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Monday, January 10, 2011

The book swap - a very short Long story

Firstly, why a short Long story? Because it's short, and it's about the Long family. That's all. I just wanted to reassure you at the start you are not embarking on War and Peace....
   You may remember when I described the foot race between the ranga racer Carolyn Young and my father, I mentioned the Calliope school annual breaking up picnic – definitely one of the year’s highlights for all Calliope kids. Oh, the watermelons that Ian Waddell brought in on his truck from the blacksoil flats at Riverston for us!
   Nothing like the pale imitation seedless ones you buy in the supermarket these days – these were dark green, almost perfect spheres much larger than a bowling ball, and when they were halved with a machete, they were so full of juice and sugar that they were also split inside, crystals of sugar like glitter in the sun and the deepest pink flesh, and black seeds that you spat at other kids and they spat theirs back at you.….
   Magic. But – that’s not what this is about, however worthy the melons are of mention. There was one other special treat that we got at the breaking-up picnic. At the end of the day, full of ice-cream, sandwiches and soft drinks, we all gathered under the school on long benches, and each child was given a book, with their name and the grade they were in that year written in it by Mr Curtis.
   We all loved getting those books. In some homes, they might have been the only books in the house, but I do believe they were all appreciated. The teachers were careful in their selection and matched children to books as much as possible. A voracious reader and punching a fair bit above my weight in that department, I always got a good one, with lots of pages and illustrations.
   I think our parents put some money in to subsidise the buying of these books, though some households were too poor to put anything in, and those kids usually got the smallest and cheapest books – but seemed to love them just the same.
   If you read the earlier stories, you might vaguely recall the name Phil Long, because he was the horseman who plaited stockwhips and broke Topsy in for me. He had a short dark-haired wife and a tribe of kids ranging in age from 14 or so down to about 4. Offhand I can think of five for sure, though there might have been six. Lessee now.... Dorothy, Barbara, Alan, Pauline, Snivelling Peter, and a toddler, I think.*
   On this particular breaking up day I must have been in about Grade 3. The books had been distributed, and to my enormous disappointment, I was given one called Farmyard Animals, featuring guess what? farmyard animals…. a big fat book with descriptions and lovely big colour drawings.
   Now it wasn’t that I didn’t want a book about this subject, though it held no surprises for me. Nor was I uninterested. That wasn’t the problem. My disappointment was based solely on the fact that it was exactly the same book I already had in my ample bookcase at home. If Mum would have seen me with the book when my name came up, she would have called it in straight away to get it exchanged for one of similar quality and size about something else, but she didn’t get to me in time. And I would have gone home empty-handed.
   I looked around at other kids’ books, feeling utterly deflated. Then I noticed that Alan Long, who was in my class and no scholar, had been given a slim Little Golden Book of about 25 pages, entitled The Wreck of the Desperus – a little story about a car with things always going wrong with it, and Disney type illustrations. It looked OK to me. Better than a duplicate already sitting on my bookshelf, that was for sure.
   ‘Longie,’ I said, ‘I’ve got this book. Do you want to swap?’
   Alan, who was a bit cross-eyed, squinted at my large, beautifully illustrated book and his own rather miserable little tome, and instantly agreed. There were too many words in his and not enough pictures as far as he was concerned, so he gladly handed his over.
   Words were fine by me. I was after all the only kid who had been given special dispensation to take home six books instead of the normal limit of three from the Gladstone Town Library, and usually had at least one of them read before we got back in the car to Calliope. Supply always was well behind demand in my case.
   But Mum was aghast when I happily brought my new book to show her, and she made me go with her looking for Alan Long to undo the swap.
   We didn't take much time to find Longie, but he was not alone. His mother had my book open across her six-births-worth-of belly, sitting on one of the benches where we’d had our picnic goodies. She was totally surrounded by her kids, the big ones standing behind her and the little ones on her knees. All over her, hanging off her from ... well, whatever they could hang off, it seemed to me.
   She was reading loudly and pointing to various animals, and the kids, big and small, were entranced by the pictures. Even Snivelling Peter wasn't actually snivelling right then. His eyes were glued to the book as he did unspeakable things with his index finger up his right nostril; stemming normal flow by fifty per cent. His nose was a veritable spring of eternal translucent snot.
   Mum watched it all for a little while and saw the collective fascination on the Long children’s faces as their mother read to them. She then gave me a strange little smile and said, ‘Are you happy with your book?’
   I was happy. To me it was better than nothing and I didn’t want to wait days for an exchange to be made, and oddly enough I read that funny little story over and over again in the weeks to come.
   ‘Let’s go then,’ she whispered to me, putting her hand in mine, and we stole quietly away.
* One of the great things about these stories is to have sisters whose memory is better or more precise than my own, and can correct errors I have made. One of these concerns the tribe of Long kids, and it seems that it was somewhat larger than I first recalled. Lyn wrote: 
There were Reg, Thelma, Betty, Sylvia, Alan, Dorothy, Pauline, Peter and maybe a younger one....
Thus Mrs Long's fertile womb extended to producing at least eight kids, not six.
Thanks for the correction, Lyn!
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