Liking the new spaces in the shop

There are two rectangular bookshelves in the front of the shop, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, bone to bone. The books are not related. But they still get on because they’ve been shelved so precisely that they must. They take up and face out, exact squares of meaning. Customers say, ‘This looks nice.’

I think they’re referring to order. Order is nice right now. When you open the door to the shop, there’s a big new free space. We moved the counter back out of the way. I prefer to be out of everyone’s way. You can get your pram in now. The space is bordered and held by bookshelves holding all kinds of possibility. That’s what I call it because you can get in the door so easily that the rest of the shop seems possible. My assistant, Callie, came in and saw the new arrangement for the first time. She said, ‘I like.’

The books sit tight and obedient. But their contents don’t. There are all kinds of strange books sitting there looking at the visitors coming in. When visitors come in, they move their heads from side to side, fast and interested. Then they say, ‘This is nice.’ They look carefully and softly at simply everything. Spike Milligan. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Blinky Bill. A Biography of Judy Dench. Longfellow. Asterix and the Soothsayer. European Trains in the 19th Century. We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. Rabindranath Tagore: The Complete Writings.

‘Just get it over and done with…..like…hello?’ I overheard this from two teenagers passing the door and discussing getting things over and done with. The girls walked shoulder and shoulder, heads together, dragging schoolbags.

A man came strongly through the door into my new space and then backed out again. He said, ‘Zen moment. Sorry. Books here. Sorry.’

When visitors come in together, they stand for a little while and whisper to each other. There’s no need to whisper though. It’s not a quiet place. Books are not quiet.

A mother and child browsed a while and left looking happy. The mother had bought The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. She said, ‘I want to cry’. At the door the child said, ‘I’m going to die from holding in my pee’, and the mother screamed with laughter. I thought that was good.

The family who read a lot

Two women and a heap of kids came into the shop. One of the women hugged an atlas. She kept looking at the front of it, turning her head to one side. A little boy chose one small Zac Powers book at a time and ran it over to me. Then returned for another one. Sometimes he took a book and flew it from room to room like a plane before adding it to the stack in front of me. He added 11 Zac Powers books. A little girl removed half the Zacs and put them on the floor in front of the counter. The boy added another one.

The women with the atlas passed the counter again in a serene ordered way. The other women had novels. She said, ‘I love novels’. Another child watched the atlas float by at her eye level and found her own atlas. She added it to the stack, standing, I think, on the Zac Powers pile, luckily left there for her small sandalled foot.

An older child piled a series of novels she’d found on the top of the Zac Powers.  ‘I’ve been looking for this a long time’. She added a Minecraft book. One woman said, ‘I don’t really know what this Minecraft is, but she does, so we’ll get it. The older child’s face became a lit lamp. The little girl added a book about snakes. Then one about frogs. The atlas passed us again, now with another smaller art book lying on top of it like a slice of something else. The Zac Powers boy zoomed and swooped and added a copy of Possum Magic. His mother said, ‘Oh good.’ And his face became the second lit lamp.

When I was small, I was bad at reading

I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.

I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.

Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read.  But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree,  I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.

When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.

At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.

I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.

I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.

But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read  H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.

I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branch in her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.

Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.

“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”

 I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.

A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.

People leave their engines running while they run to the bakery

But then they’re disappointed because when they get to the bakery there’s always a queue. Sometimes they come back and yell to the passenger to ‘Switch off the car. There’s a wait.’

Sometimes the passenger comes back and tells the driver to ‘Turn it off. No point hoping.’ Then they get in the car, and I can’t hear them anymore. Often they drive off, sometimes slowly and once, a lady, really abruptly so the passenger, a man, lurched forward into the dash.

Truck drivers don’t come back if there’s a queue. And when they do they aren’t in a hurry. The trucks sit there chugging softly away for ages.

A lady and her dad came in this morning because there was ‘a bit of a queue at the bakery’. She said, ‘You have a look, dad. I’ll go back and see how mum’s going.’

But she came back immediately. ‘Dad, you’ve got my bag.’

Dad had the bag over one arm. ‘I’m causing trouble, aren’t I!’

She agreed. ‘And my mask’s in the bag.’

He said, ‘Ah.’ Then he said, ‘Where’s my mask?’

‘You’re wearing it.’

‘Yes. So I am.’ He smiled at the bookshelves.

Then his daughter rushed back out to the bakery to check on mum who was still in the queue, probably in front of the truck driver whose truck was still rumbling gently right at my door.

When we were at the caravan park, all this happened

It was the same as every caravan park we go to; that micro-village, micro-home-place where it’s possible to get to the end of what you need to do and then just sit and look at things. Like your feet in thongs, which are suddenly kind of interesting.

You can look at anything; even the toilet block and the bin area become interesting because they’re so busy and necessary.

You can watch all those kids running past or riding past, first singly and then in clots, and then in  teams because all the kids start to clump together and form underworld games that go all evening and then disperse as soon as the first kid gets called back for tea.

Then, after tea, the kids clang together again and the game goes on even though no one actually said anything. They just come out into the road, still chewing, and look to see if any other kids are done yet. As soon as someone rides past they just join in.

It’s good that things haven’t really changed.

When we got there it was evening:

  • People still driving in were going slowly to get their bearings, find the toilet block and look with frowning faces at all the sites in case someone is on their site by mistake. There it is. That’s ours. It’ll do.
  • Some arrivals were already setting up with tense faces in case something’s wrong with the tent or they discover something’s been left at home. Like all the beer.
  • Settlers were at the point where they could sit back in camping chairs and look at their feet in thongs and check the ice in the esky and listen to the idea of chops for tea.
  • Young people stand around their sites next to little tents and huge eskies and open cans and nod to each other, agreeing with everything because life is good.
  • Young parents look exhausted no matter what time of day it is. Their heads swing from side to side scanning every angle of the park, the road, their tent, the world. The mind of the young parent remains on high alert. They examine the air and the temperature and look for bees. They think about nutrition and air mattresses. They think they might have a drink but never actually get to it.

We are grandparents and so can set our stuff up free of all that now. Nothing goes wrong. We brought everything we needed. The grandchildren’s faces light up in amazement to see us there even though they knew we were coming. We set out all our stuff carefully and look at the sky and the sea. We examine the camp kitchen and note the recycling faculties. We compare everything to What We’ve Seen Before.

At our camp:

  • We eat whatever there is. First night doesn’t matter.
  • There is a book and a drink stuck in the side of every camp chair.
  • The sun goes down and the mossies come out.
  • The grandchildren won’t go to sleep.
  • The park kids buzz past with purposeful faces.
  • The sky is orange on the horizon and black ink up high. The stars came out. The tidal beach breathes seaweed and sand.
  • Families argue and caravan doors slam everywhere.
  • Esky lids bang up and down all evening.

When I wake up it is morning but still dark:

  • The air is one long fresh drink of water
  • Some people are already up and sitting in camping chairs looking at their relaxed crossed feet in thongs.
  • The toilets are warm and comforting.
  • A few kids are out riding bikes
  • There are already kids on the jumping pillow.
  • Magpies everywhere
  • An old couple across the little road are packing up
  • A man down the row is asleep on the ground half in and half out of a little tent.

People come out of tents and caravans slowly and stand there yawning and scratching at bites and with no need to hurry.

There are bottles and cans on the floor of the outside kitchen and a small crate of dishes and a bottle of detergent left there. There are two jumpers and a towel slung over the swimming pool gate. A little terrier is waiting outside the ladies toilets.

Three kids walk past the toilets side by side still in pyjamas and one says, ‘Wait, I’ll ask my mum.’  When I walk through the caravans to our camp, a man calls out, ‘Who left the lid off the esky?’ And someone inside the caravan says, ‘It’s busted’. And the man sits back down in his camping chair and looks down at his thongs. It’s good to be able to do these important things in good places where we are safe. From war.

Casual conv at dinner: how to find out all the important things

It’s just the three of us: Finn, Noah, and me. They’ve assigned superhero names to the family, and I’m Captain Library. Noah told me and waved toward my bookshelves with his spoon.

‘That’s why, Nanny, because you have too many books.’

I agreed, but not that there are too many because there’s no such thing. They look at me politely. (Maybe Captain Library isn’t very powerful.) I must have looked doubtful because they assured me that he is powerful.

‘He’s strong and looks after all the books.’

I point out that you can’t get rid of libraries because they just come back, so Captain Library is possibly the most powerful superhero of all. They look at me politely again and keep on eating.

I ask for their superhero names and they fill me in seriously.

‘Finn is Hulk. I’m Black Panther. Max is Falcon, Abbey powers the Falcon, and Great Grandpa is Iron Man.’

Finn says, ‘I’m Hulk, but not yet.’

I ask them about their mum and dad.

‘Who are they? What’s their Superhero names?’

‘Dad’s 29.’

‘Mum’s Black Widow.’

‘Pa is War Machine.’

‘Dad’s 29, and he’s Batman. Mum’s older, but sometimes dad’s 29 and older. Dad’s got new garden equipment.’

Finn says, ‘I’m Hulk, it came yesterday.’

‘My best friend is Max and Gracie.’

Finn says, ‘My best friend is Max’.

‘Max got kicked in the eye by a bird. The bird kicked a berry in his eye. When he was digging his trap.’

I asked them how they knew about that. I remember Max telling me about it. A bird (last week) had deliberately kicked a mulberry right in his eye and on purpose when he was digging a bird trap under the mulberry tree. After a solid day’s work the trap was half an inch deep and going well. He plans for the trap to catch either a million birds or fifty.

Noah told me they had blackberries at their house and birds got them, and mum said she’d get those birds so they couldn’t do it anymore.

I asked how she might get them.

‘Mum’s a sower like Rubee. That’s why.’

I agreed that this might be effective.

‘And Elsa’s got a good bike but kids can’t ride it yet.’

‘I can’, said Finn, but Noah corrected him.

‘You can’t.’

‘You need muscles. You need a muscles to get on it and get birds. Like in Max’s trap.’

Then they were quiet and eating for a while. Tapping spoons and wondering about dessert. Eyes lidding downwards. They told me that the windows were changing colour. They reminded me they were sleeping over and that Max might come over.

Finn asked me if I had a dinosaur, and Noah said that his friend Mylo has a Margo, who was little in their family, like a sister.

Father and son back again

Father and Son are here (again). They’ve been visiting for 10 years, since son was about 8. That would make him around 18 now; he’s grave and courteous and choosing outstanding and bewildering literature.

These parents always brought their children to the shop in the school holidays and let them burrow down and choose their own stuff. Wise. I remember the children were dark and quiet with bright-eyes and shared jokes without saying anything.

Now Father and Son are here again and he’s no longer at school. Still bright-eyes looking at me over a black mask and holding a copy of Arcadian Adelaide by Thistle Anderson (which is hilarious), and how could an 18 year old know about that book. But he does. With his large serious watch and thatch of wild hair.

But now Dad’s found a find on a shelf.

Goon Show, Harry.’

But Harry’s got Arcadian Adelaide and isn’t looking up. But it doesn’t matter. Families are like that, especially when it comes to reading.

Dad’s reading titles aloud: ‘My Goblin Therapist,  I want my daughter to see this. She’ll want this.’ Families that read do that. They know about each other’s reading.

The father says to me: ‘Where’s your satire section?’, and I say: ‘At home.’ He understands.

Dad stands and looks at shelves. Son kneels easily with no cracking joints or signals from muscles. Both men absorbed.

‘Dad.’ Son gives an urgent low call.

Dad turns slightly, but is himself unable leave something.

Son is not perturbed because just registering interest is enough; just moving the air slightly with breath is enough. For family.

Harry has hands in pockets and feet crossed, relaxed.

Then he sits with phone.

Dad stares into science fiction.

They have a stack ready, but for now they just sit or stand and stare at things.

Painting by Vickie Wade

Father and daughter hugged

There was a small group in here, a family by the way they talked to each other, and they must read a lot because they shuffled around without checking where they were going; they didn’t mind running into each other. That’s how you know it’s a family.

Anyway, the father and daughter, both stalking the same reading material, collided softly in front of writers and writing , and stayed together hugging, but still looking down at the books they each held in one hand.

It’s beginning to feel Christmassy

It always begins when people come in looking for Christmas presents.

‘I need something for an 8 year old girl who has read everything.’

‘I need something for my brother. But he probably won’t get here anyway.’

‘What do you have for the train lover?’

Customers talk out loud to each other and phone home to consult family about gifts.

‘Does she have this?’

‘Just go and check if he’s got this on his shelf.’

‘Would he have that?’

‘Can you ask Taylor if she’s got any of the Divergent books.’

‘Does he like these? These’ll take him ages to get through.’

‘Can you get me this for Christmas?’

Readers throw in a few titles for themselves or buy books for others and then keep them, and why not!

‘Who is that for?’

‘Jack. Maybe. And this is for me.’

People know we like reading but often won’t buy us a book.

‘Don’t get that for Hilda, she’s got thousands already.’

‘I’m not getting you that. Tony, you’ve got too much shit at home already.’

Books make the best gifts. To choose a book for someone, you have to think closely about them and everything they are. Just this alone makes it special.

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?