Episode 216: Banned Books Week – This Story Begins With You by Rachael K. Jones

Show Notes

The Comic Book Legal Defence Fund is a non-profit dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of the comics medium and is an annual sponsor of Banned Books Week. Founded in 1986, the CBLDF has managed and paid for the legal defense of artists, worked with libraries to resist challenged to comics and graphic novels, and undertaken advocacy work against unconstitutional proposed legitlation at the state and Federal level.


This Story Begins With You

by Rachael K. Jones

 

The story goes that your dad got a new job.

The story goes that you moved 5,000 miles away. You didn’t know anyone in your new town, and none of them knew you.

You had a best friend in your old town named Marco, but you left him behind. You had a playground on your old street. A favorite climbing tree. A secret hideout behind the garden shed made from plywood and latticed tree branches, papered with mildewed books the library had thrown out after the classics section flooded.

The story goes that losing all of this felt like a part of you had died. You cried a lot. That bothered your parents. You didn’t want them to feel guilty, so after a while you only cried when you were alone.

The story goes that you were the new kid in 9th grade. A well-meaning history teacher bumped a girl with an amethyst bracelet from her desk so you could take a seat near the front, but the girl’s friends glared at you, the intruder, the cuckoo squeezed into the wrong nest. You’d just arrived, and they already hated your guts.

In class, kids stared and whispered. In the halls, you got lost changing classes in the sea of students. There were so many strangers, their faces washing past like flipbook panels. In the lunchroom, a new conundrum: where to sit? Everyone had a proper spot. You picked an empty seat at random between the gathering cliques, but a 10th grader yelled at you to move. You’d stolen his seat. Go home, nasty little cuckoo.

Finally, you ate your cold hotdog alone, squished at the end of a table, surrounded by the steady roar of a thousand kids ignoring you.

You couldn’t decide which was worse: the staring, or the being ignored.

You found the library by accident. You were supposed to go to the gym, but you didn’t know the way, and the door looked so inviting, covered in twining leaves, with a big gold handle clenched in a lion’s jaw. Inside, a different kind of silence. Not whispered gossip, or the absence of a best friend’s laugh, but a chapel-washed peace, a squire’s midnight vigil at the shrine of a nameless saint. You took in high ceilings and long slanted windows that poured in sunlight in golden gulps.

“Wow,” you breathed, shattering the fragile silence.

The librarian shook her tall silver spear at you. “Shh.” You’d never seen a librarian like her before. She wore a golden toga, and a golden helmet with a red feather crest down the middle. “Quiet voices in the library. There are monsters around.”

Her voice wasn’t unkindly, but you got all choked up anyway, and the careful numbness you’d cultivated all day shattered. Tears welled in your eyes, because your secret hideout was 5,000 miles away, and without a place to call your own, how could you ever be safe again? “I’m trying to find the gym,” you managed. “I’m late.”

The librarian passed an owl-embroidered handkerchief over the checkout desk. You wiped your eyes. The cloth smelled like uncut grass fields at midsummer. “No, dear. You’re right on time. Take this.” She passed you her spear, which became a silver-etched dictionary when it touched the desk. “Go into the stacks. There’s a wolf on the loose in Mythology, and I can’t seem to corral it back into its book.”

The story goes that she was wrong about the wolf. It was Coyote, the shapeshifter, and he wasn’t really a bad guy, just tricksy–liable to help you or betray you, depending on the day. It must’ve been a good day for him, or maybe he took pity on your swollen, watery eyes, because he showed you how to riffle through your dictionary to defeat the toughest books. “With this, you can take on any book in the library,” he explained, giving you a noogie. He shook loose four fiery djinni from a book so they spun the air above you, scorching the spines of Homer and Beowulf, knocking slithering nagini from the Mahabharata. You stretched out your dictionary. It became a water hose, and you doused their smouldering flames with splash and shower and slosh. The nagini helped you tuck the djinni back into their pages.

After that day, you feared no monster.

 


 

You came back to the library every day. At lunchtime, you wolfed down your cheese sandwich, chugged some milk, and spent an hour sailing with Argentine pirates. Some of your teeth fell out on that trip. The captain said you’d caught the scurvy. Your teeth reappeared when you returned to school, but you looked up scurvy in your dictionary. The next day you packed an orange in your lunch and went sailing again.

“I wish I could come here on the weekends,” you admitted to the librarian on a Friday during lunch. Weekends were lonely. Your new backyard was all grass. No trees to climb. No spots for a cuckoo to nest. No branches to lace together for a secret hideout. Your neighbors had trees, but they fenced their yards. The old lady across the street came onto her porch and glared the one time you tried to sketch the robins in her birdbath.

The librarian was wearing a spacesuit today, and her voice came out muffled behind her huge bubble helmet. She pushed some buttons on her wrist controls and twisted the helmet off. “You can check out books, you know. Three at a time. Due back in two weeks.”

The story goes that books removed from the library became ten times more powerful, although she didn’t warn you about this beforehand.

Your math class now orbited Mars. Your science class perched on a volcano’s edge. The beakers trembled on their racks during the eruptions, although the teacher took it in stride, perhaps because she had become Marie Curie. One night, you made the mistake of stowing Dante’s Inferno in your pillowcase while you slept, and you woke to scorch marks fanning out around the headboard.

“You really shouldn’t be reading this stuff,” your mom said when she changed the sheets. “It’s putting strange notions into your head.”

You returned the books and got new ones. The girls in your history class still hated you, especially the girl with the amethyst bracelet. You could feel their hatred on the back of your neck like a bonfire’s heat.

One day in math class, another student tattled when you were reading under your desk during the lesson. Instead of punishing you, your teacher said, “It’s okay. Nothing wrong with reading. Some kids are bookish.” She meant it kindly, but the amethyst girl latched onto the word. It became your new whispered nickname. Bookish, Bookish, Bookish. You ignored it, or tried to. You plunged into Shakespeare’s tragedies, and you thought, At least they’ve never poured poison into my ear. Which was true, in the most literal sense, though the amethyst girl said things that made your ears burn in humiliation anyway.


In November, while browsing the stacks, you found a leatherbound book with no title on the cover. Inside, page after page of scrawled ink script, smudged in places, like someone had dragged their palm through the words while they were still fresh and wet. You showed it to the librarian. She was a mad scientist today. She set down a crate filled with unearthed corpse limbs and rummaged through her lab coat pockets for a magnifying glass.

“An original manuscript! A lucky find indeed. These are quite powerful, and quite rare. It’s been years since one of these wandered uninvited into our stacks. Most libraries keep them behind glass, just in case.”

“In case of what?” you asked, but her one good eye glittered and winked, and she shook her head. “Can I check it out?” The spidery script had brushed your skin like ice, and you’d heard the faintest whisper of a deep voice muttering close to your ear.

The librarian shook her head. “Originals don’t have due date slips. Glueing them inside the manuscript would damage them.”

“So I could check them out forever?”

“No slip, no checkout.”

You stroked the cover gently, and it purred beneath your fingertips. The book’s voice muttered in your ear, warm and soft, almost like having friends again. You thought this one would understand you most of all, more than all the books you’d adventured with before. You traced the handwritten title on the first page with one finger: Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.

The story goes that libraries kept original manuscripts behind glass for very good reason, but you didn’t know any better when you made the decision to steal the book.

While the librarian was busy coiling patchwork intestines into her creature’s abdomen, you slipped into the science fiction section, tore a due date slip from a copy of War of the Worlds, stamped it with tomorrow’s date, and stuck it between the pages of the leatherbound book. You didn’t think of it as stealing. You planned to read it during gym class and return it after school.

But then you left your backpack open during the history exam. Maybe the mean girls took it on purpose, or maybe it fell out by accident and they picked it up. But the fact was it was gone, and when you found out, you were frantic. The librarian would never forgive this.


The last bell didn’t ring that day at school. The teachers disappeared. They walked out of the classrooms and did not come back again, no matter how long you waited. In the meantime, the other students got antsy. They all ditched their desks and clustered around the amethyst girl in the back. You heard them snickering–a nasty sound, like bone dice shaken and thrown and coming up snake eyes every time. You thought you heard them hiss Bookish once or twice, but whenever you turned around to look, they circled in closer and lowered their voices.

One of the mean girls opened the hallway door, impatient to go home, and the ocean flooded in and lapped at the desk legs. The water rose fast, and cold waves sucked at your tennis shoes. You climbed onto your desk, which became knotted driftwood spiked with steel bolts, but at least it floated. The other students lashed their desks together into a raft, and the amethyst girl stood at its center with the leatherbound manuscript raised over her head like a flag.

The school walls fell away beneath the thunder of waves. Your teeth chattered, and black slimy seaweed tangled in your hair. Then your desk legs dragged on sand. You’d reached the shallows of an island. You squished in your tennis shoes thigh-deep in water until you floundered onto the beach with the rest of the students. The others were already heaping the pieces of their raft into a huge bonfire. They were so busy, they didn’t notice the other kid, the one who didn’t go to your school at all, standing dry and watchful in tattered shorts.

You waved to him. He waved back. “Your eyeglasses are broken,” you told him.

“I know,” he said. “I’m Piggy.” He looked so scared. It was in the hard line of his clenched teeth, how he didn’t bother to fix his crooked glasses or wipe the soot from his sweaty forehead.

“Are there monsters in this book?” you asked.

His voice fell to the slightest whisper. You had to lean into hear him. “There aren’t any monsters at all. It’s just the other kids.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you said.

He shook his head, and that’s when you noticed a patch of blood welling out underneath his hairline, at the collar. “You’d better run.”

The other kids closed in around their bonfire, burning the ends of sticks, singing snatches of camping songs, and you hugged your soaked T-shirt and shivered, because you knew something wasn’t right, and the book had a hold on your classmates now.

When you turned back to Piggy, he was gone.


They hunted you at nightfall.

You had slipped into the jungle’s edge, not too far away, and you heard them chanting that nasty nickname: Bookish! Bookish! Bookish! When they spotted you crouched beneath elephant ear fronds, their eyes glittered, and they grinned like sharks.

Piggy was right: there were no monsters. Just mean girls with sticks, and mean boys with heavy stones. You held up your dictionary like a shield, and the rocks and makeshift spears clattered off.

“Give me that book back,” you yelled, but they laughed and threw another volley. For the first time, you were trapped in a story and truly afraid.

The story goes that you ran. The story goes that you hid in a tiny cave formed by three huge rocks tumbled together like giant ice cubes. You’d never felt so far from home, not even when you said goodbye to your best friend Marco. You’d known you never should have moved, that you could never be safe again, that not even books could shelter you forever. You were afraid, not because the book had made their hatred tangible, but because their hatred had always existed.

Your dictionary curled up in your lap and became a cat, its fur streaked red where the stones had battered it. It licked your hand and said, “Struggle? Banish? Overcome?”

“Hush,” you told it, and stroked its back. “That’s not helping. Those aren’t monsters out there, you know.” You could’ve handled monsters. Monsters could be fought. Monsters could be wrangled back into the pages and locked safely away. Those were real people, though.

You waited for the kids to find you with their sharp, barbed words, and heavy, bludgeoning stares, and you were all ready to give up when a different girl poked her head into your hiding place, someone you had never seen before. She wore a red-crested helm like the librarian once did, which was why you didn’t scream.

“Move over,” she hissed. “I can’t fight in the dark. We need to lay low until the sun comes up.”

“Who are you?” you asked.

“Maggie. I’m in your English class. I sit all the way in the back, by the window.” Maggie spooled her kinky black hair into a puffy bun, and stuck a couple pencils through it. “You probably don’t remember me because you’re always reading.” Maggie extended her hand, and you took it sheepishly, even though she didn’t sound upset. A small smile creased her face.”No, it’s cool, really. I spend a lot of time at the library too. I know how sometimes the real world just… goes away. When you’re reading, I mean.”

The story goes that in rare circumstances, friendships could form lightning-quick, in the space of a sentence, because all you needed was to stare into someone’s eyes and see a piece of yourself reflected back, a single reader unshelving you and dancing through your pages. In the flickering lightning, you saw that your shelter’s walls were papered with mildewed pages on plywood, and that a lattice of branches sheltered you overhead.

“So how do we get out of here?” you asked Maggie.

Maggie opened up a bag of red licorice and offered you a piece. “Depends on the book. I’m a little lost here. It looks like Lord of the Flies to me, except it’s crazy strong. It ate up our entire school. I’m here, and I didn’t even read it today.”

“It’s my fault,” you confessed, hoping Maggie wouldn’t think less of you for it. “It’s an original manuscript. I borrowed it from the library.” You chewed your lip, added, “Stole it, actually. I thought I could read it and put it back before anyone noticed.”

Maggie whistled. “An original? Whoa.”

You nodded damply. “I had no idea they were so powerful.”

Maggie squeezed your arm. “It’s okay. It’s a good book. We just need to return it, get the librarian to lock it up, and everything will go back to normal. At least I think so.”

“But how are we ever going to get out of here? I don’t have the book anymore. It fell out of my bag. I can’t return it now. I think the other kids have it.”

Maggie’s eyebrows drew together. She grabbed one of the pencils from her hair and began making a tiny list on a scrap of paper from her pocket. “No, it’s okay. We just need to get back to the school. We’ll build a book chain. What other books do you have?”

You dug out the only other book in your bag. “I’ve got Robinson Crusoe. It’s assigned for class. I like castaway stories, but it’s pretty racist.”

“No joke,” Maggie agreed. “Well, it’s safer than Lord of the Flies, at least. It’s worth a shot.”


The story goes that when you read the book together, the sun came up on the beach, and the other kids had vanished. So had their bonfire, and the wreckage of desks. Instead, you saw just one man walking the sands, followed by a dog, picking through shipwreck flotsam and knotted ropes. You were about to wave him down, but Maggie shushed you.

“Not him. We need to find the other guy.”

Together you slipped around the beach and followed the shoreline. Your dictionary became an umbrella keeping the light misty patter off your head. Maggie’s war helm settled around her shoulders into a billowing cape.

“What’s your cape, anyway?” you asked.

Maggie tugged it so it folded into a huge hardback book with gold lettering on the cover. “An atlas. Useful for finding your way back, wherever you are.”

Down the beach, where the island folded inward to form a bay, you saw an Aztec man pushing a canoe onto the still waters.

“Excuse me. Mr. Friday?” Maggie called.

“You must be with him,” said the man, making puckered a sour apple face. “He calls me that. Because apparently ‘Icnoyotl’ is too hard for him to pronounce.”

“Yeah, he’s super racist,” Maggie agreed. “He called me a cannibal last time I was here, that jerk. We’re definitely not with him. We’re just trying to get off this island, but we don’t have the right stories. Do you know any good ones?”

Icnoyotl waved them into the canoe. “Sure, you can join me. You’re small–I can carry all of us.” He helped them get settled and began paddling. “I’ll tell you a story about Montezuma and Coyote.”


 

The story goes that Montezuma and Coyote were best friends who survived a great flood together. They each built a canoe and rode out the storm safely. When the rain stopped, they met atop Monte Rosa to look for land again. Coyote ran out each day to the south, west, and east until he found the sea.

“But when he ran north, he found nothing but land stretching out as far as his legs could take him,” Icnoyotl finished. As he said it, a shore appeared to the north, and on the shore stood Coyote.

“I know him!” you told Maggie. “He’s a friend.” You paused. “Sort of.”

Coyote recognized you when you made landfall, complimented you on your growing dictionary skills. You asked, “Can you help us get home? I need to return a book to the library.”

“Of course,” said Coyote, and his eyes glittered. “I can take you home. Follow me.”

You thanked Icnoyotl and saw him off, then followed Coyote’s path. You trekked through the desert, then through a forest beneath a sky dotted with spiraling wisps of smoke. It didn’t take long at all, because Coyote knew his domain well.

“We’re here,” he said, flourishing his hand at a rotten stump boiling with small black ants.

“That’s not our school,” you protested.

He roared like you’d just delivered the punchline to thefunniest joke. “You said to take you home. But home isn’t ever just one place, is it? Or one time.” He melted into his coyote form, flicked his scratchy red tail against your arm, and disappeared into the dark forest.

That was when you remembered that while Coyote wasn’t a bad guy, he was still a trickster.


“Coyote isn’t a liar,” said Maggie, circling the stump. “Our school is here somewhere.”

“Or it will be here,” you suggested. “Robinson Crusoe is an old book, and Coyote is very old too. Maybe we’re still in the past.”

Maggie fished another book from her backpack. “Let’s check. I have The Time Machine.”

You ran the engine forward, and the forest grew and shrank and changed around you. The sun blurred across the sky in an endless golden ring. Buildings rose and fell and rose again. Maggie checked the dial and slowed the levers to a stop.

“This should be our time,” she said.

But instead of your school, you found a tree-laced hideout built from plywood and old pages tucked behind a familiar garden shed, all damp from the rain. You were damp too, your eyes and cheeks, and your heart threw itself against your ribs, its wings fluttering at your throat. And then Marco, your dearly missed best friend, poked his head from the hideout and waved.

“You don’t seem that surprised to see me,” you told him after introducing him to Maggie.

Marco showed you a spiralbound notebook, its blue college-ruled pages covered with his scribble. “I thought it would be neat if I wrote us some adventures. I was going to mail them to you when I was done.”

Nobody had ever written you into a story before. You wanted to know how it ended. What kind of adventure would a best friend imagine for you, you wondered? Would it have pirates? Would it have dinosaurs? Would you move far away, and come home again?

“I can’t believe I’m here,” you said instead. You were in such a hurry to catch up on news, to show Maggie your old haunts. Nothing completed your love for a place like sharing it with a new friend.

“What do we do now?” Maggie had unfurled her cape over her lap so it became an atlas again. She traced a line across two pages, a thread stretching coast to coast between your old home, and your new one. “We’re really far away, and that manuscript is still loose at school.”

“Maybe you could just stay here,” Marco suggested. “You could live in the hideout, and I could sneak you out snacks in the morning and after dinner, and you could come to school with me, and it would be like old times.”

And that’s what you wanted, deep down inside. At least, it’s what you’d thought you wanted ever since the move, since the mean girls and the whispers and the long, lonely Saturdays with no backyard trees. But you’d finally unpacked your room, and you’d met Maggie, and you’d learned to bike to the park one block away where the oaks grew huge. And there was the manuscript, and the whole school a mess of waves and bonfires and bloodthirsty bullies. You’d promised to return everything you checked out from the library. You’d never missed a due date, or lost a book.

“I’m sorry,” you told Marco. “I have to get back.”

Marco nodded sadly, but he understood. He was your best friend, after all. “That makes sense. I figured. How about I come with you? It’ll be a long walk, though.”

“Not necessarily,” Maggie said. “Do you have any books?”

Marco ducked into the hideout and rummaged around for a paperback. “How about this one? It’s The Motorcycle Diaries. You know Che Guevara? It’s about taking a road trip on motorcycles.”

“Can kids even ride motorcycles?” you asked.

“Maybe in a book,” said Marco. “Maybe if it’s their story.”


The story goes that the three of you crossed 5,000 miles on your motorcycles, guided by Maggie’s atlas, until you stood together in front of the doors of your new school. Shyly, you took Maggie’s hand on your right, and Marco’s on your left, because you were afraid. On all your adventures, the only thing you’d ever found to fear wasn’t monsters or motorcycles, scurvyor stormy seas, but the other kids.

Maggie and Marco squeezed your hands back. You opened the doors and walked in together, and for the first time since you moved, you felt like you belonged.

The hallway was all blood and bonfires, sand and storms, stick and stones and broken bones, and words that could certainly kill you. You raised your dictionary, which became a net. Wherever you swung it, it cleared the bits of fiction from the air. Underneath you could see linoleum floors, glass trophy cases, and lockers. Marco scribbled in his notebook. The sticks became pterodactyls, and the stones became snowballs. Maggie swung her atlas, and a thin golden line traced ahead of you, showing the way.

“The book is definitely near,” Maggie said.

“I’ve got your back,” Marco promised.

Together, you advanced step by step all the way to your history class, where you heard voices chanting behind the door. Inside, the mean girls and mean boys pelted you in whispered words and burning silences, the great gaping lie that said you weren’t wanted or loved.

But they were only kids, when you got down to it. And they had made a book their weapon.

The story goes that all fiction was written to house monsters wrenched from the real world, because words could wrap and bind and tuck them safely away. That stories were maps and compasses that gave direction to pain, and meaning to fear, and their greatest gift was the promise that these things could be conquered, even when you found them outside the library.

Nobody could attack you with a book, because every book eventually had an ending, and you had found the end for this one.

The leatherbound manuscript sat open in the lap of the girl with the amethyst bracelet you’d displaced on your first day.”I’d like my book back, please,” you told her. “It’s overdue.”

She glanced at your dictionary, at Maggie, at Marco, at thefire and blood caught swirling in your nets, the dinosaurs perched on your shoulders, and she dropped her head. “It was a stupid book. I kind of liked the part about the island, but the rest was pretty boring.”

“Sure. If you say so.” You tucked the manuscript under your arm, and all at once the sand and ocean and forest fire smell vanished, and it was just your history class again. The bell rang, and all the kids grabbed their backpacks and rushed tocatch their buses.

“Will you walk me to the library?” you asked Maggie and Marco, because you were afraid of what the librarian might say to you about the stolen book.

Maggie snorted. “Like we have to be convinced to go to a library.”


Today the librarian was a superhero. She landed lightly on the carpet in her blue spandex uniform and red cape. Her laser-vision bored a hole into your backpack, and the manuscript fell out through the rip. “About time you returned that. I’ve been looking for it everywhere, but all I found was sand and sea in every direction.”

“I’m sorry,” you said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to lose it. I just wanted to read it.”

She picked up the book carefully, as if books were things that could bite and sting, and wrapped it in her cape. “You tracked down a rogue manuscript on your own?”

“Well, I had help,” you said, waving a hand toward Maggie and Marco.

The librarian bent down and squinted at Marco. “I’ve never seen you before. Have you escaped from your book, too?”

You touched Marco’s shoulder. “He’s my best friend from my old town. He came here to help me and Maggie catch the book.”

“That may be true,” said the librarian, “but he came from inside the narrative, didn’t he? He isn’t quite the same as the Marco that exists in our world. This one came out of a story. I’m afraid you’ll have to send him back.”

You looked into Marco’s eyes, and found yourself reflected there: both of you scared, both of you so desperate not to say goodbye again, because goodbyes always hurt worse than anything. “You’re saying Marco’s fake?”

The librarian laughed softly, and the echoes bounced like trapped moths against the high windows in the library’s deep silence. “Darling, just because something’s fictional doesn’t mean it’s fake. It just means means it has an ending.”

Marco handed you his notebook. The handwriting had been yours all along. It was the story of how you said goodbye to your old home and friends, and how you found your place in a new town 5,000 miles away. It was the story of how you learned that home could mean more than one place, and more than one time. Of how you learned that monsters could be defeated, even the real ones, even when they were really just mean kids with hurtful words.

The story goes that you wrote a new manuscript, one which housed Marco and your old hideout and everything that scared you. And like all manuscripts, it is a thing of powerful and terrible magic, something they keep behind the glass at a library. Except you are also its author, and its terrors are yours, and its strengths are yours too, so you don’t need permission to check it out whenever you’d like. The librarian doesn’t even give you a due date.

After all, you haven’t written an ending yet.

END

 

About the Author

Rachael K. Jones

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is now out with Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android.

Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and is an Escape Artists Worldwalker, having been published at all four podcasts.

Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

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About the Narrator

Jen R. Albert

Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All The Things, and haver of far too many hobbies. Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction magazine and podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her very large, very hairy German Shepherd. Follow her online and on Twitter.

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About the Artist

Jeremy Carter

Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.

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