A couple of years ago, three maybe, I went back to my old school. It was a very unsettling experience at the time: I was on edge for weeks before and practically quivering with nerves the whole time I was there. I hadn’t been there for almost 30 years, you see, except in my most vivid dreams, anxiety dreams when I’d be climbing up and down one of the staircases carrying things from my dorm to my trunk. It was the most extraordinary thing to be actually standing in those corridors that I had been dreaming of far longer than I actually existed in. And you know the strangest thing? Since my visit I haven’t dreamed of school again, not once.
However, as you know, this blog is not about school or dreams, but about books, and the point of this preamble is to lead you into one of my favourite places in the world. It’s a place in the school and I recall it with the same intense clarity that all the different places come back to me, but I have never, ever dreamed about it. Do you think perhaps this is because it was a totally calm and stress-free environment for me? You know where it was already, don’t you? The school library, specifically the non-fiction library, because the fiction library was more like a common room.
I’m not sure that I ever ventured into the library before 5th year, and even then I only ever remember Saturday mornings, which was when my year did their prep there. I never took a book out of the library as far as I remember. But it was such a perfect library, and even surrounded by all those judgmental, back-biting, adolescent girls, it felt like a haven. Although we were unsupervised, we were quiet. Partly I suppose that was the library-ness of it, but I think also the way the room was designed, with bays of books surrounding tables of I think around eight. I imagine whatever chat was going on was given a conspiratorial edge by the apparent privacy of those bays, leading to whispering and note-passing rather than the shrieking and carrying on more usual to a group of unsupervised fifteen-year-old girls.
From this distance, I see the library in patches of clarity and vagueness, like looking at an old photo and trying to remember what is just out of the frame. In general terms I can tell you that it’s a large, square room with narrow floor to ceiling windows spaced evenly around all four walls. This is possible because the entrance is from central staircase surrounded by a low wall into which all however many volumes of the OED are shelved. The staircase leads down to the lower floor where there is nothing but the entrance door, a large classroom, and presumably a toilet and some storerooms. The building is set into a slope, so that the entrance is at ground level but the classroom partly underground, while upstairs one wall of the library leads directly onto the rose garden (but you got that this was a posh school already, didn’t you?). I think there may have been doors leading out on this side, but I can’t picture them.
What I can picture is the bay where I sat, I suppose every week as it is so vivid. The large table is oak and not scribbled on and carved like the desks in our classrooms. The chairs too are oak with leather seats, brown I think and far more comfortable than any other chair in the school. This furniture has been specially designed for the library and bears the school’s crest, an oak tree. One of the windows is centred between the shelves of the bay, as in every bay, and through it I see down the curve of the drive a patch of sweeping old evergreens of some kind. The light these windows give is perfect, bright enough but never so much as to be dazzling or too hot. I’m in the languages section. The library is still quite new though older than my time at the school, so to me it seems like a forever place. The lower and upper sections of the shelves are still empty, waiting for the collection to grown into its new home. Behind me, as I sit, are the French and German novels, some of them clearly classics of the type I’m only just beginning to read in English and which I flick through sometimes, just for the feel of the books rather than to actually read them. But here too are a bunch of more enticing Livre de Poche volumes. I begin to pick them up when I’ve finished my prep, at first idly, and then, when I discover I can actually read a bit, I pick the same one, the thinnest one, week after week, but furtively, not willing to admit I’m reading it, certainly not admitting to anyone else, because that would be showing off, wouldn’t it? But I am reading it, and although and I have only the vaguest idea of the plot, I get the sense of it enough to realise that it’s a bit racy for a school library and wonder if anyone else has ever read it. The book was Le Diable au Corps by Raymond Radiguet which I later bought just to see what it was really all about, and sure enough, it’s about a boy having an affair with an older woman.
When I went back to school for that visit, the one place I couldn’t go was the library. It was closed because it was being extended. I suppose they need computers in there now, and these take up space, and I suppose it’s possible that those half-empty shelves are full and now they need more. But I hope they’ve managed to retain some of the bays, with the solid beautiful tables and chairs and most of all I hope they haven’t lost the atmosphere: peace, privacy and a window onto the world beyond the pettiness of school. Perhaps it’s a good thing I didn’t see the library in its new incarnation: I can keep it in my head.