I was leaving the Tolkien exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford this week, feeling that strange, pleased, puzzled feeling that you get when you have just been looking at the very desk where Tolkien wrote his books, and the pens he used and the very sheets of graph paper on which, following the ancient footpaths and hobbit-tracks of his own fancy, he sketched out maps of Middle Earth when he should have been marking essay papers – that feeling of being somehow expanded and transformed, even though you rationally know you haven’t been changed at all – when I saw a small girl trying to drag her parents into the museum shop.
Now, I don’t mean to be creepy when I say that small girls are my favourite parts of this world. Small girls are smart, funny, brave, interested, interesting, caring and compassionate; they are enthusiastic readers and intensely, poignantly alive, and the best and luckiest of them stay that way even as they grow older, but you know with a heavy pre-broken heart that sooner or later the odds are they will run into boys or the world. Boys and the world are the worst.
This small girl – she must have been eight or so – was working on her parents with great determination. They wanted to go into the museum, and she wanted to go to the museum shop to see if they had a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. You sensed that she had no realistic expectation of being allowed to read it on the spot, but not another hour could be allowed to pass without her knowing that Murder on the Orient Express had been secured and was readily available for her future reading pleasure.
“Can we just go in and see if they have it?” she asked, with the polite vexation of a great spirit being forced to haggle with moral pygmies.
“Not now,” said her dad. “We’ll do it afterwards.”
“But they might close,” she said. This was a small girl who has been burnt before by this perfidious world.
“They won’t close,” said her dad. “There’s all the time in the world.”
She looked at them both with great earnestness.
“Now you know,” she said, scoldingly but also gently, in case she was breaking some sorrowful truth that they hadn’t yet learnt. “Now you know that just isn’t true.”
I once played a role in helping to raise two small girls. I met them when they were four and I’m still around, as much as I can be, but I was mostly around for the four years or so until they were about eight, and in that time they changed me and gave me gifts that I am still discovering.
I used to read them stories at bedtime and then I started making up stories to tell them. It’s hard to make up a new story every night so I decided to make one long story that would unfold and that I could improvise as we went along. It’s not as easy as you think. Small girls listen keenly and they can tell when you’re repeating yourself or settling for second best. They are very often too polite to say so, but you can sense them sinking into the silence of slight disappointment. I have in the past received death threats for things I’ve written, and people have tried to sue me and have me fired, but I tell you I would rather face down that response every day for the rest of my life than ever again experience that dreadful hollow sensation of having slightly disappointed two small girls with your story as they’re drifting off to sleep.
But when you’re telling a never-ending story to a pair of dedicated listeners, you start to think strangely about time. You miss a night here, because you’re working on a deadline, and you miss a night there because they’re tired and you’re tired too and it would be pleasant not to have to invent more story tonight, and maybe you miss Friday night because the cricket’s on and it’s been a long week and you know it doesn’t matter. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter, not really – no one needs to feel guilty for not making every night, and no one’s being scarred or damaged by your lack of perfect submission to the impossible ideals of modern parenthood. No, the thing is that you start to think that you do have all the time in the world, and then the next thing you know the little girls are big girls, and they’re fine and splendid teenagers and if there’s any hope for the world it’s because it contains two young women like this, but still, you never did finish telling that story.
Times, 29 August 2018