During the recent exam period I stumbled into a myriad of distractions. I sifted through charity shops, crocheted and binge watched Friends. Volumes of no relevance to my course fell into my lap and demanded reading, baked goods became necessary nutrition and exercise fuelled more energy than it drained. On the night after my Spanish exam I fell asleep in a chair with The Wind in the Willows in one hand and my face in the other. That evening retained the basic, peaceful quality of childhood, though I am much too heavy to be carried to bed now. The book was an odd one out of the stash I hauled from Books for Amnesty. After highlighting and underlining notes for weeks on end, colours seem to sap out and pages turn blank. The cover lured me in because I wanted splodges of colour, a bright yellow spine, trees and zany creatures in waistcoats on a boat, not my poorly drawn mind maps. I hoped it would temporarily efface grammar tables and divert my attention from the question of whether Tolstoy was an artist or a preacher. Anna Karenina, Dead Souls and Crime and Punishment are stunning classics, but they require attention and commitment. I had missed the pleasure of a simple story. I missed flowing plots rid of complexities that require prolonged deciphering and analysing.
I loved that the animals ate ham and that Toad was so disproportionately big he passed for a washerwoman. I loved the fact that the story oscillated in life-like pace between daily tranquility and adventure. Shortly after that I read Little Women, which I found equally prepossessing in its matter of fact beauty, being a direct tale. Not only that, I felt like I was catching up on a childhood I could have had, because my childhood canon felt void in comparison to that of my friends. Moving countries is an unavoidable (and therefore recurring) point of reference, a measure for ‘the before and after’. As regards reading, moving meant I had to start over, learn before I could read. “Have you never read this book?” was a question that always left me feeling ashamed. Had I ever read anything? It was important because if I had nothing to refer to I would remain an outsider. The pages I read made no sense to others, just as my grammar tables often appear to me strange, dotted with mysterious accents and foreign words. Thankfully, there were dozens of common links: Harry Potter, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Matilda to name a few. Matilda was the only book I had brought with me to England. I carried it in my school bag religiously for the first couple of months because I was allowed to read it whenever tasks were deemed too tricky for me to complete in English. The book may have been coded in a different language but it was a familiar story which allowed me to appear as a person in the eyes of others through its connections. It was about having a validation of what shaped personality, a search for a similarity so that I could share beloved heroes and heroines rather than revelling in obscure landscapes with characters no one had ever heard of. In short, it was another way of fitting in.
I am twenty years old, yet sometimes I feel ten all over again. Had I missed out on half of my life because I lived elsewhere? I’ve grown to value the old characters for the incredibly happy childhood they took part in. Despite being the only child I rarely got bored. I followed routines that kept me in check; brushing my teeth twice a day, avoiding stepping on cracks in the pavement and talking to miniscule people and creatures that graced my imagination. At the end of each day I would fall asleep as my mum or dad read to me. Everyone romanticises their childhood to some degree, and memories bend and alter. But I remember the feeling of rhythm, of my skin feeling snug like fresh pyjamas; there was a natural cadence to every day. I suppose what I am trying to say is that the everyday landscape of my little life was like any other, only populated with different characters. I was particularly fond of Porwanie w Tiutiurlistanie, a wacky, war-based version of The Wind in the Willows, Karolcia (a story of a girl who had found a bead which granted her wishes), and The Six Bullerby Children. “Did you not read this book when you were little?” Well, no. I had my own, different ones, and that’s okay.
Interestingly, I thought reading The Wind in the Willows would be devoid of childhood sentimentality, but I can confirm that it stirs its own of a different kind. It may not ring of memories but the passage where Mole finds his home struck a chord: “He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow, even – it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.” There is no need for an alternative version of my childhood; I may have missed out on a few readings but my own were and are just as dear. Catching up now is fun, and a good excuse to get away from the serious readings.
And just a couple of photos of little-me. I was a very theatrical child.