Pausing at the door to get the mask on properly

Visitors to the shop now have to pause and fumble about at the door before they come in because we all have equipment to manage.

‘Dale, your mask.’ This couple had to go back to the car. Then they went past me to the bakery and got coffees. Then they returned and came in, looking refreshed, and asked for good Australian political biographies and anything about breeding poodles.

‘Forgot m’mask. Gotta go back.’ This man left and came back with his mask in his top pocket, and left it there while he browsed.

‘Got yr mask?’ This man, who didn’t have his mask, was sent back to the car by his wife. I saw him reading the paper in the front seat. She browsed the shelves for another half an hour. They both looked happy.

‘Oh my god, where’s my mask?’ A young mum, who found it in the pram wrapped around half an apple.

A car went past and turned at the corner. The driver wearing a mask hanging from one ear.

A man passing the window wore a pink mask with a devil’s face, hanging sideways from his sunglasses.

A child walked by with an adult mask over his entire face, hanging onto the side of the pram so he could walk straight.

We wear them upside down and inside out, with faces drawn on, and the elastic knotted and twisted to make a snugger fit. We wear them as chin straps and wrist wraps. In pockets and wallets, in phone cases, shopping bags, shoulder bags and looped around coat buttons, thrust through belts. Clutched in one hand while the other hand manages the phone.

One girl wore an emerald green mask that was covered in gold and blue butterflies. She talked to me through the butterflies about reading and about the Divergent books, and she described her bookshelf at home.

A couple walking by paused at the window to take off masks and undo drink bottles for their small children. One child asked if you have to wear masks on the jetty.

Then he said that he’d lost his bucket on the jetty. The parents, still drinking, looked down at him. They were leaning against the window, and looking down at him, not saying anything, just looking at him with besotted faces because he is theirs.

Painting by Claire McCall

A couple looking through the door and wondering whether to come in

They almost have their eyes on the glass. I can hear them through the door.

‘Do you reckon this is mask-wearing territory?’

‘What do you say babe, want to go in?’

They adjust their masks and come in. She is serene and quiet and pearlescent and powerful. He is broad and outdoors. He bounces on his feet, cannot contain his energy, calls me ‘mate’, wears his mask crooked, and whistles with admiration at basically everything. He kneels down, stands up, bounces, straightens his shoulders, turns around, alive with purpose.

‘What can I get babe? I could go for this.’

He chooses Nicholas Nickleby. She already has a stack of Charles Dickens chin high. She said, ‘Mmmm.’ He said, ‘Babe, we should get out of here.’ Then to me, ‘Excuse me, what’s your oldest book here.’

He and I searched the books, looking for dates. He said:

‘Cool.’

‘Sick.’

‘Mate. Radical.’

Then he said to her, ‘We should get out of here, babe. I’m going nuts, look at all these.’

She said, ‘Mmmm.’

They come to the counter to pay for their books. I say, ‘Do you want a receipt sent to you phone?’ He does. I ask for his number.

‘Are you cracking onto me?’

I am pleased with his joke because he is young and I am not, but his partner gives a scream of laughter.

‘My God, as if anyone would crack onto you.’ She can’t stop laughing.

He tells me they want books for their library. For their caravan. And for their kids.

They both look at her stomach, just a flicker of a look, but I saw it.

Illustration by Deborah Dewitt

Aunty Felicity

Aunty Facility is a bit of a legend. The little boys flicker through her name, liking the sounds but aware of the stalky pitfalls of so many sounds. That’s how she became Aunty Facility.

She is always a vision in red. She likes clay and wood, wool and sky, chunky falling jewellery, and sound spas. And chocolate. Also, labyrinths, and making things out of weird stuff. And pilates.

Aunty Fesisity is always a vision in red.

Aunty Ficity is always there at Christmas.

Aunty Ficistity is always there at birthdays.

Aunty Fissy is here right now, it’s a good warm evening, and we’ve put our champagne glasses down on the prickles in the orchard, so we can stand close to each other and sort out the family. We are experts on each one of them. If only they would listen to us.

Aunty Fissy has carved a valley through our lives. This is because she’s individual and a lone ranger, much like her mother was. Answers to her own lungs.

Aunty Fisties likes to dance, her way. And she always says, ‘I don’t know’, in a useful tone that invites me to say what I know, which is not much, but she always admires it anyway.

Once she poured Coca Cola over a roast pork to make the crackling good. I was impressed. Culinary! She lives in Melbourne, land of multiwondrous food and dickheads who can’t drive. She never shuts the toilet door when she’s in there in case something happens in the next room that she might miss.

She cries in front of people; I never knew such power until I saw that. Later, I wanted my children to experience her, as though she were another country or something. Which she is.

She’s always interested in things, much like her own mother was . This makes the life she’s interested in gain value and to keep on gaining value. This means our lives. My life. People who do this never know they do it. Instead they look doubtfully at their own life and wonder about its value, which is of course, beyond value, beyond words.

Aunty Fisins suffers from road rage. Once, we were tearing down St Kilda Road, and she said, ‘don’t you look at me like that you bitch’, to the lady in the next car. I was impressed.

Aunty Fiscal bought a folding bike to get fit. Then she sold it.

I am glad my small grandsons get to experience Felicity as though she is an entire empire or something, because she is. Hope she keeps on expanding and doesn’t go back to Melbourne, land of dickhead drivers. Hope she doesn’t give up on us, family, because for one thing, I drive like a dickhead, and also, we all need her.

The man who badly needed a cup of tea

He came in to browse and told me that his wife was Dux of Woodville High School, but three weeks ago had walked out of his life. He knelt down to examine all the bottom shelves and said that the books were wonderful. Just wonderful; especially the bird books.

Then he sang me a hymn and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He found a book on Scotland (The History of) and told me about his Scottish parents. He began to make a pile of books while he talked.

‘I’m worried about this generation. All they do is sit on the couch and drink fat.’

He said he didn’t hold with televisions, and that he badly needed a cup of tea.

‘After my wife left me, I had to do something with my life, so I started lifting weights. I’m 77, and you probably don’t believe it.’ I said it was amazing.

‘I just got the first TV of my life the other day. It’s for my new lady, and I’ve put it in its own room. Not with the books. Young people don’t know about the war.’

He went into the other room for a while. Then he came back.

‘Everything, Honey, has a city mentality. Even the birdlife. People only think of coffee and cakes. It’s artificial. I once knew some idiot called Charlie who was like that’.

I agreed.

He sang me another hymn, which I admired. Then he paid for his books, told me that he can’t abide a show off, and said goodbye.

Himself, a flash of unique bright birdlife, gone!

A man here browsing gave me the impression that he was looking for something specific

He was with a friend. She kept bumping his shoulder gently so he had to keep moving along. He frowned and read titles closely and bit his lip, put them back and went on to the next one. He gave each book a long fair go. He tipped his head back and narrowed his eyes to get at the reviews on the back and the dates of publication.

‘You find it?’ She asked. He shook his head. She put headphones in.

In Classics, the man rested on one knee. One elbow resting on the knee. One hand resting on the shelf right next to Steinbeck and Stevenson.

His friend took her headphones out and said they needed to go to Woolies later. He nodded. She put her headphones back in. Began to nod gently to another rhythm. He bent closer to the shelf, angling toward another vision. His feet were uncomfortable, splayed out for balance, and he soon moved back and knelt on both knees instead. He was now backed up against the leg of his friend. She had her eyes closed, and was moving, in tiny imperceptible movements, from side to side.

She reached down with her left hand took hold of his ear. She continued listening. He continued looking. Joined.

“Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader (2006), said that reading is ultimately a retreat into silence. I thought about why this is and then wrote the following list:

  1. Although we are not alone, we read alone.
  2. Although what happens when we read is not quiet, it makes us quiet.
  3. What we see and sense when we read happens inwardly no matter how powerful, and the more devastating the experience, the deeper the retreat.
  4. Even though reading is all about the written word, a book can leave us with no words to describe it. This is because we are not describing the book, we are describing what our self has become after reading it, and this is often too new to have any vocabulary yet.
  5. Reading draws on and makes use of what we already know and what we already are, and then somehow turns this material broadside and sends it (and us) bowling down new allies.
  6. Reading can reach our hidden and distraught places (the ones that live on piles of silence) and let in some air.
  7. Reading is private and delicate and social and diabolical.
  8. It is only in silence that we can find our troubles, and reading provides a safe balcony to look from.
  9. Reading leaves us alone to find our own face.
  10. Although we are alone, we actually don’t read alone.

Illustration by Lorena Spurio

Nanny, are you growing a beard?

Two grandsons stayed last night. It was hot. They moved from sandpit to orchard to the place with two snails, one of them dead, and they played with a small rubber owl that represents them and is always in danger. They fly it from one end of the orchard to the other using swoops and dives and other very powerful ideas. There is a larger owl, too. This one, a plastic model purchased as a bird scarer, only takes part in some of the story. It saves the baby owl. Then it was abandoned under the bonsai tree table. Once it brought some food. Then it was abandoned at the shed door. Once they couldn’t find the parent owl at all, and everything stopped. Completely.  

They played bikes. This means Noah riding about for a bit, and Finn following on foot because he is too small to find the pedals. It also means stopping still and talking to each other earnestly about many things. Once Finn acted out a message with moving robot arms and a slight klinking of the head from side to side, which Noah understood and answered in a similar way.

Once they met on the lawn and Noah asked, ‘Did you get any snails?’ and Finn answered, ‘Sometimes.’ They always park the bike across the gate to the orchard, which is the gate to soccer parkland.

They asked me to ring Max and find the lost part to the forklift and they asked me about gallstones. Noah showed me his moth bites and asked if he would die, and then he asked me why I was growing a beard.

Hmmm.