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)

It’s raining. There’s a man pacing up and down….

It’s raining. There’s a man pacing up and down outside my shop. His phone is on speaker. I can hear the phone speaking back to him, a thin stream of information, like a pilot giving air directions, and none of it making sense to anyone else.

‘The things they get away with down there is ridiculous.’

The phone answers what sounds like a long list of facts.

‘You can times that by five, mate. The problem is… the problem is… what they don’t realize is…’

The phone speaks back. Agreeing.

The man is pacing, agitated, up and down. It is still raining.

‘I contracted it all out though. It’s such a hassle. Turns out that – ‘

The phone interrupts.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes…is it though?’

The phone delivers a short lecture, this time without interruption.  

‘All right buddy, better let you go.’ The conversation ends. The man, wearing an orange safety vest, muddy boots, and a beanie, picks up his coffee from my windowsill and strides away.

It’s quiet again. It’s dark and raining, not right for September. There are long heavy trucks outside, slow and creaking and hissing. But now they have all stopped. This is unusual, and I look out. There’s an orange indicator going somewhere out of my sight, the rain and the hot orange light flicker and flacker all over the front of the shop. K and S Freighters are stuck out there, massive and shining, then a huge carrier with cows looking out at the rain, a soft wall of eyes, then a cement mixer with its wet belly turning slowly, then a bus.

Someone walks past whistling, a bright light idea uninterested in rain.

When the sun comes out, it is warm, its light has gold edges that are told in the puddles, the puddles read it swiftly in gold lines with metal stops. The puddles are flints. People look down, then up and shade their eyes.

Everyone becomes a jogger, simply everyone. They have to cross the road. The sun has dropped abruptly, rain again. I stand at the window and look out.  People run rustily, puffing dramatically, eyes screwed up, legs lifted high to avoid the spray, laughing because there is so much water, and because we need it.  My town, thirty minutes away and always dry, lay on its back this morning drinking heavily, weighed down by liquid, the trees hanging sodden, their roots and toes alive with water and digging for more.

Customers come wheezing in, happy and unbothered, ‘Do you have book two of Tim Severin’s Viking stuff?’

The trucks drag nets of spray behind them. A child in a car parked just outside the door has his arm out of the window catching the drops. He is on his knees. He puts his head out. A drench catches him, and he shakes and shakes, alive with nourishment. Somebody inside the car speaks, and he abruptly withdraws.

Another child, on the footpath, is being a duck. I am startled because his duck sound is so real, so loud and so close.

‘He’s being a duck, Grandpa.’

There’s a whole family out there. They’ve been to the bakery and are noisy with paper bags and loaves of bread and coffee.

‘Show Grandpa how you’re being a duck.’

The child is wearing soft thick clothing, red and dark blue, and tiny stout boots protect his webbed feet, and he quacks and quaeks and hoots.’

 ‘Hey, come here duck’, says Grandpa.

But he does not want to get into the car.

Grandpa, who drops to help the youngster, gets a boot in the side, and the son, the father, takes over, stern. ‘Get in. Now. Get in. Stop it.’

Now the ducky is in, fitted into a duckling seat, the rain runs down the windows and I can see him making duck hands to himself, and there are little arrows of sun smoking down and making a sheen of warm green emeralds on the top of their lolly green car, and then another truck goes speeding past sending us all us a new version of the same water.

The child who slipped outside the shop without his parents noticing

The door opened and closed, soft, final. The child, who had been inside my shop looking at books with his family, slipped out turned and stared back through the glass, his eyes soft and kind and accurate, finding his family again.

The father is just inside the door, and his face, upon looking up and seeing his child on the other side of the door, and realizing it was his child looking in at him, moved in tiny electrified muscular movements of confusion and terror.

The child’s face sparkled with satisfaction – seeing his family in there, while he is out there, and the father fleetingly frozen and unable to work out what to do next, ‘Why are you out there? You can’t go out there. Why did you go out there?’ And suddenly the whole world is irrelevant because his child is on the wrong side of the door, ie where he is not.

The father leaped the chasm, the wolves, the fire, the danger, and the train tracks and swept the door wide and towered there, ’You can’t be out there.’

The child expanded with absolute joy and came back in.  

The mother browsed gently on.

They gathered together and the father, exhausted said to her, ‘Are you finished?’

But she says, ‘No, she isn’t quite finished yet.’

Is that a cat or something…

There is a couple here at the shop. She is looking for books. He seems exhausted and stands against a shelf and looks at her. His black T shirt has white lettering: stay hydrated.

‘What’s that movie that…?’ She is sorting through the classics, softly, gently, making a pile, pushing back what she does not need.

He rubs his eyes. His glasses have plastic shades attached, these are raised, a verandah allowing light.

‘You know that movie. It was really good, but numbers two and three were terrible.’

He is silent, looking at her kindly.

She says, ‘I can’t talk and read, sorry.’ She makes clicking sounds with her lips, turning and looking and choosing.

He leans and gazes. Every time she begins to speak, she becomes distracted and looks elsewhere. ‘Little Women, I love that. I might get that Robertson Davies. Is that a cat or something?’

He is smiling.

No, that’s not what I’m saying

There’s an old man who comes into the shop from time to time – he buys gardening books. Once, last month, when I was glum, and it was cold, and the sky had its eyes closed, he came in. He found a gardening book so big that the cover had a handle. He picked it up and carried it round, he kept saying, ‘Look at this!’

He bought it.

He carried it around the shop a few more times. ‘Look at this, this is great! Good on you for having it. Good on you for having this place.’ His face is a smile, it stretches, every kindly muscle of it, into a single malt smile.

Then he saw the bookmarks and went silent. ‘Look at these.’

‘Look at this.’ He handled a little silver dragon, screwing up his eyes to see it properly. His hands are huge, gardening hands, at rest but alive as if still holding the secateurs. ‘Look at this. This is marvellous. It’s a little dragon. Good on you.’ His nails are dark, holding soil from the beans he probably checked this morning.

When he first visited the shop, he wanted a book of jokes, not rude ones, just quick ones, for entertaining the grandkids. ‘They like quick jokes these days.’ When he spoke of his grandchildren, his eyes moistened and an orchard grew there.

Did they know? Those grandkids? If they don’t, in time they will. When he’s not there, and a small corner of warmth, tomatoes, the washing pegged carefully, the careful attention to what matters – is gone.

When he left, I followed him out. I don’t know why. No, that’s not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say is that the sky had opened its eyes and was looking right at him.

How to be stung

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Words have shapes. The word naked has a spike in the middle. This causes my three year old grandsons to freeze and lighthouse my face. They have heard the word and have become uncertain. I say naked. Naked? I plant the k firmly in the ground because it is important, and they rock about, filling their mouths with two year old laughter, powerful with innocence.
Cereal. Difficult because the r wants more attention that it needs. Ce-re-ral. Difficult because it is uttered so early in the morning, hungry, and hoping for exciting ce-re-ral, the stuff I buy because my mother never allowed me to have it.
I can’t write Australia without an error amongst the vowels.
I can’t type possibly because the y won’t appear.
I can’t say minimalist without losing a shoe and having to go back.
Bum. This is a satisfying word, like a stone thrown into a deep pond. Ripples. Causes hilarity for three year olds.

Mine. Powerful and causes consternation. Different powers according to where it is uttered. And who hears it.
The word freezing is nice to say. The grandsons linger amongst the long sounds and stretch the word, reining in sympathy and attention. Squirted is hilarious but tricky, the t softening into a d, and parents lurking in the car park, saying ‘Are you being rude?’
Bursted. Many things are bursted. A powerful and rich word that describes the world of the three year old more than what it is actually applied to. ‘What happened to the snail? It bursted.’
Sour is puzzling because it is a bit abstract. But is easily learned because of the accompanying flair of lips away from teeth. Three year olds are quick to utilize these performances. Anything can be sour, including vegetables, the sun or a library book.
Biscuit is buttery, baked, soft with kindness, and breaks up in the teeth amongst the actual sentence. Biscuit can stop a runner making for the back of the orchard with a toy truck they have taken from someone else.
Broken has authority. My three year old grandsons use it to blame, condemn, weep, console, manipulate and explain.
Spicy is abstract and unusual, but useful if you have accidentally tasted a chilli. It is immensely satisfying to linger twice amongst the tender skin of the ssss sounds, remembering the burn.

Yellow is simply too difficult. There is too much information thrown by the experience of yellow to waste time forcing the tongue. So, lello fills in, like a relief worker paid a lot but not really part of the plan. Lollies is always managed with skill, precision and desperation.
Buttons is exciting and authoritative and causes things to happen, such as the reprimand, ‘Did you press that?’
Max tried out Mr Archimedes, remembering the story, the bath, the wombat, the spilt hot water, the mop. He managed Mr Medes. It will do. He climbs over the words and continues with the story, ‘The water went all on the floor.’
I said monumental to someone in a thin fussy tone. Noah said, ‘Yeah,’ in hot agreement, the three year old taking part in family affairs, already reading politics with alarming accuracy.
Chippies is flinty and nice, salty and comforting, and rectangular, ‘We went to the shop and got some chippies with mummy.’ Devastation that at the time of the memory, there are no chippies anywhere.
Sting. This is rich and alarming. The s is loud and sharp, a warning. It is freighted with memories of stings. Toys are put down. Little boys gather to talk. ‘Did Noah get stinged? Where did the bee go? Once I got stinged on my thumb.’ The speaker holds up his foot as he says ‘thumb’. They stare at each other, concerned.

They keep on playing, talking, arguing, shouting –  squeezing and pushing at bits of language, every word a biscuit, a rich drench, a sting.