The kids and the bookmarks and the owls and the cats

Jen Betton (2)

Two young children came into the bookshop with their father. They were on their way to visit their mother. The girl, who was nine, read Harry Potter. She liked magical things.The boy, who was 11, read biographies and books by authors from other countries. He chose I am Malala. Then they chose some bookmarks. Their father said that he didn’t read, but these two, they never stopped.

The children bobbed about and spun; they liked cats, too. And owls. And reading. Plus balloons. When she had finished reading all the Harry Potters, they were going to watch the movies, but not all in one night.

They were hungry. They cradled their purchases and crowded out the door. I could hear them reminding their dad that they were all going to watch the Harry Potter movies. He was nodding, saying, yes, yes. They stood in the doorway to watch a bike go past, and the boy said, ‘I love that bike’, and the father said, ‘You love everything.’ Then the father and the son looked at each other, and the boy held his book up, and they both laughed.

Artwork by Jen Betton

The ladies who loved J.D. Robb

Inge Look (2)

They were funny because they kept arguing about who was best – J.D. Robb or Nora Roberts. Or Karin Slaughter. Or someone else…They couldn’t remember.

They used the hand sanitizer generously and did not agree with the trucks going past at such speed (too loud). They promised to lend each other their books. One lady thought the other would lose the book first. The accused lady looked fierce. She paid for her book, looking organised.

Another truck went past. They turned to watch it and made disapproving sounds. One lady began to tell us about a film with Tom Hanks that we should all watch, but her friend steered her out by the elbow, saying it was time for something to eat.

 

Artwork by Inge Look

We were talking of dragons

Michael Komarck

“We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
with gleaming eye glanced towards us:
‘I seen ’em myself!’ he said fiercely.”

C.S. Lewis, The Book of Dragons

Illustration by Michael Komarck

That’d be a good read

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People are looking in my windows again, reading the titles of the books aloud, passing  divine judgements.

‘Churchill: The End of Glory. God, look at him.’

‘Gandhi Before India. That’d be a good read.’

It’s cold outside. The leaves continue to slide in under the door. People walk to the bakery and take food back to their cars, lean against the doors, blinking at the warmth. Gaze at my displays.

‘I think they’re all new age books.’

‘Want to go in?’

‘Nope.’

Small groups cross the road cautiously, lighting up when they see the bakery open and only a small queue. They tap my window kindly on the way past.

‘It’s open again.’

Another pair talked loudly as they sped past.

‘And we went around and around all over the place, and then we said…. stuff it. Nothing’s open anyway…’

‘Fair enough.’

A couple come in and ask me for permission to browse. They showed me their hands as though for inspection. I said, ‘Yes, please do. Take your time (take a year).

Andrew, who is 92, picked up his copy of Exactly, and said that it’s a strange time right now, but he’s known worse.

A lady came in and went out again. She said to her husband, who was still browsing, that she was going for a large bun so they didn’t turn up empty handed. He didn’t answer.

Each time a car passes, sunlight strikes its windscreen and sends a brief oblong of light against my door. This heartbeat is interrupted only when someone walks past. Footsteps, a cluster of shoulders across the window, a cooling of the light, someone saying, ‘Come on, you don’t need any more books.’

But they do, and they come in and ask for Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve or anything on mushrooms.

Death stands there

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“Death stands there, a bluish concoction
in a saucerless cup.
Curious place for a cup:
it stands on the back of a hand. You recognise,
only too well, the spot where the handle broke off
on its glassy curve. Dusty. And ‘Hope’
in exhausted letters on its side.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters 1910-1926


(Ceramic cup by Clare Conrad)

Please come and look at these books…

Still Life with Quinces by Van Gogh (2)

I did go and look at those books. It was a library of a woman who had died.

The lady spoke of her mother. We were standing outside the garage, shielding our eyes from the afternoon sun. There were fruit trees and two dogs, cardboard boxes, and a horse behind a railing – it was warm and quiet. I could hear the horse breathing. She was telling me about her mother; all the things she used to do, the gratitude of communities, the reading, her passion, her; the mother.

I could smell quinces.

‘The things a person loves are always, always recorded in their library.’ The daughter leaned back in amazement and pride as she said this. It was a delicate opera of grief, sung outside (to me) next to a bucket of yellow quinces. The daughter was wearing pink and white. She said, ‘Don’t lift those heavy boxes, you’ll hurt yourself.’  Her mother, Barbara, was one of my first customers. She read Don Camillo. And there they were, the books she once bought from me, right there in a box, in the sunshine, next to the quinces.

 

Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh

Noah and Max plant daisies and tell me that these WILL grow…

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Autumn, and here we are in the garden, there is stuff to do. Dig.

The difference between a weed and a flower is nothing.

Noah wears only one boot. The other one is gone. They lose their spade. Somebody loses an entire pair of pants. We find a tiny bulldozer, folded into a crunching mud pastry underneath the blackberry. These little boys, my grandsons, roll and stride and fly from one end of the orchard to the other. They find worms. These are treasures. They find weeds. These are treasures. They find snails. These are beyond treasure, there are no words. They lean in over the tender stalk of eyeball that moves underneath their scorching breath and outraged curiosity.

‘What’s his eyes doing?’

What’s him looking for?’

They carry their luggage with them, a pot, a spade, a tiny bulldozer, a scooter with a bead necklace tied to the handlebars, a snail, a plastic dingo, and a piece of wooden train track. They drop everything.

They squabble over the tiny bulldozer. Their small muddy hands must hold that bulldozer.

They arrive at the foot of the old yellow daisy. It is huge, it lives without aid all year round. It finds water for itself. When everything else wilts, it rears in contempt.

They consider the whirring flowers and snip off a few and stand there, looking at the scatter. Then they remember. Planting. It’s easy. They run from here to there, tying the tender stalks to the earth, ungentle and urgent. They step backwards and trample their work. They fall. They sit on their own gardens. They lose each other.

‘Where’s my Noah?’

Finn (the youngest) has taken all the best toys, sits alone and supreme. They don’t realize.

The tiny yellow daises, rumpled and torn, cut with no stalks, limpy, bruised and shorn of petals take their place in the richness. They rear (with interest). The gumboots thunder past. A small shovel is hurled, no longer needed.

They shout, ‘Finn, not yours.’ Finn (the youngest) sits unperturbed. He grips the tiny bulldozer, prepared.

The tiny yellow daises, rumpled and torn, cut with no stalks, limpy, bruised and shorn of petals take their place in the rich. They roar (with pleasure).

On the beach, yesterday

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It was cold. The stone seat was cold. Everywhere uninterrupted; just cool spaces without argument. There were signs describing the rules; keep your distance…be respectful. The paths ran just above the beach in both directions; walkers trudged by with a kilometre between each of them, everyone leaning into the wind, wearing good coats and sporty shoes. There are seats along the paths. Someone has tied a bunch of flowers to one. An old couple stand near one seat, hanging onto the back of it while they hold plastic cups and open a thermos. My daughter and I take the sand, and we sink into it awkwardly instead of joyfully because it is not summer. The houses are all silent. I name all the trees wrongly. I note the plants that survive here, the seaside varieties with thick ankles and bright sparky flowers, relaxed in the salt wind. There is rain. Then sunlight, metallic, so that we are suddenly hot.

We pass a tiny bay with a danger sign at the top. This makes us look down to find the danger.  Over the other side, two ladies are also gazing down into it. It’s a tiny bay with nice rocks and stones, and waves coughing in and out of its narrow throat, glassy and cold.

There was an old couple near the toilets. She told him to go and move the car, perhaps bring it closer. Because it was cold. He shuffled off slowly, dressed warmly, his hands hanging down, checking now and then in his pockets for the car keys which were in his hand. While we were at the toilets, he drove back, slowly, slowly, the only car in the whole area. We watched them greet each other again, slowly and unperturbed.

The happy couple who jumped about the shop (despite their advanced age)

Anton Pieck 1895-1987

When they came in, they said, ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’, both at once, although there is nothing to be sorry about. I have been open for two days. I don’t put my signs out. It is very quiet. People still want to read.

A man came in and said, ‘Do you do printing?’

Another man came in and said, ‘Sorry, I wanted the bakery’.

An old customer from Milang opened the door and said, ‘GOOD ON YOU, YES!’

People are very kind. They comment that we are lucky here. They ask for books that I mostly don’t have and are kind about it. They choose other books. People come in that I’ve never seen before. They look at my bottle of hand sanitizer and use it with kind faces.

A lady stood and looked out of the window at the empty street for a long time.

Then a couple came in. They looked carelessly happy. I have not seen this for a long time. They said, ‘Ah, sorry…thank you. We’ll just look about.’ They are the only ones here, but the shop seemed full, so much conversation, so much noise, so much crossing paths. He said, ‘Good find, good find.’ She said, ‘I know’. On they went, around and around.

Some people passed the window, very fast. Tradesmen. One said, ‘A book, a book, you want to buy a book?’

‘Don’t think so. What’s a book keeper?’

‘Dunno’. ‘Not a good day to go to the beach, though.’

‘Yeah, I know, and then I look up, and there’s this bus, like, right at my side, and I’m like, move over mate’

‘Yeah.’

They are gone. It’s quiet again. Just leaves blowing, red and gold disks snapping under my door, a nuisance, and very beautiful.

But the couple are still here. Beaming, joyous. They had discussed bird watching in the back room. They asked for a certain book which I did not have. Never mind. Because instead, they had some very fine histories. They lingered, undecided. Maybe they had missed something. They said, ‘we always get something good.’ She gave a jump, ‘look at this.’ He spun around, ‘What?’ She jumped at the shelf. ‘My God, I’ll have it.’

I wondered about them. Whey were they so happy? Had they been here before? Why were they so happy? Where did they live? I wondered where they lived. I imagined a house with many books.They stacked their books and paid, and I stood up. So much happiness, it was at chin level.  I had to stand up.

 

Artwork by Anton Pieck (1895- 1987)

This is nonsense

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Over the last few months my mum, who is 84, has been busy. Last time I visited, I spoke through the front door and kept my distance. She said the coronavirus is no reason to be idle, and asked me to get her a box of saucing tomatoes.

I wrote this three years ago, when our first grandson was born. We are four generations alive all at once now. We are very lucky.

“I think that my grandson, Max, has super powers, but my mum says that this is nonsense, that he is just a normal healthy child. When she dropped into the shop yesterday I said that Max has survived his first hot summer, and she said that this is nonsense. That when she was born in Broken Hill her mum had to put the cot outside in the summer because the corrugated iron house was hotter inside than out. Her mother hung wet nappies around the edges of the cot so that the hot wind blew cool. Her mum always put the cot under the pepper trees. She said the dining room table bowed in the heat of those roasting dark little iron rooms.

I said I would like to put that story on Facebook and she said that Facebook is nonsense; who on earth would want to read about her.

When my mum was 14 years old she made her own dress at school and wore it for a photograph sitting. I have that photograph, and it is one of my favourite things. They were very poor and she only ever had one photograph taken. She said her dress was pretty good, probably the best one made, and her mum had told her that this was nonsense.

Max, my grandson loves colour. He leans toward colours and frowns. His head wobbles  when he catches the purple of my glass necklace. He leans in panting and dribbling, wanting that slab of cool glass in his mouth. But we have coloured glass slabs around the front door, too. These are wine red, mint green, champagne, butter yellow and icy pink. In the fading evening light they change character and jump. Max stares into the hot colours and is silent and noisy; breathing and ingesting colour. Soon the red becomes purple and the greens turn to blue. The yellow turns to cider. The pink fades to clear, cool water.  He stares for minute after minute at the thick glass, dripping with evening colours.

Then later, my daughter says that he won’t go to sleep, and I say that this is nonsense.”