I won’t be called Patty

An old lady came in to the shop to ask me about some books. She asked me my name and then told me hers, Pat. But not Patty.

She had a walker, one with wheels, and she leaned comfortably against the counter to tell me things. She had white hair, large glasses, a reliable light cardigan, and eyes that roamed from childhood to last year, and all around the shop, lingering on the dog tied up outside, and settling on me again with pleasure.

‘I’ve been called Trish, Rish, Tisha and Po. And that’s ok, I don’t mind them. But I won’t be called Patty. I had a teacher as called me that, in front of the others. Not a nice teacher either. Once a cousin called me ‘Patty’. God, I did I go off at her, the bitch.’

Illustration by Inge Look

That child

This child came in just on closing. Entered by herself. She was carrying an enormous chocolate muffin, holding onto it’s rear end with a paper bag, and she walked at me, like herself, her own walk, with an orange drink, and another paper bag full of clinking coins. She stared at me over the jumble, holding the end of my afternoon gaze with bright direct and unalloyed eyes. I had to sit back and reassess. I looked for a parent. She didn’t.

Her hair had escaped the morning’s organisation, framed her head in soft snakes, as alive as she was, ready to strike at my disinterest. She said,

‘Hello.’

I answered, ‘Hello.’

She hesitated, and helped me out, me, the one needing assistance.

‘How’s the bookshop going?’

I said, very well, thank you’, a limping answer like the ones from my childhood when I used to be questioned about school.

The child was kind. ‘That’s good. Is cash ok here?’

She stood there looking directly at me, not breaking the stare, the chocolate framing an active oval around her mouth, her hair poised in spikes and loops, her eyes dark and joyful, hopeful that I would allow her something.

She indicated her paper bag of money with gratitude. That’s good, I was worried, I want a bookmark, that one, that sorting hat one. Today at school there wasn’t much to do, so I sorted the whole school into all the sorting hats, and I knew who to put into Gryffindor. It’s easy. Do you know how to?

I said I did, hoping she wouldn’t know that I didn’t.

She was delighted and rattled the paper bag of money. The chocolate on her face gleamed. Her hair relaxed but still watched me. She said, thank you for the shop, have a good day and afternoon. She struggled with the door, keeping the half-eaten cake upright, the orange drink calm, and her overwhelming face fixed straight onto mine, slid out, was gone, a spark of something, gone now.

Fancy what a game of chess would be…

“Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your knight could shuffle himself on to a new square by the sly; if your bishop, at your castling, could wheedle your pawns out of their places; and if your pawns, hating you because they are pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden.

You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with the game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for his instruments.”

George Eliot, Felix Holt: The Radical

Sculpture “Modern Chess Set” by Rachel Whiteread

What do readers do with their books?

I always wonder this. Where do the books go? What sort of libraries does everyone else have? There must be some enormous collections out there. I know that, if allowed to, libraries take on a life of their own that is way beyond anything we can direct. People mention this.

Some visitors carry out armfuls. Some just one. But it’s the same thing; the intensity of the capture is identical whether one or some. It’s impossible to tell another person why or even exactly what one has found. Last Tuesday, John carried seven large volumes of history, in two Woolworths shopping bags. He was bent over with the weight when he went out the door.

I said, ‘But where’s your car?’ And he said, ‘No, no, I’m all right,’ while looking down at the bags he was carrying with eyes like jewels.  

Do children make libraries? They are particular about their books, staring at covers for a long time. Once a child stood over a table, examining an illustration, tapping it as he stared, not hearing me, or the traffic, not even the thunder storm outside that pushed all of Strathalbyn under cover. When he bought it, he walked outside into the rain without noticing that either.

Some young readers have by memory every title on their shelves. They describe the size of their collection by how good the books are that are in it. Thus a collection of six books can challenge a national state library in terms of significance.

Illustration by Erin McGuire

Amongst the books at home

Hard to choose one. Nobody home but me. Everyone usually sits amongst them. They are the walls. My dad had a study similar, and I used to play in there, building things out of books and pretending to read, which was as good as actually reading because I still made things, changed reality, added to it, made it from one colour to ninety shades of six colours, easily. Then had to go and feed the hens or something.

My children shot up, grew and left, weaving in and out of bookshelves, resisting the harping but absorbing the actual books.

Now I’m home alone and looking at the books. Hard to chose one. Thomas the Tank is on the floor again, split into a thousand small annoying paperbacks that take too long to read out loud and carry plots I can’t understand.

Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car, still kind, still has a river in it. My grandsons like the bit with the fighting.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a gun on page 12.

My Terry Pratchett paperbacks are in an Ikea cabinet with a glass door, implying value, but they are pressed to the glass, squashed and irreverent, falling out, not in order, contemptuous.

Nothing is in order. It was once, but I moved the shelves and T ended up next to B, and S landed next to the Margaret Atwoods, who quelled the unease by turning sideways. I can’t find anything. Therefore, I am reduced to what wants me. Not a lot, but tonight, I notice things. Books have fallen out, or are used to ramp matchbox cars, or for a yoga head boost. There is a history of Sand: Journey through Science and the Imagination. Maybe. The Making of Australia by David Hill, but will there be any women in it, probably not, and then Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture by Huu Ngoc, where the hell did you come from? But it’s red and gold, 1123 pages, the pages creamy and silky, supple, and solid with weight, so that’s the one. It starts out, ‘Visitors who want a glimpse of Viet Nam’s traditional culture will find no better opportunity than a cruise along the Red River. A few well-chosen stopovers in this river delta dotted with sleepy thousand year old villages will provide the most curious tourist with a……and on it goes taking me to yet another place, aching with travel.

Hard to choose one. Still manage it.

Being gorillas

No matter how hot it is, they run fast. They make for the mulberry tree, running with gumboots on the wrong feet, intensely aware of their own moving bodies, their faces move and throb with running, their eyes flicker watching the ground drumming under their heels. They are very little.

The mulberry tree is green and attractive but they ignore this. There is a gap and a low, wide branch that is more useful, and they push through and are now gorillas, and they need something intensely which they must think of soon.

They stand on a branch and examine ideas. They make gorilla noises and put bunches of hard infant mulberries to their noses.   

One gorilla holds on and commands the other. He needs some sand. The other gorilla climbs down for sand which he then throws up over both of them, and they are pleased. They climb up. They climb down. They are birds. They are gorillas. They are a fence. They don’t live here. They want chips. They might find a nest. One falls and is gripped within a branch and screams for rescue and is towed to the bottom, and then they climb up and try once more with hopeful mouths the sour toes of the unborn fruit. They spit it out with strong, satisfied mouths.

They are covered in dust and leaves, sunlight and heat, sand, sweat and scratches. When the galahs in neighbouring gumtrees screech they go silent and look at each other. They fold their hands around the branches and test their arms. They make bird noises. They need sand. They want chips.

Bringing books home

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”
Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society