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.

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.

My covid code

Is hanging on the door. There’s five scattered about, so nobody can miss them. I don’t like them.

Everybody uses them. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t. But then I jump up and scan into my own shop. Don’t want anyone Checking the Data to think that nobody came.

Visitors are generous and careful. They stand outside in the rain and the cold, patiently fiddling.

‘Did you get it?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Try again.’ They lean over the phone, glasses on the end of cold noses.

‘It says Bunnings.’

‘That’s we were.’

‘By God. What’s this shop then?’

Young people scan the code carelessly, without looking, still talking. They text a long reply to someone as they walk in. The text takes 1.5 seconds.

Some people sign in with a pen. They fill out every piece of information carefully for me.

Some people forget. Then they come back to the counter and sign in. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’

‘Better do this then, hadn’t I!’

‘Better add my name.’

‘What’s the time David?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The time. The clock. Don’t worry about it.’

David turns in a circle, confused, with two Jeffrey Deavers in his hand. His wife signs them both in. He tells me that Jeffrey Deaver has gone down in quality.

Some people show me their scanned in status. I say, ‘Great, thanks.’ And I mean it. Glad they can just do it and not get mad with me. Glad they’ll still come in and keep me going. Glad they still want to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and Agatha Christie even though the world seems a little weird right now. Glad they still argue that they should have gone to the bakery first.

Image of an actual door at Salah Eidin Citadel, Cairo, Egypt

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.

Sisters divine

‘I’ll do this, you get in there. Start looking. Beryl, get in there and start.’

I heard this through the door of the shop. They are out there crouched over the Covid sign, and it was spoken in a low scream. Beryl (and the other lady) are sisters.

‘Can I leave my umbrella here? Can I leave this book here? This is just the beginning. Quick, get in here, Stan.’

There were husbands, too. They came in, smiling, obedient, satisfied.

‘Am I allowed to buy this?’ Beryl held out a book. I said she could.

‘Oh God. Thank you.’ She thanked me. I thanked her. There was another low scream.

‘No, don’t pay now, Beryl, keep going. Get in there. Have you been in there?’ The sisters (in everything, but especially in reading) breathed at each other, swaying together, and they made for the back room. The husbands looked on. More people came in out of the rain. It is dark outside. We aren’t used to the rain yet, so we love it. Everyone stands utterly silent. It rains harder. The carpet is damp.

‘Can you lend me 50 cents?’ Beryl is calling to her sister. Serene. Knowing she will get 50 cents. Or the world.

‘You’re a naughty girl. Ok.’

‘Here. Wait. Put those back.’ But Beryl disobeys.

‘Give me my 50 cents then. Beryl disobeys again.

‘We don’t need that. We can come back.’

The sister who is not Beryl looks at me apologetically. ‘I must be strict with her. She leaves everything at my house… so many bloody books.’ Beryl and Irene look at each other. They exchange a world, and they go back to browsing.

‘Get this.’

‘I will.’

‘Don’t forget our bags.’ (They have shopping bags piled in the corner.)

‘Peter will get them.’ Peter is waiting patiently. He is in love. He has been in love for 150 years. I can tell. He knows there is no need to get the bags yet. He leans, shoulder to shoulder with his brother in law. They keep talking.

‘Get that Seven Pillars of Wisdom.’

‘I am.’

I’m getting this Charmian Clift. And this Norman Lindsay.’

‘You mustn’t.

‘I will.’ They look at each other dangerously. The husbands look up, interested. Experienced.

But the sisters browse on. ‘God, look at this.’

‘Get it.’

‘I might. Did you find any Jackie French?’

‘Oh, this is beautiful.’

‘God, I love this.’

‘You leave that there.’

Suddenly, they turn to me.

‘Do you have an online presence.’ (They ask politely.)

I say: I don’t. Just a blog. I write about readers. Like you.

‘My goodness. But why?’

But there are not enough words for why.

The husbands approach, and they know.

‘You do?’

‘You should.’

So I do.

Illustration by Inge Look

Nice little bookshop

That’s me. I heard it spoken as people walked past the bookshop this morning. They walk so quickly I don’t get to see them. I just see what they think.

He said, ‘Nice little bookshop. Amazing that it’s still going.’

And somebody answered, ‘True!’

I think, well, maybe not so amazing.

Back to Mark Twain. Somebody wants his autobiography – the University of California Press edition in three volumes. As if I could find that and then let it go to someone else!

A group of four sweep past the window. They are all talking hard.

A lady says, ‘Is that sexist?’

He answers, ‘I think so.’

Seven teenagers in a row, loud and clattery. Bent underneath school bags. They are all talking too loud for me to hear it, but I do hear:

‘Uluru. It’s Uluru.’

Then they are gone.

Back to Georgette Heyer and Harry Potter. Back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Back to Marcel Proust, Alice Munro, and Irene Nemirovsk.

The door opens and a man leans in and looks at me, retreats abruptly, closes the door. Ok.

Back to Patricia Cornwell. Back to The Odyssey.

A lady I know comes in. ‘How are you, my dear?’ I’m not coming in. I just want to know how you are.’

A man tells me all about The Barossa Valley.

Another man wants to know all about Clayton.

Back to A Gentleman in Moscow, which I have stolen from my own shelves.

Painting by Carol Marine