A childhood memory of the library called THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME by Martina Devlin

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authorI was lucky enough to discover my favourite place at the age of five. I’ll never forget my first visit there. My father was mysterious about it – he told me we were going on an outing, just the two of us, but didn’t reveal where. “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. Already this was a red letter day. But another upgrade was to follow.

He propped me on the bar of his bicycle, told me to hold tight to the handlebars, and away he pedalled. We’d fret about safety issues today. But I’ve never experienced a feeling to match being perched on the crossbar of an enormous black Raleigh bicycle, your father’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 my school, or the newspaper shop for his “Irish Press”, or the bus depot where he worked. Instead, we braked outside a building I’d never noticed before. He swung me down and in we went. The building had a smell. Not a pong, exactly, but a distinctive whiff: that musty, fusty, reeking-of-promise tang that only comes from books.

Then my nose stopped twitching and my eyes started popping. I was in a room with walls entirely covered in books. Shelf after shelf of them. I never dreamed such a place existed! It was the Omagh town library. My father led me to the children’s section and, as he told my mother later, “let me at it.” He took himself off to another part of the room, lined with those peculiar books grown-ups seemed to like, although they had no pictures.

Meanwhile, I feasted on stories about talking rabbits and lost puppies. But in jig-speed, it was time to go home. With a heavy heart, I closed over the book I was reading, wondering when I’d be allowed into this Emerald City again.

“Sure, bring the book with you,” said my father, “and pick another to go with it.” My mouth dropped open. Was he buying me two books? It wasn’t my birthday. Christmas was months away.

Sometimes, he’d come home from work with books. If he was scheduled to drive the Omagh to Belfast route, he’d use his meal break to visit second-hand bookshops there and buy what he could afford. But those books were mildewed, with long words I couldn’t grasp and a woeful shortage of talking rabbits and lost puppies. 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 – this is where the prospect became quite, quite dazzling – I could choose some more.

Here was my Eureka moment. I sensed – dimly, because I was only five – 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 a large family volunteers for a lot of overtime and only partly, I suspect, for the money.

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 faster way home than that. But there’s a road equally short.
Wherever I am, however I’m feeling, I’m always at home the moment I open a book.

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This story has previously featured on Sunday Miscellany. 

Biography

Martina Devlin is an author and journalist. She has had ten books published, including a collection of short stories Truth & Dare, and a novel about Ireland’s last witchcraft trial The House Where It Happened (optioned for film and on the syllabus in a third-level college). Prizes include the Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award, and she was shortlisted for three times the Irish Book Awards. A current affairs commentator for the Irish Independent, where she writes a widely-read weekly column, Martina has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. Currently, she is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin, where she has been awarded a bursary for her research into the work of Somerville and Ross. This year her first play was performed, What Would The Countess Say? about Countess Markievicz.

She tweets @devlinmartina and her website is www.martinadevlin.com

 

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