The Apprentice’s Palette

by Norah Deay


This story began as a prompt in a Writer’s Pen meeting;

Watch out! A hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me to one side as a chunk of masonry sliced by  my head and broke into pieces at my feet. Blinking, I focused on the woman who had saved me. Five minutes earlier she’d welcomed me to the Aisling Library, advising me to be careful as I walked around. Well, that hadn’t worked out too well!

She patted my back, and I saw her lips move but I couldn’t hear her. Her hands reached towards my face, and I leaned backwards but she kept coming and then I could hear her. She’d removed my ear buds, and the music I played at high volume.

“That was lucky!” She didn’t seem to realise how shocked I was and handed the ear buds back to me before heading off into the library with a cheery wave.

I dithered about continuing but my Dutch ancestry came to the fore. I’d paid for a tour of the library, and it would be shameful to waste the money. Marshalling all my willpower I marched after my saviour, hoping to get within shouting distance in case I needed her again.

The shout when it came wasn’t from me. It was the woman, and it wasn’t fear I heard. Actually, it sounded more like Yippyyieh! I hurried forward and found her in a square-shaped room with broken shelves and bookcases lying higgledypiggeldy against the walls and on the floor.  She was on her knees peering through a ragged hole in the plaster.

“What are you doing?” I knelt beside her and tried to see what she was doing, but her torso was halfway through now and blocking the opening.

A series of grunts and groans indicated a struggle of some kind and as I wondered if I should try to pull her backwards, she gave a triumphant cry and backpedalled out of the hole. She held a package wrapped in sacking and stuck her legs out in front of her to cradle it as she gently undid the cloth.

“I knew it was here. With no records of it being lost OR found there was no other place it could be!”

My eyes never left her fingers. “What is it?”

“The Baby Book of Kells!” she reverently held the book, opening it carefully to show the still vivid colours of Celtic script. “It was written as a practice for the REAL Book of Kells.”

“How did you know it was there?”

She lifted her eyes and her expression was a mix of awe and mischief. ” I didn’t! I’ve been searching for months. I’ve investigated every nook and cranny that might hide a book. And do you know what this means?” she asked, her eyes sparkling.

I shook my head, completely caught up in the moment and the gravity of our discovery.

“It means,” she paused for dramatic effect, “that I’ve just found the world’s earliest known colouring book. The monks used it to keep the young apprentices busy!”

I blinked, not sure if I should laugh or be amazed. “You’re joking,” I said finally.

She laughed, a joyful sound that echoed around the crumbling walls of the library. “Absolutely not! Look,” she pointed at a page where the lines of a Celtic knot were neatly filled in with a slightly shaky hand, evidently the work of a novice. “See, even medieval kids couldn’t stay inside the lines!”

The absurdity of the situation struck me, and I couldn’t help but join in her laughter. Here we were, in a decaying library that seemed on the verge of collapse, having just unearthed a piece of history that proved even the most solemn and revered institutions had their light-hearted moments.

As our laughter died down, she flipped through the pages, showing more examples of medieval ‘doodling’  with some pages more expertly coloured.

“You know, this could save the library,” she mused, her gaze turning thoughtful as she looked around at the decay.

I raised an eyebrow, intrigued. “How so?”

“Well, I’m a member of the Historical Society and the library is one of the projects we’ve been hoping to at least make safe, if not restore. Obviously, we’ll have to keep the book somewhere it’s protected but we could still charge for people to see it. We could market this as the original children’s book. Imagine the tours, the merchandise, the colouring books we could sell based on these designs!” She was getting excited, her mind clearly racing ahead to all the possibilities.

We shared a look of understanding and excitement. The ancient library, with its history of quiet scholarship and solemnity, was about to embark on a new chapter filled with colour, laughter, and joy.

Who would have thought that a visit to a crumbling library would turn into a story of revival and joy? Sometimes, history has the best sense of humour.

If you enjoyed this story you can read more from the Writer’s Pen group on this page