The child

Came in just before closing time. It’s cold. We’ve got autumn now. She is about nine. She has that child’s mouth where the teeth lead the entire face. She is picking up a set of Percy Jackson books, a huge stack, and she can’t stop grinning because they made it in time. She said, ‘We made it in time.’

Then she bellowed through the cold door, ‘DAD.’

I could see him through the glass, on the footpath and sorting through his wallet, finishing a smoke.

He came in, ‘Don’t get excited’, he said, wanting her to get excited.

She was.

‘Don’t put them in order because I already know how they go. This.’

She rearranged them slightly. ‘I’ve already read them. Dad, get them.’

He took out his wallet again and got them.

I offered a bag, but she would not part with them. They were in her arms.

‘No way,’

I understood.

Minecraft, Minecraft

A child sang ‘Minecraft, Minecraft…all the Minecraft” while standing at the window. There’s a stack of Minecraft novels there. He laid both hands palms flat against the glass and continued his interested little song. A piping song, higher than the stack of books. Higher than the window. Then his family called him away.

‘Into the car, come on Dale’

‘Here we go again…’ A older couple at the door turn their phones this way, then the other way, trying to find the right square. ‘Here we go again. Take us half an hour to get in here.’ But they persevere bravely and make it inside.  Later, she reads a children’s book to him, out loud, and he edged slowly away.

A young couple went past the cat shelf. She said, ‘Oh my God, a cat shop. It’s a little cat shop. With cat books. That’s cool. Look Evan.’

‘Yeah, it’s cool.’

‘Because of the cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love cats. I need ’em.’

‘Yeah.’

Painting by Mars Black

I was here

I was here. It’s the Watsacowie Brewery in Minlaton, SA.

It’s autumn and warm. We went down an endlessly wide street in a tiny town on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, and there it was, amongst the paddocks, a brewery, and busy. The locals have brought their dogs. Families have brought their kids. The drinkers crowd an exhausted little food van next to the fence. Mexican food. There’s a band. The toilets are super clean, and children are playing everywhere.

And the work that’s been put into the place! The colours. Somebody has chalked up all the choices in pink, red, blue, green, and amethyst chalk, with the wines set out above that, and a gold light illuminating everything.

We ordered fast, wanting to get on with it. People knew each other. We sat outside in a wooden cathedral, looking out at autumn and a good weekend, with a public holiday lurking somewhere in the dust, and in front of us, the band, still setting up and talking to the locals.

Then they start, used to it, relaxed, and ready to play the favourites. There’s a child sitting in front of them playing with something in a cardboard box.

People and dogs sit together. Kelpies with serious faces, judging the music. The Mexican food van runs out of food within the first hour. But people are mellow, the band is playing John Farnham. Locals go up the road to get food from the general store and bring it back. But then there’s an altercation at the van; somebody didn’t get their nachos. The tables are a small lake of onlookers, and they look on at the argument benignly.

Near us, a young man is talking to a young woman, and an older man next to him is listening in, not looking happy. The band play Cold Chisel. The unhappy nachos lady nurses a grandchild, and sways along with Cold Chisel.

The tables, as one, break into a chorus, then just as abruptly, stop and dip back into their drinks and their lives. The band plays on. The food van is closed. The van workers are all slumped against the side, smoking.

It’s getting hotter. The tables are wine barrels. At the barrel behind us, the men, wearing farmer’s shirts, are discussing something. One man hits the table with the palm of his hand.

‘That’s what I told him. That’s exactly what I told him.’

At the toilets, a youth in black, leans into the tangled ivy and talks urgently into a phone.

The brewery staff work on into the afternoon, tireless, helpful, obliging, brilliant. When we leave, we pass all the inside tables There’s a man asleep on one, a dog asleep under another one, a family gazing at the chalkboard in astonishment, and a young girl cleaning tables; she waves madly, ‘Thank you, good bye, good bye.’

A small look at a bit of world outside

I stood outside at the fence today and ate a sandwich and watched everything go past. A grey day, warm, and some rain, and a group of tradesmen over at the picnic table drinking coke and iced coffees.

A couple came past. They looked in my windows. They don’t notice me up the street a little, at the gate of the little carpark. So they don’t lower their voices. He says, ‘Wonder why Strath has two bookstores!’

‘Yeah.’

‘Don’t reckon there’s a need for either of ’em myself, I don’t.’

‘Yeah.’

As they pass me, they join hands and lean against each other.

The thing about bookshops is that their owners are so mindlessly besotted with them that nothing can dampen our enthusiasm or distract us from our purpose. Except other bookshops. Obviously.

Chris drove up in her gopher and said a bit of rain is always useful.

We stood companionably. The traffic is smooth. Cows in trucks. Chris said, ‘Look at them, poor dears.’ She’s not that lucky herself, but never sees it that way.

Lunch people with brown paper bags. Joggers. Workers. A crooked crocodile of junior primary children going somewhere, and who shout at my wooden cat in the front window as they go past.

The rain gives a smell. The wind brings my hanging balloons down. Terry comes in for gardening books and browses without me in there. He manages the Covid app on the door skilfully, calls out to me, ‘You eat your pie. Don’t you worry about a thing.’

More wind: passers-by hold onto their hair. A little boy cries, leaning his head against a pram, the baby in the seat looks out at him. The mother places her hand on the little boy’s head and he stops crying.

A man leaning forward, walking fast with a newspaper. Two youths with a radio on a shoulder, playing rap, black caps, gum, black boots, they walked in rhythm, each looking at the other carefully, sideways. I eat my cheese sandwich. Alan stops and tells me about his problematic family.  Said that Strath is made up of all sorts, and that he’s painting again, a big scene this time, and I will love it.

There’s a meeting out in the bay

There’s a meeting out in the bay. I saw them in the water, five or six women all wearing hats, and in their midst, an esky floating. Some were sitting and some lying down, the water lapping at shoulders. What age…it is impossible to know. But all made strong outlines; the circle was a strong circle. The sun shone, and the bay was quiet and held its waters evenly so as not to annoy the speaker.

When the speaker spoke, and this could be any one of them at any time, the others listened as women who are friends do. I guess they talked of nothing less than life as women do. I guess the rummaging in the esky paused for the important bits. On the shore a fisherman stood at a stone sink and looked at the group every now and again. Another man stood in the doorway of a shack with a beer and a lightly anxious expression. In front of one of the shacks, a child, a little girl in bathers and one red sandal, scoped the group fiercely through a pair of binoculars.

Grab a sentence by its shoulder

I hear sentences spoken aloud inside the shop and outside on the footpath. Pieces of sentences that are like lengths of rope moving through the air, or a loop of thick tinsel just waiting for an answer, or twisty string with two small knots at the end. The ends of sentences whip against the window, or lace about and pause mid speech, and I listen to them all.

Some sentences are rather beautiful.

‘This is like my kind of day, like overcast, and soda like.’

‘I told the fool to stop ringing all the time, told him to leave it, leave things, leave everything, and just leave.’

Some sentences are festive, cheerful.

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’

Some sentences are short spokes.

‘You promised. You promised.’

Often, I hear an entire story, complete with beginning, conclusion, and a small satisfying plot.

‘She says I’m always getting books and stuff. Too many. And I’m like…yeah, I do…so what.’

Action sentences:

There was too much on the back of the ute. It hit the corner and overleaned. All on the road then. Fukn idiot.’

Occasionally, sentences contain a small warning sting:

‘Do YOU have a Covid check in? Can’t see it.’

Speakers toss mixed meanings at each other, coated in slight annoyance:

‘I’ve got a lead light with Pooh hanging from a kite string.’

‘Why would you even want that?’

‘ Winnie, you idiot. Winnie the Pooh.’

‘Ok…I thought you meant an actual shit.’

The best sentences come from visitors who call them back to me just as they are leaving.

The Magical Book Store. Like it very much. Had one of these when I was a kid. Somewhere. Might have been this shop actually.

And many conversations are already knotted when the speakers come in.

‘Some idiots can’t park.’

‘That would be you. And I just cracked both knees out because of that.’

People stand in the doorway and complain loudly on phones. I receive complete responses to exactly half a conversation.

‘Then she put milk or something all over it, made it uneatable, now why would you do that to a perfectly good…..well it’s not perfect anymore is it!’

Couples discuss their adult children right in front of me. They speak sentences that give out another rich layer of excellent information.

‘She needs to slow down. I’ve said that.’

‘You have.’

The old couple trying to cross a busy road

It’s hard out there. There’s more traffic outside my shop now. There’s a bus stop, a train station, a bakery and carpark exits. Endless rushing to somewhere. This couple held hands. They wore similar bright red shorts, running shoes and white t shirts, and she carried a bottle of orange juice, and she led him. As they made their way through a gap in the traffic, she led him. They were not fast, and several cars had to slow down, one to stop altogether. The man looked at his wife, stared at her face as she led him along, and although there are horns and hurrying all day long, nobody sounded their horn at them, or otherwise insisted they hurry along.

Painting by Benjamin Bjorklund

The family on the footpath and the mystery of the keys

There’s a parked car outside my door. It’s hot out there.  The passengers of the car climb out to meet the passengers of another car parked up the road, out of my sight. They meet up outside my window and mill around, talking and shouting, and swinging bags around; then they abruptly part because there is a problem with a bunch of keys.

‘Dad’ is holding them in his open palm, standing at the back of the car. Another man, younger, moves close and looks down, and there is a discussion with their heads close together. The older man shakes his head, no, no, no. The younger man turns and raises his eyes at another man who is standing against my door. I can’t hear them. It’s too windy.

Two women approach from the other car and look closely at the keys. All the men move in again. Intense discussion, shaking of heads. One man makes a phone call, and as he lifts the phone to his ear he is shaking his head.

An old lady is helped from the front seat of their car by a teenager, and she moves close to the group, not smiling, not hurrying. Everyone realizes this at the same time, and there is a tiny movement of surprise,and then they all move apart and look down at her, kindly. She says something and nobody answers, and then she takes the keys from the older man and puts them in her cardigan pocket. The teenage girl turns away from the group with her shoulders raised, grinning, and puts one hand over her mouth, and I hear her say, ‘Yes!’

Sculpture by Will Kurtz

Christmas when you’re little

It was always really good. There was snow and lights at night even though the days were 42 degrees and leaned sideways to get out of their own sun, and it didn’t get dark anyway. Santa came in a front end loader down one end of the wide dusty main street where I lived. The front end loader was a sleigh. The sleigh must’ve landed on the beach. The reindeer were resting in the stables at the back of the bank. Santa was real even though all the farmers standing on the edge of the pageant made out they knew him.

We had a school concert and sang, ‘Turn on the Sun’, as loudly as possible, and the teacher said, ‘Not so loud but very good’, and looked tired, and we were told to wear orange T shirts for the concert, and one kid wore green anyway. And at school, we made coloured cellophane stained glass windows that always looked magical even if you messed up the glue and got told off for taking more than your Fair Share of the slipping cellophane that drenched the world in hot emeralds and lemonade and made the teacher not be there.

There was always snow, snowmen, lanterns, bonfires, and mice that delivered peanuts. We decorated the classroom with paper chains made from brennex squares from that cupboard, and the teachers talked in the corridors, watching their classes through the doors, ‘Four days to go, ladies,’ and us kids kept on snipping away trying to make the longest chain which was always won by Jennifer, whose dad was a doctor so that was why.

I got a copy of Heidi, from my Nanna, brand new, and I lay on the couch willing it to not disappear. The decorated tree caused sickening sensations because it was behind a closed door, and only glimpsed if the door was snapped open, only giving the mind an overheated look at broken rules, ‘You at that door again?’

‘I’m not.’

We drove to nativity services in all the neighbouring places because my dad was the minister, and we went past paddocks and farms and silos and sand dunes, staring through the car window at the impossibly black blue sky with too many stars, scoping for the sleigh which was following our car anyway, too close to be seen. At the little peninsula churches, the warm stone sitting comfortably against all the hard work, the back hall all lit up with the people making food, the tree decorated with their paper loops that were not as good as ours, and the service that you sat through waiting for your name called so you could go out and get a Christmas stocking that might have the glory of glories, a bubble blowing kit. It did. And the carols piled up massively with that many voices, and no one said, too loud to Silent Night, and all the adults quiet for once. And the nativity, the real hot blowing animals, the sheep with hooves that dented your ears, and wise men wearing magic genie colours and proper shepherd’s stuff and a baby doll that was ok, and Judith as the Mary (her again), and the stink of it all, and it shot through your body and your mind making it into your bones so you always had it in you, and you looked for it every Christmas.

‘Come on, we’re going home now.’

‘Can’t.’

Trying to get at the lamingtons, knowing you’d get another one because the minister’s kids always did. And beating Susan, whose dad had the bank who had the reindeers but so what.

Next year, all again.

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.