In my mother’s house there was a large wooden sideboard against the south wall of the dining area. It was about eight feet high and just as long. This kind of furniture was popular in the 1870s. A hundred years later it was a poor woman’s antique. Few praised its scratched beauty or its massive bulk.
The top half of the cabinet had large glass windows. It held all the best china and vases that we rarely used. Nestled along these were the knick-knacks that caught my mother’s eye – glass dolphins from the funfair, souvenir teaspoons from long ago trips, and eggshells painted with scenes from a Chinese countryside.
The bottom half of the cabinet was the most interesting to my eyes. Behind the slightly crooked wooden doors were the books. Most of them were once mine.
The full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica were still there. Neatly stacked upright along the shelf, the thick black covers with the gold lettering glimmered in the light. My mother had bought them from a door-to-door salesman. They were expensive back in the 1970s. They were paid for on weekly installments over many months. The Encyclopedia was the equivalent of the Internet back in the day. We were one of the few families on the housing estate to have a set. They were admired by many, but read only by me.
I recollect curling up on my bed and reading the Encyclopedia just for fun. They rewarded and did not mock my curiosity. They were a haven for a child when others grew tired of her hungry questions.
Each year, for our summer holidays, we spent weeks with our parents’ friends. I usually took along two volumes of the Encyclopedia. They carried me through the times of exile.
The Encyclopedia was my refuge. Open a page and I could be reading about the names of the constellations. Flip another and it was explaining the chemistry of water. No question or fact seemed too trivial or arcane for the book. The Encyclopedia cemented my love of history, science and geography. It was far easier to deal with abstract facts than the messiness of family life.
Another section of the shelf held my novels. They were the classics of British children’s literature – many tomes by Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge. There were hardback copies of Gulliver’s Travel, Ivanhoe, Kidnapped and many more.
As I grew, so my taste in books changed. I did not realize I was such a fan of the Mills and Boons romance series. There were about 30 of these paperbacks on the shelf. Shortly after that I got into Agatha Christie and her crime novels. I seemed to have read all her books as there were so many in the bottom of the sideboard.
I was an avid reader as a youth. The books in the cabinet were only the ones that I bought or were given to me. I read many more from the library.
In the cabinet there was not a single Black book among my collection. There was nothing that spoke of my history or experience as a Jamaican child growing up in small-town England. I was not surprised. That was how I grew up – a Black girl in the margins of a white world.