“Mate, I can’t accurately remember the week before last,” I said, and my friend ignored me and kept right on going. He was like that when he had a head of steam up.
“A cluster of nuns in Northern Italy. They wrote and performed beautiful music. The Church tried to stop them, but they kept going.”
“A bit like you, Roman? And I think the collective noun is a superfluity of nuns, not cluster.”
Ignored, yet again.
“Naturally, the music and singing were all religious. I guess that’s how they got away with it for so long,” said Roman. His voice dropped, and I thought he was done, but he was just thinking about something — he was far away, and then he was back.
“Lucretia Borger’s daughter was one of the composers.”
“No shit? THE Lucretia Borger?” I said, and I was getting used to being ignored.
“In the end, the Church caught up with them and the trail goes cold.”
“And how did you learn all this?” I said because I wasn’t listening when he first told me.
“A very old, handwritten book. Beautifully illustrated. Tells the whole story from the point of view of the women involved. I ran across it when I was studying in the Vatican library,” said Roman, and he trailed off again and stared into space. I got the feeling that he was back there, back then.
“So, how come this book was in the Vatican library if the Church was trying to stamp them out?”
“Better for them to lock it away than have it floating about causing trouble.”
Roman had a point, and it unsettled me. I had always thought of Roman as my slightly dotty friend, and here he was making sense.
“So why were these talented women locked away behind convent walls and not out in the world being married and making music?”
“Money,” said Roman.
“Only the eldest daughter would get married. Her dowery would be huge. The family would go broke if all the daughters got married. Convents would take the other daughters for a fraction of a marriage dowery. At that time, around a quarter of all gentile women were behind the wall.”
“That’s a lot of women,” I said, and I meant it. Nuns freak me out a bit. At least they did when I was a kid, and there were a lot of them about, back then.
“Sometimes there would be three generations of women locked away. When a baby was born into a family they would bring the child along and stick it in this kind of revolving door thing that the convent would receive supplies through. Technically, the baby would be excommunicated for going through the portal, but in reality, they weren’t. No one was supposed to touch a nun once she was received into the order. Cuddling newborn relatives seemed to be an exception to the rule. Sometimes, tiny nuns would squeeze through the revolving door and go AWOL.”
My head was starting to spin.
All this seemed so far from the world I lived in. Did women really live like this — separated from the world?
“So what was it like? Working in the Vatican library?” I said.
“Not as much fun as the Bodleian. The Vatican Library is bland and boring, but it does have a bar.”
“Yes. It’s there for the Vatican staff — greatly subsidised prices — but they will serve travelling scholars. I’d have my lunch there and go back to work in the afternoon — technically, the library closes at lunchtime, but those in the know can get a special pass and work until the early evening. It’s very quiet in the afternoon.”
“This book, with the singing nuns, how did you find it?”
“Not sure. You are only allowed three books per day and I think I must have made a mistake when I ordered it. In any case, it was the most important discovery of my time in Italy. You know, I don’t think the book had been opened since it was added to the collection some four hundred plus years ago.”
“Wow,” I said, and I could hear the pages being separated as he opened the book. The rich illustrations and the archaic language — not to mention the smell of the paper and the binding.
“You know, a bunch of nuns banded together and burnt down their convent.”
“No. I didn’t know that,” I said, “you should write a book.”
“I am. But I fear it will be read by very few and someday — maybe hundreds of years from now — someone will find it in a dusty old archive. I wonder what that person will think when they open it for the first time?”
“I’d like to read your book when it’s done, but for now, I need a drink. Care to join me?”
Roman smiled, and we headed for the pub.
As we walked, it dawned on me that my ‘dotty’ friend had seen more of the world than I had and his books took him time travelling as well.
I’m glad we kept in touch — even if he does ignore me, from time to time.
I never wipe away old book dust, I just let it sit there, on my fingertips.
Obviously, books hold the memories of the person who wrote them, but there are other kinds of memories there as well; those that are deposited by the people who have owned, handled and loved these books.
They leave their mark.
Sometimes as notes in a margin, or the creasing of a page corner, a coffee stain or a small tear. Some books have handwritten dedications, and some have names inscribed.
‘To William, on the occasion of his ninth birthday.’
‘To Penelope, Christmas 1958. Love Uncle John and Aunt Mary.’
I was fourteen when I discovered that books held secrets. I thought that everyone knew how to unlock those secrets, but I soon found out that I was wrong.
Billy MacDonald was my best friend; still is in fact, but the reason I refer to him is he was the first person I mentioned it to.
When I had finished my description, he looked at me as though I had beaten his cat to death with a large, fat South American banjo player.
He asked me if that really happened or was I just making it up, as usual. I quickly opted for just making it up as usual. This decision had a lot to do with the look in his eyes.
I never told anyone about it again — until now.
I did well at school and at university, but studying in the library made things difficult, as you can imagine. I often had to set an alarm because I was unable to detect the passage of time. If the alarm didn’t work, I could always rely on the librarian to jolt me back. She rarely asked me what I was doing or why I drifted off. I guess librarians see a lot of weird stuff and one more crazy guy didn’t make that much of a difference.
In the end, I had to resort to wearing gloves.
The plastic disposable kind was useless and made me look like I was permanently in an episode of a police procedural.
Winter was easier because no one took any notice of gloves, but the rest of the time I spent a lot of time saying, “Sensitive skin. The paper sets off my Psoriasis.” In the end, I had a sign made, and I would hold it up or simply point to it in a disinterested way.
Pretty much everyone thought I was weird, and the gloves were the least of it, but no matter how weird you may be there is always someone who will love you.
Catherine Margaret Lanier, or ‘Cat’ for short, thought that I was mildly handsome and strangely interesting.
For my part, I thought she was way too beautiful to be interested in anyone like me. There were at least four points separating us on the attractiveness scale.
She had cool friends and my friends all felt that she was too good for me and should instead, be with them. I had a sneaking suspicion that they were right and I resolved to make the most of my good fortune while it lasted. She was incredibly good at lovemaking, and I hoped that she would not notice that I was constantly running to keep up. Amazingly, she didn’t get sick of me or find out how inept at life I am, and she hung around — for a very long time.
We both graduated from university, and she went on to carve out a successful career in medicine.
Despite my qualifications, all I ever wanted to do was work around old books. Cat understood, which was just as well because working in secondhand bookstores never paid the rent. It barely paid for the petrol to drive to the job. It gota bit better when I got jobs with a succession of Antiquarian booksellers, and my current job, which is at the top of Collins Street in Melbourne, means that I can leave the car at home and catch the number 112 tram to work. It takes less than an hour, and I always get a seat. I carry a book with me and rarely am I asked why I am wearing gloves.
The boss thinks that I approach my work very professionally because I supply my own white cotton gloves. Most of the books that we sell are not that expensive, and only a few are museum quality, but the gloves do add an exotic air to the establishment.
Back in our university days, we did what most students did at that time — we experimented with all sorts of substances, but Cat and I agreed that nothing compared to the experience of touching an ancient book.
Cat does not have my ability, and to be honest, I haven’t come across anyone else who has. That’s not to say that there isn’t someone out there, it’s just that I haven’t come across them as yet.
I can take Cat with me by simply holding her hand — without gloves, of course.
When I was a child, my parents considered me to be very easy to look after. I was self-entertaining. I played in my room for hours at a time, or in my father’s well-stocked library.
My father had inherited his father’s book collection, and some of the books went back even further than my great grandfather. I doubt that my father had read many of the books, but I have. The books in that library are no more magical than books in any library, but I didn’t know that.
The truth was that I’m the magical one, but I guess that word magical gets worked to death so let’s say, insightful.
If I touch a book with my bare hands, I am transported to the world and time of the author.
Sometimes I am whisked off to the world that a previous owner of the book inhabited.
I’ve found myself in Dickens’ study and the Bronte’s drawing room. Wells wrote most of his books while sitting in his garden and I’ve sat right next to him. These days no one remembers much about Anthony Trollope and he is best remembered as the bloke who invented the post box. He wrote most of his huge collection of novels while travelling to work by train in Victorian England. I sat next to him on those trains on many an occasion.
Sometimes I simply see a story unfold in much the way that you do at the cinema, but often I am right in the middle of the action. It does not seem to matter that I am not dressed appropriately, no one seems to notice. The authors and the previous owner always greet me as though they have known me all their lives. I feel loved and accepted — what more could any man ask for?
There are times when it is tough to break the bonds and return to the here and now, and if it were not for Cat, I think I would be tempted to stay far longer than would be good for me. But, I always return to her, and she seemed to understand my need to travel in this unique manner.
I took her to spend some time with Napoleon Hill when she was feeling a bit down. He’s an awesome bloke, and after talking with him for a few hours, Cat was feeling much better, and we returned home happily.
I could continue on for ages and ages describing the adventures I have had and the people I have met, but now it is time for you to get some sleep. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and I’m pretty sure that you will find some beautiful, dusty old books among your presents. I remembered that you said you liked stories about Egypt.
Turning eighteen is still a big deal, even in this ultra modern world. I have tried to treat all my grandchildren equally, but you know that you have always been my favourite. Your parents would never let me tell you about my ability and I had to respect their wishes until now. You are all grown up, and you deserve to know that your ability is a gift and not a curse. What you do with it is up to you, but it is your right to choose. If I had the right, I would say, go out and find someone you can share your life and your abilities with. Someone who will love you and travel with you through life.
That’s my story, and now I have to go back and sit with your grandma. She doesn’t always know who I am these days but when we travel she is always her old self and I’ve got a particularly good book set in Scotland, and we have always wanted to see Scotland.