When I was a kid my favorite place to read was somewhere hidden, a place where I would be invisible. This was often necessary because, once started on a book, I could not stop, and would sit and read until I finished. It was like eating breakfast, lunch and dinner from the same plate and all at once. So deep would be my immersion into this other world of story, that I’d eventually come out of my secret lair with a sense of disorientation, like a brown bear after hibernation.
The subterfuge, the hiding, was important, because although my parents loved to read, loved to know that I was immersing myself in the world of literature, they also were big on work. We had our jobs, and by golly we’d pull our weight before any lolling around with books. And frankly, cleaning out the fire grates, followed by the bath (in this order because the Ajax cleaned the stains from your hands as well as the bath), and then sweeping the floors on a Saturday morning was never quite so interesting to me as whatever book my eight or nine years old nose wanted to get into. So I’d often do just one of the jobs on my list, then find my book and hide.
Dependent upon the time of year, I had several hiding places. In late spring summer, it amazed me that my mother never knew that I could be found in the big lilac tree that stood right outside the back door. I’d clamber up into the branches to be cocooned within the fragrant aroma of those big lilac blossoms; I’d get comfortable in the V of two big branches, settle back, crack open my book, and read. There was something dozy about reading in that tree, a slightly soporific feeling that would envelop me as I turned the pages. I’d hear my mother calling my name – up the stairs in the house, then coming closer, into the garden – and it was as if I was slightly intoxicated. I’d look up from the page and watch her, wiping sudsy hands on her apron, and exclaiming, “Well, I don’t know where she thinks she’s gone, when she’s got jobs to do.” Occasionally I’d wonder why she never chased after my brother in the same way, but he was that much younger and she knew where he was hiding out anyway – in the greenhouse with his pet toad, Big Head.
Under the hedge at the bottom of the garden was another place. There was a hole in the hedge, and if you crawled into it, no one knew you were there. It was a bit dark, and lost favor when some red ants moved in. I ran out screaming one day, to be met by my mother, hands on hips, frowning. “That’ll serve you right. Now then, I’ve got a job for you.”
In winter, I would hide in plain sight, so obvious was my refuge. There was a short flight of stairs from our big kitchen up to the dining room, and at the top of those stairs, if you opened the door to the dining room back on itself, it created a little square cubby hole. I’d squeeze in under the shelf, and settle back on an old blanket. I could look through the banister into the kitchen, and would hear my parents speculating as to where I’d gone. Maybe they knew I was there all the time, perhaps it was part of their game, with a wink to each other to keep up the pretence that they had no idea where I was, when they were quite aware that I was listening to their every word, and with my head in a book.
In summer, after school and after I’d done my jobs (those jobs ...), I’d make myself a jam sandwich and take a bottle of orange squash (sort of like cordial with water) and make my way over to the woods, where I would sit by the pond with my book. I still wonder if fairies and wood nymphs and other ethereal beings allow themselves to be seen by children, especially children who can keep still. I’m sure I was never alone as my mind wandered, into the story and back again. But perhaps that’s when I learned that, when you have a book in your hand, you always have good company.