A couple came into the shop. He stopped at the window. He swayed back and forth, thinking and thinking. He stood in the same place. He wasn’t looking at the books. He was looking at something else, but I couldn’t see it.
His wife beamed and beamed at the shelves. She hurled her approval, but quietly, and everywhere. She said, ‘I like Fiona McIntosh.’ She came back slowly with three books. There was no hurry. There was time. She said to her husband, ‘What else?’
He said, ‘The devil if I know!’
He swayed back and forth, looking at her. He shone his own approval all over her. She was already bent over, but she bent over some more, laughing slowly.
He said, ‘You’ve been here a donkey’s age!’
He said to me, ‘She’ll be a donkey’s age.’ He nodded silently, agreeing with the end of a vast argument that was flung back over a long time, perhaps a century.
She nodded, agreeing with the end of a vast argument that was flung back over a long time, perhaps a century.
He swayed back and forth. She beamed.
Yesterday was hot, and the ducks on the road into Strathalbyn sat too close to the road and refused to move. People came into the shop and said, ‘God, it’s hot!’
Today is cold, rain in the morning and people coming in and saying, ‘My God, this is strange.’
One man said that a second ago, it was summer.
His girlfriend said that she doubted it, and would he pay for her books.
He said, ‘How am I supposed to do that?’ But he paid for the books and looked pleased.
She said, ‘I love this weirdy weather, you can read in it.’
He said, ‘I know.’
She pointed out that he didn’t like reading.
He said, ‘I know, but I might be going to start,’ and he looked around for a book to start with.
She said, ‘I don’t believe you’, and looked pleased with him.
Artwork by Pascal Campion
This couple came into my shop but they weren’t walking on our earth. It was cold, freezing, but they weren’t cold.
They seemed to tread a path across some other realm of private joy, with all of tomorrow’s ideas.
They sing. Exclaim. They howl with joy. Call out to each other, did you see this, babe?
Do you want that? You should get it! Get it!
They remember yesterday, and the day before.
Look at this. This is great. This is so funny. They look at each other.
She kneels in art, bending over the books with the most tender attitude. He strides around, invincible. They look for each other.
‘When I was a kid, I looked up and up at books on a shelf. Now I’m that height. We’re going to have shelves. I love cats. This is how we’re going to be. Our kids are going to have books.’ They look at each other.
The shelves, the books, everything, leaning forward, listening in astonishment. The windows change colour.
Winter withdraws, a gracious defeat.
There is an old man here leaning into the biographies while his wife searches for something significant in the spirits. She calls it exactly that, the spirits. She told me later that what she hoped for was some useful reading in numerology but at this stage does not know where to begin the quest.
Her husband does not say much, he spoke to me about the weather and the dust and then turned back to the biographies. He is looking at a biography of Russell Brand.
His wife returned to ask him what he has found and he silently holds up the Russell Brand. But she says, well, we aren’t reading that are we…
He doesn’t reply so she slants in silently, moves in on the shoulder where he is not expecting an approach. She says briskly, not that book! And he, weaving backwards in alarm, farts loudly enough to wake the dead (this would please Russell Brand no end) and hurls the book back onto the display, and she backs off in disgust and they leave abruptly, purchasing nothing, and leaving me with numerology and Russell Brand.
The neighbour’s kids up our road have made a street stall, a real market stall and they have invited us to come across to examine the goods, perhaps even make a purchase. It is a hot day, the street is silent except for the usual galahs, peering down across the stall, nosy and rude, black eyes on the lip balms (only one dollar each) in a criticising parroty kind of way.
They have arranged and re arranged the tables, written out prices and labels, created a display, argued over stock, placed a till, made a cash float, agreed on bargains. We buy a lemon, $1 each or 3 for $10. When we have made the purchase, we are handed a Free Lemon and so the exchange is a win for everyone. Later we return to purchase two red matchbox cars and a stone that has been painted (with nail polish) with mysterious symbols and could possibly be of extreme value.
Then we all go slowly home, leaving them to the afternoon rush, to continue adding goods and commodities, to discuss supply, demand and marketing strategies. The day continues warm, the sunlight drops kindly over the enterprise, the air is full of golden summer dust and brilliant, joyful ideas.
There is a family gathering at the end of summer. The oldest of this bowlful, the great grandparents, look benignly down across everyone. The youngest on the playground, the two year olds, look up in astonishment at everyone.
Noah and Max aim their cousinly flights through two things only. Matchbox cars and slices of bun. There is a tiny digger of monumental value. This is because it is a digger, a tiny yellow plastic digger that they both want. The digger. They can both say digger. This word, for Max and Noah, lives in the cave of their mouths, already there, a solid, tasteful item. Digger. And there is the added delicious conflict that there is only one toy and two of them. This conflict provides enough material to enrich the entire afternoon.
They zone from table to garden and back again. They have stolen a thousand pieces of doughnut and bun. Great Grandma encourages the thefts, she looks on with approval. They are able to carry an entire theft in one fist. Mashed in with the cakes are the digger, the bulldozer and the cement mixer. The cement mixer is full of doughnut.
They have found a patch of garden that contains loose dirt; wealth equal to gold, diamonds or cordial.
Here they sit serving their own version of refreshment by the fistfuls until suddenly they both stare at the digger. There is a lurch and a chase, but they are only two years old and the purpose of the conflict becomes lost in the joy of muscle, movement and a snail.
(Reminders of toilet, safety and manners flick at their ankles and are ignored, lost).
There is another chase that ends suddenly because nobody has the digger now, it is lost. They stand perplexed. Suddenly they forget the toy and there is yet another race, wobbly, wild and scribbling, but the nappies weigh heavily, ballast is out of balance and there is a fall. There is exhaustion and despair and then finally, tears. It is time to go home.
There is a family meeting outside the shop but it is not a meeting. It is a farewell, gathered around a car because some of them are leaving. They have all packed the car, very slowly. They are slowly still packing, sometimes they take things out and put them in again. They have been at the bakery but that’s over now. They have been leaning and waiting against the windows here. There is a small child and one man picks him up and says, hey little fella, hey little fella, hey little fella.
And the child, the little fella, puts his very small arms around the man’s neck and holds on as though to something very important. And the man holds onto the child in the same way. And there is a woman there looking at the child. She says,
They have to go now.
The young couple are not ready. He is packing the bags slowly in again. Then he takes two of them out again.
Keep us in the loop.
Where are you meeting the others? Is it Williamstown?
Let us know what happens.
Everyone moves together toward the car and the older man says, traffic jam, traffic jam.
Thanks for having us, mum, been great.
See you soon.
Ah well, good on you, you know.
Well, off they go. Strap that little fellow in properly.
He’s in, he’s all right.
I know, I know.
It’s been great.
They are great. The lady said this in a sort of whisper, I couldn’t hear it properly, that’s what it looked like, it would have been something like that, a whisper because the rest of your voice has gone for a bit. She was holding on to the fence.
Then they joined hands and went across the road together, looking at the ground.
Sculpture by Wil van den Hoek
On the last day of the holiday to Port Vincent, the family is packing up and packing in and running for the deadline of vacate the property by eleven am etc. but the boys, who are not quite two, and a bit more than two, have found a garden bed that apparently wasn’t there before.
In it is an attractive collection of wet bark chips and curly wood shavings that were not there before. There is also, underneath, a bed of earth that was not there before. There is also a level lovely plank to stand on, lean on, climb on, balance over, fly from, that was not there before. From this lofty height they watch the packing up, watch the potty as it is carried past to be repacked and they watch it with narrowed eyes. They will defeat it. They will not use it.
There are parent warnings but these are always there. These are signals of caution, dull, predictable and vital to measure the importance of one’s existence. The existence of Max and Noah is paramount and so they are surrounded with concerns and reminders, cautions and nags, the watch and the overwatch, fuelled by love and by its necessity which is love.
Noah and Max climb and clamour and ignore the warnings, scale the heights and run onto the road outrageously, ignorant, unheeding of parent agony, not giving a shit for the correct rules. They do not even use the potty with precision.
One day they will be 17 and they will say for fuck’s sake and so will pierce safety with the correct rage and anger because one time long ago they were adored and told repeatedly to get off the fence.
They are standing very still, this couple who came into the shop in the early morning and she examines the books leaning first on one leg, then the other, still, always still. She holds one book against her waist and reads the back of another. He says something and she looks up at him, stares at him, doesn’t answer, they stare at each other. She looks back down at the book she is holding. He rocks on his heels and whistles a little. She has raised a stack. He looks at her as though she were raising hell and he looks proud, he looks at me to see if I have noticed that life today is a masterpiece.
When they came in, she came in first. She plunged into the books, into the choices, leaving the bright summer day outside easily and gliding in without looking at me. I thought she scanned the perimeters of possibility within a few seconds and favourably too because her face went from holiday to intense. Maybe he recognised the flags because he squared up and rocked on his heels and made ready to carry the world.
He carried some of these books over to me, set them neatly on the counter and looked at me and said: this isn’t all. And they’re not for me because I’m not that clever.
Then he went to retrieve more and suddenly he appeared backwards through the second doorway, just half of him because he was leaning sharply back and he said again: that’s not all. That’s not all – and those books for her will last……ONE WEEK.
When she came out to pay for the books, he was already stacking her world into his arms. And she looked at him with her head on one side, considering something and then they left, and she was leaning closely in with her arm across his shoulders so that they could not get through the doorway easily and had to jostle and wedge and they are nearly dropping the books and he is saying: don’t worry, I’ve got ’em.
Which they did, the entire time they were here in the shop, we should leave, are you done, I’m done, can you try to finish, we have to go, but they couldn’t leave, their eyes were caught, over and over again, on Lolita, on Mona Lisa: A History, on Justin Cronin, on A History of Leisure travel, on A Catcher in the Rye, on The Narrow Road to the Deep North, because each catch came with another story, another narrative that they first told each other and then repeated to me. When she laughed, she stood on tip toes and leaned backwards, and he would say, yes that’s it. Then he said: well, thank you for your kind, kind, kind thoughts and thank you very much and soon to see you again and then he wrenched the door nearly off its hinges, left it floating in the warm street and they marched away together, she was reading aloud her biography of Charles Darwin as they walked, he was nodding and saying yes, yes, that’s right…
Eugen Spiro, Reading Outdoors, 1936