Today, I find out that the books from my childhood were surprisingly gory. I thumb the cover of some cheap horror story, tracing the line of a tentacle all the way to the gouged eye hanging at the end. When I set the book down, the shelf creaks. That's how old it is.

Outside, a couple of kids are playing diabolo. That's Chinese yo-yo for you: an aerobic fling with a plastic toy. You roll it along a thin string, which you hold in either hand. You swing it around so the hourglass-shaped thing leaps into the air, hangs there for a bit, and lands back on the string safely. In theory. In reality, there's a lot of laughing and shouting involved, and even with the curtains half-drawn, I can tell they're not socially distanced.

Dust rises as I push the cabinet door to its limits and make sure it stays open.

I walk across a floor of sickly pink tiles, which stick uncomfortably to my feet. Some of them are cracked, others entirely gouged from the cement foundation. It's been a long time, I suppose. Everything breaks down eventually. 

Jonathan pops in from the living room. "Is everything alright?"

He's a good kid, this Jonathan. He walks barefoot like a monk at a temple, blue eyes worshipping the cracked plaster. Only surgical masks for him, with spares he keeps in the car for friends who forget. I'm not one of them. I'm sure mother would have liked him. It's almost too bad.

I shrug my shoulders and tell him to start with the books around the coffee table.

 Some years would pass before they start calling this a heritage site. A decade, maybe. Or two, if no nosy tourists pass by this region until then. It depends, really. People like me, we don't worry about what things are called.

My phone casts a bright shadow onto the ancient peeling flowery wallpaper, as I check the map of orphanages in this place. Not all of them responded to our query. They musn't think we're serious about these books, but we're used to that. Outside, someone launches their toy into a tree branch and it makes a dry cracking noise. Snickering follows. 

"Uh - " Jonathan emerges from the doorway. "I don't think some of these are meant for kids."

He beckons me quickly with his hand. I follow at a slow pace, as if approaching a frightened rabbit. He's a very jumpy individual, our Jonathan, and I'm afraid to scare him off. In the living room, the books have been piled in low neat stacks. They sit on top of lacey doilies, on top of gold-embroidered cloth. All of them are crusted in a grey muck. 

Jonathan's showing me a thin well-kept volume. The cover is pink, decorated suggestively in curved shapes and a single black rose. His tone is joking. "Did you read this? When you came to visit your gramps?"

"Probably. I don't remember."

We sort out the piles into two distinct groups. In one of them, there's a lot of vintage women's magazines, recipes for home remedies that don't work, clothing catalogues, pamphlets from missionaries that used to knock on the door soon as they smelt joss sticks burning. Then there are the ones we can give to the children, classics like Lewis Carroll, fables, old science textbooks. I take one of those last ones and flip through it. A corner of rotting paper comes off in my hands. Pluto's still a planet in this one, I notice, grinning. While Jonathan isn't looking, I transfer it to the other pile.

"Don't stress." I bury the book under a pile of old financial magazines, while I'm at it. Jonathan snaps awake, from where he's been scrutinising a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula. "Whatever books will do."

Jonathan narrows his eyes at me dubiously and continues leafing through the pages.

When the stacks are gone from the coffee table, I reenter the old study where my books are kept. Jonathan pads in behind me; I don't stop him. The thick tomes here are much newer than my grandparents' books, but even they show their age. Suddenly I'm overcome with a sense of lacking as I look at the sets of uniformed horror novels, the tacky blue sci-fi novellas, the fantasy books that all have the same basic sword design on the cover. Jonathan makes some comment about me having read a lot as a kid, but I can tell his heart isn't in it. 

Only a few of these make it into the final selection.

It's for their own good, I suppose, as I load the boxes of books into the back of the truck. We have nothing to strap them in securely. I think it's just as well that these are stacks of paper, not food or medicine or other breakable supplies. Our ambling gargantuan of a diesel oil vehicle would carry no such precious cargo. As the engine starts, coughing up black smoke, I hear heavy weights sliding across the floor, bumping into one another. There's no shattering - and for me, that's good enough. 

Jonathan, meanwhile, leans out of his open window in the passenger seat. I turn to look at him. I have a joke on my tongue, some quip about how he was the one scolding people for sticking their heads out from vehicles, when we were in rehab at least. But I don't get the chance to say it.

He's looking at the diabolo players, limber teenagers with their too-bright teeth and their arms brushing up against each other. Jonathan's lips purse into a frown. He pushes his reading glasses up his nose with one slim finger. "They shouldn't be doing that." 

So I get out of the car, turn to the gaggle of boys and shout a warning. They resist.

They glance awkwardly amongst themselves, dressed in flowing T-shirts their parents only half believe they'll grow into someday. We stay long enough for this awkwardness to boil over, and they disperse, one after the other. Still none of them puts on a mask.

I come back and shut the door fast beside me. My shoulders creak a little as I stretch. "That's about it for this place," I say to no one in particular. "Where we headed to first?"

Driving on the long straight road ahead, it's just Jonathan and I and our truck, the GPS chirping hollowly into quiet air. 

July 18, 2020 07:54

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