Her parents had no money to waste on books. Electricity and water bills arrived every couple of months, food had to be bought, not to mention stuff to clean the house and clothes with. Raising a child wasn’t cheap.
When she turned twelve, she discovered ‘pocket money’. All the other children at school seemed to have it and had had it for years. They laughed at her for not knowing what it was. So did her cousins.
Grabbing courage with two shaking hands, the child timidly went to her mother, and asked about it. After weeks of consultations – days and days of walking on tiptoe, of ‘being good or you can forget any pocket-money’, it was decided. Father gave mother money every week to buy food. She in turn would give the child two Maltese lira a week out of the food money. If she was good. And did as she was told. And did not ‘answer back’.
That money was her life-line. All it took was three weeks. Maybe four. And with her carefully saved hoard she could finally buy a book. One book.
The lady at the shop saw her every week. Maybe twice or three times each week even. Peering assiduously at the shelves. Hair tucked back. Pinching shoes forgotten as glistening eyes devoured each and every corner. Reading the book titles over and over again. Touching the pages, looking at the spines and covers. And of course, the blurps at the back. She must have known the sequencing of all the books on all the shelves by heart. And by the fourth week, when the price of the chosen book had been reached, the money would be handed over, as would the much awaited paper-wrapped treasure.
In her room, she would unwrap it slowly, marveling at its heavenly smell. That particular scent of new paper and stationery. First, she’d introduce it to the other books, then the soft toys, one by one, each one by name. And finally, with a flourish, she’d present it to the room in general, imagining ovations and applause as the new addition to the small family was placed in its particularly chosen spot.
Then she would wait.
She waited for her father to go out. For her mother to be engrossed in one of her soaps on the T.V or in some long-winded conversation on the telephone. Then, and only then, would she crack the book’s spine.
And be lost.