Age seven or eight, I receive my first public library card of
hard, green plastic with black letters emblazoned across it and
I look at no other words apart from these precious two:
I wobble up and down the streets between my house
and the mobile library, perched like a mirage
between roaring cars and the curly slide I stand atop for hours,
unsure if I am brave enough to hurl myself down.
But I am brave enough to cycle to the library alone;
to stand before whole walls and worlds of books,
scarcely bearing to breathe, lest they all evaporate
before my very eyes.
Handing over the treasured token, I
carry the stash to my bicycle lying in the grass and
prop it upright, burying my riches deep into
the zipped, tartan bag attached to the back before pedalling home.
A tiny child lies in my arms, eyes the colour of June skies
blinking up into mine; but I don’t know what to do with her
nor myself; whether I’m coming or going,
too tired to think, to talk, to make decisions.
So I tie her into the Guatemalan papoose and we walk
past the ancient water meadows and over the stone bridge
while her rosebud lips pucker and twitch in a deep, deep sleep
I find myself envying.
It’s been a while since I’ve been in a library but
the moment I push the metal doors open and stand there,
a tidal wave of relief floods through me, surrounded by stories
and characters who will not judge me.
I come back, again and again as my baby grows and
starts to pull herself across the floor, dragging books from their shelves;
I follow her, replacing them as I cry silent tears of exhaustion
into her strawberry blond curls.
Breathing fire into the truth of my decision,
I embrace it as tightly as the supple limbs of my three children who
I take to the library Friday afternoons, a toddler babbling in his pushchair
and two little girls in school uniform and crooked pigtails.
Mouths and fingers are chocolate-icing sticky, bake-sale smeared and
sometimes they are happy to pound the pavement to the place of books
but other times they grumble and strain against the injustice of
the sleet, the cold, of their mother who will not just let them go home.
No. For another motive exists:
once fingers and noses are wiped and feuds subsided
and they have leaned into their cocoon of books, soft and enticing as a duvet,
I dash from the room, for time is of the essence.
Yes. I want to be a writer; it’s as clear as the black spidery hands of
the clock that ticks through this hushed room, stealing my time.
I pull down the Writers Handbook, heavy as wet sand
and flick through this new dialect: Agents. Publishers. Unsolicited Manuscripts.
We move to Kenya where the dream takes flight
as sure and swift as a sunbird, darting across plains and valleys,
the long rains trampling red mud across my old cottage’s wooden floor
where I sit and type: one novel, two novels, three.
But where are all the books? Those public spaces to run fingers over spines
and breathe in the secret scent of stories?
For I have only known lands where books are not hidden
in fortresses for the wealthy; where reading is for everybody.
So I trawl contours of savannah, sea and sky without the comfort of
these signals to guide me, instead searching for the souls of bookshop tomes
suffocating in their plastic cases, words knocking against their prisons,
for it is only in their reading they are set free.
How can the rich reserve the right to read, I wonder,
and one day I take a box of books to a local school; watch as the children
lift them reverently like the treasures they are
and press the shiny covers against their cheeks.
In England again where dusky sky bleeds into land stretched
across wheat and borage, cow-grazed common and medieval spires.
We plant seeds and take root in a city of stories where secrets dwell;
a fine city, with watering hole and place of prayer on each corner.
I find myself once more borrowing books, reading books,
ordering books, discovering books, smelling books, eating books if I could.
But it is Monday afternoon, that hour of stolen time, sandwiched between
school and clubs I build into our weekly rhythm, steady as a heartbeat.
We pace through narrow lanes until it rises, a great ship of glass and steel
between market, mall and spire, revolving doors spiralling us through
out of the cold. No matter the storms that rage outside and
within my head for here I am warm. Comforted. Safe.
My children imbibe this truth also; their bodies respond to the wisdom
of this world of words as rain spatters against the glass ship.
I watch them, one cross-legged, another stomach-sprawled and the third
cradled against the shelf, rocked gently on a sea of books.
But then the virus, the one we’d only heard tales of
from a distant Chinese city, crosses land and sea and spreads
its fevered fingertips to all parts of our interwoven globe
until nothing, nobody is unaffected.
And, like a line of falling dominoes,
the shops close one by one; the cafes, churches, community centres
while we cling to what remains open like passengers on a sinking ship
until the day we are told the lights in the libraries must also go out.
Herding through the revolving doors with mask and hand sanitiser,
I stand at a distance and watch the once-meticulous space
rapidly emptying, eager hands reaching out to grasp
books that spill from decimated shelves like stars vanishing.
I breathe in this new reality like a sharp splinter,
for we cannot know when this treasured space of books and life itself
will once more be ours; a place to read, dream, commune, celebrate.
I clutch my books and leave. One day, the library will rise again.
Rebecca Stonehill is a historical fiction author from Norwich. She is currently working on her fourth novel and teaches creative writing to children. She loves playing the piano and spending time in nature. Find out more about her writing on her website. Rebecca can also be found on Instagram @stonehillbex and Twitter @RStonehillBooks