We mark our own roads

I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.

Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)

When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.

I already missed that wider world.

It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.

But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.

I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.

We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.

Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.

The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.

It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.

But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.

The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.

I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.

The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.

Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.

It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.

Tobacco Shadows

Books are not the only keepers of narratives. I like to find objects, places, which frame their own stories. The spider-scrawl of a lost letter. A trunk stitched over with fading photographs, nestled in the grey-and-tobacco shadows of an emporium. Flea markets and antique shops creak with the residual thoughts and feelings of other lives; browsing their cluttered corners, it’s easy to find pockets of time caught in the lines of things made to last. Polished cabinets of dark wood, chimed over with mismatched crystal; dolls in hand-stitched clothes, their eyes as faded as the ink on their name tags. Scarred school desks marked with those snippets of playground turf wars and love stories.

sepia chair

While I appreciate the need for things made new, the relentless drive to upgrade and update is a bit wearying. New things seem to tell, rather than show their stories. They haven’t yet been imprinted with the life experience of a constant companion, a proud owner, an awestruck admirer. My oldest and most precious books are sellotaped at the spine, stained to the pages with chocolate-spread fingerprints, from those long rainy childhood afternoons spent in my bedroom (curled up on the carpet) beneath a lean-to blanket “tent” eating shortbread-sandwiches; listening to the patter on the windows, and the trailing voices of characters running through my head. Those books were new then, but I made them my own; I wouldn’t dream of throwing them out, though the necessity of new copies is born of loose leaves slithering out between my fingers, whenever I go back for another read.

We’re bound by the things that witness our human state – indifferent as the moon, maybe, but closer to the touch. We all cry and frown and smile and laugh in front of the mirror, and leave worn patches of use on bureaus and tables and chairs. Trace a finger down the spine of a first edition print, you’ll find the crease where a previous owner went back to the same chapter, over and again, to fold down a relevant page like a flag – perhaps underscoring the lines that spoke to their souls, leaving a half-complete message. Our imaginations lead us the rest of the way.

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I was nine when an aunt presented me with the tiny bone-china study of white that was my first thimble. A copper R was set into its front. It began a family tradition of subsequent birthday and Christmas gifts, patterned with seasonal colours and animal profiles, family crests and symbols representing those places either I or they had visited (I have three Jodrell Banks.) Reading Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”, I felt it might be a good idea to dissuade the little people from taking my whole collection for cups and bowls. After finding a Bible nestled inside one charity shop thimble (with text so neat it could’ve been woven in snow) I started leaving my own little books beneath each china bell. Made from clippings, set with a single staple, dated and signed, they continue to nestle in wooden pockets of the holder. It travels about with me. Turning the thimbles over now and then for a clean, I can’t help but smile at how faded the ink has become.

What are we but stories, after all? I’d like to think that those books will stay inside, when I eventually pass the collection on.

Objects talk. They give away clues of what has come before, may yet come back. Vinyl is thriving again because there are people (like me) who appreciate the tangibility of cool black in the hands, the inimitable *crackle-pop*, the anticipation of sifting through a rack to find old favourites… as much as the drag ‘n drop convenience of a file download. Some of Dad’s LP sleeves had the most fascinating designs, like the heart of a clock, irresistible to fiddly kid fingers. In the same sense, the Brio train set that once belonged to my sister, to me and then to our younger brother, now lives with my two small nephews; it’s their turn to write engine names in pencil along the sides of the chunky track. We’ll see how long the set can stay in the family – like the Christmas tree fairy which has travelled with us from Germany, her pretty white gown missing some glitter, her thatch of hair balding at the back from endless retrievals and replacements in the decorations box. The inside of her cardboard dress is ticked over with dates from the early 80’s, when we three took it in turns to put her on the tree, year by year, for a photo.

My mother’s side of the family kept a house for 300 years. Converted from a farm, with a yard and out-buildings, its thick white walls and blackwood beams were set against the fierce northern winds churning down the moors and hills. Its bean-shaped barn was turned into a beautiful cafe, for their business; it held a little bar in a corner, curved around half a tun (a very large barrel), shaped and polished to flow into the wood. The thick-piled carpet was rosetted and ideal for hopscotch; large beams supported the room, the kind ideal for housing toys in their splits and creases. I kept cut-out paper people in them.

The deep bay windows were wonderful to sit in, provided you made enough room for the family heirlooms – clustering dolls, pack horses pulling real wooden carts, china Scottie dogs (my grandparents collected live ones as pets down the years, all called Mack and Piper.) Paintings stood propped and pinned to the walls – the surrounding countryside, done up in oils and watercolours by local artists. Those rolling green hills and purple-fire moors, trickle-run rivers with great slippery stone slabs, and green-black glades of Macc forest. I can close my eyes and find it all, remembering the spice of the heather and the almond-paste sweetness of hawthorns. The twisted black trees set against a turbulent sky. The ubiquitous sheep standing beside tumbledown greystone walls (a lost art) patterned in yellow lichen, the mossy stiles. The cough of pheasants rising out of long grass. The way the sun disappeared behind Shutlingsloe hill, blue in the distance.

Shutlingsloe 04

Sitting on the front garden bench with my sister, we’d calculate how long it would take to run up the steep stone-stepped Northern face, before gliding back down the smoother south-side through the forest; a challenge set for amateur runners and athletes at the local Rose Queen festival, held in May.
(I was caught up in this once, when my uncle’s girlfriend was crowned; as a rosebud attendant, I wore flowers in my hair and white leather shoes, the sort of grin-grimace you’d find on someone stuck in a revolving door.)

That festival, held in the county Lord’s sweeping estate, held a treasure trove of local art, antiques, trinkets and toys, books and collectables. They smelled of dust and musk and heaven, of old perfume and different kinds of wood. I learned where to look for good bargains, picking about for cat ornaments and – later – anything remotely pagan. My uncle was into his magic. He bought my first, and only pack of Tarot cards (the Cat People, of course) when I was twelve. It still travels about with me, for the memories over the fading dreams.

My other Nanna was raised by her grandmother, a Victorian. She credits this elegant lady with the traditional values that have – for better or worse – permeated our family since. My great-grandfather was an architect in the dockyards of Tyneside; a combination of essential skills, and two small children at home without their mother (she died when Nanna was three), exempted him from conscription in WWII. Visiting at the weekends, I’d sit on the table (or the counter), listening to Nanna tell stories of her own childhood in Wallsend. She’d show me photographs of our ancestors, their eyes large and dark. There’s something aching about finding your own face in the creased lines of an image, curled at the corners, coloured like jaguar rosettes, honey and whisky.

She and Granddad have an enduring fascination with timepieces. Their home is filled with the chimes and brassy bars of watches and clocks, the tinny clicking of metallic breath counting out seconds and minutes and hours.

Clock face

Tyneside to Herstmonceux – such a jump! – but they took it, because Granddad had landed work at the observatory. When you put your head down and get on with what needs to be done, the odds don’t seem to matter, until you can stop and look around at the things which marked that time. Only then do you dare to wonder how you made it through. If you could ever do it again.

I remember Nanna telling me how, at the new house, they found cold air and newspapers on the floor, yellow shadows. No running hot water. But they laid out all of the little things which would make them feel safe and secure: toys, family photographs, clocks. Beds made up on the floor – “camping out”, to turn the whole thing into an adventure for the kids.

This scene plays in my mind whenever I move around. The first things to be set out are the story-tellers: paintings, ornaments, my katana Yukiko, guitar picks, leather-jacketed books. Everything else is gradually sifted through, in between hours and days, until the room itself becomes a narrative of Me. A lot of it wasn’t mine to begin with; those trinkets and pictures have seen other lives come and go. God knows how many memories are locked behind the face of the clock, bought in a crook-backed Lewes antique shop.

These are the things that leave a trail of ourselves, our time here. One day, the things that were new to me might become part of someone else’s narrative.

kaiser book

And there are some things that will outlast us all.



There’s something about the changing light in this month – the pale mornings, the brassy texture of the sun as it eases into age – that fills me with a nostalgia born of melancholy, thoughts on a year’s weariness. All those goodly things thrown into the mix; stirred up in the creaking branches of a storm, the white splinters over a midnight sky; the bone-rattle-hiss of burnt out grass, and the croaking of ravens wheeling over a pastel twilight, wings blotting out the threadbare sun.

We’re not quite at the end, but it already seems this way. My thoughts turn to the new year, and in this case, it really can’t come soon enough. 2013 was difficult on personal terms; 2014 has shown me the multifaceted pain of a world I hadn’t recognized, known about to explore.

I’ll remember it for the words, twisting back on themselves; for the riddlespeak that was mine and not mine (such an early arrogance, to think I alone knew it), pain of the point pushed further and further in, until I wondered if my mind or spirit would break first. The ocean seemed deathless and without end, until I hit the bottom and waited to see what would happen next.

As it is, I found out in a packet of pills. Prescribed, at least.

I’ll remember it for the way I thought I would never let go, until the thorns shredded my skin, my ego, the pages I wrote upon. The voice in my mind found a soul mate.

I’ll remember it for the way a blue petal fell, turning black on its descent, to land at my feet in the toxic rainbow that sifts gently down to the drain.

I’ll remember it for the way I woke one morning without burning eyes. For the way I could breathe again, no knot in the chest at the thought of Alone.

I’ll remember it for the ocean eyes, for the wanting and the need and the knowing that when worlds collide, the fallout is a child’s dream of home.

Most of all, I’ll remember it for the way Responsibility became not only my friend, but my standard, after years of fleeing this mind-numbing foe.

I have been many things – names, people, animals, swear words, poison; I’ve been heartless and so full of Lionheart, I wanted to die rather than acknowledge the fact that what I clung to, would keep me down on my knees (clinging to that standard still), head lowered. Depression is knowing that what you hold dear, will make you come undone; it’s disregarding other’s fears and cares and words, until only your own voice is the piping in a blue wind.

It’s finding the grace to let go, without a name given, without a name taken. I was nameless, and not blameless.
I was myself, until even that wasn’t good enough. Maybe it never was.

You were the King of Swords, upright and inverted both. I was a dreamer – and we know what happens to those.
They see things in the stars.

One year on from a message sent in friendship, sympathy – empathy? – perhaps more; it was a difficult time, and I didn’t know myself. Didn’t really know you, either. That was the point.
Should I have just walked on by?
There’s a question only the October song knows.

And still, one petal blue. Because there are no happy endings, as nothing ever really ends.


The sky holds that curiously warm depth of blue that is undeniably autumnal; full of the dense sprays of brass sunlight, it seems to reflect the age of the year, its lines and wrinkles, its jaded eyes. For all that, it’s still a russet-apple smile.

The park is filled with wandering families again… haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t I only musing on such municipal things a breath-space ago, when the horizon had suddenly expanded like a cat’s eye, and I had watched the hawk become a dot upon it?

Standing on the top floor of the Nick the other day, I remembered how it felt when this phase of my life began. How much the world has changed since then; that place has changed me, in turn, and kept me going. Seeing friends dwindle along with the budget, I think – as I thought in that breath-space ago – that this will be our last year in the teetering tower of bricks and glass. I heard the wind sing through the trees, and watched the pigeons leave their shadows in pebble-patterns over the cars and vans in the yard. The sky was that same vivid autumnal blue, the sun brassy on leaves that danced in the freshening winds. Listening to Perfect Day (you’re going to reap just what you sew”) I wanted to remember it all. How it feels to belong somewhere; how it felt four years ago; how it will feel when it’s all gone.

What more to say that has not come before? I smile at my own doom-laden words these days. It was comforting – sort of – to read of that other lady who had the same tendency to think that time was always running out (if only to prove that we all get it wrong, and frequently, due to inhibitions rather than external factors.)

Still. That was then; this is now. Another Now. How many moments to make up a year, which seems like a replay of the last? If 2013 was the catalyst for the personal / domestic overhaul, surely 2014 has been the overture. Perhaps next year, I’ll find something approximating security and peace of mind. Going through a mousey-stage at the moment, I’m afraid to open my mouth in case of fucking up before an increasingly aware audience.
You know my flaws. My aspirations. I know them well, and more self-conscious than ever before, and the only comparison to make is that threadbare time just before the fall in the Fall; September-October 2001, starting at a new college among larger groups of more self-determined and talented peers. The duality of achievement in middle school was an awareness of burgeoning ambitions, where language and literature are concerned, and a very real fear of losing ground to others – of failure, of being left behind. While I thrive on competition, I loathe it in equal measure, because – when the countdown begins – I lose my nerve. The white noise intrudes, you count for shit, and before you know I’ve lost the thread of what I meant to say, to write, to opine, to declare as my truth.

The downward spiral is tedious, and excruciating. Self-contempt for falling into such pettiness as resentment of people who might be dear to me, and more accomplished. I grow afraid of losing them; too weak a person to sustain a relationship, while beating myself down, because – other than anorexia and compulsive exercising, degrading my body and mind over a progressive state of non-living – I don’t really have other talents. Back in A Levels, when it felt as though I was losing ground and with no hope of clawing back up, I cut my nose off to spite my face. I chose an eating disorder, walking away from all contact and relationships while numbing out the scream inside – the one that is ongoing today, that I am quite simply useless.

This isn’t an easy thing to confess to. I would like to say that I’m stronger, more dignified than all of this immature crap. But I’m not. So if and when I’m standoffish, flighty, don’t-give-a-shit, it’s because I’m afraid, and would rather walk with my own shadow than lean on someone else’s.

This is why, with the conveyor-belt of vague non-answers and let-downs received in the past 18 months – home, employment, personal relationships – I am reluctant and ducking away from anything that appears to tread the same faded lines. For all my irresponsibility and whimsy, I know – roughly – what it is I would like to see happen, for the next year at least. And I do emphasize this limited time frame, out of the (yawn) fear of commitment, and also, in practical terms, because I honestly don’t know where I will be in terms of mindset. I didn’t predict a relapse into depression this year. It took reading a blog entry posted on Twitter by a friend for me to even contemplate accepting the word as part of my current disposition. When the therapist had offered it up a few weeks beforehand, I’d batted away. Denial is a safe haven for people like me, the passive-aggressives of the world (unite and mutter darkly.)

So to plant any of this on somebody else, regardless of their intentions, seems too cruel and presumptive. A wound-up ball of cotton unravels eventually.

In all, I’m not really sure what I expect from the end of this year, and the beginning of the next – except perhaps, a little breath of security, and a static place to be, at least for another collective of seasons. That’s one thing I can say of this year – I’ve known peace, at least on a domestic level. Less fretting over bills and such, in comparison to 2013. But the absence of any genuine answers from the people who count, the ones who have the power to make a difference in my life, means I can’t actually trust them to hold to their word. Which is a sad place to be, but I can’t dwell on it long. Since childhood, I’ve been dependant on other people’s views, their opinions mattering far more than mine – whether they were aware of it or not. If I let this continue, I stand to lose all over again.

Or is it simply burning down the house with one match after another?

Maybe this is adult life. Constantly afraid, wondering if this month, this year will be the last with this person, in this place, in this time. Maybe we all just bob from one dream and hope and fuck and fear and worry and bill and whatever, to the next.

In which case, I guess I’m in good company.

Old leaves and papyrus light: The bookshop

Arriving home this evening, I was greeted by a smell vividly nostalgic as autumn bonfires; a wreath of leather and old leaves, skirling about the house, together with that curious dampness reminiscent of loam. It was in fact the subdued pages of my landlady’s book collection, compiled by her grandfather, an author and journalist; she had drawn out the large box, and was sorting through it in the conservatory, to the delight of the twins. While certainly not TV-culture kids, they are small enough to find excitement in anything truly old. Curious little souls, and never more so than when poring over the grandly bound and textured volumes, stiff as the fingers that would once have creaked over the turning of worlds and lives. In their place, willow-withe fingers went skimming from one crackling page to another, finding the cobweb drawings I too once knew and loved, in my mother’s old Bible. Such a delicate wash of watercolours and fine-line graphite, in a collection wonderfully diverse, spanning Greek philosophy and classic fairytales, Tolstoy and Austen. And, perhaps most importantly, the sensory details to draw one text to another, like stars in a constellation: pages the colour of faded newspaper and bone; black print so carefully aligned and bold with the presence of something done well, which will last through generations. And my favourite – the handwritten scrawls on marbled facing pages, full of love and character. There’s nothing quite like finding a personalized message in a second-hand book (“Merry Christmas / Wishing you well / You were always a dedicated reader of so-and-so / We were once as young as they are”), or a fan of pressed leaves used for an afternoon’s bookmark.

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As a child, weekends often came with a trip to stay at my grandparent’s house; a sprawling white-brick bungalow of lean, lowlight corridors and rooms filled with miscellaneous items to enchant any age, let alone the inquisitive child I had become. Golf clubs, dust-rimed hardbacks aligned on shelves of dark wood; jars filled with dog biscuits that smelled of old crackers, and timepieces of every shape, size and design, from Granddad’s former employment in a jewellers and as a member of staff at Herstmonceux observatory. His outdoor workshop was a masterpiece of musk, wax and leather, cluttered with trays on the high bench and tools swung from beams; cobwebs swayed in the whisky-hue shadows, and mousetraps lay silent and gleaming in corners like a lick of moonlight from a beady eye. I would stand by the door, hands at my sides and watching his back curled like a comma over whatever clock or watch he happened to be working on. it never fails to amaze me how hands that can restrain a large dog on a leash, are also capable of unpinning time in its tiny clasps, gears and cogs, weaving a dexterous dance to put right whatever went wrong inside, before fitting the pieces back together again.

The heady anticipation of those Saturday mornings – waking up in a room not my own, but prepared to feel as such, in that blissful-holiday way grandparents have the knack for arranging. Books that my Nanna knew I would like, were placed at strategic points around the room – on the windowsill, at the foot of the bed, for she knew I preferred curling up cross-legged over perching on a chair. What Katy Did, The Magic Roundabout (Dougal’s musings had me in hiccuping giggles, even as the sly rivulets of humour ran clear over my head), The Animals of Farthing Wood. Sunlight limned the walls with gold, freckling the pleasant internal colours. It was like something from a Joni Mitchell song – Chelsea Morning, perhaps. But no traffic beneath this window, or at least none formed of vehicles – only the military columns of ants scurrying to and fro, marking their drills with hewn leaves and fragments of cat food. The shelters themselves were but a few feet away, and I’d wake to the sounds of discordant mewling as the kennel maids went about their business with trays, brushes and armfuls of hugs. Those boarders were spoilt, really, and rightly so – away from home, immersed in a complex saturation of strange smells, who wouldn’t freak out?

I made time to visit each cat – and some of the smaller dogs, with an adult present – on barefoot wanderings of the estate. The beaten track down to the larger kennels was stubbled over with gravel, which made little impact on my small blackened soles. Climbing the green-black trees of the surrounding woodland, book in tow, I’d find a morning could wax into afternoon through the pages. Bark dust laced my hair and hands. Though my parents despaired of ever having shoes on my feet, some sense of public decorum, Nanna was a pro. Taking me by the hand (with that wonderful grin, which could win bites of breakfast out of me even when I’d declared myself not hungry) she’d lead me around town like a Duchess presenting her rarest jewel. Her friends stopped to say Hello – she is well known about town, having worked with the council to rehome stray dogs and cats for years – and I learned to put out my hand and give a firm shake.

It always makes me smile when this takes people – particularly men – by surprise.

Our steps inevitably took us in the direction of the local police station, for updates and/or any potential pick-ups, if the dog warden had phoned in first. While this environment would form a large part of my future, I had little interest then in the squeaky lino floors and folding shadows of the waiting room, the chatter of radios. There was a far more enticing promise just a block down, which Nanna had discreetly introduced me to as a means of diversion while she handled the sometimes-grim business of abandoned animals.

On autumn days, the bookshop on the corner seemed full of bees wax-sunlight, falling in slanting bars over the texts that made up the contours of the main room. Winter, pale light lay in pockets of drifting mist between the eyes and mouths of customers. Every conceivable binder and jacket, glossy and matte and cracked, stood in domino-splendour, or stacked up to the ceiling in jagged columns. All had been printed by the fingers of previous owners, with personal scribbles, dates and names, perhaps a mislaid marker made from a shopping list or forgotten photograph.

Maps of the world, lines redrawn and whole countries no longer in existence; these papered the seamed walls, peeking out between scarred shelves and teetering book-towers. Headlines screamed in broad black ink from aged broadsheets, pinned up with the same travel-ease as the maps: the moon landing, the outbreak of the wars, Kennedy’s shooting, the Queen’s coronation. Any spare inch of floor still visible was silvered with dust.

No history lesson in school seemed so vital to the senses, or as memorable.

Those pages spoke their own language of antiquity, caught between marbled paper; they crackled and hissed, whispered and chattered and chimed, in the way of books that have known many owners and a great deal of usage, with ink blurred beneath passing thumbs and certain corners folded down on thoughtful points. Some were the colour of snow under blueish shadows; others were thick and tough as papyrus, while still others had the distinctly smoked appearance and smell of bacon that you’d more likely find inside an old brass trumpet. The shop as a whole smelled of dens dug into the roots of a gnarled woodland oak. There were no revolving racks, muffins or coffee – except the one mug set down carefully on a ubiquitous pile of books by the shopkeeper’s elbow, twining steam into the thickly piled air.

His eyes were the brightest things in the room, darting around to watch each member of the public who entered through the silver-chime door; alive to the faded sound of each page-turn, the low murmurs. Nobody came in as a group, it was too small and cluttered an establishment for that; and though each voice was muted to library tones, perhaps by the weight of knowledge and drifting dust, sound carried through the book columns. The shop owner could pinpoint any conversation by its genre, each of which had been carefully arranged by title and author in latticed grids and sloping bars, an organized chaos of colours and words.

There was something otherworldly about the way he carried himself, on slippered feet, up and down the stairs with chin tilted to the ceiling, and fingers buttoned before him. Even as a child, I couldn’t imagine such a man simply reading in the way of other people. There had to be some form of digestion about it, as though he chewed on each text between thoughtful bites of a digestive biscuit, and sips of coffee. I’d won him over on my first visit by pointedly ignoring the modern children’s books – brightly-clothed and scattered towards the rear of the shop – heading instead for the dust-hued titles of my parents’ childhood, and the generations before them. Swallows and Amazons, as Nanna pointed out, had been a favourite of my father’s when he was a boy. Given that I rarely saw him reading, due to long working hours, this came as a pleasant and surprising link between our childhoods.

I bought the book, wrapped in its classic binding, and would add to it over the years with titles that trace a pattern between the small person I was and the woman I am today: The Snow Spider trilogy, A Little Princess, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Secret Garden. These were to stay at Nanna’s house, as another fixture of our weekends spent together. To come away from the store with a brown paper bag clutched in both hands, crackling under the weight of its precious cargo (and perhaps, later, a smaller bag stuffed with sweets from the indoor shopping centre, weighed out on proper scales) was to know bright-light happiness… The kind to make you climb the tallest tree to waver on the last firm branches, setting the words of each page to the warm evening winds and peach-juice sky.

As I grew older, the titles changed with my moods. Pre-adolescent puberty had hit hard; I didn’t dare talk to anyone about it, to show how naive and scared I was beneath the bored sneer that had fish-hooked my mouth. Peers were by turns shocked and amused by each other’s behaviour, and while I longed to emulate them, I seemed to spend most of middle school simultaneously creeping around and backing off; hovering on the fringes of every social cluster, unable (unwilling) to commit and join in.

Books were the trusted retreat, as I’m sure will resonate with others. They didn’t answer back with catty remarks, or leave paper-trail rumours. They also didn’t expect anything of my company, and were indifferent as to whether I turned their well-worn pages or not. I went backwards, in an attempt to move forwards: The Great Gatsy, Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm, Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein. All held issues deeply rooted in social etiquette, gender bias v.s. equality, religion, sexuality and politics; across time-zones and eras, I could pick apart the weave of humanity, while finding my own place in its loose-end threads. Elizabeth Bennett still feels as modern and real as any of my peers, though perhaps better defined in terms of her independence, given the sociocultural aspects of the novel.

James Herriot taught me to laugh at my faults, Larkin to find the coil of humour in anything mawkish. Anne Mccaffrey showed me the subtleties of gender equality in her overlap between the fantasy and science fiction genres (never an easy dance). She would prove to be one of the artful authors who know the simple power behind placing human pathos before genre archetypes and settings. While the world of Pern erupted in dragonfire and Threads, and time-travel stitched itself in telekinesis across the stars in the Tower and Hive series, it was the collective thoughts and emotions of the characters that remained very much in the foreground, as something tangible to cling onto.

While I wholly endorse e-books, Kindles and similar readers for their “waste-not” convenience – in terms of preserving our planet that little bit longer, providing a welcome market for indie authors/publishers, and the simple pleasure of hauling hundreds of titles around in a compact case – it would be a sad loss for those shops to melt away into the shadows. They are the conduit between one life and another. I’m trying to imagine a childhood without those sensory elements, anchoring me to memories, all caught up in an Eastbourne bookshop (and countless others wandered into over the years.) So many surprises nestled on long-ago shelves, with certain titles eclipsed by the weight of their own historical context. And as with love, it’s the ones you were not looking for that tend to be the keepers.

Looking at some of the books in my landlady’s collection, I can only begin to imagine how long it would take to put such a compilation together. Yet they are no more important than the well-thumbed and scrappy paperbacks I have stashed in my walk-in wardrobe – it is ultimately the text caught within that will make a book timeless. But these are the tangible links, to those owners who bothered to stop and pick up a copy and left little imprints on the binders and pages, as a form of communication; to our pasts and our futures, with connections to authors as people with real thoughts, memories of a world like ours, all set down in elegant print defining humanity’s dedication to the written word – often against great odds.
The old leaves, musk and marbling, the presentation and fine weave of images, all wait for us to come home, seeking something that belongs here and then.