On the inside facing directly outward so I can see everyone going past and everything that happens

Now it’s even harder to miss people. I’ve had my counter moved so it sits facing the door. I’m facing that outside space where everything  happens. I don’t have to turn my head anymore.

Things happen at lightening speed. Sometimes a person passes so fast that all I catch is an expression. The thing is: I recognize the expression even though it’s tied to their life and their shopping lists. But it’s good to be part of such a rich and filthy diorama: no solutions, no control, all cream and vinegar and colour.

Sometimes all I catch is a body movement: a shrug or a gesture. And I recognize it, and it looks good. We aren’t aware of how precise our muscles are. Or how delicate. A cheek muscle can express at least a couple of years of solid participation.

All sounds are caught in the scoop of my doorway. Sometimes it’s sheep, caught up in their own private woollen hell, squashed into a truck parked outside so the driver can get to the bakery.

Once two tradesmen (there are always tradesmen) argued at the back of their parked ute. They wore the obligatory orange and blue. One man was talking. The other looked at the ground and shook his head. I liked the way he shook his head at the ground rather than at his friend. This is how I knew they were friends. The road outside was quiet that morning. There was just them. They couldn’t see me. A bookshop is the most invisible of shops. The man looking at the ground said, ‘Jesus. Just hand it in then. Tell ‘em to get fucked.’

The other man nodded and nodded and nodded. Relief.

Once a walking floppy child went past hand in hand with mum. They stopped to look at my wooden smiling cat that guards the front window. The child was turning to soft sad tired rubber. Mummy was trying to cajole her home.

‘Look at the cat. And look at this. It looks like you.’ The child’s face, dripping downwards, suddenly solidified and turned warm. ‘Is that me?’

‘Yes, do you think?’

‘It’s me. Can I have him?’

‘No, he lives here.’ And they moved slowly on, a shopping bag and a jumper dragged along because they were necessary too.

An old man limped past; a lady next to him: his wife. He was being scolded by his wife. They were working hard at the walking but were going slowly. Suddenly he lifted both arms into the air, a gesture meaning that he had no words for it. He eyes flicked sideways and saw the gesture. Then they were out of my sight. Do you get to an age when there  are no adequate words for it? Imagine outliving language.

Once three ladies came in, taking ages to get through the door because they were bringing books in for me. One lady was bent over arranging the bags. They were Woolworths green shopping bags full of books. When she lifted her eyes to me to see if I was pleased with their gift, her eyes were there. Looking at me and at nothing else. The ladies bowed to each other and to me and to the shelves. The kindness of it defeated me that day. I didn’t know what to say.

Paul Keating has an amazing intellect

Somebody said this at my window, tapping on the glass to show his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. But they didn’t come into the shop.

That’s ok, it’s the school holidays and the readers are out leaping into the shop with narrowed eyes like hunters on the path of something. One young woman announced herself to me but turned midsentence, already at the biographies and not finishing the sentence.

But that’s ok, I needed to sit down after battling the autumn leaves in the doorway again. And again. Every morning they come back and wait for me. My broom is coming apart.

When I was out there sweeping, an old lady asked me, ‘Did you get that book I wanted and can’t remember?’ But I hadn’t found it. I couldn’t remember it either, and she patted my arm and said, ‘Not to mind. I’ll leave you to your sweeping up.’

Sarah came in needing a number for a taxi. She said that what was going on in Lismore wasn’t good enough.

Robert came in after a year’s absence and started right off where we’d finished last May. His newest news was that he’d saved a lot of money by giving up smoking. He’d saved thousands. So now he could buy some books. But then he remembered that he’d taken up smoking again, and he showed me a plastic wallet of tobacco which reminded me of my grandfather. I almost said Tally Ho, but I didn’t. Robert said that the tobacco cost him $150 and looked furious about it. But then he noticed behind me on a shelf, The Secret Doctrine by H P Blavatsky, Quest Book, Theosophical Publishing House. He read all this out loud. Then he said, ‘I’ll have that.’

We looked at each other, pleased, and then talked about tobacco some more. Then he rushed out to do other errands, and Jim came in and ordered an esoteric type of book that I’d ordered before – for Robert. I told Jim, and he said, ‘I know, Robert gave me a lift in to Strath and told me to get one.’ So I got one for him. I said, ‘How’s Clayton, and he said, ‘Yeah, well you know how it is.’ Which I didn’t, but I agreed anyway.

The girl who was amongst the biographies came back to the counter with a pile. There was 1 historical, 5 crimes, 2 biographies, 2 children’s flats and 1 art book. She bobbed up and down while she paid, flexing leg muscles and looking powerful. I said, indicating Wolf Hall, ‘This is good’, and she said powerfully, ‘I know, my mum told me about it.’

Anthony came in for science fiction. An ambulance and police car went past, and then a CFS truck. He said, ‘that sounds bad’.

A silent young couple came in and looked at just about everything and left silently. I said, thanks for coming in, but they didn’t reply. A lady asked for a book about a certain type of guitar. Another lady asked for spiritual Christian fiction and then left with nothing and looking unsatisfied. I went to the bakery for a chocolate doughnut and there were none left and I came back with nothing and feeling unsatisfied.  

Then someone tapped on the window and called out to his friend that Paul Keating has an amazing intellect. The friend nodded with folded arms not looking interested. The man remained bent over and slowly examined all the other books in the window. They didn’t come in.

All in all a satisfying day. Except for the autumn leaves. Lol.

Illustration by Konstantin Mashkarin

Looks like I’ll be here for a while longer

I’m halfway through my 10th year here on Dawson Street, and nearly at the end of my lease – ten years was my ultimate plan- and I didn’t imagine I’d be able to go beyond that. However, my landlady is generous, and she wants me to stay, and so we’re planning to renew the lease after all.

There’ll will be a few long term changes, though, to help keep the shop going as best I can when trading is uncertain and not as consistent as it used to be.

From next week, I’ll be trading only four days a week from 9am to 5pm (instead of 5 days a week from 10am to 4pm). This means I’ll be here for the SAME number of hours but over longer days. This gives me 3 days away from the shop to earn a small income for myself (and for my super).

I’ll always be available by phone, email, and Facebook regardless of where I am. I’ll continue writing the blog, and I’ll still take all the new stock home first before any of you can get at them.

Thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm. It motivated me to come up with this new way of keeping things going, and I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s to R E A D I N G, no matter the circumstances, the times, or the era!

Aunty Felicity

Aunty Facility is a bit of a legend. The little boys flicker through her name, liking the sounds but aware of the stalky pitfalls of so many sounds. That’s how she became Aunty Facility.

She is always a vision in red. She likes clay and wood, wool and sky, chunky falling jewellery, and sound spas. And chocolate. Also, labyrinths, and making things out of weird stuff. And pilates.

Aunty Fesisity is always a vision in red.

Aunty Ficity is always there at Christmas.

Aunty Ficistity is always there at birthdays.

Aunty Fissy is here right now, it’s a good warm evening, and we’ve put our champagne glasses down on the prickles in the orchard, so we can stand close to each other and sort out the family. We are experts on each one of them. If only they would listen to us.

Aunty Fissy has carved a valley through our lives. This is because she’s individual and a lone ranger, much like her mother was. Answers to her own lungs.

Aunty Fisties likes to dance, her way. And she always says, ‘I don’t know’, in a useful tone that invites me to say what I know, which is not much, but she always admires it anyway.

Once she poured Coca Cola over a roast pork to make the crackling good. I was impressed. Culinary! She lives in Melbourne, land of multiwondrous food and dickheads who can’t drive. She never shuts the toilet door when she’s in there in case something happens in the next room that she might miss.

She cries in front of people; I never knew such power until I saw that. Later, I wanted my children to experience her, as though she were another country or something. Which she is.

She’s always interested in things, much like her own mother was . This makes the life she’s interested in gain value and to keep on gaining value. This means our lives. My life. People who do this never know they do it. Instead they look doubtfully at their own life and wonder about its value, which is of course, beyond value, beyond words.

Aunty Fisins suffers from road rage. Once, we were tearing down St Kilda Road, and she said, ‘don’t you look at me like that you bitch’, to the lady in the next car. I was impressed.

Aunty Fiscal bought a folding bike to get fit. Then she sold it.

I am glad my small grandsons get to experience Felicity as though she is an entire empire or something, because she is. Hope she keeps on expanding and doesn’t go back to Melbourne, land of dickhead drivers. Hope she doesn’t give up on us, family, because for one thing, I drive like a dickhead, and also, we all need her.

Hells Gates

I went to Tasmania. It was magnificent.

Here are memories:

In Strahan. We went on a cruise out to Hells Gates, Macquarie Harbour, and saw on the way rainforest that dates back 60 million years. We sailed through cold crystal air of probably the same vintage. We saw a lighthouse where the keeper, from his workstation, watched his wife and daughters drown. Looking down into the black water, I thought of those women and their stout woollen clothing, protection from the cold, but now holding them down and away from oxygen, and him, watching from above and unable to act, looking at them perishing, eyes still open and small cold hands clawing at water. We saw Sarah Island, where men and women sank to death, grateful in the end, or, along with their jailers, went mad. Nobody seemed to have repented or been rehabilitated.

On the boat we had lunch. The staff were young and wore shorts, moving fluently through the freezing air. Getting down on their knees to speak to passengers in seats. Managing the cutlery and a lecture on penal colonies, piners, convicts and the dramatic timber of the Sassafras trees, all at the same time. One convict escaped with a small number of companions, some of whom he ate on the way. What price freedom. They captured him again, anyway.

Huon pine trees, 800 years old. They grow one golden millimetre each year. One, fallen next to our path, is 2300 years old, born when Julius Caesar was alive, but right now, is lying in front of me. The wood perfectly preserved, but now a log garden bed for 320 new trees and plants, which all tread delicately across its furry back and thread roots into its spine. Life, on this innocent tour, cutting new deals.

The piners raised their families by logging the Huon pine trees. Felling 600 year slices in a matter of minutes. Cut it down in impossible conditions, marking the logs and waiting for the winter floods to carry it down to Strahan. It was cold. Four meters of rain a year. Getting home after a long haul and hoping your kids were still alive but knowing that at least one of them no longer would be.

There’s a log on the foreshore only just washed down. The pioneers missed out on that one.

And then the logging of Huon stopped.

Rest back in our seats on board. Good to get out of the wind. And good that we, thank God, we didn’t live back then.

Behind my seat, a nanna and a grandson, aged five. She says, ‘It’s good to get out of the wind.’ He says, ‘Can I have an orange?’

In front of me, another family, mummy taking photos, dad taking the kids for walks around the boat, looping inside, then outside, and through my window, I see the children gulping at the air, so much of it, so cold and clean. Their cheeks are red. The little girl carries a barbie doll with a green shiny dress.

There’s a talk about the Greenies. What they did. What they saved (everything). We are sailing through World Heritage, ticking seven out of ten boxes for the World Heritage application, and not many places on this planet able to do that, possibly none. The young staff acknowledge the First Australians with reverence, one young woman with closed eyes, ‘the Togee Tribe’, the the Lowreenne and Mimegin bands. But there are no words. No way to express the shame.

‘I didn’t know that.’ This said by the young dad who is still looping his family gently around and around the boat. He is carrying the barbie doll now. ‘I never knew’. His small daughter looks up at him, learning something.

Next to me. A man with a huge watch which he keeps checking. No need. There are 60 million unhurried years out there, leaning over the boat and breathing slow green cold all over us.

A man on the top deck takes a picture of his wife wrongly and has to do it again. But still wrong. Sliding behind her back unnoticed is the silent forest, and it is deafening. There’s a waterfall, and then it’s gone.

Trees clustered at the sunlight.

People clustered at the bar.

Through my window, a man with an expensive whirling camera; people moving aside respectfully to let him through, the expert.

Wind. The glass doors are closing loudly. People come in.

‘Arctic out there.’

‘I didn’t dress for this.’

‘Did you get the waterfall?’

‘Can you get my coat?’

Lunch is served.

The nanna and grandson behind me eat side by side. ‘How’s he doing?’ This is dad, calling from the seat behind.

‘Oh very well.’

But he still wants an orange.

‘I want an orange.’

‘We have to be sensible don’t we.’ Nanna is hopping into the chicken. There are rice and noodles under their chairs, and now under mine.

‘Nan, can you get me one?’

‘Well, I don’t think they have those.’ The child presses his nose to the window and looks out at World Heritage. Dad stands up from behind and stretches. ‘Might go out the front.’

On Sarah Island. Led by a speaker who told the awful stories. Two little girls climb a pile of bricks, remnants of the olde bakery. They hop over it, light as birds scratching at history, but they are told to hop down. ‘Please, everyone, stay off the ruins’.

The tour guide invites the group to participate, and we all stiffen. Nobody wants to be wrong about history even though this is normal.

The guide points to a young father whose daughter has a Barbie doll and who hopped across the ruined bricks of the bakery.

The young dad gets the answer wrong. His eyes swivel to see if anyone notices, but we are all just glad that WE didn’t have to answer. What was the question, anyway.

The worst of the convicts were punished on a smaller island nearby with no shelter. A small group of women sheltered in a tidal cave there where they mostly died. We stand on deck in the not so cold wind and feel cold.

Sailing back.

Now in Hobart, and old buildings around the harbour are made of henpecked blocks of stone, pecked into perfect desperate oblongs with convict held tools, and today they hold up history. They hold up culture. The price of not getting freedom. Tourists admire them, and then have to find something else to do. The price of never having to pay a price.

In Hobart, at a fish restaurant. A man and his teenage son quarrel. ‘Go home then’. The boy lurches out, on his phone, looking at nobody.

In Hobart at an Indian restaurant. An old place but not fancy. People lining up for takeaway mostly, but we dining in. The waitresses in sneakers and rushing. Mild air through the windows over old Hobart Town, keeping the hen pecked stones going.

And the magnificent bathroom. I went there after we’d finished, and I opened the door into a rich orange experience that seemed to sum up everything on that night, our last night, and having to fly home the next morning and masks on again. Why paint your life so bright? We do. We must.

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

Yes, but I’m the one who discovered it in the first place

It was not me who said this. It was a sharp argument that went past my door. And I still don’t know what was discovered, but I hope it was something of value like, right now, a space unoccupied by concern.

This is what people seem to be telling me, with their arms around a carefully chosen paperback, that this is precisely what they want. A space. A place.

It’s possible. I know it is because some customers have one regardless of the world around them. One man laughed and laughed because he’d found a limp soft copy of The Glass Menagerie. He said, ‘I’m a winner today.’ A break may be a small square of sunlight that only lasts a few minutes. But it’s massive. The Glass Menagerie is massive; you can climb into it for as long as you want.

The discovery argument passed the door so loudly that I couldn’t miss it. Two men. One speaking slowly and the other not listening. Wearing blue and orange, the tradesperson’s colours. Going to the bakery. When they returned the argument had softened into pasties with sauce in brown paper bags that were warm with grease and grunts of satisfaction.

I hope it was a good discovery. An unoccupied space maybe, that lasts for hours and goes on past the back fence of the morning’s disappointment and belongs only to the person who found it. I found one in the shop. There was only a screwed up docket lying in it and a bookmark from a previous reader that had fallen from a book.

Painting by Chris Liberti

Broom stories 2

These are the things that happen when I am outside the shop sweeping the footpath. I have to keep out of the way of passers-by. I have to be wary of trucks parking right next to me with the reverse tune singing on and on. But people seem to like seeing a person sweeping. There’s something soothing about it. It’s normal. It’s never ending. The footpath gets itchy and I sort it out, and people comment on my work.

‘You’re making a difference, mate.’

‘Looks lovely.’

‘You’ll be doing that all day.’

‘Come and do mine.’

Two men came past, arguing: ‘That was an Ebola outbreak.’

‘No. There wasn’t. It was meningococcal.’

‘Don’t reckon.’

A man came past in a raspberry and white striped shirt and stood right in my way. A lady carrying an enormous cake box strode past both of us.

The man jumped, and said, ‘My word, I’m sorry.’

Everyone wears masks.

The lady with the cake box wears a black mask. Her shoes are black. Everything matches. She comes past again with a second cake box. I’m taking cobwebs off the fence and starting to feel hungry.

The lady comes past with a third cake. I move out of her way. She says,

‘All good dear.’

There’s a man with two boys. He wears a mask hanging from one ear. They all have the same baseball caps and they walk the same way with their feet turning softly inwards with each step. He is drinking coffee, and they all have paper bags. The boys have cokes.

When they come past, he says, ‘Watch where you’re going you boys. Don’t get in the way.’ The boys, who are not in the way, jump backwards to get out of the imagined way. They cradle drinks against their chests, and one says, ‘Sorry. Sorry.’

An old lady walks past, slowly, slowly, and turns to look at me. She has to turn her head and shoulders to find me, but she does, and she says, ‘Looks very nice, dear.’ Then she turns back and grips her walking frame and continues on.

A lady with a dog, says, ‘Sorry honey, we’ll get out of your way.’

But I am finished. The path looks restored. In an hour it will be wearing its normal skin again.  But that’s ok.

What I did in the bookshop today

Shelved vampire books. Sorted the Cat Warriors. Put the biogs back into alphabet. Gave Robert a mask because his got lost. Bought a pie. Ate it crouched against a fence on the way back from Pestka’s because it started to rain again.

I listened to most of a furious theory of a one world government, which the teller didn’t finish because I put Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit through the speaker as a soft drowner. It worked. The angry person moved their head backwards in a slight duck movement. This is because Gregory Porter sings jazz, and jazz is already angry.  Liquid Spirit outranks any other noise; it is organized.  It pricks at rich rage and lets it all out with brighter and more useful colours.  The arguer against masks and government, who is actually a really nice (and tired) person, looked at the dictionary they’d just bought and said that it was a really good dictionary. Then they nodded a couple of time, and they nodded in time to Liquid Spirit. That’s ok; how can you not. Whatever they are, it’s probably me, too.

Another man near us began drumming on his book. He’d been looking through engineering. He tapped his credit card on the books. In time. And banged his books together. In time. How can you not.

Some kids roared past the window, going back to school? and one of them yelled, give it back you fuckhead. Well, why not!

The other person left without finishing their story. It wasn’t that they were wrong.

It’s just that Gregory Porter tells it a different way.

Portrait of Gregory Evans by Colin Able

People going past, people going past

I mean, going past the door of the shop because it’s the antique fair weekend, and people are everywhere, scattered like bits of energy all disagreeing in different directions and in different shapes.

A young couple rode past on bikes, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Not so funny now, is it?’ She said this. He said:

‘Yeah. Little bit.’

‘Nobody should be holding my horse’s head.’ She said this. He said:

‘Like, from a helicopter!’ Then they were gone. And I went back to shelving.

A man is moving gently along the shelves, lost in enormous choices. He doesn’t know he’s here. I am playing Don McLean’s Vincent and the man suddenly sings along; one line, ‘reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue…’ and he doesn’t know he’s done this.

‘Do you want to go in?’ People at the door. They don’t come in.

‘Where can we cross over?’ People near the door. They don’t cross the road. It’s too busy. They move on.

‘Look there. I used to have that.’ A man is bending toward a display in the window. But the lady he is with keeps walking. She is dressed in soft grey and soft blue and soft white; she is watching the ground carefully as she walks and does not look up at the books in the window that he wants to show her.

Little scooters shoot past with a child attached to the handles of each one. They are hilarious and agile and enjoying the tiny wheeled muscles under their feet. One screams, ‘Where’s Dillan?’

A lady is drifting right in front of me, looking from her phone to the back of a book and back to her phone. She has a red and blue mask. The masks make everyone’s faces smooth and blank, only the eyes left to say things.

Lads on scooters outside again, stopping and starting. Allowing pedestrians, launching off again, unconcerned with masks, uninterested in government, looking only for each other.

Girls walking shoulder to shoulder lean against the window to check phones.

George pours over the art books in the front room, his mask crooked and getting in the way of Rembrandt’s best.

A man with a bottle of milk in each hand lurches past, socks and thongs scraping the top off the footpath.

An argument whips the air outside; ‘Well you shouldena been driving through there, mate.’ Briefly, there’s a young man with red hair and excited eyes. Then he’s gone.

And one man in front of me, still there; moving along the titles and not really here, gone a thousand hectares inward and not likely to return.