November not quite December

Quiet as quiet. I can hear the teacups and spoons chatting next door in the bakery – I can hear that through the wall. There is nobody outside.

Wait, that’s wrong. There’s a ute pulling a Jim’s Mowing and Garden Care trailer. The driver is jogging across to the bakery. Now three women climbing from a car in front of me, looking in my window but passing on by.

I update all the displays.

A young couple with a pram passing the window. He looks at the window and says, ‘I’ve read that.’ She says, ‘Come on.’

There are now two Jim’s Mowing units parked across the road. The drivers are standing together eating lunch. A car skids around the corner opposite the carpark entrance, and both workers look up and across.

A lady phones for Juliette Marillier books. Someone phones for Alexander McCall Smith books.

I spray Riverland Orange with Lemon Rind fragrance around the shop and stand admiring the smell for a while.

I sort all the orders and look up Emily A. Duncan books for a customer. Redo the Christmas books, clean the windows, shelve the newest volumes, and put all the David Eddings back in proper order.

Someone buys a Yates Garden Guide. Someone buys 3 Australian fiction books for a Chris Kringle. I finish The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (brilliant).

A couple admire my Christmas tree through the window: he keeps tapping the glass, possibly thinking the optic lights are responding to his tapping. His wife moves on, and he continues tapping for another minute.

Outside, one car honks another car waiting to turn right. It’s a long aggressive blast. The driver, who is exactly level with my desk, glances into his side mirror and smiles. Then he gives the other driver the finger and very slowly moves around the corner.

The beeping car yells out, ‘Getting ice at Woolworths’. Then they’re all gone, and it’s quiet again.

Two ladies walk past together, and one says, ‘This shop looks very nice’, but they don’t come in.

Two men walk past, and one says, ‘Yeah, well I thought he was serious.’

A young man comes in and asks for any books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, who is a travel writer, and one of the best ever! But I don’t. Then he asks for Jack Kerouac (which I have) and Ilija Trojanow (which I don’t).

I turn on all the fairy lights, clean up the counter, and update the status of all orders.

A child passing with two adults reads my sign out loud, ‘Open. Bookshop.’ Then she says, ‘I don’t like bookshops, but I like some bookshops if they’re open.’

On being without internet

It was strange being at the shop without internet because there didn’t seem to be much to do. And there was very little going on. But this turned out to be wrong.

There were customers all day. Everyone chatted companionably about the outage. Everyone had a theory.

An old lady said she didn’t care that the tower was down because she could still work in the garden, and she bought an Elizabeth George, saying, ‘I’ll pay for this with good old cash!’

Robert, who has never been connected to any internet, didn’t comment on it because he didn’t know about it. He said he’s planning to read every Carlos Castaneda book so he could work through the ongoing problem: are they fact or fiction?

I managed to reorganize my entire counter and clean some windows. Once, outside the shop, a group of young men realized they couldn’t use their phones, holding them up in the air toward the sun. One man said, ‘What are you gunna do?’ and his friend said, ‘Fuck knows.’

A man told me he was with Optus and so his phone was fine: he had internet! And his data had already been stolen, so nothing further to worry about.

Alan noticed that a couple he sees every day each go to different bakeries and reckons it’s because one bakery has better lamingtons than the other. ‘But couples should go to the same place, otherwise you cause problems. That’s how I see it anyway.’ Then he went home: meat to cook and a sleep to find.

I read two chapters of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense. Brilliant and will continue. I showed the book to George who said he’d been looking for it, but I refused to sell it. He bought a book about elephants for his grandson instead.

Someone told me the Facebook chat page about the local Telstra outage is entertaining and informative. ‘If you have Optus. Lol.’

A teenage reader showed me that her phone was working. An older reader who examined the signal on this girl’s phone (while waiting behind her to purchase a copy of Quietly Flows the Don), advised me that technology always works for young people.

Sarah said that the flooding is getting worse. I told her I couldn’t look up the news without the internet and she said that flooding doesn’t need an internet. She also said the British PM is in a bad way.

A lady told me about Roald Dahl: from her head, not from her phone. I thought maybe I could do a bit more of that.

And so life want wonderingly on.

Well, no, not really!

Rain, rain, and more rain, but it’s not that cold. Passers by are not rugged up, and nobody is hurrying along. An older couple, holding hands, stopped to look through the window. He asked, ‘Want to go in?’

She said, ‘Well, no. Not really.’

They continued walking. When I came out my door a little later, they were further down the road going very slowly hand in hand and not minding the steady rain. They were looking around at everything. They both wore thongs and they stopped to look down at a puddle and talk about it.

I watched them cross the road and get sprayed by a passing car and laugh about it.

On this day

A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.

I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.

People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.

It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.

Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.

Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.

A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.

A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.

Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’

Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.

I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).

A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.

I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.

It’s too cold if anything

There’s a man out there trying to get into his car via the passenger side, but it’s locked. He’s rattling away at the door handle looking puzzled and peering through the window into the car interior.

Now he’s standing looking up and down the road. Then a woman appears, coming from the right at a fast pace and slowing down. She’s wearing everything in blue.

‘Where’d you get to?’

‘Around the corner.’

‘I’ve been waiting.’

‘Rubbish. Here’s the keys.’

There are two people wearing masks at the door but not coming in. Just looking through the glass, their faces side by side and close together. She says,

‘What a beautiful place.’ They do come in. She has beautiful leather shoes and a moss grey cardigan and a pink bag, which she abandons on the floor next to Vintage Classics, and he goes over to Art.

An old couple pass my door, going toward the bakery. She’s laughing the whole time. She can hardly breath for laughing. The sounds fade away, but soon they come back. He’s carrying a loaded cardboard tray. She’s laughing and puffing. She says, ‘

‘Not a day for getting married. Too cold if anything.’

He says, ‘What’s it matter?’

She laughs and laughs and has to hold onto the edge of my window. Then she rights herself and they continue on with linked arms.

Inside, the girl with the soft leather shoes has Dante and seems to be holding her breath.

How we say goodbye

People gather in the shop to talk, and then they leave again. They need to say goodbye to each other.

People gather on the footpath outside and talk about things. Then they need to leave each other again.

People talk on the phone: inside the shop and outside the door; they talk on their mobile phones and need, each time, to end the conversation.

People buy books and talk to me. Then they need to leave and say goodbye to me. It’s such a simple thing. But it isn’t simple – it’s complex, and the ways to bid another person farewell are endless. The ritual of saying goodbye is sculpted with tools as fine as needles in order to fit the situation.

A man outside the shop is pacing with – not an infant – but a phone. The phone is more demanding than any infant – and far less rewarding. The phone is hard and disinterested and alive only through one plastic airway. The man was tense, needing to share information with a listener who was not interested.

‘I’m actually the son of the deceased and – ‘

‘Yes, but that wasn’t done.’

‘It wasn’t done.’

‘Just leave it.’

‘Right.’

‘Bye.’ The word ‘bye’ bruising the end of the conversation.

A child leaving behind her mother and three books under one arm. She turns to wave at me and to wave the way children do: the open hand going back and forth rapidly, level with the flower petal face, byyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeee: a ribbon of sound that ends on a note of hope and the child still looking back at me to see if I heard. I did.

Robert who gets to the door and remembers something and comes back and then leaves again, bobbing forward and backward, clutching the door, thinking about Carlos Castaneda, ‘Yes, ok, bye. Yes bye. Ok. Bye. Ha-ha, bye.’

A tradesman on a mobile at the kerb, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Ok mate. Yeahr. See ya. Fuckin idiot.’

Two ladies:

‘Bye Hilary.’

‘Bye my dearest. See you soon.’ And cardigans and pearls meet in a heartfelt.

Young women talking, intense, buttoning up coats and paying for books, ‘Thank you so much, bye‘, and there’s an emphasis on the ‘ye’, a tiny precise uplift in tone and volume to indicate energy because the day is not yet done.

School children in noisy clots on their way to Woolworths, ‘See ya idiot man.’

‘Stuff you Adam.’

And me, telling my mother, ‘Ok, see you later. I’ll see you tonight, mum.’

‘There’s no need to check on me.’

‘I’m not, mum. It’s fine. I’m coming to visit.’

‘Well, don’t if you’re busy.’

‘I’ll see you tonight.’ This phrase, this time, a code for everything said but not said.

Sculpture by Elizabeth Ostrander

Mum came in and admired my shoes

It’s still raining. Mum came in with a chocolate cake and a bag of lemons, and said, ‘Well those shoes are bright indeed.’

I said I was sick of the rain, and she said a bit of rain doesn’t hurt. Then she went out again and over to Woolworths. It takes her a while to get across the road now. She doesn’t stop at the bakery: she doesn’t agree with their scone recipe.

Outside the door, a couple on pause and examining the window display:

‘I’ve never read that one.’

‘I got sick of it.’

A couple of teenage girls: ‘You never know what you’ll find in here. How good is that?’

There’s a fevered discussion going on about Netflix and Tom Hardy. Everyone is damp from the rain. Outside a horn blast across the road. An old man walking along our side calls out, ‘Ok. Just keep your shirt on, pal.’

An old lady paid for her books with an Apple watch, deft and efficient. Then it’s quiet again.

People pass the window: I hear them: footsteps on wet pavement and black moving shapes against the light. I think about it, what my eyes catch and interpret as a person. How the shapes erupt and then regroup when two people meet and pass each other. Then I see bright pink, a beanie, paper bags, a swinging a dog lead with no dog on the end, cars hissing wetly behind them.

In the afternoon, it becomes so quiet, I can hear the clock ticking on the wall next to me. Every now and again a blast of rain.  

Ian came in for Carol Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. Outside the sun came out brief and hot, and across the road a long line of people are standing in the buzzy sunlight. I go outside with my coffee and lean against the fence.

There are nine people and they need to cross the road. Five have walkers and one man has a walking stick. He is too far away. He’s going the wrong way. A lady yells, ‘Get Pops back.’

A young man jogs down to Pops and manoeuvres him across the road, his arm curved protectively around the old man’s back. Rain again, but the sunlight remains, flicking the air with gold and briefly turning the shower into cascading tiny bubbles of light.

The other people are still lined up on the kerb, all talking to each other as they look first one way, then the other and then pausing again to say something to each other.

A man passes me with coffee, and says, ‘That looks like an event trying to happen.’

But they are off, crossing slowly and all in a line. A ute slows and then stops.

They are nearly to the kerb. They are at the kerb and turning toward the bakery, and I have to go back inside. The sunlight is gone. There’s a couple inside waiting for me and one is saying to the other, ‘That history book there, the big one, you can get that for me.’ And he answers, ‘What on earth you want that for?’ And she says to me, ‘My God, great boots.’

The Queen died

We got the news Wednesday, and everyone wanted to talk about it. Or at least mention it. And it was cold and raining again. Christine stopped her gopher at the door and yelled ‘Did you hear?’, and I said I had. She mimicked herself crying and then zoomed on toward the bakery.

Alan had a dilemma with the bakeries: he wanted a pasty and a piece of pavlova and didn’t know which bakery to go to.

‘I don’t want any bakery to see me go into the other bakery.’

‘The Queen has died.’ I said, a bit unnecessarily.

‘Oh God, Sarah will be in a shit now.’

‘She’s bearing up well.’

‘No she won’t. Well I’m going for my pastie. Need a feed.’

But Sarah did bear up well. The Queen had died on her birthday, but she’d already stopped by to tell me that, and to pick up a Sir Alec Guinness biography. She added that the Queen dying on her birthday was an omen of some kind. Robert was here too, disappointed because his order, The Lost Book of Enki, still hadn’t arrived.

He and Sarah stood back to discuss things.

A customer asked me for Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. I didn’t have it. Sarah told Robert that she didn’t hold with that women, Camilla.

Robert said that his family, the Grimshaws, extend directly back to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and that one day there would be a reckoning for his execution, which never should have happened.

Sarah looked enthralled.

A couple bought a stack of Ben Elton books.

Liz came in for A Fortunate Life and said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Queen.’

Sarah said that she didn’t think that Charles was in good health.

Robert said he threw the oracle last night and the cards said that Charles would soon succumb to gout, which got all of them in the end.

Anne came in for her cookbook and for tickets to St Andrews on Sunday. A lady came in and bought The Handmaid’s Tale for her sister in hospital. They said that it was sad about the Queen.

Then Robert had to go and reckon with the bank, who were deliberately trying to erase him from their system.

Sarah went to Woolworths.

Still raining.

Painting by Karin Jurick

At a market in Darwin

My first time in Darwin: like a dream. Heat, light, rain: we breathed it in. It was hard to breathe. Then we had to come home again. Everything was different there.

At Mindil Beach, people were soft and relaxed. The market was busy. There was every kind of food. We couldn’t choose.

My grandson climbed into a tree with a trunk like an office block. Twisted roots hung from gigantic heights like tropical thighs: he scrambled and climbed, and soon two more children joined him, clambering in the heat and the extraordinary light. I wondered out loud: is it an avocado tree? A child answered me seriously: no, it’s not avocado. It’s a lemon tree. The other child said, ‘It’s a tree tree’. I walked the tree’s perimeter. There were empty wine bottles in the sand underneath. The little girls were called to family. My grandson was called down. He came, bouncing through green worlds.

Live music: the singer absorbed and passionate, apologising because she was so happy. She sang with closed eyes, leaning into the heat of the evening. We all sat about on the grass eating. Behind the singer, another performer setting up.

Amongst the market tents, so much food, coffee, soap, jewellery, clothing, my grandson got a small metal hovercraft. Music. The stall holders gossiping in tight warm knots between tents.

‘That’s not what they said last week.’

‘I know mate. It’s bullshit.’

We walked without a plan. I, myself, want to live here. But everywhere I go, I want to live there.

An Uber driver started before I was properly in the car. He said, ‘I’m so sorry madam.’

In the foyer hotel we were offered a complimentary drink. There was cold water, fruit juice, soft drinks, beer, red and white wine. I selected a frosty bottle of white wine and cradled it to the lift. A group in the foyer were about to complain. The wife told her husband he could have a complimentary beer. He subsided.

‘Geoff, do you want a beer?’

‘Well. All right. If there is one. All right then. I will. Why not.’

One morning, we went to a market. Food, coffee, fruit, vegetables, crystals, everything in dense warm quantities. A lady shopping in a bikinis and bare feet and a gentle crocheted shawl against the rain.  And it’s raining.  I saw a mountain of bananas. The stallholder with earphones was dancing delicately behind his stall. I should like to live here.

We stood with coffee. A young woman passed us, talking straight into a video call. I saw briefly on the screen, a face. It was a loud conversation. We only heard her side of it.

‘Have you just woken up?’

‘Who’s that with you?’

‘Did they stay?’

‘Are you sleeping together?’

‘Fuck you Damien.’

It’s so hot here. We’ve been cold for some time in South Australia. From our hotel one morning, it rained and rained. I filmed it on my phone as if the sound of rain was new to me. It isn’t. But intensely hot rain: that is new to me. I want to live here.

Up on the top floor, the hotel sunset bar: open from 3pm and with free canapes for all the guests. We rush up in the lift at 3.30 to try the canapes: square bowls of twisties, cheezels, pretzels, a beetroot dip with no spoon, corn chips, a tray of sweating cheese slices, a bowl of fuzzy lollies. A hot metal bath of saveloys.

People approached the buffet with delight. Some still have their bathers on, fresh and relaxed from the hotel pool.

‘Oh, you’ll like this. These little sausages.’

‘Too right.’

A man piled cheezels into a bowl and added tomato sauce. He carried it over to the pool table and his mates rushed over for the same. A man at a little outside table stacked cheese slices and ate them folded into small squares. A bottle of beer sat cold and ready, happy to wait for the good folded cheese. His companion, in a smart suit, drank red wine, and in front of him, a plate of humble saveloys.

The staff rushed, for they were understaffed. They apologised. They rushed to make it nice for us. Diners kept arriving, gazing rapt at the buffet, piling plates and sitting outside to enjoy the view: this is most of Darwin city and the horizon, a jewel at any time. And then the sun goes down in a blaze of arrogant light, stripping and taking with it any values you’ve held right up to that point.

I sampled the joy of the diners as they passed me with saveloys and corn chips and decided that I too was joyful. A waiter settled margaritas in front of a group of women who clutched each other’s hands, thanking him, and him smiling and rushing for the next order.

My grandson passed me with a bowl of furry lollies, his face a lit lamp. He left the tongs on the floor. Happiness: obviously what we allow.

Notes for Saturday

1. It was busy. It was excellent: the antique fair was on, and the town was full of visitors from all over the place, some even from Bairnsdale, who were collecting old things and who wanted a copy of Moby Dick. But I didn’t have one.

They said, ‘Never mind. There’s always tomorrow, ‘and I agreed.

2. There was a knotty commotion outside the door when a family emerged from a car and couldn’t quite get themselves to the bakery.

‘What are you doing Jasmin?’ A young voice, low and outraged. ‘What are you doing?’

I couldn’t see or hear Jasmin. I only heard about her. The brother’s voice sounded again.

‘No. I’m not even kidding. Friggin hell.’

Then I heard Jasmin.

‘Get lost Shaun.’

‘You get lost.’

‘Come over here mate.’  That was dad, who laid a settling hand on Shaun’s shoulders. Shaun said urgently, ‘I’m not even kidding.’

‘I know.’ They disappeared slowly to the bakery, Jasmin hopping behind. She had on a bright red beanie.

3. Someone asked me for Nina George books: ‘I’m looking for the Paris bookshop lady.’ Someone asked me for James Bond books: ‘I’m looking for James Bond.’

4. A young couple piled books into the bottom of their pram, the baby bumping slightly while the volumes were being arranged. They explained to me: ‘We’re making a library.’

5. Outside the door, a teenager said, ‘Where too Pop?’ and then, looking at his phone, followed Pop to the bakery.

6. ‘That’s the second time in Strathalbyn.’ An old lady said this to a friend as they looked through my window. They didn’t look happy. Then one lady said, ‘Look at her sitting at the desk.’ Her friend said, ‘Oh yes. I see.’

7. There was constant clicking and tapping and rustling from the back room. A man opened the door and said to me, ‘It’s ok, I’m just looking for a very distracted lady.’ The clicking and tapping from the back room abruptly stopped and a lady yelled out: ‘I’m here Alan, you go on.’

‘Thank you very much, I will.’ And he did. He crossed the road in sudden sunlight, swinging a bag and his head from side to side.

8. A man looking at books in front of me suddenly looked around and said, ‘My dad was a pilot.’ Then he turned back to the shelf. I felt as though I’d missed a bit of conversation somewhere.

9. Somebody rang for a book I didn’t have. Outside a motorist sounded a horn for a long angry 15 seconds. Inside a lady said, ‘God I hate that.’ Then Sarah dropped in. She’s very pleased with her doctor at the moment but not with the crowds in the town. She said in a glum way, ‘These crowds.’ Then Robert came by, but his order is lost in transit somewhere. He said, ‘Typical Australia useless post.’

10. The town emptying out. More rain, then sparkly sunlight. The last stragglers with coffee and not hurrying. Dog wee on the front of my shop as usual.

Illustration by Bill Bruning