‘Would you mind if I asked what your book is?’
She was in her late-thirties, with dark hair and a serious demeanour. Her reply to my question took a few seconds to appear, the short period in which a woman assesses whether the man sitting opposite her in a not-very-busy Tube carriage in the middle of the afternoon is or is not a weirdo. ‘Er … why?’ The words revealed a Spanish accent. They were delivered perfectly politely.
‘It’s just that I haven’t seen a book covered like that in ages.’ Since I was at school, in fact. The brown paper, which Ms Jubilee Line had folded into exquisite hospital corners and sellotaped neatly, was thick enough to completely obscure title, author’s name, cover illustration, the lot. Though it still wasn’t quite as thick as the wallpaper with which many of our parents protected maths and physics textbooks. And do I mean ‘protect’. This was 1970s wallpaper we were talking about. You’d have needed an Armalite to get through that stuff. ‘I wondered whether you’d done it to stop the book getting damaged.’
She smiled. ‘Oh no. Is just sometimes I no want people to see what I read.’
I nodded. I also kept quiet, to let her know that if she wanted this to be the end of the conversation, that was fine by me. But obviously my thought processes continued. What book would she not want people to see her reading? There’s one obvious candidate from recent times: it has the word ‘Shades’ in the title. But this looked the wrong size for that – too large a format and not thick enough.
‘Often I read novels, and I no mind people seeing me read those. Is fine. But also I read … how you say? Self … self …’
‘Yes, self-help. Especially health. I prefer keep them private.’ The same politeness, the same smile. And now we really had reached the point where any further conversation would have felt wrong. Besides, we’d also reached my station. I said goodbye and left the train. As I walked away I couldn’t help smiling. Do even school kids cover their books in paper anymore? Surely there are cheap, mass-produced plastic covers now, the sort used in libraries? And yet here was a grown woman – somewhat earnest, perhaps the tiniest bit eccentric – giving her latest ‘self-help’ read the full Postman Pat treatment. Her method of literary privacy, when you thought about it, was nothing more or less than an analogue version of the Kindle. Not that it was needed: whatever health book she’d been reading, I couldn’t imagine there was any real need for her to keep it secret. But it hadn’t been my place to say that. In my mind I wished her all the best, and hoped that she found whatever help she was trying to secure.