Wages of virtue

(Novel by P.C. Wren)

Would you please return these library books for me when you pay the rates in Civic? If they are not back by this evening I’ll probably be summonsed. I should know better, I’ve been around libraries for a while and speaking of summonses reminded me of another summons and a far away, far different library.

‘You’re wanted in the Headmaster’s office‘. The message, delivered with a grin like a guillotine, came through the Head Prefect. What a day – named for sniggering in Assembly and now this. I knocked, waited for the rumble, eased the dungeon door open and glanced around the room. The cane stood idle by the cupboard.

Sam-the-handers sat at his desk searing a piece of paper. ‘Congratulations’ he said, with the warmth of a chapel Sabbath, ‘You’ve won a scholarship, you see‘.

The room took time to settle. Scholarship? Then I remembered – the Editor of the ‘Burra Record‘ had offered a scholarship – a year’s free membership of the Institute Library to the student who gained the highest mark in Grade VI English

Mind you, I had worked at it. For a boy who had just discovered P.C. Wren our one-shelf library offered lean pickings. Now the day began to expand. Two large rooms at the Institute (floor-to-ceilinged with books) contained, I was told, a shelf-ful of Wren.

‘Thank you Mr Gwyneth,‘ I choked. Sam fingered another piece of paper, turned to me and slammed the day shut by saying, ‘And now, with your newfound way with words, perhaps you can explain this mathematics mark. Look you boy, disgusting, isn’t it?’ Leaving Sam to practise his witherings I backed away and, grasping my certificate, hurried home bearing unusually good news. She glanced at the headed note-paper, asked why I couldn’t do as well all year, remarked on my maths mark and wanted to see the wood-box full before I left for the library.

Burra Institute, built in the copper-confidence of an earlier era, imposed itself on the town from the top of a flight of intimidating slate steps. After a wait of half an hour the Librarian creaked across the terrace, thumbed his watch, glanced at the ‘Hours’ notice, glared at me and bullied the door open.

He told me that the mat was there for a purpose, that dogs remained on the footpath, that yes, he had heard of the scholarship, that he knew me and would check with the Editor of the ‘Record’ just to make sure. He took my application card, wondered how the examiners were able to read my English paper and directed my wiped feet to the periodicals room and the library beyond.

And there, in Nirvana’s ante-room I selected my weekly limit of P.C. Wren, “Punch” and “Illustrated London News”. Then date-stamped out, threatened with fines and reminded about the mat I marched away to join Beau Geste – still elated but wondering, ungratefully, if there wasn’t an easier way to get a decent read.


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