The Shortest Road Home
Growing up, there were two roads home. They were of equal length, but one always took longer than the other. It involved a pit stop, you see.
I could go home along Sedan Avenue where, centuries earlier, prototype taxis called sedan chairs plied their trade. Such transport was often popular in cultures where women were kept out of sight. But no man was ever brave enough to promote seclusion for the females of this island.
Or I could make my way home down Castle Street, which had no castle, not even a few tumbledown stones. I never minded not seeing sedan chairs – I appreciated that wheels had the edge on shoulders. But I always felt short-changed on the castle.
Still, Castle Street was the way I generally chose. It meant passing my favourite place in all the world.
I’ll never forget my first visit there. I was six, and my father brought me, but he didn’t reveal where we were going in advance. “Wait and see,” he said.
When you’re in the middle of a family of seven, you don’t expect much one-on-one attention. So if he’d singled me out to run any class of message with him, I’d have counted it a red letter day.
Anyhow, my father propped me on the bar of his bicycle, told me to hold tight to the handlebars, and away he pedalled. Some time ago, during the boom years, I shared this memory with an acquaintance in Dublin. She jangled the keys to her SUV: “Your dad rode a bike – were you very poor?”
Now I know we’d fret about safety issues today. But I’ve never experienced a feeling to match the importance of being perched on the crossbar of an enormous black Raleigh bicycle, with your Daddy’s body slotted round yours, keeping the wind off. And his legs doing all the work.
I was the Queen of Sheba.
But I still hadn’t a notion where we were headed. Landmarks careered past. We didn’t stop at the school, or the newspaper shop, or the bus depot where he worked. Instead, we braked outside a building I’d never noticed before.
He swung me down and led me in. It had a smell. Not a pong, but a distinctive whiff: a musty, fusty, reeking-of-promise tang that only comes from books.
Then my nose stopped twitching and my eyes started popping. Lord, how I gaped to see a room with walls entirely covered in books. I never dreamed such a place existed: it was the town library.
My father brought me to the children’s section and let me at it, as my mother would say. I feasted on books. But in jig-speed, it was time to go home. I closed over the book I was reading, wondering if ever I’d be allowed into this Emerald City.
“Sure bring the book with you,” says he, “and pick another to go with it.” My mouth dropped open. Was he buying me two books? It wasn’t my birthday.
Sometimes he’d come home from work with books. If the job took him to Belfast, he’d use his meal break to visit a second-hand bookshop there. But those books were mildewed, with no pictures and long words I couldn’t grasp.
I didn’t quite grasp this unexpected largess either. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
We went to the desk, where my father filled out my borrower’s form. I was given to understand that the books were mine to read for several weeks, and when I left them back – and this is where the prospect truly became dazzling – I could choose some more.
Here was my Eureka moment. I sensed – dimly, because I was only six – that a world existed beyond my wildest imaginings.
But I could access it. A library ticket was my open sesame.
After that, I went to the library with my big brothers, and later, on my own. Never again on my father’s bicycle, just the two of us. A man with seven children volunteers for a lot of overtime.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy taps her ruby slippers together three times, chants “there’s no place like home” – and is back in Kansas in a heartbeat.
There couldn’t be a shorter way home than that. But there’s a road equally short.
Wherever I am, I’m always at home the moment I open a book.
Note: Read live at the Benedict Kiely Festival Omagh September 2010