Small girl in bike helmet

A little girl wearing a bike helmet is at the door. She’s still outside looking in; her helmet is knocking against the glass; she can’t get her eyes close enough to actually see anything. She jams the helmet against the glass, and this is when I look up and see here. Her eyes pierce the inside of my shop. Beams streaming in as though from a torch. As though from a lighthouse that won’t compromise. Her eyes rest on me. She makes no compromise; she won’t smile.

In she comes. Wearing pink and grey. The bike helmet still on, the straps swinging softly around her stern chin. She looks at me and does not smile. There are no adults with here. Is it Pippi Longstocking? I sit back and regard her with respect.  

She goes in amongst the books. I go back to Amor Towles.

When I look up she is crouched over Horrible Histories. Then she moves to historical. Then she moves to a shelf and looks at a copy of Inkheart. Then she’s out of my sight; must in sci fi.

Suddenly she’s passing me again. Silent and stern and the straps of her helmet swinging softly, respecting her chin.

She took ages closing the door. She stood in the gap, doing up the straps of the pink bike helmet and looking at me. She stood there for ages doing this. Then she was gone.

That child

This child came in just on closing. Entered by herself. She was carrying an enormous chocolate muffin, holding onto it’s rear end with a paper bag, and she walked at me, like herself, her own walk, with an orange drink, and another paper bag full of clinking coins. She stared at me over the jumble, holding the end of my afternoon gaze with bright direct and unalloyed eyes. I had to sit back and reassess. I looked for a parent. She didn’t.

Her hair had escaped the morning’s organisation, framed her head in soft snakes, as alive as she was, ready to strike at my disinterest. She said,

‘Hello.’

I answered, ‘Hello.’

She hesitated, and helped me out, me, the one needing assistance.

‘How’s the bookshop going?’

I said, very well, thank you’, a limping answer like the ones from my childhood when I used to be questioned about school.

The child was kind. ‘That’s good. Is cash ok here?’

She stood there looking directly at me, not breaking the stare, the chocolate framing an active oval around her mouth, her hair poised in spikes and loops, her eyes dark and joyful, hopeful that I would allow her something.

She indicated her paper bag of money with gratitude. That’s good, I was worried, I want a bookmark, that one, that sorting hat one. Today at school there wasn’t much to do, so I sorted the whole school into all the sorting hats, and I knew who to put into Gryffindor. It’s easy. Do you know how to?

I said I did, hoping she wouldn’t know that I didn’t.

She was delighted and rattled the paper bag of money. The chocolate on her face gleamed. Her hair relaxed but still watched me. She said, thank you for the shop, have a good day and afternoon. She struggled with the door, keeping the half-eaten cake upright, the orange drink calm, and her overwhelming face fixed straight onto mine, slid out, was gone, a spark of something, gone now.

Cash or card: the exchange

This exchange, between me and a couple of passionate readers, was fast and professional.
They had seven books, very nice.

They are a couple. He took out his wallet and wondered about how to pay.
He said, ‘Card or cash’, and looked down at his tie, thinking.
She said, ‘Use card, Ken.’ But he already had the cash out.

He put it away and looked at all the books again.
She asked, ‘Did you use card?’
‘Not yet.’
‘Well, use cash, then.’
He put the card away and gently pulled some notes from his wallet.
She came over. ‘Maybe use card if you’ve got it out.’
He folded the notes back in, and she leaned over.
‘Is that the cash?’
‘Yeah.’
‘Well use it.’ He looked at the books and his wallet. He leaned over and went strongly up and down on his toes a couple of times.

I ached to help, but I too, was paralysed, and the books sat flat and helpless.
The door opened, and the spell was broken. He edged cash across the counter. I gave change. We all gave thanks.

Everything for eyes

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There’s a lady here at the shop choosing books for her foster daughter. She is piling up a hopeful stack, a rainbow lot. Actually, the lady is all colours herself. Crimson, blue and garnet and lemon; this is her dress.

She describes the books she needs. Fantastic, romantic, historical, significant and beautiful. Not rubbish, please.

And her hair and her shoes, and her bag and she… swirl, keeps swirling from shelf to shelf. Everything offers something for the eyes, a dazzle of glass and hope and a foaming of light from the skin of the sea. She keeps adding to the pile, colour upon colour, her razzle raspberry hair warming the shop. I am drinking the colours, thinking of mandarins and deep richy hazelnuts and outside lavender, delicate, rough. Then she is standing there, ready at last. Choosing bookmarks to go with the books, and then, unapologetic for the richness of her presence, pays and leaves, ink, silk, burst and gone.

Artwork by Maia Ramishvilli

My Friend Peggy

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Is not doing so well. I went to visit on Tuesday.

I remember when she first came to the shop. Irreverent, outrageous.

She has still read more than anyone I know. When I first met her I was surprised at her interest in science fiction. Her other interests are crime and thriller fiction, but across her long life she has read a staggering amount of other things. I always try to find something she hasn’t read.

Sitting there on Tuesday in her clean, blank room I brought up The Jewel in the Crown. She’s read it (but will read it again). I had brought her three other books; one fantasy, one crime (this pleased her) and a thriller that she said would be rubbish. I took that one back. There was a stack of crime on the white unit next to her. She has read all the Game of Thrones, she rushed them, she said, not wanting to die before finishing them all.

She said she wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. That she couldn’t get any bars on her phone; when she tried to get outside, the doors were all shut. She asked me to get her a door code. She wouldn’t mind a glass of wine. She said they made her get up and do stupid things down in the dining room. She asked me if I’d come back. She thinks I am going there for her sake. But being with Peggy sustains me!  I’m there for both of us.

She complained to the staff about the cup of tea that never came.

I remember her telling me she always carried books with her for the boring places, like church and the opera. She thought nothing of reading during any event, if it was boring, she would read.

Peggy only has one eye, a doctor once made her a glass one, produced it triumphantly, but she threw it in the bin. She said she had one eye and would stay that way.

When she lived in Woomera, her (ex) husband burned her library.

When she was a child, she spent a long time in an orphanage.

She thought she was ugly. She isn’t. She is striking, tall, spectacular, a bonfire.

She described a good day as one reading, at the pub, on the reds, a roast and a pile of paperbacks, and her. She was comfortable to turn her back on everything and read… so how come she always saw everything.

But now she thinks I am only visiting her out of kindness. But I’m not. I’m there to warm myself. I complained to her of all the work that I have to do at home, unappreciated, no peace and quiet, no end in sight, etc, etc.

I saw her listening to my litany of self-pity, saw the sun break through on her face, saw the grin. She was pleased with the never ending work, my sulking and self-indulgence. She was hungry for real.

I warmed myself for as long as I could and then went home. Have to find some more books for her. Not Lee Child (rubbish), not the classics (Oh God, no, read them all). Something real.

Artwork by Isidre Nonell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ladies on the corner

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There is a commotion on the corner outside my shop. I am out emptying my bins so I can observe. And I will take my time.

There are five ladies there of a brilliant age. They have met because they were going to see something. But it is gone. It has been shut down.

I linger, cleaning my windows, taking part. Because, what has been shut down?

One lady is too close to the road. She is holding forth, outraged. Her handbag is livid. Because, it’s been shut down. She looked at each friend, until the disgust had registered on each face (which it did) and one friend said, never mind it Sandra, there’s plenty of other things to do.

One friend said, get back from the kerb, come, you girls.

One friend obeyed.

But Sandra, with the angry handbag, uses it to indicate the entire town. What’s the use of coming here then? I ask you. Strathalbyn.  It’s always been here, that place. It’s the council as has done this.

Let’s get a cake, I’ll have a tea.

I wouldn’t mind a look up High Street. What about the gallery? Is that still there?

It’s the council. It’s typical. They don’t care about people. That’s it.

Check the brochure.

But the ladies remained knitted in a tight and useful square, too close to the road and unwilling to navigate the pattern of a new plan. The traffic edges wisely to one side.

(I don’t want to go inside, it seems dull. The discussion is small but it is an opera. And their facial expressions are scorching the failed council, which, as usual, is never good enough).

One lady is called Mavis. Her shoulders are urging the bakery. She has a fabulous hat of scarlet felt. But nobody listens. She turns so magnificently that the others pause and check for offense. Then they all move away from the edge of the road and look unwillingly through the window of the bakery. They look in a critical and unforgiving way because it will not suffice.

(They do not see me, or my shop, or the traffic. They only see each other, they make eye contact with each other’s eyes because, despite the years, these are still brilliant, smoking with ideas and resources, scornful and powerful.)

But they are moving on now and I have to go inside. It’s cold. They are not interested in my shop; they haven’t even looked my way. But there they go, moving up and down as they walk and checking for handbags and outrage. I hope they find something wonderful to do to replace their plans that were so thoughtlessly ruined by the council.

 

 

 

 

 

Alone

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This morning, when I am unlocking the door of the shop and balancing books and tasks, there are three friends waiting there, leaning, waiting for another friend who is at the bakery. They wear school uniforms but not of the local school. They are all watching their phones. The missing friend arrives while I am setting up, he carries a guitar case. One of the boys says to him: are you playing tonight? And he answers, yes, but not basketball. The other boy leans backwards and angles his phone as though to take a picture of such folly. He says, you are man! You have to play. The boy with the guitar says, I am, but not basketball. Playing this, by myself.

Artwork by Pascal Campion

Russell Brand

ef8e2ee1f30d43b52e6b0c477ef666dc.jpgThere is an old man here leaning into the biographies while his wife searches for something significant in the spirits. She calls it exactly that, the spirits. She told me later that what she hoped for was some useful reading in numerology but at this stage does not know where to begin the quest.
Her husband does not say much, he spoke to me about the weather and the dust and then turned back to the biographies. He is looking at a biography of Russell Brand.
His wife returned to ask him what he has found and he silently holds up the Russell Brand. But she says, well, we aren’t reading that are we…
He doesn’t reply so she slants in silently, moves in on the shoulder where he is not expecting an approach. She says briskly, not that book! And he, weaving backwards in alarm, farts loudly enough to wake the dead (this would please Russell Brand no end) and hurls the book back onto the display, and she backs off in disgust and they leave abruptly, purchasing nothing, and leaving me with numerology and Russell Brand.

The Empress

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I’m just going to look in the bookshop.
A woman said this outside the shop, she said it to her family, or perhaps they were friends, but anyway, they were all male and all young except one, her husband maybe.
Are you serious….one boy said this on a note of desperation, his voice slid around on the word “serious” trying to find something positive to stop the downward slide.
I won’t be long. I thought she was calm and good and I hoped she might come in. They had stood for ages in the doorway, they looking down (at phones), she looking in.
Are you serious…this said by another boy, he had headphones and long black jeans that rolled underneath his shoes and were worn away like old matting. He had a black singlet and on the front of this was the word Satan.
Just get into the car. This was what she said next while I was hoping she might come in.
… are you serious… This again from the first boy who swayed back and then downwards, marking the agony of his life right now.
Get in the car. And so, like that, she trimmed the arguments and parted the agony, opened the door and came in and I was pleased. She was serene and upright, pulling the summer in after her and needing nobody for attendance.
Outside the window were her menfolk, family or friendfolk, slumped in a sort of comfortable defeat, dropped against the window, one boy hoisted his shoulder against all new ideas. The headphone boy stood still in his own private response, eyes closed anyway. Another, a third boy made binoculars out of his hands and telescoped her through the glass, his orange T-shirt stained the light, and I saw that his eyes tracked her from shelf to shelf and sometimes he made his eyes desperate  thinking she was looking at him. But she wasn’t. He wanted to go home but she didn’t.
All those boys drifted over to their car and I watched them. The car was parked right outside the shop, it was white, they opened the doors and left them open. There were chip packets all across the back seat.
One boy lay across the back seat. One boy sat with his legs on the dashboard and the other possible brother slowly baked his evening plans, sitting on the footpath.
There was a father too, he was already in the car, was reading the newspaper and not bothering to question the rather beautiful afternoon.
Inside the shop it is cool and nice and she, (the empress), is leaning with Janet Evanovich, leaning against the cool wall, an empress, not hurrying, not concerned with outside.
When she left, much later on, she paused in the doorway and re entered the summer exactly in the way she wanted and all the sons stared at her wordlessly and she stared back at them in exactly the same way. It was excellent.

 

Artwork: Red Shirt on the Steps by Darren Thompson