We waited a whole hour, and not even a sausage roll

Today, people are discussing Christmas. Christmas is receding gently, but there are things to discuss. I can hear them where I sit, and I think about them.

‘I made pavlova but nobody ate it. Won’t make it again.’

‘They made a wreath out of crystal or something.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘No idea.’

Two young men pass by, fast. They are talking about skiing. They wear black jumpers and black beanies because it has turned unexpectedly cold today. One of them spins to the right and then to the left, acting out a significant manoeuvre for his friend, who is not watching. He is checking his phone. ‘Jazz didn’t like her present…’

‘No way.’

‘Who’s got a spare hand?’ This is a young family carrying too many things. They line up to cross the road, and the father, hoping to pass around some of his parcels, is ignored. ‘Just like the other day, hey! Just like Christmas.’

Another family climb out of a parked car. There are sleeping bags and tents strapped to the roof, and they climb out slowly and stretch and look at each other not very happily. ‘Can we go somewhere where we can eat?’ They all walk slowly to the bakery except for a teenage boy wearing white headphones who remains in the front seat of the car.

A group of motorcyclists across the road are leaving in a group. They are so loud that the customers in my shop pause and look up to watch. Each motorcyclist leaves the same way: pulls out slowly, dramatically, straightens up, adjusts the helmet, moves forwards, and then abruptly lurches into a deafening roar. Fifty metres or so down the road, they roar again, but this time more loudly. Outside the shop, people are standing watching on the kerb. The teenager with the headphones has joined them. Then he sees his family returning and swings back into the front seat of the car. He slams the door. He winds the window down and yells gently to a younger sibling, ‘Give it here. Give us one. Give us a pastie. Oi, Luke, give us one. Ta mate.’

A lady and her friend are near the counter, shoulders together. ‘I really don’t think he can cope anymore. You should have seen. We waited a whole hour and not even a sausage roll. I’m not going there for Christmas next year, and we’re going to have proper custard.

‘I know, I know. Yes. I thought that too.’

Painting by David Hettinger

Sadness in the shop

Sad people come into the shop. Then they look at the shelves and smile. They always come in kind of slowly. Then the smile fades a little but comes back when they see a certain book.

Sadness is unique to the person who owns it; like saliva, it carries the story of us and nobody else.  

Christmas is not about sadness but seems to awaken it. Many visitors do not want to talk about Christmas; it is easier to talk about nearly anything else. Some visitors have careful plans for Christmas, details carefully placed to help them get to the other side of it. Choosing books lightens things. They are a hold on the day.

Everyone wishes me a lovely Christmas regardless of their own tricky circumstances.

I remember that J.R.R. Tolkien said, ‘Courage is found in unlikely places.’

Illustration by Mark Conlan

Grab a sentence by its shoulder

I hear sentences spoken aloud inside the shop and outside on the footpath. Pieces of sentences that are like lengths of rope moving through the air, or a loop of thick tinsel just waiting for an answer, or twisty string with two small knots at the end. The ends of sentences whip against the window, or lace about and pause mid speech, and I listen to them all.

Some sentences are rather beautiful.

‘This is like my kind of day, like overcast, and soda like.’

‘I told the fool to stop ringing all the time, told him to leave it, leave things, leave everything, and just leave.’

Some sentences are festive, cheerful.

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’

Some sentences are short spokes.

‘You promised. You promised.’

Often, I hear an entire story, complete with beginning, conclusion, and a small satisfying plot.

‘She says I’m always getting books and stuff. Too many. And I’m like…yeah, I do…so what.’

Action sentences:

There was too much on the back of the ute. It hit the corner and overleaned. All on the road then. Fukn idiot.’

Occasionally, sentences contain a small warning sting:

‘Do YOU have a Covid check in? Can’t see it.’

Speakers toss mixed meanings at each other, coated in slight annoyance:

‘I’ve got a lead light with Pooh hanging from a kite string.’

‘Why would you even want that?’

‘ Winnie, you idiot. Winnie the Pooh.’

‘Ok…I thought you meant an actual shit.’

The best sentences come from visitors who call them back to me just as they are leaving.

The Magical Book Store. Like it very much. Had one of these when I was a kid. Somewhere. Might have been this shop actually.

And many conversations are already knotted when the speakers come in.

‘Some idiots can’t park.’

‘That would be you. And I just cracked both knees out because of that.’

People stand in the doorway and complain loudly on phones. I receive complete responses to exactly half a conversation.

‘Then she put milk or something all over it, made it uneatable, now why would you do that to a perfectly good…..well it’s not perfect anymore is it!’

Couples discuss their adult children right in front of me. They speak sentences that give out another rich layer of excellent information.

‘She needs to slow down. I’ve said that.’

‘You have.’

Christmas when you’re little

It was always really good. There was snow and lights at night even though the days were 42 degrees and leaned sideways to get out of their own sun, and it didn’t get dark anyway. Santa came in a front end loader down one end of the wide dusty main street where I lived. The front end loader was a sleigh. The sleigh must’ve landed on the beach. The reindeer were resting in the stables at the back of the bank. Santa was real even though all the farmers standing on the edge of the pageant made out they knew him.

We had a school concert and sang, ‘Turn on the Sun’, as loudly as possible, and the teacher said, ‘Not so loud but very good’, and looked tired, and we were told to wear orange T shirts for the concert, and one kid wore green anyway. And at school, we made coloured cellophane stained glass windows that always looked magical even if you messed up the glue and got told off for taking more than your Fair Share of the slipping cellophane that drenched the world in hot emeralds and lemonade and made the teacher not be there.

There was always snow, snowmen, lanterns, bonfires, and mice that delivered peanuts. We decorated the classroom with paper chains made from brennex squares from that cupboard, and the teachers talked in the corridors, watching their classes through the doors, ‘Four days to go, ladies,’ and us kids kept on snipping away trying to make the longest chain which was always won by Jennifer, whose dad was a doctor so that was why.

I got a copy of Heidi, from my Nanna, brand new, and I lay on the couch willing it to not disappear. The decorated tree caused sickening sensations because it was behind a closed door, and only glimpsed if the door was snapped open, only giving the mind an overheated look at broken rules, ‘You at that door again?’

‘I’m not.’

We drove to nativity services in all the neighbouring places because my dad was the minister, and we went past paddocks and farms and silos and sand dunes, staring through the car window at the impossibly black blue sky with too many stars, scoping for the sleigh which was following our car anyway, too close to be seen. At the little peninsula churches, the warm stone sitting comfortably against all the hard work, the back hall all lit up with the people making food, the tree decorated with their paper loops that were not as good as ours, and the service that you sat through waiting for your name called so you could go out and get a Christmas stocking that might have the glory of glories, a bubble blowing kit. It did. And the carols piled up massively with that many voices, and no one said, too loud to Silent Night, and all the adults quiet for once. And the nativity, the real hot blowing animals, the sheep with hooves that dented your ears, and wise men wearing magic genie colours and proper shepherd’s stuff and a baby doll that was ok, and Judith as the Mary (her again), and the stink of it all, and it shot through your body and your mind making it into your bones so you always had it in you, and you looked for it every Christmas.

‘Come on, we’re going home now.’

‘Can’t.’

Trying to get at the lamingtons, knowing you’d get another one because the minister’s kids always did. And beating Susan, whose dad had the bank who had the reindeers but so what.

Next year, all again.

Colours quarrel

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I wrote this in December 2015, when the windows were completed, but I had no image of the glass taken in the evening.

“Linden has given me some squares of glass for Christmas. These will be fitted into and around my front door which receives a drench of light every afternoon. I imagine a cathedral, but really this is just my front door. I had my colours organised, but the glass artist changed them because he said my colours were not going to obey me. He said that colours quarrel. My dark rich colours would go black and sulk.

He changed my panes to rose, champagne, sage green, ice and an invisible gold. I complained that now there was no colour. And there wasn’t. He said there would be, that now the colours would cooperate and allow each other a fair go in the light, and that they would change as the light changed and show all of their personalities. My dark colours would just turn their backs because didn’t have enough space.

I said I didn’t know. He replied that it was understandable, everyone is busy. But there is nothing so busy with its own concerns as a piece of stained glass. Each piece of glass thinks it’s right. They needed to be treated subtly and with cunning to get them to all do what you want without them knowing.

Well, my glass panels are up and fat with warmth and light –  and they are beautiful; the artist, with his dreadlocks and tools and dusty workshop was absolutely right. In the morning they are quiet and smooth and rich, in the evening they are hilarious, and show blue and purple even though this is impossible.”

Reading a children’s book slowly and reluctantly

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A lady had bought three children’s books (for grandchildren) and tried to leave. Christmas things to do etc. But she was sabotaged on the way out. The Smallest Bilby and the Midnight Star on the window shelf stopped her exit. She came back and picked it up. Looked at the cover. Brought it to the counter. Outside, people rushed past. She read it though slowly, thoughtfully. Then she said, ‘Damn.’

We looked at each other understandingly. The book had won. She carried it out, I watched it go.

 

Christmas is quiet here

A man walked past this morning wearing a green shirt with a printed Christmas tree and headphones with a long chord and the chord hit each post as he passed it and I heard the clinking each time until he picked it up and wrapped it around his neck. He has a newspaper and a coffee and when he stops at his car, his friend who is waiting, says: turn it off now, man and the kerb next to them is hopping with sparrows and they both look down at them while they drink their coffee. Inside, a man has paid for his books and said to me that Christmas was a quiet one this year, he was off to get a pudding or something and some beer, it would be ok.

There is a young girl drifting around, lost in some place, not here, and a lady near her has red tinsel tied to her glasses. She says she can’t come at second hand books for Christmas herself but her friend, Dot, always gets some but she is silly as a wheel anyway. Eventually she tells her friend, Dot, who is silly as a wheel, that she would wait in the bakery. And she passes the young girl who is drifting around like slow music and she snaps the door shut and goes away from the second-hand books. The young girl is carrying plays, poetry, short stories and a complete volume of Edgar Allan Poe, and as she leaves, she tells me she is on holidays and this is why she has bought too many books. Then she has to wait in the doorway to let a man pass by carrying a wooden window frame containing rectangles of coloured glass; he says sorry there, sorry there, nearly there and the footpath is stained with lozenges of red and green and yellow and a child crouching down holding out both hands to the sparrows at the back of the ute receives coins of coloured light across his forehead and the girl with the poetry walks the other way and the crouching child’s mother calls him away from the car and the child says that the birds are magic birds who only eat twisties and water.

Merry Christmas from The Book Keeper