by Annette Edwards-Hill
I couldn’t really tell how old the librarian was. I thought maybe 60 or 70, so I was surprised when I read in the newspaper he was 80 years old, especially because I didn’t think you could live that long and then die in that way.
I spent hours at the village library. I would walk down the hill from the house until I got to the paddock, then cross through the paddock and across the road to get to the library. I’d wipe my boots, or take them off and hang them on the rack outside if it was a really wet day. If Dad had put the bull in the paddock, then I would take the long route down the driveway to the road, over the bridge with the river barreling underneath it. I would often stop and play a game of Pooh Sticks, I’d find a big stick on one side of the river and drop it into the river, then race to the other side to watch it pop out of the current and be carried downstream. I learned about this game in a Winnie the Pooh story, one of the first books I borrowed from the library.
I never leaned too far over the bridge to watch, the water was deep, it flowed swiftly, I felt it pulling me as I watched its rapid escape downstream.
I only knew the librarian as Mr Montgomery. The newspaper noted he was known as ‘Monty’ to his family and friends, but his first name was actually Percival. Percival I thought quite a stuffy mouthful and if I had the choice I’d be known by Monty too.
It was Mr Montgomery who suggested Winnie the Pooh to me and then when I got older he would put aside other books he thought I would enjoy, books about shipwrecks, boys that went camping in storms, boys who got lost. His walking stick was usually propped against the desk as he handed over the bundle of books.
He was always happy to see me come into the library. When he smiled his eyes near disappeared into his eyebrows behind his glasses. He’d ask me what I liked reading, what else he could find for me. The truth was I would read anything. My brother had been at boarding school since the row in the cow shed. Evenings were dreary. It was too dark to be outside having the kinds of adventures I read about and Mum didn’t want to chat while she made dinner, or afterwards while she cleaned the kitchen. Dad would only come inside five minutes before we ate. He’d wash his hands then sit at the table with the newspaper, head down, conversation forbidden.
Mr Montgomery often asked after my father. When I shrugged my shoulders he would reply that my father was a very busy man and it must be very quiet with Warren gone. He’d put his hand on my arm and ask how Warren was. Once he lowered his voice and said, ‘I know it’s hard for you at home Joe, your father has many burdens to carry.’ I just nodded. He never spoke of it again.
I had seen Mr Montgomery at the shop buying one or two potatoes, a single chop, a handful of beans. He’d count out the change slowly, then wobble out of the store his walking stick heavily hitting the wooden floor. He nodded at me and smiled, his eyes warm. ‘Have a nice evening,’ he said.
The last time I saw him at the library, he asked me how I was as I took my armful of books. ‘Good,’ I’d replied before hurrying out the door. The skies were dark and the air damp, I wanted to get home before it started raining. In hindsight I could have dried myself out by the fire, wet hair and trousers wouldn’t have hurt me. I could have stopped. But I didn’t.
I went back to the library three days later and he wasn’t there. I don’t think he’d ever missed a day. Mrs Street who sometimes looked after the tea shop across the road was shelving books. ‘Where’s Mr Montgomery?’ I asked. She looked at me and said she didn’t’ know.
It was my dad who found him. He’d lost a cow while transferring it into the paddock with the bull and he walked the length of the river looking for her. He never found the cow but he found Mr Montgomery’s body. He came home that afternoon, grey in the face, his eyes murky like the river. He went straight to bed.
Tommy who lived in the shearing quarters down the road told me Mr Montgomery was half out of the river two miles downstream. Algae was wrapped around his knees and ankles. He was facedown. ‘I heard half his face was missing,’ he said, ‘the trout ate it.’ I turned away and walked home.
The police found his walking stick a day earlier, resting against a pillar, underneath the bridge. ‘All indications are,’ I read in the paper, ‘that he walked into the river.’
I stopped going to the library. I asked my parents how long I had to wait until I could go to boarding school.
The librarian at my new school was young and took little interest in what I was reading. She was more worried about the books being returned on time. ‘Other boys are waiting,’ she would say even though I had never seen any of the boys in my dorm reading for any other reason than it was their homework.
There was a creek at school, I would wade into it, imagine the water flowing over my knees, my waist, my chest, then my head. I’d think about the last time I’d seen Mr Montgomery, how I’d rushed away.
With my feet wet and carrying my shoes, I’d turn and walk home.
Annette Edwards-Hill lives in Wellington, New Zealand. Her writing has appeared in Flash Frontier, Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, 2018) and Headland. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions 2017. She was shortlisted for the New Zealand Heritage Book and Writing Awards (prose) in 2018. She was the 2017 winner of the Flash Frontier Winter Writing Award.