The Doll’s House

My grandfather, Ben, made me a doll’s house when I was small. It was rough. It was perfect. His work-shed at his house in Richmond had aeroplanes flying over it, low enough to warm your hair and fill your ears with engine and wind.

The shed was dark and warm. The carpet made of wood shavings. Small windows. He made me a merry-go-round with horses made steady with a pearl of glue under each tiny hoof, polishing the circles of wood first with sandpaper and finally with felt made fragrant with talk powder.

He was an alcoholic, miserable in the city after a life in the bush. Then the war. There was nobody to ask if men were ok. There was only the bottle.

He always bought me liquorice.

He polished small disks of wood for me. He made them into mirrors. I tided the shed. I shuffled the tools and the wood about, and he looked on uneasily, thanking me, nodding and nodding, needing eucalypts and space and heat and getting only Adelaide.

He nodded and began the doll’s house. I’d always wanted one. He made it properly, with an attic. He must have heard me say it, ‘an attic’, and he made one, a proper one. I would see him sanding and cutting, his shoulders still wearing the war and heavy with poverty and city.

Now he’s gone.

 I set it out for my grandsons, and they filled its rooms with new knowledge. They piled all the tiny plates and cups into a front end loader. They set up the kitchen with cupboards and beds. They put a tractor in the garage. They put the bath outside. They put the baby’s cot in the tractor. They continued my grandfather, and may they never know war.

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.

Being gorillas

No matter how hot it is, they run fast. They make for the mulberry tree, running with gumboots on the wrong feet, intensely aware of their own moving bodies, their faces move and throb with running, their eyes flicker watching the ground drumming under their heels. They are very little.

The mulberry tree is green and attractive but they ignore this. There is a gap and a low, wide branch that is more useful, and they push through and are now gorillas, and they need something intensely which they must think of soon.

They stand on a branch and examine ideas. They make gorilla noises and put bunches of hard infant mulberries to their noses.   

One gorilla holds on and commands the other. He needs some sand. The other gorilla climbs down for sand which he then throws up over both of them, and they are pleased. They climb up. They climb down. They are birds. They are gorillas. They are a fence. They don’t live here. They want chips. They might find a nest. One falls and is gripped within a branch and screams for rescue and is towed to the bottom, and then they climb up and try once more with hopeful mouths the sour toes of the unborn fruit. They spit it out with strong, satisfied mouths.

They are covered in dust and leaves, sunlight and heat, sand, sweat and scratches. When the galahs in neighbouring gumtrees screech they go silent and look at each other. They fold their hands around the branches and test their arms. They make bird noises. They need sand. They want chips.

On this day

A day when ordinary things happen. The ordinary lives come past my windows and in and out of the door and show some of their scratches and gardens. A lady came in with her husband and bought a book for her adult son – it is for his research. She is going to photograph the pages and email them to him. On the way out she said, ‘There. That’s my good deed. I can help him. He was really please about this book. I could tell.’

Her husband, the father, nodded. They turned toward the bakery, both of them looking pleased and happy. I could see them still talking and nodding down at the book in her hand.

An older lady lifted her shopping high on either side of her to jog across the road in the rain. Her shopping bag, her handbag, her hat, her shoulders, all jogged up and down, the mother ship making for the coast, not fast but accurate.  The cars slowed down. There, on the kerb, was her group, all cheering.

Someone shouted, ‘You’re game Eddie!’ And they gathered around her, took her bags, brushed off the dust of the journey, admiring, adoring.

A young man strode past, banging the windows of the bakery, banging on my windows, shouting and furious, ‘Fucking fuck. Ten o’clock and no food.’ He was leaning forward, walking fast, and betrayed already at only 10am.

A grandfather bought his granddaughter three books. She said, ‘I love this series.’ She looked at her grandfather. He said to me, ‘She’s a reader. She’s a real reader. Better than me.’ He presented the money, still looking at me, and swayed slightly, unable to balance the pride.

When they left she linked her arm tightly through his.

Painting by Marcel Rieder (1862-1942)

Do dogs eat water?

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When the cousins talk about Finn, they always say he is too something. The cousins are three, Finn is one. He doesn’t have much authority yet.

‘He’s too small.’

‘He can’t talk.’

‘Finn can’t come because he’s at home in she’s cot because he’s not big.’

‘He’s not strong.’

‘Finn’s lost him’s shoes.’

‘Do him want to come with us?’

‘He’s too loud.’

‘He’s in she’s highchair.’

At the table, Finn eats steadily, bangs a spoon and watches the roof. Noah and Max look on, thinking about it.

They ask me, ‘Is that bread dead?’ Do dogs eat water? Where’s Pa?’

They eat broadly, expansively, and watch each other swallow. They have not finished but they are finished.

‘Can we play trucks now? Not Finn.’ Finn, hearing his name, makes eye contact, unhurried and joyful enough to make them pause.

And say, ‘Look at Finny, he’s looking at us… him can have the train.’

Noah sighs, ‘Yeah.’

‘Yeah.’

Noah and Max in the library

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I wrote this two years ago, when the cousins were a year old.

“Max and Noah, who can now pace steadily and productively across all floors, are together before dinner in the library corner, and they have found two small horses with riders and lances.

One horse is on the windowsill and the other is caught between a stack of Robert Louis Stevenson and an armchair, and this one they have captured. The boys communicate using strong sounds of enthusiasm and query. They share the most significant messages this way; sounding out wordless acknowledgments of discovery. Once they have read each other’s faces, they turn back to the horse, itself now an object of great value.

Max can see that the lance and the hand of the knight go together. He puts the end of the lance in his mouth and tastes the problem. Noah holds both hands poised in front of him and feels the problem. They both stare at the radiance of the knight and the lance and the horse.

Noah does a small dance with his feet, and they both stare down at Noah’s feet.

The horse falls to the floor. The knight falls behind the books. Only the lance remains. Noah moves his hand toward the lance. Max moves the lance away, and they gaze at each other for a long moment. One lance, two infants.

They both stare again at the lance, which has now, in their budding world, become complicated.

Suddenly they are being called to eat, and the lance is cast aside. They launch into a vigorous rocking trot toward the dining table and they breathe loudly to show the vast distance they have just traveled.”

Max and Noah are now three, and still playing in library corners.

Tonight

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When I put my grandson, Max, to bed tonight here, he said, ‘But this smells like Noah.’

Noah is Max’s cousin, the same age, three, and a strong significant presence, like breakfast, or mummy, or love.

He indicated the quilt. ‘This is Noah. It smells like her.’ Him.

It does. It smells like the washing detergent that Noah’s family use, and it is Noah.

Then we read about dinosaurs. He falls asleep, strongly living, and asleep. His hand is still reaching for the lamp dial, an Ikea lamp with a brass dial that controls the light.

Then I go and look at some books given to me by a friend who is 94 and can no longer hold the books upright to read them. Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong; a set of four volumes dressed in pale green watered silk, announced in gold, housed in a slip case, and volume one with a large grease stain on the sublime watered frontage from when he last read it, propped at breakfast.

My friend, Richard, who can no longer hold the books up, is lying strongly, asleep.

All is life.

This is nonsense

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Over the last few months my mum, who is 84, has been busy. Last time I visited, I spoke through the front door and kept my distance. She said the coronavirus is no reason to be idle, and asked me to get her a box of saucing tomatoes.

I wrote this three years ago, when our first grandson was born. We are four generations alive all at once now. We are very lucky.

“I think that my grandson, Max, has super powers, but my mum says that this is nonsense, that he is just a normal healthy child. When she dropped into the shop yesterday I said that Max has survived his first hot summer, and she said that this is nonsense. That when she was born in Broken Hill her mum had to put the cot outside in the summer because the corrugated iron house was hotter inside than out. Her mother hung wet nappies around the edges of the cot so that the hot wind blew cool. Her mum always put the cot under the pepper trees. She said the dining room table bowed in the heat of those roasting dark little iron rooms.

I said I would like to put that story on Facebook and she said that Facebook is nonsense; who on earth would want to read about her.

When my mum was 14 years old she made her own dress at school and wore it for a photograph sitting. I have that photograph, and it is one of my favourite things. They were very poor and she only ever had one photograph taken. She said her dress was pretty good, probably the best one made, and her mum had told her that this was nonsense.

Max, my grandson loves colour. He leans toward colours and frowns. His head wobbles  when he catches the purple of my glass necklace. He leans in panting and dribbling, wanting that slab of cool glass in his mouth. But we have coloured glass slabs around the front door, too. These are wine red, mint green, champagne, butter yellow and icy pink. In the fading evening light they change character and jump. Max stares into the hot colours and is silent and noisy; breathing and ingesting colour. Soon the red becomes purple and the greens turn to blue. The yellow turns to cider. The pink fades to clear, cool water.  He stares for minute after minute at the thick glass, dripping with evening colours.

Then later, my daughter says that he won’t go to sleep, and I say that this is nonsense.”

The Mulberry Tree

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The mulberry tree arrived as an infant. We planted it in the centre of the orchard. It placed its toes in some source of life that we couldn’t see. It grew.

It towered over the cousins from the time they were born. They ate its soft red ideas all through their first two summers and presented themselves, stained and fat at the back steps for cleaning up.

Now they have found it. They climbed it. It has branches placed at cooperative intervals which allows small muscles and hands to leave the ground behind and discover a whole new interval. They become monkeys. They scream a newly minted monkey sound. They hang over a branch, speechless.

They are full of mud and welts. They refuse to come down. They say there is a tiger. There is a good branch close by. They grasp it. They are birds, they are not birds, they are new. They stare at each other. They stretch their mouths open and make no sound. There is no sound sufficient.

Max plays

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Max came today. He’s three; so much to do.

The garden is crawling with autumn. Inside I am vacuuming it up. Outside, Max is spreading it out. There are millipedes under the woodpile. There are slaters. Max collects them up and introduces them to the sandpit. Not for long. Sugared with sand, they all die. Max lies on the bricks. He will also die. This means lying silently for a long time and saying nothing. Then he collects some birdseed. He is a crow. He is a road worker. He is ‘her’.

He spades elm leaves, flakes of gold, into the air. He is hungry.

He says, ‘No’.

He fills a tiny bucket with leaves to help me. It takes half a day. He releases a thousand caterpillars into the front garden. He is covered in sawdust. He says he may turn into a parrot, and I say, ‘Good work”, and he says, ‘Where are the potatoes?, and I say, ‘Gone’, and he says, ‘That’s so funny’.

He drives a lego car around, delivering cactus plants to the places they actually want to be. He exaggerates his shoulders to show strength. He puts a snail into a safer place.

I hang the washing, and Max helps, securing one small face washer with twenty five pegs. It takes twenty satisfying minutes. He is Bob the Builder, and he needs petrol.

He checks a spider’s web.

The day ploughs on; there is only finding and shouting and joy. There is no time for anything else.