An entire washing basket full. Roots, leaves, bark chips, a gum branch and two wooden pegs. The little boys all soaking wet.
‘You can have this. For frying, Nan.’ The parsley is flushed with rain, cold and fresh. I remove a small white snail. The smell of cold torn parsley went everywhere; we had to talk through it. They notice it because they flare their nostrils without realising.
‘I’ll have him.’ They want the snail, and they take it carefully. They plod back out in mudding gumboots.
I found a tiny plastic box with tiny library cards that I made for my dolls. There was a tiny pencil and erasure. There was obviously no greater outing than the public library. So my dolls must’ve gone there and borrowed stuff.
I found a large mandarin coloured glass ball that my brother dug up in our chook yard and gave me. He said it probably had something to do with Merlin. I tried to glue it to the end of a long slender piece of wood, but no amount of aquadhere would do that. But what can you know when you’re eight years old. Except that I wasn’t eight. I was about fifteen. Weird.
I found an old diary with “I wish I had a boyfriend” on the first page. But there was no one interested in me, except maybe useless Merlin who didn’t even bother to turn up. Bastard.
I found a little jam jar full of pebbles from Lake St Clair in Tasmania. I found gumnut cups that I’d kept as proof that the Banksia Men were real. I found three matchbox cars and a cloth bag with a coat hanger about one inch long. A daughter made that. It was to hang up a mousie’s jacket.
There are marbles, nappy pins, pieces of glass, pencil sharpeners, memory sticks and nail files. A man made from a cork with clothes glued on and a nail coming out of the top of his head. A box of little fragrant candles too valuable to use. A jar of sapphire blue glass too beautiful to give up. Photographs. A tiny metal duck. An essay written by a 7 year old about why we should never give pins to babies.
There’s a glass jar filled with strips of paper carefully cut out. On each one, a thought printed in black pen. It was a birthday gift. I pull one out:
“Dear mum, thank you for the glasses gene.”
There are cross stitch kits, embroidery books, mosaic instructions, packets of seeds, knitting needles, a long stitch kit never even opened. My mother saying, ‘Finish something.’
A little girl wearing a bike helmet is at the door. She’s still outside looking in; her helmet is knocking against the glass; she can’t get her eyes close enough to actually see anything. She jams the helmet against the glass, and this is when I look up and see here. Her eyes pierce the inside of my shop. Beams streaming in as though from a torch. As though from a lighthouse that won’t compromise. Her eyes rest on me. She makes no compromise; she won’t smile.
In she comes. Wearing pink and grey. The bike helmet still on, the straps swinging softly around her stern chin. She looks at me and does not smile. There are no adults with here. Is it Pippi Longstocking? I sit back and regard her with respect.
She goes in amongst the books. I go back to Amor Towles.
When I look up she is crouched over Horrible Histories. Then she moves to historical. Then she moves to a shelf and looks at a copy of Inkheart. Then she’s out of my sight; must in sci fi.
Suddenly she’s passing me again. Silent and stern and the straps of her helmet swinging softly, respecting her chin.
She took ages closing the door. She stood in the gap, doing up the straps of the pink bike helmet and looking at me. She stood there for ages doing this. Then she was gone.
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.
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.
‘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.
There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.
‘Why are they so liddle?’
‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’
The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.
They are the colour of pests.
But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.
They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.
Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’
‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’
They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.
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.’
There’s a boy turning rocks over in the bay. I noticed because of the way he balanced himself on two larger rocks and then leaned to pick up smaller ones, one after another. He inspects them with his nose almost on the smooth skin of each stone. The bay he is working in is silent and hot. The child labours on. I can hear the soft click of each rock as he replaces it. Every now and again, the plop of a stone sliding into a rockpool. There’s the horizon, a bar of blue above him, the black spoky jetty to one side, and a row of shacks, oblongs of colour, holding the other side. And him right in the middle.
One man gave me his name and address. ‘Remember us,’ he said, ‘We have an interest in the history of Victor Harbour.’
I often hear about local councils, bus services, and Woolworths. I hear about local doctors and what they say. Some conversations begin without preamble, ‘Kate Grenville, my God she’s a good writer.’ And others are carried on through the door help open.
‘I need the next Lee Child, you got him?’
Visitors show we their art, their families in London, their gardens, and their pets – we gaze together at the little pictures on phones until a text message flashes across the top, where r u did u get bread. One lady knew my family from a long time ago; her daughter had gone out with a very distant cousin of mine. He is now dead, but she isn’t. I learn things about autism, cancer, dementia, death, suicide, and English teachers.
Customers talk to each other while they wait, ‘Is that your own company? Do you do gutters in Mt Barker too?’
I am told about books that should be banned, and why they don’t agree with Harry Potter. They ask me what to do about books they lent out that are not returned, and if I think that books make good gifts. Do I know any editors? Do I bind books myself? Do I live here? Do I know anything about heart disease?
Today someone said there aren’t enough carparks here. Then he told me about the local council again.
A child told me that it’s nearly Christmas. Then she smiled, hugged herself and went back to the Asterix books.
It’s a summer day, but cool outside and blowing rain. She’s in here. She’s silent. Such silence: her hair a polished curtain which swings once. I can’t see her book. She leans over the page. She leans back and gazes up at the page. She sits. Swings her feet. Stands thinking. Replaces the book and selects another one. Stands thinking. Her mother returns to tell her there is a magnificent dog outside, a wolfhound, a real one, a beautiful one, and the child shakes her head, the curtain of hair sways, the mother withdraws.