The madonna of the second-hand bookshop

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The Independent Culture
FROM TIME to time you find something which ... no. That's not true. It finds you ... or rather, it drifts into your view like a planet and falls into your orbit, and then you are lost, pulled out of your path by its gravity.

I suppose she's nine years old; 10 maybe. Here in France aeroplanes growl and whistle overhead, a man with Tourette's Syndrome is jabbering and shrieking gleefully at his family, a joke Frenchman - big moustache, Gitane mais, accordion over his shoulder, would I lie? - is drifting past in a cloud of blue smoke and la Difference; the two ugliest men in the world have just sat down at the next table here and are bellowing at each other - spittle flying and teeth falling out as they roar - in some strange mucus-dripping language clearly of their own invention. There is plenty to see; one of the two ugliest men in the world has a great livid scar down one cheek, and it's diverting to speculate on who did it, and how nice it would be to meet him and shake his hand, and how even nicer to take a knife and make another one, even bigger, or just to cut the bugger's howling, slobbering head off altogether and shut him up for good ...

... but I can't. I can't even enjoy following the thought through to its enjoyable conclusion (the scream of surprise; the shrieks of agony, the gurgling outflow, the thud of his cropped idiot skull on the pavement, the slowly thickening pool of dark unwholesome blood, the inarticulate horror of his unspeakable "friend") because the girl keeps drawing me away. All I can do is sideswipe the innocent by pointing out that these shouting, reeking horrors each wears a Swatch. There you are. There's the Swatch for you: worn by these sub-humans. Make of it what you will.

And she's still there, back in London. Nine or 10 years old and no beauty. A bit dumpy, in fact; the little thing is a bit of a lump. There's a brother too, somewhere, but you don't see him around much. Perhaps he's gone back to live with the mother, because this is the same old story of promise and despair, hope and disintegration, love and the failure of love. And of its triumph.

They were living in the shop for a while, behind curtains, at the back, beyond the shelves and piles of second-hand books: the girl, her brother and their fierce, sad little father in his baggy trousers and his old tweed coat. Making the best of it, I suppose; not quite sure how it had come to this; hoping it would all work out for the best: just another poor sod who had no idea it would all turn out this way.

The shop had belonged to a big chain, a prosperous affair run by sleek, pushy men, remote in their suits, who didn't mind ruining the occasional life if it led to a buck or two ... and seeing a bigger buck up the road, the chain ripped down their brash Perspex sign, removed their ugly, garish window-display, tore out their shopfittings and moved away.

And in came the man and his children. The little shop wasn't a success, damp, ramshackle and unappealing, though like all second-hand bookshops a thesaurus and a playground for the diligent rummager. The man was not instantly popular either, you might say. The local gossip-brokers sided with the mother, even though they didn't know the mother, because kiddies should be with their mother, stands to reason, not natural, stands to reason, you mark my words. They fired the usual accusations at the man, to see if they stuck: he got drunk, he was bad- tempered, had a chip on his shoulder, he gossiped.

But the truncated family survived, in the back of the shop, like something out of a children's story. Every day I would see his fat little daughter in the supermarket, on some errand - milk, bread, baked beans: once - a high day, I imagine - I saw her bearing a pot of Haagen-Dazs ice-cream towards the till like a trophy or a sacrament, staunch and dogged in her dress, and fiercely grown-up.

You can never tell how much children know. She may have known that her father was not a success in the world's eyes or the eyes of the gossips; that he was clinging on perilously, doing his best, not well-liked or much thought-of. Sometimes you could see in his face the unmistakable signs of unfocused anger, of sorrow and despair, and perhaps she saw that, too.

But I hope not. I hope she knew and saw none of that, because if you saw them together, this dumpy little thing and her dumpy little father, it would break your heart. This summer I have seen them most evenings, sitting in the shop or walking together up the street, chatting away, she telling him things as children do, he gravely and kindly attentive; and her face, her posture, her walk are quite simply transfigured. This plain child, in the company of her father, acquires the beauty of an icon, the luminous magical happiness of a Fra Angelico madonna.

And I cannot stop thinking about her. Perhaps it's the splendour and rarity of her hap- piness; perhaps there is some lesson about human love there that I am too stupid or hard-shelled to learn. Or perhaps it is just that I am afraid; afraid that she may find out those things I hope she doesn't know, discover that what she loves is not prized by the rest of the world. Most of all I am afraid that she won't in her turn be loved, that men will in due course reject her and see only what she looks like and not what she is. If I were an artist I could make some moral out of this; as it is, all I can do is fret, and hope that Nature blossoms her into beauty, and pray that, whatever else, the wind is never taken out of her brave sails.

And I wonder why. Why should I care? Why do such things bother us? What is in it for me? To seize upon someone I have never even met, and to spend fruitless hours fretting in case someone deflates her, is the act of a madman or a Disney scriptwriter. It's barking sentimentality - it must be - and it won't be long before I start sending off for Weeping Dollies and Lovable Soft Kittens from the back of the Sunday tabloids. But I can't help it. This is the end. Hello trees! Hello sky! The stars are God's daisy-chain! !

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