The Book Keeper and grandsons, sometime before Christmas when I wanted to organize the Christmas tree

They only live in the absolute present, the three second crystal lens that they are consuming and digesting every moment. So, Christmas trees are interesting, but as there are none here(yet) the Christmas tree lost out to a plastic horse with a bent leg, a crane and bedtime looming darkly within the adult conversations.

They didn’t want to go to bed.

Everyone one is out here. The evening is too warm and too light to be proper night, and young parents are sprawled, complaining gently about everything and looking forward to the next day.

I have a promising stack by my bed and have no problem with the night, except that it is too short.

But the little boys are unsure. There’s a matchbox car and three difficult blocks that won’t become a shed. Things to sort. The monkey tree is bent. A log of wood dragged inside to be a fence has shed bugs into the carpet. Someone tore Hairy Maclary, it wasn’t me.

It was Finny.

Is it Christmas outside?

Am I sleeping here?

I’m going to childcare party.

I haven’t got any apple.

Nanny, I haven’t got any apple.

Where shall we put the Christmas tree, do you think?

Can I have any of some more apple?

Pausing at the door to get the mask on properly

Visitors to the shop now have to pause and fumble about at the door before they come in because we all have equipment to manage.

‘Dale, your mask.’ This couple had to go back to the car. Then they went past me to the bakery and got coffees. Then they returned and came in, looking refreshed, and asked for good Australian political biographies and anything about breeding poodles.

‘Forgot m’mask. Gotta go back.’ This man left and came back with his mask in his top pocket, and left it there while he browsed.

‘Got yr mask?’ This man, who didn’t have his mask, was sent back to the car by his wife. I saw him reading the paper in the front seat. She browsed the shelves for another half an hour. They both looked happy.

‘Oh my god, where’s my mask?’ A young mum, who found it in the pram wrapped around half an apple.

A car went past and turned at the corner. The driver wearing a mask hanging from one ear.

A man passing the window wore a pink mask with a devil’s face, hanging sideways from his sunglasses.

A child walked by with an adult mask over his entire face, hanging onto the side of the pram so he could walk straight.

We wear them upside down and inside out, with faces drawn on, and the elastic knotted and twisted to make a snugger fit. We wear them as chin straps and wrist wraps. In pockets and wallets, in phone cases, shopping bags, shoulder bags and looped around coat buttons, thrust through belts. Clutched in one hand while the other hand manages the phone.

One girl wore an emerald green mask that was covered in gold and blue butterflies. She talked to me through the butterflies about reading and about the Divergent books, and she described her bookshelf at home.

A couple walking by paused at the window to take off masks and undo drink bottles for their small children. One child asked if you have to wear masks on the jetty.

Then he said that he’d lost his bucket on the jetty. The parents, still drinking, looked down at him. They were leaning against the window, and looking down at him, not saying anything, just looking at him with besotted faces because he is theirs.

Painting by Claire McCall

Nanny, are you growing a beard?

Two grandsons stayed last night. It was hot. They moved from sandpit to orchard to the place with two snails, one of them dead, and they played with a small rubber owl that represents them and is always in danger. They fly it from one end of the orchard to the other using swoops and dives and other very powerful ideas. There is a larger owl, too. This one, a plastic model purchased as a bird scarer, only takes part in some of the story. It saves the baby owl. Then it was abandoned under the bonsai tree table. Once it brought some food. Then it was abandoned at the shed door. Once they couldn’t find the parent owl at all, and everything stopped. Completely.  

They played bikes. This means Noah riding about for a bit, and Finn following on foot because he is too small to find the pedals. It also means stopping still and talking to each other earnestly about many things. Once Finn acted out a message with moving robot arms and a slight klinking of the head from side to side, which Noah understood and answered in a similar way.

Once they met on the lawn and Noah asked, ‘Did you get any snails?’ and Finn answered, ‘Sometimes.’ They always park the bike across the gate to the orchard, which is the gate to soccer parkland.

They asked me to ring Max and find the lost part to the forklift and they asked me about gallstones. Noah showed me his moth bites and asked if he would die, and then he asked me why I was growing a beard.

Hmmm.

How did that get cracked up?

That’s grandson 1, looking through the door and noting how the hot coloured slabs of glass bake the light into something we can digest.

I said, ‘That’s from the door slamming.’

‘I do that. And Finny and Noah’, he says, pleased.

‘Maybe close the door a bit more softly.’

He considers.

‘Maybe. Where’s all those bits of glasses from?’

From Bridgewater.

‘From a bridge?’

‘Near a bridge.’

‘It’s good how that glass looks like superhero clothes.’

Then he lays his head and shoulders on the table in a dramatic gesture to show me that he is under the light, and the light is on him and he is not melting, but maybe some of his bones are melting, but luckily it doesn’t matter because they will just grow again. And we sit there together under the evening light melting.

Lads on the footpath

I was helping a couple stack and pack their choices; science, Robert Louis Stevenson, an atlas, bird watching, and pure maths. We all looked up when the clatter happened because it was right in the doorway, and it was significant. It was a family. The parents walked on, firmly and with purpose, I saw their faces; it’s the school holidays.

The clatter is a mixture of three small boys, a dog, a leash, a soccer ball, and a Spiderman drink bottle that is balanced delicately on the kerb. The old couple move to the window, interested onlookers. The man opens my door and calls out, jovial, ‘Where are you going?’

The little boys are untangling themselves. Two standing, one sitting. Their shoelaces are undone. They are hot and covered in mud, and about seven years old. They look at the man, startled.

He says again, ‘Where are you going, and what do you wish?’ He looks back at this wife, and they share something silent. The little boys have no answer. They are winding in their little dog, whose leash is too long. One screams, ‘Leo’s fishing.’

The parents are calling. One boy grips another by the neck and they fall to the footpath, wrestling, like puppies, and the old couple close the door and watch through the glass, joyful, approving. One boy stands up with a drinking straw stuck to his hair. The Spiderman water bottle has rolled backwards and I can hear it tapping against my door.

But the parents have caught on. They come back and take charge. The lads are gathered up and sent onwards, back to the car, seatbelts, home, dinner. Bed.

The little dog is carried, the leash trailing. The Spiderman water bottle taps away desperately but is forgotten.

The old couple leave softly.

Life goes on. Regardless of what is going on.

Painting (Wynken, Blynken and Nod) by Maxfield Parrish

The grandsons get parsley

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.

 So much to do.

The stuff we find at home when there’s time

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.’

There are about 12000 books.

Have a clean out. Declutter. As if.  

Small girl in bike helmet

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.

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

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.