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.

Hey, the bookstore’s open

It’s the long weekend, and I’m open! There are passers-by; the windows are dark with them, all full and knobbly with long weekend plans.

‘Hey the bookstore’s open. Not going in there.’ They don’t even look in. But I see them.

Some old ladies come in and look around, pleased. One says to me, ‘We have to dress up, and I’m going as a sorcerer.’ They don’t tell me what they have to dress up for. The other says to me, ‘I’ve got so many thousands of books at home.’

I say, ‘So do I’, but they don’t hear me. They move away chatting to each other.

‘I read Harry Potter. And I read Terry Pratchett. I wasn’t sure about them.’

‘Yes.’

‘What on earth are these?’

‘Oh, Enid Blyton. Yes.’

‘I think I’ll have to get this, The School Bus, it’s a bit tattered, but I guess it’ll do.’

She brings The School Bus back to me, and together we look at its tatteredness. Her friend emerges.

‘Shall we walk back to the museum in the hopes that it’ll be open, or shall we not bother?’

‘These small towns.’

‘Yes.’

They move slowly out of the door. ‘Will you carry my books?’

‘Guess I’ll have to’.

They drift up the road toward the hopeful museum, and two men take their place, looming up and leaning against the glass, peering in.

‘It says come in. but it’s pretty dark. Says open.’

‘Dunno. Rekn it’s closed.’

They turn away from the OPEN sign and slowly walk away, still talking. ‘And then I said to him, just get it done, mate.’

A family take their place at the door. They have climbed out of a parked car.

‘Get off the road,’

‘Get in here,’

‘Mal, I’m going in.’

In comes Mal, his old mother and the grandchild who had previously been on the road.

They buy three Penguins and Tough Boris by Mem Fox.

Someone buys Jules Verne.

Someone buys Anthony Trollope.

Someone buys Agatha Christie.

Someone asks for Kate Grenville.

A lady asks for books about fish. She said she loves fish.

I read Elizabeth Jolley.

The Rudyard Kiplings fall to the floor. All 16 of them.

I sell Horton Hatches the Egg.

Someone offers to buy the wooden cat.

There is some shouting outside over a car park, and then motorbike zooms away outraged.

A family buy Ballet Shoes and Pinocchio.

(Illustration Finding Your Fish by James C. Christensen)

I didn’t expect anyone today

It’s dark and dull. There’s a car parked outside the shop, a rich apricot Renault Clio, plentiful enough to be the sun. It’s the first day of winter. The car glows. Who owns that?

Inside, a young man with a hessian backpack and earphones hanging from one ear is kneeling with the classics. He has four books clamped under one arm. Other people have to go around him. He doesn’t notice.

In front of me a man in a royal green jumper is looking at the cover of Salt in Our Blood. Then he puts it down and looks at me reproachfully. Not me that wrote it!   

Outside a horn goes on and on. But it’s not an argument. A man in a grey beanie, leaning against a fence across the road suddenly realizes it’s him they want. The small truck, still blaring its disappearance, is off down the road. An arm like a stalk waving madly from it. I am outside hanging up my balloons again. The man in the beanie walks to the middle of the road and stands with both arms up, both thumbs up, his smile up and over and crashing down onto the occupants of the truck. The truck, now in the distance, lurches briefly as if catching something.

Inside, a man, who looks like a retired sea captain, looks at a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World which is about a retired sea captain.

A couple argue over buying my wooden cat, which isn’t for sale. He carries his bag and her bag. She carries the cat which I will have to take back at some time.

She sways back and forth in her imagined new cat ownership.

The young man with the earphones buys Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Hobbit. I look at him approvingly.

Outside the bus takes ages to let two people off. They stand on the footpath as if wondering what to do next. The bus takes off in a roar so that they can’t get back on. A group pass the window of my shop; a man is saying, ‘he places his bets all wrong, he doesn’t understand the track,’ and the listener, a lady, nods while looking down at her phone. The Renault Clio drives away. The retired sea captain buys the book about the retired sea captain. He pays with pieces of gold, stolen probably.

I take my cat off the swaying lady who blames her husband for it.

Three young women look at a copy of Boy Swallows Universe. Apparently one of them has lost their friend’s copy of this book. The friend is there. They exchange looks. They don’t buy anything. That’s ok, I get it. I lost my sister’s copy of Cranford in 2002. Luckily she doesn’t know yet.

It’s the first day of winter. Later the school kids will pass by still dressed for summer and not notice it.

Later, the school kids pass my window in shorts and T shirts, shouting at each other and shoving their best friend into my window like they always do, and which is how I know it’s 3.30. One boy screams, ‘Let’s get chips.’

Today

Not a lot happened. People came in and whispered and left.

Some rain came down.

There was an argument at the intersection. I watched. A young man got out of his car as he waited to turn right. The ute in front was too slow. His shoulders were upped and roundy, threatening, like cat’s fur hit by electricity. The young men in the ute watched him with narrow eyes. Just as he approached their car, they accelerated, leaving him there, middle finger raised. Alan was at my door, watching. Delighted. He laughed his laugh, no doubt wishing it hadn’t ended so easily.

Fred knocked and waved.

Sarah came in and complained. She’d been thrown out of the craft group. She showed me her botanical colouring book. I admired the hot pink petals on all the roses. She was pleased.

Alan came back, peered through the door and left again. He and Sarah don’t always get on.

Some rain came down.

A man came in looking for Dr Who. He said, ‘I daren’t get any of those, they might be wrong. I’ll wait till she’s out of school.’

Someone phoned to book into the history tour, but ‘all the tours are finished now’. They hung up abruptly.

I shelved a few books. Thought about Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf. I have been tugged down a rabbit hole; I followed a biography of Edith Sitwell, and now it is hard to recover. Nobody has heard of Edith except Virginia Woolf.

A young woman came in, looked about and left in a rush. She said, I’m sorry.

Some children come past. A boy is pushed, and he falls into my doorway.

‘Get him up.’

The child is hauled to his feet. ‘Shit, sorry. God. Why’d you even fall? Did a trap get you or something?’

Another child screams, ‘There’s someone in there. Get the police.’ They all look at me, and then they are gone.

A truck goes past.

I sort things. A woman comes in with books to sell, but I can’t buy. I have no space. She looks around with a tense mouth. She says, ‘OK’, and leaves.

Lovely Marion comes in and checks Fantasy. She’s collecting Terry Goodkind but has just discovered he died last year. She is not impressed. We talk about Sara Donati and Diana Gabaldon. She waves. ‘Bye, dear.’

There’s a crash of plates from inside the bakery. We hear it inside my shop. A customer says, ‘Jesus!’

I remember yesterday, during the rain, a grandson came in. He’s two. There was a crowd (unusual for May), and Finn called, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’, over the conversation, over the hustle, over the entire planet, and I heard, easily.We locked eyes. Kin.

Last night I read him ‘Hairy Maclary’, six stories, till he fell away, but I kept reading the seventh before switching to Edith Wharton because there she was in the same stack of books I made last week when I was reading to a different grandson.

A customer nearly buys a book about Yoga.

A young man buys a pile. He can’t speak. He just looks at his books. He chokes and says, ‘these’.

Yes.

I was here

I was here. It’s the Watsacowie Brewery in Minlaton, SA.

It’s autumn and warm. We went down an endlessly wide street in a tiny town on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, and there it was, amongst the paddocks, a brewery, and busy. The locals have brought their dogs. Families have brought their kids. The drinkers crowd an exhausted little food van next to the fence. Mexican food. There’s a band. The toilets are super clean, and children are playing everywhere.

And the work that’s been put into the place! The colours. Somebody has chalked up all the choices in pink, red, blue, green, and amethyst chalk, with the wines set out above that, and a gold light illuminating everything.

We ordered fast, wanting to get on with it. People knew each other. We sat outside in a wooden cathedral, looking out at autumn and a good weekend, with a public holiday lurking somewhere in the dust, and in front of us, the band, still setting up and talking to the locals.

Then they start, used to it, relaxed, and ready to play the favourites. There’s a child sitting in front of them playing with something in a cardboard box.

People and dogs sit together. Kelpies with serious faces, judging the music. The Mexican food van runs out of food within the first hour. But people are mellow, the band is playing John Farnham. Locals go up the road to get food from the general store and bring it back. But then there’s an altercation at the van; somebody didn’t get their nachos. The tables are a small lake of onlookers, and they look on at the argument benignly.

Near us, a young man is talking to a young woman, and an older man next to him is listening in, not looking happy. The band play Cold Chisel. The unhappy nachos lady nurses a grandchild, and sways along with Cold Chisel.

The tables, as one, break into a chorus, then just as abruptly, stop and dip back into their drinks and their lives. The band plays on. The food van is closed. The van workers are all slumped against the side, smoking.

It’s getting hotter. The tables are wine barrels. At the barrel behind us, the men, wearing farmer’s shirts, are discussing something. One man hits the table with the palm of his hand.

‘That’s what I told him. That’s exactly what I told him.’

At the toilets, a youth in black, leans into the tangled ivy and talks urgently into a phone.

The brewery staff work on into the afternoon, tireless, helpful, obliging, brilliant. When we leave, we pass all the inside tables There’s a man asleep on one, a dog asleep under another one, a family gazing at the chalkboard in astonishment, and a young girl cleaning tables; she waves madly, ‘Thank you, good bye, good bye.’

The unique texture of caravan parks

Caravan parks have a sizzling texture. They are warm and busy maps, put together with crayons, crayfish, late bookings, barbeques, and ice melting on the ground outside the kiosk. They are mostly pretty much the same, especially in summer.

‘Hellooo, it’s just teatime, love.’ This was called out next door to me. Next door means just three meters down, past the tap, the hose, the flapping towels, and bathers and two upturned eskies draining last night’s philosophy.

Everywhere there are kind bowls of clean water for dogs. Family pets that sleep exhausted under the edge of every second annexe. Hoses, camping chairs, fishing rods, bathers hanging in trees.

There’s a pink surfboard leaning against the shack across the track, and three children sitting at a table in bathers playing cards and eating chips. It is so quiet that we can hear the seagulls on the beach, and the  people on the jetty.

‘Beautiful.’ This is yelled out across a warm evening, along with the snap of beer caps.

‘You’re going the wrong way.’ Called out hilariously to someone backing a boat slowly down the wrong track. ‘Yeah, yeah, sorry mate.’

‘I’m going the jetty,’ Children calling back to parents.

‘Hello, how are ya?’ Called out by everybody meeting anybody.

‘Mal. Where are the frozen chips?’ This conversation shattered the stillness of the hot afternoon when most campers were slewed about in camping chairs, eyes shut, mouths open (‘Not asleep, Di, just resting’).

‘Mal – did you get the frozen chips?’

 ‘The what?’ The man was half in the car, searching frantically through the shopping.

‘The chips, the frozen chips.’

‘I dunno.’ She turned and went back inside. She banged the shack door.

‘Who left the fridge open?’ We heard this from three rows down. A gaggle of children running past in thongs and clutching streaming ice blocks looked back and kept going without answering.

‘And I said…and I said, well it’s your marriage. It’s your marriage. What’d you expect? It’s your marriage. I mean, he was like fordy. What’d he expect? I know. Yeah. I know.’ This from neighbours on a warm and still evening, sun streaking across barbeques, and the wine flowing.

At our backs, the beach, empty and clean.

It gets dark. It’s still warm. In front of us, children zig zig and dart about on bikes and scooters in and out of light and shadow like soft moths in flight.

That place we went to on the weekend

It was hot and busy and crowded and flushed. We were outside. It was a distillery, warm with weekend, choked with visitors, and looked like this:

Waiting staff were running, running, running. Weaving and carrying triple trays, balancing, enquiring, eyes flicking from table to table reading the needs.

Families. Trooping to their tables in lines. Senior members at the front, the young people trailing, checking the exits and their phones. The correct smiles. Parents, early meetings with a son’s new partner, tense. The young woman wanting to please but already brittle.

Us. Old friends, easy.

Next to us, one long long table of a thousand women, a hundred different ages swaying toward each other.

You can tell the family groups. They all use the hand sanitizer and order drinks early. So nice to be together.

A child bounces on a chair and drops a crayon. Everyone at that table looks fondly at the child. He turns his head from side to side to side, unaware, involved with crayons, rich colours, apple green and plum purple split.

The Covid Marshal swirls in the centre of the arena and checks and counts and rotates again. He is frowning. He frowns all afternoon. His shoes are worn out.

You can tell the friends groups. They enter in hilarious clots, it’s a great day. They have many jokes. They joke about the hand sanitizer.

The family groups, the young people, have silly faces. The cousins look at each other.  Their parents are a little wooden, especially if their parents are there.   The olds have faces of resignation…what the fuck does it all matter now. The young men wear pink shirts and socks and look desperately over their shoulders and then back at their phones. The girlfriends look at each other’s dresses. Then look away again.

The waiters are puffing. The sun shines down. A long plank of icy glasses passes us at head level, the beers glowing honey, oak, ruby, wheat, sand, cream, chilled…

The recipients (on a nearby table) for the plank of beers look up, their eyes softening, their voices lifting, friendly now and liking everyone on the table.

The child bounces on his chair, colouring in. The crayon on the ground is softening.

At the table of a thousand women is a thousand colours. There are impossible heels striking the beautiful ground, jewellery swinging, hair soft, fragrant and metres long. One young woman is late and she must walk in while everyone watches, their eyes flick up and down her form as she walks in on powerful hips and meaningful heels. She is greeted by an older woman with a light frown. All the younger women pause and watch the older woman’s face, they read that face, the old face, and take in the information. The old woman and the young woman hug, they exchange cheeked kisses, five times, six times, seven times. Then everyone relaxes. They sway in and out of magnificent colours, peacock blue, gold and ruby, emerald, blood, earth, invisible shocking pink, punched silver. The long, long fragrant hair, the hot sun, the cold cups, and the phones that need to be checked. Pictures are taken. The old woman is seated. She is still, glancing here, there, slowly, not needing to know anything. She already knows. The girls totter behind her, glancing carefully.

It is hot. Hotter. We eat fabulous things. We must move our table into the shade. The waitress is anxious, she glances across the day at the Covid Marshall and he bends over his list, frowning in his worn out shoes.  

Everywhere, people in groups take photos, leaning in, drawing back, adjusting things, assessing things, frowning, showing rows of too enthusiastic teeth. Chilled white wine smiling and looking at red wine that swirls sulky and resentful in roundy glass chambers, amber ciders, gold bubbles, shouting at a table in the distance, cold water in forest brown glass jugs, a falling out on the next table, ‘Well go home then…’, and the staff sweeping bravely through the rows, the Covid Marshall frowning, and the child drawing and the blue crayon on the ground melting, a delicious soft and urgent message.

Painting by Milt Kobayashi

On the beach, yesterday

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It was cold. The stone seat was cold. Everywhere uninterrupted; just cool spaces without argument. There were signs describing the rules; keep your distance…be respectful. The paths ran just above the beach in both directions; walkers trudged by with a kilometre between each of them, everyone leaning into the wind, wearing good coats and sporty shoes. There are seats along the paths. Someone has tied a bunch of flowers to one. An old couple stand near one seat, hanging onto the back of it while they hold plastic cups and open a thermos. My daughter and I take the sand, and we sink into it awkwardly instead of joyfully because it is not summer. The houses are all silent. I name all the trees wrongly. I note the plants that survive here, the seaside varieties with thick ankles and bright sparky flowers, relaxed in the salt wind. There is rain. Then sunlight, metallic, so that we are suddenly hot.

We pass a tiny bay with a danger sign at the top. This makes us look down to find the danger.  Over the other side, two ladies are also gazing down into it. It’s a tiny bay with nice rocks and stones, and waves coughing in and out of its narrow throat, glassy and cold.

There was an old couple near the toilets. She told him to go and move the car, perhaps bring it closer. Because it was cold. He shuffled off slowly, dressed warmly, his hands hanging down, checking now and then in his pockets for the car keys which were in his hand. While we were at the toilets, he drove back, slowly, slowly, the only car in the whole area. We watched them greet each other again, slowly and unperturbed.

On the jetty, Edithburgh, at dusk

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I’m just watching. It’s all I want to do right now.

The jetty is warm.

The fisher people are patient, they move in and out of all the rooms of the evening. They are on the jetty looking for squid. One man handles his rod as if it is a pencil. He only needs one hand, light, delicate. He writes on the water. He leans over, frowning, as if looking for mistakes.

There is a child who is running in circles with a green bucket. The father says, ‘Here, bring it back.’ The mother continues to hold the line, staring downwards. She is wearing raspberry coloured sports shoes. She is blown about, swaying, and looking downwards, into the water, looking for signs in the green, green water, wondering how to improve things.

One man sits in a chair. He wears shorts, a singlet and rubber boots. He says, ‘Away then, away then, come on you.’  The next man is motionless.

The child is chasing seagulls. They hop backwards, an inch, another inch. She is so fast; they must hop back…two inches this time, hop, hop, and then they tilt their heads. She stretches and dips. Maybe she will put a seagull in her bucket. But she can’t, her father is calling and calling, ‘Here…. where’s me bucket…?’

The jetty is warm.

My family land a squid and it releases its life, in ink. Heads turn. Heads nod.

They are going for green tonight. They only want the green jigs. The information is passed on.

The sun settles, depressed, smoky. It can’t get clean. The eyes of the squid are wet emeralds, soft and gone. More fisher people pass us, heading for a place on the jetty, finding it, a precise place, a warm spot that works for them. They stop to prepare fishing rods, put down a plastic bucket and kneel to the sun.

My family land another squid; it releases another finale, across the jetty, ink, fire, a catastrophe, whatever. The running child with the green bucket pauses, glances across the stain,  reads it, moves on, calls back, ‘Got it’. She runs and leaps, entirely alive.

I am only watching.

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Tangled in the pram

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It is the winter school holidays and the visitors are regular despite the icy attitude outside.

I like it when grandparents bring their grandchildren in and try to direct the reading choices. Grandchildren are always polite. But also good at directing Pop away from Biggles and onward to the Treehouse books, especially the 117 Storey Treehouse which is newest.

But I don’t have that Treehouse book. Grandchildren are always polite and encouraging, they say, don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s ok, because we like Minecraft Zombie, too.

This time, they have a pram (with nobody in it), too large to get close to the shelves, so they leave it next to me. It holds loaves of bread, a cactus in a pot, a shoe box, a basketball, a bag of carrots and a walking stick, probably Pop’s.

All goes well until it’s time to leave. The four of them are milling and churning, trying to get out and trying to get the money and Nan is mad with Pop because he keeps arguing about everything and now he says, but I don’t think we need to get any tickets today, and Nan turns the pram sharply, Pop is backed up into the biographies (still arguing)…

But the granddaughters are serene. They each have a book. They are eight and ten years old and experienced in school holidays. One holds the door wide and one angles the pram broadside, out of the door and into the beautiful blue, still holding their books, and one girl leaning forward to keep the pram moving (it’s as big as she is) and still talking and talking to each other. Behind goes Nan and Pop, still arguing and stopping and arguing and Pop trying to work out where the pram has gone.