When I could not eat dinner because of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In Melbourne I went into the Readings bookshop and it was too full of possibilities to be calm and so I  purchased far too many things. But they did not have The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in 23 volumes. So I have to continue reading my borrowed copies, borrowed from the Flinders University Library and therefore Not Mine.

We went out to dinner that night, an Italian place next to that bookshop, in Carlton, called Tiamo, and inside it was small and hot and dark and magnificent. But I was thinking over the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This library book is in my bag and under the table, heavy with red covers and cream pages and unable to be purchased by me. She wanted to go to Pisa and her father would not let her. She was 39 years old.

We ordered platefuls of pasta and rough bread. The waitresses were graceful and furious, carrying impossible armfuls of platters and glasses. One of them was shouting at the chef in a kitchen too small for the number of cooks crowded in there! There is a tray of antipasto not to her liking. The chef is looking out across the tables in astonishment.   The back door stands open, it is a hot night. I can see another chef out there, leaning against a wall, smoking in the hot twilight. He is asked to hurry it up and he turns his back, leaning on that hot brick wall, impassive.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning spends years in one room, unable to defy her parent, her father.  She wanted so much to go to Pisa, Italy, has never been anywhere. Sometimes she walks around the nearby park. But her writing, her poetry was about the whole world. Her letters to her lover were a whole world. His and her letters are vast. Her lover was Robert Browning.

There is a couple huddled together over a candle behind us. She is saying: but you never said anything. You never said anything.

The waitresses cross back and forth through the roar, they weave in and out and they never bump into a single thing, still people are crowding in, the owner is shouting and welcoming everybody from the bar. He is wearing a black apron which is covered in flour.

Behind us the young woman is crying, drooping over the fabulous risotto, as a couple they reassure a hovering waitress that everything is good.

The Barrett Browning correspondence was rich and fabulous and teeming with pain and with life.

She writes: …and where is the answer to anything except too deep down in the heart for even the pearl divers…?

There are four young men at a back table, they have rucksacks underneath and newspapers spilling out and onto the floor and they are simply bellowing their orders across the serving counter. But this is not the way to order and they get no food that way. But they don’t care; they just keep drinking the good red wine.

Right next to us, the furious waitress captures the owner and says: it’s out in the street, I told you, it’s out in the street, you can’t do it any other way. But he has seen someone enter that he knows. He lifts both hands in the air and leans back. He delivers  a superb greeting in Italian. The waitress is left with three full plates and no answer. She says: For Fuck’s Sake!

Still people are coming in. The walls are roaring and now we have our enormous food and it is good. Everything is too deep for even a pearl diver.

Then we can leave, push hard to get out into the end of the summer evening and then we are out in it and there is a cellist playing in a doorway across the road and someone is calling out Swan Lake, Swan Lake.

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Max and I go into the garden after it has been raining.

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One morning at the shop, Yvonne put her head in the door and called out: How’s Max? How much does he weigh? I told her and she said: God bless his dear little heart.

Well, the other evening, when it was hot, very hot, it had suddenly rained. And I was in the garden with the secateurs and then, when it rained, there was only the dark rich green, the leaves, the water running down the leaves and the silver of the secateurs. That silver under the rain was so silver.

Then it stopped raining so I went inside and brought Max outside to walk through the raining water and the raining garden.

From the doorway, it was too bright to see. So we went the short distance to the lime tree in a tub and looked carefully at the basil underneath. In that wet, hot evening light it was all emeralds. It seemed valuable. I crushed one leaf close to Max, close to his nose and we went on down the wet path, pursued by basil. Then the white cockatoos are overhead, they tear the sky with their screaming joy. Max is frowning and looking up through water and light and we stand for a long time looking up at those scribbling nuisances.

Then down again, down the path, past the Chinese Elm that is not doing well, the lavender, the rogue fig tree that we did not plant, the lemons and then beneath our feet, gum leaves, gum leaves and gum leaves. Then we are at the gate and you might be asleep.

But you are not. Your eyes are buttons, fastened to the rinsed light and the blowing gum trees.

 

As I walked away from my old life.

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As I walked away from my old life, I wondered if it were true. What my uncle had said. That I was changed and could never lift my head again. So I tried. I lifted it.

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

An older lady came in with her husband. He was quiet and he sat looking through the children’s books for a long time. He sat on the cushions for the children and stared at the pages, often he was smiling. She told me that they both loved to read and he was from Latvia. And she described the books she was wanting to read now, they were mostly about the war. She told me that her husband had once been a member of the Latvian Army and had become a displaced person because of this. And that while he was a displaced person he was ordered to go to Siberia and then he would have been shot.

She continued on looking at some books for herself. Her husband, who was much older than her, was now reading Caribbean Tales: An Anthology.

Later, she came out of the back room to continue their story: but luckily he got to come to Australia. He got to come here to live instead of a prisoner of war camp because that’s what they were. But then his wife died. He came to Australia anyway and just ten years ago he married me you see and as I learn his story all I can think is that some people are luckily and some are not.

We went to Latvia two years ago and we went to the War Museum and they asked my husband for permission to record his story, they were passionate to record all of it because they said that much of their history is lost and my husband is a living resource, you see. What happened to him was not very nice. But he has never complained and he has never stopped reading.

I looked at her husband and he is bringing me a book: Australian Working Dog Stories and he says: I really like your Australian kelpies, they are wonderful, beautiful dogs.

Artwork by Jungho Lee

 

Imitation of Christ

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A lady and her daughter came into the shop. They were looking for Dilly Court but I only had one book and they had both read that. The daughter spent some time gently handling a little red leather book called The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. The mother said nothing. The daughter lit up in defence of the book.

Some of us want to be Christians, mum.

The mother said: your dad would have a fit.

They both looked down at the little book, it was red and gold with a decorative border of the front, lines of ivy in silver and green traced through the design. It was rather beautiful.

The daughter answered: Let him then.

My grandson Max could not drink his milk.

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It was very funny the other morning when I was outside giving you a bottle. Because it was a grey and dark morning but it was hot and it was raining. Then the sun returns and glazes everything too sharply with light from just everywhere. You had to stop drinking and stare in outrage because it was light and colours going into you instead of the milk.

 

See you later some other time probably…

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A boy, aged about 11 came into the shop and greeted me by name although I did not know who he was.

He said: well I’m just a book reader, I just like all books. So, I’m just a book fan and I love Doctor Who. My mum says I can get any book I will read over and over again, I always read my books again until I get sick of them. Then I don’t anymore.

He went away and crouched down to examine science fiction on the bottom shelves and then came back to the counter.

I just read them over, you know, over and over like that. Like Dr who and other stuff, like about stallions and also Harry Potter. I have read them all seven times. I get into bed and then make a place and just read for ages, I like Skulduggery, I would read those again. I like old books.

He hopped from foot to foot as he spoke and then went away into the back room for a while. When he came back he said: I like this old stuff, you would have to look after these, they have like different materials in them. They aren’t decorated like our books, back in the old day they couldn’t decorate. I really want this. I’m going to save for this, like anything. My mum will let me. Anyway I have to go now so see you later some other time probably.

 

Photography by Andrew Branch