You’ve been here a donkey’s age

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A couple came into the shop. He stopped at the window. He swayed back and forth, thinking and thinking. He stood in the same place. He wasn’t looking at the books. He was looking at something else, but I couldn’t see it.

His wife beamed and beamed at the shelves. She hurled her approval, but quietly, and everywhere. She said, ‘I like Fiona McIntosh.’ She came back slowly with three books. There was no hurry. There was time.  She said to her husband, ‘What else?’

He said, ‘The devil if I know!’

He swayed back and forth, looking at her. He shone his own approval all over her. She was already bent over, but she bent over some more, laughing slowly.

He said, ‘You’ve been here a donkey’s age!’

He said to me, ‘She’ll be a donkey’s age.’ He nodded silently, agreeing with the end of a vast argument that was flung back over a long time, perhaps a century.

She nodded, agreeing with the end of a vast argument that was flung back over a long time, perhaps a century.

He swayed back and forth. She beamed.

 

 

The kids in the car

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Outside, in a car. There they are! Two children having to wait in the car for a parent who has rushed to the bakery.

I watch the car windows go up and down. Up and down. Spindly arms flicker. They are calling to each other, their little voices like recorders, fluting.

I watch an old lady pause and look in the window. The front passenger offers a small hopeful wave. The way children do. Unsure if it’s ok, but offering anyway.

Then he leans back, stretches forward, leans back again, with those little stalky arms up and touching the roof.  He checks that a smaller sibling in the back is attentive to his rather magnificent stretching. That child is nodding, nodding, nodding, but is looking out of another window.

The sudden grill of motorbikes makes them pause and stare at each other. The younger’s face is stretched downwards in that way children do, to fit itself around approval and joy.

The front one goes swish swish with his hair. He reaches out and flickers both hands right to left in an abrupt and convincing parody of a pianist thinking before descending.

He is singing.

Suddenly he reaches across to the back and offers a packet of something. He puts the packet gently into the sibling’s face to properly display the feast. They eat in these positions, together.

There are two small bikes strapped to the roof. I see now that there is also a dog in the back. I stand in the doorway of my shop, enjoying the sun and everything.

The front child returns and begins playing jazz piano on the back of his seat. The audience (of one) gazes forwards, rapt. The thin arms bounce and run, hover and dive, his fingers stripping the upholstery as he releases some ribbon of sound he has heard on YouTube or somewhere, somehow. His thin frame quivers across his own deadly reach. He must stop now, panting.

Another child goes past, staring in. Mr Front Seat disappears from view. Then his eyes appear. He points over the sill with his finer. Is he a sniper? Nearly as deadly to humankind as a jazz pianist. The passing child continues past. Walking and looking backwards at the car, eating biscuits.

Mum returns.

They talk, nod, seat belts, more nodding, a long conversation, she is holds the packets of food in mid-air. There is a long story from Mr front seat. Mum is interested, listens right to the end, then she leans back and kisses Mr Backseat. He leans back, replete. She deals out food, fastens her own seat belt, pull gently away from the kerb, eating from a paper bag bag, the children likewise, like little horses, noses out of sight and eyes closed.

Artwork by Pascal Campion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Don

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Just turned eighty. He said in photo one, he is fifteen, in photo two, he is half full.

In my stories of him, I remember the country, the heat, and the Cadbury chocolate blocks, the big ones (happiness).

There were cousins, strawberry fates and crabbing (somewhere).

So important, the memories and stories.

He just told me one of his stories:

When he was fifteen, he left school. He was forced to stay till fifteen. His mum (my Nanna) said, ‘Well you’re going then, and don’t you come back.’ She gave him ten shillings, a pack of cigarettes, one change of clothes and a new pair of R. M. Williams boots. Stirrup boots. He said, ‘My dad tried them on. I saw him in the hallway there, trying them on, reminded him of the bush you see.’

I remember his dad, my grandfather. His garden captured in rectangles, the vegetables obedient, the bizarre horse radish unkind to my mouth. There was a pool. It was a water butt, a tank overflow, waist high and diabolically beautiful. I played there with a set of plastic animals that I helped across the terrifying water to another place. In the shed nearby, my grandfather, a bushman and miserable in the city, worried pieces of wood into new smooth pieces, a pony, a seal, a round thing that clung to my small hand like an impossible, silken enchantment.

So my Uncle Don went off to Gulnare. On a property, there was a fine horse called Lady Claire, and my Uncle was given her foal to break in –  Dr Penney, he was called, after that Maralinga bloke, William Penney…

That horse would come to a whistle, no matter where he was.

He sewed wheat bags and fenced, one quid per mile if hilly, eight shillings and sixpence when not. He worked all day till it got too dark to see.  Then to the pub with a whole quid, ‘That bought a meal and four bottles of beer to take home, and change in my hand.’

‘I was a rich man.’

Bought himself an Austin 7 with my Nanna going guarantor, and she said, By God, Donald, don’t you let me down.’

My Nanna was a silent person. When I played on her back lawn, near the unkind horse radish, when I build small houses with cardboard and blankets with the livid, galloping imagination of the lonely child, she would approach silently, and leave at the entrance to the realm, a dish with five white peppermints and a glass of fizzy.

Well, my Uncle flipped the Austin 7. And that was the end of that!

But not the end of the stories. There is never an end to the stories; I just have to worry at everyone, and turn them into the impossible enchantments that they actually are.

 

 

Eating lunch with Noah

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Noah is two years old and he’s like an owl. He sits on his knees, on the chair next to me, leaning his shoulder on mine, chummy and confiding. Turns his head, looks at me sideways. Hoots and sighs and drops bread. Eats fast.

Says, what Nanny? What did you say?

He notices a red dragonfly painted inside the rim of his red bowl. I’d never noticed it before.

He laughs and taps the bowl to show me.  See?

He’s like a clock. Head ticks up and down as he counts the bananas.

Says, I’m cold. Looks around urgently and says he’s not cold.

He leans on elbows, notices everything, breathes through his mouth, blows and sighs, climbs up, climbs down, knocks on the window. He offers me half of his banana, endlessly thoughtful.

Says, I’m a monkey. Calls out, what’s that noise?

He’s like a tugboat. Because when they overbalance and slide from the chair, they take the tablecloth (and everything else) with them, tow everything down in alarm, bringing the entire harbour; plates, cups, spoons, forks, bread, tomatoes and bananas, all to the floor.

Says, sorry Nanny, and patiently picks everything up again.

 

 

This Couple

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This couple came into my shop but they weren’t walking on our earth. It was cold, freezing, but they weren’t cold.

They seemed to tread a path across some other realm of private joy, with all of tomorrow’s ideas.

They sing. Exclaim. They howl with joy. Call out to each other, did you see this, babe?

Do you want that? You should get it! Get it!

They remember yesterday, and the day before.

Look at this. This is great. This is so funny. They look at each other.

She kneels in art, bending over the books with the most tender attitude. He strides around, invincible. They look for each other.

‘When I was a kid, I looked up and up at books on a shelf. Now I’m that height. We’re going to have shelves. I love cats. This is how we’re going to be. Our kids are going to have books.’ They look at each other.

The shelves, the books, everything, leaning forward, listening in astonishment. The windows change colour.

Winter withdraws, a gracious defeat.

 

It’s harder with a piano: The old couple who read a poem out loud

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Have you ever seen a mind thinking?

A couple read this line out loud from a poem I have taped to the wall in the shop, bobbing about, delighted to find a poem on the wall and looking at each other with amazed, hilarious eyes.

(They are side by side, leaning in, shoulders touching, experienced and fearless).

Out loud, they read it to each other:

Have you ever seen a mind

Thinking?

It’s like an old cow

Trying to get through the pub door

Carrying a guitar in its mouth;

Who are they reading it to? Not to me. They haven’t even noticed me. It’s to each other. They sway about and laugh and keep reading: HA, HA, HA, this is brilliant!

I agree; it’s Chris Wallace-Crabbe, and it is brilliant. It’s just that nobody ever noticed it before. They turned around, and said to me, we like your bookshop!

Have you ever seen a mind

thinking?

It’s like an old cow

trying to get through the pub door

carrying a guitar in its mouth;

old habits keep breaking in

on the job in hand;

it keeps wanting

to do something else:

like having a bit of a graze,

for example…

And they keep reading, down, down, and down, dropping through the poem, which, being Chris Wallace-Crabbe, is astonishing and endless, right to where the cow gets through the door but doesn’t know how.

Because, how do minds (with guitars) get through doors?

Anyway, the cow has to know that it’s harder with a piano.

It’s harder with a piano.

When they read this, the delicious middle line, the wife shrieks, and says, briiiiiilliant. She looks at her husband: oh, don’t you remember? I do.

 

 

Introspection by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

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The ladies and their husbands

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The ladies came in first. They wanted Flight of the Eagle. They also wanted Kerry McGinnis. I heard them say to each other, they won’t have those in this shop. They entered in a leaning forward, questing sort of way. They held their handbags out in front of them, like torches.

They also wanted Peter Carey. They thought I wouldn’t have those in this shop. They leaned back in front of classics, but there was nothing useful there. Then they came to the counter and said they couldn’t find anything. They were disappointed. I gave directions to the land of proper books just as the husbands came in and they both went straight to Biographies and stood there for a while. One of them said, look at this, it’s Sting, I don’t mind him. Then they looked at a Donald Trump biography and said nothing at all.

They turned and looked at me. I apologised about Donald Trump. They nodded and relaxed, fair enough.

Then the wives came out, pleased because they had found Peter Watt AND Jilly Cooper. A double triumph. They wanted to tell their husbands about Peter Watt AND Jilly Cooper. About how they were great etc.

The husbands looked around uneasily and suggested the bakery.

 

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

What is love?

 

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“What is love? I have met him in the streets, a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was worn, the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul.”

 

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Artwork by William Hays