There are some people on your roof

They are workmen, and they’re doing the gutters on my shop; they’ve been busy up there for three days. Customers, noticing the boots treading above their heads, tell me that it’s busy up there. There are hammers, drills, voices calling out, ‘Where’s the end of  that one going?’

Crashes. Things dropping. More footsteps, faster this time, criss crossing above me, mapping out a hard day’s work. My customers look up, then down. Some lean backwards, allowing for stiff necks, and screw up their eyes to help them see through the roof.

‘Something going on up there, I reckon.’

‘You got pigeons up there?’

‘I used to do roof work.’

‘I see their ladder out there. It’s in the wrong place. They ort to go up over the tanks. Be safer.’

‘My word, what a noise. Do you have anything by Di Morrissey?’

I fiddle about and tidy the shelves. A drill shatters a customer conversation about Freud (that has been going on for some time).

‘God. What was that?’ (Freud probably).

A man told me about his successful teaching career (nobody can teach properly anymore etc) until a series of precise deafening blows silenced him with a different kind of success. He left abruptly, refusing to buy his book…which lay on the counter looking up at the dust shifting left and right under the hammer blows.

I read a bit more of The Lady and the Peacock and I can’t hear anything around me because I’m in Burma.

A man in History, jerks around at the drill. He says, ‘That’s not right.’

A young man wearing a backpack and earphones can’t hear anything either. He is serene underneath a crash of guttering. He is reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A young mother (with twin babies and a toddler) sways over the infant story books. She is also oblivious. This kind of chaos is her every day. She smiles. She’s reading a Mem Fox. The toddler leans against her. Her pram babies bubble and breath.

The drill screams.

The man in history leaves.

The toddler yawns and leans tightly against the smiling mother, and the babies in the pram joggle about, kicking against the sides of comfort.

Image from “The Sistine Madonna” by Raphael, c.1513

The Father and Daughter

He sat and waited patiently for her, who, like all reading children, took the necessary time. He sat in the only chair here, patient and alert. She chose and chose. He leaned back and yawned. He flexed his hands and looked at them.

He stood up and browsed for a bit. She read on the floor with her nose resting on her knee. He flexed his patient knees and turned to look at her. She was reading. He yawned and waited and looked at her again. She was reading.

Then she stood up, he swung round, and they came to the counter with her two books.

Suddenly he asked me about a book – but he couldn’t remember the author. He hesitated and thought. Then he said, ‘I’ll just look it up.’ The child, hugging her books close, leaned backwards. Her back is a slender wand. She is looking at the roof, but her eyes swivel and regard the father. She has a small smile.

We can’t find his book. We search the internet but cannot find it.

Then they leave, pass through the door and go back out to continue their life.

Painting by Darren Thompson

How people browse for books

Once, a child here with a parent, looked at his mother’s phone and because she couldn’t do something on her phone, grew impatient. She said, ‘But where is it?’, and the child said, ‘I don’t know’, in a robot voice. She said, ‘Well bother it then’, and went back to browsing, and her child turned into a robot and moved in squares and rectangles and spoke in brackets and octagons, and she frowned deeply, but the books reabsorbed her, and she forgot about her robot, and so he happily continued being one, clattering behind her in a robot opera without an audience.

Old people lean and squint to catch titles. They are kind. They tell me long stories about books they once read. I drink it in. They do not find me boring. They struggle to get books up and onto the counter. They buy things for grandchildren, the latest in the Red Queen series, book four, War Storm. ‘She’ll love this.’ They conquer the internet to get this information.

Young people interrogate the bottom shelves because they have good knees that allow them up and down. They are soft and kind, they buy poetry. They ask me for good poets. A young mad came up from Adelaide and gave me his own copy of Ready Player One, he said, ‘You might like this.’

A grandmother, with two grandies, would not allow them to choose. She said, ‘Oh no, not that one.’ The older child, a girl of about twelve, leaned back and stared at the roof, and blew air through her lips – she made two more attempts (‘no, I don’t think we’ll get that’) and then gave up. The younger brother stayed silent. Nan continued to choose books they didn’t want. They remained polite but not enthusiastic. They left, Nan happy, the children silent.

A couple argued, ‘I need more time.’

He said, ‘Ok, doll.’ He went to the bakery.

She got more time. She wanted Angela Carter. I understood her need for more time. She got her books, her extra time, and her partner back with a coffee for her. She swooped out, her life, a flight. He flapped after her, carrying books, coffee and his own joy.

Young people always kneel to look at the titles on spines, their own spines curved and graceful and not aching.

Young mums run into the store, leaving prams at the door. They purchase fast, the next Harry Potter they need, a Hairy Maclary, a book about trains, ‘OMG, he’s going to love this!’

Loners browse so deeply that nothing (nothing) can recall them to the trivial day. They buy obscure books, tiles in their own reading maps that detail a unique reading universe curated by their own heart. I know these places. I know the power of them.

You got caught

The sky behind the trees is silver and bright – so bright it hurts your teeth to look at it. The wind is cold. People coming past the shop do it fast, collars up, faces prepared.

A young mum gets caught in a brief chilly shower that lasts the exact time it takes her to cross the road with a pram, a baby, a toddler, two bags of shopping, a drink bottle, and a toy white rabbit that gets dropped on the shining road half way over.

The child wails.

There’s a tradesman outside my door, waiting it out with coffee. He shouts:

‘You got caught in the rain.’

She shouts, ‘I know, it’s terrible.’

The rabbit lies there, its eye a desperate button.

He dashes and scoops.

‘Thank you, thank you so much.’

‘No worries.’

Illustration by Margaret C. Hoopes

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.’

Children and their mums and dads

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What do they see, these children who are brought into bookshops, who are allowed to look and choose, are encouraged to read, and whose parents drift aside into their own place; Jack Kerouac, Terry Pratchett, Dune, Sonya Hartnett, Evelyn Waugh, The Remains of the Day, Dark Emu, Toni Morrison, Colette, Lee Child, Alice Walker, Debra Adelaide, The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis. The parents try to remain present. What do their children do?

One family: the five year old telling his dad about a book, desperately. ‘It has a man on the front, with a helmet on.’

The dad says, ‘Show me, take me to the book. You look after me.’ They bustle toward the book – there is a long conversation. Then they drift for a while. Dad has three books. The child has one and has finished.

‘Do you feel like you want to go? To the car?’ The child does.

‘Well, I think mum needs more time.’ We all look at mum. She is leaning, ankles crossed, against poetry, plays and Virago Classics. Child and man gaze at her. She wears olive green, mustard, deep wine, navy blue, chocolate brown, and she is motionless. Three paperbacks at her feet, ready.

Another child spins on an axis.

‘Dad dad dad come back.’

‘Come back dad dad dad dad dad dad dad. This is my book.’

‘It’s yours?’

‘Yeeeers.’

Some children find books for their parents.

‘Dad, look at this, you should get this.’

‘I like it. I the way you think.’ The child, about eight, expands. ‘This is fantastic, too.’

One father tells his partner, ‘I can tell you how that ends.’

‘Don’t.’

Their daughter, about ten, looks on, impassive. She says to me on the way out, ‘I’m reading Lord of the Rings.

A child, maybe six, listens to his parents argue about Henry James. ‘Portrait of a Lady…we have it.’

The child says, ‘I just found a portrait of a lady.’ They swoop. Oh my God, did you hear that?’ The child shows them a book with a lady on the front.

Some parents say, ‘Hands behind your back, remember,’ while they handle all the books.

Outside, when I am hanging my balloons: ‘Why do you always do that, can’t you do anything right?’ Parents talking in car parked right next to me. They are talking to a child in the back seat, but I assume they are talking to me.

Some children take a seat and just read. Some make a stack, and their parents look on admiringly. One daughter told me about history joyfully, and her father stood back, looking at her with utter respect.

 

All those kids

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Three families came up from Adelaide and visited a book shop! There were so many kids staring at the shelves that had my shop been a boat, it would have tipped up and sunk at the Enid Blyton end. The mothers, commandos, moved supremely, directing, agreeing (about Roald Dahl), settling issues (pocket money), herding, narrowing eyes when necessary, agreeing to purchases, handing on a legacy.

The smallest child carried around a bear. She gazed at Dr Who, unhappily I thought.

A boy bought an Atlas of the World, and said, ‘Thanks, it’s really pretty here in a good way.’ I gave him a discount because he was a gem.

A man, unrelated, bought one book, sulkily I thought, and asked if I thought that these kids would actually read any of the books they had. I gave him no discount because he was a dickhead.

The children hummed and bobbed and jogged and said, ‘I’ve already read that, it’s about a cave.’

Their mothers looked at titles, heads to the side, lips pursed. They snapped books shut, and said, ‘Ok’. They were efficient. They didn’t need a bag. They commanded for someone to hold the door. They glided out into the cold, all the bobbins following, saying, ‘But you know how in Percy Jackson, his mum is called Sally…’

 

The kids and the bookmarks and the owls and the cats

Jen Betton (2)

Two young children came into the bookshop with their father. They were on their way to visit their mother. The girl, who was nine, read Harry Potter. She liked magical things.The boy, who was 11, read biographies and books by authors from other countries. He chose I am Malala. Then they chose some bookmarks. Their father said that he didn’t read, but these two, they never stopped.

The children bobbed about and spun; they liked cats, too. And owls. And reading. Plus balloons. When she had finished reading all the Harry Potters, they were going to watch the movies, but not all in one night.

They were hungry. They cradled their purchases and crowded out the door. I could hear them reminding their dad that they were all going to watch the Harry Potter movies. He was nodding, saying, yes, yes. They stood in the doorway to watch a bike go past, and the boy said, ‘I love that bike’, and the father said, ‘You love everything.’ Then the father and the son looked at each other, and the boy held his book up, and they both laughed.

Artwork by Jen Betton

This is nonsense

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Over the last few months my mum, who is 84, has been busy. Last time I visited, I spoke through the front door and kept my distance. She said the coronavirus is no reason to be idle, and asked me to get her a box of saucing tomatoes.

I wrote this three years ago, when our first grandson was born. We are four generations alive all at once now. We are very lucky.

“I think that my grandson, Max, has super powers, but my mum says that this is nonsense, that he is just a normal healthy child. When she dropped into the shop yesterday I said that Max has survived his first hot summer, and she said that this is nonsense. That when she was born in Broken Hill her mum had to put the cot outside in the summer because the corrugated iron house was hotter inside than out. Her mother hung wet nappies around the edges of the cot so that the hot wind blew cool. Her mum always put the cot under the pepper trees. She said the dining room table bowed in the heat of those roasting dark little iron rooms.

I said I would like to put that story on Facebook and she said that Facebook is nonsense; who on earth would want to read about her.

When my mum was 14 years old she made her own dress at school and wore it for a photograph sitting. I have that photograph, and it is one of my favourite things. They were very poor and she only ever had one photograph taken. She said her dress was pretty good, probably the best one made, and her mum had told her that this was nonsense.

Max, my grandson loves colour. He leans toward colours and frowns. His head wobbles  when he catches the purple of my glass necklace. He leans in panting and dribbling, wanting that slab of cool glass in his mouth. But we have coloured glass slabs around the front door, too. These are wine red, mint green, champagne, butter yellow and icy pink. In the fading evening light they change character and jump. Max stares into the hot colours and is silent and noisy; breathing and ingesting colour. Soon the red becomes purple and the greens turn to blue. The yellow turns to cider. The pink fades to clear, cool water.  He stares for minute after minute at the thick glass, dripping with evening colours.

Then later, my daughter says that he won’t go to sleep, and I say that this is nonsense.”

Is Bridgewater a town or a place?

Pascal Campion 2.jpg

This excellent question from a family in front of me. I am following them back to my shop. The father and three children move fast, the children hopping and pouncing and asking questions.

‘Is Bridgewater a town, or a place?’

The father explained. ‘It’s a town, like this one.’

‘I know that place, there’s a circus there.’

‘Well, maybe not.’

‘Wasn’t there a circus there?’

‘Don’t think so.’

‘But I remember it, that person did cartwheels and spins.’

‘Is Bridgewater not a town?’

‘Want me to do a cartwheel?’

The children are fast, disappearing through the sunlight, the father only just keeping up, and they were almost at the bakery.

‘Dad, when you’re at work, we sleep in your bed.’

I saw the father go still, look down at them, delighted.

And then they turned the corner, gone.

 

Artwork by Pascal Campion