Listen

“Decisions must not always be probed too hard, or moods unpacked. We should respect and not tinker with emotions, especially as they relate to love and the spiritual varieties of experience. We need to fall silent – more frequently than we do – and simply listen.”
Alain de Botton

Photography by Warren Millar

Lads on the footpath

I was helping a couple stack and pack their choices; science, Robert Louis Stevenson, an atlas, bird watching, and pure maths. We all looked up when the clatter happened because it was right in the doorway, and it was significant. It was a family. The parents walked on, firmly and with purpose, I saw their faces; it’s the school holidays.

The clatter is a mixture of three small boys, a dog, a leash, a soccer ball, and a Spiderman drink bottle that is balanced delicately on the kerb. The old couple move to the window, interested onlookers. The man opens my door and calls out, jovial, ‘Where are you going?’

The little boys are untangling themselves. Two standing, one sitting. Their shoelaces are undone. They are hot and covered in mud, and about seven years old. They look at the man, startled.

He says again, ‘Where are you going, and what do you wish?’ He looks back at this wife, and they share something silent. The little boys have no answer. They are winding in their little dog, whose leash is too long. One screams, ‘Leo’s fishing.’

The parents are calling. One boy grips another by the neck and they fall to the footpath, wrestling, like puppies, and the old couple close the door and watch through the glass, joyful, approving. One boy stands up with a drinking straw stuck to his hair. The Spiderman water bottle has rolled backwards and I can hear it tapping against my door.

But the parents have caught on. They come back and take charge. The lads are gathered up and sent onwards, back to the car, seatbelts, home, dinner. Bed.

The little dog is carried, the leash trailing. The Spiderman water bottle taps away desperately but is forgotten.

The old couple leave softly.

Life goes on. Regardless of what is going on.

Painting (Wynken, Blynken and Nod) by Maxfield Parrish

The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

(Italicized line from Birdsong For Two Voices by Alice Oswald)

Rain moving in

John Ashbery, from Rain Moving In

The blackboard is erased in the attic

And the wind turns up the light of the stars,

Sinewy now. Someone will find out, someone will know.

And if somewhere in this great planet

The truth is discovered, a patch of it, dried, glazed by the sun,

It will just hang on, in its own infamy, humility. No one

Will be better for it, but things can’t get any worse.

Just keep playing, mastering as you do the step

Into disorder this one meant. Don’t you see

It’s all we can do?

Young people these days!

A pair of teenagers. Came into the shop looking and looking and remembering the last time they’d been here, which was ages ago. They  looked around kindly at everything, liking it still. After a long talk together in Fantasy and Science Fiction, he brought a book to the counter and asked my permission to buy it. It was $5, but he paid ten. Then he gave me another ten; ‘This is for you. It’s something extra.’

The girl looked him and took his arm, pleased.

I said, ‘Maybe get yourself another book? Lots in there.’

He was reluctant, but he did; held it up for me to see as they went out of the door, ‘Thank you, thanks so much.’

Painting by Lena Rivo

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog’s bark

and the clank of a bucket –

And you listening.

A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.

A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror

To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges

with their warm wreaths of breath –

A dark river of blood, many boulders,

Balancing unspilled milk.

‘Moon!’, you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work

That points at him amazed

Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998)

Illustration by Suzanne Siegel

Do you think she ought to have apologised?

This conversation whipped past my shop door and was gone before I could catch the interesting tiger tail. This single question sang out clearly and steadily and remained in the air after the talkers had gone; it hung there. I saw it.

What had she done? Fault is awkward because we all have a bit. So I wanted to know. A sustaining dose of someone else’s faults will quieten mine. For half an hour.

The walkers were walking shoulder to shoulder and leaning in, as you do when sharing things delicate. As we do.
Once I found keys in our shed door that ought not to have been there. They were jammed in awkwardly and left there for three days. I said, ‘Who left those there? We could have been robbed.’
But a grandson owned up immediately. ‘Me, Nanny. I wanted to get Pa’s wire scissors and make a hole in your fence.’ He looked at me, pleased with the vision of himself making a hole in our fence. I said delicately to Pa, ‘Do we need a hole in our fence?’
The walkers who passed my shop discussing the apology were women and young. I can tell that because of the pace and strength of the walk. They don’t lean forward. They were upright. They challenged the sky: get out of our way. They frowned slightly, aware of the footpath, the kerb, and approaching traffic. They gave the apology a chance. Their shoulders were soft. They give the criminal a chance. Their eyes were considering. I saw that.

I myself gave the keys in our shed door a chance. I like those keys and their crooked hopeful insertion into the aching lock.
I wished those young women hadn’t been walking so fast. Why didn’t they hang about the doorway like men do, with time available, nothing to do, and an argument to win; a country to conquer. But they didn’t hang. They moved on.
Once a friend told me, ‘Apologise. Just fucking do it. If they’re worth it, apologise.’ She said this when we were raising kids and getting it wrong. Now I ache with the wrongness and the need to have apologised more. The keys must still be there.
Sometimes we don’t get an apology back. The same friend said, ‘So what. Get over it.’
She won me a country.

I wonder who those young women were, and who had the key in their lock, crooked.

Illustration by Ferdy Remijin

The ad

Windows are good places for ads. I use mine for advertising theatre shows and music groups, art exhibitions, Covid information, and books by local writers.

So this morning when I arrived and saw a notice sticky taped onto the outside of the window, I was intrigued. What’s the ad for? Who might be communicating? Who wants to say something?

There was a lady standing reading it as I approached, and she was kind of frowning. It hadn’t been stuck up very well. It was crooked, and the corners were not secured. Also, the writing was not neat. I always admire a good, neat notice; I like brevity, clarity and precision! These show confidence and organization. I think, always do a draft. Always edit.

But this one was careless. There were spelling mistakes. The person spelt their name without a capital letter. Also, when they advertised free head job’s, they ruined “job’s” with an apostrophe of possession. Makes you suspicious that if they can’t spell it, they also can’t do it. The drawing was not to scale. The phone number was written too many times. The lettering was uneven, and “session” was spelt wrongly.

The lady reading it tore it down. She said it was disgusting. I just think it was sloppy work. There’s no excuse for that. Always take pride.

History

“History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

Terry Pratchett, Mort