How we say goodbye

People gather in the shop to talk, and then they leave again. They need to say goodbye to each other.

People gather on the footpath outside and talk about things. Then they need to leave each other again.

People talk on the phone: inside the shop and outside the door; they talk on their mobile phones and need, each time, to end the conversation.

People buy books and talk to me. Then they need to leave and say goodbye to me. It’s such a simple thing. But it isn’t simple – it’s complex, and the ways to bid another person farewell are endless. The ritual of saying goodbye is sculpted with tools as fine as needles in order to fit the situation.

A man outside the shop is pacing with – not an infant – but a phone. The phone is more demanding than any infant – and far less rewarding. The phone is hard and disinterested and alive only through one plastic airway. The man was tense, needing to share information with a listener who was not interested.

‘I’m actually the son of the deceased and – ‘

‘Yes, but that wasn’t done.’

‘It wasn’t done.’

‘Just leave it.’

‘Right.’

‘Bye.’ The word ‘bye’ bruising the end of the conversation.

A child leaving behind her mother and three books under one arm. She turns to wave at me and to wave the way children do: the open hand going back and forth rapidly, level with the flower petal face, byyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeee: a ribbon of sound that ends on a note of hope and the child still looking back at me to see if I heard. I did.

Robert who gets to the door and remembers something and comes back and then leaves again, bobbing forward and backward, clutching the door, thinking about Carlos Castaneda, ‘Yes, ok, bye. Yes bye. Ok. Bye. Ha-ha, bye.’

A tradesman on a mobile at the kerb, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Ok mate. Yeahr. See ya. Fuckin idiot.’

Two ladies:

‘Bye Hilary.’

‘Bye my dearest. See you soon.’ And cardigans and pearls meet in a heartfelt.

Young women talking, intense, buttoning up coats and paying for books, ‘Thank you so much, bye‘, and there’s an emphasis on the ‘ye’, a tiny precise uplift in tone and volume to indicate energy because the day is not yet done.

School children in noisy clots on their way to Woolworths, ‘See ya idiot man.’

‘Stuff you Adam.’

And me, telling my mother, ‘Ok, see you later. I’ll see you tonight, mum.’

‘There’s no need to check on me.’

‘I’m not, mum. It’s fine. I’m coming to visit.’

‘Well, don’t if you’re busy.’

‘I’ll see you tonight.’ This phrase, this time, a code for everything said but not said.

Sculpture by Elizabeth Ostrander

The Queen died

We got the news Wednesday, and everyone wanted to talk about it. Or at least mention it. And it was cold and raining again. Christine stopped her gopher at the door and yelled ‘Did you hear?’, and I said I had. She mimicked herself crying and then zoomed on toward the bakery.

Alan had a dilemma with the bakeries: he wanted a pasty and a piece of pavlova and didn’t know which bakery to go to.

‘I don’t want any bakery to see me go into the other bakery.’

‘The Queen has died.’ I said, a bit unnecessarily.

‘Oh God, Sarah will be in a shit now.’

‘She’s bearing up well.’

‘No she won’t. Well I’m going for my pastie. Need a feed.’

But Sarah did bear up well. The Queen had died on her birthday, but she’d already stopped by to tell me that, and to pick up a Sir Alec Guinness biography. She added that the Queen dying on her birthday was an omen of some kind. Robert was here too, disappointed because his order, The Lost Book of Enki, still hadn’t arrived.

He and Sarah stood back to discuss things.

A customer asked me for Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. I didn’t have it. Sarah told Robert that she didn’t hold with that women, Camilla.

Robert said that his family, the Grimshaws, extend directly back to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and that one day there would be a reckoning for his execution, which never should have happened.

Sarah looked enthralled.

A couple bought a stack of Ben Elton books.

Liz came in for A Fortunate Life and said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Queen.’

Sarah said that she didn’t think that Charles was in good health.

Robert said he threw the oracle last night and the cards said that Charles would soon succumb to gout, which got all of them in the end.

Anne came in for her cookbook and for tickets to St Andrews on Sunday. A lady came in and bought The Handmaid’s Tale for her sister in hospital. They said that it was sad about the Queen.

Then Robert had to go and reckon with the bank, who were deliberately trying to erase him from their system.

Sarah went to Woolworths.

Still raining.

Painting by Karin Jurick

‘I don’t know if anyone ever goes into this shop. I shouldn’t think so.’

This wiry, rusting observation was made right at my shop door. And loudly. The speaker was an old lady, bent over a walking stick. So that’s ok. I respect age at all times, especially as I’m gaining so rapidly in it myself.

She was talking to her husband probably. He looked startled and looked through the window with rapidly moving eyes. He made a peaceable remark, and soothed, they continued on with the hundred mile journey to their car, which I could see from my counter.

It was cold. There were drops of rain on the spinning balloons outside my shop. One person over at the bus stop, huddled against the cold pole of transport that isn’t there yet.

Inside, a man sitting in the waiting chair, lurched up at his companion and said, ‘What’d you get this time?’ and his companion, who had a biography of Christopher Wren in one hand and his phone in the other, said, ‘Got a biography of Christopher Wren. And this here is worth a read.’

 He was pointing to a biography of Winston Churchill on another shelf. ‘This one is a goer. I’ve read it.’

Outside, the car with the elderly couple slowly, slowly pulled out gently into the traffic, still participating well despite everything.

I looked at the Winston Churchill. ‘Should I read it?’

‘Do.’

I made a half hearted promise. But I had The Root and the Flower including The Near and the Far with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald next to me. And it’s next. Sorry Winston.

The men left on a note of blue happiness.

The Root and the Flower is by L. H. Meyers. I’d read about it somewhere else, never heard of it or him. Published in 1935 and apparently a minor classic and astonishingly imagined. That was enough; I decided to crack it and see what’s inside. It’s about India.

A child came in and gave me two books for the shop. A Beatrix Potter and a Little Golden Book. Both hers. It was raining outside.

‘For you.’

‘Really?’

The child doubled in intensity. ‘Yes.’

I stared at the books, emblems of fortune and compassion.

‘Really?’ Outside, the rain dropped and swam in its own disbelief.

‘Can I keep them?’

‘No, you sell them. Here.’

‘Of course.’

The child’s mother arrived, damp and busy, ‘Come on. You done?’

I looked at the child. ‘Thank you.’

But she’d gone, out the door and into further worlds and busy with them.

After that I drooped softly at the counter; people do come in!

Illustration by Di Fournier

How strong is his strength?

My grandson asked me this question at the shop. He had my Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader down from the shelf. He knew they had some form of power but isn’t familiar with them yet.

He asked me, ‘Can we measure it?’

‘Oh well. How do you measure strength?’ I asked philosophically.

‘With this ruler.’ He’d found a cardboard ruler inside a book.

So we measured the height of Darth Vader. He was 24cm.

‘He has 24 of strength.’

I agreed.

Luke Skywalker had lost his cloak and tools, so we didn’t measure him. I’d bought them second hand and incomplete. My grandson stared at Luke Skywalker without saying anything.

Then outside the shop, two people passed the window talking together: a father and son talking together, hurrying because it was cold, and both wearing rugged blue jumpers, scarves, and hats:

‘Yeah. Yes. That’s what your mother always said. You should go with that.’

They disappeared toward the bakery.

Noah and I stood Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader side by side. My grandson looked at Darth Vader, ‘Is that the dad?’

I said it was.

‘Why is he the dad? Why is he lost his stuff?’

Suddenly the the same pair passed the window again, this time holding paper bags from the bakery against their chests and still talking:

‘And there was a school teacher fellow here, used to always carry that bag of eggs around with him, remember?’

‘Did he break his boots?’ Noah asked.

I looked at Darth Vader again.

Outside the door a lady said to her husband, ‘You start and stop and start and stop. Now get out of my way.’ He said, ‘Keep your hair on.’

Noah asked, ‘Where’s his power pack?’ I looked back Darth Vader.

‘I think that got lost.’

‘Can we find it?’

A customer came in. She looked at us approvingly. ‘I see you’re busy in here.’

A young man came in for science fiction and looked at Luke Skywalker, who was now propped against Poetry and Plays.

‘Woah, mate. Cool. These for sale?’

I said they weren’t.

Noah, kneeling on the floor, said, ‘He’s lost his powers and coat.’

The customers left. Noah left. I put Darth and Luke up crookedly because I can’t reach. Later, I found the ruler under the chair.

Across the road and on the bus

Every morning there’s a small waiting crowd over there, the people still and thoughtful. I see them when I’m putting my signs out. Eventually the bus pulls up, everyone hearing it first and making small movements of preparation before it arrives.

The passengers inside the bus look out at the cold queue, look at them without really seeing them, passengers thinking through all the things in their lives, thoughts that are now blended with the inside of the bus and the angled light and the feel of the engine through their feet.

There’s only a small queue this morning, but two people are farewelling a third man and shouting directions to him as they move toward the bus.

‘Go straight down.’

The listener was also walking backwards, his arm raised and thumb up, the thumb jerking up every time he shouted back.

‘Yep.’

‘Turn at the roundabout.’

‘Yep.’

‘Keep going down, you’ll see it.’

‘Yep.’

‘Ok?’

‘Yeah mate. See you’, and turned to jog toward a motorbike.

The bus driver, masked, was turning to each passenger then back to the front, then to the next, nodding his head, nodding his head. There was a bottle of hand sanitizer next to him and a jacket folded over the back of the seat.

The queue shuffled forward. A young man was trying to fold a pram on the footpath. A young woman at the front of the bus kept looking back at him. She had a toddler on her hip; the bus driver was looking at the young man through the windscreen. The motorbike exited the carpark entrance without looking to give way.

The young man must have got the pram onto the bus because the door was hissing shut, and the bus was pulling away and everyone’s heads relaxed and jerking back a little with the movement of the bus in exactly the same way.

Entirely

If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.

Louis MacNeice
Painting by Aron Wiesenfeld 

At the excellent public library in Murray Bridge where they have Lego Club

I took my grandson, who’s five, to the Murray Bridge library. He said he already knew about libraries because Mrs. Smyth takes them. At the Murray Bridge library, they have Lego Club for parents and kids. The models are displayed in a glass cabinet outside the library. I wanted to go inside and get at the books, but Max pressed his nose to the glass. He named the models: Minion Lego, the Bowling Alley Lego, Scientific Friends Lego, Spider Lego, Spaceship Club, Small House Pets, the set of UFO.

I thought we should go inside next and get at the books. At the door, a young man in uniform and a clipboard, ‘Are you here for the event?
I said no, and Max said yes. But we weren’t. Max looked at all the families entering the Room With Interesting Things Going On. But we hadn’t booked in.

Max tried 3 different seats in the book train. He found a book called Predators Bite and sat on the floor with it. Then he put it in the bag and asked me about rattlesnakes. Then went over to look through the window of The Interesting Room. The event was over. The dazed librarian was packing up.

Max climbed into the book train and read Predators Bite again, and then The Waterhole. He asked me about rattlesnakes again. More families came in. One family ate lunch at one of the tables. A lady with a clipboard was talking to two teenage girls who wore rucksacks and hiking boots. A librarian stuck a machine out of order sign across one of the borrower terminals. Toddlers running everywhere. The kind man with the clipboard stood quietly. Max’s bag was heavy and had to be dragged. He came to help me because I was so slow.
‘This?’
It was Danielle Steele. I said, Ok. He was pleased and packed it carefully.
‘I got you this because it’s fat.’ It was Anna Karenina. I said, Ok.
‘Do you want this maybe?’
‘Read it already.’
‘This?’
‘Read it.’
‘This.’
‘Nope.’
‘Look at THIS.’
‘Ok. Yes.’ It was Jasper Jones. Choice.

‘This has fireworks on it.’
‘Ok. I’ll give it a go. (It was The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall. Never heard of it.)
‘What’s a go?’
‘You know, give it a read.’
‘Oh.’
‘Get this Nanny. It’s got green on it. ’It was Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett. ‘Yes, put it in.’
There was a crowd of teenagers rotating through Young Readers and then falling into beanbags, consulting phones, chewing gum, eyes urgent. Max watched, standing with one hand on the shelf and one small foot stacked on the other foot.

He came back.
‘Get this, because you’ll like this because it’s got a railway train track on it.’ It was Enemies within these Shores by Debbie Terranova, the train track barely visible at the bottom of the front cover.
‘Good work.’
Get this because it’s got a monster see there.’ It was The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells. Strong pick.
Nanny get this maybe. It was Savage Lane by Jason Starr, who is apparently an internationally bestselling author.
‘Ok.’
Max spoke in an urgent voice. ‘Look at THIS.’ It was V2 by Robert Harris. ‘It’s about rockets. And moons.’ He looked at the cover. There’s a map. I’m getting this.’ He packed it in.

‘This has got a bit of red or something on the back.’ It was Willa Cather, an old hardback with gold faded covers and a weighty nonchalant page block needing to prove nothing. Unusual for a public library where most books are now achingly new, average, and safe.
Willa Cather: O Pioneers!
Max watched my face, knowing he’d stuck gold, and pleased.
‘Is it good?’
‘Very good indeed. How’d you know?’
‘I do. I’m a big guy.’
Willa Cather.
Time to Check Out. We had to drag the bags. Max sat under the terminal and packed the bags. The machine got stuck at book number 14, and a librarian dashed to help.
A man tried to use one of the other terminals, not seeing the out of order sign and banging his books around and sighing. He only had two books. We were taking too long. Max was reading Predators Bite under the terminal with books scattered around him in an untidy grid of escaping tiles. And I was reading O Pioneers, with the printed docket for all the books we’d borrowed curling around my ankles. Oh Willa Cather.

Voices from the back room

Readers in the shop, caught on currents of enthusiasm and memory, call out to each other. If the readers are in pairs or groups, they converse in low calls.

‘Oh my god.’

‘I bet you.’

‘Oh not that.’

I can hear them from the counter and I can see it: the pulsing electric current of shared read texts.

‘Yeah. Yeah.’

‘This didn’t start well.’

‘I know about that series.’

Then other customers come in out of the cold and overthrow the current. Robert came in to show me a mistake in his copy of The Complete I Ching. The book had been bound with a whole page missing. We poured over the mistake, delighted. I emailed the publisher, Robert dictating. We examined the rest of the book, hoping for more.

From the back room: ‘Is that series three?’

‘I actually think it should have ended there.’

‘I know.’

Robert left, having ordered a list of new volumes. I went back to shelving Young Readers. Someone rang for a copy of Little Women: not an abridged version, thanks. More talk from the back room:

‘That book stole his soul.’

‘That’s intense.’

‘Yeah. I know. But it wasn’t his fault. Do you want this?’

The conversation continues.

Outside, it’s raining.

Illustration by Francois Schuiten

The urgent child reader

She’s a little reader, but an enormous one. I can tell. They stand there and don’t need to tell me anything. Then I think, ok.

They look through everything kindly. They know what they need.

‘I need Artemis Fowl’.

I say, ‘Ok.’ And we go to look for it.

Young readers are always kind.

‘I need number 5.’

‘Ok.

‘I also need Tolkien.’

‘Do you mean The Hobbit.’

‘No, I’ve read that.’

I say doubtfully, ‘Lord of the Rings?’

‘No.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly.

‘Hmmm.’

‘I also need the Flood books.’

‘Ok.’

‘I’m up to number 11.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly.

‘I also need.

‘I also need.

The list goes on, but I don’t have it. ‘It’s ok.’ Said to me warmly. And the child reader leaves, still happy.

Then suddenly she bursts through the door again.

‘Just went to get some money from mum.’

And she gets a book. And dances back out with it held against her neck and her head going from side to side because she’s singing the title out loud and heading for the car across the road, and there’s her mum watching from the driver’s seat and ready to start the engine and get home to start dinner because it’s late now and it’s cold.

Illustration by Katarzyna Oronska

Notable incidents about today

Robert came in. I was talking with someone else, a fabulous pair from Clayton, but I saw Robert outlined against the brightness outside the door, and I knew it was him: he has a spiky electrocuted outline and eyes like gimlets.

The pair from Clayton left on a bark of humour. We’d been talking about vaccinations. He reckoned he’d been vaccinated with the Calicivirus, but she said that was rubbish. That was when Robert loomed up behind them like a bolt of electric heat from Tutankhamen’s tomb, which was precisely what he was there to talk about.

He tapped the counter and gave me a list of books to find. He is currently reading Zecharia Sitchin. We discussed the possibility of getting the books. He said obscurely, ‘Imagine people thinking money is the thing. Don’t they know it’s books?’ We laughed darkly over anyone thinking money is the thing. Then he said, ‘Leave them alone. Best they keep thinking that. Leaves more books for us.’

Then we became hilarious. Robert laughed his high pitched laugh. It’s a thin voltage, admirable and richly unhinged. People turn around.

Behind Robert I saw Russell looking through the window, and behind him, a brisk lady who called out, ‘Hello there!’ in foghorn font causing Russell to jerk toward the window and nearly collide with the cold glass.

‘Very good thanks.’

In front of me, Robert continued on. ‘I’m getting Herman Hesse. He’s significant and I’ve only got The Glass Bead Game. I need all the rest.’

We googled Herman Hesse. A noble prize winner.

‘Really? Wow.’

Robert always utters really and wow in reverent deep tones, which drop deeper as he talks. Suddenly I, too, am desperate to read Herman Hesse.

I ask, ‘How did you find him?’

‘Don’t know.’ We look at each other and Robert laughs, high pitched and lunatic, and people turned around.  Then we settle down to the real business of the day, which is criticising people who don’t read and Telstra in that order.

Behind Robert, a tradesmen in orange and blue strides toward my door, grabs the handle and swings it competently open. But we are not the bakery, and he reverses, turns skilfully, lifting a phone to his ear at the same time.

Robert continues. ‘I wouldn’t mind a copy of The Master and Margarita’, and I promise to comply. Two ladies have bloomed fragrantly behind him, and he straightens up to leave, courteous.

‘Ok, see you later.’ He is briefly outlined in the doorway. Then gone.