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.

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

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.

Please come and look at these books…

Still Life with Quinces by Van Gogh (2)

I did go and look at those books. It was a library of a woman who had died.

The lady spoke of her mother. We were standing outside the garage, shielding our eyes from the afternoon sun. There were fruit trees and two dogs, cardboard boxes, and a horse behind a railing – it was warm and quiet. I could hear the horse breathing. She was telling me about her mother; all the things she used to do, the gratitude of communities, the reading, her passion, her; the mother.

I could smell quinces.

‘The things a person loves are always, always recorded in their library.’ The daughter leaned back in amazement and pride as she said this. It was a delicate opera of grief, sung outside (to me) next to a bucket of yellow quinces. The daughter was wearing pink and white. She said, ‘Don’t lift those heavy boxes, you’ll hurt yourself.’  Her mother, Barbara, was one of my first customers. She read Don Camillo. And there they were, the books she once bought from me, right there in a box, in the sunshine, next to the quinces.

 

Still Life with Quinces by Vincent Van Gogh

Hey, little fella

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There is a family meeting outside the shop but it is not a meeting. It is a farewell, gathered around a car because some of them are leaving. They have all packed the car, very slowly. They are slowly still packing, sometimes they take things out and put them in again. They have been at the bakery but that’s over now. They have been leaning and waiting against the windows here. There is a small child and one man picks him up and says, hey little fella, hey little fella, hey little fella.
And the child, the little fella, puts his very small arms around the man’s neck and holds on as though to something very important. And the man holds onto the child in the same way. And there is a woman there looking at the child. She says,
They have to go now.
The young couple are not ready. He is packing the bags slowly in again. Then he takes two of them out again.
Keep us in the loop.
Where are you meeting the others? Is it Williamstown?
Let us know what happens.
Yeah, mum.
Everyone moves together toward the car and the older man says, traffic jam, traffic jam.
Thanks for having us, mum, been great.
See you soon.
Ah well, good on you, you know.
Well, off they go. Strap that little fellow in properly.
He’s in, he’s all right.
They’ll do.
I know, I know.
It’s been great.
They are great. The lady said this in a sort of whisper, I couldn’t hear it properly, that’s what it looked like, it would have been something like that, a whisper because the rest of your voice has gone for a bit. She was holding on to the fence.
Then they joined hands and went across the road together, looking at the ground.

Sculpture by Wil van den Hoek

The Vampire Books

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John is back from Tasmania, and he came to tell me about his bike trip of 1400km, taken through rain, sun and good cheer. He told me about the best thing of all.

“ …this is the best thing of all: I rode up to the Mt Wellington car park – right up the top of that place, it was like heaven to ride around the top of that car park, it was flat and it was heaven. I am an old man you know! And a lady and her husband were up there and they clapped me when I got there…because I am old I suppose. But then she said, do you know what she said? She said: Someone ought to write a story about you in the Southern Argus…”

John paused and looked at me. I said: Our Southern Argus? He said: YES!! And then he leaned back with both arms up in the air. YES!! He laughed and laughed. “Somebody knows me! SHE knows me but who was she? I’ve never seen her before and she lives here in Strathalbyn. Up the top of that mountain we were. I tell you that life is an incredible thing!”

“Then I rode out of Devonport and 3/4 of an hour up I went, up another hill and at the top there is a sign: road closed due to landslides. Why the dickens couldn’t they have put that sign at the bottom. The air was like cold crystals up there…. “

“I said hello to my horses as soon as I got back. And THEN I had squatters!!!! Bees, thousands of them, in my own house, moved there when I was away. I tell you that you can never know what will happen next! I moved those bees back out and myself right back in! Now I need something to read until the sunshine comes back.”

Finally, John wishes me a good day and advises me that good weather is coming. A little boy, patiently waiting asks John: but where is your bike? And John tells him that the bees took it.

The little boy returns to his mother in the front room to tell her this worrying piece of news but she is exclaiming over a Hunger Games trilogy, bound in pink, orange and lime green and she tells him that the books are just so cool and funky. Aren’t they just totally rhythmic! He says: don’t worry mum, we’ll figure it out.

A young person asks me why Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was not written properly.

I read some more of Djuna Barnes and I am aware that these smoky stories are symbolic and too difficult for me but I am bravely reading on. I am thinking that she is funky and cool and rhythmic! I hope I can figure her out but it is doubtful. Luckily, this does not matter.

Dion returned to say hello and make sure that the shop is still ok. I said that all is going well and he said: except the weather.

Alex told me about the Persian Army and also about his Toyota Corolla. Then he recommended that I pursue a fabulous historian called E. J. Hobsbawm who wrote The Age of Revolution: Europe from 1789 to 1848. He said that this was riveting history.

I am asked for Positive Imaging: The Powerful Way to change Your Life, Wolf Hall and Lark Rise to Candleford and any books on ants.

Matt told me that it is getting harder and harder for him to find the books he wants to read. He said that he only likes books about paddocks.

I commented on the new five dollar note and the customer said: yes but it’s still only worth $5.

In the other room there are three older ladies, they have come in from a bus tour and are busy amongst the detectives and crime and I can hear them. There is a raised voice: “…it’s just a suggestion…it’s JUST a suggestion…for God’s sake…”

At the end of the day there is a woman here. She stood for a long while. She stood twisting and twisting her hands. Then she turned to me and said she didn’t have time to read but she read a vampire book the other day. She even turned the telly off and read the vampire book and it was so good. It was such a relief to read about vampires and be on another planet where her parents did not have cancer. Then she thanked me and left even though I did not do anything for her.

A customer tells me that his is moving from history books to gardening books. He is doing this because it is time for a change.

I think about the vampire books.

Photography by Joshua Hibbert

 

 

 

Grief

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I remember when a couple lent me a book they loved. It was called Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards. I wondered if I would find the time to read it. But then I did read it. I was caught by the first paragraph which described a young woman who has attempted to cut off her own arm. I read the whole book and will never forget it.

I returned the book when they came back to my shop and thanked them. They said that this book was respectful and very very good and that their own daughter once attempted suicide. And the second time she succeeded.

They stood there, she, the mother with her book: Growing Roses Successfully and he with a book by John Grisham and me standing there with nothing at all.

 

I have a daughter.

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Peggy came to visit. She came to find some rubbish to read because her daughter has recently died and she is struggling to get going again. I do not know how to offer consolation on such a profound loss. She said: give me some rubbish to read and it’ll help get me going. Then she said: I didn’t do enough and this is why I need to be distracted. Do you ever think that? I said that I think this every single day. She said she has been reading all night long and wakes up suddenly when the book hits the floor. She recently stayed in bed all day with Tolkien and Georgette Heyer. I admire her more than I can say.

Then she said: I am getting old and cannot remember things well. You should put it into words, the details about your children. Also, I am going deaf.

I  am thinking of the details.

David came in and said: what are you doing? I said that I am writing some words about each one of my grown children so that I can preserve these details. David is emotional and dramatic. He said: oh I see, I see. He told me to write in images, not in words. But I am unsure of what this means.

A couple, looking through the Hesperus Press editions straightened up and said: our grown children…there are few words to describe it, the grown part. That’s hard.

David said to us all: I do not have any children.

This couple, who had come in for The Canterbury Tales and bought instead The Mill on the Floss said that sometimes they did not always want their grown children to visit.

I am writing just a few words for each one, so that, as Peggy reminded me I will not forget:

I have a daughter and we can argue on anything. We did not start like that but we became like that. We argued on the small things, the big things and then needed to argue on all things; the loss of the toaster, the temperature of cheese, the origin of grain. And then the position of pain, the right to comfort, the clarity of lies, the theft of the past. She is a quarter boy who struck the bell for every quarter hour that I was not honest. This is how I learned to be honest and it is how I learned that honesty is important. I am speechless with criticism and respect.

I have another daughter who can realign the hours and take care of the days. I look to her confounded and follow her example of gentle lists and goals. Together we have enormous quantities of fun and then suddenly she is a stranger to me; brave and fearless. She is completely apart and I am envious of her being completely on her own road. She can sound and show all weathers and allow crying.

I have another daughter who can lie in her own shape and regard unconcerned the future. I look to her with awe and relief that such an attitude is possible and with such bravery and distain. Because I am unable to disregard the hours and days and imagined chores that I need to earn my train pass.

I have a son and I admire him intensely from close and afar. He is rare. He does the things of men. But he can work within all the things of women. Despite my pacing and motherhood fury during his infant days, he achieved all this. There is no more to be said.

I have a new daughter who has joined up with enthusiasm, blended everybody and excludes nobody. She is focussed, generous and excellent. She has the future sketched and is delighted with it and is a gate keeper, making sure that everybody gets though. And we can no longer do without her.

I look at these words and wonder about them. I would show them to David but he has taken his biography of Anaïs Nin and gone home.

A lady bought three books by Ngaio Marsh. She told me that at home she has books open on every surface, everywhere, all the print lying there face up and ready.

A young man said that he does not like the whole world building premise, the land spreading structure etc and this is why he did not read The Wizard of Earthsea even though his dad did.

I am asked for The Nigella Express and for The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones.

Elaine would like a copy of The Shepherd’s Life. When she drops in she tells me that she is distressed because her daughter, who is 55, will still not answer her mobile phone.