The Umbrella

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.

Hey, the bookstore’s open

It’s the long weekend, and I’m open! There are passers-by; the windows are dark with them, all full and knobbly with long weekend plans.

‘Hey the bookstore’s open. Not going in there.’ They don’t even look in. But I see them.

Some old ladies come in and look around, pleased. One says to me, ‘We have to dress up, and I’m going as a sorcerer.’ They don’t tell me what they have to dress up for. The other says to me, ‘I’ve got so many thousands of books at home.’

I say, ‘So do I’, but they don’t hear me. They move away chatting to each other.

‘I read Harry Potter. And I read Terry Pratchett. I wasn’t sure about them.’

‘Yes.’

‘What on earth are these?’

‘Oh, Enid Blyton. Yes.’

‘I think I’ll have to get this, The School Bus, it’s a bit tattered, but I guess it’ll do.’

She brings The School Bus back to me, and together we look at its tatteredness. Her friend emerges.

‘Shall we walk back to the museum in the hopes that it’ll be open, or shall we not bother?’

‘These small towns.’

‘Yes.’

They move slowly out of the door. ‘Will you carry my books?’

‘Guess I’ll have to’.

They drift up the road toward the hopeful museum, and two men take their place, looming up and leaning against the glass, peering in.

‘It says come in. but it’s pretty dark. Says open.’

‘Dunno. Rekn it’s closed.’

They turn away from the OPEN sign and slowly walk away, still talking. ‘And then I said to him, just get it done, mate.’

A family take their place at the door. They have climbed out of a parked car.

‘Get off the road,’

‘Get in here,’

‘Mal, I’m going in.’

In comes Mal, his old mother and the grandchild who had previously been on the road.

They buy three Penguins and Tough Boris by Mem Fox.

Someone buys Jules Verne.

Someone buys Anthony Trollope.

Someone buys Agatha Christie.

Someone asks for Kate Grenville.

A lady asks for books about fish. She said she loves fish.

I read Elizabeth Jolley.

The Rudyard Kiplings fall to the floor. All 16 of them.

I sell Horton Hatches the Egg.

Someone offers to buy the wooden cat.

There is some shouting outside over a car park, and then motorbike zooms away outraged.

A family buy Ballet Shoes and Pinocchio.

(Illustration Finding Your Fish by James C. Christensen)

Checking in

Everybody’s fluent entry into the shop is checked now. The door is darkened with hopefuls doing their phone. They are, without exception, patient and kind.

‘Shall we check in?’

‘It’s not working.’ A lady swayed and bent over her phone, but her group were looking into the windows, faces on the glass, eyes screwed up.

‘Look at this.’

‘MARK TWAIN.’ Said in a scream.

‘Weird guy him.’

‘For sure,’

‘This isn’t working. The lady on the glass is turning her phone around and around.

‘Turn it this way. What are you doing? Turn it this way.’

‘No good.’

‘God. Government probably changed it.’

‘It’s worked.’

‘Get in then.’

‘I think that lady at the counter’s going to give me a dirty look if I try and take this coffee inside, so I’ll wait out here.’

I heard her say it, as I pretended not to hear her say it.

Then she crept in. ‘Can I have this?’

I said, oh yes, drinking my own.

They all stood and whispered. The rain banging away outside. Everything dark. I couldn’t place them, family or friends, hard to tell; a kind of magical people, especially the lady with the orange coat because the others all gathered about her, and they held up books for her to see, but she only wanted Charlotte’s Web; I heard her say it.

‘These are good.’

‘So are these.’

‘Look here.’

Are you getting that Twain?

‘Nope.’

Charlotte’s Web?’

‘Yes.’

And they all laughed.

Illustration by Outcrowd

I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

The Doll’s House

My grandfather, Ben, made me a doll’s house when I was small. It was rough. It was perfect. His work-shed at his house in Richmond had aeroplanes flying over it, low enough to warm your hair and fill your ears with engine and wind.

The shed was dark and warm. The carpet made of wood shavings. Small windows. He made me a merry-go-round with horses made steady with a pearl of glue under each tiny hoof, polishing the circles of wood first with sandpaper and finally with felt made fragrant with talk powder.

He was an alcoholic, miserable in the city after a life in the bush. Then the war. There was nobody to ask if men were ok. There was only the bottle.

He always bought me liquorice.

He polished small disks of wood for me. He made them into mirrors. I tided the shed. I shuffled the tools and the wood about, and he looked on uneasily, thanking me, nodding and nodding, needing eucalypts and space and heat and getting only Adelaide.

He nodded and began the doll’s house. I’d always wanted one. He made it properly, with an attic. He must have heard me say it, ‘an attic’, and he made one, a proper one. I would see him sanding and cutting, his shoulders still wearing the war and heavy with poverty and city.

Now he’s gone.

 I set it out for my grandsons, and they filled its rooms with new knowledge. They piled all the tiny plates and cups into a front end loader. They set up the kitchen with cupboards and beds. They put a tractor in the garage. They put the bath outside. They put the baby’s cot in the tractor. They continued my grandfather, and may they never know war.

Three women with backpacks

Visited the shop this afternoon hoping to get ‘a small book, but a good one because we only have our backpacks to carry everything. Oh we’ll have fun here!’

They all had stout backpacks. They were of a very experienced age. They had solid trousers, leather belts and useful scarves. They spread out around the shop on large confident boots.

‘Oh no.’

‘Where’s Marie? Look what I’ve found her.’

‘Oh no.’

‘Oh, I do admire this person.’

And they dug in, these ladies, as though scaling the side of a mountain. Their sunglasses led the way. I admired their trousers. They were experienced readers, too. They had no need to go on and on about things. They just announced things briefly, only the necessary details that other explorers must know in the snow.

‘That’s something.’

‘Yes.’

‘I might get this. Eva Peron. Evita.’

‘Yes.’

‘This is sharp.’

‘What?’

‘That pilot. The woman.’

‘What’ve you found?’

‘D.H. Lawrence.’

‘Strange man.’

‘Oh my goodness, what’s in there?’ And they went, the three of them, around the corner into the last room, not checking for danger or the weather.

‘My word.’

I could see the boots and the waterproof socks and the end of a hiking staff leaning against literature in translation.

‘It’s The House of Spirits. Allende. Doesn’t that remind you of when we were young.’

‘Oh, she’s fine.’

I listened to them surveying the coastline. I heard a book fall to the ground.

‘Look out. Look out.’ I listened to them dodge an avalanche.

‘This’ll fit.’ I heard them discussing Travel.

They came to the counter to purchase their books. The Virgin and the Gypsy by D. H. Lawrence. One lady said, ‘It’s for travelling.’

Another lady said, ‘The thing about the classics is that there are no swear words in them.’

The third lady, passing behind her, said ‘That’s not true.’ And they adjusted their glasses and passed out of the door, back out onto the Himalayan slopes.

Photography by Elias Goldensky

I just kind of want to spend the day reading

Two friends are here. They are very quiet. So quiet, that I forget about them. They spent so long reading. I would have gone home and locked them in, but luckily they kept moving. First at Biographies. Then Poetry. Then Young Readers where they stayed with Roald Dahl. Then Poetry (again) (John Masefield). I looked at them; frontloading titles – trying to find out what they wanted.

Then they disappeared. I could see the edge of a jumper in Historical. Then nothing. Maybe they had found General Fiction, but they came back out – asked for The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. I had a copy (lucky!). They disappeared again. After an hour, I went to find them. Don’t want people lost at sea. And there they were under the big table on the floor reading The Hundred-Year-old Man to each other, with two old regulars, browsing anxiously and looking down at the table, unable to bend down and find the voices.

I knew they would come out with a pile (each) of strange and unrelated books. Books that they didn’t come in for, but which climbed into their arms as they stopped at a shelf for just slightly too long.

Image by Ricky Colson

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

In here

There are people here. They are standing the way people do in bookshops. Feet crooked, muscles tense, the mind not yet absorbed, eyes slinging from side to side. Bones angular and jutting out at the shelves.

Then they disappear into something. Heads drop onto chins. Hands drop to the waist where they hook into jeans or sit on the shelf of the hips. Coats, that were gripped tensely, drop to chairs, or even to the floor. Glasses slide down. Readers hold one book and read another. Necks crank into awful angles to get at titles. Pulses fade. Breathing slows.

Hands, as they are forgotten, curl into crabby shapes, personal and useful. Readers don’t know they have default reading bodies that fold into sculptures of absorption and intention.

She carried the books; he carried her bag so she could carry the books

This lady has been here before, but I don’t remember her husband. Anyway, she just kept on piling the books up. She found it hard to reach upwards; she asked me to pull this one down, and that one down, and now maybe that one. The books were all classics, and she’d read them all before. She was excited to get Brett Easton Ellis, and then again to get On the Road.

He carried her handbag over his arm. He said to me, ‘You wait, we won’t be able to get all of these in the car!’ And he looked at her proudly.

He walked around the shop. He found one book for himself. When they left, he carried everything because she was reading as she walked and had no hands to spare.