There were these men

There were these men outside the shop today. All climbed out of one car. Dressed pretty nice. They wanted food though, not books. They were supposed to meet people for lunch at the pub, but they’d parked at the wrong end of town. I watched them working this out.

They checked phones.

One man looked through the window of my shop. He moved closer and looked again. I thought, that’s good. He didn’t come in though.

The others, bless them, look in and then look away. Politely. A bookshop.

‘Where’s the pub?’

‘Here, I reckon. That’s what he said.’

‘Who?’

‘Dale.’

‘God, as if he’d fuckin know. Where is it?’

I felt sorry for Dale. I was a dale. They milled around on the footpath, pulling at their shirts. They all bent over their phones. Except one man who looking in at me. He didn’t come in.

Then, when I looked up again, they were all gone.

Photography: Odd Man In, by Louis Stettner, 1922

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

pulled the knife out, and he was still bleeding

Sometimes the street outside the shop is quiet. There is no movement, no noise, and nobody passes the shop. Sometimes I go outside and look up and down the road. Then I go back in and get on with things.

Today, it was chaos out there. People crowded past in groups with maps, bags, and phones. The traffic on the road equalled this, stopping, starting, parking, arguing, sounding horns, calling from car windows. And today, the groups on the footpath were so packed together that I heard them and saw them. Every now and again I looked straight into a face that was looking straight back at me.

Somebody yelled, ‘Got to call in here on our way back.’ I didn’t see them. They moved too fast. I hoped they’d come back.

I saw the next couple because they paused at the door. He peered in with screwed up eyes.

‘What is it?’

‘Dunno. Medical place I think.’ He looked right at me and abruptly pulled away.

I’m not a medial place.

The next burst of information came a little later.

‘…pulled the knife out and he was still bleeding…’

‘Silly.’

The first speaker turned and looked right at me looking right at him. I thought, ‘Shit!’

Then,

‘You want something to eat, mother? All right, but I’m not fussy about going back to that cafe though.’

‘That wasn’t here, Ed. That was another town.’

He (who wasn’t fussy) humped his shoulders and looked in at me. I looked out at him, sympathetic. I know about getting the right doughnut.

Painting by Charles Hardaker

Looking at things

There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.

‘Why are they so liddle?’

‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’

The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.

They are the colour of pests.

But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.

They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.

Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’

‘Is there.’

‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’

They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.

My unedited house

It starts where I sit at the kitchen table looking at people across the road. There’s a small group of them, and they move the afternoon light because the light is loaded with flakes of heat, gum leaf, and dust, and every outline is livid with it.

The people are leaning over a car, bonnet up.

There are dishes and cups here, and one yellow pot at the window, level with the heads over the car outside. Inside, there is also a coffee mug, a tea towel, a phone charging.

There are books on the floor, and a wooden train set with some missing. A bottle of perfume, a set of weights, clean washing (some of it folded).

A bowl of nashi pears, heavy with yellow.

Everybody’s things.

And bookshelves.

I have a low table with a glass roof. Under the sliding panel of glass there are square cavities, each one containing something really good. Polished stone in silky chunks, fossils, a giant leaf that’s not actually that big, carved wooden spoons, pieces of shell, clay, a feather, all those things that have no value but have great value. The glass is scratched now. On top, a wooden petrol station put together and painted by hand, and inside this a plastic elephant and giraffe from a game that strayed into another game. On the top of the petrol station, copies of Hairy McClary and Asterix and the Golden Sickle.

Carpet.

The nashi pears are heavy with yellow. Someone should eat them.

Minecraft, Minecraft

A child sang ‘Minecraft, Minecraft…all the Minecraft” while standing at the window. There’s a stack of Minecraft novels there. He laid both hands palms flat against the glass and continued his interested little song. A piping song, higher than the stack of books. Higher than the window. Then his family called him away.

‘Into the car, come on Dale’

‘Here we go again…’ A older couple at the door turn their phones this way, then the other way, trying to find the right square. ‘Here we go again. Take us half an hour to get in here.’ But they persevere bravely and make it inside.  Later, she reads a children’s book to him, out loud, and he edged slowly away.

A young couple went past the cat shelf. She said, ‘Oh my God, a cat shop. It’s a little cat shop. With cat books. That’s cool. Look Evan.’

‘Yeah, it’s cool.’

‘Because of the cats.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love cats. I need ’em.’

‘Yeah.’

Painting by Mars Black

I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor

Yesterday there was a couple at the front window. They were unusual because they stayed there for so long. I could hear them. They couldn’t see me. They wore sensible caps, and shoes made for long walks in the evening. They each had a shoulder bag and a water bottle. And good sunglasses, too – this is why they had to peer through the glass to get at the titles.

They screwed up their eyes and read the titles out loud, slowly, and very seriously.

‘I reckon you’d enjoy that one, Trevor.’

‘Not with my reading I won’t.’

‘I think you would.  It says please come in, there on the door. What do you reckon that means?’

‘Means come in.’

‘Come on then.’

‘Look at this. Is that Leonardo Da Vinci?’

‘History is it?’

They leaned in with difficulty. They made the shape of difficulty with their mouths, and their eyes and foreheads agreed in thin lines.

‘That’s not Leonardo Da Vinci.’

‘Well. Who is it then?’

‘Some chap. Could be anyone. Let’s go in. You never know.’

‘Don’t know if I can be bothered. Looks expensive.’

‘Well, have it your way. Let’s get a bun round the corner there.’

And they left.

Leonardo Da Vinci watched them go; a nice hardback, dustcover in good condition, tight kidneys, no sciatica in the spine, born out of wedlock, never went to school. A master in the guild. Buying caged birds and releasing them. Coming up with the Mona Lisa. He watched them go.

Four people

This morning four people jumped out of a car parked directly in front of my shop. One had gloves attached to his belt and they twirled about his waist. They were all hungry. They fairly leapt from their car, bouncing and leaping toward the bakery.

Then they came back to eat on the pavement. They looked briefly into my window. One man said, ‘I’ve bloody read that one. God, it was good.’

Another man answered, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in my life.’

The other man, still eating, looked at him and said, ‘Try it.’

Painting by James Crandall

The lady

The book was In My Father’s House by Gabrielle Carey.

The lady, who had been browsing in my shop for a little while, picked it up and stared at it and then placed it on the seat of her walker. She stood looking down at it for a long time. She looked over at me.

She said, ‘I’m pleased with this.’

Painting by Gerrit Dou

A small look at a bit of world outside

I stood outside at the fence today and ate a sandwich and watched everything go past. A grey day, warm, and some rain, and a group of tradesmen over at the picnic table drinking coke and iced coffees.

A couple came past. They looked in my windows. They don’t notice me up the street a little, at the gate of the little carpark. So they don’t lower their voices. He says, ‘Wonder why Strath has two bookstores!’

‘Yeah.’

‘Don’t reckon there’s a need for either of ’em myself, I don’t.’

‘Yeah.’

As they pass me, they join hands and lean against each other.

The thing about bookshops is that their owners are so mindlessly besotted with them that nothing can dampen our enthusiasm or distract us from our purpose. Except other bookshops. Obviously.

Chris drove up in her gopher and said a bit of rain is always useful.

We stood companionably. The traffic is smooth. Cows in trucks. Chris said, ‘Look at them, poor dears.’ She’s not that lucky herself, but never sees it that way.

Lunch people with brown paper bags. Joggers. Workers. A crooked crocodile of junior primary children going somewhere, and who shout at my wooden cat in the front window as they go past.

The rain gives a smell. The wind brings my hanging balloons down. Terry comes in for gardening books and browses without me in there. He manages the Covid app on the door skilfully, calls out to me, ‘You eat your pie. Don’t you worry about a thing.’

More wind: passers-by hold onto their hair. A little boy cries, leaning his head against a pram, the baby in the seat looks out at him. The mother places her hand on the little boy’s head and he stops crying.

A man leaning forward, walking fast with a newspaper. Two youths with a radio on a shoulder, playing rap, black caps, gum, black boots, they walked in rhythm, each looking at the other carefully, sideways. I eat my cheese sandwich. Alan stops and tells me about his problematic family.  Said that Strath is made up of all sorts, and that he’s painting again, a big scene this time, and I will love it.