Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

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.

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.

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.

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

pulled the knife out, and he was still bleeding

Sometimes the street outside the shop is quiet. There is no movement, no noise, and nobody passes the shop. Sometimes I go outside and look up and down the road. Then I go back in and get on with things.

Today, it was chaos out there. People crowded past in groups with maps, bags, and phones. The traffic on the road equalled this, stopping, starting, parking, arguing, sounding horns, calling from car windows. And today, the groups on the footpath were so packed together that I heard them and saw them. Every now and again I looked straight into a face that was looking straight back at me.

Somebody yelled, ‘Got to call in here on our way back.’ I didn’t see them. They moved too fast. I hoped they’d come back.

I saw the next couple because they paused at the door. He peered in with screwed up eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Dunno. Medical place I think.’ He looked right at me and abruptly pulled away.

I’m not a medial place.

The next burst of information came a little later.

‘…pulled the knife out and he was still bleeding…’

‘Silly.’

The first speaker turned and looked right at me looking right at him. I thought, ‘Shit!’

Then,

‘You want something to eat, mother? All right, but I’m not fussy about going back to that cafe though.’

‘That wasn’t here, Ed. That was another town.’

He (who wasn’t fussy) humped his shoulders and looked in at me. I looked out at him, sympathetic. I know about getting the right doughnut.

Painting by Charles Hardaker

My unedited house

It starts where I sit at the kitchen table looking at people across the road. There’s a small group of them, and they move the afternoon light because the light is loaded with flakes of heat, gum leaf, and dust, and every outline is livid with it.

The people are leaning over a car, bonnet up.

There are dishes and cups here, and one yellow pot at the window, level with the heads over the car outside. Inside, there is also a coffee mug, a tea towel, a phone charging.

There are books on the floor, and a wooden train set with some missing. A bottle of perfume, a set of weights, clean washing (some of it folded).

A bowl of nashi pears, heavy with yellow.

Everybody’s things.

And bookshelves.

I have a low table with a glass roof. Under the sliding panel of glass there are square cavities, each one containing something really good. Polished stone in silky chunks, fossils, a giant leaf that’s not actually that big, carved wooden spoons, pieces of shell, clay, a feather, all those things that have no value but have great value. The glass is scratched now. On top, a wooden petrol station put together and painted by hand, and inside this a plastic elephant and giraffe from a game that strayed into another game. On the top of the petrol station, copies of Hairy McClary and Asterix and the Golden Sickle.

Carpet.

The nashi pears are heavy with yellow. Someone should eat them.

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.

The man who asked for a book I didn’t have

A man visited me on Thursday and asked for a book I didn’t have – Shark Arm by Phillip Roope, and his walking stick gave him some trouble as he balanced himself at the counter.

He said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just my walking stick trying to kill me’, and we smiled, and a customer nearby looked across and nodded and then looked back at the shelves again.

He asked me to order the book for him, and I replied, ‘Of course’, and I looked up to take his details and there were tears in his eyes which must have come on suddenly and for no reason visible to anyone here.

He said, ‘Let me know when it arrives, I’m looking forward to this.’

His eyes were blue. His shirt and jeans and hat were all green, His eyes held the story though because everything for a second swam right in front of us, and then was gone again.  

Image by Horacio Cardoza

The two ladies who screamed but were actually laughing

They are here in the shop. They are blue, cream, and white, and happy with the weather. Their heads go from side to side, looking at everything fast. They talk at the same time and stack books back on the shelves, placing them exactly as they were before. One lady taps the spines back into soft lines with her fingertip. Lovingly. They call to each other, and their heads go from side to side again as they look at each other’s books, and then back to their own books.

One says, ‘Quick, the lads are here.’ They shuffle and stack harder. One shows the other a picture in a book and they both give quick screams of laughter. Two men come in. The four of them gather tightly. One lady is balancing some books on one hip, ‘I’m getting these, and she thrusts them at one of the men, and he looks down admiringly. He says, ‘Did you leave any for anyone else?’ and the ladies give small screams again, and the man looks happy.

Illustration by Inge Look