On a little journey in search of Bathsheba

A Lilliput Library. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
A Lilliput Library. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Lilliput Libraries are scattered far and wide across Dunedin, tiny sanctuaries of literature hanging from the fences of the city’s cultured classes.

David Loughrey cut an arc across Roslyn, Mornington, Caversham and Tainui to find the best opening paragraph on offer in the little libraries in each suburb, then, for no particular reason, strung them together to form an odd sort of narrative.

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun. (Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874)

Gabriel Oak, a simple shepherd, woke with a start by the Lilliput Library in Fifield St, Roslyn.

He looked at the decorated cabinet of books attached to a sturdy post, then cast his gaze across the city, which was nestled cosy and grey by the Otago Harbour.

Fifield St was tidy, its gardens were well kept and there was a pleasant feeling of urban affluence that made him feel far, far away from the fictional region of Wessex in rural southwest England in which he fictionally lived and served as the faithful shepherd to Bathsheba Everdene, a proud beauty who spurned his offer of marriage but was destined to recognise his qualities and reverse her original decision.How had he got there, to this Fifield St with its neatly tarsealed roadway and its tidy houses of brick and wood?

His fingers moved unconsciously to the corners of his mouth, which were still spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, and he began to walk, cresting the rise at the top of Fifield St, then heading south to he knew not where, searching, searching for his Bathsheba.

He followed the winding roads through Belleknowes, his eyes wide and jaw slack as he took in the madness of the modern world, before finding himself spat from more gentle climes into the grittier reality of downtown Mornington.

Past the Countdown and the BP, the fish and chip shop and the florist, the Indian restaurant and the convenience store, the hairdresser and the vet he stumbled, before staggering into MacNee St and draping himself gasping over a fence, a fence on which he noticed a decorated cabinet full of books, and there, his eyes still reduced to chinks, he saw Trevor Dickinson.

Trevor Dickinson was hung-over and bad-tempered when he turned up for work on Monday morning. His mouth tasted like the bottom of a bird cage, his head was throbbing like the speakers at a heavy metal concert, and his stomach was lurching like a car with a dirty carburettor (The Summer That Never Was, Peter Robinson, 2003).

Trevor Dickinson looked at Gabriel Oak and wondered, not just about the unimportant distance between the corners of his new acquaintance’s mouth and ears, but at the slightly laboured similes with which the pair had been introduced.

"Lurching like a car with a dirty  carburettor?" he cried out loud, giving Gabriel Oak something of a fright.

"Heavy metal concert?"

"Where are we?" he asked Oak through the dark, jagged mist of his hangover, which made his head feel like the inside of an enormous highly pressurised steam engine that screamed along a listing railway of dizzy illness.

"I’m looking for Miss Everdene, I must find her, I am a faithful, frugal shepherd, and I represent all that is good and decent in nineteenth-century literature,"  Oak replied.

"I am a young man of sound judgement, easy motions, proper dress and general good character."

Arm in arm the two fictional characters stumbled down MacNee St, turned left into Glen Rd and right under the Southern Motorway overbridge before finding themselves in deepest Caversham.

Lost and confused, they wandered into Thorn St, where, lo and behold, they perceived through their fictional eyes a decorated cabinet full of books.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been as bold, and foolhardy, to write a history of the Medieval Papacy as to put one’s foot in a hornet’s nest. (The Medieval Papacy, Geoffrey Barraclough,1968)

"Ummmmm ... I think this is non-fiction," Dickinson said, as day-old alcohol danced a fearsome jig in his stomach like a drunken aunt at a tacky wedding.

"I’m not sure it helps the narrative," Oak responded.

The two leaned against the fence by the little library, and wondered for a moment if Barraclough had succeeded in his effort to argue a papacy that rose through furthering the cause of reform later became an obstacle to reform and itself in need of reformation.

"Should we go to Tainui?" Oak pondered.

"Yes," said Dickinson.

"That will advance the narrative."

Down Forbury Rd the two cantered, along Victoria Rd, past the racecourse, the ice stadium, the badminton court, the camp store and the intermediate school, before they turned left into the pleasantly structured roading network of Tainui, down Cavell St and into Magdala St, where they found ...  a decorated cabinet full of books.

The woman switched off the ignition, allowing the car to coast to a halt, the wheels to brush the kerb. She left her hands on the wheel, slowly filling her lungs with air. Her palms were damp with sweat, inside her gloves. She had thin hands, matching the rest of her; she was not tall, and the wisp of a figure allowed her to look like a young boy, when, as now, she wore her midnight blue trouser suit. Her face was serious, with a long nose and pointed chin. Her eyes were a thoughtful amber. (The Expurgator, Andrew York, 1974)

Oak blithely left his friend to his hangover, walked cheerfully to the kerb, and hopped into the passenger seat next to ...  Bathsheba Everdene.

"This is a turn-up for the books," he said, and he laughed, as the pair drove into the fictional sunset.

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