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.

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

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

Ma’am

Two gentlemen at the front window of the shop:

‘Don’t rush me.’

‘What about that there?’

‘No, don’t rush me. I’m not one for reading. But what do you think of this fellow?’

These gentlemen, obviously friends, were outside and leaning over the sill display. The lucky “fellow” was Lee Child. They came in, and one of them picked up the book and brought it to me. They adjusted their masks trying to speak clearly.

‘Lovely day, Ma’am.’

It is.

‘Can you look after this for a bit?’

I can.

I looked up later and saw them in Cooking. Silent, both reading standing up, hats held under an elbow, breathing quietly, as you do. Later again, one of them in the chair, the other leaning against the shelf, still reading, still reading.

They finished eventually and returned to the counter with The Book of Sauces.

‘This is wonderful. Will you put these through?’

I will.

The man who paid handed the Lee Child to his friend.

‘Here. Happy birthday. Didn’t get time to wrap it.’

‘Wrap it. You better wrap it for me.’

But he was already reading it as they left. No time for wrapping.

They said, ‘Thank you Ma’am, much obliged. A lovely day.’

It is.

A Northern Morning

It rained from dawn. The fire died in the night.

I poured hot water on some foreign leaves;

I brought the fire to life. Comfort

spread from the kitchen like a taste of chocolate

through the head-waters of a body,

accompanied by that little-water-music.

The knotted veins of the old house tremble and carry

a louder burden: the audience joining in.

People are peaceful in a world so lavish

with the ingredients of life:

the world of breakfast easy as Tahiti.

But we must leave. Head down in my new coat

I dodge to the High Street conscious of my fellows

damp and sad in their vegetable fibres.

But by the bus-stop I look up: the spring trees

exult in the downpour, radiant, clean for hours:

This is the life! This is the only life!

Alistair Elliot (1932 – 2018)

Painting by Larry Bracegirdle

Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

Water

“Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses. By thy might, there return into us treasures that we had abandoned. By thy grace, there are released in us all the dried-up runnels of our heart. Of the riches that exist in the world, thou art the rarest and also the most delicate – thou so pure within the bowels of the earth! A man may die of thirst lying beside a magnesian spring. He may die within reach of a salt lake. He may die though he hold in his hand a jug of dew, if it be inhabited by evil salts. For thou, water, art a proud divinity, allowing no alteration, no foreignness in thy being. And the joy that thou spreadest is an infinitely simple joy.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

Illustration by Lily Padula