I read this story at Surry Hills library for a live version of All the Best back at the start of May. I like the story but reading it made me feel vulnerable, I guess because it’s about being a shy, bookish child. The shy bookish child in me would have been horrified to stand up in front of a room of people and read a story confessing my unpopularity. I felt like my story was the most shy and bookish one out of all of them. For stories about libraries, there was more sexual content than I expected among the stories that were read that night.
Before I going back to Dural Library I thought it would be good to reflect upon my memories of that time, and this is the story that appeared:
There are some people who obviously should have been born in another time, and I felt like one of them. But as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, the reality of it was that I was a kid in the 1980s. Later, as a teenager, while stuffing my Cabbage Patch Kid in a bag to take to the op shop I thought of the oath I had recited upon “adopting” it back in 1985:
I promise to love my Cabbage Patch Kid with all my heart. I promise to be a good and kind parent. I will always remember how special my Cabbage Patch Kid is to me.
I didn’t feel guilty. I’d never been very fond of the doll, with its piggy eyes and chubby cheeks which resembled a face after a wisdom teeth extraction. I’d convinced my parents to buy me one for Christmas for no reason other than succumbing to peer pressure. It watched over me in my room, occasionally whispering: You Must Conform.
The world I would have rather been living in was about a hundred years earlier and my main way of accessing this was through the Dural Public Library. Here I gravitated to the hardback classics, like the Water Babies or the Secret Garden. I liked the smell of the books, which had soft pages like blotting paper, and colour plates for the illustrations, which I examined with great attention. I’d take them up to the counter and watch as the librarian crunched the stamp down on the due date page. What I would have given for a go of that stamp! Once stamped, the books were mine and I had an armful of different worlds to disappear into.
The Dural library was my favourite, although of all the places at my school it was the library where I felt most comfortable: that and the gates when I was leaving through them at the end of the day. The librarian, who saw in me the kind of gentle, easily trampled soul who takes refuge in books, eventually entrusted me with the job of checking books out at the desk. The small plastic stamp was no match for the public library one, but I used it proudly.
One day in the school library I spied some of the mean girls who usually held court in the playground grouped into a corner, examining something. Seeing these bullies on my turf I felt nervous, but was too scared to go over and investigate. I lurked behind the shelves nearby for a while, listening to them giggle. Then I thought of something: the check out desk was located on a level above the library itself, with a good view over it. So I climbed the stairs and peered down. Directly below me, in between the bowed heads of the girls, I could see what they were looking at: a copy of Where did I come from?
I knew very well where they came from, big North Shore houses with pools and tennis courts, the kind of places with confidence pumping out through the air conditioning.
Where I came from, I was less sure. I’d read my children’s classics from the library and imagine myself as an orphan, a gypsy or a girl detective. Although they were library books, and I knew they had been read by others (traces of whom, in the crumbs and finger marks on the pages, were still apparent) I knew that I was the true recipient of this knowledge. I had many secret identities.
Visiting the library on Saturday was the highlight of my week. In Dural Mall, as I trailed around after my mum in the Franklins, I tried my best not to become impatient. There were some distractions: my sister and I were obsessed with the plastic egg machines at the entrance to the supermarket. One of these dispensed bouncy balls and we had a growing collection of these at home, stored in Itty Bitty bins.
The shopping done, I felt great anticipation as my mum’s car pulled into the library carpark. The library was surrounded by gum trees like a magic house in a wood. It was a 1970s building with an angled roof and expose brick interior, a style of architecture I found comforting.
Once Monday rolled around again I was back at school. Despite my loner in the library tendencies, I did have a few friends. Although I felt like we were from different planets, I was grateful to them for putting up with me. Then things started changing. There was increasing pressure to be interested in boys. It was an all girls school and up until this point boys, apart from brothers, had no particular importance. Now Debbie, the leader of our group, had a crush on a boy and expected us to follow suit. If we didn’t have a real boy, a crush on a movie star was permissible. Everyone but me eventually came up with someone, and I knew that my excuses wouldn’t hold up much longer.
My kind of boys rode horses, wore waistcoats and could converse with animals and the only pictures I had of them were in the colour plates of hardcover books. How I wished I could bring one to life!
That weekend I again visited the library. It was such a holy place for me that I imagined that any problem I had could be solved within its doors. In the children’s section was an area with beanbags, for kids to sit reading. I’d never paid much attention to this area before but today I noticed the magazine rack. If I ever read a magazine it was selected from the newsagency when my parents bought the weekend papers. They were about horses or the were kinds of magazines where kids would send in their art and fiction to be published. I’d managed to live my life as free from engagement with popular culture as possible up to this point, but I knew that the time had come.
At the magazine rack I picked out a Smash Hits and flipped through it. A dastardly plan bloomed as I noted the posters of pop stars and movie stars inside. I looked over to the desk and saw that the librarians were busy stamping. I chose one of the full page posters and ripped it out slowly, so the noise wouldn’t be heard. I stuffed it in my pocket and went to borrow the Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, in which a pair of girls escape their evil governess with the help of a boy who lived in a cave in the nearby woods.
The poster was of Charlie Sheen. I thought he looked rather weasely, but he became my alibi. I could profess how cute I thought he was, and how my perfect man would be just like him. Little was I to know the monster he would become! Yet now when I read about his latest ravings I think about that poster. If my friends came to visit I’d stick up on my wall, right above the spot where the Cabbage Patch Kid sat, the evidence that I was a normal girl, just like everyone else.