Authors: D D Everest
rchie stepped into a large workshop. The room smelled strongly of old parchment. Strewn all over the flagstone floor were offcuts of leather and bits of twine. Metal tools hung haphazardly on the walls. Archie, though, was drawn to the large wooden workbench running down the centre of the workshop and cluttered with piles of books like the ones he had brought from the shop.
‘Better put those down,’ the voice said. ‘Don’t want to damage them any more by dropping them.’
Archie gratefully set down the books on the end of the bench. His arms felt stiff from carrying them. He looked around him to locate the source of the voice.
‘Hello?’ he called.
‘I’m over here,’ the voice wheezed. ‘By the smithy.’
Standing beside a furnace at one end of the room was a tiny old man, no more than four feet tall. He had scraggy white hair that stood up almost vertically in tufts on an otherwise bald head, and a thin red face with two bright green eyes above a hooked nose. The little man was wearing some sort of boiler suit that covered his legs and torso but left his arms completely bare.
The man’s thin white muscly arms looked like knotted pieces of string. The little man gestured at the room.
‘Welcome to the mending workshop,’ he said. ‘I am Mr Perret, the bookbinder, but most people call me Old Zeb.’
He licked his lips, reminding Archie of a reptile. Not a snake but a small lizard – a gecko, perhaps.
‘And what is your name, young man?’
‘Me? Oh, I’m Archie,’ Archie said in a faltering voice.
Old Zeb looked him up and down. Then he scratched the end of his long nose.
‘Well, pleased to meet you, Archie.’ He gave a chuckle and his eyes glinted with a mad look. Then he scratched his nose again and his expression turned serious. ‘But first things first. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Have to find out if it’s got a good spine!’
The old man was talking in riddles, but
Archie smiled politely, humouring him. Old Zeb continued. ‘It’s all about passing on the flame, you see. The question is: are you someone I could pass the flame to? Show me your hands!’
Archie held out his hands. The bookbinder held them by the wrists. The old man’s own hands were surprisingly powerful.
‘Hmmm,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Good hands, these.’ He turned them over to inspect the palms. ‘Honest hands,’ he added. ‘But are they strong enough? Need strong hands to be a bookbinder. Need quick hands, too.’
Old Zeb licked his lips, thoughtfully. ‘Let’s see what the old Word Smithy says!’
Releasing Archie’s wrists, he slipped on a thick leather glove and opened the door to the furnace. The fire made a hissing sound and gave off a plume of white smoke.
‘The Word Smithy knows,’ he continued. ‘Its flame has been burning for thousands of years.’
The old man suddenly pulled a yellow flame from the furnace and to Archie’s horror he hurled it towards a pile of books on the workbench. Archie instinctively shot out a hand and caught the flame.
In that split second he realised what a foolish thing he’d done. He flinched, expecting the flame to burn his skin, but he felt nothing except a warm tingling sensation on his palm.
Archie stared at the flame still burning on his hand, twisting and writhing into different shapes. He was quite unable to drag his eyes away from it.
‘It’s beautiful,’ he mumbled. ‘But why isn’t it burning me?’
‘Pharos – the Flame of Alexandria – the light of the world!’ breathed Old Zeb. ‘It won’t burn you.’
Archie couldn’t believe his eyes. He was only supposed to be dropping off books, but now he was catching fire!
The flame changed from yellow to blue and then vanished. The palm of Archie’s right hand immediately began to itch. He was sure it must have been burned after all, but when he looked, there was just a tiny red mark like a small tattoo.
He was suddenly aware of Old Zeb’s sparkling eyes. ‘Show me your hand again,’ the old man said. ‘The one that held the flame.’
Archie held out his hand. The bookbinder seized it and turned it over so that the palm faced him.
‘Excellent,’ he muttered, a big smile spreading across his face.
He took something from his pocket and dabbed at Archie’s hand. It felt wet and stung slightly. ‘There,’ he said, kindly. ‘That’ll soothe the itching. You won’t feel a thing in a couple of days.’
Archie stared at the tiny red mark on his hand. ‘How weird,’ he said. ‘It didn’t hurt at all.’
The old man nodded. ‘Yes, it’s called a firemark. There’s one for each of the three book skills – finding, binding and minding.’ Archie didn’t know what to make of what Old Zeb was telling him but the bookbinder interrupted his thoughts.
‘Now then,’ he said, ‘let’s get down to business. We start at nine sharp and we work until the work is done – or I’ve had enough. Mostly you will be mending books, but sometimes you will have to deliver them back to where they belong. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you more about that later. We’ll get you started tomorrow. Now, I’m forgetting my manners. Come along, come along, let’s have some tea.’
Was this funny little man offering him a job, Archie wondered. It certainly sounded like it. It all seemed a bit quick but perhaps that was how they did things in Oxford. Archie could think of worse things than working in a bookshop. But what would Gran say? She didn’t like him talking to strangers – and Old Zeb was certainly strange.
The old bookbinder poured two cups from an old cracked, brown teapot and licked his lips again. He definitely reminded Archie of a gecko.
‘Now, what’s your surname?’
‘Greene,’ Archie replied, still looking at his hand.
‘Oh!’ the old man exclaimed, excitedly. ‘Greene
is it? You’d be one of those Greenes then, would you?’
The old bookbinder thought for a moment. ‘So, you must be Alex’s son?’
Archie started at the sound of his father’s name. ‘Yes, but how did you know?’
The old man gave a chuckle. ‘I could tell you a few things about the Greenes, I could!’ He picked up a set of bellows almost as big as he was and pumped some air into the furnace, smiling as it roared into life.
‘A Greene,’ the old man declared, holding up his teacup to make a toast.
‘Who would have thought?’ Old Zeb winked. ‘I taught your dad, of course.’
Archie forgot all about the firemark and the job offer. Old Zeb had taught his father! Gran had told him that Alex Greene taught geography in a local school. Archie suddenly realised how little he knew about his family. He hadn’t even known he had cousins. He wondered again why Gran hadn’t mentioned them before and felt a tingle of anticipation that he’d be meeting them that very afternoon.
Archie held up his own teacup and the little man chinked his cup against it.
‘Cheers!’ Old Zeb cried. ‘Welcome on board, Archie Greene! See you tomorrow.’
rchie left the Aisle of White with his head in a spin. A lot of strange things had happened in the last few hours and he seemed to be at the centre of them all. Outside, it was starting to cloud over, but at least it wasn’t raining. At that moment, a solitary ray of sunlight found its way into the courtyard outside the bookshop and glinted off the shop sign like a smile.
Archie followed the directions to his cousins’ house. Gran had said it was walking distance from the centre of Oxford, and sure enough, half an hour later, he arrived at 32 Houndstooth Road. It wasn’t hard to spot – it was the only purple house in the street. He pressed the doorbell. Archie’s heart was beating fast. He hadn’t realised quite how nervous, as well as excited, he was about meeting his relatives. What if they didn’t know
who he was? Or what if they didn’t like him? He glanced anxiously at the door.
Nothing happened. He waited for what he considered to be a reasonable amount of time – what Gran would call a polite amount of time – and then he rang again. Still nothing. What if no one was at home? Where would he stay? Perhaps this wasn’t the right address after all. Or maybe the Foxes had moved. He took a deep breath and gave a sharp knock on the door. He heard footsteps. Then the door shuddered open just enough for someone to peer out. Two dark eyes regarded Archie from inside the house.
‘No thanks, we don’t want any,’ the owner of the dark eyes said in an impudent voice. ‘And if you’re after money, forget it, we haven’t got any. Actually, we don’t even live here any more.’
Archie looked into the dark eyes. They belonged to a boy a little younger than himself with brown tousled hair and freckles.
‘Excuse me,’ Archie said, in his politest voice, ‘I am looking for the Foxe family.’
The boy looked shifty. He glanced over his shoulder. Archie got the impression that there was someone else lurking behind the door telling the boy what to say.
‘I’m a relative,’ Archie added. ‘Granny Greene sent me.’
There was the rustling of clothes as someone who had been crouching down stood up. Then the door flew open and a woman appeared next to the boy. She beamed at Archie.
‘Granny Greene sent you?’ she cried.
Archie nodded and took a step back in alarm. ‘Yes,’ he answered cautiously.
The woman suddenly threw her arms around him and hugged him. ‘My dear boy, how wonderful to see you!’
Archie gazed as she danced a little celebratory jig on the doorstep.
‘Don’t worry about Mum,’ the tousle-haired boy said. ‘She’s a bit mental, but you get used to her after a while. I’m Thistle by the way.’ He extended his hand to Archie and grinned.
‘I’m Archie,’ he replied, shaking the boy’s hand.
‘And I am Loretta,’ the woman announced, smiling. ‘Aunt Loretta to you!’
Archie was aware that she was staring at him in a most peculiar way. He felt suddenly shy.
‘Well, well, well,’ she said, shaking her head as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. ‘You’re the absolute spit of your father when he was your age. I’ve got some photos of him I’ll show you later. Come in! Come in!’
Loretta swept Archie and Thistle along a short hallway and into the kitchen.
The first thing Archie noticed about the Foxe residence was that there was a preponderance of purple. The walls and woodwork were all painted in different shades of it. The second thing that occurred to him was that there were an awful lot of books. The walls were completely lined with bookcases from floor to ceiling. In fact, everywhere Archie looked there were even more books. He had to step over stacks of them on the floor and every surface in the house seemed to have more books piled on it.
‘Sit down, sit down,’ said Loretta. ‘Make yourself at home.’
Archie pulled out a chair and sat, being careful not to bump a tower of books balanced on the kitchen table. Thistle pulled out the chair opposite.
‘Are you thirsty, dear?’ Loretta leaned over Archie’s shoulder. ‘Would you like a drink? We’ve got some very nice elderberry squash.’
‘No, I’m fine,’ Archie said, feeling self-conscious. ‘Thank you.’
‘I’m thirsty, Mum,’ Thistle said. ‘Can I have a drink?’
‘Yes, of course my dear. Now be a good boy and get it yourself. Water, mind – those elderberries don’t grow on trees.’
Archie noticed that Thistle helped himself to a drink of elderberry squash anyway.
‘And how is Mum … I mean Granny Greene?’ asked Loretta.
‘She’s very well,’ Archie replied politely. ‘She sent you a letter,’ he added, pulling it from his pocket and handing it to her.
Loretta took a big breath and opened the envelope. She flapped the folded letter open and read it to herself.
My Dear Loretta,
I am writing to introduce Archie – your nephew. I think it would be best if he stays with you for a time – a few weeks at least.
Until yesterday the promise I made to your brother tied my hands. But someone has sent Archie a book for his twelfth birthday – and it has come with a Special Instruction.
I am sure I don’t need to tell you how concerning this is. I had hoped Archie’s life would take another course. I can’t pretend otherwise. But I fear that he cannot avoid his destiny.
There are some matters that I must attend to urgently and it will be easier if I know that the boy is safe.
Please take good care of Archie, and
help him find his way. He is a good boy and dearer to me than breath.
Please give my love to the children and to Woodbine.
Loretta slipped the letter into a drawer. She was delighted to see her long-lost nephew, but the tone of the letter worried her. What was this mysterious book? She didn’t want to alarm Archie but she was intrigued and more than a little anxious.
To calm her mind, she began to fuss about the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards and drawers, taking out and then putting away a selection of crockery and cutlery.
There was one cupboard door that Loretta did not open. It was in the middle of the wall. Archie wondered what was in it. At that moment the cupboard flew open and a face appeared. Two grey crinkly eyes looked into the room. Archie, who was not used to seeing heads appear in cupboards, stared. The face was framed by straw-like hair that reminded Archie of a scarecrow.
‘What ho!’ said the scarecrow. ‘What’s all the noise about?’
Archie could see now that it wasn’t a cupboard door – it was a serving hatch connecting the kitchen to the room next door.
‘There you are Woodbine,’ said Loretta. ‘We have a guest.’
The grey crinkly eyes swivelled to look.
‘Archie, this is your Uncle Woodbine.’
‘What ho young ’un!’ Woodbine’s lined face broke into a wide, crooked smile. He reached through the hatch and they shook hands. Woodbine’s grip was so tight that Archie thought it might crush his fingers.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Archie said, politely. His strange day had just got stranger.
Woodbine nodded sagely and Thistle grinned, and even though he’d only just met them, Archie felt comfortable amongst these strange people. There was something familiar and oddly reassuring about them. Something that felt like home – so much so that when Loretta said, ‘Of course, you will stay for the summer?’ Archie found himself nodding his head enthusiastically.
Thistle broke into a broad smile. ‘Excellent! I can’t wait to tell Bram!’
‘Bram?’ asked Archie.
‘Yeah,’ Thistle replied. ‘My sister, Bramble. She’s not my real sister though. Can’t be – she’s too ugly!’
‘Thistle!’ his mother said, catching hold of his ear. ‘Of course Bramble is your real sister, and she should be home by now. I wonder what’s keeping her.’
‘Ouch!’ Thistle said. ‘Let go!’
‘Now, then,’ said Loretta releasing her son. ‘You can all help me make the sandwiches. Except Archie. He’s our guest.’
She disappeared into the walk-in larder and returned carrying a half-eaten birthday cake with blue icing, which she placed on the table.
She nodded to herself in a self-satisfied way, and flashed a smile. ‘There,’ she said. ‘I made a cake for your birthday, Archie.’
‘A birthday cake for me?’ asked Archie, with a note of surprise. ‘But how did you know I was coming?’
Loretta smiled. ‘I had a feeling you might drop by,’ she said. ‘What with it being your twelfth birthday and all.’