The Boy with the Books
Someone was pounding on the door. Thomas raised his head and righted his glasses. He'd fallen asleep with them on again, sat at his desk with his head buried in Schaum's Outline of Thermodynamics for Engineers. He closed the book and balanced it on the ever growing pile in front of him. Before Thomas could stand, the thumping started again. As he stood and walked towards the door, he heard the sound of someone trying to activate the lock. Three shrill beeps meant there was a fault. They couldn't get in.
"Hello! Anyone in there?" The gruff greeting was followed by a murmuring and another three beeps of the lock. Thomas made an attempt at smoothing down his hair and looked back into his room to make sure there was nothing on display that was too incriminating. He opened his door to a rather bored looking man brandishing a clipboard. It was one of the porters. Thomas didn't know which one. He suspected he was new.
The porter looked Thomas up and down with a certain air of distain.
"Something's wrong with the lock on your door. The master key isn't working for some reason. Its meant to be able to unlock all the doors in the College. Oh well, I guess thats what you get when you try and bring in a new system eh?" The porter stood staring at the small black card reader on the door handle as if it were a particularly unruly student who had woken him up at three in the morning wanting him to open the College gate.
"Works perfectly fine for me" Thomas waved his own card in front of the reader on the door handle. The light flashed green and the door clicked, the lock now open. The porter frowned and ticked something on his clipboard that Thomas couldn't see before barreling past him into his room.
Thomas hung back at the doorway. He didn't like people being in his private space, let alone someone who he didn't really know. Who was now casting a rather judgemental look at Thomas' sanctuary.
"Have you got enough books? You do know there are plenty of serviceable libraries in this town. No need to amass your own" the porter scoffed before writing something else down "I might have to put this down as a fire hazard!”
Thomas looked at the porter stunned. But the porter gave another snort, indicating that he was only joking and that he expected Thomas to play along rather than take everything so seriously.
"I like them" Thomas was now glaring at the porter, daring him to continue.
The porter was right though. He did have a lot of books. The entire of one wall was hidden behind stacks of them, all neatly aligned and organised by topic, then author. Alphabetically of course. If you went into Thomas' room, you really would be at a loss to pinpoint exactly what it was he was studying. There were books on Medieval medical practices, Norse mythology, atmospheric physics, the fall of the Weimar Republic, the rise in cultural prominence of the Carry On films. The goriest of horror novellas sat next to tomes of Romantic poetry. Mathematical primers were neighbours to books on neurology. Books that were banned, New York Times bestsellers and forgotten masterpieces all had a home in Thomas' room.
Whilst such a collection sounds impressive on paper, it was a little more unnerving in real life. Particularly as Thomas was perhaps one of the very few people on earth who had actually read all of the books that he owned. Thomas' intense love of learning had always separated him from his peers. There was clever, there was eager to learn, there was hardworking and there was a combination of all three. But Thomas was a little too clever, a little too eager to learn and a little too hardworking. He unnerved people. His insatiable thirst for knowledge, not just for a purpose but for knowledge's sake, drove him onwards but also drove people away from him. It was never intentional. He had tried to 'fit in'. It just never seemed to work. So to books he turned. And also to music. But mainly books.
Thomas' love of reading had not left him with the pale, slightly drawn look that typifies those who spend too long in libraries, particularly at exam times. Although very slight, he was strong and a decent runner. He enjoyed travelling and would read outdoors whenever he could. In someways, Thomas was desperate not to become a caricature of himself. His mop of unruly hair and club master glasses had earned him the nickname 'Harry Potter' to all but one person who called him 'Joe 90' instead.
Beyond the fact that Thomas owned an unusual amount of books, his neighbours and tutors didn't know much about him. No matter how curious they were, no matter how many times they googled innumerate variations of his name, no matter how many times they tried to sneak a look his contact information at the College, they couldn't find anything out. It seemed that Thomas only existed in that little room at the top of Staircase G in the right cloister of second court. Thomas liked it that way. Its not that he had many secrets that would mean anything to them, but he just couldn't bear the thought of anyone finding anything out about him that could be used against him in someway and added to the already considerable arsenal that his schoolmates had at their disposal. Thomas shuddered to think what they would say if they found out who is parents were though. He dreaded that. He knew that they were still alive somewhere. That was another good reason for remaining extremely private: he didn't want people like that mixing with the people in his College. In his eyes, they just weren't worthy of it.
In the occasional trips into is classmate's rooms Thomas saw that their pin-boards were covered in pictures of family, friends and flyers from various events and the occasional timetable or set of examples papers. Thomas' was covered in a list. Just one list, but it was long. And ever growing. He decided to write down everything that he wanted to learn and experience that year. Kind of like a bucket list. But more achievable. And without a terminal illness urging him on. That always bothered Thomas. Why do people only really start chasing their dreams when they had so little time left? Surely it would be more logical to start work on crossing things off the bucket list now whilst you still had an average life expectancy and therefore more time to get more things done. Thomas didn't just dream. He planned.
The porter noticed Thomas' list. He stared at the words for a while then turned to Thomas.
"Whats this?" he jabbed a finger at the list. Thomas moved into the room and stood level with the porter in front of the board. He was faintly embarrassed as the cluster of points that the porter was pointing to were
258: Divine the logic behind the QI scoring system
259: Learn how to juggle
260a: Understand when exactly sexy disappeared prior to 2006
260b: Understand where sexy actually went
"Oh its a list of things I want to learn this year. My lab partner added numbers 260a and 260b. That wasn't me —" Thomas went quiet as the porter began to laugh and shake his head, but he stopped when he saw that Thomas wasn't taking it well. Maybe he was a little too quiet and sensitive. He had misjudged him and regretted giving him such an unpleasant look when he opened the door. Whilst the porter wasn't particularly fond of Thomas, or really liked him, he didn't want to upset him on his own turf. That wasn't really fair.
"Who is your lab partner?" the porter attempted to steer the conversation onto what he felt was more solid ground for Thomas.
"Ezekiel Davies" Thomas murmured. Ezekiel was clever but not quite in the same league has Thomas. Or so Thomas thought anyway. He spent too much time on the rugby pitch than at his desk which meant that there was always a frantic attempt at an example paper outside of their tutor's office. But he always did well. It was a bit galling really.
"Yeah, sounds like something he would say. Haven't seen him around for a while though" The porter did like Ezekiel. He joined in with this jokes and wasn't too much trouble. The porter frowned as he tried to remember the last time he saw him. It must have been a couple of weeks now. He made a mental note to check with his tutor as to his whereabouts, just to make sure he was OK.
"No, nor have I" Thomas replied quietly. Realising that he may have to go another supervision without him today.
"If you ever find out the answer to that QI one, let me know. I love that programme. Its so interesting you know. I love learning the stuff on that. They always make it sound interesting. I've always been like that though. Much prefer listening to things. Or watching 'em. Don't like reading though. Too much like work that. Well good luck to you”
The porter held out his hand to shake Thomas' but missed because Thomas had suddenly spotted the clock on the wall and darted towards the desk. He was late. He hastily gathered together his rucksack and pulled his laptop free of its charging lead whilst the porter looked on somewhat bewildered at this sudden burst of energy from the quiet boy. He said something about how even the cleverest people in the country couldn't keep time and laughed to himself about it but Thomas didn't hear it. He was already out the door, flying down the worn stone staircase.
"Scary to think people like him might be in power some day. Too much time looking at books. Too little time in reality" chuntered the porter as he continued his checks and went to investigate the odd hissing, almost whispering sound, coming from the pile of the only library books in the entire room "If he's burst a pipes with the weight of these books, I'll burst him”
When Thomas stepped into second court and looked up at the dull grey Thursday sky, there was nothing to indicate the fact that his life was about to be changed in a wholly unexpected and extraordinary way.
Thomas put his earbuds in and ran past the porter's lodge with Hans Zimmer pounding in his ears, through the gate and out onto the bustling street and a stream of bikes heading towards the university's main buildings.
None of them noticed the blue box lurching into reality on the corner of Trinity Street.
When the porter had moved the small stack of library books to the side he decided that he was starting to lose it. This must be it. The beginning of the end. The mid-life crisis, or work related breakdown, or whatever it was you were stereotypically meant to get when you were fifty.
Not only was the hissing definitely whispering, it had moved. It had moved with the pile of books. The porter picked up the pile again and moved it behind him. The whispering followed the books. He put the books outside Thomas' room and closed the door. The whispering stopped. He opened the door. He heard the whispering again. The porter picked up the pile and raised it to his ear. It was definitely the books. Although it sounded louder at the top of the pile than the bottom.
For the next quarter of an hour he arranged and rearranged the books. By a process of trial and error he found that it was Land Degradation and Society that was whispering. Which struck the porter as odd. As out of the entire pile this was definitely the dullest book. If you were going to be a whispering book, you may as well be whispering about something interesting.
The porter placed the offending book by the door and backed away. He attempted to finish his checks but the book was more than a little distracting. He took off his waistcoat and gingerly wrapped the book in it in an attempt to muffle it. Now it was comparing unravelling the causes of land degradation to murder mysteries and the porter frankly didn't want to know.
After ascertaining that Thomas was not growing or smoking anything illicit, or heaven forbid, using blu-tac on the walls, the porter decided that he had had enough of staircase G and its whispering books. He needed a lie down. Some stress related leave. And possibly a psychotherapist. But not necessarily in that order.
But before he went he decided to have one last attempt at working out exactly what was going on with that book in a desperate bid to prove to himself that he was not mad. When he picked it up, the book had become a little louder. Either that or he was more in tune to listening to it. It was now introducing the notion of "chains of explanation" to show how remote historical events are linked to specific forms of degradation. Despite himself, the porter found the subject suddenly rather interesting.
He left Thomas' room, closing the door softly behind him, suddenly thrilled at the prospect of learning about farming in eighteenth century France. Whats more was that he was actually understanding it. Him. The man who didn't have two O-levels to rub together having been plagued with dyslexia at a time when the British education system was not nearly so understanding. It was only when his Casio watch bleeped to indicate the hour, did he realise that he had been stood in the same spot, outside of Thomas' door for forty-five minutes. He looked up to see a vague outline of a person staring at him. They were stood outside, looking up at him through the latticed window. He blinked and the figure was gone. What was he thinking of? Books didn't really whisper. People didn't appear and disappear. With a sudden jerk into reality, he came to his senses.
The porter turned to unlock the door and return the book but then remembered that his card didn't work on Thomas' door. He'd just have to leave it outside. Anywhere that wasn't in his hands. But he couldn't put it down. He was torn. There was part of him willing him to loosen his grip but another part making him want to look down at the book again and read on. The book seemed to be getting closer and closer to his face. He was panicking now.
The ink on the page began to run as if it were fresh of the press and he had been caught in the rain. The porter couldn't help but stare as the ink flowed in thin streams up towards him. Suddenly his resolve to abandon the book was completely lost. The ink was moving sinuously towards his eyes. The sensation of the ink running into his eyes was like nothing he had ever experienced. As it leached to the back of his eyes, the porter's world blackened but his head was bursting with new information and understanding. He could read and comprehend better than ever before. His last thought through the agony was what a wonderful, enlightening death this was. He wished this gift had come sooner.