After closing up the shop last night I went over to Woolworths and ran into George at the end of the international cooking aisle. I was going for soya sauce.
He was standing with a modest basket of goods and a walking stick. I looked at the walking stick.
Behind him, three people clustered over a shopping trolley: two women and a man. They were fervent. The man, who a sweater hood over his eyes, was saying that he contacted Woolworths yesterday and they told him there was a three day wait. They exchanged significant looks.
George moved closer to me and raised his walking stick. ‘My God, I’ve had health things.’
I asked him, ‘But what have you been reading?’
He said, ‘Barbara Kingsolver. A giant. And you?’
I said, Evelyn Waugh.’
‘My God. A giant. What else?’
I said, ‘The Baron in the Trees.’
He said, ‘Calvino? My God. A giant.’
I said, ‘Albert Camus. The Plague.’
George leaned back and put his basket on the ground. The trio behind him were discussing salad. The man said, ‘Why the fuck is there no lettuce? And try and get oats.’ He balanced on the edge of the trolley with his feet on the rungs. The women agreed, nodding and nodding.
A lady next to me dropped a pack of instant noodles and apologised. A man walked gently behind us, leading a lady by the hand. He stopped at Pappadams. He said, ‘You love these Ettie.’ But she didn’t answer.
George said, ‘Camus. A giant.’
‘I hated him in high school.’
‘High school. My God.’ We agreed about high school and moved together to be out of the way of school children with wet shoes carrying twisties and coke to the registers. A man with a ponytail and wearing thongs said, ‘sorry mate’, to me because he needed sesame oil and I was in the way.
George said, ‘What else? What else are you reading? What about the shop? Are you still there?’
‘I am. It’s ok. But you know how slow I read.’ Then I remembered something: ‘I read Fleur Jaeggy.’
‘My God, who? Who is it? I’ve never heard of her.’
To find a find unknown to George was impossible. But I’d done it. I threw the bottle of soya sauce into my basket triumphant. The trolley trio looked at me. A lady up the aisle said into her phone, ‘It’s the best air conditioner in the country.’
I looked at George and said, ‘My God George. Fleur Jaeggy’s a giant.’
He breathed, ‘Really.’
‘She’s Swiss, but she writes in Italian.’
George thumped him walking stick on the floor. The trolley trio looked at us again. A lady looked over from Indian cooking sauces. I saw she had Tandoori and Madras, one in each hand. I needed them too.
‘She wrote These Possible Lives.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s three squashed biographies of three of the biggies: Thomas de Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob.’
“I don’t know Schwob. Who’s he? And what do you mean by compressed?’
‘Thinned out. Spare. Carved with a potato peeler. But it works.’
‘My God. How?’
‘Don’t know. But she writes about each of them. Who were they? I don’t know, but maybe I do now. They wrote things. Each biog is a slice. Cut with a razor blade. That’s what they say about Jaeggy: that she writes with a razor blade.’
‘My God.’ George banged his walking stick again. A family with three giant packs of cornflakes in a trolley full of mostly toddlers in beanies all looked at us.
‘George, you never saw such a book. You can read my copy. You’ll die.’
A couple passed us the end of our aisle, and the women said, ‘Get me some fetta, babe’, and the man turned back toward the refrigerated products aisle without looking up from his phone.
‘George, I have to go.’
‘See you soon.’
‘My God, yes.’
We parted, and I moved to the 12-item only checkout and waited behind a lady telling the cashier that the eggs in her carton had gone off.