Child’s First Dictionary
dictionary n. a book that explains the meanings of words
Ours was a very respectable street.
The houses were detached, with large gardens front and back, and the verges full
of trees that blossomed in the spring. Our neighbours, tall and gangly Mr Amos,
short and fat Mr Nicholson, said, “Good morning,” and raised their hats to my mother
as we passed them on our way to the bus stop.
gentlemanly!” exclaimed Mum, as though she were surprised by their good
manners. I had no idea why she should be. Mum had a habit of making remarks to
me that I couldn’t understand, without explaining them.
“Are Mr Amos
and Mr Nicholson brothers?” I asked. My mother laughed, the sort of knowing
laugh she gave when I asked her why Mr Greaves and Mrs Keeting, who lived at
number 22, had different surnames, or told her that Roberto Gigli’s mother was
only going to marry his uncle if he got promotion.
just friends,” she said.
“Why do they
live together, then?”
“Did Mr Amos
get lonely, after his mother died?”
enough questions. We’ll miss the bus.”
But I knew Mum
had been shocked when she discovered that Mr Nicholson was living with Mr Amos,
because I was there at the time. It happened a few weeks after old Mrs Amos’s
funeral. Mr Amos invited us in to watch the Coronation on his television,
because we didn’t have one. We were sitting there on the sofa, Mum and I, while
our host tuned in the TV, and we heard clinking noises coming from the kitchen.
“You’ve visitors, have you, Mr Amos?” asked Mum, and at that moment a short,
round, baldish man appeared at the lounge door, carrying a tray of tea and
delicious-smelling shortbread. As if this were not surprising enough, he put
the tray down on the table, and proceeded to pour the tea. This I had never
seen a man do before. But what truly astonished me was his apron: the
fact that he was wearing one at all, and the fact that it had flowers on
I must have
been gaping, because Mum nudged me vigorously.
“This is Mr
Nicholson,” announced Mr Amos, without any further explanation.
beamed at us. “Delighted, I’m sure,” he said, in a posh, fruity, old-fashioned
voice. “Do have some of my freshly made shortbread!”
Nicholson a baker?” I asked on the way home. But I only got the laugh, the
maddening laugh, that mocked me for my ignorance whilst keeping me in it; and Mum
went back to muttering, “Well I never! Would you believe it? Oh dear, oh dear, that
apron!” to herself.
“What is he then?” I persisted.
solicitor, he said, retired. Though I can hardly believe it. It’s a blessing
the poor old lady’s gone, that’s all. She’d turn in her grave if she knew.” My mother’s
voice had taken on a more sombre tone. “Turn in her grave,” she repeated.
Amos like solicitors?” I asked.
solicitor n. a lawyer who advises people and defends them in a lower court of
This was the
first word I looked up when Granny gave me A Child’s First Dictionary.
She brought it when she came to stay, and I, a solitary, serious child, who
liked words, was delighted. I decided to learn a new one every day.
I was glad of the
dictionary, too, because I was chosen to represent the family in accompanying
Granny to Chapel, in my Sunday suit, white shirt with the scratchy, starched collar,
red tie and red sleeveless pullover that Granny had knitted me. The Bible readings
were full of strange words that no one explained.
wasn’t any help with most of them though, as it turned out; “harlot” simply
wasn’t in there, and neither was “circumcision”, even when I looked under “s”.
I looked up “queer”
after I heard it from Colin Smith. It was when my ball landed in Mr Amos’s
garden, and I went to knock on his door to ask if I could search for it. Colin,
who was big and scary and had a reputation for wildness, had parked his
motorbike on the pavement, and was sitting on it, smoking and chatting to a
friend. “You don’t want to go in there!” Colin called out to me as I carefully
opened and closed the garden gate. “They’re queer in there, they are!” The
I knocked in
spite of them, but there was no reply.
queer adj. 1. strange, unusual; 2. unwell
I knew this of
course, because my father always said, “That’s queer!” when he thought he’d
left his pipe or false teeth in a certain place, and they weren’t there; and
Granny often talked about Auntie May’s “queer turns”, and how Uncle Albert had
passed away so suddenly, having only been “taken queer” the day before. But
none of this explained the snigger.
I was squeezed
into my favourite hiding place: the space between the gooseberry bushes, where,
they said, I had been found as a baby, and Mr Amos’s fence. I was studying the
dictionary when my ball came flying over my head, skimmed the bushes, and
landed on the grass beyond. I stood up and perched one-legged on a thin tree
stump to look over the fence, and saw the short, round figure of Mr Nicholson, inspecting
a row of beans.
“Thank you, Mr
Nicholson!” I called out.
There you are.” He came over, beaming at me. “I’ve just made some jam tarts.
And Mr Amos has some things for you. He’s been clearing out his loft. Would you
like to come and see?”
I returned from Mr
Amos’s house carrying Pirate Tales for Boys, a stamp album, and a box
I was late for
tea, and there were guests: a thin, nervous-looking man in round glasses and a dog
collar and a pretty, plump, kind-looking lady beside him. I deposited my
trophies on the table, sat down, and took the lid off the Meccano box. Disappointingly,
it contained lead soldiers and old coins; but there was also a penknife that
snapped Granny. “Say good afternoon to Mr and Mrs Trimble. You know Mr Trimble,
don’t you?” I recognised him now: the young minister who had appeared at Chapel
to “fill in” while the old one was - somewhere I couldn’t remember. “Mr and
Mrs. Trimble won’t be with us long,” continued Granny, “they’re off to the
missions.” It sounded as if they were due to board ship as soon as we’d
finished tea. “He’s missed grace and I’ll vouch he’s not washed his hands.” Returning
to the subject of me, Granny addressed this to my mother. But I knew Mum wouldn’t
do anything about either of those things.
“What have you
got there, Peter?” Mrs Trimble asked me.
“Some toys and
books from Mr Amos next door. He’s been turning out his loft.”
“You have a
nice, friendly neighbour then.”
“Yes. And Mr
Nicholson is very nice too. He gave me jam tarts that he’d just made.”
never – you’ve not been in…” began Granny, aghast. “Marjorie,” – to my mother –
“he’s been with… You shouldn’t let the lad… You never know what he might- Well,
if I were his mother, I wouldn’t allow it.” Granny at last managed to finish a
Ever willing to
stand up for people, but in awe of her mother-in-law, and suffering from a
similar sentence-completion disability, my mother said feebly, “Oh, I don’t
know… They always seem – I mean, you’d never think – He’s a bank manager, you
know, Mr… And his mother was very –”
“That’s as may
be,” interrupted Granny. Then, in a whisper, but still loud enough for us all
to hear, “But it is an abomination, Marjorie!” Then louder, “An
abomination. Leviticus, chapter eleven. Is that not right, Mr Trimble?”
young minister, in the act of eating a shrimp sandwich, looked confused and
then alarmed, went red, said, “I… er…” and appeared to be struck with an even
worse dose of sentence-curtailing disease than the other two. Attempting to
swallow the piece of sandwich in his mouth, Mr Trimble choked.
“We shall miss you both when you’re in Africa,” my mother told our guests emphatically. “Things
won’t be the same without you at all,” she added with apparent feeling, though
she was C of E, and had never met either of them before. She poured Mr Trimble
more tea, while his wife thumped him on the back.
But Granny stuck
to her point. “Well, it’s not a healthy place for a little lad to go visiting,
that’s what I say,” she pronounced. “It’s not healthy at all.”
“Oh!” I piped
up, because at last I had understood something they said. If it was health they were worrying about, I could set their minds at rest. “It’s all right,” I
continued eagerly, “Mr Amos and Mr Nicholson aren’t queer any more. They
might have been queer, but they’re not queer at all now!”
In the silence that
followed, it became clear to me that my words had not had the desired effect. I
slid out of my seat and bolted to the gooseberry bush. The word-destroying sickness
must have finally struck them all dumb, because no one even called me back for
leaving the table without permission.
I took the lid
off the collection of valuables I kept in a half-buried cake-tin: conkers, a
box of matches, a compass for my planned trip to the North Pole, half a packet
of Spangles and the dictionary. I added the penknife, which I had sneaked out
in my pocket, knowing they would say it was too sharp for me, even though it
I took out the dictionary
and looked up “abomination”. It wasn’t there; “abominable” would have to do.
abominable adj. hateful, as an abominable crime
But our neighbours
hadn’t committed a crime; they had only been kind to me. What could be hateful
about home-baking and handed-down toys? Disgusted with its unhelpfulness, I put
the dictionary back in the tin.
It was over a
year before I got it out again. The conkers were mouldy, the matches damp and
unlightable, the penknife jammed with rust, and the Spangles a squishy mess.
The compass still told me where North was, but I knew, by then, that there was
more to Arctic exploration than that. The pages of the dictionary had black
spots on them, but I could still read:
solicitor n. a lawyer who advises people and defends them in a lower court of law
During that year,
I hadn’t been allowed to visit our neighbours’ house again, and, while Granny
was with us, my mother had only nodded to them, instead of chatting over the
fence, as she’d been accustomed to do. But Granny wasn’t there when Mr
Nicholson died suddenly from a heart attack: she’d gone home. So Mum went to Mr
Nicholson’s funeral. A few days later, I went with her to take a fruit cake she
had baked round to Mr Amos. He thanked us profusely, but the gift seemed to
depress rather than cheer him. Mum’s cooking was not a patch on Mr Nicholson’s:
the cake had sunk in the middle, and Mr Amos’s heart seemed to sink further
when he saw it.
He continued to
go to the bank each weekday morning, in his pinstriped suit, but he never
appeared in the back garden, which Mum said was “going to rack and ruin”. I
lost several balls in it, because she wouldn’t let me bother him by knocking on
the door to get them back.
I had taken to
reading the Daily Express, frightening myself with tales of children who
disappeared and were later found dead in a cellar with their feet cut off, or
buried in a shallow grave. But it was in the local newspaper that I saw the
headline: “Bank Manager Charged with Soliciting”, and in smaller writing,
underneath: “Arrested in Public Convenience”. The newspaper was removed from
under my nose, but not before I had seen the name: Mr Walter Amos.
another omission from my dictionary, but it was obvious to me that it must be
what solicitors did. Mr Amos was a bank manager, of course, not a solicitor,
but perhaps he had learnt soliciting from Mr Nicholson, who had been one. Only
what could be wrong with telling people about the law, even if a toilet was an
odd place to do it? I sighed, and chucked the useless dictionary into Mr Amos’s
The next day,
there was a commotion at Mr Amos’s house. Looking out of the landing window, I
saw a policeman standing outside the front door, and an ambulance parked in the
street. Two men came out of the house, carrying a stretcher. I recognised Mr
Amos’s feet, which the red blanket did not quite cover. It covered his face,
though, and I knew what that meant. I knew it was an abomination.
©2007 Christine Cox
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