Reading in captivity

It is a truth universally acknowledged that prolonged periods of lockdown aren’t good for the human psyche. Being confined to our homes, our suburbs, even our state can be claustrophobic. We stare at our four walls but dream of faraway places. 

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

It can also have a detrimental effect on our ability to concentrate.

Now is not the time to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. My current choice of reading is a children’s book.

The One and Only Ivan is the kind of book that sneaks up on you. It’s a book full of whimsy and very short chapters: perfect for the long days and short concentration spans of readers in lockdown. It’s a children’s book with a very adult sensibility: one that assumes its readers, regardless of their age, are sentient beings. 

The cover of the book The One and Only Ivan with a picture of a gorilla and a baby elephant sitting back to back.

And there’s another reason it’s the perfect choice of reading material in a time of lockdown: the main characters are captive too. The narrator is a silverback gorilla called Ivan. He was born in the wild but his home is now a cage in a shopping mall in suburbia, where he passes his days being stared at by bored shoppers. The chapter titled ‘Imagination’ ends:

Mostly I think about what is, not what could be.

I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.

Katherine Applegate – The One and Only Ivan

I feel a pricking behind my eyes when I read this.

It doesn’t help that I am reading these words in the waiting room of my podiatrist. I’m already feeling teary at the prospect of what awaits me in his surgery. Luckily, thanks to coronavirus, I’m wearing a mask that mostly hides my distress.

For some years now I’ve suffered from ingrowing toenails: the most mundane ailment of them all, the affliction of hypochondriacs and malingerers. And yet nothing strikes more fear into my children’s hearts than receiving a text like the one I’m about to send them.

‘My infected toenail has to be gouged. I’ll be home late.’

They know – because I tell them constantly – how much I suffer for the sake of staying fit and mobile. They also know that, on my return, I will tell them again. 

Back in the waiting room I open my book, keen to immerse myself in Ivan’s world until my own comes knocking; unaware that his world and mine are about to collide. Within its pages, I meet Ivan’s friend Stella, an elderly elephant who takes part in the thrice-daily performances at the shopping mall. She ‘loves the moon, with its untroubled smile’ that she glimpses through the skylight over the food court. 

Like me, Stella has a foot that ‘sometimes gets infected’.

Reading on, I begin to think it’s no accident but some kind of sinister serendipity that has led me to bring Ivan and Stella to keep me company in the podiatrist’s waiting room.

It becomes apparent that this foot of Stella’s is really bad news. Ivan suspects she is in constant pain but he can’t be sure. (Unlike me, Stella never complains.) By the time my name is called for my appointment, Stella has missed her seven o’clock performance. She is staying in her cage, her food untouched.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. 

I’m getting the uncanny sense that Stella’s fate and mine may be inextricably intertwined. I trail in to the surgery behind the podiatrist. We are both grim-faced. We emerge twenty minutes later and I manage to whisper to his receptionist ‘At least this time I didn’t cry.’

Not till I reach home anyway, where my tears are of pain, of relief, of pity for myself and for Stella, whose fate I’m almost sure is sealed. I retreat to my bedroom and pick up the One and Only Ivan, reluctant but compelled to confront Stella’s destiny. The news is bad, but not all bad. Redemption is in the air. Stella has extracted a promise from Ivan that he will not die in captivity.

I close the book and gaze out at the gathering darkness in the deserted street outside.

View out a window onto an empty street

We are kindred souls – Ivan, Stella and I – captives within our ‘cages’, at least while the current restrictions are in place. And I make myself a pledge like Ivan’s: that I too will not die in captivity. But when it’s my turn to make a bid for freedom, I will need this troublesome toe of mine to be in good working order. 

In the morning I book myself in for toe surgery.

I’m preparing for the day – not too far away – when restrictions are eased and I can make good my escape: to feel the fine sand of a NSW north coast beach between my toes; to walk once more along the cobbled streets of some faraway French town; to bend the bars and run out into the night. Free at last.

Bare feet half buried in fine sand
Photo by Ana Grave on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Reading in captivity

  1. Elizabeth, bless you and your ingrown toenails! This book rings a bell. I’ll have to find a copy.

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