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.

Please come and look at these books…

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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)

The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree arrived as an infant. We planted it in the centre of the orchard. It placed its toes in some source of life that we couldn’t see. It grew.

It towered over the cousins from the time they were born. They ate its soft red ideas all through their first two summers and presented themselves, stained and fat at the back steps for cleaning up.

Now they have found it. They climbed it. It has branches placed at cooperative intervals which allows small muscles and hands to leave the ground behind and discover a whole new interval. They become monkeys. They scream a newly minted monkey sound. They hang over a branch, speechless.

They are full of mud and welts. They refuse to come down. They say there is a tiger. There is a good branch close by. They grasp it. They are birds, they are not birds, they are new. They stare at each other. They stretch their mouths open and make no sound. There is no sound sufficient.

I have time

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I went for a run on the roads out of town. I have the time.

On one side of me, cold. Behind me, quiet.

On the other side, a hill scratched all over with thousands of crickets that I can hear but can’t see; the crickets all repeat the same idea.

Up ahead, nothing at all.

Max plays

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Max came today. He’s three; so much to do.

The garden is crawling with autumn. Inside I am vacuuming it up. Outside, Max is spreading it out. There are millipedes under the woodpile. There are slaters. Max collects them up and introduces them to the sandpit. Not for long. Sugared with sand, they all die. Max lies on the bricks. He will also die. This means lying silently for a long time and saying nothing. Then he collects some birdseed. He is a crow. He is a road worker. He is ‘her’.

He spades elm leaves, flakes of gold, into the air. He is hungry.

He says, ‘No’.

He fills a tiny bucket with leaves to help me. It takes half a day. He releases a thousand caterpillars into the front garden. He is covered in sawdust. He says he may turn into a parrot, and I say, ‘Good work”, and he says, ‘Where are the potatoes?, and I say, ‘Gone’, and he says, ‘That’s so funny’.

He drives a lego car around, delivering cactus plants to the places they actually want to be. He exaggerates his shoulders to show strength. He puts a snail into a safer place.

I hang the washing, and Max helps, securing one small face washer with twenty five pegs. It takes twenty satisfying minutes. He is Bob the Builder, and he needs petrol.

He checks a spider’s web.

The day ploughs on; there is only finding and shouting and joy. There is no time for anything else.

 

 

At the supermarket, I had to wait outside

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I arrived early and stood in the beautiful morning. The man on the door, a shepherd of sorts, waved and gestured us through, slowly, slowly, just a few at a time. You know, because of everything. He apologised as if it was all his fault. As this is a small town, he knew many people. He said, Sorry Sharon, there’s no toilet paper’. She said, ‘Don’t need any, just getting some milk and shit.’

He said, ‘Yeah.’ Plenty of that, mate’.

We stood about and looked at each other. Everyone stood apart.   There was no queue. The man waved an old lady through. The sun shone down.

I stood there in the beautiful morning. The door opened and closed. The security guard was looking at his phone.

A man came up and tried to go in. The man on the door said, ‘Get back mate.’

The man said, ‘Jesus just need some bread and that’.

‘You can’t go in.’

The man said that all this is bullshit.

The security guard said, ‘God Barry, it’s no smoking.’

The man said, ‘Jesus, I’ll just finish me smoke around here then.’

The doors opened and closed. The man at the door, said, ‘Ok, ok, in you go.’ He looked at his phone.

I went in and looked for walnuts. That was all I wanted.

 

The excellent argument

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While I am at the window, watching the foot traffic, putting the science fiction back into order, I am thinking that I might go to the bakery. But I can’t. There’s a group of ladies at the door. They don’t come in. They are reading my sign aloud, please come in, and looking through the glass.

They don’t come in. There are about seven ladies. They move up and peer through the larger window; I am right there, but they don’t see me. The sunlight on the glass makes them screw up their eyes and look cross. They are cross. One lady says the books are second hand, another lady, Joan, says they are new. She makes a shrugging movement with her handbag.

‘At any rate, we’re not going in. It’ll be expensive.’

‘Well. Well, I might. I just might have a look. It says, “used books”’.

‘They’re not used, they’re new. We don’t have time. Get the timetable.’

Another lady produces a pamphlet folded in an efficient way. They all lean in, but only one lady reads it.

They all look at each other. Then the lady who had argued with Joan sails for the door, and there I am, opening the door, please come in, indeed, we look at each other triumphantly.

One lady comes up behind the troublemaker and says, we’re going on, Gwen.

Gwen nods.

Outside, the group hesitates, wavers, moves to one side, watches a child on a small bike ride past. They move on slowly. They have rallied, they look good. They have a list of things to do, a timetable, and time.