One small book beckoned to me from my mother’s bookcase, and she occasionally let me read it under strict supervision. There was no lazing in the sun on the verandah with this book of children’s rhyming poetry, a treasure from her childhood or her teaching days perhaps.
When I asked her if I could take it to school to show my friends, the answer was an unequivocal ‘No’. I left it a while and asked again. Another negative answer and I was too afraid to ask a third time, but the desire grew stronger. In a moment of madness, I slipped it in my school bag and rushed to the bus stop praying she wouldn’t notice it missing.
While the teacher was writing on the blackboard, I put the book on the desk between me and the friend who sat next to me, and started to turn the pages to show her the beautiful verses within. A word or one of the little sketches grabbed her attention, and she reached out to stop me from going on. In a split second the page was ripped from the edge to the staple in the centre.
Heat rose in my cheeks and there was the sting of tears, but my friend appeared to be pleased with herself. After school I realised why – for weeks she’d wanted me to walk home with her instead of going on the bus, and this episode with Mum’s book gave her the means to make that happen. The threat was there as soon as we were released from the classroom. ‘If you don’t’, she said, ‘I’ll tell on you about the book.’
My fate was sealed. We went straight home so I wouldn’t be late, but we were so busy running and laughing we didn’t give time another thought. We waved to each other and I skipped down the path to the front door. I quickly returned the poetry book to its home, making sure to tuck it under other books so it wouldn’t draw attention. Then I waltzed into the kitchen and opened the ice-chest looking for cool water.
‘You’re early’, Mum said, and I stiffened as though the cold air escaping from the huge blocks of ice had frozen me.
‘Bus was early’, I lied. I jerked back into action and scurried from the room without a drink.
When my father arrived home, there was whispering in the kitchen. Then he appeared in my bedroom doorway, a dark frown furrowed into his face.
‘I’ve done my homework’, I said cheerily, hoping to mollify him.
He moved slightly. ‘But you lied to your mother about the bus’, he said.
It was then that I saw the belt in his hand and knew there would be buckle bruises on my legs the next day.
My favourite book wasn’t mentioned and I kept away from it from that day onward. I often wondered if Mum worked out what I’d done and saved me from another whack with the belt by staying silent, or if she was blissfully ignorant of the book’s horror trip to school that day.
The last time I visited her at home before she died, she handed me the book. ‘You may as well have this’, she said.
The cover and some of the pages were missing, and it was tattered and discoloured. Overcome, I looked up at her.
‘Kids’, she said. ‘I should have given it to you when you wanted to take it to school that time.’ There was a knowing tone in her voice.
I managed to get out, ‘You knew?’
‘Of course I knew…’ She patted my arm and left me to my thoughts.
I wanted to go after her, to ask which kids she meant, but something held me back.
The remains of the book are beside me as I write. It’s more than fifty years since the day that first page was torn and the book still holds the same charm for me as it did then.
What book was special in your childhood?
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