The living room always had one wall covered with book-filled bookshelves up to the ceiling. They were there when I was little and there again when we returned to the house a decade or so later.
The bookshelves were made of dark wood, not shiny. My father’s books, almost all of them.
I look at those books, my eyes trailing along the spines, during afternoons when the house is quiet and I must find something to do.
I do it a lot in the English house where the books are up on the second floor, on the landing that overlooks the staircase that winds up from the little hallway below. Here the books are in white bookshelves that have glass doors you slide back and forth. I search for something to hold my interest. I look and look, looking at the same lined-up spines I looked at last time, hoping to notice something I have not noticed before.
The carpet is flat and a dull green. This is a rented house, this one in England. The landing is narrow. There is only room for the bookcases and a narrow space to walk. The landing is bounded by a railing – white posts with a black shiny railing along the top. Without that fence you would fall into the hole made by the staircase.
At the top of the stairs there is no bookcase and a little more space. My mother has put there a large black trunk that we used when we came here. You can sit on its broad surface and your feet don’t touch the ground. There’s a long window above the trunk with a white window sill. My mother has a row of plants along the sill. She has African violets there and when one of them blooms she says, “Look!” in a high voice. “A flower!”
I sit on the trunk with my little sister. I have an idea for a newspaper we could make. I can see this beautiful newspaper we will make and I can see how we will be able to make it every week. We will make it and sell it and I see this beautiful thrilling future that will inject my life with that mysterious ingredient that kids who live in books have.
My room is at the top of the stairs, its door right by the big trunk. My mother bought me a desk. She painted it white. It didn’t have any paint when it came from the store. She painted it and put it behind the door of my room. She got me the desk because now I live at home. I used to go to boarding school but I am back here now. I didn’t want to come back to my mother’s world. I thought I did for a moment. Being in boarding school was like being in my father’s world, the world outside the house.
But that didn’t matter when my friends at school turned mean. I didn’t want to go back there. I asked to come back here. I imagined it might be like Little House in the Big Woods and that I’d sit at the dining room table every evening doing homework with my sister, with soft lamplight. But it wasn’t that way.
The curtains in my room are a deep bright red. They go down to the floor and you open and close them by pulling a cord. This is fancier than our house in America. It feels like a hotel. My bed is in the corner, under the window above the garage so I know when my parents come back on the nights they go out. The babysitter is downstairs but I do not feel safe in bed until the sound of the car pulls in under my window and the headlights fan across my dark ceiling.
Along the landing is also a door. When you open it it’s just a bunch of wooden slats you can hang things from. It’s extra warm in there because of a water heater or something, and my mother hands wet laundry in there to dry. She calls it the drying cupboard, another strange English thing.
My father goes on business trips. Hanging on the wall on the landing are two small drawings, each framed in gold wood. The drawings are like scribbles in black ink on white paper. My father said he got them from a friend, some man he met on one of the trips. The man was scribbling during their meeting and my father asked him for the drawings. My father described how the many shrugged, sure, not seeing them as something of any value. The two pictures hang, one above the other, by bookcases, near my father’s room. They aren’t pretty, but when I look at them I remember that my father goes to other places and meets people that the rest of us will never see.