The Girl with all the Books
Ayesha knew the exact moment her problems began; it was the day her father died. One week later the first unpaid bills arrived. Five days later, one day after the funeral, they were evicted. Fifteen days since she became half an orphan – that’s what the kids at school called her – she sat in a bus heading north.
‘At least we will have our own place in the village.’ Her mother seemed excited by the prospect but Ayesha hated the idea. She never understood why they were moved so far away. The reality was even worse: a cramped house swimming in damp, with an aroma of fish which couldn’t be removed no matter how many times it was cleaned.
‘This will be our new community.’ That was what her mother wanted, what she hoped for. So Ayesha explored the environment with zero enthusiasm.
The first thing she saw was the long, grey winding finger of the jetty and the men battling against the elements and the creatures beneath the waves.
Ayesha was fascinated by the fishermen. There was always a small group, maybe seven or eight, but one remained apart from the rest, lurking at the end of the jetty in his own isolation.
That first day she ran past them all in a playful mood, singing some tune heard on the radio, not realising the song was about a woman who dies from a broken heart and enjoying the melody for its catchiness. The men of the village ignored her or scowled at the noise she made.
‘You’ll scare the fish away.’ They shouted at her through wind ravaged faces and yellowed skin; but not the isolated man. He was always quiet, eyes sunk into the rough beard covering most of his face; facial hair so overgrown it could have housed some of the seagulls seeking refuge from the changing climate
As Ayesha pirouetted on her heels to turn back home, she noticed the large bag near his legs where a pile of dusty-looking books were squashed together. She was hooked then. Reading was the greatest love of her life, every book she remembered containing a memory of her father.
Within a week they would be on first-name terms and Ayesha would read the first book he gave her, a faded copy of Moby Dick. Some people may have thought it too difficult for a twelve-year-old to read but he didn’t.
‘Call me, Joe,’ he said to her as he handed over the book. She didn’t get the reference at first but every time she met someone with the same name in the ensuing years it always put a smile on her face.
‘You’re clever enough to do anything you want, Ayesha,’ her mother had said on her thirteenth birthday. She ran back to her bedroom and opened the gift from her mother – some kid’s book she had already grown out of. Ayesha put it to one side and reached down amongst the dust and the bits of sand always invading the house, peered into the darkness under the bed and stretched her hand into the pile she called Joe’s Treasure, coming away with his latest present: To Kill A Mockingbird.
It was the only book of his she still owned, all the others lost to hotel rooms, guest houses, libraries, cafes, restaurants and anywhere else she would leave them over the years in the hope somebody would discover the same enlightenment and pleasure from them she had.
‘Where do you come from?’ It was the first thing he said to Ayesha. She was shy and ran from him and back to that cramped, cold house her mother had inflicted upon them. The next time she saw him she answered his question.
‘Kent,’ she said with all the confidence she could muster. His laugh was raucous and infectious and she imagined him as Father Christmas on vacation, but still handing out presents. His beard appeared to be even larger the closer she got to it but no amount of facial camouflage could hide the enormous smile across his face.
He held the rod out to her. ‘Would you like to fish?’
‘How did you know?’ Anticipation rippled through Ayesha. She wanted to, wanted to see the fish in the water, but also hating the thought of killing something.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I always throw them back. It’s one reason this lot don’t like me.’ It didn’t seem possible to Ayesha but his grin grew even wider, to the point she imagined it would slide off his face and join the descending sun on the horizon.
It scared her to hold on to the fishing rod, her eyes drifting towards the bag holding Joe’s fishing paraphernalia and sandwiches, before settling on the tower of books threatening to tumble over and sink into the sea.
‘That’s another reason they don’t like me; I read while they don’t bother.’
Ayesha grabbed the fishing rod.
‘Didn’t your parents tell you not to talk to strangers?’ He sounded like one teacher from her old school, but without the indifference in his voice.
‘My father did, but he’s dead now.’
Joe said nothing. He helped her steady the line as they stared out to sea in silence, discovering a bond in the emptiness which could never be found with words.
It only took two minutes until they held the fishing rod together, lifting it up as the fish struggled on the line, bringing it closer so Ayesha saw the scales on the creature glistening in the faded light, smelt the aroma of the sea and breathed in that unknown life existing beneath the waves. Joe freed the fish from its bondage and gave it to Ayesha.
‘Release it back into the sea, child; give it the gift of life others want to deny it.’
Ayesha stood, struggling to hold on to the fish, amazed and scared by its alien feel against her skin, before throwing it back into the dark blue waters. She felt exhilarated by life; by her life.
Joe handed her a tired looking dirty cloth.
‘Here, dry your hands with this; and then get yourself home before people come looking for you.’
She took the cloth and did as he said, still able to smell the sea and the fish against her trembling fingers, before turning to run home.
‘What’s your name, child?’ he said to her departing back.
‘Ayesha,’ she said with joy in her heart.
‘I’ll be here tomorrow, Ayesha.’
She sprinted past the grumpy, grey fishermen who were like statues to her. She tiptoed into the house like a mouse, not wanting to wake her mother who would have had a hard day at work, sneaking into the tiny bedroom which now was like a castle to her. Ayesha put her headphones on to listen to some Bob Marley, and, for the first time in an age, didn’t hate her father for dying.
The next day was her second meeting with the old man and his beard.
‘Ayesha is an unusual name,’ Joe said. ‘Do you know what it means?’ She shook her head.
‘Did your parents tell you anything about your heritage, your culture?’ Already, he felt like a teacher who she wanted to learn from, a school she never wanted to miss.
‘They never liked to talk about where they came from, the struggle to get here.’ It was only when she was an adult that Ayesha realised her parents weren’t hiding anything from her; they wanted to wait until she was older before explaining the family history. Then her father died, and it wasn’t long after that her mother’s illness made any recollections of her past near impossible.
‘Your name is Arabic and means “She who lives”. Make sure you do. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ He chuckled, like one of those plastic laughing policemen she had seen in a faded seaside funfair.
Her last meeting with him, she found the courage to tell him off for his incessant chain smoking.
‘You’ll understand one day,’ he said, before blowing smoke into her face when she least expected it. She peered through the haze, looking for the latest present he had for her. Its bulk stuck out of the bag where he kept his food and his bait. On more than one occasion she had taken a book home to find worms wriggling between the pages. Ayesha rushed to grab it before saying hello.
‘Cheeky girl!’ he said as she seized the book. The tome was heavy and old but she was intrigued by the title:
She: A History of Adventure.
‘What’s it about, Joe?’
‘Read it and find out.’
She was too young to realise it at first but, as she got older and she reread it numerous times, its Victorian themes of imperialism, race and female authority made her view the book as more than the thrilling adventure she initially perceived it to be.
She wondered for years why Joe had given her that book, what was it he wanted her to learn from between its pages. Then she read a modern feminist interpretation of She as the ‘crusading new woman’ and Ayesha knew what Joe wanted to tell her.
‘She, who must be obeyed,’ was the last thing Ayesha remembered him saying to her. Joe died the following week, still clinging to the fishing rod when they found him.
Ten years after leaving home, Ayesha opened a combined coffee shop and book emporium. She called it A Book of Joe.
Every weekend she went fishing.
And she always threw the catch back into the water.