I think perhaps the hardest thing for the bookish is to let some books go. Practicalities have very little weight in the world of imagination but sooner or later, they make themselves felt. The edge of the shelves become tighter, the books become snug. Space starts to become a premium. The realisation hits. Some books must be donated to the charity shop. Some books must leave. The cycle must begin again.
I filled a bag, quick, unjudging, working on instinct, and I left it on the floor for a few days whilst I thought about it. That too is part of the cycle, the way that a book may slide in and out of the bag, its fate unknown, until it returns shyly to the shelf, conscious of being on borrowed on time.
And it was as I studied this bag and thought of the books that would never go in there, I remembered a map. I bought in the old Waterstone’s in York, back when it had an apostrophe and back when it spilled over several floors and levels in High Ousegate. I even remember it being a bright day and almost being alone as I stood there and tried to figure out which map to buy.
Here’s the thing, though, I knew exactly what map to buy. I picked it up almost instantly, in that happenstance sort of way you do when you don’t want to admit you’ve been building up up to this for weeks. It was beautiful; crisp and folded tight, tight shut, and when I got home, I ruined it. Deliberately.
The map was of Austria and of the Achensee, and I very carefully highlighted every location that featured in the Chalet School series. I highlighted the ones that appeared under fake names and real; Innsbruck, Jenback, Spartz. I knew this topography; I knew it and I loved it, and that map sat alongside my Chalet School collection as though to bind them to place. It was as though the map wasn’t even real, somehow, it was partially fictional and partially actual. It was my Narnia.
We went to the Achensee, my grandmother and I, we took the steam train past fields full of clover and golden Haflingers, and I couldn’t quite believe it. This world. It was there, all of it, and it took my breath away. We found the Chalet. We found the landing stage, the lake, the hotel. And even though it was freezing, I insisted on dipping my foot into the Achensee itself, so that I could say that I had been in it. The same lake. The same water, briefly, for that moment, seventy years and more later.
Maybe that’s where it began, this interest in space and place, maybe there. And as I remembered all of this, and relived kaffee und kuchen and riding cable cars through clouds up mountains, I realised that I didn’t have that map any more.
I miss it.