Newly arrived in England after eight years in the south-west of Ireland, we dumped our stuff in Kennington, south London, and went to my then husband’s parents’ house for Christmas. It was the late 80s, and our marriage was heading for the rocks.
There’d been some idea that a complete change would do us good, though quite how the flat in Kennington was supposed to energise us I have no idea. It was bleak and damp, three flights up on an estate with stinky stairwells and rubbish overflowing in the yards. Still, it was a change from cabin fever. I was looking forward to furnishing it with my books, which had been stored in a large wardrobe at my parents-in-law’s all the time we’d been away.
I never wanted to leave them there, but was persuaded. The argument ran: we are going to live in a cowshed, a tent and a derelict cottage for the foreseeable future. It will be damp. You don’t want your books getting ruined by damp. Let’s store them with my folks and bring them over later. So we did. And over the years a few found their way over, in dribs and drabs. But every time I insisted on getting the lot, there was some reason or other why I couldn’t.
It’s still too damp. They’re safer over there.
Oh, they’re fine. My folks don’t mind – they’ve got loads of room.
There’s not enough space in the car.
There’s just no time.
His mum said she thought they were in the shed. I found a cardboard box among the gardening tools and odds and ends, the kind a printer might come in. Unless it had Tardis-like qualities, my books could not be there. But there they were, a dreggy miscellany not even filling the box.
He was in the kitchen. “My books are gone,” I said. And he came to look.
I don’t remember the conversation in the shed. I remember the picture in my head of my books as they once were, covering a whole wall; and the increasing panic – mine that they were gone, his that I might upset his parents.
He loved his mum and dad. He’d put them through some worries in his time and was now very protective of their feelings.
“It’s OK,” he said, “they probably just forgot where they put them. We’ll get Christmas over then I’ll sort it out.” Could I ruin this family Christmas? Everyone stuffed to bursting, his sister, her boyfriend, her two copper-haired toddlers bouncing about the room to the delight of their besotted grandparents; the tree, the decorations, the old film on the telly, the blazing fire, the discarded wrapping paper. His parents had bought me some furry gloves. When I asked about my books, everything was vague. They’d been moving stuff around. The loft maybe? Where are the ladders?
Not now, not now.
I found out two days later that they’d given my books to a Boys’ Brigade jumble sale. I saw my books thrown in boxes, spread out on a table, in piles on the floor, people poking through them, buying my ancient Come Hither for 50p, my dad’s Lovecrafts for 10p each. I lost the books of my childhood and my lifetime.
The books of my dead father with his signature and the date in faded ink on the flyleaves. His old art books, the big hessian-backed 101 Details From The National Gallery; I copied the pictures out of it learning to draw. I lost the lovely big Dover paperbacks; the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Gustave Doré; my Louis Untermeyer poetry book with the pictures coloured in; a tiny handwritten Song of the Morrow; Ulysses with a bow on the spine; Great Fairy Tales, a galleon embossed on the cover; and my old Bob Dylan catalogue from the “Judas” concert, 1966, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. I lost the Moomins and Borrowers and Narnias and Patricia Lynchs (which you couldn’t get hold of any more), all the old Ruperts, and Orlando the Marmalade Cat.
Tip of the iceberg. They were only books. He talked about temporality and the virtue of valuing people more than things. They were nice people, his mum and dad, good people. Anything they’d done had been innocently done. They must not be disturbed. They just had no idea that books could matter. No blame, as it says in my old I Ching, the one that vanished with all the rest.
What hurt was his anger at my “over-reaction”, how paltry he considered the loss. Only books. But everything I lost at that time – Ireland, my marriage, old friends, my mother – was summed up in those books.
It took a while to see my part. The books were mine – I should have taken control, but I had let them drift. Things had to change. It was the end of drifting and the beginning of a different life.
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