I would have eaten the budgerigar to see Tahiti
An attempt to organise my books brought me back to iodine tablets and youthful travel fantasies
Iodine tablets. Photograph: Frank Miller
I started trying to put the books in alphabetical order. It was late; the bottle of pinot noir that had been on special offer in the supermarket was perilously close to empty. Someone had fed steroids to the wind, the rain was dancing off the window panes and the cat was in the trophy room building an ark out of strong glue and Whiskas wrappers (oh no, sorry, I don’t have a trophy room, or any rhinoceros accoutrements for that matter, so don’t come crying to me for your non-aphrodisiacal aphrodisiacs).
The plan was to begin somewhere around Martin Amis at the top left-hand corner of the bookshelves and work my way to the bottom right with the zither handbook (look, I’m no librarian).
By the time I’d squeezed the last drops from the grudging bottle, the floor was awash with dust, paperbacks, ticket stubs and tattered photographs of people who used to have hair.
I even found the terribly useful packet of iodine tablets the government saw fit to post through our letterboxes in 2002 in case Sellafield exploded. The tablets were supposed to save our thyroids from mutating into two-headed kittens. They may as well have been a compound of My Little Pony hooves and a splash of Toilet Duck for all the good they were. Regardless, I’d cleverly stored my tablets inside a book called Know Your Dog . As I don’t have a dog I assume I’d have developed a strapping miaow before I found them.
I was on my way to bed when I fell over The Reader’s Digest Book of World Travel , a weighty volume (as in, you need two hands to pick it up) published in 1965, which my late father gave me when I was 10. “To Hilary, for much future travel,” reads the inscription.
The book contains long, writerly essays by authors such as Gerald Durrell and John Betjeman, and several pieces from James Morris prior to gender-reassignment surgery in Casablanca in the early 1970s, when she began to publish as Jan.
There are photographs of a world half a century younger than today’s, of teenage lovers embracing on a grubby Coney Island beach, of an upright young boy with a red necktie on a blue-and-white tiled balcony in Oporto surrounded by caged birds, of a party of nomads on the Khyber Pass, of an aboriginal Yahgan woman in Tierra del Fuego, a lifetime of hardship and elemental rage carved on her face.
There’s also a photograph I remember turning to again and again as a little white girl with mousy hair and Crimplene slacks living on a suburban road in a grey parish where drizzle was a national dish.
It occupies an entire page and is of a beautiful young Tahitian “vahine” drying herself in the sun, her delicate back to the camera, a red sarong around her waist. She has a tiara of white gardenias in her long black hair, as she sits facing a cascading waterfall. If you look long enough, you can hear the roar.
The accompanying essay is by American writer James Ramsey Ullman, who describes dining at the rooftop restaurant of the Grand Hotel (on Chateaubriand, camembert, Chablis, coffee and cognac), served by a nubile Tahitian waitress with golden skin and yellow hibiscus flowers behind her ears.
Later on, he confides, they went dancing. “Some dreams are private,” he concludes.
The 10-year-old me put daffodils behind my ears, wrapped the tablecloth around my waist, sat facing the window, meditating on the rain. I would have eaten the budgerigar to have seen Tahiti.
I’d never been farther than Ireland’s Eye. The entire rest of the world was lurking beyond the horizon line. I was sick with longing to see some tiny part of it.
We were skint, though, and within months of receiving the book, with its alluring, promising inscription, everything had changed. The suburban house we lived in was repossessed, family and contents were scattered, all bets were off.
I had the book, however. It has moved with me from house to house, its spine long since shattered and repaired.
The Coney Island teens in their jazzy trunks are probably riding expressway buses for free these days. The decorous boy on the Oporto balcony maybe went on to greatness. The Yahgan woman is in the wind and the Tahitian girl with the beautiful back, who has sat so still for so many years between these tattered pages, maybe dancing now on the roof of the Grand Hotel.