The Umbrella

There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.

There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.

There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.

There’s mud all over the footpath;  every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.

It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.

The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.

A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.

Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.

When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.

A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.

The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.

The unread story is not a story

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places

Photography by Jonathan Wolstenholme

How many books do you read at once…

I am always asked this. And told the answer.

The answer ranges between one and fifty million.

I, myself, have ranged between one and fifty million. This is because I am surrounded by bookshelves at home. If I can’t find my current, I just pick up another. So, Edith Wharton in there, Margaret Atwood here, and Gerald Murnane on the windowsill because he was too difficult, and Helen Garner waiting because I look at her Yellow Notebook and feel happy. These authors speak to each other.

But when I was younger, they were simply all in my schoolbag.

Now, I allow one or two. Ancient Rome here, and Radclyffe Hall there, and Inga Clendinnen in the car, and Spike Milligan in my bag, and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun right here, so that’s more than one or two. And Ayn Rand.

It was a child told me about one and fifty million. Said serenely, as if telling me the date.

Illustration by Pablo Auladell

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson

The kids

Came in to the bookshop all at once. Twenty five of them, or maybe six. I couldn’t count them. They talked so hard. They were never still, roaming and picking books up, tapping and turning, and squatting down, three of them, over one book as though it were a map of the evening’s plan. Were they one family or a group of friends?

They turned out to be both. Two families, all friends. Because later, the mothers came in and did the same thing. Than a husband – who could not enter the conversation of the mothers, and so returned to the bakery.

But the children. They had read everything. I caught the tail ends.

‘I might get that.’

‘That’s the second book.’

‘I know.’

‘Where’s the other book?’

‘There’s no what?’

‘I’m not gunna read it.’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Trilogy…The Hunger Games’

‘Oh my god.’

‘Ok. First book good, second book ok, third book I actually liked it.’

‘But it wasn’t a satisfying ending.’

‘I know.’

‘I got halfway.’

‘Yeah. Same. I’ve read that though. And that. But not that.’

‘It’s good.’

‘They should do another one.’

‘I know, right.’

‘He should write the next one.’

‘I wish there was more of them.

‘Have you ever read all night?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Same.’

‘Look what I’ve got. I’m getting it.’

‘Look at this.’

On and on they went. There were sudden silences when everybody was caught in something at the same time. Then on they surged.

‘Hey.’

‘Woah.’

‘Look.’

‘Wait.’

‘Hey crazy guys. Let’s just read everything here.’

‘Except the gardening books.’

‘Oh my god, yeah. Not them.’

Suddenly they began to leave. There was someone outside tapping on the window. He called though the door, ‘Where’s the rest of you?’

They answered, ‘The bakery’.

Image by Hajin Bae

I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor

Yesterday there was a couple at the front window. They were unusual because they stayed there for so long. I could hear them. They couldn’t see me. They wore sensible caps, and shoes made for long walks in the evening. They each had a shoulder bag and a water bottle. And good sunglasses, too – this is why they had to peer through the glass to get at the titles.

They screwed up their eyes and read the titles out loud, slowly, and very seriously.

‘I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor.’

‘Not with my reading I won’t.’

‘I think you would.  It says please come in, there on the door. What do you reckon that means?’

‘Means come in.’

‘Come on then.’

‘Look at this. Is that Leonardo Da Vinci?’

‘History is it?’

They leaned in with difficulty. They made the shape of difficulty with their mouths, and their eyes and foreheads agreed in thin lines.

‘That’s not Leonardo Da Vinci.’

‘Well. Who is it then?’

‘Some chap. Could be anyone. Let’s go in. You never know.’

‘Don’t know if I can be bothered. Looks expensive.’

‘Well, have it your way. Let’s get a bun round the corner there.’

And they left.

Leonardo Da Vinci watched them go; a nice hardback, dustcover in good condition, tight kidneys, no sciatica in the spine, born out of wedlock, never went to school. A master in the guild. Buying caged birds and releasing them. Coming up with the Mona Lisa. He watched them go.

The thing about a massive library is that

People think you don’t know what’s in it. You do.

People think you have read it all. You haven’t.

People think you are trying to read it all. You aren’t.

People think it’s up for borrows. It isn’t.

People think it’s in alphabetical order. As if.

Those of us who collect are indulging in something without end, although we don’t start out that way. We soon learn (that Terry Pratchett is right, and ) to accept that our libraries will eventually control us, and that our collections live way beyond any trivial hope for order we may nurse.

Libraries sprout in any direction they want, and this is because our capacity to be nourished by literature is vigorous and unpredictable. You can be hauled anywhere. It is ok to go from a biography of Leonardo De Vinci to a history of Myanmar and from there to Moominvalley and then back to clocks.  

Margaret Atwood said, A reader can never tell if it’s a real thimble or an imaginary thimble, because by the time you’re reading it, they’re the same. It’s a thimble. It’s in the book.

Oh no….

When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

My books at home

Many people ask me about these. So here they are.

I have books in every room. I started collecting books at age seven, but I don’t know why. I now have about twelve thousand books. I am going to read them all. They are shelved by colour.

They were once shelved beautifully in alphabetical order, but when I moved the shelves each country lost most of its citizens. Now Terry Pratchett sits next to Margaret Atwood and does not mind. The histories and books of immediate interest are shelved bum down and pages up so I cannot see who they are. I don’t mind. The children’s flats are out on the floor, hundreds of them, where the grandsons squat and lean over them, point, and shout, and drop bits of ginger biscuits over the pages. The books lay there flattened, creased, and joyful. Every single room has shelves of books. Once, a friend’s family gave me their library, and it lives here, has braided itself amongst those already here, Russian history and Judy Blume, Greek Myths and Harry Potter companionable every night.

One room has a shelf with books that earned a place there because of their colour. One must be bright and weighty. Thus the Cairo trilogy is there. Also Carpentaria, and a set of Trollopes in peacock blue, a fat boxy collection of striped world classics and Geronimo Stilton, that wondrous mouse and his sister, Thea, even more astonishing. Another shelf is of books I’m going to read. This is a good category. It has 954 books.

One shelf is all red. One is books from when I was young. That I’m still going to read. I have a guest room for guests. It has literature and guests are expected to read it if they are still sober when they go to bed. Books dressed in leather have a shelf. Old stuff has a shelf. Books too big to shelve have a table. Books I am going to part with have a wall. These have been there for twenty years.

Books I just got have a chair. This has become two chairs, and here is where I carry books home from the shop in case customers get them before me. I look at these to remind myself that I have a problem.