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’.) 

A dish cloth was all that was needed

Parked outside the shop is a car with a trailer holding a red air compressor, which is secured with broad yellow straps. There is a vinyl square cushion strapped against its flank. This cushion is a square the colour of caramel and is covered in dust.

We once had this lounge suite; the seat was three cushions side by side and the back was one long rectangular slab. A dish cloth was all that was needed to remove jam or drawings in chalk, or blood. Under the cushions there were broad straps webbed from end to end and that gradually sank over the years. The arms were made of wood with thick wrists and carved hard elbows. When we got rid of ours, there were matchbox cars and marbles caught in the webbing.  

It was a good couch for reading.

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.’

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.

Listen

“Decisions must not always be probed too hard, or moods unpacked. We should respect and not tinker with emotions, especially as they relate to love and the spiritual varieties of experience. We need to fall silent – more frequently than we do – and simply listen.”
Alain de Botton

Photography by Warren Millar

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)