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…’

The dad

I remember him because he asked me if he could come in with food. He was carrying brown paper bags and coffee. His teenage daughter was already inside. She’d been looking at science fiction for the last half hour. When she heard him, she appeared in the doorway and nodded. He came in.

I said all food is ok. I was eating a doughnut. He stood behind her nodding and listening and drinking his coffee, and he bought every book she wanted, which was three. She said, as they left, ‘I love bookshops,’ and he nodded and held the door, still eating his pastie. Then they went out into the rain.

Illustration by Johanna Wright

There are delicacies

There Are Delicacies

there are delicacies in you
like the hearts of watches
there are wheels that turn
on the tips of rubies
& tiny intricate locks

i need your help
to contrive keys
there is so little time
even for the finest
of watches

Earle Birney (1904 – 1995)


The Mind’s Eye by Chen Chi-kwan (1921 – 2007)

The Doll’s House

My grandfather, Ben, made me a doll’s house when I was small. It was rough. It was perfect. His work-shed at his house in Richmond had aeroplanes flying over it, low enough to warm your hair and fill your ears with engine and wind.

The shed was dark and warm. The carpet made of wood shavings. Small windows. He made me a merry-go-round with horses made steady with a pearl of glue under each tiny hoof, polishing the circles of wood first with sandpaper and finally with felt made fragrant with talk powder.

He was an alcoholic, miserable in the city after a life in the bush. Then the war. There was nobody to ask if men were ok. There was only the bottle.

He always bought me liquorice.

He polished small disks of wood for me. He made them into mirrors. I tided the shed. I shuffled the tools and the wood about, and he looked on uneasily, thanking me, nodding and nodding, needing eucalypts and space and heat and getting only Adelaide.

He nodded and began the doll’s house. I’d always wanted one. He made it properly, with an attic. He must have heard me say it, ‘an attic’, and he made one, a proper one. I would see him sanding and cutting, his shoulders still wearing the war and heavy with poverty and city.

Now he’s gone.

 I set it out for my grandsons, and they filled its rooms with new knowledge. They piled all the tiny plates and cups into a front end loader. They set up the kitchen with cupboards and beds. They put a tractor in the garage. They put the bath outside. They put the baby’s cot in the tractor. They continued my grandfather, and may they never know war.

Regarding our own stuff

They are becoming too many, and I know I won’t be able to read them all. Think about that. Why did I get all these? But this is only some of them. Why are book collectors so mad? What it is? Where’s the grip?

My library. It lines every wall. It’s on fire. It swells and shrinks, puckers and protrudes; puts ankles in the hallway, spills books onto the beds of grandsons, ‘What’s this Nanny, it’s got bees on it, it’s got rips in her, it’s too heavy, it’s not my book, it’s bent, but I didn’t done it.’

My library stands with its spine against all walls, shoulders back and watching the family drama. It breathes out. Books land softly. They are trodden on; they brace their cardboard ribs and make it through.

‘Who’s Arthur Ransome?’

‘The Lakes. Heap of kids in a boat. Fabulous.’

‘Is this racist?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Whose this?’

‘Jamaica Kincaid.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Nanny, I saw Paddington.’

‘What’s this Mrs Pepperpot?’

‘It’s mine.’

‘It’s not.’

‘Should I read Margaret Atwood?’

‘Yes.’

My sister bending strongly and in no mood for argument, examines my shelf of Terry Pratchetts. She finds something that might be hers. She straightens up with an accusing face. It is hers.

My dad returns my copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Tea Tree Gully Library.

The grandsons have a go at Asterix.

‘Mum, read Nevo Zisin. Because you don’t get it.’

I read and read. Everything implodes, and my library rocks back and forth holding things upright for me, knowing

I still have my mother’s collection of Monica Dickens. I won’t let it go. It’ll come with me. Which of course it will. Once, a customer, Robert, said ‘all the books come with us, my God, they do.’ Imagine not reading. But I can’t.

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

On this day

A day when ordinary things happen. The ordinary lives come past my windows and in and out of the door and show some of their scratches and gardens. A lady came in with her husband and bought a book for her adult son – it is for his research. She is going to photograph the pages and email them to him. On the way out she said, ‘There. That’s my good deed. I can help him. He was really please about this book. I could tell.’

Her husband, the father, nodded. They turned toward the bakery, both of them looking pleased and happy. I could see them still talking and nodding down at the book in her hand.

An older lady lifted her shopping high on either side of her to jog across the road in the rain. Her shopping bag, her handbag, her hat, her shoulders, all jogged up and down, the mother ship making for the coast, not fast but accurate.  The cars slowed down. There, on the kerb, was her group, all cheering.

Someone shouted, ‘You’re game Eddie!’ And they gathered around her, took her bags, brushed off the dust of the journey, admiring, adoring.

A young man strode past, banging the windows of the bakery, banging on my windows, shouting and furious, ‘Fucking fuck. Ten o’clock and no food.’ He was leaning forward, walking fast, and betrayed already at only 10am.

A grandfather bought his granddaughter three books. She said, ‘I love this series.’ She looked at her grandfather. He said to me, ‘She’s a reader. She’s a real reader. Better than me.’ He presented the money, still looking at me, and swayed slightly, unable to balance the pride.

When they left she linked her arm tightly through his.

Painting by Marcel Rieder (1862-1942)