There’s a discussion going at one of my windows, down low, because the men speaking are kneeling on the ground. I like this window.
‘Just couldn’t believe it.’
They are tradesmen, I can see the fluorescent orange, lemon, and blue clothing.
‘He just came at me.’
One of the tradesmen is doing something with his shoelaces. They keep talking.
‘He just wasn’t making sense.’
The street is quiet and still, unusual for Christmas. Even the traffic is nonchalant. They men are still there, kneeling in the sun for what seems like ages. Then I realize they are looking at a phone.
‘So, we were like this, and he just came from nowhere.’
I heard the sound of a shoelace whipping through holes and then breaking.
‘That’s fixed it.’
‘You got it then?’
‘Yeah, mate. Anyway, it was this big. Fuckin huge. Unbelievable.’
He was still kneeling but was now holding both arms out wide. The other man nodded, still looking at his phone.
From where I sit, I can hear everything that happens outside the shop. And see everything. All I wanted to know was how these three were related because they clearly were. They were familiar; they knew each other because they finished each other’s sentences and commanded the group while ignoring each other’s commands to achieve the same thing.
She had left something at home.
‘God, where is it then.’
The other she, and the accompanying he, stood and looked at the culprit, who was on her phone.
‘Might as well go home.’
‘The phone looked up. ‘We don’t even need it. Stop frothing.’
‘God.’ They all turned away from each other.
He got back in the car. The young women looked at each other. One came up to the door and looked in.
‘God. It’s a book shop.’
She returned to culprit, and they both stood looking down at her phone. Culprit was chewing gum fast.
‘Stop looking like that.’
‘We’re going home. Get in the car.’
So they didn’t come into the shop and buy a book. They went home. I watched them through the window in the front room. When they drove off, he was smiling.
The traffic outside is muffled. People turning in all directions, trying to cross the road quickly. A few people coming in for books. A couple in a motorhome all the way from WA and buying books for birthday gifts. Sarah came in for her book about Dawn Frazer. Trevor came in for a copy of Carpentaria. I went to the bakery, twice.
I order a copy of Jellies and Their Moulds for a customer.
I look up Liane Moriarty and Jonathan Gash for other customers. I decide not to clean the windows.
Outside it’s dark, then light and then dark again. The road is already dry. A child passes on a skateboard; I can hear the wheels ticking over the pavers in the footpath. Someone bangs a wheelie bin lid. Two people yell to each other from opposite sides of the road.
‘What you want?’
‘Ohh…just a pie. Get us a pie.’
‘Yeah. And a cake or something.’
Someone trying to park outside my door grazes the gutter with a rubbery shriek. A lady get out of the passenger side and looks at the tyre. ‘You’ll have to go again, Alan. You’re not straight.’
Alan has another go and then gets out looking grim, and they walk to the bakery.
When I was setting up the shop this morning, someone yelled from across the road, ‘Can you get in?’ and they were looking right at me. Get in where? I had to give a false and confident wave: yes I can, thank you. Yes I can what? I had no idea. The man nodded and waved, pleased that I could get in. Then he walked away, a wide gait and shoulders that had done a lot and were a little weary now. He leaned forward as he walked, careful of the remaining decades that still contained a lot to do.
A lady, a regular, was turning her gopher in my doorway, as she does every morning. It’s the only place wide enough. She said, ‘Oh, you’ll get in. You’re skinny enough.’ And she laughed strong and broad, filling my doorway with her morning notes. But I considered things seriously. What?
A lady and her husband stood at the window and she said, ‘Well, that’s almost offensive.’ And they leaned in and laughed darkly at each other and moved on, so I never got to know what had offended.
A man passed swiftly with a pole balanced across one shoulder like a fishing rod. He was fast. I didn’t see much, only an oblong of moving stripes, but he saw me looking out as he looked in, and he made bird noises, powerful and piercing, so I thought well he’s off to the magic circus somewhere on the river. Which is probably wrong, but for a minute I dropped back into a book I’d read once where a man wearing stripes had a magic bird booth at a circus, and the birds would tell true stories about the moon if you paid them one piece of gold.
I thought, is Strathalbyn under some weird magic spell today?
A young woman came in and asked for books about witches. I looked at her meaningfully. She browsed, and I watched her, looking for clues. But she revealed nothing, She had to go, she said, to Woolies, for milk and bread. I was disappointed.
Alan came in to share his family news. I told him that there’s magic going on. He said, ‘What kind of magic?’
I said in a mysterious tone, ‘Lots of things. A bird man.’
He said, ‘Na, mate. That’s nothing.’ Then he told me he was going home for a feed.
I said that I would stay here and keep watch. He laughed, another broad and full laugh, and said that I’d never get in.
But he’d gone. He saw him passing my second window already stuffing his mask into his pocket.
This conversation whipped past my shop door and was gone before I could catch the interesting tiger tail. This single question sang out clearly and steadily and remained in the air after the talkers had gone; it hung there. I saw it.
What had she done? Fault is awkward because we all have a bit. So I wanted to know. A sustaining dose of someone else’s faults will quieten mine. For half an hour.
The walkers were walking shoulder to shoulder and leaning in, as you do when sharing things delicate. As we do. Once I found keys in our shed door that ought not to have been there. They were jammed in awkwardly and left there for three days. I said, ‘Who left those there? We could have been robbed.’ But a grandson owned up immediately. ‘Me, Nanny. I wanted to get Pa’s wire scissors and make a hole in your fence.’ He looked at me, pleased with the vision of himself making a hole in our fence. I said delicately to Pa, ‘Do we need a hole in our fence?’ The walkers who passed my shop discussing the apology were women and young. I can tell that because of the pace and strength of the walk. They don’t lean forward. They were upright. They challenged the sky: get out of our way. They frowned slightly, aware of the footpath, the kerb, and approaching traffic. They gave the apology a chance. Their shoulders were soft. They give the criminal a chance. Their eyes were considering. I saw that.
I myself gave the keys in our shed door a chance. I like those keys and their crooked hopeful insertion into the aching lock. I wished those young women hadn’t been walking so fast. Why didn’t they hang about the doorway like men do, with time available, nothing to do, and an argument to win; a country to conquer. But they didn’t hang. They moved on. Once a friend told me, ‘Apologise. Just fucking do it. If they’re worth it, apologise.’ She said this when we were raising kids and getting it wrong. Now I ache with the wrongness and the need to have apologised more. The keys must still be there. Sometimes we don’t get an apology back. The same friend said, ‘So what. Get over it.’ She won me a country.
I wonder who those young women were, and who had the key in their lock, crooked.
I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.
A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.
‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:
‘Yeah. Little bit.’
‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:
‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.
A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.
‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.
‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.
‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.
Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’
A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.
Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.
Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.
George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.
A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.
An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.
And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.
The only difference is that people stand and read my wear a mask sign. Then they put one on and come in and look at me and smile reassuringly. Their masks move and wrinkle up as they try to smile. Then they remember the code, ‘Quick, Ruth, go back.’
‘Why? What’ve we done?’
‘Do the phone thing.’
‘Oh God, where’s me phone?’
I have so many paper signs on the door that passers-by have to peer through, moving their heads from side to side to see what’s in there.
Sarah wears her mask over her eyes as well. Can’t be too careful.
The door opens to let somebody in, but a friend pulls them back out. ‘No need to go in there. We got our books last week. Leave it Ginny.’
I am asked, ‘Can I ask how long it is between vaccinations?’
I am told to try and keep my footing.
There are not many cars going past. No horns, and hardly any trucks. And nobody is standing in my doorway and talking so I can eavesdrop and write it all down. People stop and read my door signs for ages, but in silence, and they usually don’t come in.
The traffic on the road is subdued as though thinking about something.
There’s only one person over at the bus stop.
Locals come in to make sure I am all right. Because of this, I am.
Three people pass the window, moving slowly the way older people do, and shoulder to shoulder. ‘I know what to get him… what about one of those new skateboard things. The young people like those.’
I’m not even inside the shop yet, and there’s plenty to see. As I walk from the car to the door of my shop, there is:
– a man holding his dog up and moving it’s huge paw up and down to make it wave at someone through the bakery window.
– a collision at the bin between two older couples who say, ‘Oh goodness, sorry, ‘ to each other.
-three young tradesmen running across the road toward a four door ute, and one takes the driver’s seat and flips the bird at the other two. They look at her, and then get into the back seat and look at each other.
-there’s a little black dog in a parked car barking hysterically at the dog who is still waving through the bakery window.
– a lady has put up the flag for the art gallery, and is now standing talking to two other ladies, and they all have their arms folded and are nodding.
– someone keeps calling hoky doky – it goes on and on. I go outside to put up my open signs. I can see the hoky doky person. It’s a man in a cherry coloured jumper and forest green work jeans, now walking toward me pushing a wheelbarrow loaded up with a rake and a three pots. He calls back to a waving lady, ‘Hoky doky, I’ll get it.’
– a lady in black jeans and orange boots walks past fast. She passes the wheelbarrow, walking while looking at her phone. She has another two phones, one in each back pocket.
– two men are now standing at the window deciding. ‘Rudyard Kipling or James Joyce…’ One man says into his phone, ‘He’s still looking.’ The man looking has a black beanie and a spectacular pair of purple glasses.
-two ladies walking side by side pass them, and one says, ‘I’d like to see the sun today.’
I put small shelf of reds in the front window. It looks good. It looks warm. It’s just a random selection of reds.
People go past and it catches their eyes. Their heads swivel so they can look at the shelf as they walk past. Finally they are looking at it over their shoulders.
Somebody said, ‘That’s nice. Did you see that?’
The books are random, chosen because they are stout. The one on the end is Les Misérables, and people know this one. They read the title out loud. They are walking past, and they stop and lean in and read it out loud, ‘Ley Miserabels’, wasn’t that a film? Pretty sure it’s a film.’
‘My brother’s read that.’
‘ God. Imagine reading that.’
‘Want to go in?’
‘Na. Already got too many books.’
‘Get fucked Ryan.’
‘My God, babe. Love you.’
I image Fyodor listening in from Russia and enjoying it.
Some people stand and stare at the books, silent. Then they walk on.
Some people come in and pick up the books and examine them closely. Then they say, ‘Thanks’, and leave again.
Once a child ate a bag of chips outside, staring at the shelf through the window and nodding and nodding at the books as he ate his chips – as though listening to music that nobody else could hear.
I imagine the books lit up at night when I’m not there. Catching the midnight pedestrian and shocking them into walking properly. Forcing motorists to slow down as they drive past and stare into the window at Fyodor Dostoyevsky who sits burning on the end of the shelf, still troubled by his death sentence and six years in a Siberian prison camp. Maybe it shows.
There is a young girl sitting cross legged in the corner with an umbrella rising up and over one shoulder, the curved handle announcing exactly her small neck.
There is her mother with a rucksack over one shoulder, standing nearby and looking at book after book in Health.
There is silence in here, but outside raining like mad loudly and cars swishing past then stillness and people running across the road trying to be fast because of the rain but they all do the rain dance. This is a highstep dodging the traffic jump sideways kinds of dance where you end up next to a caravan that’s not yours and rain everywhere anyway.
There’s mud all over the footpath; every time the door opens I can see it. And wet paper bags and a coffee cup blown across from the bakery.
It’s getting darker and darker even though it’s the middle of the day. A couple look in and she says, ‘Want to have a look, Neil?’, and he says, ‘God no, can get them for half the price online.’ He keeps on peering in, looks right at me. She looks at him. They move away.
The mother and daughter are both kneeling next to the shelves. The umbrella has been laid aside. I can still see its curved handle, a perfect expression, holding its ground and not available online.
A car has to brake suddenly right out there next to my shop. The sound of brakes makes me look up. All the occupants have been jerked forward. I can see mouths moving, heads turning all about.
Mother and Daughter are shoulder to shoulder looking out of the window, and the umbrella is still on the floor in the corner, looking warm and useful.
When I look up a little later, the girl is in the chair. Her mother is kneeling next to the umbrella. It looks after her knee. The rain is coming down. The windows are cold dotted with it.
A couple cross the road come towards me. They break into a sprint for three steps, then calm it into a fast walk, avoiding the water in the air but ending up soaked anyway. They don’t come in. They go to the bakery.
The mother and daughter come to the counter. They look happy. The umbrella is hooked over the girl’s arm.