It arrived, as the inscription tells me, two months after my third birthday, a Christmas present from my mother’s brother, Uncle Basil. A large hardback book – to a 3-year-old very large, its fourteen inches height by almost ten width enough to give it immediate status: a book to wield as well as to read. The striking cover, in slightly acidic lemon yellow, had the single word Cocolo in brown, in a bold freehand. Below this was a small outline sketch of a donkey, a rather pot-bellied one with ears protruding from a wide-brimmed straw hat.
The first page is largely taken up by a picture of dolphins and large fish astern of a steamer making off. A cloud of smoke billowing from its funnel repeats the book’s title, along with the author’s name, given simply as ‘Bettina’. Behind the fish, in the middle of a calm blue sea, lies Ravaya-Reena, a miniature sandy island whose sole inhabitants turn out to be a fisherman, Babbo, his wife Mamma, their son Lucio, and Cocolo the donkey.
A closer view of the island shows a simple white house, with a washing-line and a few vines alongside, a small stand of pine trees, and a well at which Cocolo works, turning an overhead wheel to draw water. ‘Sometimes he stopped to think. Then Lucio called out to him: “Go on Cocolo! Turn round Cocolo!” And Cocolo turned round and round and round.’ This particular sentence is inseparable now from the memory of my mother’s voice, her delight evident as she read it aloud: an appreciation, perhaps, of the rhythm in the writing.
The narrative is triggered by an unintended visit to the island by one Mr Fatimus Greedy and his daughter Fussy. They live on the mainland in Port-Town, the white buildings of which are just visible from the island, across the strait. A trip in a smart motor-boat, with a picnic tea, goes horribly wrong when Mr Greedy carelessly shifts his bulk, causing the boat to capsize. Nightfall finds him floating off Ravaya-Reena, with Fussy si
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