Short Fiction ~ Yvonne Clarke
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
I stole books from the library every Saturday.
We had a ritual. My younger brother and I pootled off on Saturday mornings to our local library, a formidable Victorian edifice surrounded by highly ornamented wrought iron railings. Roller skates on and clutching my bulging library bag, I attached safety reins to my reluctant brother and enacted my fantasy of driving a horse and carriage. He was lucky I didn’t have a whip.
The day it happened was my brother Chris’s fourth birthday.
After choosing another book from the seemingly endless Thomas the Tank Engine series (I prided myself on extending my brother’s vocabulary), I headed for the adult library in an adjacent building. I tethered my ‘horse’ to the railings near the entrance. At eleven years old I only just qualified for an adult library ticket, but was still young enough to be overawed by the high ornamental ceilings and reverent hush of the interior. The echoing acoustic magnified every sneeze, snuffle and shush. This was my wonderland – a magical place of erudition and knowledge which meant more to me than any theme park. This was the space in which to banish rowdy thoughts; I wanted no one to intrude as I immersed myself in the papery, musty odour emanating from the reference section and the cloying, plasticky pong of the ‘New In’ novels.
Which section was it to be today: Fiction? I wallowed in P.G.Wodehouse (when I was happy) and Thomas Hardy (when I was full of pre-teen angst). Travel? My well-travelled father’s tales and his National Geographic magazines always fed me with a desire to know more about the world. Wildlife? Art? Music? The buffet of books was a feast for my eyes and a banquet for my imagination. But there was a problem: I could only choose three books; a near- impossible task.
Stealing became second nature. My bag could hold five books, so that’s how many I took. Maybe ‘snook’ is a better word, as I always returned them, but with the luxury of doing so in my own time. The frisson of escaping the librarian’s eagle eyes only added to the joy of attaining my literary stash – no electronics to catch you out in the 1960s.
But this day was to prove my undoing.
As I sauntered nonchalantly up to the ‘Books Out’ desk, my heart leaping as usual like a mad March hare, a voice from behind me declared in strident tones: ‘Excuse me, young lady….’
Dropping the bag of books like hot coals, I was off, down the library steps and through the park, pursued by a portly uniformed personage who showed signs of falling behind at every stride. But an ownerless greyhound wanted to join in the chase and launched himself at me with joyful abandon, causing me to trip on the path in an ignominious sprawl.
‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ I gasped, trying to hide the pain from my grit-grazed knees, holding back my tears and my fears. As the official helped me to my feet, I smelled the whiff of his stale tobacco.
‘Whatever you’ve done, love, you need to come back to the library with me.’
It was only as I was marched through the entrance that I remembered my little brother. He was nowhere to be seen. ‘My brother’s been abducted!’ I wailed, ‘Have you seen him?’
Cheeks burning with a combination of panic and shame, I was led behind the desk to an office emblazoned with the words ‘Chief Librarian’. The ultimate confessional. My heart was banging like a bird trapped in a cage. Would I be arrested? The worry of my missing brother, however, was far greater. I realised then how much I loved him, and a torrent of tears splashed down my mud-stained coat.
Mrs Black looked at me fiercely, a chief librarian’s glare.
‘You are a very lucky girl,’ she said. ‘But not as lucky as your brother. We found him wandering around the library, breaking his heart, totally lost. He said he was looking for his sister. He’s just here.’
And there, sitting on the floor in the corner of the office, was my brother, flicking through his Thomas the Tank book, sipping Sarsaparilla from a paper cup between hiccoughy sobs. Mortified and relieved, I gave a percussive sniff and threw myself at his warm little body.
‘I love you, Chris, I’m sorry. I’ll never leave you again.’
‘We weren’t calling you back to return the books, you know. We wanted to reunite you with your brother.’
My sins had found me out at last. I had learnt two lessons today. But, contrary to what I expected, Mrs Black was impressed with my bibliophilic zeal. She decided to make an exception to the three-book rule, just for me, and I soon became known by the staff as ‘Five Book Bethany’. I never had to sneak books from the library again. As for my brother, on our trips out together, I clung to him just as a barnacle clings to a rock.
Yvonne Clarke has been a teacher of English as a Second Language for twenty years. Prior to this she was a copy editor and content editor for a number of publishing companies.
She started writing flash fiction in 2019 and has had success in several flash and short story competitions, including the 2020 LISP Short Story Prize and the 2020 Worcester Arts Festival Flash Fiction Competition.
As well as writing she enjoys cycling, music, and anything to do with protecting the environment.