Sometimes, life can hand you a beautiful example of serendipity, a gift of simple grace and joy, which makes you feel connections across time and place that are just spine-tingling…Such a thing happened to me just recently, something which connected my childhood scribbling self with my present scribbling self, in the most unexpected of ways. It’s a whole story in itself, so in order to do it justice, I have to start with some context, with some scene-setting, before I move to what happened in the present day…
So, in an entry in my diary, written as a 12 year old (a diary I still have), there’s a mention of a book I was writing, titled The Twins’ Highlands Holiday. Everything in the entry except for that title is written in French (as indeed it is in the rest of the diary); but the English title clearly showed that I had ambitions for a fiction readership beyond my immediate family 🙂 And it also showed clearly the influence of one of my favourite writers at the time, Enid Blyton. I especially loved her mysteries series, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, but also her story anthologies which could be consumed in bite size pieces(though being a voracious reader, I never stopped at one bite!) My parents rarely bought new English-language books for us(that was reserved for French-language titles, like Tintin, Asterix, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne etc); So most of those books I borrowed from the library or occasionally we might find some in second-hand shops, like the legendary White Elephant in Chatswood which my mother took us to during the holidays(we lived in Sydney’s North Shore area) and where we children might be allowed to select books to take home(she also loved rummaging amongst the shop’s astonishing mass of books, records, old china, curios, records, vintage clothes etc).
I had come across the entry in that old diary earlier this year, in preparation for an essay I was writing; and I thought then, I wish I still had that story! But it had vanished long ago, and all that remained was the title, a title straight out of Blyton, though maybe not the Highlands part, for that very English writer. As a twelve year old I had never been to the Highlands, though I loved stories set there(I’d also read and loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, a very different kettle of fish to Blyton, of course!) So I’d combined twins and holiday–very Blyton–with a whiff of adventure in the heather, a la Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t recall anything about the story or what happened in it..but seeing it mentioned there in the diary(mentioned in more than one entry actually, as I diligently reported progress on writing it) made me remember the sheer excitement of writing as a child, copying my favourite authors but doing it all in my own way. And I thought, I know the Highlands bit came from Stevenson, but I wonder which Blyton it was which inspired the rest? Oh well, probably a mix of several, I thought.
The Twins’ Holiday Holiday went into the essay. And that was it. Except it wasn’t. The astonishment, the serendipity, was still to come. A few weeks ago, I received a direct Facebook message from a fellow author, Pat Simmons. I hadn’t met Pat in person, but I did know her work: and had recently bought her latest lovely picture book, Ziggy’s Zoo(illustrated by Vicky Pratt) for some dear little people in my life. Anyway, Pat had messaged me about something she’d found, quite by chance. A book. An Enid Blyton anthology, called ‘The Holiday Book’, with a name, address, telephone number and date carefully written on the flyleaf, obviously by the proud owner. And here I’ll pass the story over to Pat herself, to explain:
My local ‘op shop’ sits close to the bus stop in Thirroul. A bus stop I frequently use when travelling home to Scarborough. As the buses almost always run late, I often have time to browse the ‘op shop’ and seek out treasures.
A few weeks ago, I spied a book of Enid Blyton short stories, sitting all by itself on a high shelf. Inside the book I read a name and address. Definitely not a local address and, seemingly, written some years ago. The name was ‘Sophie Masson.’
Could it be THE Sophie Masson I wondered? I took a photo of the inscription and messaged it to Sophie. She confirmed that the book had indeed belonged to her some years ago.
It was great to return the book to its original owner and to ponder on the book’s journey.
I could hardly believe it as I looked at the photos Pat had sent. It was definitely my handwriting as a 12 year old (just the same as in the diary!) and it carefully noted my name, address, phone number(which I still remembered by heart as we’d had it drummed into us by our parents, in case we ever got lost!) as well as the place and date we’d bought it–the W.E., Chatswood, the White Elephant of course, and in May, only a few days after my twelfth birthday. So it was already second-hand when we bought it, but I had clearly loved it and put my mark on it.
I was so excited! And even more so when Pat very kindly sent the book to me, and opening it, I was suddenly plunged back into the world of my childhood, not only because of the stories, the pictures, and my owner’s inscription–I was sure now that this was the book that had inspired the Blytonesque part of that story I’d written as a twelve year old–but also because of something else written on the page facing the flyleaf. ‘Taken out By’ it read in my writing: and underneath a stamp somewhat shakily reading L M. I knew at once who LM was of course; my younger brother, Louis. And he, along with my other siblings, had been one of the visitors at the ‘library’ I ran with attempted firmness at home, acting the part of the librarian, complete with stamp (I just loved those stamps!). Very likely that my cheeky rebel of a brother broke every library rule I attempted to impose, but he had clearly meekly submitted to being stamped into Enid Blyton’s Holiday Book (I showed it to him next time I saw him of course, much to his amazed amusement!)
What a journey indeed that book must have gone on over the decades since I had first held it in my hands and officiously stamped it! It had not followed me from childhood into adolescence; my mother must have got rid of it, along with other books we had outgrown, when we left home, or when she and my father left Australia to go back to France. She would have given it to another secondhand shop, no doubt, but in northern Sydney somewhere–but how it had ended up on the South Coast, in Pat’s neighbourhood op shop in Thirroul, a little battered but still in remarkably good shape, considering, is a mystery. I presume other children along the way, maybe several other children, had enjoyed and loved it, or it would not have stayed intact. As to me, I had forgotten it, until that moment when I read Pat’s message. Yet I had written my name and contact in it so carefully, obviously fearing that I might lose it, and trying to ensure that it would find its way back to me.
Which of course, eventually, it did….
And I’m still feeling that rush of pure, simple pleasure about the lovely serendipity of it all.