Of Mice and Men
Xander’s never really understood Giles’ love of books. Sure, he gets that they’re useful for prophecies, spells and sundry other arcane knowledge that are a Watcher’s stock in trade. It’s all good stuff, because when the world doesn’t end because there’s an obscure reference in an even more obscure grimoire, Xander’s ready to say ‘yay books’. But he’s never understood Giles love, his devotion – the word 'reverence' flits through his mind and he stops to consider it for a moment - rolling the syllables around in his head before he smiles. Reverence is a good word he decides. It’s a Giles word. It’s not a word Xander would use, but it’s fitting that it sidled politely into his consciousness just in time to become part of his musings.
It’s not that Giles is reverent about the content of books necessarily. Xander has sat through enough lectures about that moron Paul the slightly unstable, who thought he was a seer but wasn’t. He could give chapter and verse on why the Chronicles of Millicent of Malmesbury weren’t worth the skin they were written on and what a complete tosser Godwin, the official diarist of the Watcher’s Council in the latter part of the 15th century, was. So he knew it wasn’t the content of books that necessarily inspired Giles’ reverence. That’s what he couldn’t quite come to grips with and it bothered him. It bothered him deeply in a way that he couldn’t quite express. As if his failure to understand was a character flaw - an inability to grasp something fundamental about the core of the man who improbably, after so many years, had become a friend.
A door swung shut with a soft swish at the other end of the hallway and Xander looked up as Giles appeared at the living room door, a tea tray held out in front of him. Xander put down the leather bound volume he’d been contemplating, his fingers smoothing over the embossed title on the cover. “You didn’t have to make tea,” he said. “Though that’s a pretty stupid thing to say, isn’t it, since it’s you and you’re all about the tea, not that I’m stereotyping you or anything, but if the tea cosy fits, then it’s all-”
“What’s wrong?” Giles interrupted.
“If your opening gambit is a tea joke, you are either tired, or out of sorts, or something is bothering you. And since you were perfectly able to hold a normal conversation when you first arrived, that didn’t involve a single reference to tea, Englishness, or tweed, I can only assume whatever it is, has happened since you arrived. And further to that, since I’ve only been away in the kitchen for the time it takes to boil the kettle and gather the tea things, and this house is warded ten ways from Sunday, whatever it is must have occurred in those five minutes.”
Xander hunched forward, elbows on his knees. “What does ten ways from Sunday mean anyway? It’s one of those things people say when they’re trying to be all emphatic, but it’s kind of meaningless. If you said the place was warded five ways from Thursday, would that mean it was only half as warded and we were twice as likely to get an invasion of vampire mice, or grumpy zombies or-.”
“Xander,” Giles interrupted again. “You know, the fact that I’ve had to stop you twice in the last minute only emphasises that something is bothering you. I can’t remember the last time you felt you had to distract and divert quite so overtly. It’s been years, or at least, it seems so to me.”
“Well, you know me, it’s always lurking under the surface. A bit like Etch-a-Sketch. You can wipe the surface clean, but the lines are still all there underneath.”
“I believe that’s called being grown up and having depth. And notice I’m resisting the temptation to tell you, in your parlance, to suck it up and deal, because we all have to grow up sometime.”
“Only you kind of just did, in your sneaky, Watchery way.”
“You noticed that - congratulations.” Giles grinned. “It doesn’t change the fact that we are the sum of our memories and our actions. And you are not all shallow lines and surface, which is what you seem to be implying. So for the love of god, before we go into any more childrens’ toy metaphors, are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“I don’t understand why…” Xander tailed off and slumped back, his head thumping gently against the high back of the chair. “Shit, I have no idea what I’m saying.”
“All right, hold that thought for a second.” Giles lifted the teapot and slowly poured the tea into two elegant china cups. They were cream with a fine band of burnt orange and yellow the colour of butter around the top. Xander wondered if Giles had saucers to match, but he’d never seen them. There was a small dark blue side plate on the tray holding a selection of chocolate biscuits - Kit Kats, Penguins and Xander’s favourite, Tunnock’s caramel logs. Etiquette suggested that he couldn’t go for the Tunnock’s straight off, so he straightened up, picked up his tea and breathed in the faint scent of jasmine before taking a slow sip. “Thanks,” he said.
“You are welcome,” Giles replied. “I remember you enjoyed that, the last time you visited. So now the pleasantries are complete, are you going to talk to me, or are you going to make me wait until you’ve devoured at least one caramel log?”
“That transparent, huh?”
“Remember I’ve known you for a long time, since you first started eyeing up my Jaffa Cakes back in Sunnydale and your obsession with British chocolate biscuits has grown exponentially since then. And of course, I could just hold the biscuit plate hostage until you tell me what’s bubbling away in that head of yours.”
“You really know how to threaten someone, don’t you? Most people need weapons, or a bunch of henchmen or something, but you go right for the jugular, and that’s kind of a funny metaphor, what with vampires being our stock in trade and all.”
“Yeah, okay.” Xander took another sip of his tea then put it down on the table with a sigh. He leaned forward and ran his thumb along the spine of the book he’d been leafing through while Giles was in the kitchen. “This is going to sound weird, okay. Because, you know, you and I have known each other for a long time.”
“Man and boy, you might say,” Giles replied.
“Exactly. I’m not a snotty 16 year old anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve seen a pile of stuff. And we’ve become friends, or at least I think we have, and I’m sure that’s not something you would ever have seen happening back in the Sunnydale library days. But I’d like to think we are, friends I mean.”
“I’d like to think so, too. Where’s this going, Xander?”
“It’s just, with Willow, I know how she ticks. She’s my friend and I know sometimes what she’s going to do before she does it, even now when she’s in her full-on, super-powered, witchy goddess phase. Most of the time I know how Buffy ticks and the same with Dawn. But with you, I know you’ve got your wacky, demon raising, Clapton worshipping past, and your rebel Watcher days and now you’ve got the whole thing with being Mr Head of the Council. But there’s something I don’t understand about you and it’s bugging me.”
Giles drummed his fingers on the wooden arm of his chair. It looked like he was sending Morse code. “Well, I’d say that my Clapton worshipping days are not so much in the past, but apart from that, why don’t you just ask me what’s bothering you. What don’t you understand?”
“Why do you love books?”
“Why do I -” Giles fingers stilled. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question?”
“You have this, this reverence for them. It’s the word that came into my head earlier. I know it’s not necessarily about the content. The Pergamum Codex and the deal with Buffy and the Master, is a real demonstration of just how twisty the contents of books can be. I know they can be useful, but as a tool. Like me with my hammer, or my chisel. I love them because they’re great tools, but I’m not devoted to them and you’ve always had this devotion to books of all sorts and I don’t get it. And I guess, if I don’t get it, I kind of don’t get you, and that bothers me. I don’t know why it bothers me, but it does. I feel like I’m missing something fundamental.”
“Because you don’t understand why I love books?”
“That’s an interesting question.” Giles paused and picked up a Penguin, one with the blue wrapping. He peeled back the foil and took a bite, munching slowly as if the chocolate was clarifying his thoughts. Xander eyed the caramel logs, but the knot in his stomach advised against it and he took another sip of his tea.
“Have you been in my study lately?” Giles asked, placing the half eaten biscuit back on the edge of the tea plate.
“Not for a while,” Xander replied. “Probably a good year or so, I guess. You keep sending me off places to find Slayers, and when I’m back we tend to sit in here and drink tea and eat caramel logs or whatever else you’ve thought of to bribe me with. Not that I need much bribing when it comes to chocolate,” he finished.
Giles nodded and unfolded himself from his chair. He was a little creakier, a little slower than Xander remembered, but then he could say the same thing about himself. Thundering around Europe and Africa searching for super-powered girls had taken its toll on his body over the years.
“Come on,” Giles said.
“The study, where else?” Giles skirted the edge of one of the side tables and without looking back headed down the hallway towards the kitchen. After a second’s pause, Xander hauled himself up from his own chair and followed.
The door on the left before the kitchen was ajar and Xander paused on the threshold.
“You’re not a vampire, Xander. You can come in here without an invitation.”
“Well, I’m already in the house, so that’s kind of a no-brainer, but yeah, point taken.” Xander took two small steps into the room and stopped. He could count the times he’d been in Giles’ study on one hand. Not because he wasn’t welcome, but because Giles had once confided after an evening involving less tea and more Bitter, that talking to friends in the study reminded him of the formality of the former Council that he was trying to forget.
He looked around the room and things were more or less as he remembered. There were two tall narrow windows at opposite ends of the facing wall. A sturdy roll top desk sat under the left hand window and there was a high backed leather chair to the side of the right hand window, complete with a low side table laden with books, writing pads and a few scattered pens and pencils. The wall to his left held a series of cityscapes. There was an eclectic mixture of oils, watercolours and black and white prints, most of them of places Xander didn’t recognise. He found he liked the idea that Giles had probably travelled as much and probably more than he himself had done in the last few years. The right hand wall was home to a large, very new, cork board filled with notes held in place by small round-headed pins. Finally, he looked back at Giles, who was leaning against the edge of the desk, his arms crossed in front of him. “So it’s your study. The place where you come to study, which is kind of just as well, because it would be kind of weird if you came here to slack off.”
Giles shifted slightly against the desk.
“So are you going to tell me why we’re in here? Not really getting the why of things.”
“You asked me about my relationship with books.”
Xander nodded slowly. “Well I don’t think I made it sound that disturbingly porny, but yeah. And I’m here and I’m not really getting it.”
“Turn around and shut the door.”
“Okay.” Xander turned and pushed the door closed. Then he froze and stared. On the long wall behind the door were two oak bookcases. They weren’t big, perhaps about four feet high and the same wide, but there was something about them that made him draw breath. He stepped forward and ran his fingers over the wood. “These are gorgeous.” He turned and looked at Giles who had come stand behind him. “I don’t remember these from the last time I was in here and I’d damned well have noticed them. When did you get them? Where did you get them?”
“Lovely aren’t they? I received them a few months ago. I think you might have been in Kenya at the time. They were a bequest in my father’s will. He knew I always admired them, even if I wasn’t allowed to touch them when I was a boy.”
“Wow, that’s a will I could get behind.” Xander winced. “And, shit, that sounded really crass, didn’t it? I don’t think I ever said I was sorry about your dad’s passing.”
“It’s all right, I know what you meant and I took the sentiment as read. So back to the bookcases, what can you tell me about them?”
“Shouldn’t you be telling me?”
“Perhaps, but first I want to hear how you see them.”
“They’re oak, obviously. The edges are adzed - it’s the tool used to get that kind of honeycombed effect. Some folk think it’s a mark of things looking a bit rough, but it takes a craftsman to get that kind of finish and do it properly, without digging too far into the wood. And these arcades on the frieze at the top are gorgeous, there’s so much detail. And look at the thickness of the oak, I mean someone really took care of this wood. You don’t season this kind of stuff overnight. It takes years and lots of patience. And I love that the base is deeper than the shelves, it gives them so much more solidity and lets you store all those big tomes of yours safely.” He squatted down and ran his forefinger along the bottom of one of the bookcases. “See this bit at the base, that’s a fall front. They’re usually on desks, and I don’t remember seeing one on a bookcase before, but that’s really cool and someone has really thought about the type of hinges and catches. Wow Giles, these are just awesome. Colour me envious.”
“They are rather special, aren’t they. My father and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but when he left me these, I let go of a lot of things that had never been resolved between us.”
Xander looked over his shoulder. “That’s nice. I like the thought that these could do that for you.”
“Thank you. So what else can you tell me about them?”
Xander turned back and pushed himself upright. His hand trailed along the wood. It was warm to the touch. He paused on the right hand upright, and traced the small carving half way up. He glanced back over his shoulder at Giles, who smiled, before he turned back to the carving. “How neat is this. It’s a mouse. The attention to detail is beautiful. God, I wish I could carve like that.” He took a couple of sidesteps to the right. “And hey, there’s one on the other bookcase too. And it’s almost the same, but different enough so you know they were both done by hand and not by any kind of machinery. So the mouse is obviously a maker’s mark, but I’ve never seen it before. Who made these? Are there any more? Could I afford one if there were?”
"They were made by a man called Robert Thompson. He was a craftsman from North Yorkshire in the north of England. He started doing his most well-known work from the 1920’s and ‘30’s as part of the arts and craft movement and the mouse was his symbol. So he’s known as the Mouseman."
“I like that, it’s neat.”
“Yes, well you can find it on nearly all of his pieces. As you say, it became his mark. I believe the mouseman brand, as I suppose they’d call it now, still carries on with other craftsman making furniture in the same way as Thompson did, out of the same location. It’s likely done on a larger scale now that Thompson ever did, with more people involved, but the principles of craftsmanship still remain.”
“So these bookcases are by him, by Thompson? I mean they’re not by the guys that followed after him?”
“They are by Thompson, yes. My father only bought originals.”
“Makes sense, if you can afford it.”
“So I suppose it’s slightly redundant to ask you if you like the bookcases.”
“Like them? They’re beautiful. I love them.”
Xander frowned. “What do you mean, why?”
“I’m curious. What is it about these bookcases that made you go 'wow'. You didn’t go wow about my desk, and it’s a perfect good desk, or the way the windows in this room are set, or even about the cityscapes on that wall, although I saw you eyeing them. What is it about these bookcases that makes the difference?”
Xander ran his thumb back over the small carving of the mouse. “I guess, it’s… it’s the care. It’s the love that’s gone into them.”
Giles leaned against the wall. There was an oil of Venice at sunset just by his ear. “But they’re just bookcases, aren’t they?” he asked. “They’re tools - repositories for my books, or whatever else I care to put in them.”
“But this guy knew his wood.” Xander took a step forward, the bookcases at his back as if he was protecting them from Giles’ words. “He’s taken oak and he’s shaped it and crafted it and he’s respected it. He’s created something beautiful that was in his head and made it real and made something that survived years after him. He’s made something that your dad bought and you loved when you were little and it was handed on to you. That’s awesome. And it means something. He could have made anything out of those pieces of wood, but he made these bookcases out of all the other things he could have chosen and it blows my mind.”
“I can see that. So let’s return to your question to me.”
“Why do I love books? Why do I have such reverence for them, to use your word.”
“Well we didn’t actually get around to talking about it because I got distracted.”
Giles pushed off the wall and wandered back across the study until he reached the desk. He gazed out of the window for a moment before turning. “You didn’t get distracted. I asked you to tell me about the bookcases.”
Xander nodded. “So you did. And I kind of got caught up with them.”
“You were. And very eloquently, I might say. I particularly liked your thought that Thompson had taken wood and chosen to make these bookcases. That he could have chosen to make anything.”
“Yeah, it part of what blows my mind about this kind of craftsmanship. It’s about the possibility as much as anything else.”
Giles smiled. “And you say you don’t understand why I have this reverence for books. You’re right, I don’t always respect the content, that’s down to the talents and intentions of the author.”
“But the possibility,” Xander replied, his breath hitched with the understanding. “That’s what you love.”
“Exactly,” Giles replied. “You’ve always thought we were very different. You with your love of working with your hands, and me with my love of words. But we’re not so different. We respect our tools and we’re in love with the possibilities they offer. You look at a piece of wood and wonder what you can create, just like Thompson did. I look at a closed book and wonder about what its contents might be. And like these bookcases, or the books I’ve read a dozen times, the pleasure of something well-crafted never goes away.
“That’s a nice thought.”
There’s a famous South American author, Gabriel García Márquez. He said that ‘literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.’ He was talking about the art of writing, but I believe the analogy stands for the act of reading and interpreting what has been written as well.”
“Especially, if you’re dealing with multiple realities like we sometimes are.”
“Especially then,” Giles acknowledged with a smile. “Come on, I’ve still got half a Penguin to finish and if you don’t eat at least two of the caramel logs I put out, I’ll start to think we are in one of those alternate realities.” He pushed off the desk and with two strides reached the door, opened it and was off down the hallway before Xander could muster a reply.
Xander lingered for a moment, his thumb tracing gently over the small carved mouse. It was warm under his touch, almost alive. Funny, he thought, how he’d come looking for an answer to something fundamental about a man, and had found it in the most unlikely representation, yet it felt right at the most basic level. He gave the mouse a final affectionate stroke and walked out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
Giles voice floated down the corridor from the sitting room. “The bookcases will still be there tomorrow. But if you don’t come and finish your tea now, I can’t say the same for the biscuits.”
Xander laughed and followed Giles voice.
The afternoon disappeared in a discussion of books and wood and the creation of possibilities. And if there were no chocolate biscuits left on the blue plate by the time a second pot of tea was finished, that was nobody’s business but their own.