A devil for reading

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I remember this couple. They came from Murray Bridge, and they only visited once.  They spent the whole time telling me about their granddaughter. They laughed so much and they were so proud. That was in 2015, and I never saw them again. I remember they wanted the Tintin books by Herge.

Their granddaughter would be 20 now. If only she knew how they had collapsed in on themselves, silent, pained, because there were no sounds that could carry enough value to ease their contentment at having received her into their quiet road, wooden breakfast table, tomato garden lives.

 

I remember Dion

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I remember Dion. He was one of my first customers. This was back when hardly anyone came in. Dion came in, and said, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Then he asked me how I was. I did not know back then that he would ask me this for the next five years. I also didn’t know that he wasn’t ok himself.

The first book he asked for was Twilight. He had seen the film, and thought it was the greatest film ever. He bought the book from me.

Still he visited, weekly, fortnightly, then monthly. I have not seen him for a long time now.

I remember when he gave up smoking. He asked me for a book on sharks. I showed him one and he bought it. Said it was fantastic. His hands were shaking.

Once he said that I would not want what he had. He never went into details about his health, or lack of it. He always asked after mine. No matter what.

Once he came in, full of head pain, and said, ‘Kerry, you’re gunna love this joke.’

Once he came in on a rainy day to say hello, and make sure that the shop was ok. I said that all is going well, and he said: except the weather.

The last time I saw him, he said, ‘Don’t worry about me, Kerry.’

I haven’t seen him since.

 

Artwork by Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu

I remember

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Before I had a bookshop, the idea of having one lit up the back fence like some kind of unwanted answer from the past.

I remember looking at empty shops. When I found one, I thought, well! I never expected any kind of commercial success, but I did hope to survive. What the shop was to look like was paramount. It had to look like Diagon Alley –  because this was what I liked. Thus, the shop was based on what I wanted, what I liked, what I thought was good. A good selfish start.

(I had a lot to learn.)

Once a child said, “This is like Diagon Alley’, and sealed the happiest day of my first year.

I was surrounded by thousands of oblongs, each one containing an unexpected rich fuse. I felt so wealthy that I had to lie down and cradle my head.

It was not possible to explain such an abandonment of logic.  I remember experiencing it early in life; after reading Tubby and the Lantern. This was because Tubby and Ah Mee had a bunk bed.

In Little House on the Prairie, there was snow.

In Sam and the Firefly, there were lights, gold gems stinging an emerald blue sky.

In Whispering in the Wind, Crooked Mick could sit on a horse and drink two cups of tea while it bucked.

Later, Helen Garner, John Steinbeck, Dal Sijie…. uncovering the diabolical ache of life without solutions. So much. So little time.

Then, repeated visits to Jeff’s Books to learn how to do it:

What happens if…..

What do I do when…

Who is…

What is…

How do I…

What should I….

How can I…

Finally, back to my shop to actually do it. I had to learn how people read, and why. This was different, and it was difficult, and it still is. So much to learn, so little time. Luckily,  I recorded it all.

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Black Beauty, Monty Roberts, and champagne

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Yesterday afternoon, a man came in with a bottle of champagne. He had seen a copy of Black Beauty in the window. He left the bottle on the counter and examined every book on the window table before returning with Black Beauty. He said he was also hoping for books by Monty Roberts, and that if I wanted to know about horses, I had to read Monty Roberts.

There was another customer here, looking through The Counties of The United States of America, and saying out loud, ‘This really is the nuts and bolts of the USA. It’s so complicated. Look at it. Look at this map.’

The other man said, ‘Have you read Shy Boy?’

‘This is the only book that actually shows how the counties have further subdivisions.’

The other man said we should all read Shy Boy: The Horse That Came in from the Wild, by Monty Roberts. He stood thinking, tapping the top of the bottle, and said that a couple of years ago, he –

Two people passed the door, walking fast. One said, ‘Well, we don’t have to worry about getting married.’

The man with the bottle of champagne turned abruptly and watched them walk by.

The other man said, ‘Look at this statistical table, it’s really up to date.’

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Remember that pudding…?

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There were two people outside the shop one afternoon, on the edge of the footpath and unable to cross the road. They were loaded with bottles of coke, a bag of ice and packets of corn chips and they were handling each item separately, they were very loud.
The traffic was not considerate of them, it just kept passing by and their heads were going from right to left and right to left and they were getting mad. So, when the sheep truck bellowed through and shaved all their supplies the woman said: fuck that stinks, and withdrew back onto the footpath and against my windows where they repacked their evening supplies. There was also a carton of beer that I hadn’t noticed, it was standing against the wall, waiting to be carried.
The man said: look at that cockhead! And they are watching the motorbikes now leaving across the road, leaving in a group which they consider necessary and holding up the traffic so they can stick together.
The woman said, what a twat, and they both nod, their heads turn from right to left and right to left and they note certain cars, frowning, interested. He says, that’s a shit car. Mum had one.
The woman agrees.
Remember that pudding she made? With all that cream…and chocolate milo or something? Yous all helped.
Yeah. Not milo.
Yeah.
Look at that. They are watching a toddler unwilling to climb into the family parked car, roaring, kicking, alive with rage. The couple look on approvingly. He says, look at that little bloke.
She suddenly says, this a book shop here, and he says, no don’t go in for Christ sake, let me finish me smoke, then we’ll get going. She says, I read that, that there, see it, the billabong kids.
He says, no mate, no billabongs here.
She says, god you’re a fucking moron. I read that, these kids. Hot country.
But he is standing, gathering the ice, the beer, the corn chips and the afternoon.
So, they are ready to go, all the cargo is steady and they approach the kerb. But there is a misjudgement and he sets sail but she doesn’t.
He reaches safe harbour across the road but she is still docked.
She yells, fuck, I’m comin’ over, just wait! And he waits, waving and hilarious, watches her make the crossing and when she leaps to the other side, with the ice and the bottles they embrace and say, fuck, did you see that… and then they walk off hand in hand into their good billabong, chocolate pudding evening.

…and then he just threw everything into the creek…

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A customer told me this: when he was young, he read all the stuff in school. But his cousin, his good cousin, he didn’t read anything. Well, they are still mates. And his cousin said only the other day: why do you read stuff Rob, you don’t need to read, all you need to read is just one instruction book man, like a manual, like the engine manual of your car man, life only needs a couple of instruction manuals.
Rob told me that on the last day of school, long time ago, they were going home and he had in his school bag all his stuff, all his books and that. And he has kept them all until this day because he loves them, even the book on how to type, and the book on how to spell and the book on how to do other stuff, BUT his cousin, he threw all his stuff in the creek.
When Rob told me this story and told me about the part about the creek, he looked at me and we both thought about the books in the creek, the slap against surface, the heavy sinking, the triumph, yes! And everyone thinking, yeah, free…whatever…
Rob said that he kept the books on how to type. He loved those books. He always saw things a bit not like the others and all that.
Now he reads and read many things – he is reading Faction Man because he is not sure that Bill Shorten is all that he’s cracked up to be, reckons that that guy never had a proper job yet. He should of worked at MacDonald’s or something and leaned how it is. That’s what reading books told him about: work a proper job until you are despaired of it and then you can get famous. But if you don’t work a proper job, get your hands black and all that, go home owning nothing except a bad job then you’ve no right being in government and that’s why they are all wankers.

Pontoon

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All our kids jumped off that pontoon.
And it’s still there, moored in the middle of the bay, animated during the day, motionless across the evening when all the kids have logged off and gone back to the caravan park.

The pontoon was heavy, the water was green and cold and deep, and the games had no form, the platform had no rules; it was just get out of the deep, get on to the float and then get off spectacularly. It was about hurling muscle and energy and seawater into smoky, bubbling patterns. To get up, there was a metal ladder, to get off there was just the edge- then the plunge into the marine and someone else’s foot giving you a blood nose and everyone saying it wasn’t even them.
All the parents sat on the shore and wondered if they should get in, wondered if they would make it out to the pontoon, wondered if there was still ice in the esky, wondered if it was too early for a beer, wondered where the sunscreen was. They were just realizing that the days were starting to go fast, never realizing that these kids would have their kids and bring those kids to the same bay, that same pontoon, that life buoy still nodding generously for the next version of campers, parents and kids and eskies.

Photography by Paul Cullen ( thanks Paul, for this great photo of all our kids! )

 
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The couple who kept on telling each other to leave

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Which they did, the entire time they were here in the shop, we should leave, are you done, I’m done, can you try to finish, we have to go,  but they couldn’t leave, their eyes were caught, over and over again, on Lolita, on Mona Lisa: A History, on Justin Cronin, on A History of Leisure travel, on A Catcher in the Rye, on The Narrow Road to the Deep North, because each catch came with another story, another narrative that they first told each other and then repeated to me. When she laughed, she stood on tip toes and leaned backwards, and he would say, yes that’s it. Then he said: well, thank you for your kind, kind, kind thoughts and thank you very much and soon to see you again and then he wrenched the door nearly off its hinges, left it floating in the warm street and they marched away together, she was reading aloud her biography of Charles Darwin as they walked, he was nodding and saying yes, yes, that’s right…

Eugen Spiro, Reading Outdoors, 1936

Looking through the window on a hot evening in December

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When I was a child, colours in glass meant Christmas, but I don’t know why. I know we lived next to a church with stained glass windows that would have shouted their outrage all through the summer. Colours of boiled lollies. We sat on the smooth wooden pews in church every Sunday morning, already hot, already ready to leave, across the road the sea went on and on and didn’t even care about Christmas. Our bikes leaned against the gate close by because we only lived next door. Once my brother threw a brick into the outside church toilet and busted the porcelain bowl and we sprinted without stopping all the way home which was only ten metres. Because the minister’s kids shouldn’t do stuff like that.
Christmas time was rich and heavy and brilliant with the sea across the road, Santa in a front end loader and it was a real Santa not some bullshit farmer dressed up and riding in their own front end loader. This was a real one and his reindeer were in the old stone barn at the back of the bank. The kids whose dad ran that bank said this was true and I remember that girl, Susan, in my class, had a dragster bike with pink things on the wheels so it was real what she said. Christmas was stained glass and the nativity, a brilliant tranquil story fired though with candles and sheep, lit up at the back with a stained glass window of another entirely different story, set on fire with the summer, threaded through with the last days of school where we made lanterns with green, blue, red, orange, yellow cellophane, the classrooms blazing with tinsel, the final concert where we sang too loud and the infants teacher was tired and said keep calm and that family that lived in the sandhills in a shack that had no electricity and sand going in the front door. And then we ran home fast as anything because if you were outside when the sleigh went over you only got a bag of sand. The green and blue bottles at the window reminded me of all of that.