Reading Solzhenitsyn on the bus
The bus left the school gate at about half past one on a Saturday. It was the weekly opportunity to escape from the stifling regime maintained by the fundamentalist Christians who ran the school. There was an arbitrary rule concerning the destinations allowed. Boys under fifteeen years of age could get off at Newton Abbot, or had to remain on the bus until it reached Paignton. Once someone attained their fifteenth birthday, they were free to choose to go to Newton Abbot or Paignton, or could choose to spend the afternoon in Torquay.
Ten minutes from the school, on the road that led from the depths of the moor, there was a children’s home affiliated to the trust that ran the school. The children resident in the home enjoyed a lifestyle that we envied, attending local schools and not having to wear the regulation clothes required of boys at the school.
The home was run by a handful of staff, one of whom would catch the bus each Saturday. Where she travelled escapes the memory, what remains is an impression of fiery red curls and the book that she read on the bus for a number of the journeys. She was probably not much older than most of us, perhaps in her early-twenties, but for the fourteen year old boy watching her across the bus, the book placed her in a different sphere of reality.
Being a country boy, in the autumn of 1974, it would have been hard to know even how to pronounce Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book was called “August 1914” and was the thickest paperback that might be imagined. Trying not to stare at the woman, it was only possible to ponder how difficult it might be to read that book and why someone working in the children’s home would want to spend her day off reading something so demanding.
Was the book a statement? Was it not about “August 1914”, but about November 1974? Was the book to say to her fellow passengers that she might be on the same bus, but was different from them? Or was the book about reassurance? Was it about her reassuring herself that no matter how mundane everyday life might be, there were opportunities to escape?
Escape might be something outward, having freedom to go where one wishes, or it may be something inward, like a description of the life of Russian soldiers sixty years earlier. From a young age, the woman had learned both escapes.
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