A Born Writer

His mother had called him Oliver after the boy in the film who had been one of Fagin's gang. He hadn't seen the film, but he knew the story. Oliver ended up being rescued by a nice rich family and living happily ever after.

Nolly, his mates called him. Only his mum in the whole world called him Oliver and then only when she was angry. And she had been angry this evening, angrier than she had been for a long time.

The lift had been out of order for a start and she had had to carry the shopping up the nine floors, heart thumping, face and body shining with sweat. Instead she would like to have stood looking at the graffiti on the inside of the lift doors, trying to hold her breath against the smell, but grateful not to have to face the echoing stairs

The note was the last straw. 'Nolly has a good imagination,' Mrs Peters had said. 'when I get stories they are first class. But this is the third homework this week he has not handed in.'

'How many times have I told you, you silly little tyke!' Sheila Grant stared at her son helplessly. 'What have I got to say to make you understand? If you want to get out of this dump, you've got to get your exams!'
Then, disconcertingly she had burst into tears.

Nolly was dumbfounded. His mother never cried. She was tough and cheerful even when he could see nothing to be cheerful about.

He had no brothers or sisters, no dad, no grandmother or grandfather. The few times he had made tentative enquiries about these missing pieces of the jigsaw of his life she had frozen him off. 'We've got each other; that's enough, ' she said firmly.

And, mostly, she was right.

He was a sturdy boy, strong for his twelve years though not yet very tall, his hair carroty , his face covered in freckles, his eyes a brilliant green, the colouring, though he would never know it of a certain handsome squaddie in the Argylls who had been posted to Sheila's town a year before he was born and she had left for London. Also from that squaddie came his stubborn chin, his flashpoint temper and his incurably romantic soul.

He saw nothing wrong at all in the high rise block in east London where he and his mother lived - and for one good reason. He never really saw it. He lived in a dream world, populated with imaginary friends. This evening however his mother's tears had catapulted him for a while into the present. Consumed with guilt and remorse he quietly began to put away her shopping for her in one of the small chipboard kitchen cupboards, carefully folding the carriers to use again, and then he reached for the kettle and put it under the tap. The pipes banged a little as the water ran and he was conscious suddenly of the smell from the rubbish can under the sink. Everyday his mum made the trek down to the bins in the windy street below. Perhaps he ought to offer to help her. Carrying the mug of tea into the small living room of the flat which doubled as her bedroom - the other room she had given to him - he put it down on the coffee table in front of her. The coffee table was one of the things Uncle David had helped them get - taking them in his car to Homebase and then putting it together for them. He wasn't a real uncle of course, he hadn't any of those, just the husband of one of Mum's friends. And he hardly came over any more.

He sat down next to her on a sofa that was blue and brown and red in sort of squiggly patterns. There was a cigarette burn on the arm though his mum never smoked.

'Sorry.' His voice came out quiet and on this occasion genuinely contrite. 'I'll do the next one. The one tonight. Honest.'

She looked up at him. Her eyes were a brilliant blue and he loved them for their real beauty but at this moment they swam behind a screen of tears. The dam, which had been in place, firmly, for years, was beginning to crack.

'Please, Nolly. Do it. You could do so well.' She shrugged helplessly.

It was easy to slip away of course. He did it every night. After their tea she would sit down to watch Neighbours or Home and Away and after only a few minutes she would be asleep. Sometimes she didn't wake until it was really late and time for her to go out again, which was really boring but although he was now beginning to realise a little just how exhausting his mother's life was with her two jobs, the shopping, the stairs and everything, mostly he didn't think about her at all. Checking that she didn't react when he stood between her and the screen he quietly slipped out of the front door, pushing the key on its piece of string back through the letter box after him. One flight down, running fast, he remembered the rubbish. For a second he hesitated, then shrugging he ran on. He'd do it for her tomorrow.

His favourite place at the moment was behind the train sheds at the end of Alma Road. If he ducked through the broken rusty wire fence and ran lightly over the railway sleepers he found himself in a piece of waste land hidden completely from the road. Shoulder high with rose bay and buddleia the place had a special smell, a feel of its own. It was a quiet, hidden paradise. He had never seen anyone else there and he was careful not to tell any of his mates. This was special. It was a secret world and he didn't want it spoiled.

In a rusty old box hidden in the dry rank grass he had secreted a couple of books. Sitting down on the grass cross legged he didn't touch them for a bit. Instead he stared round. On the far side of the no man's land in which he sat was a car dump. Rank upon rank the car bodies rose in the air, some flattened, some just tossed and abandoned like old dead leaves. Rusting and uniform in their rust they had a strange appeal for the boy. Each one, once, had been shiny and new. Each one had been cleaned and polished and loved. So when had things started to go wrong? Had their engines broken down? Had they been torn and flattened in some horrendous motorway pile up (and was there blood still to be seen by a discerning eye?). Sometimes he would slide through yet more rusty wire and wander amongst the heaps of corpses, once or twice irresistibly drawn to touch, one small almost gentle hand stoking the decaying metal, not breathing, daring the great heap to fall. Never once had he been seen; never once reprimanded. This was a part of his secret kingdom.

Tonight, though, on this beautiful warm evening, he had come to sit and read. His mates would call him a suck if they knew so he did it in secret. The books he had nicked from the library.

One was on butterflies and moths. He couldn't think where the butterflies here in his secret place came from but here they were on his little piece of paradise. Cabbage white and tortoiseshell and red admiral and even occasionally a beautiful peacock on the blue sugary plumes of the buddleia. The other was on birds. Not the birds he saw here - sparrows and pigeons and starlings mostly with an occasional brave blackbird - but the birds of the sea and shore: gulls and waders and divers. Birds that would paddle on the sand's edge and probe the mud with their long bills; birds that would soar across highland lochs and plunge into the icy water to emerge with fish clutched in their cruel talons.

He had seen them on the telly of course, but mostly mum wouldn't watch the natural history programmes. She would if he asked especially of course because it was educational but he knew she thought they were cruel because they showed animals eating each other and she would rather be watching her soaps or a nice comedy to make her laugh and he'd feel guilty even as his stomach turned over with the excitement of seeing the wild beautiful places in front of him. EastEnders was too much like home, thank you very much.

Turning a page he ran his hand gently over the photograph of the osprey, absorbed, empathetic, feeling the wind in the great wings, the uprush of the cold water, seeing with those black gold-rimmed eyes the unsuspecting salmon gently cruising in the dim, peaty depths.

The librarian watched Oliver as he came in. Slouching casually, the scruffy haversack on his shoulder bulging with torn exercise books, his school tie hanging round his neck like a halter, one trainer lace dragging, he looked like most of his class mates. She wasn't sure what had first caught her eye - the flaming red hair perhaps - but it was his behaviour which set him apart. To begin with he would joke and push and be a complete pain like the others, disrupting the silence, bringing as they did some undefinable sense of threat to the older users of the library. Then quietly he would slip away from the crowd round the book stacks to the natural history section or to the travel books.

When she saw the first book vanish into the haversack she knew she ought to jump on him but something stopped her. Instead she went to see what he had taken. And she wondered why he had not borrowed it openly. The answer was not hard to work out. To borrow a book was to set yourself apart. One or two boys had tried it but the jeers of their friends were cruel and the books were unceremoniously dumped back on one of the reading tables. She sighed. and wearily she stood up and moved away from her desk. Soon the security marking of the books would be finished. He had to be sorted before that.

'Excuse me.' Her hand on his shoulder was light. Startled green eyes looked up at her, first frightened then defiant then hostile. The last expression assumed by the small face was one of blank insolence. This one stuck.

'You were going to check that book out properly?' She smiled at him, careful to be non threatening.

'Yea.' The universal and sometimes she thought the only word they all knew.

'There's a new bird book over there, on the new acquisitions stand. You might like to borrow that too.' She moved casually between him and the other boys. 'Take a look.'

He glared at her suspiciously. 'OK.' He sounded casual too now; in another age he might have put his hands in his pockets and started whistling.

'You have got your library card?'

'Yea.' He was uncomfortable. She had held him too long.

'Good. You can take them both out.'


'Tell your mates it's for an extra project. A punishment. Make you look well'ard.' She winked conspiratorially and turned away.

When she got back to her desk her fingers were crossed.

The library was crowded. It wasn't possible to watch him all the time and she didn't see him leave. But when she passed the acquisitions shelf later the bird book had gone.

Jodie and Squill had seen him borrow the books and they had jeered and given him grief as he knew they would but he had taken the library woman's advice. 'It's for Mr Brent. Extra. Mega punishment.' He glared defiantly and to his surprise they accepted it. Just like that. No more hassle; she obviously knew a thing or two that library woman. He had glanced back at her as he pushed his way out of the heavy doors and in the gaze was the smallest hint of respect.

He didn't open the new book until he was ensconced in his special place. Unwrapping the piece of gum he had jobbed off Squill he tucked it in the corner of his mouth and pulled the book onto his knee.
The glossy paper smelled cool and exotic, of grass and cream and brandy. He wasn't sure what cream and brandy smelt like, but he thought it would be like that, sort of hot and cold at the same time; peppery and smooth.

The book was nothing but pictures, hundreds of wonderful pictures of exotic colourful birds, flying and swimming and preening and eating against a background of brilliant skies and seas and jungles. He sat transfixed, turning each page slowly, relishing the crisp noise they made as they brushed his tee shirt, hearing in his head the crash of waves on the sand, the wind in the trees and the eerie call of the birds in the night.
He took the book home with him when it grew too dark outside to see. Fishing the key out of the letter box he let himself in and looked round. His mum had already left for work and the flat was empty. He went into the kitchen and looked in the cupboard. She had left him a can of beans and half a loaf of bread for his tea. Putting the book down on the work surface he opened the can and put the pan of beans on the gas ring. He toasted four slices of bread, slopped the beans over them and carried his plate through to eat in front of the TV. He flipped through the channels. All talk; newsy things about politics and stuff. No animals. No birds. No travel. No adventure. He frowned. Best of all he would like to have watched a film - Indiana Jones sort of stuff with jungle and exotic places and birds and animals and himself as the star.

He glanced at the kitchen door. From where he sat, his mouth smeared with sauce from the beans, he could see the book sitting on the side. The bloke who took those pictures must have travelled by boat and train and plane and jeep. He had visited all those places, like the birds.

Putting down the empty plate, he drew his legs up under him on the sofa . 'Slinging the Pentax round my shoulders I climbed down from the cockpit and put my feet onto the burning sand,' he said to himself out loud. 'Around me I could hear the cicadas and in the distance the cry of an eagle. The shadow of the bird swept over me and for one second came between me and the cruel sun.' He paused, his head on one side and grinned. That had sounded real good. Just like a film.

Pushing himself off the sofa he went to the chest of drawers beside the divan his mum used for a bed and rummaged through the top drawer. Amongst all the woman's stuff he found a ball point pen that worked. He knew there ought to be something to write with in his bag but there wasn't. But there were his exercise books. Turning one upside down he opened it and was confronted with the most exciting and frightening thing a writer can see. A clean (only slightly creased) page. He looked at it for a long time, almost paralysed by the thought of what he was about to do, then slowly, sitting at the table in front of the window, he began to write.

Outside the undrawn curtains the panoramic view of the lights of London lay like a carpet of sparkling stars. He did not see them. 'I could see the zig zag marks the snake had left in the sand. The heat was burning through my trainers - ' he paused and looked up for a moment. A small smile touched the corners of his mouth. He had written himself a Pentax why not some Reeboks? Crossing out the word trainers he wrote in the change, a small frown between his eyes, his tongue protruding from between his teeth as, on tiptoe, he crept from the sand into the edge of the forest, conscious of the flash of birds wings high in the branches over his head. From somewhere in the distance, a half echo on the wind, he heard the sound of jungle drums. The small hairs stood up on the thin brown arms of the boy sitting at the table on the ninth floor of the tower block and he felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle with fear. Somewhere on the periphery of his concentration he heard the beat of music from the flat below him. He took no notice. His exercise book filled, he put it to one side and took another - on the front it said 'French' but it was almost empty apart from a few one word answers, in columns, all marked with crosses. 'Raising the camera I squinted through the view finder and pressed the shutter. The click was very loud in the silence of the forest and I waited, holding my breath in case the head hunters had heard. They hadn't. They continued sharpening their spears as though nothing had happened. On the branch next to my shoulder a huge hairy spider began to move towards me, spinning a silken thread between its clawed legs. He stopped. The images in his head were so powerful he wondered how he could ever find enough words to describe them, to keep up with the urgency of the story that was suddenly pouring out of him. Looking up he saw the reflection of his own face in the dark square of window. If he looked beyond it, beyond the light hanging from the centre of the ceiling he could see the stars and the winking lights of a plane flying west towards Heathrow. Who knows, perhaps it had flown in from Rio or Buenos Aires. Exhausted, he put down his pen and stretched his fingers, then he picked it up again. 'I couldn't stay. Carefully I backed away into the shadow of the jungle, checking with my thumb the sharpness of my machetty - machety - masheti -' he couldn't spell it and cross and frustrated he scribbled over the word and wrote in 'knife'.

When his mother arrived home just before six she found him at the table fast asleep, his head cushioned on his arms. Exhausted herself after a night cleaning offices in the City her tired face relaxed into a smile. It had not been a bad night. The girls had remembered and clubbed together and bought her a box of chocs for her birthday and there was a strong rumour going round that there was a small pay rise in the pipe line. She rested her hand for a moment on her son's head, wondering if she should wake him, then she caught sight of the exercise book beneath his arm, the page covered in his quick careless writing Pulling it out carefully she closed it without looking at it and nodded. So the little tyke had decided to finish his project essay after all. That was the best present of all. Putting the box of chocolates down in front of his sleeping head she glanced once out of the window at the glorious dawn sky. A flock of sea gulls flew across the skyline, their wings pink in the light of the rising sun. She smiled. Not such a bad old world, perhaps, after all.

I wrote this short story about ten years ago. Libraries have changed a bit since then!


















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