I love the rows of uneven books in our home, they are lined up on shelves on either side of the mantel piece and on a small wooden bookshelf Mum buys from the secondhand store on the corner of First Avenue.
I like that secondhand shop, but it smells musty as if someone has left old socks somewhere or if you have some clothes that are not properly dry, and you put them in a drawer and they make you screw up your nose and say “urgh” and “yuck!” That shop always has lots of things, chairs, tables refrigerators, cupboards, huge wardrobes and beds. They have so many things that they spill out onto the pavement and sometimes dogs cock their legs and pee all over the stuff, and the man selling inside runs out and chases the mutt down the road shouting things like “bugger off you little tow-rag.” You can see this if you are going to Muriel Mann the children’s clothes store to get something important, like socks.
I can’t remember learning to read. I just can. Mum says I’m reading at age three long before I start school. My brother Paul is three years younger than me. He doesn’t know even the easy words in his Peter and Jane books. I feel hot and want to hide when people say, “what a clever girl, can you read this?” and they show me a newspaper and ask me to read something stupid. I want to hug Paul and tell him that it’s alright. I’m ashamed because I find reading so easy. I wish I could share my reading with Paul in the same way that I share my last dumpling with him because I know he likes them. It is dangerous to leave things that you like on the plate in our house. You learn to eat the nicest things first, because my sisters Patsy or Rosie would say as their fork pierced the piece of food you had been saving “You don’t want that do you?” And in a gulp and a giggle it would be gone. The morsel of chicken, or baked potato vanished in front of your eyes. No, I couldn’t share my reading and Paul couldn’t steal it from me.
No one knows the word “dyslexia.” Travelling salesmen come to visit our home and my Mum purchases books on credit. She buys a set of twelve children’s encyclopedias that I read and reread repeatedly. I run my hands over the thick, burgundy-colored books and my fingers feel the raised gold lettering. A picture of the Queen is the first thing you see in volume 1. All the volumes (except the last volume which is an index) are full of green and brown sepia photographs of famous statues and places around the world. I read fairy tales and stories about famous people and lots of poetry and riddles like “As I was going to St Ives,” and “Three little kittens have lost their mittens and they began to cry.”
Once a travelling salesman brings a set of Peter Rabbit books, there are a lot of tiny pastel-colored books with slippery shiny covers that to me smell divine. “Now Mrs.” He says a smarmy tone decorating his voice. He’s dressed in a grey shiny suit with a large blue and grey kipper tie. Kipper ties look like kippers, which are really herring, and some people think that kippers are a real fish, well of course they’re real, just another name, and Mum sometimes for a treat cook them up with onions, tomatoes and peppers.
“These books are fresh off the press. Remember the ones you bought a couple of months ago? Well, these are much better. Perfect children’s stories, you can’t beat Beatrix Potter. It would be a sin not to buy them for your kids.” The salesman says to my Mum. Her big mistake is letting him into our room. Someone has let him into the house, or perhaps the front door is open, and he just comes up and as we’re on the middle floor it’s easy to find us. Mum says she can’t afford them. “No, I’m sorry but I really can’t buy them, I don’t have the money.”
“Alright then ducky,” the man says. I know my Mum doesn’t like being called “ducky.” He continues. “Alright, I’ll tell you what. I’ll leave them for you to have a look at for a week, no pressure. If you change your mind and want them then I’ll ask for a five bob down payment.” Mum says “no, don’t do that I really can’t afford them.” But the salesman puts the books on the red and grey coffee table with the yellow and cream crocheted decorations and leaves quickly, all the time my Mum is smiling and protesting. She must have seen that look in my eye. Boy I really wanted those books. She says, “Angie, I’m sorry, they’re lovely, but we really can’t keep them.” I guess I must have screwed up my face as Mum continued, “hang your basket where you can reach it.” This is Mum’s motto. Along with “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”
I don’t listen and gobble down every one of the books before the salesman returns the following week. I loved the stories about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton Tail, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Benjamin Bunny. I loved the smell and the touch of the shiny white pages with the pastel drawings of the tiny creatures. I must admit that I skip over most of the Tale of the Two Bad Mice.
Years later my motto will become, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or ah, what’s a heaven for.”