The Book Keeper and grandsons, sometime before Christmas when I wanted to organize the Christmas tree

They only live in the absolute present, the three second crystal lens that they are consuming and digesting every moment. So, Christmas trees are interesting, but as there are none here(yet) the Christmas tree lost out to a plastic horse with a bent leg, a crane and bedtime looming darkly within the adult conversations.

They didn’t want to go to bed.

Everyone one is out here. The evening is too warm and too light to be proper night, and young parents are sprawled, complaining gently about everything and looking forward to the next day.

I have a promising stack by my bed and have no problem with the night, except that it is too short.

But the little boys are unsure. There’s a matchbox car and three difficult blocks that won’t become a shed. Things to sort. The monkey tree is bent. A log of wood dragged inside to be a fence has shed bugs into the carpet. Someone tore Hairy Maclary, it wasn’t me.

It was Finny.

Is it Christmas outside?

Am I sleeping here?

I’m going to childcare party.

I haven’t got any apple.

Nanny, I haven’t got any apple.

Where shall we put the Christmas tree, do you think?

Can I have any of some more apple?

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

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.

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.

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.

Chemin de Fer by Elizabeth Bishop

Alone on the railroad track
I walked with a pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.

The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond.

where the dirty hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple.
The pet hen went chook-chook.

‘Love should be put into action!’
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.

Sculpture by Hans Some

(The literal meaning of the French phrase ‘chemin de fer’ is ‘iron path’.) 

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.

The stuff we find at home when there’s time

I found a tiny plastic box with tiny library cards that I made for my dolls. There was a tiny pencil and erasure. There was obviously no greater outing than the public library. So my dolls must’ve gone there and borrowed stuff.

I found a large mandarin coloured glass ball that my brother dug up in our chook yard and gave me. He said it probably had something to do with Merlin. I tried to glue it to the end of a long slender piece of wood, but no amount of aquadhere would do that. But what can you know when you’re eight years old. Except that I wasn’t eight. I was about fifteen. Weird.

I found an old diary with “I wish I had a boyfriend” on the first page. But there was no one interested in me, except maybe useless Merlin who didn’t even bother to turn up. Bastard.

I found a little jam jar full of pebbles from Lake St Clair in Tasmania. I found gumnut cups that I’d kept as proof that the Banksia Men were real. I found three matchbox cars and a cloth bag with a coat hanger about one inch long. A daughter made that. It was to hang up  a mousie’s jacket.

There are marbles, nappy pins, pieces of glass, pencil sharpeners, memory sticks and nail files. A man made from a cork with clothes glued on and a nail coming out of the top of his head. A box of little fragrant candles too valuable to use. A jar of sapphire blue glass too beautiful to give up. Photographs. A tiny metal duck. An essay written by a 7 year old about why we should never give pins to babies.

There’s a glass jar filled with strips of paper carefully cut out. On each one, a thought printed in black pen. It was a birthday gift. I pull one out:

“Dear mum, thank you for the glasses gene.”

There are cross stitch kits, embroidery books, mosaic instructions, packets of seeds, knitting needles, a long stitch kit never even opened. My mother saying, ‘Finish something.’

There are about 12000 books.

Have a clean out. Declutter. As if.  

Mary died

Last Sunday, Mary died. She was my mother-in-law. When I met her, I thought she was a bitch. Turned out she thought much the same of me. Back then.

 I remember the afternoon I met her. I was wearing a hot pink sweater with a big cross stitched flower on the front, which I thought looked pretty impressive even though it didn’t. She came out of the door at the unit on OG Road and descended on me, eyes boring into mine, assessing the future, taking control. I dug in and began building the defence.

She moved straight through it. Told me what to do, and when. Told me what I owed, and where my responsibilities were. Told me to come and stay and not to leave. Told me I was ridiculous, presumptuous, selfish, all of which were possibly true.

I visited the family farm and tried to go home again. We fought in the back rooms, and she threw a book at me. I worked on plans to make distance. She worked on different plans.

She told me she hated cooking because it was a waste of time, and I looked at her with sudden respect and then looked away. She said, ‘Come and sit with us.’ I resisted. She sat with me. I plotted to move away.

Once, in Cleve, we parked the car in the main street. There was a group of lads in a tight circle, all wearing black, all with earrings and tattoos, and one shaved bald. Mary sailed right into the middle, scattering cigarettes and plans of anarchy. She said, ‘Well how are you young Jonesy? How’s the farm?’ They straightened up and answered appropriately, sensing, unlike me, that her interest was genuine and would not be easily satisfied.  She asked more questions, and more questions, and they answered obediently.

I thought, she goes anywhere.

Once she told me she had to travel across Sydney, all by herself on a train, for a women’s group meeting. She said she was terrified. I looked at her and took a small defence down.

Still, I dug trenches and avoided. Launched missiles which came straight back at me. Complained to my own mother who said, ‘Don’t be so silly.’

Mary was first at the hospital when all the babies were born. First to let everyone know. First to pick up the babies. One of my babies was born on her and Leith’s wedding anniversary. She told me by phone that she thought about that all night. I took another small defence down. We squabbled about boundaries and privacy.

We bickered and fought and disagreed, and I placed obstacles in clever places so she could not reach me. I thought, I’m strong too. Don’t tell me what to do. But she did. She went anywhere. This included the dark defended areas of my own fear. In she went. Once on the back veranda of my own house, when I had little children, I cried. She stepped in, dropped a bunch of grapes on the decking, and stepped in. ‘It’ll be ok.’ She wasn’t bothered by what it was. She just knew it would be ok.

I criticised and bitched and angered at her and about her. I would be a better parent than her. I wasn’t. It all fell in pieces. She never said a word. She loved conflict. She loved chaos and problems. ‘It’ll all come out in the wash. No need to worry about that.’

I took down bits of defence, cautiously.

She loved to eat cream buns, and would say, ‘Look at this. Oh well, going to die anyway, aren’t we.’

She went everywhere.

I heroically fought off her invasion even though there wasn’t one. I mistranslated energy for obsession and appetite for control. I fought off her interest as something dangerous. I noticed that my growing children didn’t agree with me.

Mary kept on, each day seemingly worth the effort. She said, ‘Once, when I had four small children on the farm, the head shearer threw his dinner at the wall. That was a sign that it was not a good dinner.’ I looked at her in horror. Once she said about her own mother, ‘It didn’t matter what I did, mum’d have a go at me.’ Once she said that she nearly didn’t make it with four small children on a farm and nobody much to help out. I moved my arm a bit so that it went next to her arm. She was watching Keeping up Appearances and laughing loudly. She gripped my hand and kept on laughing.

Once we saw a new product at the supermarket. Corn Chips. I said in the aisle, ‘Look at these’, and she bought three packets, and I was shocked. Unfluent in generosity and impetuousness, I was shocked. She said, ‘Well, why not.’ She got Windows 95 before anyone else, and said, ‘Don’t open too much stuff on the screen at once, or it’ll freeze.’ She said things like, ‘Oh well, it’ll be all right.’

Well, buy it, then.’

‘Well, there’s not much we can do about that.’

‘I think so too.’

I got older. My energy fell away, and my jokes became feeble, but Mary still laughed at them. I said, ‘I’m getting old’, and she fell about laughing and raised one leg in the air.

She looked at all my children, and said, ‘Look at them. Nothing wrong with them.’

She got some great grandsons. Three little fellas. I noticed how much she approved of their naughtiness. How interested in the conflict. How she valued the problems. How she laughed and raised one leg in the air. How the worse things got, the more valuable they became.

When she got sick, when her mind fell away gently in flakes, and she had to go into care, she still laughed at my poor jokes. I said, ‘My hip is going.’ And she was delighted.  She said, ‘Where are the men?’ Her men were everything to her. And I said, ‘Who knows, who cares?’ And she laughed with her arms straight up in the air, and I saw she was getting thin. She said, ‘Tell them to come in, dinner’s ready.’ But there was no roast lamb. That day, there was just the disinterest of Resthaven, and me, and I had so little to offer.

Once, she said, ‘Felicity.’

 In the hospital, when she wanted to go home, she said, ‘I’m not well, am I.’ She hit one of the nurses. Once when I visited, she pointed one arm toward me as though in desperate recognition of something from some long ago place, and she got up and walked towards me, and I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said angrily, ‘I’m dead.’

She gripped my hand so hard.

She always wore pink hats. At Resthaven, she still wore pink, and I was glad. She always had good shoes. She used to buy clothes and things, try them on and return them. ‘Get it, you can always return it’, she always said to me. Rich in life and mistakes and great fields of wheat, and fruit trees by the gate that shrivelled because Leith put Roundup on them by mistake.

She always said, ‘Here you are with all your books.’ She broke through everything I put up.  I don’t know how. She always said, ‘Allo, allo, allo, how are YOU?’ One of her sons still says this same thing, and means it, thank God.

Once, a long time ago, my mother-in-law’s mum, also called Mary, told me that she rocked all her kids to sleep in a bassinet on the veranda at the farm, and it was so hot. One of those kids was my mother-in-law. A nurse came, who was young, and said my mother-in-law’s mum needed to do things a bit better. Then my mother-in-law’s mum got old. She used to make shepherd’s pie at Aberfoyle park for me when I was still new to the family, and she agreed with my criticisms of my whole new family. Then she fell away into the different and awful place of dementia.  I was busy with babies then, but I went to St Agnes and visited, and she looked at me and smiled and nodded, despite everything.  

When I was young and new to this family, I sat on a sand dune at Port Neil and listened to my new mother-in-law talk about her own mother, the one who had made me shepherd’s pie. I sat stiffly on the sand dune next to my mother in law, who she sat with her knees under her chin, looking at the sea. Next to her, a younger aunty, complaining about being told what to do.

‘She won’t stop telling me what to do. I’m forty years old.’

Mary said, ‘I’m 50, and she’s still telling me what to do.’ And they laughed.

I was 23 back then, and knowledgeable and wise and sulking as I looked at the sea. I listened to them and thought that I won’t be like this. I’ll sort this all out. I won’t be part of this.

But it was too late, I already was. Thank God.

And I still am. Thank God. Thank God.

RIP

Try this one, it might work better

Two men came into the shop today together, and I thought they were brothers. This is because they worked shoulder to shoulder. First they had to check in.

‘Did you get it?’

‘No not yet.’

‘Come inside. There’s another one in here. Try it. Might work better.’ They found my app printed and hung up in a different place.

‘That one out there must be on a shadow or something, generally I get it, don’t I.

The other man instructed him.

‘Come back a bit. Come back a bit.’

‘It’s been working beautiful till now.’

‘Yeah, I know mate. Come back a bit, you have to get the whole thing in.’

‘I’ve got it.’

‘No, you haven’t.’

‘Ok, I’ll have to sign the thingo. Don’t know why that is, it worked beautiful in the bakery, sorry to be a nuisance.’ He looked at me apologetically. I said, ‘Not to worry.’

I rewarded them with Melody Gardot through the speaker. They swayed.

I watched them move. Gentlemen, with hands in pockets. Silence. Leaning over the books with courtesy and interest. One men went into Art. The other man swayed, listening. They passed each other twice in the same narrow space. ‘You right?’

‘I am, mate.’

Hats on, black, coats on, blue, shoes stout helping with winter. Silence and breathing.

Suddenly their wivesentered, signing in efficiently. There are three of them. Who is the third?

‘Come on, girls.’ The see their men.

‘Oh, ello stranger, fancy meeting you here.’

One of the men responds, ‘Do I know you?’

Why are you in the children’s books?’ They don’t answer.

‘Come on Sue, let’s get Nora Roberts.’

Sue, in a beautiful red coat moves gently and slowly. ‘Did you sign the thing?’

‘We did.’ They move off, Sue with a walking stick. They ask each other.

‘How much is this?’

‘Is there a section for crime?’

‘I know what author I’m going for.’

‘Here, watch your step.’

Meanwhile, the husbands are still in art, shoulder to shoulder. They are examining their wallets. I listen to them when they pay for the art book.

‘Hans Heysen, not a bad bloke.’

‘He didn’t do too bad, did he?’

‘Now that I’ve retired I should put my finger back into the apple pie.’

‘Well, I’ll tell you what…’

Then they left, alone, and without their ladies. Outside in the cold, I could hear them still talking, still bent over the book he had open and was holding out under the afternoon cold.

‘Have they gone? Where are they?’

‘The men have left us behind, Sue.’

‘They’ve all gone, have they?’

‘They’re probably looking for us.’

‘Well, we can get back to the car. Don’t need them.’

Then they left, but I can still hear them outside the door.

‘I’ll just look round the corner.’

They moved slowly out and on and past the window. I can still here their voices…

‘…well that’s their fault for just sitting at home…’