Toby and Helene rushed outside their car. Their car was parked in the parking lot of an enormous bookstore. It was the city’s largest bookstore, and was the kids’ favorite, for it housed the largest collection of comic books in the whole state.
Their Mum got out of the car as well and took Toby’s hand. Toby was seven, and still young enough to cross the road by himself. His sister Helene, ten, was more trustable in these matters.
“Now, remember, only four books for each of you. You already got twenty combined last month for Christmas.”
Their Mum said
The children wholeheartedly agreed.
Though still very young, they had collected a large number of storybooks, graphic novels, and comics. And they were very proud of them.
On entering the bookstore, the children rushed towards the comics section, while their mother made her way to the Adult’s section, for she was an avid reader too.
There were new comics in town. ‘Basiliska Returns!” one title suggested. “The Adventure of the Mountain Kids” other read. The comics’ flashy covers excited the children as usual; they quickly selected their pick.
But Helene couldn’t decide between two comics and was taking more time than usual. She had always wanted to read the last part of “Witches and Wizards”, but now ‘Mr. Mischief’s Revenge”, a newly released comic was tempting her as well. And she had already decided to make no compromise on the other three she had selected.
“Just chose one and be done with it” her brother called out impatiently. He had already opened one of his selected comics and started reading it.
“Oh! How I wish that I could select both of them!”
“But that would be unfair because then, I deserve one more too.” Her brother said.
She looked at both the comics and then decided to choose “Witches and Wizards, part 10” when she saw him.
She touched her brother lightly on his arm, alerting him as well.
It was always a queer sight to behold, and it always felt new to the children.
The old man was there again.
The children had discovered the old man a year ago. It was a thing that surprised them because it was so rare to see an old man shopping in the comic books section. The children had guessed him to be a grandfather shopping for his grandkids, but the man visited the comic section as frequently as the kids themselves. And never with a kid. What more, he always seemed so cross and stern, and never smiled at kids. Children almost usually avoided him, many leaving the comics section when he happened to enter it.
Toby and Helene got curios, as all kids do. And they decided that their best bet in knowing what the old man was up to, was to ask the bookstore workers about him. They seem to know him, always tipped their caps when he entered, and greeted him with high respect.
The bookstore staff happened to know the kids as well because they made frequent appearances.
Now was the time to strike, Helene thought.
After two months of thinking, she had finally decided to ask Joseph, in charge of the comics section to ask about the man.
“Hello, Joseph!” She said, smiling
“Oh! Hello there Helene. How may I help you?”
“I have trouble choosing between two books. Can you help me?”
“Of course I can!”
He went closer to her and looked puzzlingly at the two comics she was holding.
“I think you better choose ‘Witches and Wizards’ because I heard from a customer that ‘Mr. Mischief’s Revenge’ was no good”
“Oh thank you! You saved me from wasting my money.”
Toby sensed that Joseph was close enough to them for the old man to hear them.
“Joseph, sir, can you tell us about the old man over there? Why does he always buy comics when he seems so stern to read them. We have never seen him with a kid!”
Toby said all of this in one long breath, afraid that the old man might make a move towards them.
“You’re talking about Mr. Ruthven. Well, he’s not stern, he’s a kind, old man. He’s has been our customer for so many years, even before you were born, Toby.”
“But why does he buy only comics intended for kids?
“I think he has a grandson, or so. But I don’t know. He never seems to talk much. After all, it would be impolite to ask the man why he buys something”
“Oh I see,” said Helene, though she couldn’t see why it would be rude to ask something like that.
“Why don’t you go and ask him!” Joseph says, pushing the children gently in Mr. Ruthven’s direction.
“No way!” Toby shrugs, frightened.
“Be brave children and ask him politely.” Joseph insists.
Toby had always wanted to be brave like the superheroes he read in the comics. But whenever he got the opportunity to be brave, he hesitated, and thought, maybe next time
Helene reminded him of his promise to himself. To be brave, no matter what the situation.
This was his moment
He walked slowly towards the old gentleman.
“Good morning sir!”
“Good morning young lad!” The old man adjusted his glasses to see Toby clearly.
“Which book have you bought this time, sir?” Toby asked his nervousness evident in his voice.
“I am purchasing “Heroes of Hawaii”” The old man said, lifting the book to show it to the boy.
Helene sensed that Mr. Ruthven was not as stern as they’d thought. She also walked towards him.
“But, sir,” She started, hesitating to say another word, “Have you read “The Knights of Kyiv”. This will only make sense if you read that one.”
This was Helene’s bait, to find out who the comics were for.
Mr. Ruthven just laughed, his eyes affectionate at the little children’s innocence.
“Of course I haven’t read ‘The Knights of Kyiv’. But I am pretty sure I bought it the last time I came here. Might as well give it a try.”
Just then, Toby and Helene’s mother emerged out of the adult’s section.
“I hope you have chosen just four.” She said.
“Yeah, we have.” Toby collected his books and both of them went home. The children wondered what Mr. Ruthven meant. He was surely collecting comics. Maybe he was a comic collector just like them. But they didn’t understand why he read comics, because they hadn’t heard any other adult do so.
His voice echoed in Helene’s ears at night. ‘Might as well give it a try.’
School started in the most usual way for schools to start. The children did not have enough time to go to the bookstore, between school and their daily piano lessons.
But a month or two later, Helene had finally read all of her comics and Toby was about to finish his. Helene had also read some of Toby’s comics. Helene looked at her bookshelf.
It was a neat collection of comic books, along with superhero posters on the wall. She smiled when she saw Sparrow Man’s shiny sticker on the wall adjacent to her bed. They sure did love comics.
The children were anxious to go to the bookstore, not only because they wanted more comics to read, but also to converse with Mr. Ruthven, now they had familiarized themselves with him. The children usually visited the bookstore on the first of every month, and Mr. Ruthven was almost usually there as well. Maybe it was also his routine to visit at the beginning of the month.
And they were not disappointed. There he was, waving at them.
Helene ran to him.
She saw that he had the next part of ‘Wonders of the World’ in his hands, this time named ‘The Stars of Serbia’.
She asked him politely, “Mr. Ruthven, did you read ‘The Knights of Kyiv’ and ‘The Heroes of Hawaii’, as we suggested you to.”
The old man smiled again.
“I don’t read them, young lady. I buy them for my grandson, Richie.”
That made complete sense to Helene. The children were satisfied.
“Why don’t you bring Richie at the store? He’ll surely want to choose his own favorite comics,” Toby suggested.
“That isn’t such a great idea as it seems” The old man just frowned.
Ever since the children heard about the old man’s grandson, they wanted to meet him. They thought that it would be fun to meet someone as enthusiastic about comics as them.
On their next monthly trip to the bookstore, Mr. Ruthven was there again.
“Does Richie live far away?” Helene asked innocently.
“Yes, very far away,” There was a sad expression in the old man’s face.
“But can’t he come to see you? Not even once a year?” Toby inquired.
“Oh! He’ll come to see me after four months, I hope. If he’s allowed, that is.”
“But why won’t he be allowed? You’re his grandfather after all.” Toby wondered.
“There are some things you don’t understand, young ones.”
“But if he does come, can we meet him? Please. We want to discuss all his favorite comics. Comics are the things that bind us together.”
“We shall see, lads. We shall see.”
Mr. Ruthven wasn’t at the bookstore at the beginning of April. The children were disappointed.
The month after, in May, the children were anxious to go to the bookstore.
The old man was there.
“Mr. Ruthven! Is your son allowed to come?”
“Yes, yes he is.” The old man looked so happy that the children were glad for his happiness.
Two months couldn’t pass slower.
At the end of July, the kids were desperate to go to the bookstore.
When they went to the bookstore, they found the old man with a young one. The person was sure young, but he was way older than the kids.
“Where is your son, sir?’
The young man laughed, his features resembling Mr. Ruthven’s.
“I am Richie.”
The children were confused.
They could see the young man’s uniform. It reminded them of the formal people.
“I think the children don’t understand, Richie.” The old man looked delighted.
“I’ll explain it to them.”
Richie and the kids went outside.
“I was raised by my grandfather, as my parents were the business type and never had time for me. He was born at the time when the first comic books started coming and have been fascinated with them ever since. So, going to buy comics and reading them together was our favorite part of my childhood.”
“That sounds lovely,” Helene said, her mind remembering her own granny before she passed away.
“But, unfortunately, things got bad between my dad and granddad. There was a big fight, property or inheritance, something was the matter. Also, my mom didn’t approve of my being raised by an old man; she thought that his age would prevent him from fulfilling my needs. But they were always busy to look after me themselves, so they sent me away. To the boarding school. They thought the experience would help in my nurturing or something. I was 10 at that time, now I’m 18”
“That’s so sad to hear, Richie. But you could have protested against it. Our parents often decide something in anger, but they double-think it when we insist,” Helene had started to know the parents’ way, so she thought that this advice might help Richie.
“Well, most parents do. But not mine. It’s not that they are not always cruel and stern. They are the best parents I could’ve wished to have. But they are humans too. And being humans, they’re bound to make mistakes and decide things in a hurry.”
“But they let you keep your comics collection, didn’t they?” Toby asked, possibly perplexed by the mature talk of Helene and Richie.
“No. My mother is a literary professor, and she always used to disapprove of comics. But it depended on granddad back then. After leaving him, she said that I could only read proper books, written with words and prose, with a moral in them.”
“That is so sad to hear. How come they allowed you to visit him now?” Helene knew this wasn’t the nicest thing to ask, but curiosity got the better of her.
“They promised that I could visit him once every year, in the summer. That’s why I’m here.”
“But why does he keep buying comic books if you’re not allowed to have them.”
“That’s our little secret. You see, our comic book collection started when even my father wasn’t born. When granddad was 10 years of age. My father had never shared granddad’s enthusiasm for comics, but he kept collecting them even if he was too old to read, just for old times sake. Then, when I was born, I became interested in superheroes at a very young age. So my favorite comics joined in grandpa’s collection. It grew larger and larger every year. After my being taken away, grandpa couldn’t get himself to stop expanding his book collection. So he kept on. In my memory. Adding a new book each month. And I try to read them when I come to his place every year.
And even sneak some of them in my bag,” he says, winking.
The children felt so wholesome after hearing the story and felt more connected to it than to any other story they’d ever read. They entered the bookstore again and smiled. The old man was standing with his grandson, both of them discussing books, with not a trouble in the world.
Helene knew that Richie might go away next week, but they’ll keep on asking about him.
The children didn’t realize it back then, but they felt it. Youth and age, transcending time and space, united by one thing. The love of reading.