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 I had my mammogram which was really uncomfortable, and the lady doing the huge machine said, ‘You’ll be right, dear.’

I can’t fit into the machine. No matter how I yoga myself into position, there’s no way I can get my entire confidences under that sandwich press. But she poked and pushed me till I did. And while she ironed me flat, I asked her sideways, ‘What was there before this?’

And she said, ‘Nothing that really worked.’

She had to take four images of me. The machine rotates for position number two (which is worse than number one). I was glum and refused to cooperate. She told me to turn my shoulder, grip the handle, and keep still. I did it incompetently.

Then I asked her why I can’t I just have an ultrasound.

She said, ‘Well, it’s like this. An ultrasound takes a picture of one single street. Mammography takes a picture of the entire suburb. An ultrasound can only see what’s at the end of it’s torch.  But this, this lights up ten whole blocks. All at once. We’re looking for trouble brewing quietly.

I was impressed. I cooperated for the last two pictures. We thanked each other, but it should have just been me, thanking her.

So, thank you.

Illustration by Juca Maximo

There were these men

There were these men outside the shop today. All climbed out of one car. Dressed pretty nice. They wanted food though, not books. They were supposed to meet people for lunch at the pub, but they’d parked at the wrong end of town. I watched them working this out.

They checked phones.

One man looked through the window of my shop. He moved closer and looked again. I thought, that’s good. He didn’t come in though.

The others, bless them, look in and then look away. Politely. A bookshop.

‘Where’s the pub?’

‘Here, I reckon. That’s what he said.’

‘Who?’

‘Dale.’

‘God, as if he’d fuckin know. Where is it?’

I felt sorry for Dale. I was a dale. They milled around on the footpath, pulling at their shirts. They all bent over their phones. Except one man who looking in at me. He didn’t come in.

Then, when I looked up again, they were all gone.

Photography: Odd Man In, by Louis Stettner, 1922

Three women with backpacks

Visited the shop this afternoon hoping to get ‘a small book, but a good one because we only have our backpacks to carry everything. Oh we’ll have fun here!’

They all had stout backpacks. They were of a very experienced age. They had solid trousers, leather belts and useful scarves. They spread out around the shop on large confident boots.

‘Oh no.’

‘Where’s Marie? Look what I’ve found her.’

‘Oh no.’

‘Oh, I do admire this person.’

And they dug in, these ladies, as though scaling the side of a mountain. Their sunglasses led the way. I admired their trousers. They were experienced readers, too. They had no need to go on and on about things. They just announced things briefly, only the necessary details that other explorers must know in the snow.

‘That’s something.’

‘Yes.’

‘I might get this. Eva Peron. Evita.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is sharp.’

‘What?’

‘That pilot. The woman.’

‘What’ve you found?’

‘D.H. Lawrence.’

‘Strange man.’

‘Oh my goodness, what’s in there?’ And they went, the three of them, around the corner into the last room, not checking for danger or the weather.

‘My word.’

I could see the boots and the waterproof socks and the end of a hiking staff leaning against literature in translation.

‘It’s The House of Spirits. Allende. Doesn’t that remind you of when we were young.’

‘Oh, she’s fine.’

I listened to them surveying the coastline. I heard a book fall to the ground.

‘Look out. Look out.’ I listened to them dodge an avalanche.

‘This’ll fit.’ I heard them discussing Travel.

They came to the counter to purchase their books. The Virgin and the Gypsy by D. H. Lawrence. One lady said, ‘It’s for travelling.’

Another lady said, ‘The thing about the classics is that there are no swear words in them.’

The third lady, passing behind her, said ‘That’s not true.’ And they adjusted their glasses and passed out of the door, back out onto the Himalayan slopes.

Photography by Elias Goldensky

Looking at things

There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.

‘Why are they so liddle?’

‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’

The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.

They are the colour of pests.

But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.

They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.

Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’

‘Is there.’

‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’

They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.

Rembrandt used to do that

John came in today. He’s always looking for history. He always has a list. The list is in a huge notebook with creased and folded pages, and with a pencil eased in and held against the muscles of the book’s spine.

He is usually quite worked up. This is always because he has found more reading.

‘For God’s sake, more reading. And I’m getting on in life.’ He leans hopelessly against the counter.

We go through the list. Today it is John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who died in 1946.

‘I really need this.’ (Essays in Persuasion).

He tells me about his high school. ‘The maths teacher used to beat me.’

‘And I want this one.’ (A Treatise on Possibility).

‘And this. Can you get this?’ (Essays in Biography).

Suddenly he asks me about Clive Cussler. ‘Does he write his own books?’

I said that he did. But then, later on, he collaborated with other writers.

John gave a shout of laughter. ‘Like Rembrandt, then! He used to get his students to do some of his stuff. You know, the apprentices. There they were, all doing the backgrounds.’

He kept laughing. His beard swung about. Other customers looked around.

‘And John Macarthur. You know him? It was Elizabeth that ran the place, did the sheep, brought in the merinos. Not him, the old scoundrel. Not the same thing as Clive Cussler of course. But it was still Elizabeth that brought in the merinos.’

Then he left, taking his notebook and pencil, and with his beard subdued for the time being.

Self Portrait with Saskia by Rembrandt c.1635

I’m not busy

I saw somebody say this – those exact words in answer to a question, ‘I guess you are really busy.’ And the person answered, ‘No, I’m not busy.’ She was young.

I say I ‘saw’ somebody say it because I did see it. The utterance was so shocking and unexpected that I saw it. Saw her face and her mouth meaning it. I’d never heard it before, and never have again. I never forgot it.

Because when she said it, her face had so much movement and her thoughts didn’t crash into anything. Imagine the staggering reality of not being busy. A big space of wasted grass with no list. No shopping. No plans except one that’s still on the fridge from last year. And walking next to fences. Rain on your thumbnails. No gasping for air already used up first thing in the morning. Waiting with both feet down. Marking the back of your hand with a dry paintbrush. Evening. Where light and night even out into a nice flat plum. Imagine your time with a faint slice of beautiful thick emptiness right at the bottom. And your feet planted, both down on the warm wet bricks and you seeing that.

Painting by Carlos San Millan

Warning


Warning by Jenny Joseph (1932-2018)

When I am an old women I shall wear purple.
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

I won’t be called Patty

An old lady came in to the shop to ask me about some books. She asked me my name and then told me hers, Pat. But not Patty.

She had a walker, one with wheels, and she leaned comfortably against the counter to tell me things. She had white hair, large glasses, a reliable light cardigan, and eyes that roamed from childhood to last year, and all around the shop, lingering on the dog tied up outside, and settling on me again with pleasure.

‘I’ve been called Trish, Rish, Tisha and Po. And that’s ok, I don’t mind them. But I won’t be called Patty. I had a teacher as called me that, in front of the others. Not a nice teacher either. Once a cousin called me ‘Patty’. God, I did I go off at her, the bitch.’

Illustration by Inge Look