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.

Home alone, or where everything is

There’s a pair of gumboots on the floor. There’s a fruit bowl with the ends of three bananas just seeing over the edge. And a stack of paperbacks placed by me yesterday right there with care. Carpentaria is on the top with the bookmark in page 22, place by me this morning right there with bliss with coffee and toast.

There’s washing not folded.

There washing folded not put away. Not mine.

There’s a lego model lying about in tiny crystal pieces. This model, an ice-cream van, even has tiny lego coins and tiny green lego iceblocks made of clear green plastic that looks like glass. There’s a boy with a skateboard and a dog, all part of the ice cream van, left there on the cupboard not quite put together.

There’s a set of MASH, The Recovery Collection, every season, pulled out and begun. Cups and plates on the sink, tin cans and jars, a chopping board, unread letters, a lemon.

Some fabric cooling in a coffee dye that’s mine another project not another one says my mother but it is: another one. My mother in law, Mary, left a bag of stuff that she never finished. I took a bit of wool out of it. I’m going to do something with it.

There’s a puzzle left on the floor, not finished because one letter is missing. So it’s always going to be unfinished. Still, the grandsons pull it out and fiddle. Encouraging any letter to soothe the blank space, but nothing will agree. So it’s left there again. Undone. What’s not there outranks what’s there. We won’t part with what we don’t have.

There’s a box of wood shavings that smell like wine and a computer chord abandoned next to the fireplace. There are three toilet rolls and a cork with a pin in it, treasure for a later game. A doll’s house my grandfather made me, now filled with mostly matchbox cars and stones.

There’s a series of windows looking out at cold hopeful August.

There’s a stack of photos everyone’s been looking through because the person who took them is lost to us now, and because what’s not here outranks what’s here.

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.

When The Book Keeper’s grandsons stay the night

Here they are, organized; in the reading room, which they call their room and then place beanies and other things of value on the shelf over the bed for in the morning.

The bed belongs to one of the aunts. You can get under there when you’re called in a tone that suggests trouble.

There’s a sensible plastic sheet on the bed in case of accidents.

The third grandson is in the bed of another aunt. He’s asleep already; he did not last to the end of the Hairy Maclary omnibus.

But in this room, where the four year old seniors sleep, the evening was lashed with argument. In Handa’s Surprise, the ostrich took the orange.

‘No, she didn’t.’

‘Her did.’

‘No, it was a avadcardo.’ The winner of this discussion stretched avadcardo to its final length. It worked. When you are four, words that turn into food in your mouth outrank the need to continue talking.

‘Ok.’

In King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, (the old paper pages worn away to silk), the King said, ‘trout, trout, trout.’

‘He didn’t pull the plug.’

‘Yes, she did.’ There was silence. They both wanted this bath that held battle ships, fishing rods, and party food with purple fizzing in gold goblets and sheeps made of cake, and iced swans with lollies in their eyes.

They read There’s a Sea in my Bedroom.

‘He got scared of the sea in his ears.’ Noah read. Max listened and argued. But they like things about being scared. They looked approvingly at the boy being scared. They looked at the sea that came into his bedroom (out of a conch shell).

‘There’s a conch shell at kindy. Beryl said the sea’s in it.’

‘Is there any sea in it?’

‘Yes. Beryl said.’

In The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the discussion became fierce.

‘What’s supper?’

‘It’s coffee.’

It’s not coffee.’

Ok, it’s curry.’

‘It’s not curry. It’s carfeey.

It’s not carfeey.’

There was silence; they stared at the illustrations.

‘She can’t have a bath because the lion ate all her bath water.

‘It’s a tiger.’

‘I know.’

‘So they go out to the café for tea.’

‘It’s the pub. It’s a pub. It’s my pub.’

‘So they go out to the pub for tea. I want to go there.’

‘Nanny, can you read to us?’

So I stop eavesdropping and go in to read. But first there is a song they want to sing about a fish. It lasts for fifteen minutes. Then we can read. Because I have told them that anything less than one hundred books before sleep is unacceptable.

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.  

Mary died

Last Sunday, Mary died. She was my mother-in-law. When I met her, I thought she was a bitch. Turned out she thought much the same of me. Back then.

 I remember the afternoon I met her. I was wearing a hot pink sweater with a big cross stitched flower on the front, which I thought looked pretty impressive even though it didn’t. She came out of the door at the unit on OG Road and descended on me, eyes boring into mine, assessing the future, taking control. I dug in and began building the defence.

She moved straight through it. Told me what to do, and when. Told me what I owed, and where my responsibilities were. Told me to come and stay and not to leave. Told me I was ridiculous, presumptuous, selfish, all of which were possibly true.

I visited the family farm and tried to go home again. We fought in the back rooms, and she threw a book at me. I worked on plans to make distance. She worked on different plans.

She told me she hated cooking because it was a waste of time, and I looked at her with sudden respect and then looked away. She said, ‘Come and sit with us.’ I resisted. She sat with me. I plotted to move away.

Once, in Cleve, we parked the car in the main street. There was a group of lads in a tight circle, all wearing black, all with earrings and tattoos, and one shaved bald. Mary sailed right into the middle, scattering cigarettes and plans of anarchy. She said, ‘Well how are you young Jonesy? How’s the farm?’ They straightened up and answered appropriately, sensing, unlike me, that her interest was genuine and would not be easily satisfied.  She asked more questions, and more questions, and they answered obediently.

I thought, she goes anywhere.

Once she told me she had to travel across Sydney, all by herself on a train, for a women’s group meeting. She said she was terrified. I looked at her and took a small defence down.

Still, I dug trenches and avoided. Launched missiles which came straight back at me. Complained to my own mother who said, ‘Don’t be so silly.’

Mary was first at the hospital when all the babies were born. First to let everyone know. First to pick up the babies. One of my babies was born on her and Leith’s wedding anniversary. She told me by phone that she thought about that all night. I took another small defence down. We squabbled about boundaries and privacy.

We bickered and fought and disagreed, and I placed obstacles in clever places so she could not reach me. I thought, I’m strong too. Don’t tell me what to do. But she did. She went anywhere. This included the dark defended areas of my own fear. In she went. Once on the back veranda of my own house, when I had little children, I cried. She stepped in, dropped a bunch of grapes on the decking, and stepped in. ‘It’ll be ok.’ She wasn’t bothered by what it was. She just knew it would be ok.

I criticised and bitched and angered at her and about her. I would be a better parent than her. I wasn’t. It all fell in pieces. She never said a word. She loved conflict. She loved chaos and problems. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash. No need to worry about that.’

I took down bits of defence, cautiously.

She loved to eat cream buns, and would say, ‘Look at this. Oh well, going to die anyway, aren’t we.’

She went everywhere.

I heroically fought off her invasion even though there wasn’t one. I mistranslated energy for obsession and appetite for control. I fought off her interest as something dangerous. I noticed that my growing children didn’t agree with me.

Mary kept on, each day seemingly worth the effort. She said, ‘Once, when I had four small children on the farm, the head shearer threw his dinner at the wall. That was a sign that it was not a good dinner.’ I looked at her in horror. Once she said about her own mother, ‘It didn’t matter what I did, mum’d have a go at me.’ Once she said that she nearly didn’t make it with four small children on a farm and nobody much to help out. I moved my arm a bit so that it went next to her arm. She was watching Keeping up Appearances and laughing loudly. She gripped my hand and kept on laughing.

Once we saw a new product at the supermarket. Corn Chips. I said in the aisle, ‘Look at these’, and she bought three packets, and I was shocked. Unfluent in generosity and impetuousness, I was shocked. She said, ‘Well, why not.’ She got Windows 95 before anyone else, and said, ‘Don’t open too much stuff on the screen at once, or it’ll freeze.’ She said things like, ‘Oh well, it’ll be all right.’

Well, buy it, then.’

‘Well, there’s not much we can do about that.’

‘I think so too.’

I got older. My energy fell away, and my jokes became feeble, but Mary still laughed at them. I said, ‘I’m getting old’, and she fell about laughing and raised one leg in the air.

She looked at all my children, and said, ‘Look at them. Nothing wrong with them.’

She got some great grandsons. Three little fellas. I noticed how much she approved of their naughtiness. How interested in the conflict. How she valued the problems. How she laughed and raised one leg in the air. How the worse things got, the more valuable they became.

When she got sick, when her mind fell away gently in flakes, and she had to go into care, she still laughed at my poor jokes. I said, ‘My hip is going.’ And she was delighted.  She said, ‘Where are the men?’ Her men were everything to her. And I said, ‘Who knows, who cares?’ And she laughed with her arms straight up in the air, and I saw she was getting thin. She said, ‘Tell them to come in, dinner’s ready.’ But there was no roast lamb. That day, there was just the disinterest of Resthaven, and me, and I had so little to offer.

Once, she said, ‘Felicity.’

 In the hospital, when she wanted to go home, she said, ‘I’m not well, am I.’ She hit one of the nurses. Once when I visited, she pointed one arm toward me as though in desperate recognition of something from some long ago place, and she got up and walked towards me, and I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said angrily, ‘I’m dead.’

She gripped my hand so hard.

She always wore pink hats. At Resthaven, she still wore pink, and I was glad. She always had good shoes. She used to buy clothes and things, try them on and return them. ‘Get it, you can always return it’, she always said to me. Rich in life and mistakes and great fields of wheat, and fruit trees by the gate that shrivelled because Leith put Roundup on them by mistake.

She always said, ‘Here you are with all your books.’ She broke through everything I put up.  I don’t know how. She always said, ‘Allo, allo, allo, how are YOU?’ One of her sons still says this same thing, and means it, thank God.

Once, a long time ago, my mother-in-law’s mum, also called Mary, told me that she rocked all her kids to sleep in a bassinet on the veranda at the farm, and it was so hot. One of those kids was my mother-in-law. A nurse came, who was young, and said my mother-in-law’s mum needed to do things a bit better. Then my mother-in-law’s mum got old. She used to make shepherd’s pie at Aberfoyle park for me when I was still new to the family, and she agreed with my criticisms of my whole new family. Then she fell away into the different and awful place of dementia.  I was busy with babies then, but I went to St Agnes and visited, and she looked at me and smiled and nodded, despite everything.  

When I was young and new to this family, I sat on a sand dune at Port Neil and listened to my new mother-in-law talk about her own mother, the one who had made me shepherd’s pie. I sat stiffly on the sand dune next to my mother in law, who she sat with her knees under her chin, looking at the sea. Next to her, a younger aunty, complaining about being told what to do.

‘She won’t stop telling me what to do. I’m forty years old.’

Mary said, ‘I’m 50, and she’s still telling me what to do.’ And they laughed.

I was 23 back then, and knowledgeable and wise and sulking as I looked at the sea. I listened to them and thought that I won’t be like this. I’ll sort this all out. I won’t be part of this.

But it was too late, I already was. Thank God.

And I still am. Thank God. Thank God.

RIP

Try this one, it might work better

Two men came into the shop today together, and I thought they were brothers. This is because they worked shoulder to shoulder. First they had to check in.

‘Did you get it?’

‘No not yet.’

‘Come inside. There’s another one in here. Try it. Might work better.’ They found my app printed and hung up in a different place.

‘That one out there must be on a shadow or something, generally I get it, don’t I.

The other man instructed him.

‘Come back a bit. Come back a bit.’

‘It’s been working beautiful till now.’

‘Yeah, I know mate. Come back a bit, you have to get the whole thing in.’

‘I’ve got it.’

‘No, you haven’t.’

‘Ok, I’ll have to sign the thingo. Don’t know why that is, it worked beautiful in the bakery, sorry to be a nuisance.’ He looked at me apologetically. I said, ‘Not to worry.’

I rewarded them with Melody Gardot through the speaker. They swayed.

I watched them move. Gentlemen, with hands in pockets. Silence. Leaning over the books with courtesy and interest. One men went into Art. The other man swayed, listening. They passed each other twice in the same narrow space. ‘You right?’

‘I am, mate.’

Hats on, black, coats on, blue, shoes stout helping with winter. Silence and breathing.

Suddenly their wivesentered, signing in efficiently. There are three of them. Who is the third?

‘Come on, girls.’ The see their men.

‘Oh, ello stranger, fancy meeting you here.’

One of the men responds, ‘Do I know you?’

Why are you in the children’s books?’ They don’t answer.

‘Come on Sue, let’s get Nora Roberts.’

Sue, in a beautiful red coat moves gently and slowly. ‘Did you sign the thing?’

‘We did.’ They move off, Sue with a walking stick. They ask each other.

‘How much is this?’

‘Is there a section for crime?’

‘I know what author I’m going for.’

‘Here, watch your step.’

Meanwhile, the husbands are still in art, shoulder to shoulder. They are examining their wallets. I listen to them when they pay for the art book.

‘Hans Heysen, not a bad bloke.’

‘He didn’t do too bad, did he?’

‘Now that I’ve retired I should put my finger back into the apple pie.’

‘Well, I’ll tell you what…’

Then they left, alone, and without their ladies. Outside in the cold, I could hear them still talking, still bent over the book he had open and was holding out under the afternoon cold.

‘Have they gone? Where are they?’

‘The men have left us behind, Sue.’

‘They’ve all gone, have they?’

‘They’re probably looking for us.’

‘Well, we can get back to the car. Don’t need them.’

Then they left, but I can still hear them outside the door.

‘I’ll just look round the corner.’

They moved slowly out and on and past the window. I can still here their voices…

‘…well that’s their fault for just sitting at home…’

Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

The dad

I remember him because he asked me if he could come in with food. He was carrying brown paper bags and coffee. His teenage daughter was already inside. She’d been looking at science fiction for the last half hour. When she heard him, she appeared in the doorway and nodded. He came in.

I said all food is ok. I was eating a doughnut. He stood behind her nodding and listening and drinking his coffee, and he bought every book she wanted, which was three. She said, as they left, ‘I love bookshops,’ and he nodded and held the door, still eating his pastie. Then they went out into the rain.

Illustration by Johanna Wright