Workbench Chat

by

Nigel Gordon

NigelGordon1948@gmail.com

Workbench Image

 

The old man sat, his back towards the bench, holding his hands out towards the potbellied stove, which was just starting to put out some heat.

“So,” he asked, “w’at brings a lad like you to be sleeping in my doorway on a night like this?”

“It was sheltered and out of sight,” the boy replied.

“Aye, it is that,” the old man stated. The door to his workshop was set back a good two feet in a covered passageway between two buildings.  Once, that had been an open thoroughfare between the old town gate and the market place.  Over the years the buildings on each side had been redeveloped and in the process reached out across the open space until now it was a covered passage, just over seven feet wide, running from Wall Street to Market Street.  The wall and market which had given them their names were long gone, as was the town gate which had caused this passageway to come in to being in the first place.

“That don’t say, though, why you be sleeping in it, this night of all nights,” the old man commented. “You be in trouble?”

“Maybe,” the boy responded. 

In the corner an old electric kettle started to splutter as it came to the boil.  The old man got up and walked across to it. Then he poured its contents into a dark, chipped teapot.  The first thing he had done when he had entered the workshop after finding the boy was to fill the kettle and switch it on.  He had put three teabags in the pot, thinking he needed to make a good strong brew.

“You either be in trouble or you ain’t,” the old man commented. “Are the cops after you?” He thought it doubtful: the types of boys who got into problems with the police were usually the types of boys who had friends where they could hide out for at least a day to two. Also, the boy was cleanly dressed but clearly not fashionably dressed.  From what the old man knew about boys of that age—which he thought was anything from thirteen to sixteen—if they had mates, they were in a competition to look good.

“Nha, it’s not the cops,” the boy stated.  The old man nodded.  What the boy had not said was more telling than what he had said.  He had not denied that someone was after him.  Best not to press the point: no doubt it would come out in conversation, if he could get the boy talking.

He took a couple of mugs off a shelf by the sink, dumped three sugars in one of them, and then poured the tea.  He stirred the mug with the sugar in it, and then handed it to the boy.

“Sorry, no milk.  I don’t use it. Anyway there ain’t nowhere to keep it here.”

The boy looked around the workshop.  It was small, probably about eighteen feet by twelve, he thought. Most of the walls were filled with shelves, and fittings hung from the roof beams.  High in the wall opposite the door was a small window, which the boy thought probably did not let in much light when it was not dark outside.  There was a old fashioned stone sink immediately under the window. To one side was a table, with the kettle and the tea-making stuff on it.  On the other side, in the corner, was a pot-bellied stove. The old man spotted the boy looking at the stovepipe chimney, which went up and across, gaining egress through what had once been a pane in the window.

“The walls of this place are over three feet thick and solid stone,” he stated. “Used to be part of the old keep, before Cromwell blew it up. No way you could put a hole in for the chimney; easier to go through the window.”

“So, this was part of the defensive wall?” the boy asked.

“No,” the old man replied. “It was almost certainly some sort of storeroom in one of the buildings inside the keep.  If you look at the window, you will see the marks of where the bars used to go.” 

The boy stood and walked over to the window.  For a few moments he stood there looking up at it; then he climbed on the sink and reached up to run his hand over the stones that made up the window sill. 

“So, this was a dungeon,” he asked.

“No, I told you it was a store room.  They had bars on the window to keep people from stealing the contents. Remember, back then they did not have glass in windows.”

“Must have been bloody cold,” the boy stated.

“It was,” the old man responded as he seated himself at the workbench that stood in the middle of the room. “Though of course, in those days nobody spent any time in this room.  They would just haul stuff in or out as the case may be.  If they wanted to be warm they’d be in the Great Hall, had a big bloody fire burning in there.”

“Where was that?” the boy asked.

“Roughly where Smith’s is today,” the old man replied, referring to the large newsagents and stationery shop on the far side of Westgate.  He turned in his seat and picked up a stack of papers that had been lying on the shelf behind them.  Placing them on the workbench, he turned back to the shelf and removed a flat oblong of wood with strips of wood fastened down two of its sides.  The boy noted that there was a small gap where the two strips would have meet in the corner.

“What’s that,” he asked, coming across to the bench to look.

“It’s a folding jig,” the old man replied. “Allows me to line up the edges of the signatures as I am folding them.”  He picked up a set of papers from the top of the stack, placed them face up in the jig, and then folded them over, lining up the edges of the folded-over pieces with the edge of the jig.

“I thought a signature was something you signed. Like when you sign a letter?”

“Oh it is,” the old man confirmed.  “It is also the term for a set of pages that go to make up a book.  Like this.” He held up the folded set of pages.  The boy could see that they were pages from a book.

“You make books here?” the boy asked and then felt stupid because around the workshop were a number of books, all seemingly in some stage of manufacture.  He had not noticed that before.

“No son, I only bind them, it is writers that make books.  They put the words together in a way that seems right. A way that tells a story, or imparts information. All I do is give their work a binding that is worthy of what they have produced.”

“I love books,” the boy stated.

“Really?” There was a hint of disbelief in the old man’s tone.

“Yes,” the boy stated. “When I can, I go to the library and sit and read.”

“You don’t read at home?”

“We’ve got no books at home.  Dat says they’re old fashioned.  Anyway, he says only wimps read books and there’s no wimps in his house.”

The old man nodded.  He had caught the use of “dat” for dad, the faint touch of accent, not much but enough.  Now he knew where the boy was from.  He could well imagine that there were no books in the house: in all likelihood the father could not read.  There had, he also noted, been no mention of a mother.

Things though did not add up.  The boy was clean, or at least as clean as anybody could be who had been trying to sleep in a doorway off a backstreet alley. His clothes, whilst somewhat rumpled, were clearly cared for.  They were not the clothes one associated with Gypsy boys, even those who had settled down in houses.  The old man though had no doubt that the boy was Romani get.  His accent said it, and the way he looked at and touched things.  The old man smiled as he watched the traits in the boy that he knew from his own past, now long past.  He looked at the boy, catching his eye.

“What?” the boy asked.

“Poshrat?” The boy blanched.

“So, your mother was a geyri?” the old man asked.  The boy looked at him and nodded.  Then there was silence.  The old man took an upright frame and started to fasten tapes to it.  Once he had three tapes in place and taut, he put the pile of signatures on the board in front of the tapes.  Having aligned them as he wanted, he marked the position of the tapes with a pencil on the back of the spine of the signatures. “Tell me about your mother?” he finally asked, feeling the need to break the silence.

“Not much to tell,” the boy responded.  He watched as the old man removed the signatures from the frame and put them between two boards and placed them in a vertically mounted press.  “She died when I was eight.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the old man replied, picking up a backed tenon saw. “Was she from around here?” He proceeded to cut a number of grooves in the spines of the signatures.

“Yes, my grandparents live at the top end of Mill Street, though I have never met them,” the boy responded.  The old man nodded as he sawed more grooves into the back of the signatures. “What yu doing?”

“I’m making the holes in the signatures for me to sew them to the tapes.  That will form a book block.”

“Oh,” the boy responded.  “I thought they were just stuck in.”

“A lot of books are.  Most commercial books are what we called Perfect Bound.  That is, the spines of the signatures are glued together to form the book block,” the old man stated. “It works for books that are only going to be read once or twice.  If you put too much use on them, though, the glue starts to come apart and they break up.  What we do is to sew the signatures together and fasten them to tapes or cords which hold them in place.”

“Why’re using a saw?” the boy asked.

“It is easier than using an awl to make the holes.  Anyway, this way we cut all the holes at once for each position, so we know they line up.

“So your mam was from Nobs End,” the old man stated.  That was the local name for the top end of Mill Street with its large houses.  Once it had been occupied by prosperous wool merchants, now by the better off members of the community.

“Yea, but the family didn’t want ’er after dad get ’er with my brother,” the boy responded.

“So you have a brother?”

“Two: Tom’s sixteen.  He’s off working on a tarmacking gang.  Harry’s ten—he’s living with Aunt Jane, my mother’s sister.  My sister Ruth—she’s six—is with Aunt Jane as well. She took ’em when ma died but said us older uns were too much trouble.”  The old man removed the signatures from the press and laid them on the sewing frame.  He checked the line-up of the sawn holes against the tapes and thought about what he had just learnt.  So the older brother was off tarmacking.  A typical occupation for travellers. Going from door to door offering to repave the tarmac drives.  Then they would do a quick skim over the old tarmac and charge for a complete relaying job.

“So, are you Dick or Richard?” he asked.

“Usually Rick although my proper name is Richard. How did you know?”

“Tom, Dick and Harry—it’s an old name sequence.  Been around since sixteen-fifty-seven at least.  That’s when it is first recorded.  A chap called John Owen used it in an address at Oxford University.”

“You know a lot,” Rick stated.

“Comes from working with books.  You tend to read a lot,” the old man responded.  “By the way my name is Robert.  Robert Arthur Timpson, known as Ratty at school, now called Bob.”

“Did they really call you Ratty,” Rick asked.

“Yes. Partly because of my initials, more so because of my hair: then it was black and very unruly.”

Rick looked at him.  Bob’s hair was white and neatly trimmed.  It was hard to visualize that head with black untamed hair upon it. The distant chimes of the church clock rang nine.  In another three hours it would be Christmas.  That brought a question to Rick’s mind.  “How come yu’re ’ere working? It’s Christmas Eve.”

“I know what day it is Rick.  It’s a day for families, not for old men like me.”

“You don’t have a family?”

“I do, Rick, but I’m not with them anymore.  They have their own lives to lead and I am no longer part of those lives.  There’s always work to do, caring for books.  They need care, you know?”

Rick thought about that for a moment, then responded. “I suppose they do.  So that’s what yu do ’ere, care for books?”

“Yes. I repair them when I can.  Sometimes though you have to rebuild them, take them to pieces and then put them back together with new bindings and covers.  Then there are those books that are special.  They should have a special binding from the start.”

As they had been talking, Bob had started to sew the signatures to the tapes.  Rick looked on, fascinated by the way that the stitching bound the signatures together.  After he had sewn each one into place Bob knocked it down with a stick that fitted between the tapes. 

“Would you like some soup?” Bob asked.  Rick looked up at the old man and nodded. “Yes please, I’ve not eaten since...”

Bob stood up and moved over to the stove.  From the cupboard beside it he withdrew a saucepan and a tin of soup.  He placed the pan on the top of the stove, then opened the tin and poured its contents into pan. “Sorry,” he stated, “there’s no bread but I think there are some crackers in that tin by the door.” He indicated a large biscuit tin on a shelf by the door.  Rick got up and went over and picked it up. 

“They may be a bit stale.” Bob warned.

“They’re better than nothing,” replied Rick, opening the tin and taking one of the crackers out.  It was a bit stale, but he was not about to complain. Bob returned to his sewing of the signatures, every now and then turning to look at the pan on the stove.  Soon it began to simmer.  He went over to the stove and moved the pan off the heat, and then took a bowl out of the cupboard and poured the contents of the pan into it before handing it and a spoon to the boy.

“Ain’t yu having any?” Rick asked.

“No,” the old man replied.  “I don’t eat much these days.  At my time of life you get out of the habit of eating.”

The boy took a spoonful of soup. “This is good, w’at is it?”

“Mulligatawny.” Bob responded.

“Indian?” the boy asked, dipping a cracker into the soup.

“No, English.  It is one of the things we got with the Raj.  Its name comes from the Tamil for pepper water.  Originally it was a sauce but we made it into soup when returning expats brought it home to England.”

“Never had soup like this before.” Rick stated.

“There are a lot of things you probably have never had.” the old man replied. “I know there are a lot of things I’ve never had. Not much chance I will try them now.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you see, it’s a bit too late for me. Not too late for you though, you have your whole life in front of you.”

“So long as Dat doesn’t find me ...” The boy stopped a look at horror on his face.  He had not meant to say that.

“It’s your father you’re hiding from then,” the old man said. There was no need for the boy to reply, it was not a question, but a statement.  He just nodded his head, acknowledging the correctness of it.

There was a period of silence as the old man removed the book block from the sewing frame, squared it up, and then clamped it in a press.  He proceeded to smear glue over the spine of the book.

“I thought yu didn’t glue the parts together,” Rick commented.

“I don’t, it is the tapes and the sewing that holds the signatures together.  The glue reinforces them, making them stronger.  Now I have to wait for it to dry, though that won’t take long.”  He took a large sheet of grey mill board from a shelf and moved over to the guillotine, that stood against the back of the workbench, where he cut off wide strip, that he then cut into three pieces, two a bit larger than the book block and one narrow one.

Rick watched him finding the process fascinating. “W’at yu’re doing?”

“I’m cutting the boards for the cover.  Really, I should measure the book block to calculate the size required for the boards, but I know it is made up of A5 signatures so I have a pretty good idea without having to measure.  Anyway, you always have to trim the boards before final assembly.

“So, Rick, what have you done to upset your father?”

“It’s not what I’ve done, it’s what I am that’s upset him.” Rick stated in reply.  The old man looked up at him, their eyes meeting.  Rick wanted to turn away from that gaze. It seemed to him that Bob was looking into his very soul at that moment.

“How did he find out?” Bob asked.  It was to be many years before Rick realised that the old man had not asked what he had found out.  It was as if he knew, but there was no way he could have.

Rick replied, though, on the basis that Bob knew. “He come back early and found me with a mate.”

“I assume in something of a compromising position?” the old man commented.

Rick looked at him and realised he was smiling. “Yea, I was sucking him off.”

“Not good.”

“I know it’s not good, but it is the way I am!” Rick exploded. 

 “I did not mean that you weren’t good,” the old man commented. “What I meant is that is not good that you were caught.  It’s hard being one of the people when you are only a half-gypsy.  It is even harder when you are paplbno.”  He let out a deep sigh as he used the old word something that was unacceptable or not quite right. “I had hoped that it might be possible to get him to take you back but that is clearly out of the question.”

“He not only won’t take me back; he won’t let me stay in the town.  Said he would fucking kill me if he caught me within sixty miles of here.”

Bob moved across to one of the large flat shelving units and pulled a large sheet of marbled paper off it. He quickly cut two sheets from it in the guillotine. “So it is probably not a good idea for you to stay around here?”

“It bloody well isn’t but I can’t get away till the 27th—there are no buses or trains till then. I was going to start walking in the morning.”

“That, Rick, is probably not a good idea; it will start to snow before sunrise.”

“You mean we’re going to have a white Christmas?”

“Yes, Rick.”

“That’s great. I’ve never seen one, and now one’s come I’m bloody stuck out in it,” Rick observed.

“That’s as maybe,” Bob responded.  He folded the two sheets of marbled paper in half then ran the paste brush along the folded edges before gluing them at each end of the book block.

“What are those for?” Rick asked.

“Those are the end papers.  They actually hide the way the book block is attached to the covers when everything is assembled.” Bob replied as he placed the book block into what looked like a large wooden vice. Rick noticed there was a groove along the top of one of the jaws of the vice. 

Bob placed a piece of mill board behind the book block so that it stuck up just above the front edge of the book block, and then he closed the jaws of the vice to hold everything firm.  He then picked up what to Rick looked like two wooden blocks, connected together with a set of metal rods.  One of the blocks had a couple of studs in its base that fitted into the groove on the vice jaw.  Once the old man had placed the blocks on the top of the vice jaws, he moved it forward until it was over the book block, then adjusted them using the handle that stuck out of the side if one of the blocks.  After a few moment’s fiddling, he seemed satisfied and pushed the blocks forward before pulling them back towards him.  A movement he repeated and then repeated again and again.

“What yu doing?” Rick asked.

“I’m ploughing,” the old man replied.

“Nha yu not, yu need a tractor to plough and yu do that outside in the fields.”

“Rick,” Bob responded, “the word plough means to cut into something.  So the farmer cuts into the soil when ploughing the land.  I’m cutting into the book block. Come over and have a look.”  Rick left his stool by the side bench and walked over to where Bob was working.  When he looked closely at what the old man was doing he could see that one of the wooden blocks had a blade protruding from its base.  Every time the old man pulled the block towards him it cut a sliver of paper from the front edge of the book block.

“Why are yu doing that?”

“It’s to make the edge of the book smooth.  Every time I push the plough forwards I turn the handle a quarter turn, which brings the blocks closer together, so when I pull back the blade cuts through one or two pages of the book block.  Want to have a go?”

Rick nodded.  For the next fifteen minutes or so he was ploughing the book block,  first the fore-edge, then the head and the foot.  In the hands of an expert like the old man, the process was quick, but for the inexperienced it was not so easy, as Rick found out.  There was, though, something of a sense of achievement with the smooth finish on the final edges, even if he had made only a small contribution to it.

Once they had finished, Bob removed the book block from the ploughing press and placed it flat on the workbench.  At first he just pushed the spine of the block to force it into a rounded shape, turning it over a couple of times to get the shape he wanted.  Then he picked up a hammer and started to hammer it round.

“I suppose I better leave,” Rick stated.

“Why?”

“Because I’m a fucking queer.”

“If you are going to use language like that, maybe you should leave but not because you are homosexual.  I presume you are.”

“Yes,” Rick admitted, “I’ve known for a couple of years that I fancy boys rather than girls.”

Satisfied that the spine was sufficiently rounded Bob placed it vertically in a press which had angled metal plates on the jaws.  It took him a couple of minutes to get the book block positioned so there was about four mil between the top of the press jaws and the start of the spine.

“So what are you doing now?” Rick asked.

“I’m backing it,” Bob replied, taking a hammer and hitting the spine of the book, forcing it over the edges of the jaws. “Basically I am knocking the spine round the edge of the backing plates in the jaws so as to form a lip on the spine.  The cover of the book sits in the lip.”

“So you are just hitting it?”

“No,” Bob responded, “there’s a bit of a trick to it.  You have to hit the spine in a certain way to make it spread out evenly over the lips. It is a sort of circular glancing blow to the spine.

“How about you make another pot of tea whilst I get this finished?  I’ll need a break then.”

Rick got up and filled the kettle, setting it to boil.  Bob continued backing the book block.  When he finished he removed it from the backing press and moved back to the main workbench.  There he had a lying press, two pieces of thick wood with chamfered top edges, connected by wooden screw threads.  He inserted the book block into the press and tightened it, so that it held the book spine up.

As Rick made and poured the tea, Bob applied a layer of paste to the spine of the book block. When asked what it was for he informed the boy. “Holding the book in the press stops its springing back. Applying the paste holds the spine in the shape I have forced it into, rather like hair gel on your hair.”

“I don’t use hair gel!” Rick exclaimed.

“Really, I thought all boys your age did,” Bob answered.

“Maybe. Couldn’t ’ford it.  Had to use soap.”

Bob laughed.  Rick brought a mug of tea over and put it on the bench next to him. 

“Bring your tea over and take a seat here,” the old man told him.

The boy did as instructed.  Bob took the two pieces of mill board and measured out then drew two lines along the cards edges, each a few millimetres from the edge. 

“Could you cut the board along those lines for me?” he asked.  He placed a sharp looking craft knife and a metal safety ruler on the bench.  “Use those, and cut the boards on that green cutting board.” He indicated a large green board to the boy’s left. 

Carefully Rick placed the first of the boards on the cutting surface and positioned the ruler along the line.  He then tried to push the blade of the knife through the board to cut it. 

“Not like that.  Too much like hard work and you won’t get a clean cut.” Bob informed him.

“Then how?” Rick asked.

“I’ll show you.” Bob took the knife from the boy, then, holding the ruler firmly in place lightly scored along the length of the line.  He did that a couple of times. “That’s how to do it.  Don’t try to go all the way through at once.  Just keep making like cuts going a little bit at a time.  That way you will use less energy and you’ll get a clean cut.  Once you have the cut line established, it will guide your blade, which makes things easier. Do you think you can do it now?” The boy nodded. Bob handed him the knife and returned to the book block.

Whilst Rick scored his way through the boards Bob removed the book block from the laying press.  He carefully cut the tapes so that about thirty mil of tape projected from each side of the spine. Then he applied glue to them, sticking them down onto the endpapers, and forcing them into the lip that now existed between the spine and the book body. 

At each end of the spine he attached a decorated headband.  The boy looked at him and asked him what it was for. 

“Nowadays,” he informed him, “it’s mostly for decoration, though it still has a role in protecting the end of the spine.  We used to hand sew them: on special book we still do, but mostly now we use machine made ones which we just glue into place.” The boy nodded as if he understood; in some way he did, though he was not certain how.  Then he got back to cutting the boards.

Bob took a length of linen and cut it to the distance between the headbands and sufficiently wide that it overlapped each side of the spine by about twenty-five mil.  Once he was satisfied he had it the correct size, he pasted it up and applied it over the spine, with the overlaps going onto the end papers. Carefully he forced the linen into the fold of the lip on each side of the spine, knowing that this made for a good hinge for the book.

Satisfied with his work and knowing the boy was watching him, he replaced the book in the laying press, somewhat higher than before, to allow it to dry.  The boy finished cutting the boards.  The old man took them and inspected them.

“For a first time, very good,” he said. He pointed to a slightly rough area at the end of one edge. “See here, that’s where you tried to force the knife through.  Nothing a bit of sanding won’t tidy up.” With that he took a sanding block and run it over the rough burr, removing it.

“Now,” the old man told the boy, “over there are some pieces of leather.  Would you like to choose one?  I need a piece about three hundred by four hundred.  That’s about this big.” He indicated the size with his hands.

The boy got up and walked over to the shelf with the leather on it.  He started to look through the pile.

“What colour do you want?” he asked.

“You choose,” Bob told him. “Whatever you think would look good on a book.”  The boy sorted through the pile and selected a piece which was a deep red.  He brought it over to the work bench. The old man smiled.

“Good choice,” he told Rick. “I had been keeping that for something special.”

Bob took a strip of paper and wrapped it round the spine of the book block, then marked off the edges of the spine.  Once he had done that, he measured the markings.

“Right,” he told Rick, “over there are some pieces of thin card.  Can you get a piece and cut me a strip thirty-three mil wide and two hundred and eight mil long.

“You need these,” he added, placing a pencil and plastic rule on the cutting board.  Rick went over and found some card, which he then set about marking up the card.

“Remember,” Bob told him. “Measure three times, cut once.”  The boy looked at him questioningly. “If you measure it three times you are fairly certain you have the measurement correct.  If you don’t you will probably find you have something wrong and when you go to use the piece it won’t fit.  Then you have to cut it again.”

Rick nodded, understanding what he had been told.  He carefully rechecked his measurements; they seemed out.  So he checked them again.  He had made a mistake.  Carefully he re-measured it, drawing new lines, then checked them twice.  This time he was right. Once certain that the measurements were correct, he started to cut the slip of card.

Whilst he was doing that, the old man had taken a strip of brown paper and cut it to fit exactly on the spine.  Then he had pasted it into place.

Moving the press that was holding the book to one side, Bob swept the working surface then laid a sheet of white paper on it.

“Wat’s that for?” the boy asked.

“I’m going to start to build the cover. The paper protects the outside of the cover while I’m working on it. Don’t want to get the outside dirty. It would not look good.” The boy nodded, understanding the information.

“So,” Bob asked, “what do you intend to do when you get to where you’re going?”

“Dunno,” Rick replied. “Word’ll be out, so the gangs won’t take me. Anyway, I’m too small.” Bob had to agree there.  A lot of the tarmacking gangs used underage boys to make up the numbers, but they had to look as if they were sixteen or more.  Rick looked more like a twelve or thirteen-year-old, though there was something about him that said he was older.

“Poss,” Rick continued, “I’d end up hawking myself.” Bob looked at him, an expression of horror and concern crossing his face.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Rick stated. “I know w’at boys my age do to survive on the streets.”

“And you would do that?” Bob asked.

“’Ave no choice wud I?” Rick replied. “Better than starving or Dat beating the life out of me.” From that perspective Bob had to agree, though he did not like it.

“What,” he asked, “would you like to do?”

“Get some schooling,” Rick replied.

“Really?”

“Yea, the boys that go to school they get good jobs. They do interesting stuff, like this.” He nodded towards the work Bob was doing. “Nha chance for people like me. We miss too much when out on the road.”

 That Bob could understand.  It was not easy when for six months of the year your family upped sticks and moved off in their van, following the seasonal work around the area.  Few of the travelling folk children got a good education.

“Well, maybe now is your chance,” Bob commented. “Get a place to stay and go to school.”

“Who’ll ’ave me?” Rick asked. “I’m gypo.”

“So what? The fact that you’re Roma does not mean you can’t be somebody.”

“But I’m a queer gypo.” Rick responded.

“And?”

“School and stuff not for my kind.” Rick stated.

“What is your kind?” Bob asked. “Your father has driven you out, so you are not of the people. There again, with your mixed blood it would be hard for the people to accept you. Stop thinking of what you are and learn who you are.  That is what is important.”

Laying the leather skin side down on the white paper, Bob placed the two boards and the spine card in the position where he wanted them.  Experience allowed him to judge the space between the boards and the spine cards.  He was not a fool, though, and tested his placement with a template. Then satisfied, he drew a line around the positioned pieces, and then a border around the whole lot.

Taking a sharp knife, he cut the leather to along the border line he had drawn. As he did, he started to explain to Rick the positioning of the pieces, telling him that the gap between the spine card and the two boards was just a bit more than the size of the lip on the spine.  That way there would be enough movement to allow the book to open.

Rick looked on. He had never realised there was so much that went into making a book.  Then again, he had never thought about how books were made before.  He had really been into reading but not that much into books until recently.  He would read the newspapers and magazines in the library.  He could read quite well, a lot better than his father or his older brother. The thing was, there was not really a place for books in the life he had led. If you needed to know something, you got told it, like when the old men spoke about the old days when they travelled around the country. He thought, though, that it would be nice to have a book.  Something he could read and read again.  Where the story was always the same, not like when his father told a story, changing it to fit the audience he was talking to.

“What do you mean?” Rick asked.

“Well, it’s like this,” Bob replied. “You can make yourself into whatever you want to be.  You do not have to be what people tell you to be. They have no right to. It is up to you to decide who you are and who you want to be.

“It does not matter if you are Roma, Sinti or Traveller. Gay or straight makes no difference.  Neither does being black, white, yellow or any other skin colour.  They are all about what you are. Who you are is up to you.  You can make yourself whoever you want to be.”

“Do you believe that?” Rick asked.

“It’s nha a case of believing, it’s a case of kenning,” Bob replied, the old dialect coming to his lips as naturally as when he was a child.  Rick looked at him. Bob nodded. Then he picked up the boards and pasted them, before placing them in position.

“So yu saying that w’at I am does not mean w’at I’ll be?” the boy asked.

“T’at’s w’at I say lad, now yu ken it?” The boy nodded.  There was disbelief in his nodding but acceptance as well.

The old man picked up another knife. With this he quickly pared down the edges of the leather, explaining as he did that he was making it thin enough to fold over the boards. Once this task was completed, he pasted up the spine card and the boards and put them in place on the leather. Then he cut diagonally across the corners, a short distance out from the boards, before pasting up the edges and turning them in, using a bone folder on each edge at the corner to force the small excess piece into place. Rick watched.

“So,” the old man asked, “what are you going to do?”

“Find a place for the night,” Rick replied.

“Don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Bob replied. Rick looked at him.  The old man smiled. Then turned and lit a gas ring under a metal plate at the end of the workbench.  Once that was alight he went over to a cabinet and pulled out a draw of type.  From the shelf above the old man took a type holder and started to set the type in it.

“What do you mean?” Rick asked.

“Well,” Bob replied, “I’ll make sure you have somewhere for tonight.”

“Ta,” Rick responded, though he was not certain he believed it.

Bob placed the type holder on a stand that surrounded the burner which he had lit before.  The head of the holder resting on the plate above the gas ring. As the head of the type holder was heating Bob carefully cleaned the front of the cover he had been working on.  Then he placed a piece of foil on the cover. 

The church clock sounded the half hour.  Rick looked up at the clock on the wall at the end of the workroom. Bob noted where he was looking.

“It’ll be Christmas in a half-hour,” the old man commented. The boy nodded. “Do you think you can run an errand for me?”

“What?” Rick asked.

“Mrs Carlisle will be at the midnight mass.  I promised her I would have her Book of Hours rebound for Christmas but got a bit behind with it.  Only just finished it. Could you take it to the church and give it to her?”

“Yes,” Rick replied.

“Good,” Bob stated, acknowledging the boy’s reply. “First, though, I must finish this.  So no chatting till it’s done.” He took the type holder from the burner and pressed it onto a damp rag at the side of the bench.  When it stopped sizzling he lifted it from the rag and pressed it down on the foil that lay on the spine of book cover.  Mentally he counted to three, and then lifted up the type holder and placed it to one side. Peeling back the foil from the spine he revealed the word ‘KIM’ in large type and below it ‘Rudyard Kipling’ in much smaller type.

The old man took the book block and placed it between the covers, checking it fitted how he wanted it to. Then he reached below his bench and pulled up a large sheet of what to Rick looked like thick paper, with a pattern of blue lines forming large squares printed on one side.  Bob deftly cut two rectangles from the large sheet and then returned it to below the desk. He then started to play about with the corner of one of the rectangles he had cut.

“This has made life a lot easier,” he commented, “once you can get the backing to start to peel off.”

“What is it?” Rick asked.

“Double sided adhesive film.  Sometimes called mounting film.  We used to have to wait to or three days for a book to dry once we had pasted it up.  Now there is no wait.” With that he pulled off the backing sheet from the rectangle and then placed the mounting film, sticky side down, on the outside of the front end paper.  Once he had smoothed it down and was satisfied he had it correctly in place, he peeled off the protective paper revealing the other adhesive side to the film.  That done, he closed the cover down sharply.  The carefully opened it and inspected his work.  Satisfied, he repeated the operation with the back end papers and cover. 

One that was done, he closed the book and placed it between two boards, then he slipped the stack into a screw press, which he rapidly closed by swinging the weighted arm at the top round. 

“Well, that’s done,” he stated. Opening up the press and removing the stack from it.  He lifted off the top board and then picked up the book and examined it. “And not a bad piece of work.  Now this is something they say you should never do to a book.” From his shirt pocked he drew out an old fashioned fountain pen.  Opening the book to the title page he wrote in it, then handed the book to Rick.

Rick looked at the inscription. “To Richard from Robert Timpson, Bookbinder. Enjoy this and be your own man.” Below the inscription was the date, time, and Robert Timpson’s signature.

“But…” the boy started.

“It’s yours lad, I bound it for you. Always wondered why I kept that stack of signatures for Kim.  Knew they were for you when you came in.  Now you better take this for Mrs Carlisle.  You won’t be able to miss her. Bright purple coat and a large pink hat.  Always wears the same outfit to midnight mass every year.” Bob handed Rick a small book bound in dark blue leather.

The boy took the book and went towards the door. 

“You better put your coat on, lad, and put the Kim in your pocket, so you don’t lose it.” Rick did this and then left, shutting the door behind him. He got to the church just as congregation started to come out.  Rick soon spotted Mrs Carlisle, with the big pink hat and the purple coat.  He went up to her.

“ ’Cuse me Misses,” he stated, drawing attention to himself.  Mrs Carlisle looked down at the small rather grubby boy standing by her. “Mr Smith asked me to bring you this.” He held up the book that Bob had told him to give the lady.

“Oh, my Book of Hours. When did he give you this?”

“ ’Bout five min ago. I’ve just come from the workshop.” Rick replied.

“Well, we better go and thank him,” Mrs Carlisle stated. She turned to her friends. “If you’ll excuse me but I must go and thank Mr Timpson; he knew how much I wanted to have this for Christmas.  He must have worked on it specially for me today.”

“Said he came in specially this morning to finish it,” Rick interjected.

“Come on then,” Mrs Carlisle told the boy, “we’ll go to the workshop.”

The boy followed Mrs Carlisle down the street to the alley.  When he got there, Mrs Carlisle was standing by the workshop door, puzzled. Rick caught up with her and slipped between her and the door, turning the handle and giving the door a push. It did not move. He knocked on the door but there was no reply.  Then he realised Bob must have left while he was delivering the book. Under the impact of that thought, he slipped down the door and sat on the step, sobs racking his body, tears streaming down his face.

“What’s wrong, boy?” Mrs Carlisle asked.

“I thought he would let me sleep here tonight,” Rick stated.

“And why, may I ask,” Mrs Carlisle stated, “would he do that?”

“ ’Cause I have nowhere to stay. Mi Dat throwed me out earlier, said not to go back or he would kill me. ’Pose I’ll have to sleep here tonight.”

“Now we can’t have that, boy. What’s your name?”

He was about to say Rick then he remembered the inscription in the book. “Richard, Misses.”

“Well, Richard, you better come with me. If nothing else, you can keep me company on Christmas day—nobody else does these days.”

= = = = =

Richard Carlisle stepped out of the station and looked around the town that lay before him. It had been over ten years since Mrs Carlisle had taken him home with her.  She had never adopted him, just given him a home where he felt safe and secure.  Also she had given him the support and assistance he had needed to do what he had wanted to do. This he appreciated. That is why had changed his name to hers on his eighteenth birthday. The first day he could.  He knew that had pleased her. It had not pleased her family who had seen him only as an interloper. Somebody after the old lady’s money.

She had taken him home that night. They had first gone to her niece Susan’s house, where she was supposed to have spent Christmas. When the niece had made it clear that Richard was definitely not welcome and should be taken to the police station, Mrs Carlisle had marched him out to her car, put him in it and driven off.  So far as Richard was aware, she had never gone back to the niece’s during her lifetime.

She had given Richard a place to live and to grow at her home—it was in a small village, some thirty miles away—once the legal issues had been sorted out and Mrs Carlisle had obtained guardianship of the boy. He never did find out how she had done that.

School had, of course, been a bit of a problem. For the first six months he was living with her, she had arranged for him to be home schooled, with tutors coming in daily to teach him. He was, though, a bright boy, and he quickly caught up to where he should have been. All the reading he had done in the city library had no doubt helped.

He had gone on to attend a minor public school as a day boy. It was less than two miles from Mrs Carlisle’s home.  Although he had caught up well, he had never achieved the depth that anybody with ten years uninterrupted studies had behind them.  He did do well though, especially in art and design, which had resulted in him going to Goldsmiths College London.

His time at Goldsmiths had brought him back into contact with bookbinding and had brought back memories of that Christmas long ago.  So he had gone onto do a MA in bookbinding and conservation. Even though Mrs Carlisle was ill by then she had insisted on coming down to London to see him collect his degree and to celebrate him gaining a job in the conservation department of the British Library. 

That had been over two years ago.  She had taken him out for dinner at Roules that evening.  It was over dinner that she told Richard—he was always Richard to her, never Rick—that she had only a few months to live. She also told him that besides a small legacy to make sure he had enough funds to move them, the only thing she had left him in her will was her library. 

Richard had been amazed that she had left him that. He had not expected anything from the old lady. She had been more than generous whilst he was living with her.  Anyway, he was fully aware that the family had never liked him living with Mrs Carlisle and were always saying he was just after her money.

He remembered the look on the family’s faces when he had turned up at the house for the reading of the will.  They were of course worried that some of their money might end up in his hands.  As it was, there was a general sigh of relief when the solicitor read:

To my foster son, Richard Carlisle, I leave my library, together with the sum of seven hundred and fifty pounds to cover the cost of removal from my residence to such location as he thinks fit.

The looks then turned to smiles as various nephews and nieces received legacies of money. Those legacies ranged from a two or three thousand right up to twelve thousand. There were also gifts of various pieces of jewellery, items of furniture, and ornaments from the house where she lived or the flat she maintained in the old town. She had not used the latter for many a year.

Her final legacies were to her housekeeper, five thousand pounds, and the gardener/handyman, another five thousand pounds.  Finally, the residue of the estate, some one thousand five hundred pounds was to go to the minor public school that Richard had attended, to help fund scholarships for those in financial need. That had upset the family.  Then the solicitor announced that was the end of the will.

“But what about the property?” asked the niece who had refused to have Richard stay that first Christmas.

“Mrs Carlisle had no real property,” the solicitor responded.

“There’s this place, the flat in town, the farm over the border. I know for the fact that she owned the house Susan lives in,” a nephew who had flown in from New York stated. Susan, looked embarrassed by that remark.

“Ah,” the solicitor sighed. “Those properties. Well you see Mrs Carlisle sold them many years ago to a property investment company. I believe it is owned by a Swiss trust. It provided her with a guaranteed income.” With that he closed he folder of papers, slipped them into his case, stood up and exited.

Richard had hired a van locally that day and loaded it up with the contents of the library. Fortunately, he lived near the airport, so it had been easy, though expensive, for him to arrange a one-way hire.  It had ended up being a long day, and it was well past two in the morning before he arrived home with a van load of books and no idea where he was going to put them.  There was just not enough space in his small one-bedroom flat in Croydon.  The next morning, he had found a storage unit not far from his flat and loaded them in there, before taking the van to the drop off point.

Over the next three months he had sorted through the books.  Some, which had a special meaning for him, like the ones he had read to Mrs Carlisle on those evenings when her eyesight was not up to reading for herself, he moved into the bookcase in his flat. There they joined the hand bound copy of Kim that he had kept through all the years. He had kept it partially in memory of Bob, the old bookbinder, who had sent him to Mrs Carlisle, and partially for the message he had found in reading that book, which he had no doubt that Bob had wanted him to understand.

That copy of Kim now rested in the shoulder bag that swung at his side. He tended to take it with him whenever he travelled, so that he would have something to read on his journey. Today he carried it for a different reason.

It had come as something of a surprise when, two years after Mrs Carlisle had died, her solicitors had contacted him again, on his twenty-fifth birthday, of all days, requesting that he call in at their London offices. The young lady, into whose office he was shown and who was introduced as Miss Wadestone, had been very efficient.

“As you may know, Mr Carlisle, the late Mrs Carlisle’s family were somewhat unhappy with her taking you in,” she stated, once he was seated across the desk from her.  He indicated that he was aware of that fact.  “It appears that they were worried that she was going to leave her money to you.  Indeed, her nephew,” she paused at this point to look at her notes, “Michael had in fact written to her specifically on this point.”

Richard remembered that Michael was the nephew who had flown in from New York.  So far as he could recall, he had never been to visit Mrs Carlisle during her lifetime, or at least not whilst Richard had been living with her.

“I am not surprised,” Richard stated. “They never did like the fact that the old lady fostered me. They always thought I was after her money. Money couldn’t buy what she gave me.”

“And what was that?” Miss Wadestone asked.

“Security, affection, a feeling that you were worth something and that you had a place where you belonged.” Miss Wadestone nodded.

“Well, Mr Carlisle,” she continued. “It seems that Mrs Carlisle was worried that the family might attempt to challenge the will if she left you any major legacy.”

“I have no doubt they would.  You got the feeling the only reason they put up with her was in the hope of getting something.”

“Precisely, Mr Carlisle. That is why she took the effort to make provision for you outside of the will.” Richard was puzzled.  What had the old lady done?

“I think before I go any further that you better read this.”  Miss Wadestone removed an envelope from the package of papers and handed it to Richard.  It bore his name in her handwriting, in the turquoise ink she always used. “I am, Mr Carlisle, aware of the general contents of that letter but not its details.  If you would like to read it in private, I will leave you alone for a few minutes.”  She stood and walked out of the office.

Richard opened the envelope pulled out the enclosed letter and started to read.

My Dear Son,

Yes, Richard, you are my son in spirit if not by blood or in law.  I made a mistake in not adopting you but I am grateful you have taken on my name. I did consider adopting you and looked into the legal implications of it, but it was made very clear that as a seventy-year-old it was unlikely I would be allowed to adopt a then fifteen-year-old. Also my nieces and nephews made clear their objections to any such move on my part.

From that Christmas when you brought me the Book of Hours that Mr Timpson had rebound for me, it has seemed to me that I have been blessed to have you in my life.  You have been a fine boy and you have grown into a fine young man. Despite all the disadvantages you had in life you have grown to be your own man, doing what you want to do, not what others tell you that you should do.

The fact that you are reading this means that I am dead.  The doctors have given me only a few months, I intend if possible to prove them wrong and see you get your Masters. I doubt if I will make it much beyond that though. That bunch of hangers on, who have been waiting for me to drop dead so they can get my money and who call themselves my family, have made it clear that if I leave you my money in my will, they will challenge it. They made that clear when I first looked at adopting you.

As the only people who make anything from challenges to wills are normally the lawyers, by time they have finished there is usually too little left in the estate to have made it worth it, I decided to find another way to provide for you.  I am, as you are no doubt aware by now from my will, a wealthy woman.  Actually, I am far more wealthy than my so called family think. My late husband left me a number of properties and over the years I have used the income from those properties to buy more.

For tax reasons I placed those properties some years ago into a property investment company and I placed the ownership of that company with a Swiss based trust.  I have named you the beneficiary of that trust and for you to come into beneficial ownership of the trust on your twenty-fifth birthday.

I hope what I have left you will enable you to fulfil your dreams and set up a bindery that will keep the traditions of Mr Timpson going.

I may be gone, now that you are reading this, but let me wish you a Happy Birthday.

Richard folded the letter and returned it to the envelope, which he then slipped into his inside jacket pocket. He wondered how long Miss Wadestone would give him. It turned out to be another five minutes.

“So, you’ve read the letter?” she asked.

“Yes, though not sure I understand it,” Richard replied.

“Well, I better give you the full explanation.  My grandfather was Mrs Carlisle’s solicitor.  He had been at primary school with her and, if the truth be known, he always carried a bit of a flame for her.  Indeed, after her husband died and his first marriage broke down, I think he actually proposed to her.

“Anyway, that is beside the point.  It was my grandfather who arranged it so that Mrs Carlisle could foster you.  There were one or two rather grey areas about the arrangement which he put in place.  He later looked into the issue of adoption for Mrs Carlisle.  It probably would have taken place if some of Mrs Carlisle’s family had not made their objections known.  As it was, Mrs Carlisle decided not to go ahead, as there was a risk that if they took their objections to the Social Services it could result in her losing the fostering rights.

“However, she was quite determined to leave you the bulk of her estate.  She was also certain that if she did, the family would certainly contest the will. In this Mrs Carlisle had a certain advantage as a large proportion of her wealth was already offshore.  Her late husband had invested in Dutch and German banking stocks in the immediate post-war period.  What had originally been a rather modest investment had, over the years, grown to quite a large capital sum. She was able to use this money to set up a Dutch-based finance house, who then loaned the sum of money to a UK property investment company that was required to buy Mrs Carlisle’s property from her.  She sold the property to the investment company at something of a knock down price but still within the acceptable market valuations.

“She then put the investment company shares into a Swiss-based trust.  This is where the scheme was very clever.  As the company owed the money used to buy the properties to the Dutch finance house, it essentially had no value.  So, the shares had no value.  As such, even if she had died immediately after making the gift of the shares to the trust, there would have been no tax liability. It was an assignment of an asset of no value.

“Mrs Carlisle then used the funds she received from the property sale to purchase an annuity from the Dutch investment company. Over the last eight years Mrs Carlisle has been living on that annuity.  The Dutch finance house was put into the Swiss trust at the same time as the UK company. You were the named beneficiary of the trust, with control of the trust coming to you on your twenty-fifth birthday. The outcome of all this is that you are currently the beneficial owner, through the trust, of a UK property investment company, which is valued at just over five million and a Dutch finance house that has a similar level of funds.  Since the original deal was set up, it has made further advances from the capital and interest that was paid back, on other secured loans.  These have been made to both the UK company and companies completed unrelated to Mrs Carlisle.

“So, Mr Carlisle, you are now a rich man. When Mrs Carlisle got my grandfather to set up the trusts, he asked her why she was doing it.  She told him that ‘one day that boy will be something to be proud of.’ My grandfather asked me to tell you that she was proud of you.”

That was why he was now back in the town. The town he had thought he would never return to.  He made his way down Station Road and turned left into Wall Street.  Then he turned into the alley between the shops.  A few yards down the alley he came to the door. It was clear it had not been opened for years. Cobwebs hung across the keyhole and around the corners of the doorframe.

Richard was not surprised. He had worked out that Bob must have been in his seventies when he met him—that was just over ten years ago.  Somehow, though, he had hoped someone would have taken on the business.  He walked back to Wall Street, turned right and then entered the shop that fronted onto the street. A bell above the door rang.  The scent of old books filled his nostrils.

A man came out from the back of the store. He looked to be in his sixties. There was a passing resemblance to in his features to Bob, and Richard hoped that the man might be related. If he was, no doubt he be able to tell him how to find Bob.

“Can I help you?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Richard replied. “Do you know anything about the bindery that backs onto your premises, the one down the alley?”

“How did you know there was a bindery there?” the man asked.

“Oh,” Richard responded. “I was in it some years ago. Robert Timpson bound a book for me.” Saying that, he opened his satchel and removed the copy of Kim he had been given ten years before, showing it to the man.

The man took it and opened it. He looked at the inscription on the front piece. As he read it the colour drained from his face. “Rachel,” he called.

“Coming uncle,” a voice sounded from the back of the store followed by a woman who Richard guessed was in her mid-thirties. She walked up to the man and then noticed how pale he was.

“What’s up, Uncle?”

“You need to look at this,” the man commented, showing her the front page of the book. She also went white as she read it.

“I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at Richard. “I’m Charles Smith. Robert Timpson’s nephew. This is my niece Rachel. She is Robert Timpson’s great niece. Would you care to come through to the back, I could offer you some tea and would like to hear how you came by this book, as it may explain a mystery.”

Richard went into the back of the shop and, over a pot of tea and some cakes, told the story of how he came to have the book. In doing so he also told the story of meeting Mrs Carlisle.

When he had finished Charles looked at him, tears in his eyes as he nodded his head.

“That’s just like Uncle Bob. He could never leave a job unfinished and was always one to help. It also explains a mystery that has puzzled us for some years. Though the answer raises more questions.”

“And what are those?” Richard asked.

“Well, Mrs Carlisle brought the Book of Hours in on the 20th of December. She was very upset about the fact that one of her nieces had split wine on it and ruined the binding. Uncle Bob assured her he could restore it and told her it would be ready for Christmas.

“The bindery, as you know, is at the back of the shop but the only access to it is through the alley. The wall between the shop and the bindery is three feet thick, part of the old keep, so there was no way we could put a door through. Uncle Bob did, though, do all his business through the shop. Actually, we still get people coming in today asking if we can get books bound.

“Anyway, I am digressing. Uncle Bob dealt with Mrs Carlisle and then took the book to the bindery, but came back a short time later complaining of a headache. The headache got worse as the day progressed and we had to call the doctor. He called an ambulance and uncle Bob was admitted to hospital. He died later that night.

“He was seventy-eight and had been unwell for some years. Even so, it shocked us all a bit. So much so that I completely forgot about Mrs Carlisle’s Book of Hours. It was not till Christmas day that I remembered. So, Rachel and I came down to the bindery to look for it. Thought we would send it back to Mrs Carlisle with an explanation. Anyway, we could not find it. We looked for it on Christmas day and again when we re-opened on the twenty-seventh.

“I phoned Mrs Carlisle on the evening of the twenty-seventh and told her that I was phoning about the Book of Hours. You can imagine my surprise when, before I had a chance to say anything, she told me that she had it, that the boy had delivered it, and that I was to thank my uncle for the note saying that he was sending it as a gift.

“You see Richard, when you watched my uncle bind this book and you took the Book of Hours to Mrs Carlisle, he had been dead for three days.” With that, he handed the copy of Kim back to Richard, who sat there with tears on his face.

“Now I understand,” he said.

“Understand what?” Rachel asked.

“Mrs Carlisle, sometimes she said that I was the best gift she had ever had.”

 

Copyright © Nigel Gordon 2017 – all rights reserved.

My thanks to Peter Chastain for editing this. Any mistakes left are all mine.