The fiction shelves of Allanson Primary’s library took up one wall of the year 6/7 classroom. I don’t remember new books being added, but there must have been some. There were certainly never any books weeded in my years at school; if a book was in the library, you could count on it staying there.
I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt from Year 1 to Year 3, and toward the end of this, a kind girl who liked me (I, too embarrassed, shrunk away) came up to me during library time with a book I hadn’t noticed before. It had a boy lying between the legs of the Sphinx. My momentary excitement was dulled when I realised it was a novel with nothing to do with Egypt; it was set in London, and the boy was found between the legs of the replica Sphinx. I cannot remember if I even took it out, let alone whether I read it – and yet I vividly remember the girl showing me the book .
For me, it’s the books which I half remember, the ones I can’t go back to because I can’t remember the title or even the author, which have a hold on me, ghosts on the edge of memory. The few favourite childhood books which survived household purges and I still own are precious, but do not haunt.
But this time I found a ghost, found it in an opshop on Saturday, for 50c, the same edition as the one from my childhood (there are six cover variations floating around the web, none of them this one). Its title returned to me when I saw it: The Finding by Nina Bawden. It was a withdrawn library book, from another public primary school, with a borrowing card stamped with dates around the time I borrowed it.
I remember liking the cover, but now the Sphinx looks like he’s alive and it just looks so… earnest.
The first few chapters have an eerie familiarity as I read them last night, so I probably did read it. It starts woefully, with one of those terrible sentences our teachers tried to make us write in creative writing in primary school:
On the day of his Finding, the mist lay on the river; a soft, white vapour drifting on the brown Thames, lazily stirred by the slow tide of the water into smoky tendrils and curls.
But it gets much better after this, with the strange appearance of a Pentecostal tent meeting catching me offguard.
I never knew anything about Nina Bawden as a child; she occupied a good section of shelf in the library, and in that sense seemed familar but we didn’t know if these authors on the shelves were alive or dead. Born in 1925, Bawden is still alive even today, but her husband died in a train crash early this century.