I still have the first one. I looked at it last night, actually, when I was packing up my stuff. It’s in a Paddington Bear notebook – thin paper marked with widely-spaced, pale blue lines. A present for my sixth birthday. The first few pages are covered with misshapen rabbits and bears and my own name – all executed in brown felt-tip pen – cutting across the lines somewhat defiantly. And then, just before the rusting staples that mark the centre page, there is the first definition, written in smaller letters, as close to the line as my concentrating, six year old-self could manage.
A hors chessnut is a conka.
A fact acquired from one of the big ones, or Dad, perhaps, as we walked the centre strip of Surrenden Road that autumn, in search of treasure. He’d have leaned down, picked a half-buried, perfect jewel of a thing from the damp grass, and said,
‘We call them conkers but they are really horse chestnuts.’
Something like that, anyway. Some moment when a person I was watching, close, little owl eyes, seemed to reveal an important thing in the combination of what they said and what they did. And then there would have been the time, a few hours later probably, when I was watching telly after tea, when his words would come back – drowning out Terry Wogan – along with a film clip of his stooping frame. And I’d know I needed to write that down.
I have boxes of them. Shelves. Pretty bloody useless as a reference resource, to be honest. Not catalogued. Not indexed. Sometimes I can count on serendipity, of course:
Serendipity: the fact of finding pleasant or useful things by chance.
Where the hell would we be without that? But mostly they sit there, unopened, hoarding their words inside. This one is dark red – one of those cloth-bound ones – retro – cheaper than they should be. Probably bound by some child in Indonesia or somewhere. And here is yesterday’s entry – rather apposite given that fleeting concern.
Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
It was the prettiest definition I could find with two minutes and Google, on my way home from work yesterday – slightly archaic, especially stricken by misfortune. And, of course, it was something someone said and did that necessitated the entry. The someone, this time, being Teresa the library assistant. The something being her passing observation on a regular, somewhat smelly, reader as he left. He was walking with his shoulders a little further back. He was wearing her smile like a silk scarf around his neck.
‘It costs nothing – just a bit of compassion, does it?’
And it had felt important enough for an entry.
But conkers are easier than compassion. I wish I could just keep the childhood ones – the succession of patterned and cartoon covers filled with the useful. Because what I noted then were the new things – not just the things I should know perfectly well but have stopped recognising. The things that I can’t keep hold of. Here’s one from 1978 with Olivia Newton John on the cover:
Pillion: a seat or place behind the person riding a motorcycle where a passenger can sit.
Brandy snap: a sweet hard biscuit in the shape of a tube, flavoured with ginger.
Portmanteau: a large case for carrying clothes while travelling, especially one that opens out into two parts.
I think about a little girl, aged, what, nine? She’s riding pillion on a vast black motorbike – sunny day, taking the coast road. On the back of the bike a portmanteau is strapped, crammed with brandy snaps. Crammed with brandy snaps like they were the day of that entry – piped full of whipped cream. In fact, there’s a cream-stain on the page – a little glassy patch on the paper – like a window. I hold it up to the light. The paper is translucent but the meaning is opaque.