Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Profiles in String 13

Emma’s library was not all older books; there were many more recent volumes. I didn’t intend to catalogue all of them, but I couldn’t not read them. The beautiful antique volumes were treasures on their own, but these lesser lights of the library were just as intriguing for the light they shed into Emma’s own tastes in reading. Many of the books bore inscriptions from friends, or notations in Emma’s own hand commemorating the occasion or the giver. I would take one of these books from the shelf, glance at the flyleaf to see if it said anything interesting, and page through the book to make sure there were no keepsakes or clippings filed away inside. Most had nothing of vast interest, but I was arrested in my progress by a familiar bold black scrawl inside a book with a green dust jacket.

This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand.

Intrigued, I turned to the title page. China Court, by Rumer Godden, 1961. The endpapers were printed with a family tree mapping the various generations who’d lived in the titular house. I paged through it, browsing through a section here, being drawn into a conversation there. The book didn’t seem to be written in chronological order. I wandered, pleasantly lost, amid characters and episodes, until something wedged in the pages made me pause. It was a black-and-white photograph, scratched and marred, of a confidently handsome man in a suit, looking directly at the camera. His dark hair was slicked back and his easy, sensual grin suggested that he was fully aware of his effect on the photographer, and the viewer. On the back was pencilled only “1957”, but I had a feeling that man could be none other than Howard himself.

There was one person who would know. Aunt Emma was out on the couch snuggled under a bedraggled afghan, drowsing peacefully through the afternoon cartoons. I sat down beside her, and she blinked herself awake.

“Hi, honey!” she said, and, extricating a hand from her blanket, patted my knee.

“Aunt Emma, I wanted to ask you something,” I said casually. “I found this picture in a book. Can you tell me who it is?” Taking the photograph from the book, I held it out to her.

“Oh, is he still here?” she exclaimed, taking the photo and peering at it. “That’s Howard. I thought he’d left a long time ago.”

“Who is Howard,” I asked, disingenuously. “Can you tell me about him?”

Emma snorted. “Who doesn’t know about Howard? He’s my husband, and let me tell you, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. He told me he stopped smoking, but I can smell it on him when he comes it. Phew, I hate the stink of cigarettes! I threw all mine away after that, but,” her voice dropped confidentially, “I still keep a stash in the kitchen. I don’t smoke ‘em anymore. I just look at them.”

“But the book,” I insisted pressing it on her.  “Look what it says inside. This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand. Did you give this book to Howard?”

“I never gave Howard any of my books,” Emma said, sharply. “That’s a lie. He knows it. He knows I never let him take any of my books.”

Her agitation was rising, but I plunged on. “But you gave him this one. Look, you wrote in it.” I stabbed at the inscription with my finger

She read it aloud, slowly. “This sounds like the sort of book you’d understand. That’s what he thought. Do you know how much he knew about it? He read a review in a New York paper while he was on a business trip and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll give Emma a book, and that’ll put her in a good mood.’ Catch Howard with a book in his hand without some good reason behind it.” She snorted again, but more peaceably.

“Wait.” It was ridiculous to be so fixated on an old scribble in a book, even more ridiculous to be cross-examining a woman who was almost incapable of giving a clear answer to any question. “Did Howard give you this book? Who wrote this?”

Her attention had drifted back to the cartoons. “Would you look at that silly thing?” She shook her head, bewildered by the amount of silliness that was considered acceptable in small-screen programming, and idly drummed her fingers on the book now nestled in her lap. She had retreated into the shabby comfort of her curious and vague inner life, but I was determined to ferret her out, if only this once.

From my bedside table I snatched Jane Eyre out of its stately repose and flung open the cover. There was the same black handwriting I’d read so often: To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together. How many times had I drawn strength from this sentiment, that gorgeous girls and gorgeous books had a natural affinity? How delighted had I been that Aunt Emma had chanced upon just the right sentiment for her bookish niece? Emma had given this book to me, had inscribed it to me.

The springs of the old brocade couch groaned as I dropped down and seized China Court from Aunt Emma. Holding both Jane Eyre and China Court open, I shoved the pair of books under her nose.

“Emma, listen to me,” I demanded. “Tell me who wrote in these books. You wrote this, didn’t you? To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together. You wrote that to me, didn’t you?”

The effect on Emma was extraordinary. Before I could react, her withered hands plucked Jane Eyre from me, and her white hair rose up in fury.

“You’re stealing my book!” she shrieked. “That’s my book! You have no right... it wasn’t right... to waste my books on her...” Her sudden and appalling rage had flared out as quickly as it had flared up, leaving her almost sobbing. “He gave it to me, and he thought that made it his. But it was mine.”

Her trembling fingers caressed the book possessively, while I sat frozen, surprised at the depth of my feeling of loss.

“Then you never wrote that for me,” I murmured. “All this time, I thought it was my book, and that you wrote that especially for me.”

Emma wrapped Jane Eyre in her blanket. “The book never mattered to Howard, oh no. Only what the book could do for him.” She folded the blanket around the book until she had a soft bulky parcel. This she carried into the library and paced up and down the shelves, but whether she crooned and whispered to the parcel or the books, I couldn’t say. After half an hour she unwrapped her package and placed Jane Eyre on the table, but I didn’t dare to move it until she had gone to sleep, and then I found I didn’t want it in my room anymore. Instead I took China Court to bed, and read late into the night to ascertain what it was that Howard supposed Emma would understand. But the threads of the story were complex, and I had no idea which character was the best approximation of what he saw in her.

After this I left the books alone for a time, and began to decorate for Christmas. Emma was soothed by the tree and the lights and the Advent wreath, and by the early snow that was beginning to fall. She would stand by the front windows and watch the lacy flakes drift against the black ribbon of road while I washed laundry and cleaned the fridge and made her cocoa. The snow seemed to exert some pull on her, but the cold was an equal and opposite force that kept her safely indoors, and so we both kept warm and busy while both the earth and the books received a light and dusty covering.


Banshee said...

Wow. Something that would truly shatter one's worldview.

Did Emma 1 send the book to Emma 2, back when she could remember the sentiment and decide to send it on? Or did Howard send it? Or does Emma 1 have some kind of split personality, or perhaps a ghost around the house?

Banshee said...

Don't answer that now. I want to read more of this story, though. It's very gripping.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Oooh I'm loving all the books. I hope China Court comes back into it again. And I'm with suburbanbanshee in wondering about the Jane Eyre inscription.