None of this seemed to offer the slightest explanation for so disappointing a present unless it was a joke that I wasn’t old enough to get, but I continued to like Uncle Kevin in spite of it.
I did try to read it. Because I wanted to please Uncle Kevin, I spent many hours peering at the pages, but it was all words in close black print and few pictures. What good was that?
“How’s the book going?” Uncle Kevin would often ask.
The only possible answer was: “Good, Uncle Kevin.”
But as hard as I tried, reality would not fit the answer. I studied the words, battled furiously with them, but it was all such a toil and they were only words and I could find no meaning for them in the real world.
‘The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten....’
it began. No one I knew was alive in the year 1866, not even Granny who was of a vast age—I knew because I asked her.
“1866—oh dear me, no. How old do you think I am?”
And she seemed very insulted.
So if no one was alive then, how could they know what happened? I asked everyone what ‘signalised’ meant and Horrie said it was like on the railways and people waving to each other.
“That’s ‘signalling’,” know-all Rosely snarled.
“Same bloody thing,” Horrie grumped at her uncertainly.
Uncle Kevin, of course, would have known the answer but how could you ask him without giving everything away. Then one day I overheard my mother saying to Uncle Kevin.
“He really likes the book, Kev. He’s into it all the time and forever asking us what words mean.”
That tore it completely. How could I ask him the meaning of the fifth bloody word in the book?
I tried ‘remarkable’ at school and got various answers ‘extraordinary, marvellous, fantastic’ all of which I knew meant things that were great and didn’t usually happen. ‘Incident’, my teacher told me impatiently, meant something that did actually happen.
“But what happened?”
“Just something! Anything!”
“But what really?”
“Get on with your sums.”
So a whole lot of dead people were waving madly at a fantastic anything—I didn’t really feel that I was progressing all that much. ‘Mysterious’ I knew and seemed to fit my circumstances precisely, ‘inexplicable’ indeed caused people to wave their hands for no apparent reason and everyone was utterly stumped by ‘phenomenon’.
“It can’t be good for you, reading books with words like that in them,” my mother was sure. “What book is it anyway?”
“Prob’ly means something dirty,” Rosely said and poked her tongue out at me.
“I won’t have that sort of thing in this house,” my mother insisted.