Is that book alive?
My partner is careless with books, cracking their spines so they stay open more easily; folding down corners so that he can find his place; using them as extemporised coffe mats to protect the arm of the sofa. Books which go to him pristine, their pages crackly with promise, are likely to come back ringed with coffee stains, their covers cracked, stitching loosened, pages turned down. (Disclosure: I’m by no means perfect when it comes to looking after books and have even been known to read them in the bath, leaving them swollen and wrinkled.)
The book he’s reading at the moment, however, is a signed, first edition: Piers Paul Read’s true story about the survivors of a plane crash who resort to cannibalism to survive (for some reason Nick thought this would make hilarious reading for our plane journey across the Pyrenees with the kids). He sits up to read this, holding it in two hands, never opening it beyond 120° and using a proper bookmark. He has also given the kids strict instructions not to tickle or splash him when he’s reading it down by the pool during our holidays. (Just realised that I have written ‘holidays’, rather than ‘holiday’: it must be from spending too much time in France, where it’s always plural – les vacances.)
We’re spending July at the old Mas in the Pyrenees-Orientale in which we lived until September 2012. It’s sweltering here, so we often cobble together a picnic, grab a hammock and a bottle of wine, and head down the hill to our secret swimming spot. With its crystal clear pool, shady trees, big sun-drenched rock on which to dry yourself and three levels of rocks to jump off, it’s an idyllic spot – perhaps the place we’ve missed most since moving back to the UK. There’s even a natural dam forming a shallow pool that’s perfect for chilling a bottle of wine in. Tiny fish throng the pool, and the kids sometimes catch these and study them nibbling at the saucisson with which they bait their improvised fish traps. They fashion these from plastic water bottles cut in half, the tops inserted upside down into the bottoms over the bait, and some little stones to weight them down. The fish-traps are then set in the current, and fish swim in but can’t swim out again. Because the river is teaming with little black squiggles at the moment though, the kids have other fauna to study, busying themselves making temporary tadpole holding tanks, damming shallow depressions in the rocks with stones, filling these with water and adding algae for shade.
Not wanting to risk the first edition, Nick borrowed my copy of Salinger’s Cannary Row. It was safe enough while he was reading in the hammock, but I stole his place when he went swimming, so he moved over to the big rock to dry off and sun himself for a while. Inevitably, the breeze ruffled the pages of the book and then a gust of wind caught it. It hit the water with a splash, and Jack, sounding anxious, yelled “Daddy, is that book alive?”. It seemed a funny question for an 11-year old, but we thought he must be trying to lighten the mood, suggesting that it had jumped in the river of its own volition rather than through carelessness. However, he was irritated when we laughed and asked again if it was alive. Confused, we let it go. It was only when we got home and Nick picked up his Piers Paul Read first edition, that we saw the title and realised that what Jack had really been asking was “Is that book ‘Alive’?”.