Binny for Short
By the time Binny was eleven years old, she had lived in two worlds. A child’s world, and a time-to-start-growing-up-now world. An easy world, and a hard world.
Eight years in the first, and three in the second. Yet when Binny looked back at the first world from the second, it was hard to believe it had lasted so long. The eight years diminished like a landscape seen from far out at sea. An outline. Sunlit highlights. Some gull shrieks of dismay. A coldness, just as if a fog had rolled in from the sea. Then it was almost gone. A shadow land that once had been a solid, steady world.
That steady world had held Binny, her father and her mother, her brother, James, and her sister, Clem. It also held a large cheerful house, a friendly school, and her father’s bookshop. Very famous people had visited that bookshop, and some of them wrote about it afterward. The sort of bookshop you will find in Heaven, wrote one optimistically. Books to die for! said another.
“That’s an awful thing to say!” said Binny when she heard, but her family laughed at her, and her father had both quotations embossed on thick cream bookmarks, which he gave out free to customers. It was the sort of bookshop that gave away a lot of things free: bookmarks, sofas to sit on while you read, sweets in blue china bowls next to the sofas, iced water, stickers.
Even free stories.
The stories came from Binny’s father. He had a large supply of them, which he shared with anyone who wanted to listen. Often that person was Binny. Binny seemed to have more need for stories than most people. Even when she was very young, she was a restless, bothered person. Stories allowed Binny to escape for a while.
“A long, long time ago,” began her father one empty Sunday afternoon, when Binny was about six and in one of her fidgeting, no-one-to-play-with, climb-about moods, “in the days when there were heroes . . .”
“Aren’t there still?” demanded Binny.
“Can girls be heroes?”
“As a matter of fact, girls usually make the best heroes of all . . . Are you going to listen, then? I can’t tell stories to someone all tied up in a curtain.”
“They might miss something.”
“Something that matters.”
“I can’t hear you properly because I’m all swizzled up.”
“Unswizzle, then. It might be important.”
“It’s only a story.”
“Some stories are very important. Sometimes stories can save your life.”
“Save your life?” asked Binny, unswizzling.
“I thought you’d hear that!”
“Tell me a story that could save my life! Go on! Start again! A long, long time ago, in the days when there were heroes . . .”
“What are you up to now?”
“Building a camp.” Binny collected an armload of cushions, rolled the hearthrug into a log, and began digging a well with the TV remote. “Get on with the story!”
“In the days when there were heroes, which there still are, and nearly all girls too, there was a little house, in a little town, right on the edge of a wild, rocky coast. Right on the edge of the land this town was built, houses spilling down to the rocks. Salt spray blowing up the streets. Rock and stone and salt and wind and a sort of lightness in the air . . .”
(Here Binny crawled behind the sofa and began collecting firewood for her campfire by gently peeling away strips of wallpaper from the bottom of the wall.)
“And in that town,” continued her father, in a rather louder voice, “there lived a girl whose name I forget.”
“Call her Binny!” said Binny, popping out very suddenly.
“Lived a girl called Binny. In one of the little houses with hardly room to swing a cat, and the noise of her brother and sister, and the seagulls on the roof and chickens out the back, and the clatter of feet on the cobbles outside, and all the other sounds that there are in a place like that. So this girl, Binny, she used to go down to the sea to practice her singing . . .”
Soon, Binny-the-listener became Binny-from-the-story. The camp was transformed into a rocky shore. Seals sprawled like cushions in the shallows. The tide rose, and Binny climbed high amongst the rocks until she ended up perched upon a table, measuring the waves.
Binny was as good at listening to stories as her father was at telling them. His stories drifted around her head, and some stayed there and some vanished.
“Nothing vanishes,” said Binny’s mother, which turned out not to be true.
* * *
All this happened when Binny was very young indeed. In the first world, before it went forever. Before Max.
* * *
In that first world, for her eighth birthday, Binny had asked for a border collie puppy. “Black and white,” she had ordered. “White socks, white stripe up his nose. White on the end of his tail. Look at the picture in my book!”
“No, no, no!” her mother had exclaimed, waving the picture away, but Binny’s father had taken the book and looked.
* * *
Max the puppy, exactly like the picture in the book, had come rollicking into Binny’s bedroom at dawn on the morning of her birthday. When Binny in the second world looked back to that far-off, lost world of her first eight years, it seemed incredible.
“It was,” said Clem. “Ordinary eight-year-olds don’t get border collie puppies for their birthdays.”
It was incredible, but it was about to end. By the time Binny was nine, Max had gone. He had raced into Binny’s life and out of it, all in a few months.
“Where? Where?” asked frantic Binny, but there seemed to be no answers. In the early days she was haunted by the fear that his unhappiness might be as bad as her own.
“Everyone’s unhappy,” said Clem, although not unkindly, and, “Try not to worry Mum.”
Binny tried, but it was not easy. Remembering Max hurt. “It hurts my heart,” she told Clem, hugging the cold ache in her stomach.
“That’s not where your heart is,” said Clem, sympathetic but accurate. “You’ll get over it. You always get over things,” added Clem, who didn’t. “You’ll get used to it and go on.”
“You have to.”
* * *
After Max, more than two years went by.
Binny was nine, then ten, then eleven.
* * *
By the time Binny reached eleven it seemed that Clem had been right. Half right at least. Max had gone and Binny, although she hadn’t got over it, had got used to it. Just. Although for ages she had hoarded a box of dog biscuits in case Max should somehow find his way home, and even two years later she couldn’t help gazing after any black and white dog she saw. She had survived, but she hadn’t forgotten, and now it was a long time since she had last called “Max” and been flattened by his welcome. A long time since she had burrowed her face in his fur, or heard his terrifying roar at the sight of any stranger.
* * *
“But Clem was right, you have to go on,” admitted Binny.
* * *
Going on was how the Cornwallis family—Clem, Binny, James, and Polly their mother—survived.