I had just had the one and only proper fistfight of my life, such as it was, with the aptly-named “Mad Boy” the terror of Grade 6. He had landed a hard fist somewhere around my mouth, a result less due to pugilistic skill than blind, mad luck. He was Mad Boy. He was a twelve-year-old force of nature. He inflicted himself on anyone he could. Today was my lucky day.
It was about an hour later. The excitement was long over. The fevered chant of “Stink! Stink! Stink!” was gone, but it rang in my ears. The audience of excited boys had been all around us, two or three deep, all screaming for blood, my blood. Mad Boy was a legend, and I was the new kid, only recently arrived at this school because my family had just moved here. I was Mad Boy’s bait. They threw me to him the way you might deploy chum to catch a shark. I remember him as terrifying. Conversation was pointless. He was all brainstem and instinct. He’d seen your human world, your fancy civilisation, and he wanted no part of it. If he was here at all, he was here to burn it all down. Starting with useless pushovers like me. Kids who had no idea how to fight. Mad Boy didn’t know how to fight, either. He was just more practiced, and more willing to enter a state of frenzy.
Later, sitting alone on a bench outside a classroom, holding my swelling, aching, face, feeling shivery and weird, remembering flashes of the whole thing, wanting to cry bit too tired to cry, feeling awful, something wonderful happened to me. The first wonderful thing to ever happen to me at school. The first genuine moment of kindness, a transmission from a dimension where people cared about each other.
It was a woman, one of the teachers, I didn’t know her. I was new. I didn’t know anyone. That’s what was so awful about this. No allies. No-one to rally round and provide emotional support. No-one to provide shelter.
I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I remember only that she was kind in a way I understood was rare. She was the School Librarian, it turned out. The School Library was in that demountable building just over there, she said, pointing. I’d been past there many times, and never known what it was. She asked who I was and what had happened. It was hard to tell her. You don’t want to have lost a fight and then have to tell a woman that you lost it. I was only eleven or twelve, but I understood this much about 1970s Australian manhood. She gently coaxed it out of me, the whole burning shameful fact of it. She inspected my wound. She tutted and talked about taking me to the School Nurse.
At some point she said to me that at any time, if I felt like I was in trouble, if the bullies were after me, if there was any kind of unpleasantness of that sort, I was most welcome to join her in the School Library. She would show me how to cover and repair books, and how to shelve them. She would show me how it all worked, and I could help her out when I felt like it. And she smiled at me.
When I told my psychologist this story, I got very choked up about it. She (the psychologist) asked me how I felt when the Librarian made me this offer? I still couldn’t speak. My face all screwed up, I put my hand over my heart. That’s how I felt. How I still feel, decades later. I had been reading and loving books since I was little, but this was the first time books had ever meant shelter to me. When books had given me a sense of home. It meant everything.
I took the Librarian up on her invitation. I don’t remember Mad Boy troubling me much after that incident. He was always around, an unexploded grenade spinning on the floor nearby, and I went out of my way to avoid him and his mates, but whenever possible I hid in the Library. I remember the smell of the books, and I remember working on the plastic covers, re-shelving returned books, and doing all the jobs involved in being a Librarian. It surprises me now, writing this, that I never thought even once about pursuing a career as a librarian, but I never did. I enjoyed the work I did in that School Library. It was like a world away from the school, sealed off from the schoolyard battlefield.
As I got older, and as my illness started to show itself in ever more obvious-when-you-think-back ways, I again found shelter in books. And once my illness erupted, like the “chest burster” scene in ALIENS, and I wound up in hospital, I read as much as I could. Which was not always easy. Medication can mess up your concentration. Your illness can fill you with unfathomable anger, or bottomless sadness, or mania so wild you’d swear you could fly and you would head to the roof of the building to demonstrate. The illness is not always compatible with reading, just as it’s also not always a good fit with writing.
I decided I wanted to be a published science fiction writer, a novelist, when I was fourteen, and I finally achieved this goal when I turned 40, when my first novel, ORBITAL BURN, was published in the US and Canada. That urge to write books was a way to build my own shelter, rather than seeking it in the books of other people. At one of the worst moments in my life, a kind person had shown me how the world of books could offer a way out of the wilderness. How could I not want to make my own place in that world?
During the couple of years prior to my hospitalisations last year, my reading dropped away. I didn’t have the concentration, the interest, the time–I’m not sure what it was. Or rather, I’m sure it was the depression talking. I missed it. My home away from the battlefield was no longer there. I felt strange, living in a house filled with books, bit not much desire to read one of them.
It was only when my new medication regime began to settle down last year that I became interested in books again. For a long time I’d had a stack of books on the bedside table in my hospital room, but I never touched them. It was a dreadful feeling. I would look at them and think about how I’d always loved books, and found shelter in them, but not now. It was one of many distressing things going on. But then one day I picked up one of them, and found I could follow along, it made sense, I could remember from day to day what was happening in the story. I could read for longer and longer times each day. Excited, I told the nurses, who told my doctors, who were also excited. This was progress. Things were happening. We were getting somewhere at long last.
In the months since I left hospital I found reading taking up more and more of my day. Until just before I started writing this book, I was reading for up to five hours a day, so many books, often several at once, a chapter here, a chapter of another there, and I was following all of them with no problem. It was when I first began to see that my writing ability might come back from its long silence. I could see that I had the necessary focus and clarity for writing. What was stopping me was the question, “do I want to bother with that again? Is it worth it?” I was feeling inclined to retire from writing, or at least to retire from the writing I was doing, which seemed to be going nowhere. I started thinking about what I would do with my life if I wasn’t a writer.
But here I am, 75,000 words into this project, and feeling stronger than ever, feeling more alive than ever. My mum tells me I look very tired, but I don’t feel all that tired. What I feel is that I got shipwrecked and washed up on this island, and this book is the hut I built for shelter there, and it’s getting bigger and more luxurious the more I write. I installed the Home Cinema Room over the weekend. A book has provided me with shelter when things were hard. I am forever grateful.