While every day brings new books, every visit to the bookstore results in a fresh wave of delight, I’m drawn to my memories of certain books that once possessed me. Every book has a story and is also part of another story, its relationship with the reader. How can I possibly express what I feel about a book unless I tell you how and why it happened to me?
I picked up Marg Nelson’s A Girl Called Chris at the raddiwalla. (I refrain from preceding that with ‘friendly neighbourhood’ owing to the fact that he once hit on me). It had a plain white cover with an image on the bottom-left corner which on scrutiny revealed itself to be a sort of modern artsy rendition of a girl in colourful slacks slouching as if in a corner.
The story was simple but rather extraordinary. A young girl who has just finished school and doesn’t have money for the college she wants after losing her father. In search of employment, she lands up – in all places – a cannery. And amidst stuffing tuna fish into cans, she finds friendship, resolution, love, confidence and some life lessons. It was a sweet coming-of-age story and it was perfect because I was about the same age as the protagonist (a girl called Chris) when I read it.
The year I turned seventeen, my mother went through a long illness. She was hospitalised for nearly three weeks and was recuperating for another two months after. Caring for her was more than a full-time job and we struggled to handle it. Tempers were short and I was at the depth of my own adolescent angst. It was a dark, heavy period in my life. The monsoons were particularly heavy that year, our landline phone kept breaking down and we didn’t have household help. In sum, while my father ran from doctor to lab to hospital, I struggled to manage housework, groceries and cooking, the biggest bane of them all. I think my fear of the kitchen came from that time since my early experiences were tinged irrevocably with a sense of dread, fear and worry.
I’d have my lunch at college and then get to the hospital to wait till 4pm for visiting hours. Patients were only allowed one accompanying person and my father or grandmother would be by her side. I remember one particular day when I got to the hospital a half-hour early. I sat down on a bench in the little patch of grass facing the building. And then it started to rain. I had forgotten my windcheater in class that day. There was nowhere else to shelter. So I sat under the tree, not flinching from the water, almost grateful for the cold drops that covered me from head to toe. It was one of the few times I felt something and something that didn’t hurt.
Once inside, I would sit with my mother for about an hour. Then when she had other visitors, I’d walk around the hospital, especially the paediatrics ward, hoping the freshness of that place would lift my mood. Most days it did. Except when, after days of watching an incubator baby, I found it empty and the child’s mother, an omnipresent feature next to it, gone as well. One dead and the other, who knows where?
I turned my footsteps in the opposite direction for the rest of my mother’s stay in the hospital. One day a young girl dressed like a patient in hospital white entered mum’s room and backed out immediately with a worried expression on her face. I saw her sitting at the nurses station often after that and even the surly nurses would be smiling as they spoke to her. One day I smiled at her and thereafter we’d chat every day.
Annie was from London, she said. She was two years older than I was. She had had several boyfriends though ‘none lasted beyond a week or two’, she admitted with a rueful grin. Her parents called her ‘Anne-molle’ (Malayalam for a little girl) and her brother called her Annie-mal. Sometimes I’d see her pirouetting or turning circles with a solemn expression, in front of the wall mirror in the nurses station. She said she had taken ballet lessons and was practising.
I was clutching A Girl Called Chris one evening, having finished the last pages as I sat in the visitors’ lobby waiting for her. She came and sat down next to me and took it from my hands without a word and turned it over. When we finished our chat and got up, she took it with her.
Mum and grandmother who saw her through most of the day hours thought she was slightly ‘off’ in the head. Nurses’ gossip later brought in the news that she had been assaulted by her father and had run away from home.
The day my mother was discharged, I took a round tour of the hospital again, with even a shuddering glance at the pediatric ward. And at the end of it, as a special occasion, I went to Annie’s room. She was sitting on the bed, talking to one of the nurses as she nodded in my direction. I waited for a pause in the conversation then told her that I was leaving. She got up, came over and hugged me, an action that surprised me since I wasn’t used to physical affection with my friends. Then I asked her for the book. She looked puzzled and then she seemed to remember. She looked under her bed and on the table and then told me blankly that she couldn’t find it. No problem, I shrugged and told her to take care of herself.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to ask her for her contact details. Or to visit her in the hospital later. I liked her. Perhaps I was a little scared of what I had heard about her past, even though she had never discussed it with me. But most likely I was just frozen into a suspended state of being and couldn’t feel anything human for a long time after that.
I never forgot Annie though. I miss my book also but I can’t think of it without also remembering Annie. And for what little it is worth, perhaps the spark of joy that the story brings is worth more to her than to me.
Marg Nelson’s A Girl Called Chris doesn’t seem to be well-known as its one Amazon entry doesn’t even have an accompanying image of the cover. I did find an entry on GoodReads with an image though it’s not the one that was on my book. I’d really love to read this book again so if any of you knows where I can find a copy, please do get in touch.