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.

The pantry

I read all of these books. In one of them, the naughty little sister and Bad Harry go to a party. They find the birthday cake, which has been hidden from the children. Between them, they eat all the cream and the lollies (called sweets) that decorated the cake. I remember there were jelly babies treading through the cream. And silver balls. They ate until they felt ill. Then the mother found them in the pantry. The pleasure of the stolen cake and the jelly babies treading through the cream. The tiny silver lollies in the dark pantry. What was a pantry? Suddenly, when I was seven, I loved pantries.

David

Three people have just stopped at the window. Their car is parked behind them; one lady holds onto the car door, steadying herself before stepping to the footpath. They others lean to look through the door.

‘David would in there if he were here.’

‘Yes, he would.’ The third lady joins them. She also leans to look through the glass.

‘Yes. I think so, too.’

‘But not now.’

‘No.’

Another thing I used to read and read. And read.

It was Mrs Pepperpot. I thought she was real, and luckily she was real, so at least I didn’t get that wrong. Mrs Pepperpot always shrank to the size of a pepper pot at the worst times. What was a pepper pot? But then she saved the day. She had her hair in a bun with bits sticking out. I think she had an apron, and she took no nonsense.

She could talk to animals. Once she bought macaroni. What was macaroni? She heard the singing midges. What were midges? She went to a bazaar! There was Mr Big Toe, and bilberries. Mrs Pepperpot was written by Alf Proysen who was Norwegian; Norway, land of cabins on fjords, ogres with single dinner plate size eyes and bare feet like boats with toenails. Snow. Deep cold shivering water that spoke.

Mrs Pepperpot was stronger than weather. She was Queen of the crows. She was possibly a witch.

My copies are blue puffin paperbacks, soft, silky and trustworthy with use, like small coffers containing bright stamps of your childhood nights. Still have them.

When D. H. Lawrence fell

I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.

It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.

But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.

I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.

Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.  

When I read

A long time ago, I got a copy of Heidi for Christmas from my Nanna. It was a new copy, a hardback, the paper cover pink, clean, and tight, and I clutched it because it was new, and it was mine.

There were words in that book new to me, alps, swiss cheese, goatherd, and my mind approached and folded itself around each one. They provided such sustenance that each word still lives in me, buzzing with noise and life, alps high and cold, iced with height, shredded with wind, massive rock, lichen, tiny paths, death to the careless. Grandfather.

And swiss cheese. Salting the bread somewhere. Good. During adolescence, I only wanted swiss cheese; my mother looked at me exasperated. It was her mum who gave me that book. Her mother, Florence, one of thirteen children, who never had a book. Or even a second pair of shoes. Why did she give me a book? Did she know what she saw setting in motion when she wrapped it? Did she know? Did she know that she, Florence Edith of Nailsworth, Adelaide, would now live forever?

Goatherd. A boy. But after I read Pippi Longstocking, a goatherd would be a girl. Or anyone. The alps; height, against a sky of sheer hurtful blue. I read it in a chair in a dull lounge room on the South Australian Eyre Peninsula while the rest of the class gazed glassy eyed at Dick and Dora, those advanced paragons. But I was on a goat path, as wide as a strap of licorice from the store down on Brocks. I had ice in my ears. I had terror. Heidi. Peter. Grandfather. The bread rolls in the cupboard. Bread rolls could be two things, stale and hard or soft, fresh demons of silk. I put the book under my pillow to read again later. I slept with my arms up in the air, I was pulling myself up the cold green track because I was a goatherd.

Then, one day, someone gave me a copy of Gobbolino, The Witch’s Cat…

Image by Nancy Gruskin

Places I used to read

In bed. Still do.

On the floor under the Christmas tree (Heidi, three volumes).

In the car, hoping we wouldn’t get there yet.

During church. Every Sunday. Every service, including during the hymns when I stayed seated not hearing the organ wheezing out the opening sounds, racing though Little Women while everyone else swayed through Open My Eyes That I May See. I was certainly seeing something. When the church goers in the pew behind may have glanced down, they weren’t going to say anything, and anyway, I got the book from my dad’s study amongst ten thousand others, most of which are now mine.  And he was the minister after all.

On holidays with relatives, ‘What’s she doing all this time?” I was reading The Wombles. I wasn’t there with relatives. I wasn’t even in Tasmania. I was with Uncle Bulgaria, putting a pin in the map and getting my true name.

At school, getting into trouble for finishing all the readers in the grade four box too fast.

During silent reading which went for a pathetic ten minutes.

On the school bus, bus pass as bookmark.

In the school library, the nerd, lurking in fiction, reading The Purple Plain by H E Bates, thinking that recess time has never been so good.

At uni, ransacking the library for books that had nothing to do with my teaching course.

Between children. With children, The Very Hungry Caterpillar still the same, during work, between jobs. Taking the slow bus to the city to get in another chapter. At the doctor, furious when the appointment is on time and can’t get on with The Hunger Games.

After work, before staff meetings. During staff meetings.

Then. My own bookshop. Reading between customers and boring them with the book. Hiding books from certain customers in case they make a better library than me. Shoplifting from my own shop. Getting home from work and reading. Reading.

Painting by Curt Herrmann

What people tell me

One man gave me his name and address. ‘Remember us,’ he said, ‘We have an interest in the history of Victor Harbour.’

I often hear about local councils, bus services, and Woolworths. I hear about local doctors and what they say. Some conversations begin without preamble, ‘Kate Grenville, my God she’s a good writer.’ And others are carried on through the door help open.

‘I need the next Lee Child, you got him?’

Visitors show we their art, their families in London, their gardens, and their pets – we gaze together at the little pictures on phones until a text message flashes across the top, where r u did u get bread. One lady knew my family from a long time ago; her daughter had gone out with a very distant cousin of mine. He is now dead, but she isn’t. I learn things about autism, cancer, dementia, death, suicide, and English teachers.

Customers talk to each other while they wait, ‘Is that your own company? Do you do gutters in Mt Barker too?’

I am told about books that should be banned, and why they don’t agree with Harry Potter. They ask me what to do about books they lent out that are not returned, and if I think that books make good gifts. Do I know any editors? Do I bind books myself? Do I live here? Do I know anything about heart disease?

Today someone said there aren’t enough carparks here. Then he told me about the local council again.

A child told me that it’s nearly Christmas. Then she smiled, hugged herself and went back to the Asterix books.

Painting by Henri Matisse

Christmas when you’re little

It was always really good. There was snow and lights at night even though the days were 42 degrees and leaned sideways to get out of their own sun, and it didn’t get dark anyway. Santa came in a front end loader down one end of the wide dusty main street where I lived. The front end loader was a sleigh. The sleigh must’ve landed on the beach. The reindeer were resting in the stables at the back of the bank. Santa was real even though all the farmers standing on the edge of the pageant made out they knew him.

We had a school concert and sang, ‘Turn on the Sun’, as loudly as possible, and the teacher said, ‘Not so loud but very good’, and looked tired, and we were told to wear orange T shirts for the concert, and one kid wore green anyway. And at school, we made coloured cellophane stained glass windows that always looked magical even if you messed up the glue and got told off for taking more than your Fair Share of the slipping cellophane that drenched the world in hot emeralds and lemonade and made the teacher not be there.

There was always snow, snowmen, lanterns, bonfires, and mice that delivered peanuts. We decorated the classroom with paper chains made from brennex squares from that cupboard, and the teachers talked in the corridors, watching their classes through the doors, ‘Four days to go, ladies,’ and us kids kept on snipping away trying to make the longest chain which was always won by Jennifer, whose dad was a doctor so that was why.

I got a copy of Heidi, from my Nanna, brand new, and I lay on the couch willing it to not disappear. The decorated tree caused sickening sensations because it was behind a closed door, and only glimpsed if the door was snapped open, only giving the mind an overheated look at broken rules, ‘You at that door again?’

‘I’m not.’

We drove to nativity services in all the neighbouring places because my dad was the minister, and we went past paddocks and farms and silos and sand dunes, staring through the car window at the impossibly black blue sky with too many stars, scoping for the sleigh which was following our car anyway, too close to be seen. At the little peninsula churches, the warm stone sitting comfortably against all the hard work, the back hall all lit up with the people making food, the tree decorated with their paper loops that were not as good as ours, and the service that you sat through waiting for your name called so you could go out and get a Christmas stocking that might have the glory of glories, a bubble blowing kit. It did. And the carols piled up massively with that many voices, and no one said, too loud to Silent Night, and all the adults quiet for once. And the nativity, the real hot blowing animals, the sheep with hooves that dented your ears, and wise men wearing magic genie colours and proper shepherd’s stuff and a baby doll that was ok, and Judith as the Mary (her again), and the stink of it all, and it shot through your body and your mind making it into your bones so you always had it in you, and you looked for it every Christmas.

‘Come on, we’re going home now.’

‘Can’t.’

Trying to get at the lamingtons, knowing you’d get another one because the minister’s kids always did. And beating Susan, whose dad had the bank who had the reindeers but so what.

Next year, all again.