The Bookchild

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There were two single beds on opposite sides of the room, both with brown bedspreads smoothed carefully and tucked beneath the pillow with a perfectly straight fold. It was a stiff material as far as bedspreads go with tassels that only just reached the floor, exactly as they should. His bed in front of the large window was meticulous, but that was to be expected as it hadn’t been slept in for almost two weeks. Mine was slightly ruffled from being sat on and used.

Identical brown bedside lamps sat on a white chest of drawers between our identical brown beds, and a green and yellow school cap sat beneath the lamp on his side of the drawers. His side was always perfectly tidy because he liked to keep it that way. My side was perfectly tidy because Mum and Dad made me keep it that way. I picked up his green and yellow cap and put it on my bed.

A red Kookaburra football sat on the floor, slightly worn along the stitches and tinged with green stains from the back lawn. As hard as I tried, I could never kick it as far as he did because I was too small, until he broke his leg. He thought Mrs. Campbell’s old crap-heap of a car was a school bus coming in from the dairy farms and assumed it would turn off into the teachers’ carpark behind him. Consequently, he rode out in front of her without looking and bounced off the front left panel into the bushes. I went to class without knowing what had happened because Mum always made me ride at the front, so he could keep an eye on me. I was so lost up ahead in my own world that I didn’t realise there had even been an accident. His plaster cast went all the way from ankle to hip with a metal pin somewhere through his leg. The Christmas photos did him no justice that year, especially with so much curly haired regrowth from the chemo. I put his football on my bed next to the cap.

I hesitantly slid open his side of the timber veneer wardrobe and scanned the clothes and possessions that I would normally have never dared touch. There was very little inside the wardrobe that I hadn’t seen before but living so close together required an inherent sense of privacy for the sake of both parties. I respected the unspoken rule that was never to be broken; Keep away from my stuff. The was moment was tinged with betrayal and guilt because I knew he would have hated me going through his things.

There was a large plastic bag full of stamps on the floor, some in albums and some in an old yellow margarine container. His bag of stamps was much better organised than mine and he would have liked it to stay that way, particularly having had the foresight to not deface the album covers with giant, clumsy handwriting using permanent markers, unlike myself. I never thought so clearly about things like that. Squeezed into the side of the bag was a flat piece of ply with The Magpies and a roughly drawn football burnt into it with a soldering iron. Hospital art for kids. Anything to fill the endless hours. I put the bag on my bed next to his cap and the football.

Wedged between his stamp albums and the piece of ply was a spiral bound exercise book, boldly inscribed on the front with the words Peter’s Encyclopaedia. It was a place for him to write his thoughts between Mum’s regular hospital visits. I opened to the first page and like everything else Peter did, his handwriting was perfect. It sloped to the left which seemed odd because he was right handed, but that didn’t make it imperfect to me because there was no smudging of the ink like you would normally expect. It was, in fact, not an encyclopaedia at all but a story my older brother was writing, the title of which captured my attention immediately. Adventure on the Ivory Coast. I was too young to even know where the Ivory Coast was, but it sounded mysterious, and if Peter had written it, I knew it was going to be seriously good because he understood so much more about the world than I did. It was a private story in his own private exercise book but I could not stop myself from reading it anyway.

The Ivory Coast adventure began like any typical day with three kids hovering about the kitchen table after school. Mum placed a bag of groceries on the counter and after flicking through the mail, she handed Peter a letter from Uncle Bert. He opened it with justifiable curiosity having only met our uncle twice in his whole life, both of them brief encounters as the enigmatic drifter was passing through from one adventure to another. Peter was surprised to find that it was an invitation for him to visit Uncle Bert in South Africa to go on a hunting expedition, and he described the moment he read the letter as the most exciting moment of my life.With all his heart, he desperately wanted to accept the invitation and Mum was on board straight away, knowing how rare an opportunity it was for her eldest son to spend time with her heroic younger brother.

Mum’s biggest hurdle was to get the idea past Dad when he arrived home from work. He and Uncle Bert never saw eye to eye on anything. Peter eavesdropped from the passageway as Mum read Dad the riot act behind the closed door of their bedroom, trying to convince him that Bert was not as irresponsible as he used to be and that Peter would be safe around the wild animals and guns. Dad finally emerged from the bedroom and cast a frustrated glare Peter’s way. It was just another problem he could have done without after a hard day at work. Mum followed close behind wearing a well disguised but triumphant smile. It was the only sign Peter needed to realise that the outcome had turned in his favour. He was bound for Africa.

After a succession of minor obstacles that followed; running late, forgetting what he was instructed to pack and managing to get Dad offside in whatever way he could; Peter finally found himself on board a plane to the Ivory Coast. The hostesses looked after his every whim on a flight that was long and boring, until finally, the plane landed at a small airport in the middle of Africa surrounded by a sea of sand. Chapter 2 ended with his plane sitting on the tarmac. I could see through the window to a small crowd waiting expectantly for people to get off the plane. Peter’s adventure abruptly concluded from his aeroplane window with the title of Chapter 3, The Disappointment. I could only assume that Uncle Bert wasn’t going to be there to meet him.

I searched every page in the book, bursting to know what happened after that, but they were all blank. It couldn’t end like that. Nothing should end like that. I found a pen in the bottom of the plastic bag and set myself to begin writing an ending that lived up to the potential of what Peter had written so far.

So, where was Uncle Bert?I thought to myself. Maybe he had a crash on the way to the airport. It sounded like a good idea for a continuation of the story, but I had no way of knowing if that was what Peter would have written. What if his idea had been more interesting. Maybe Uncle Bert arrived late because he was riding to the airport on a grumpy old elephant that sat down and refused to walk any further until he had a banana. Or I could turn it into a story about a magical friendship that developed between Peter and the elephant. They would disappear into the jungle and never come back. Or, what if Peter’s plane landed at the wrong airport and he was going to be captured by monkeys from The Planet of the Apes. The plots seemed to be getting worse.

After thinking my ideas through a little further, I realised they were all wrong because I couldn’t have known if Peter would have written any of them. I flicked angrily through the remaining blank pages of that book knowing they would never be filled. His life, like the story, began with so much promise, unveiling an adventurous spirit that for so long had been dependant on the books he was reading in hospital. I wanted to finish the story for him but I couldn’t. His adventure was not mine to finish.

I looked up and noticed Peter’s clock still ticking on the wall above his bed. Tick.. tick.. tick.. tick. Time’s cowardly face was hiding in the shadows, discarding Peter’s unused seconds into the silence of that empty room like they were nothing. If I waited a minute or I waited an eternity, it was all the same because I knew I would never see my brother again, not for one of those wasted seconds. I was too young to carry so much weight, but time doesn’t consider those of us left behind any more than the ones it takes away.

“Ian.” I turned to see Dad standing behind me in the doorway looking tense. He was always tense back then. “Have you picked out what you want yet?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, what are you doing with that pen? Concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.”

“I just wanted to finish this story-”

“Put it down! There’s always just something with you, isn’t there? It’s time to go over to Nick’s so get a move on and put the pen away.” Nick was my best friend who lived across the road and for some reason, Mum had arranged for me to spend the day at his house. Dad walked back to the living room as I put everything back in the bag, and I heard the tension finally boil over.

“Why do you have to speak to him like that, David?” Mum asked angrily.

“He needs to wake up and get his head out of the clouds. You can’t wrap him up in cotton wool forever.”

“He’s just a boy. How could he possibly understand what’s going on? It’s only been a week, David. One week.”

I walked past them on my way to the front door, trying not to interrupt. Mum looked toward me with tired eyes, holding a tissue in her hand. Dad refused to look up. He was the kind of person who always needed to control what was happening around him, but some things can’t be controlled. Dad wasn’t set up for that much grief and he chose to deny it for the rest of his life. Maybe he was right to. He certainly couldn’t keep facing it.

“Just come back before it gets dark, sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Okay, Mum.” She was right that I didn’t understand what was happening. I don’t think either of them did either.

I jumped from the porch outside our front door and landed awkwardly on the gravel beside Mr Fishlock who was parked in the driveway. “G’day Ian,” he said pensively with a sideways nod of his head. He stopped what he was doing and placed a bundle of rope on the wheel arch of his trailer.

“Hello,” I answered, loitering uncomfortably on the white gravel as I tried to think what I should do or say next. The moment seemed to require further conversation but neither of us could think of anything worth saying because the situation was obviously beyond the old guy as much as it was me. We were two abiding passengers in the wake of Peter’s tragically short life and all we could do was try our best to help Mum and Dad get through it. I didn’t even know why Mr Fishlock was there until I got home a few hours later. He helped Dad take away Peter’s bed leaving an empty space in the corner and six indentations in the carpet where the castors used to be. They took away every piece of my brother’s life except those few things I put aside on my bed.

The boys’ roomhad become Ian’s room, just like Pauline’s room at the end of the passage where she sat alone, happy with her own company and the dolls. I had always considered it strange that she was like that until I was faced with having to learn how to exist alone in my own space. The room seemed empty. There was nothing left in Peter’s side of the drawers and cupboard, and a lone picture hook poked from the wall where his clock used to be.

Peter had been coming and going for a couple of years which seemed like normal life at the time. I thought things were supposed to go back to normal when he got better, but it was over. There was nothing left. His football had become mine but there was no one to kick it with me. Nick didn’t like football that much. The stamp album was better than mine with stamps from all over the world, but it was just a bunch of stamps.

All I had left of Peter was his exercise book. I picked it up and read the story again, but it always ended with those last words; The Disappointment.

I don’t think Peter knew what he was doing when he decided to write the Adventure on the Ivory Coast, but he inadvertently left behind a piece of his youthful enthusiasm for life. He became a bookchild; one of the untouchable young spirits crafted into fantasy worlds that allow writers the freedom to live beyond their own limitations.

I recently found and reread Peter’s Encyclopaediaduring a routine clean out. For all that I wanted the empty pages to have been magically filled with every missing year of his life, they were still empty. It was not until I began to render my own scattered thoughts into words that I realised what I had always been empowered to do. I could craft him into my own stories rather than destroy his grand African adventure. The end of that story had already played out in his imagination and would remain unknown and perfect forever.

After forty years of hiding on a shelf with school reports and bank statements, Peter finally found his way back into the world with a spirit of adventure as powerful as it has ever been. He may never meet up with Uncle Bert or hunt wild animals on the Ivory Coast, but he will play his part in other stories that no one may ever read. Whether he falls in love or gets his heart broken, becomes a priest or a ruthless bounty hunter, I will know that he is there in every chapter as it comes to me from wherever stories begin, because that is where he has been waiting all along. The bookchild has found his way home, and now he will always have his cap, his stamps and his greatest love of all; the red Kookaburra football.

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