By Paul Siekor
I’d spent my pocket money
on a copy of Michener’s The Source.
I loved the gleaming candelabrum
on the cover.
I admired the book’s Dickensian, Biblical length,
its comforting heaviness in my hand.
I anticipated taking it to bed
for hours of reading,
engrossed in its folds
the smell of new-book print
and the feel of the laminated
cover under my fingers.
Before I had a chance
Uncle Isaac came to tea.
We treated him like the
Lord of the Manor. In my father’s absence
He supported Grandma, Mother and me
in Grandma’s gloomy old cottage
with an outside loo
(I’m going where the Kaiser goes, Grandma would say)
and no bathroom.
A bill never sullied the doormat:
gas, electricity, taxes
Lord Uncle Isaac paid them all.
We didn’t have a phone or TV.
We didn’t have a fridge.
We certainly didn’t have a car.
Uncle Isaac had a big house and a maid
And owned commercial property.
How he ever became wealthy
is a mystery I couldn’t understand.
All I knew about money was that
It didn’t grow on trees
and certainly not
in the ragwort-smothered front yard.
Or that sometimes somebody
won big on the horses or the football pools.
He never told us his business
but wanted to know ours
down to the last ha’penny.
Once a week he would come for tea
which was always cake, then bread and jam.
Posh jam, my favourite: black cherry.
I wouldn’t eat any because he licked the spoon
and put it back in the jar
staking his sticky claim on it. Once a year,
Mother would buy a pot of black cherry jam
for us and hide it away, not to be confused
with Uncle’s holy petri dish.
After tea he would dole out an allowance
for Mother and pocket money for me.
This time he spotted my book on the table,
unread, and asked to borrow it.
Months went by, and I tried to imagine
the tales I was missing. The book
was its own story now, commandeered,
location unknown, condition unknown.
No intelligence or proof of life.
Unwritten family rules
said I couldn’t mention it.
Eventually, it returned.
Given to me as part of the ritual dole-out
with the usual ten-shilling note
tucked shamefully inside.
No overdue book fine.
I had to thank him and put the book
in its bedraggled state on the sideboard.
He didn’t approve of books on tables.
It was rude to be too enthusiastic
about literature, to mix mind food
with belly food.
It was even ruder to have a mind.
Later, tears fell as I held the pages,
some dog-eared, some stained with tea,
or at least what I thought was tea.
The odd mustard-coloured spot.
One or two reddish stains. Sherry? Port wine?
The spine was twisted, its scoliosis
obvious from the side. The corners
of the laminate peeling, exposing the paper flesh
going grey at the edges before its time.
Dog hairs. The sickly smell of stale tobacco.
The last third of the book obviously unread.
Enjoyed and then abandoned
As the narratives began to get too close for comfort.
My beautiful book. I didn’t know
how to heal it. I couldn’t replace it
because Uncle might have noticed.
I wanted it to be new again.
I could no longer take it to bed,
but read it at the scrubbed bare wood kitchen table.
I wanted my hands to be the only ones
to touch it, to caress it,
not for it to look and smell
as if it had been violated
by a shipload of drunken pirates.
I couldn’t kiss it better.
I could just
for the tragedies within,
for the abused book that now held them all,
past, present and future.
Paul Siekor is the pen name of an autistic writer diagnosed in his early 60s. Since his diagnosis, his poetry has been published in The Reluctant Elfqueen blog, in Plague 2020: A World Anthology of Poetry and Art About Covid-19 and in Literature for the People magazine. He lives in Cornwall, UK.