It was New Year, over eighteen months ago. Time for a spring clean, even in that baking summer heat. Perhaps it was the heat that had got to us: why else would we decide to tackle the area that never got tackled? That we'd never felt the need to tackle? The area I refer to is the bookcase – that big wooden temple with all its sacred idols lining the shelves. We’d always assumed those great tomes would stay put for as long as we lived here, secure in their sturdy positions, because they were books, and you don’t get rid of books.
But how many of them would we read again, we asked ourselves? How many had personal meaning? After all, amongst the lovely novels, there were also novelty books, stuffed hurriedly into Xmas stockings by fraught parents; freebie paperbacks, attached, gratis, to glossy magazines; thrillers that hadn’t enticed us past chapter four. And there were those folio books we’d sent for from Readers Digest, bought because we thought they’d look impressive on the shelf. But this was a New Year – a time for shedding the old and making way for the new.
We were finally going to do it.
We began by moving our travel books into a separate box – the Lonely Planets and big atlases we’d collected over the years; dusty, well-thumbed ancient editions, worthless to all except us. They took up a big box just by themselves. And once we’d separated those and put them out the way, we were ready to move on to the Serious Clearing Out.
It was hard at first – such lovely-looking books, but if they hadn’t been read in the last twenty years, would they ever be read? Unlikely, we figured. Get shot of them! And once we got into a rhythm, it became easier. ‘Want this?’ we’d ask each other. Barely a glance. A shake of the head. ‘This one to go?’ Easy-peasy!
In no time at all, we had about ten boxes, ready for the second-hand bookshop. And we felt good donating them: they’d make money for community projects and we’d make room for new books and fresh beginnings.
We left the boxes in the designated spot at the bookshop door and drove away. Win-win.
It wasn’t till later in the day that our metaphorical pen began to leak.
Where, we wondered, was that box of travel books? The ones we’d written notes in and had stains from our emergency rusks in Russia, and drip-marks from the Bintangs in Bali. Where had they got to? We’d put them somewhere safe, hadn’t we? Surely, we had. Hadn’t we?
We hunted everywhere; checked every corner of the room, the shelves, hunted on the back seat of the car; the boot, the car port. They weren’t there.
Still, it was New Year – who’d be working at a community second-hand bookshop on a public holiday? The boxes would be there, still sitting between the donated novelty books and the posh folio ones. Bound to be.
We tore down to the bookshop, which was now (surprisingly) open. We went inside where a slick one-woman operation was underway. We explained our predicament and laughed off our silly mistake and asked if we could have another look through the boxes we’d left earlier. ‘Oh,’ the woman said, ‘they’ve all been sorted. But feel free to look on the shelves.’
We figured it might cost us a fair bit to get them all back if they’d already been priced up and shelved, but we didn’t mind that. Just as long as we could reclaim them.
When we went to the travel section, we found none of them there, but … that had to be a good thing, right? It meant they hadn’t been sorted.
‘Oh, travel books?’ the woman said. ‘We don’t keep travel books if they’re out of date. Were yours out of date?’
We looked at each other. ‘Perhaps, a little.’ We glanced around us. ‘So where would you have put them?’
‘Oh, they get shredded,’ she told us, cheerfully. ‘I’m afraid the man’s already been here to collect the rubbish.’
Rubbish? Rubbish?? Some Happy New Year this was turning out to be.
We drove home in silence and, over the next period of time, went into a quiet state of mourning. First there was denial (surely they couldn’t have got rid of our precious books that quickly! They had to be somewhere. Maybe we could track the shredding man down?) After that, there was anger – how dare they shred our precious books? They were books, goddamit: sacred things. There should have been warnings of possible pulping. Had we known, we harrumphed, we wouldn’t have donated any books to those shysters. Next came depression – all those lovely books of ours; all those memories! They could never be replaced: they told our story, detailed our travels together, they represented the two of us between their pages. And we’d been shredded.
At the bargaining stage, we promised ourselves we’d never, never throw out a book again if ONLY we could get our old ones back. We even attempted to start again and bought ourselves a lovely new atlas – hardback, cost an arm and a leg. It didn’t make us feel any better though, even if we pretended it did.
The final part of grief is acceptance; acknowledging that what’s done is done. Moving on, stronger and more determined than before. Well, that stage simply passed us by. It could never be ‘okay’ that those books went, and the wounds opened anew each time we told the story.
Still, at least the experience helped us to manage a more recent spring clean. We kept the previous trauma at the forefront of our minds as we emptied our shed. Things had been getting damp in there – kids’ toys, old videos, children’s books. But we didn’t want to get rid of anything – God forbid! Especially the books! – so we gradually removed everything from the shed and put it in the relative warmth of our spare room.
Imagine our delight then, when we opened the lid of one of the boxes and found – yes! – all our old travel books and atlases. They might have been eighteen months older, dustier and damper, but there they all were, intact, safe, unshredded and unpulped. Every last one of them with their rusk stains, their Bintang marks and curly edges. We must have been so (obsessively) afraid of doing what we feared we’d done, that we’d put them somewhere very safe and out-the-way at the start, and not realised.
It was like being reunited with dear friends – friends we’d feared long-dead who then appear out of the mist. It was truly a night of celebration: we sat by the fire, and opened every single book, one by one. The stories were still inside: not just the tales of how to get from Medan to Probolingo in a bemo; or of which museum to visit in Moscow but rather, OUR stories. Because, really, it’s not only the words between the covers that matter – it’s the memories that give those pages their meaning. The recollection of gripping the book on a slow boat to Sibu, or having that crumpled map rested against your pregnant belly in Queensland, or of using the book as a makeshift plate in Sumatra. It’s the adventures that the books stir up that are the true treasures. And for us, suddenly, even more valuable because they were treasures so very nearly lost.