Ma’am

Two gentlemen at the front window of the shop:

‘Don’t rush me.’

‘What about that there?’

‘No, don’t rush me. I’m not one for reading. But what do you think of this fellow?’

These gentlemen, obviously friends, were outside and leaning over the sill display. The lucky “fellow” was Lee Child. They came in, and one of them picked up the book and brought it to me. They adjusted their masks trying to speak clearly.

‘Lovely day, Ma’am.’

It is.

‘Can you look after this for a bit?’

I can.

I looked up later and saw them in Cooking. Silent, both reading standing up, hats held under an elbow, breathing quietly, as you do. Later again, one of them in the chair, the other leaning against the shelf, still reading, still reading.

They finished eventually and returned to the counter with The Book of Sauces.

‘This is wonderful. Will you put these through?’

I will.

The man who paid handed the Lee Child to his friend.

‘Here. Happy birthday. Didn’t get time to wrap it.’

‘Wrap it. You better wrap it for me.’

But he was already reading it as they left. No time for wrapping.

They said, ‘Thank you Ma’am, much obliged. A lovely day.’

It is.

Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

Broom stories 2

These are the things that happen when I am outside the shop sweeping the footpath. I have to keep out of the way of passers-by. I have to be wary of trucks parking right next to me with the reverse tune singing on and on. But people seem to like seeing a person sweeping. There’s something soothing about it. It’s normal. It’s never ending. The footpath gets itchy and I sort it out, and people comment on my work.

‘You’re making a difference, mate.’

‘Looks lovely.’

‘You’ll be doing that all day.’

‘Come and do mine.’

Two men came past, arguing: ‘That was an Ebola outbreak.’

‘No. There wasn’t. It was meningococcal.’

‘Don’t reckon.’

A man came past in a raspberry and white striped shirt and stood right in my way. A lady carrying an enormous cake box strode past both of us.

The man jumped, and said, ‘My word, I’m sorry.’

Everyone wears masks.

The lady with the cake box wears a black mask. Her shoes are black. Everything matches. She comes past again with a second cake box. I’m taking cobwebs off the fence and starting to feel hungry.

The lady comes past with a third cake. I move out of her way. She says,

‘All good dear.’

There’s a man with two boys. He wears a mask hanging from one ear. They all have the same baseball caps and they walk the same way with their feet turning softly inwards with each step. He is drinking coffee, and they all have paper bags. The boys have cokes.

When they come past, he says, ‘Watch where you’re going you boys. Don’t get in the way.’ The boys, who are not in the way, jump backwards to get out of the imagined way. They cradle drinks against their chests, and one says, ‘Sorry. Sorry.’

An old lady walks past, slowly, slowly, and turns to look at me. She has to turn her head and shoulders to find me, but she does, and she says, ‘Looks very nice, dear.’ Then she turns back and grips her walking frame and continues on.

A lady with a dog, says, ‘Sorry honey, we’ll get out of your way.’

But I am finished. The path looks restored. In an hour it will be wearing its normal skin again.  But that’s ok.

What I did in the bookshop today

Shelved vampire books. Sorted the Cat Warriors. Put the biogs back into alphabet. Gave Robert a mask because his got lost. Bought a pie. Ate it crouched against a fence on the way back from Pestka’s because it started to rain again.

I listened to most of a furious theory of a one world government, which the teller didn’t finish because I put Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit through the speaker as a soft drowner. It worked. The angry person moved their head backwards in a slight duck movement. This is because Gregory Porter sings jazz, and jazz is already angry.  Liquid Spirit outranks any other noise; it is organized.  It pricks at rich rage and lets it all out with brighter and more useful colours.  The arguer against masks and government, who is actually a really nice (and tired) person, looked at the dictionary they’d just bought and said that it was a really good dictionary. Then they nodded a couple of time, and they nodded in time to Liquid Spirit. That’s ok; how can you not. Whatever they are, it’s probably me, too.

Another man near us began drumming on his book. He’d been looking through engineering. He tapped his credit card on the books. In time. And banged his books together. In time. How can you not.

Some kids roared past the window, going back to school? and one of them yelled, give it back you fuckhead. Well, why not!

The other person left without finishing their story. It wasn’t that they were wrong.

It’s just that Gregory Porter tells it a different way.

Portrait of Gregory Evans by Colin Able

Portrait in orange a couple of days ago

Workmen in bright orange shirts in my doorway eating food. They have iced coffees.

They have to keep moving out of the way of all the other passers-by. It’s cold.

An older couple move past swinging motorbike helmets, him watching her closely to see where she wants to go. They go on to the bakery and the workmen in orange crowd against my door again to let them pass. The food they have is hot and in paper bags; about eight bags each. I can see the steam. They have packs of smokes and huge boots, muddied. I can hear them scraping about out there.

‘I’m never going to get it.’

‘That’s what I reckon.’

‘So hungry.’

They go back and forth to the bin. One of turns and gazes in at the books. They keep eating. They stop chewing only when a truck passes, and then they gaze at it until it’s gone. Then they start eating again.

‘I don’t know, man. Just don’t know.’

‘Na. Me too. Where you going?’

‘Bog.’

‘K. See you at the car.’

One crosses the road slowly, still eating. When I look up again, they are both gone, and the orange landscape is now grey.

Home alone, or where everything is

There’s a pair of gumboots on the floor. There’s a fruit bowl with the ends of three bananas just seeing over the edge. And a stack of paperbacks placed by me yesterday right there with care. Carpentaria is on the top with the bookmark in page 22, place by me this morning right there with bliss with coffee and toast.

There’s washing not folded.

There washing folded not put away. Not mine.

There’s a lego model lying about in tiny crystal pieces. This model, an ice-cream van, even has tiny lego coins and tiny green lego iceblocks made of clear green plastic that looks like glass. There’s a boy with a skateboard and a dog, all part of the ice cream van, left there on the cupboard not quite put together.

There’s a set of MASH, The Recovery Collection, every season, pulled out and begun. Cups and plates on the sink, tin cans and jars, a chopping board, unread letters, a lemon.

Some fabric cooling in a coffee dye that’s mine another project not another one says my mother but it is: another one. My mother in law, Mary, left a bag of stuff that she never finished. I took a bit of wool out of it. I’m going to do something with it.

There’s a puzzle left on the floor, not finished because one letter is missing. So it’s always going to be unfinished. Still, the grandsons pull it out and fiddle. Encouraging any letter to soothe the blank space, but nothing will agree. So it’s left there again. Undone. What’s not there outranks what’s there. We won’t part with what we don’t have.

There’s a box of wood shavings that smell like wine and a computer chord abandoned next to the fireplace. There are three toilet rolls and a cork with a pin in it, treasure for a later game. A doll’s house my grandfather made me, now filled with mostly matchbox cars and stones.

There’s a series of windows looking out at cold hopeful August.

There’s a stack of photos everyone’s been looking through because the person who took them is lost to us now, and because what’s not here outranks what’s here.

People going past, people going past

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.

A reader put her head in the door and said…

‘I read your blog. I read it all the time.’

Then she withdrew and began to move away. Then she moved back and put her head through the door again. ‘I do enjoy it.’

There hadn’t been much happening that day. I still remember that. I was just sitting there wondering about the value of things.

After she put her head in the door and said that, there was value in everything.

Everything’s much the same

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 hope they get him one.

Illustration by Brian Kershisnik

What to talk about when things get uneasy

I know that people who come into the shop are a little more concerned than usual, and that if they weren’t before, they will be now. There have been conflicts and difficulties in the past, and I have had to intervene. But things have changed. The biggest change is that it is so easy to get things wrong, especially in a small shop where everyone can hear everyone else.This means I have to intervene more often.

Now I have something that can help a little. When there was angst about the government, I used it. Once, during an argument about Bob Hawke, I used it. Once, after an enraged threat, ‘Well, I’ll fucking tell you something’, I soothed the participant with it. Once some travellers from Victoria in my shop were told sharply that they had no right (to something). I fired the accuser with a new issue, and luckily it worked. A man leaned over me angrily about vaccinations, (‘it’s all about profit’), and I moved him on gently to a greater issue.

This is because there are common issues. We can bend our anger and hatred upon these, and they deserve it.

The greatest of these is phone updates.

I ask, ‘Do you like your phone?’

We mostly don’t. People bend over their phone screens for me, trying to find the words for something that, while vital, provokes endless rage. If necessary, I probe the wound:

‘Do you do the updates?’ No argument can survive this question. Everyone takes out their phone and looks at it, looking for the update still sitting there like an arsehole.

‘God, updates. With this phone, I can’t update anything. Look at this.’ And they show me the source of all evil, previous argument gone.

‘Fucking hate this phone. Don’t get an Android.’

‘Samsung. Useless. Apple is better. But…’

I ask, ‘Should I do this update?’ This provokes intense anxiety (except in young people, who will fearlessly update anything) in case I am mis-advised.

‘Don’t do it mate.”

‘Na, fuck that.’

‘Never.’

‘Do all of ‘em. Else you’ll be hacked the shit out of.’

There are other things. Printers. All people hate their printers. This includes me. They always work for the first eighteen pages… ‘

So, what printer do you recommend?’

‘God, I hate Canon. So shit. And Epsom. They’re wankers.’

“God. Don’t ask me. I got this one at home that….’

Australia Post. People look stern and severe.

‘You tell me why it takes ten days for a pack to get from here to Woodside. I mean, what are they doing with the stuff!’

‘You know what they charge? You ever been in there? You have to queue from here to the river. That’s because they’re all dickheads with fancy watches. Actually they’re ok here. But they’re shit in Mt Barker.

‘Well, they lost my stuff. Everyone knows they smash the parcels to bits and reckon they didn’t. No compensation for me.’

Developers.

I only use this for emergencies. Because after this one, everybody is family, and nobody will go home.