What wheelie bins do

I like Thursdays because it’s wheelie bin day, and I look at them on the way to the shop, standing in wobbly rows in the hot dust and doing basically nothing. But that’s wrong.

Nothing works so hard as the wheelie bin. When I pass them, all the way to work, they’re in little groups mulling over a whole week’s story. And exhausted really. Some are skewed and crooked with broken feet and sagging bellies and some are split from chin to knee.

Sometimes, in our road, they are not straight. They are shoulders to the road and backs hunched.

I see the green bins and yellow bins leaning into each other, exchanging gaseous news about what their families are going through, mouths slightly ajar, unable to close on the morning’s breakfast.  Some are rattling and chewing in the breeze and dropping careless milk cartons, and with odd things like camping chair legs protruding like a chicken bones through plastic lips.

Through Woodchester, there’s two without lids, the clasps protruding from necks, and one is bandaged heavily around the gut with silver tape. Some wear beards of food and greenery.

Some foam at the mouth. Some have fallen in the wind and are still lying broadside in the gravel when I drive back home. Some have been towed back to their seats. Some get hosed out and have to cough up that last bit of egg carton. Imagine not having them.

Young people when it’s really hot outside

Slide and glide. That’s how they come in, and when I look up, there they are, pale and cool and never complaining. Young people stand humbly, looking up at the shelves, and then glance quickly and apologetically at me as if they shouldn’t be in here. Unfailingly polite.

It’s very hot this morning. But you’d never know it. Young people don’t comment on the weather; they just let it lie around outside and pile up at the door if it wants to.

A boy wanted a love book by an African writer, but I didn’t have it, and we couldn’t even order it, except from France. He looked at me sadly. And a girl swung about with a pile of 7 waiting for her grandmother who only had 2.

And another younger girl sat in the bird books just reading them as if they were novels. She was about 13, and wore a curious beanie, and she bought 3 books, one about The English Plover, because she loves birds.

Then it got hotter, and all the young people left, passing out into the heat without comment, and the bird girl carrying her three books in a pile on her head.

The difference between working in a book shop last year and every other year I’ve been here

There is no difference between last year and every other year I’ve been here. There were small things, like mask wearing and checking in, but people, and my shop, basically remained the same:

  • The quality of customer-peering (through the door) remained the same
  • The record number of books held under one arm while browsing stayed the same (9)
  • The same books fell off shelves and tables in the night and dented their own covers
  • The streams of conversation passing the door were as intense, rich, and deeply textured as in 2014
  • Dogs still urinated just outside my door
  • Children still read on their knees and replaced the books backwards
  • Window books continued to draw clear, crisp and authoritative comments from passers-by.
  • Young people gazed through the front window at a single book on the table with the same unreadable facial expression.
  • Readers still bought bookmarks
  • Everyone still turned to open the door the wrong way
  • Readers still went silent when they find a book they really want and then breath slowly outwards
  • People still come in thinking I’m the bakery

What didn’t stay the same:

  • My landlord died

This was sad because Malcolm liked my shop and used to leave books for me in the storage room. It’s only because of Malcolm and Ann that I’m still here.

I’ve been really lucky for a long time.

Sculpture by Eudald De Juana

The couple who showed each other every book they found

I recognized them, they’ve been here before; they come through the door nonchalant and smooth, and head straight for their shelf.

They both lean into the shelves the same way, head on the necessary angle, flip the pages and look closely at the back of the book. If it suffices, they straighten and hold the book up for each other to see.

They lean back and grin at each other. They whisper and nod and examine book after book.

They cradle the chosen ones in their arms and move on to the next shelf.

Painting by Edward B. Gordon

Some people got out of a car and had a big old argument!

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.’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Jesus.’

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.

Illustration by Jack Vittriano

The man who badly needed a cup of tea

He came in to browse and told me that his wife was Dux of Woodville High School, but three weeks ago had walked out of his life. He knelt down to examine all the bottom shelves and said that the books were wonderful. Just wonderful; especially the bird books.

Then he sang me a hymn and asked if I knew it. I didn’t. He found a book on Scotland (The History of) and told me about his Scottish parents. He began to make a pile of books while he talked.

‘I’m worried about this generation. All they do is sit on the couch and drink fat.’

He said he didn’t hold with televisions, and that he badly needed a cup of tea.

‘After my wife left me, I had to do something with my life, so I started lifting weights. I’m 77, and you probably don’t believe it.’ I said it was amazing.

‘I just got the first TV of my life the other day. It’s for my new lady, and I’ve put it in its own room. Not with the books. Young people don’t know about the war.’

He went into the other room for a while. Then he came back.

‘Everything, Honey, has a city mentality. Even the birdlife. People only think of coffee and cakes. It’s artificial. I once knew some idiot called Charlie who was like that’.

I agreed.

He sang me another hymn, which I admired. Then he paid for his books, told me that he can’t abide a show off, and said goodbye.

Himself, a flash of unique bright birdlife, gone!

Raining today, and the road is hissing

That’s all I can hear this morning: water on the road and crockery in the bakery.

The rain comes down hard all day.

Someone stopped in my doorway and booked a motel, and a dog refused to go across the road and had to be carried.

A young tradesman dropped his mask in a puddle and put it back on again, and everyone is shrugging back into warm clothing, which last week we had discarded. A lady said, ‘Who brought this weather in?’ and Alan told me to, ‘Enjoy it, mate, because it won’t last’.

I don’t mind. It’s good reading weather, as is all weather. Alan notices water. He’s going home to check the water that’s come to his place, which is somewhere outside of Alice Springs.

Sarah came in, and then backed out because she’d forgotten her mask. She roared through the door as she left that Scott Morrison was at it again.

A couple went past fast, and he was saying, ‘Don’t put the umbrella there, I get all the drips’, and she snapped it shut hard, so he really did get all the drips even though he ducked hard to the side, and then they were gone so I didn’t see any more.

An old couple went across the road, slowly treading through the water, and three cars had to slow down, but nobody tooted.

Still raining. Good reading day.

All the weird things that happened today for no reason that I could see

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.

What?

But he’d gone. He saw him passing my second window already stuffing his mask into his pocket.

A dish cloth was all that was needed

Parked outside the shop is a car with a trailer holding a red air compressor, which is secured with broad yellow straps. There is a vinyl square cushion strapped against its flank. This cushion is a square the colour of caramel and is covered in dust.

We once had this lounge suite; the seat was three cushions side by side and the back was one long rectangular slab. A dish cloth was all that was needed to remove jam or drawings in chalk, or blood. Under the cushions there were broad straps webbed from end to end and that gradually sank over the years. The arms were made of wood with thick wrists and carved hard elbows. When we got rid of ours, there were matchbox cars and marbles caught in the webbing.  

It was a good couch for reading.

Wanting the peacock

This morning, there was shouting outside the door. An argument. The participants separated but then drew together again.

‘F you, Matt.’

Matt crossed the road, hands in pockets, looking glum. Then another scream right at my door.

‘Look at this. Look at this. Frink’n hell. That’d be good, oy, Matt, get here.’

‘Matt.’ (Even louder)

Matt came back. ‘What, mate! God.’

‘Look at this. Gunna get one.’

They are looking at my metal peacock outside under the larger window, and which is in poor shape and not for sale anyway.

The door swings open. The couple stand in my doorway, breathing hard, and they carefully sign in with their phones. They also very carefully adjust their face masks before looking at me and shouting a request for the peacock. But I can’t help.

‘I’m sorry. I don’t have any others.’

They are cheerful. ’No worries, mate. Bummer. Not a problem.’

He picks up a six pack of beer he’d just put down outside the door. She turns back just as the door closes and presses her mouth through the gap, ‘Really really nice place you’ve got here.’