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.

When the home library loses its mind

When I was young and had time to loll about, my brothers used to pull a random paperback from my shelves and ask me to identify it using only the gap it left. I always got them right. I knew where each book knelt as though in its own benediction each night. The Last Unicorn. The Incredible Journey. I Heard the Owl Call my Name, Josie goes Home. Every single volume of The Bobbsey Twins. When they weren’t there, I knew.

 ‘Give it back. I never said you could.’

I kept my library tight and worried about it at school. I imaged wrongly that it was of value to everyone and that everyone was dazzled by its kaleidoscope of broken skies and the urge to not travel anywhere but through it.

I was mistaken. Everyone has their own dazzle. What was actually dazzling was only my infatuation with it. But I continued collecting. Later, when I had my own bookshop, I would meet fellow dazzlers. They range from the age of five to ninety five, and I would know them by the way they turn on an axis and can’t decide.

Now our home has been rinsed through with family; a thousand summers. L plates. Exams. Crying, and broken microwave plates. Near misses. Calamity, and needing to reorganize the towels. Grandsons that read and climb and fall out of the mulberry tree and come for a bandaid. The library standing back and looking on with approval.

The collections continue, swollen and mixed, with broadened shoulders and matchbox cars around their ankles. Books have moved. The children’s flats have burst upward like pancakes and newcomers stand around waiting for a place. Joan Didion, Alexis Wright, Lahiri Jhumper, A Gentleman in Moscow, everything by Marie Darrieussecq, Kim Scott, Gerald Murnane. Books have gone; don’t know where.

The library has been forced back into order, but it didn’t last. I pushed all the shelves to new places to make new spaces, so now D is next to T, and Asterix looks at Beatrix Potter, and I can’t find anything, but so far that’s ok. I know where Bill Bryson probably is, and I know where the Text Classics are because I just read The Women in Black and put it back. There are plastic monkeys clustered underneath Little House on the Prairie where they are having kindy, and Owl Babies is always out on the floor.

A library whirls around its readers; it is never still and never the same, and its life can never end.

Image by Vladimir Fedotko

Chemin de Fer by Elizabeth Bishop

Alone on the railroad track
I walked with a pounding heart.
The ties were too close together
or maybe too far apart.

The scenery was impoverished:
scrub-pine and oak; beyond
its mingled gray-green foliage
I saw the little pond.

where the dirty hermit lives,
lie like an old tear
holding onto its injuries
lucidly year after year.

The hermit shot off his shot-gun
and the tree by his cabin shook.
Over the pond went a ripple.
The pet hen went chook-chook.

‘Love should be put into action!’
screamed the old hermit.
Across the pond an echo
tried and tried to confirm it.

Sculpture by Hans Some

(The literal meaning of the French phrase ‘chemin de fer’ is ‘iron path’.) 

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.’

Lads on the footpath

I was helping a couple stack and pack their choices; science, Robert Louis Stevenson, an atlas, bird watching, and pure maths. We all looked up when the clatter happened because it was right in the doorway, and it was significant. It was a family. The parents walked on, firmly and with purpose, I saw their faces; it’s the school holidays.

The clatter is a mixture of three small boys, a dog, a leash, a soccer ball, and a Spiderman drink bottle that is balanced delicately on the kerb. The old couple move to the window, interested onlookers. The man opens my door and calls out, jovial, ‘Where are you going?’

The little boys are untangling themselves. Two standing, one sitting. Their shoelaces are undone. They are hot and covered in mud, and about seven years old. They look at the man, startled.

He says again, ‘Where are you going, and what do you wish?’ He looks back at this wife, and they share something silent. The little boys have no answer. They are winding in their little dog, whose leash is too long. One screams, ‘Leo’s fishing.’

The parents are calling. One boy grips another by the neck and they fall to the footpath, wrestling, like puppies, and the old couple close the door and watch through the glass, joyful, approving. One boy stands up with a drinking straw stuck to his hair. The Spiderman water bottle has rolled backwards and I can hear it tapping against my door.

But the parents have caught on. They come back and take charge. The lads are gathered up and sent onwards, back to the car, seatbelts, home, dinner. Bed.

The little dog is carried, the leash trailing. The Spiderman water bottle taps away desperately but is forgotten.

The old couple leave softly.

Life goes on. Regardless of what is going on.

Painting (Wynken, Blynken and Nod) by Maxfield Parrish

The little group of friends who all stood together and said things about the books that I couldn’t hear properly

They’ve been in before. They always stand shoulder to shoulder so they don’t miss anything they might say to each other.

‘John Steinbeck. This one. I’ve got it though. Have I, or not…’

The others pause and look at him; then they turn back to the soft shelves, the soft books and the delicate powerful titles.

Strait is the Gate, Paludes, Steppenwolf, The Bloody Chamber, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…

They, the readers, lean in and murmur to each other.

I am interested in this group because they always make outrageous and unexplained choices.

(But why this book? Why? Why? What do you know? I am frantic to see through their eyes.)

‘There’s no Brontes here.’

‘There’s a couple of Lawrences. There’s that Norwegian thing. Huge number of pages. There’s these Penguins. They’re nice.’

‘My God, look at this.’

(Nobody looks, except me, rudely leaning forward to see. Whatever it is, I want it back.)

‘I need Oryx and Crake.’

(But this isn’t at the shop. I know because it’s at my house.)They shuffle along, pulling out oblongs of paperback, pushing their lips out, sharing gently everything they know.

‘I want The Moon Opera.’

(Damn it, so do I, now.)

‘What’s it about?’

‘Oh God. Don’t you know, the boiling water?’

‘Lend it me?’

‘Don’t have it. And it’s not here.’

(I am at my laptop, ordering myself a copy.)

They move along again; they are at the Viragos. I can’t believe how much they’ve read, and I am furious.

They talk and talk, together, but not quite in time. Spirals of it.

‘Any Stephen Crane? Any Helen Garner? Any Beatrix?’ They melt continents and sandwich centuries together.

‘Oh God. It’s Boyd Oxlade.’

‘What’d he write?’

‘You know. Death in Brunswick. I’m getting this, it’s hilarious as.’

‘Give us a look.’

‘You read Don Quixote?’

‘Not yet. Going to though.’

(So am I)

They stack the harvest and come slowly to the counter. I want all the books back. They know. They look at me, hard and assertive. ‘Credit card ok?’

It is.

Damn.

(Italicized line from Birdsong For Two Voices by Alice Oswald)

Do you think she ought to have apologised?

This conversation whipped past my shop door and was gone before I could catch the interesting tiger tail. This single question sang out clearly and steadily and remained in the air after the talkers had gone; it hung there. I saw it.

What had she done? Fault is awkward because we all have a bit. So I wanted to know. A sustaining dose of someone else’s faults will quieten mine. For half an hour.

The walkers were walking shoulder to shoulder and leaning in, as you do when sharing things delicate. As we do.
Once I found keys in our shed door that ought not to have been there. They were jammed in awkwardly and left there for three days. I said, ‘Who left those there? We could have been robbed.’
But a grandson owned up immediately. ‘Me, Nanny. I wanted to get Pa’s wire scissors and make a hole in your fence.’ He looked at me, pleased with the vision of himself making a hole in our fence. I said delicately to Pa, ‘Do we need a hole in our fence?’
The walkers who passed my shop discussing the apology were women and young. I can tell that because of the pace and strength of the walk. They don’t lean forward. They were upright. They challenged the sky: get out of our way. They frowned slightly, aware of the footpath, the kerb, and approaching traffic. They gave the apology a chance. Their shoulders were soft. They give the criminal a chance. Their eyes were considering. I saw that.

I myself gave the keys in our shed door a chance. I like those keys and their crooked hopeful insertion into the aching lock.
I wished those young women hadn’t been walking so fast. Why didn’t they hang about the doorway like men do, with time available, nothing to do, and an argument to win; a country to conquer. But they didn’t hang. They moved on.
Once a friend told me, ‘Apologise. Just fucking do it. If they’re worth it, apologise.’ She said this when we were raising kids and getting it wrong. Now I ache with the wrongness and the need to have apologised more. The keys must still be there.
Sometimes we don’t get an apology back. The same friend said, ‘So what. Get over it.’
She won me a country.

I wonder who those young women were, and who had the key in their lock, crooked.

Illustration by Ferdy Remijin

The ad

Windows are good places for ads. I use mine for advertising theatre shows and music groups, art exhibitions, Covid information, and books by local writers.

So this morning when I arrived and saw a notice sticky taped onto the outside of the window, I was intrigued. What’s the ad for? Who might be communicating? Who wants to say something?

There was a lady standing reading it as I approached, and she was kind of frowning. It hadn’t been stuck up very well. It was crooked, and the corners were not secured. Also, the writing was not neat. I always admire a good, neat notice; I like brevity, clarity and precision! These show confidence and organization. I think, always do a draft. Always edit.

But this one was careless. There were spelling mistakes. The person spelt their name without a capital letter. Also, when they advertised free head job’s, they ruined “job’s” with an apostrophe of possession. Makes you suspicious that if they can’t spell it, they also can’t do it. The drawing was not to scale. The phone number was written too many times. The lettering was uneven, and “session” was spelt wrongly.

The lady reading it tore it down. She said it was disgusting. I just think it was sloppy work. There’s no excuse for that. Always take pride.

History

“History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”

Terry Pratchett, Mort

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.