The browser

A young girl in the shop is browsing. Browsing means to take a leisured survey, and in a bookshop, browsing is a slow dance, unique to the reader, the shop, and the shelves.

This girl takes a book, examines the spine, the pages, the top, the bottom, the back, the front. She carefully balances three books flat on her left hand, while turning to look for some more.

The lady next to her stands as straight at a doorway

The man behind her is bent like a bow. He is reading on the lower shelves.

The next man holds his hands and his phone behind his back and leans forward. Protrudes his head even further forward and reads titles with screwed up eyes, and every so often, nods. His partner follows behind him looking at her phone.

The browser, the first one with the careful balance of three books has added a fourth. A couple enter and turn in circles looking for the Covid thingo. They hold their phones and sunglasses in front of them. After checking in, she turns to the biographies and says ‘woooooo’. Her partner looks at her and then goes back out. A child going past says loudly, ‘Hairy Maclary.’

The movements of bookshop browsers can be almost imperceptible, but the flickering muscles of the eyes tell the real story.

Painting by Casey Childs

We waited a whole hour, and not even a sausage roll

Today, people are discussing Christmas. Christmas is receding gently, but there are things to discuss. I can hear them where I sit, and I think about them.

‘I made pavlova but nobody ate it. Won’t make it again.’

‘They made a wreath out of crystal or something.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘No idea.’

Two young men pass by, fast. They are talking about skiing. They wear black jumpers and black beanies because it has turned unexpectedly cold today. One of them spins to the right and then to the left, acting out a significant manoeuvre for his friend, who is not watching. He is checking his phone. ‘Jazz didn’t like her present…’

‘No way.’

‘Who’s got a spare hand?’ This is a young family carrying too many things. They line up to cross the road, and the father, hoping to pass around some of his parcels, is ignored. ‘Just like the other day, hey! Just like Christmas.’

Another family climb out of a parked car. There are sleeping bags and tents strapped to the roof, and they climb out slowly and stretch and look at each other not very happily. ‘Can we go somewhere where we can eat?’ They all walk slowly to the bakery except for a teenage boy wearing white headphones who remains in the front seat of the car.

A group of motorcyclists across the road are leaving in a group. They are so loud that the customers in my shop pause and look up to watch. Each motorcyclist leaves the same way: pulls out slowly, dramatically, straightens up, adjusts the helmet, moves forwards, and then abruptly lurches into a deafening roar. Fifty metres or so down the road, they roar again, but this time more loudly. Outside the shop, people are standing watching on the kerb. The teenager with the headphones has joined them. Then he sees his family returning and swings back into the front seat of the car. He slams the door. He winds the window down and yells gently to a younger sibling, ‘Give it here. Give us one. Give us a pastie. Oi, Luke, give us one. Ta mate.’

A lady and her friend are near the counter, shoulders together. ‘I really don’t think he can cope anymore. You should have seen. We waited a whole hour and not even a sausage roll. I’m not going there for Christmas next year, and we’re going to have proper custard.

‘I know, I know. Yes. I thought that too.’

Painting by David Hettinger

The ute is gone

Two ladies are drifting around the shop, dreamily, and apologetic as if they shouldn’t be here. They say, ‘Sorry’, and tiptoe past me. They are pineapple and blue, bright and delicious. They sway here and lean there.

 ‘I remember half of these books from me childhood.’

‘It’s a bit of a shock isn’t it!’

‘Oh I know.’

Outside the door there is a ute parked, and in the back of the ute, a sheep, quite dead, and next to it, a ladder. I know because I stood up to see. I looked at the sheep’s belly, looking for breathing. None.

A passer-by walked past the windows, absorbed and fluent. He looked into the back of the ute as he walked, his head turning as though on a stalk. He stopped abruptly and looked more closely, and then walked on.

‘Oh my lord.’ A lady stopped and gestured with her bag.

‘Oh no.’

Inside, the pineapple and blue ladies are still drifting. They have solid bags. Their hair is similar, small silver tents. They clasp their hands across their fronts.  The floor creaks under their gentle boots.  Slowly, softly, they exclaim at memories.

Outside in the quiet road, the sheep is still dead, itself now a memory. The driver plods wearily past my windows and climbs in.  He has a tray with two coffees.

I am asked for James Michener, Miss Read, The Readers Digest Motoring Guide to Australia and books that are good for reading groups.

A young woman asks her friend, ‘Would you listen to this if I read it out loud?’

Her friend, breathes out, ‘Maybe.’

The blue and pineapple ladies pass by, thank me and tenderly leave.

The young women search urgently for things to read aloud.

The ute has driven away, and the sheep is gone.

Image by Hugh Stewart

It’s raining. There’s a man pacing up and down….

It’s raining. There’s a man pacing up and down outside my shop. His phone is on speaker. I can hear the phone speaking back to him, a thin stream of information, like a pilot giving air directions, and none of it making sense to anyone else.

‘The things they get away with down there is ridiculous.’

The phone answers what sounds like a long list of facts.

‘You can times that by five, mate. The problem is… the problem is… what they don’t realize is…’

The phone speaks back. Agreeing.

The man is pacing, agitated, up and down. It is still raining.

‘I contracted it all out though. It’s such a hassle. Turns out that – ‘

The phone interrupts.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes…is it though?’

The phone delivers a short lecture, this time without interruption.  

‘All right buddy, better let you go.’ The conversation ends. The man, wearing an orange safety vest, muddy boots, and a beanie, picks up his coffee from my windowsill and strides away.

It’s quiet again. It’s dark and raining, not right for September. There are long heavy trucks outside, slow and creaking and hissing. But now they have all stopped. This is unusual, and I look out. There’s an orange indicator going somewhere out of my sight, the rain and the hot orange light flicker and flacker all over the front of the shop. K and S Freighters are stuck out there, massive and shining, then a huge carrier with cows looking out at the rain, a soft wall of eyes, then a cement mixer with its wet belly turning slowly, then a bus.

Someone walks past whistling, a bright light idea uninterested in rain.

When the sun comes out, it is warm, its light has gold edges that are told in the puddles, the puddles read it swiftly in gold lines with metal stops. The puddles are flints. People look down, then up and shade their eyes.

Everyone becomes a jogger, simply everyone. They have to cross the road. The sun has dropped abruptly, rain again. I stand at the window and look out.  People run rustily, puffing dramatically, eyes screwed up, legs lifted high to avoid the spray, laughing because there is so much water, and because we need it.  My town, thirty minutes away and always dry, lay on its back this morning drinking heavily, weighed down by liquid, the trees hanging sodden, their roots and toes alive with water and digging for more.

Customers come wheezing in, happy and unbothered, ‘Do you have book two of Tim Severin’s Viking stuff?’

The trucks drag nets of spray behind them. A child in a car parked just outside the door has his arm out of the window catching the drops. He is on his knees. He puts his head out. A drench catches him, and he shakes and shakes, alive with nourishment. Somebody inside the car speaks, and he abruptly withdraws.

Another child, on the footpath, is being a duck. I am startled because his duck sound is so real, so loud and so close.

‘He’s being a duck, Grandpa.’

There’s a whole family out there. They’ve been to the bakery and are noisy with paper bags and loaves of bread and coffee.

‘Show Grandpa how you’re being a duck.’

The child is wearing soft thick clothing, red and dark blue, and tiny stout boots protect his webbed feet, and he quacks and quaeks and hoots.’

 ‘Hey, come here duck’, says Grandpa.

But he does not want to get into the car.

Grandpa, who drops to help the youngster, gets a boot in the side, and the son, the father, takes over, stern. ‘Get in. Now. Get in. Stop it.’

Now the ducky is in, fitted into a duckling seat, the rain runs down the windows and I can see him making duck hands to himself, and there are little arrows of sun smoking down and making a sheen of warm green emeralds on the top of their lolly green car, and then another truck goes speeding past sending us all us a new version of the same water.

Oh….

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“Nowadays I can usually tell where a bean was grown, as well as its species. These come from South America, from a small, organic farm. But for all my skill, I have never seen a flower from the Theobroma cacao tree, which only blooms for a single day, like something in a fairytale. I have seen photographs, of course. In them, the cacao blossom looks something like a passionflower: five-petaled and waxy, but small, like a tomato plant, and without that green and urgent scent. Cacao blossoms are scentless; keeping their spirit inside a pod roughly the shape of a human heart. Today I can feel that heart beating: a quickening inside the copper pan that will soon release a secret.
Half a degree more of heat, and the chocolate will be ready. A filter of steam rises palely from the glossy surface. Half a degree, and the chocolate will be at its most tender and pliant.”


Joanne Harris, The Strawberry Thief

I can’t find the door

51775654_1494764423988205_520481570201534464_n.jpgThis morning a man came charging across the street and collided with my door hard enough for me to think that he had fallen into it. But he hadn’t.
He was angry though.
He said “I can’t find the door…”
I asked him “Which door…?”
He said, “The door to the bloody bakery, what do you think I meant?”
I looked at him and he looked at me as though waiting for me to find the door on my counter somewhere.
Then I made a mistake. I thought I would be funny, I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t sell doors here.”
He was outraged.  I had not helped him at all. He ducked his head down and stared at the doormat. I wondered what kind of diabolical timetable he was following to make his days so harrowing.
He decided to be patient and kind and to speak more slowly in case it was me who was the bloody stupid one. He said “To  get  into  a  bakery  there  needs  to  be  a  door….”
I said: “The door to the bakery is just around the corner, where the bakery is.”
He hung onto my door frame, and his head snapped to the left. He looked at the bakery tables on the corner in amazement,. He was genuinely shocked.
He said, “Thanks.”
I said, “See you.”

Fucking idiot.