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A story in it and surrounding it

July 7, 2007

There’s a book by the side of the bed. I dip into it from time to time.

It’s a book I bought at the end of a week I spent in Riga, late spring 2003. It had been a monumental trip for me. At an embarrassing 30 years old this was the first trip I had ever embarked on alone. I hadn’t known I was going until three weeks before and when I was actually there I got to interview people I never dreamed I’d even get an opportunity to meet.

The trip was billed as a research exercise for a “little” challenge I’d set myself earlier in the year. I’d tentatively broken the news of this foolhardy project to my parents back in January the same year. Concerned they would roll their eyes skyward and dismiss my intentions as yet another hair-brained scheme, I picked my moment carefully.

We had Sunday lunch. I got them to sit down. It felt like I was telling them I was gay all over again.

“I’m going to write a book,” I announced, “about the Eurovision Song Contest.”

They’re going to laugh, I told myself. Everyone will laugh. After all, I haven’t written a thing ever. I’ve no experience and precious little ability. I can write a good letter, for sure, but letters and books are two very different things. And even if I could write a book, surely I could have picked a slightly more interesting subject, couldn’t I?

“Fantastic,” replied my Mum, “Have you found a publisher yet?”

An enormous sense of relief passed over me. I hadn’t found a publisher – I hadn’t even considered how I would get it published more that writing it was the most important thing but still, in that split second my life changed considerably. Years of wondering what it is I enjoy doing and what it was I could do for a living were suddenly nothing but a distant memory. I had taken the risk to confess my airy-fairy goals and I’d met with absolutely no derision.

We carried on talking about the book, Mum asking me a few interesting questions about the Eurovision I hadn’t thought of before and me asking both of them about the beginnings of television and live link-ups between London and Calais. I didn’t have to ask many questions. Both Mum and Dad were more than willing to provide me with an account of their experiences from the 1950s.

At the end of my week in Riga, a mixture of total elation and isolation draining my dwindling energy levels, I skipped around the closest peckish little souvenir shop I could find. As it happened there was one right outside the hotel and there in the window was this very book.

Beautifully bound with thick leather-clad covers and cartridge paper inside, I knew in an instance that this was an excellent token souvenir to give to someone who really liked her cartridge paper. My mum adores cartridge paper largely because she’s an artist.

Mum squealed with delight when she unwrapped her parcel. She held the book tightly in her hands and whispered, “This has come all the way from Riga, hasn’t it?” I nodded.

It was the smallest of gifts, it crossed my mind some days afterwards. I’d always felt that the closer the person the bigger the gift should be, as if the strength of our love for one another is measured only by the monetary value of the present.

And yet my mum was, without doubt, excited to receive the strange looking notebook from a distant city. I was gratified by that fact alone. There, on the blank pages of a heavy Latvian notebook, was everything that is Thoroughly Good.

What I hadn’t expected was unwrapping a parcel 18 months later with the very same book inside it…

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