As a child, family circumstances dictated that we move around a lot. Before I was seven, I’d lived in eight different places – three of them in Lisbon, one in Leicester, and four in various parts of London. It was because of this that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to read, or even go to school, until I was six-years-old.
By then, I was desperate to learn how to read. My older brother had books before I did, and I was fascinated by them. I used to steal his school reading books and copy out the letters in the spaces underneath, just so I could know how it felt to write. Of course, I couldn’t understand what the words and letters meant, but it didn’t matter. I was teaching myself to write.
Soon after, I was finally able to go to school – and I loved it! I gulped down everything I could learn and was quickly reading and writing every chance I got. But we didn’t have any books at home. At the time, my mum was a charwoman (an old term now, but it’s a kind of part-time cook, cleaner and housekeeper) for a wealthy, aristocratic lady who lived in an exclusive apartment in Parliament Square. The furniture was antique, and the walls were covered in beautiful oriental rugs. I remember thinking: ‘She must be so rich that she has to have her carpets on the walls instead of the floor so people can’t walk on them!’
During school holidays, and unable to afford childcare, my mum would take me to work with her. The lady didn’t mind at all. In fact, she used to like me to bring her breakfast tray in to her bedroom so that we could have a chat. I would totter in carrying her big, silver tray while my mum drew back the curtains and gently woke the lady. Then, while my mum got on with the housework, I’d sit on the end of the bed and chatter on and on as the lady delicately ate marmalade on toast and sipped Earl Grey tea from bone china. She would ask about school and my favourite subjects and I babbled on, much to her amusement.
On day I was sitting on the tiger rug in front of one of the many, dark bookcases that lined the walls of the lady’s drawing room. Now, this rug was a real tiger skin, complete with stuffed head, teeth and tail. The lady was a widow and one of the old, British colonial class. She’d lived in India and Africa and other exotic places with her diplomat husband. On a small table next to the sofa was an old black and white photograph of her husband, rifle in hand, taken shortly after he’d shot the tiger that I was now sitting on. I was too young then to understand how barbaric that scene actually was, but the memory of sitting, stroking that skin while looking at the photograph is still vivid in my mind.
Most of the books on the shelves were either too grown-up or too uninteresting for a little girl like me, but that day I made a fabulous discovery. Tucked between history tomes and works of political philosophy was a paperback edition of Winnie the Pooh. It stuck out like a sore thumb, and I pulled it out and started flicking through the pages. That’s how the lady found me. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Winnie the Pooh. My grandson must have left it here. He’s too old for it now.’ She asked if I’d read it. I told her that I hadn’t, and I didn’t have any other story books at home either. ‘Well then,’ she said, ‘you can take that home with you and start your own library.’
I was so happy I could have hugged her, but etiquette dictated that it would be unseemly for a charwoman’s daughter to grab an aristocratic lady like that, especially after she’d just had her hair done! Instead, I thanked her profusely and hugged the book instead. I read that book many times over the next few years. I loved the illustrations and the map of the ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ at the beginning, and the stories from a world so different to my own.
Where is that little book today? I’m afraid I don’t know. I passed it on to a friend’s daughter once I’d grown up myself. I hope that it still survives. It was well-thumbed when I gave it away, and I hope that whoever owns it now loves it as much as I did.
Today my house is full of books. I’d rather spend money on that than shoes or haircuts or holidays. But, if you love books as much as I do, you never forget your first one.
© Jackie Carreira 2019
Sleeping Through War
The year is 1968. The world is changing. Students are protesting, civil rights are being fought and died for, nuclear bombs are being tested, and war is raging in Vietnam. For three women, life must go on as normal. For them, as it is for most ‘ordinary’ people, just to survive is an act of courage.
Rose must keep her dignity and compassion as a St Lucian nurse in London. Amalia must keep hoping that her son can escape their seedy life in Lisbon. And Mrs Johnson in Washington DC must keep writing to her son in Vietnam. She has no-one else to talk to. Three different women in three different countries. They work, they bring up children, they struggle to make ends meet while the world goes around and the papers print the news. History is written by the winners – and almost all of it has been written by men. The stories of women like these go unremarked and unwritten so often that we forget how important they are.
Jackie Carreira is an award-winning novelist, playwright, musician, designer, and co-founder of QuirkHouse Theatre Company. A true renaissance woman, or a Jack of All Trades? The jury’s still out on that one. She grew up in Hackney, East London, but spent part of her early childhood in Lisbon’s Old Quarter. Sleeping Through War was inspired, in part, by some of the women she met when she was young. One of her favourite places to write is the coffee shops of railway stations. Her second novel, The Seventh Train (published by Matador in 2019) was born in the café at Paddington Station. Jackie now lives in Suffolk with an actor, two cats and not enough bookshelves.