An extract from Julian Gough's novel Jude in London, shortlisted for the 2011 Not the Booker prize
I was eleven. Breakfast was about to be served. A rumour swept the length of the Dining Hall: Brother Quirke, in his rush to be off to the races at Limerick Junction, had left the Banned Books Section of the Orphanage Library unlocked.
By the time the food arrived, I'd summonsed my courage. Quietly, I left my fellows and my prunes.
I exited the Hall, unheeded.
Now, the Orphanage's Universal Christian Library itself, full of improving fiction by God-fearing authors, containing indeed the literary fruit of two thousand years of Christian culture, was always unlocked, and I had read each of its books a dozen times. But today I walked past the open biscuit tin containing all seven slim volumes, pressing on instead to the Banned Books section.
The rumour was correct. Though the padlock was looped through the chain, it had not been clicked shut: and so I gently loosed the chain, pulled back the bolt, swung open the mighty double doors, and stepped into the vast, dim, echoing space.
The immense room was divided into the three major categories, in order of Bannedness.
I walked past Obscenity.
I walked past Godlessness.
I headed straight for English Literature, picked up Beowulf, and began to read.
Brother Quirke's return from the race meeting was delayed somewhat, after he was struck by lightning in the Paddock. And so, by the time he had returned from Limerick Junction, I had made my way as far as the Seventeenth Century, and my head was full. Another summer thunderstorm was brewing, and outside the soft ions gathered trembling on the tips of every leaf and branch and blade of grass.
Inside, in the dense, cool air of the Banned Books Section, deep in Thomas Shelton's original English translation of Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha, I feared for my life.
Or rather, I feared for the life of Don Quixote. But the two had become profoundly confused: I was both observing and being him. I had, too, mentally translated Shelton's translation of Cervantes' place-names into names more familiar to me; and so my Don Quixote was not of la Mancha but of the featureless lowlands of Offaly, and loved a Dulcinea not of Toboso but of Ballylusky. Thus I walked my own fields as Quixote.
I winced as he was struck, and my legs twitched as he ran.
My hand moved to protect my teeth as he was struck again.
Thus it was that Brother Quirke entered the Banned Books Section entirely unobserved. He walked the long aisles of Obscenity and Godlessness, looking for intruders; I read on, oblivious.
A steady rattle of hail against the windows disguised his approach.
Yet as he raised his iron-tipped stick above me, the brief storm ended; the sun came out; the shadow of his stick was flung across my page. I ripped my eyes free of Shelton's translation of Cervantes' account of Quixote's life, just as a stick was descending on Quixote, to see the stick descending on me.
My mind and body being already fully engaged in battle, the transition was effortless, and I used the heavy book as my shield to fend off the buffet.
"Zounds!" I said. "Sirrah! Would you besmirch the honour of your name with a Sneeking Attack? Face me, in combat fair and courteous!"
Something was terribly wrong. I put my free hand to my mouth. "Why, my voice sounds quite English!" I said, astonished. My native Tipperary tones had vanished, and with them certain words, certain ways of building a sentence so it would stay up.
I reached for my sword, and realised I did not have one.
I tried to say "Shite and onions," but it came out as "Soup and fish."
Brother Quirke, unused to such insubordination, took a step back and scowled. His scorched electric hair stood frightful and erect as he raised high again his smouldering stick.
"Well, this is a most pretty pickle I find myself in, I must say!" I said. Shocked, I said: "I say! Must I say, 'I must say'?"
I appeared to have suffered some form of Mental Catastrophe, and lost all my sweet and beloved Irishness. When I reached for words, all I could find were those I had just read, a great pile of language going back to the Anglo-Saxon, built up and unprocessed in my head.
Trapped, under attack, without a sword or a language of my own to defend me, I turned to Sancho Panza to request his aid.
He was not there.
How lonely a feeling, to lose so good a friend so thoroughly that he never was at all. The closing of a book is a massacre.
Wishing to have my friend back again, I opened the book, and as I ran I read. And back he came, smiling, frowning, living, and all was well.
Brother Quirke pursued me, roaring, through the Orphanage, across a number of nearby fields, and back around through the vegetable garden to the Orphanage again.
The trick of being pursued across rough ground while lost in a good book is to tilt it down slightly, and use the upper peripheral vision to ensure the route ahead is clear.
In this manner we passed a happy hour.
At length it began to rain, then hail again. I did not wish the book to get wet or damaged, and so, still reading, I took shelter in the South Tower. The only way was up: I took the stairs two at a time.
As we passed, some of the Orphans shouted words of encouragement.
"Leather the head off him, Brother!"
Their noble Tipperary speech reminded me of my Mental Catastrophe. I ventured an experiment with my deformity: I spoke a Catholic thought, and it came out Church of England. I tried another: I praised a fine All-Ireland semi-final performance by the Tipperary Under-21 hurlers against Kilkenny, and from my mouth came alien speech of an FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park.
Sweet Mother of Jesus, I thought, astonished.
"Queen of Heaven!" I said.
Christ on a bicycle, I thought.
I gave up the attempt to accurately express myself, and returned to my book.
I reached the top of the South Tower, and made my way up and out through a skylight, onto the tower's sloping pyramidal roof, as Brother Quirke came round the end of the stairs.
Scrambling down the wet slates to the roof's edge, I lay down, unobserved, in the deep stone channel of the rain gutter, holding the book above the water as I read. My head, above the water, baked in the high summer sun. My body, below the water, chilled in the icy runoff as the melting hailstones flowed down the roof as slush into the gutter.
And so, when he finally found me, the hot blood in my head raced, full of images and language; but my languid limbs lay cool and still, numb and asleep in the chill water. As his red face loomed above me, I realised I would be able to answer his blows only with language.
The air around us was electric.
"I don't know what's got into you today, Jude," said Brother Quirke. He shook his head. "Your refusal to cooperate is a most ferocious breach of etiquette."
"By Our Lord's Wounds," I said sadly, "it is."
The justice of the coming beating was indisputable, yet I felt a reluctance to cooperate. It would interfere with my reading of my book. Art made its call to me, and Life made its call to me, and I must decide. I felt the very air crackle with the potential of this moment, to create me or destroy me.
To whom would I discharge my duty? Brother Quirke, or Don Quixote?
For some reason an old physics lesson of Brother Brophy's came back to me now. Ah, Brother Brophy's fine advice is always useful in a crisis.
Art, or Life?
"Assume the position," said Brother Quirke.
I sighed. And decided.
"Brother Quirke," I said, "I am currently unable to move my frozen limbs. You would get a better run at me from the top of the roof."
"True," said Brother Quirke. "It is hard to get momentum into such a low stroke from a standing start."
He walked back up the wet slate roof, to the peak. I sighed a second time at what was about to happen.
"Remember to take a good high swing," I urged.
Brother Quirke swung the iron tip of his copper-clad stick high into the electric air.
Every ion on the Orphanage, and indeed the surrounding fields, rushed up to this new highest point, and Brother Quirke's hair leapt momentarily erect as the electrical potential of half of Tipperary expressed itself through him.
For the second time that day, he was struck by lightning.
Blazing, he rolled past me and over the edge of the tower roof and, still blazing, down into the vegetable garden.
I sighed with satisfaction for a third time. Physics had always been hard chewing for me, and it was most gratifying to find a practical use for it.
I returned to my book.
My eyes adjusted to the cross-fading light, as the moon rose and the sun set, and I brought the living book closer to my eyes so that it replaced the world entirely.
When I had finished reading it, and closed it, and the hot tears had finally dried on my cold cheek, I looked up from the gutter and found that I was looking at the stars.