgings while the blue water winking back from the near distance seemed surreal. Mick had caught a glimpse of the age disparate breasts of Charlotte Moore as she bent to pick up a piece of litter and nearly swooned at the mysterious tightening in his khaki shorts.

A converted caravan sold ice creams under a huge old Morton bay fig tree at the entrance to the Art Gallery. The creamy insides of a frozen choc top seared the tip of Mick’s tongue in a sweet ache. All in all a glorious day that even the obligatory parade through the ancient masterpieces of Manet, Rembrandt and Stretton could not spoil.

Years later, Mick would often go to the State Gallery and wander through those great hollow rooms astounded at the talent and humanity of the Great Masters but a 12 year old’s perspective can be vastly different. For ever more he would remember his first erotic stirrings at the sight Charlotte’s budding breasts, long after the first vision of the lifeworks of a dozen or so great masters had faded.

The last stop was at the huge stone building in the heart of what was the bustling CBD. By then the children were unusually subdued though not by any directions of the teachers to hold in quiet reverence this high place of research but by pure exhaustion, their exuberance extinguished by the excess of exercise and the relentless "experiences" of the excursion. So it was a docile crew that was led under the towering Doric columns and into the hushed foyer of the State Library.

But for Mick it was a life defining moment. The skinny youth stood transfixed by the endless lines of books, awed by the knowledge they must contain, the weight of thought need to produce such an abundance beyond his comprehension.  The sort of awe that most of his contemporaries would feel viewing the great gladiatorial colosseum of the Sydney Cricket Ground and the same resultant ambition to somehow be part of it all.

Mick had found his arena.










Submitted: November 11, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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This was a kind of bittersweet read for me. I loved the descriptions of the library with all the words that were waiting to be read. You captured well how it feels to never quite fit in.

Fri, November 13th, 2020 12:22pm

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