It’s too cold if anything

There’s a man out there trying to get into his car via the passenger side, but it’s locked. He’s rattling away at the door handle looking puzzled and peering through the window into the car interior.

Now he’s standing looking up and down the road. Then a woman appears, coming from the right at a fast pace and slowing down. She’s wearing everything in blue.

‘Where’d you get to?’

‘Around the corner.’

‘I’ve been waiting.’

‘Rubbish. Here’s the keys.’

There are two people wearing masks at the door but not coming in. Just looking through the glass, their faces side by side and close together. She says,

‘What a beautiful place.’ They do come in. She has beautiful leather shoes and a moss grey cardigan and a pink bag, which she abandons on the floor next to Vintage Classics, and he goes over to Art.

An old couple pass my door, going toward the bakery. She’s laughing the whole time. She can hardly breath for laughing. The sounds fade away, but soon they come back. He’s carrying a loaded cardboard tray. She’s laughing and puffing. She says, ‘

‘Not a day for getting married. Too cold if anything.’

He says, ‘What’s it matter?’

She laughs and laughs and has to hold onto the edge of my window. Then she rights herself and they continue on with linked arms.

Inside, the girl with the soft leather shoes has Dante and seems to be holding her breath.

Mum came in and admired my shoes

It’s still raining. Mum came in with a chocolate cake and a bag of lemons, and said, ‘Well those shoes are bright indeed.’

I said I was sick of the rain, and she said a bit of rain doesn’t hurt. Then she went out again and over to Woolworths. It takes her a while to get across the road now. She doesn’t stop at the bakery: she doesn’t agree with their scone recipe.

Outside the door, a couple on pause and examining the window display:

‘I’ve never read that one.’

‘I got sick of it.’

A couple of teenage girls: ‘You never know what you’ll find in here. How good is that?’

There’s a fevered discussion going on about Netflix and Tom Hardy. Everyone is damp from the rain. Outside a horn blast across the road. An old man walking along our side calls out, ‘Ok. Just keep your shirt on, pal.’

An old lady paid for her books with an Apple watch, deft and efficient. Then it’s quiet again.

People pass the window: I hear them: footsteps on wet pavement and black moving shapes against the light. I think about it, what my eyes catch and interpret as a person. How the shapes erupt and then regroup when two people meet and pass each other. Then I see bright pink, a beanie, paper bags, a swinging a dog lead with no dog on the end, cars hissing wetly behind them.

In the afternoon, it becomes so quiet, I can hear the clock ticking on the wall next to me. Every now and again a blast of rain.  

Ian came in for Carol Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game. Outside the sun came out brief and hot, and across the road a long line of people are standing in the buzzy sunlight. I go outside with my coffee and lean against the fence.

There are nine people and they need to cross the road. Five have walkers and one man has a walking stick. He is too far away. He’s going the wrong way. A lady yells, ‘Get Pops back.’

A young man jogs down to Pops and manoeuvres him across the road, his arm curved protectively around the old man’s back. Rain again, but the sunlight remains, flicking the air with gold and briefly turning the shower into cascading tiny bubbles of light.

The other people are still lined up on the kerb, all talking to each other as they look first one way, then the other and then pausing again to say something to each other.

A man passes me with coffee, and says, ‘That looks like an event trying to happen.’

But they are off, crossing slowly and all in a line. A ute slows and then stops.

They are nearly to the kerb. They are at the kerb and turning toward the bakery, and I have to go back inside. The sunlight is gone. There’s a couple inside waiting for me and one is saying to the other, ‘That history book there, the big one, you can get that for me.’ And he answers, ‘What on earth you want that for?’ And she says to me, ‘My God, great boots.’

The Queen died

We got the news Wednesday, and everyone wanted to talk about it. Or at least mention it. And it was cold and raining again. Christine stopped her gopher at the door and yelled ‘Did you hear?’, and I said I had. She mimicked herself crying and then zoomed on toward the bakery.

Alan had a dilemma with the bakeries: he wanted a pasty and a piece of pavlova and didn’t know which bakery to go to.

‘I don’t want any bakery to see me go into the other bakery.’

‘The Queen has died.’ I said, a bit unnecessarily.

‘Oh God, Sarah will be in a shit now.’

‘She’s bearing up well.’

‘No she won’t. Well I’m going for my pastie. Need a feed.’

But Sarah did bear up well. The Queen had died on her birthday, but she’d already stopped by to tell me that, and to pick up a Sir Alec Guinness biography. She added that the Queen dying on her birthday was an omen of some kind. Robert was here too, disappointed because his order, The Lost Book of Enki, still hadn’t arrived.

He and Sarah stood back to discuss things.

A customer asked me for Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. I didn’t have it. Sarah told Robert that she didn’t hold with that women, Camilla.

Robert said that his family, the Grimshaws, extend directly back to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and that one day there would be a reckoning for his execution, which never should have happened.

Sarah looked enthralled.

A couple bought a stack of Ben Elton books.

Liz came in for A Fortunate Life and said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Queen.’

Sarah said that she didn’t think that Charles was in good health.

Robert said he threw the oracle last night and the cards said that Charles would soon succumb to gout, which got all of them in the end.

Anne came in for her cookbook and for tickets to St Andrews on Sunday. A lady came in and bought The Handmaid’s Tale for her sister in hospital. They said that it was sad about the Queen.

Then Robert had to go and reckon with the bank, who were deliberately trying to erase him from their system.

Sarah went to Woolworths.

Still raining.

Painting by Karin Jurick

hands clasped in an attitude of prayer

This is how some readers stand in front of bookshelves in the shop. Sometimes, they’ve spoken to me but forget. But that’s ok. I’ve spied spines on shelves, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and forgotten what to do.

It’s when we are most able to let ourselves happen.

Other readers pass through as though they are angry, but they’re not. One old lady bent over a wheeled walker seemed angry. But she wasn’t. She bought Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris Goes to New York. I said, ‘My mum has this book.’ She said, ‘Oh yes.’ And her daughter, who was there to carry the books, shifted onto another foot and looked at her phone. She was angry. But that’s ok. So am I. So are my daughters.

Outside my shop, on Saturday morning, a couple of motorbikes coughed low and steady. Throaty suggestions of leaving. I hoped so. But they didn’t. They were waiting for mates.

A customer said, ‘Noisy buggers.’

‘What do you think I’m gunna do? This was shouted right at the door. A man urged companions straggling along the footpath, who ignored him. He shouted:

‘Come in, come in, come in. Just want to show this book to yous.’

‘We know you Marley.’

‘Na. Na. No way. Ok I’m going in. Watch this.’

He didn’t come in. He was moving through a pastie as fast as he could. And shouting:

‘I don’t know why you won’t come in. I’m not taking the piss. Real.’

‘What book you getting Marley?

‘Facebook. No. Joking. Just come in and look at this. I just want to show you something.’

‘Not going in, Marley. Just fuck off.’

Marley leaned against the post outside my door and finished his pastie, soothed. The group moved on, Marley trailing them, dancing with both arms going from side to side and his head following, strong and rhythmic.

At the door a new voice saying, ‘Oh, oh, oh, a bookshop.’

‘No, let’s go. You won’t cope.’ This couple in the doorway, unable to agree. ‘I’m going in. I need something.’ He want into the front room. His partner leant against my desk and consulted his phone. He said, ‘If Miles was here, this wouldn’t happen.’ He looked at me, and I agreed. Good old Miles.

The partner returned. ‘Come on you.’

‘What’d you get?’

Sword in the Stone. Coffee now?’

‘Yeah.’ They left.

Outside, more shrieking at the window. ‘I want to go to bed and sleep. I lay there with me eyes open all last night.’ Laughter

‘You going in then?’

‘Na.’

A group of people looked through the window, bending to peer through the glass. A man said, ‘Is it books? Not much happening in there.’ They moved on.

But books, being alive, have veins and pores and moisture. Mould spores multiply in the lush haven of a book, the paper growing life and disintegrating lusciously, like us. Liquid and angry, rhythmic, and still having the shopping to do and a good series on Netflix waiting.

Sculpture by Ans Vink

Pieces of cause

The cold is losing interest; turning slightly to ease its aching self. People notice it.

They meet outside my door because it’s an intersection; there’s carparks, a bus stop, the train station, toilets, a bakery, Woolworths, two bookshops, a good solid rubbish bins: a small and complete town.

People meet in person, not intending to, but prepared to follow it through. They recognize someone, lean slightly backwards, make a small movement of the head and neck:

‘It’s you. How are you? Not see you for ages.’

‘Oh yeah. Same day, same shit. You know. Sick of the weather. You know.’

‘I know. I know.’

These two moved together past my door and stood at the window. They are older than me. He is asking her things. She points left, then right and grips her purse. I hear her say,

‘They’re only going to take his stitches out. You want a coffee or anything?’

He does. The conversation has warmed. They change directions, moving back the other way, leaning toward each other. He is saying,

‘Oh well, oh well.’ Then they’re gone. A fragment, no, an edge of the vast.

Then, just voices. I’m busy and can’t look up. But it’s a song of consolation in two parts, but I could only hear one part.

‘Ohhh, ok.’

‘Ohhhhhhhhh yerrrrrs. Ok. Oh I know.’

‘Ooooohh ok. Omg. Goodness.’

Then silence. Then fresh strong new voices: two men with iced coffees, ‘Fuuuuuugn hell. What a pair of fugn morons.’

Then an ambulance siren coming past and a pair or travellers coming through the door, and one saying, ‘They’re second hand books, but that doesn’t bother me.’ And she asked me, ‘Are these second hand books?’ and I said they are, and she said, ‘Well that doesn’t bother me.’

Behind them, two old men walking side by side past my door, one holding the shoulder of the other, and both of them rocking from side to side but making progress anyway.

Sarah dropped in to tell me that phones are going up, ‘Someone bought one for $150 the other day. Ridiculous.’

She told me that politicians give her the shits and that Scott Morrison has made a mess of things. She likes the bit of sun that’s coming through at the moment. ‘But it won’t last.’

A lady asked me if my shop was a library or a shop, and her friend said, ‘No, it’s a bookshop, a second hand bookshop. Don’t be silly.’

A lady said, ‘I want to inhale this music.’ The music was Bill Evans, Peace Piece, way too dense to inhale. But she stood leaning backwards and took the music in through her bones anyway.

‘This GPS is still telling us we’re still coming into Strathalbyn. But we’re right here. ‘Friends shrieked, laughing at technology, which strives, but can’t quite capture what is really happening.

‘I only have the classics now. Everything else is on my kindle.’ A customer, apologetic. No need though.

Two teenage girls clambered behind my counter to get at the Billabong books, Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did. Their mother horrified. ‘What on earth are you doing?’

They said, ‘These are here.’

A good explanation. I approved. They paid with coins, cradling the volumes as young people do because the books are alive full of blood and future, which causes them to cradle the volumes. Lovingly.

Notes for Saturday

1. It was busy. It was excellent: the antique fair was on, and the town was full of visitors from all over the place, some even from Bairnsdale, who were collecting old things and who wanted a copy of Moby Dick. But I didn’t have one.

They said, ‘Never mind. There’s always tomorrow, ‘and I agreed.

2. There was a knotty commotion outside the door when a family emerged from a car and couldn’t quite get themselves to the bakery.

‘What are you doing Jasmin?’ A young voice, low and outraged. ‘What are you doing?’

I couldn’t see or hear Jasmin. I only heard about her. The brother’s voice sounded again.

‘No. I’m not even kidding. Friggin hell.’

Then I heard Jasmin.

‘Get lost Shaun.’

‘You get lost.’

‘Come over here mate.’  That was dad, who laid a settling hand on Shaun’s shoulders. Shaun said urgently, ‘I’m not even kidding.’

‘I know.’ They disappeared slowly to the bakery, Jasmin hopping behind. She had on a bright red beanie.

3. Someone asked me for Nina George books: ‘I’m looking for the Paris bookshop lady.’ Someone asked me for James Bond books: ‘I’m looking for James Bond.’

4. A young couple piled books into the bottom of their pram, the baby bumping slightly while the volumes were being arranged. They explained to me: ‘We’re making a library.’

5. Outside the door, a teenager said, ‘Where too Pop?’ and then, looking at his phone, followed Pop to the bakery.

6. ‘That’s the second time in Strathalbyn.’ An old lady said this to a friend as they looked through my window. They didn’t look happy. Then one lady said, ‘Look at her sitting at the desk.’ Her friend said, ‘Oh yes. I see.’

7. There was constant clicking and tapping and rustling from the back room. A man opened the door and said to me, ‘It’s ok, I’m just looking for a very distracted lady.’ The clicking and tapping from the back room abruptly stopped and a lady yelled out: ‘I’m here Alan, you go on.’

‘Thank you very much, I will.’ And he did. He crossed the road in sudden sunlight, swinging a bag and his head from side to side.

8. A man looking at books in front of me suddenly looked around and said, ‘My dad was a pilot.’ Then he turned back to the shelf. I felt as though I’d missed a bit of conversation somewhere.

9. Somebody rang for a book I didn’t have. Outside a motorist sounded a horn for a long angry 15 seconds. Inside a lady said, ‘God I hate that.’ Then Sarah dropped in. She’s very pleased with her doctor at the moment but not with the crowds in the town. She said in a glum way, ‘These crowds.’ Then Robert came by, but his order is lost in transit somewhere. He said, ‘Typical Australia useless post.’

10. The town emptying out. More rain, then sparkly sunlight. The last stragglers with coffee and not hurrying. Dog wee on the front of my shop as usual.

Illustration by Bill Bruning

‘I don’t know if anyone ever goes into this shop. I shouldn’t think so.’

This wiry, rusting observation was made right at my shop door. And loudly. The speaker was an old lady, bent over a walking stick. So that’s ok. I respect age at all times, especially as I’m gaining so rapidly in it myself.

She was talking to her husband probably. He looked startled and looked through the window with rapidly moving eyes. He made a peaceable remark, and soothed, they continued on with the hundred mile journey to their car, which I could see from my counter.

It was cold. There were drops of rain on the spinning balloons outside my shop. One person over at the bus stop, huddled against the cold pole of transport that isn’t there yet.

Inside, a man sitting in the waiting chair, lurched up at his companion and said, ‘What’d you get this time?’ and his companion, who had a biography of Christopher Wren in one hand and his phone in the other, said, ‘Got a biography of Christopher Wren. And this here is worth a read.’

 He was pointing to a biography of Winston Churchill on another shelf. ‘This one is a goer. I’ve read it.’

Outside, the car with the elderly couple slowly, slowly pulled out gently into the traffic, still participating well despite everything.

I looked at the Winston Churchill. ‘Should I read it?’

‘Do.’

I made a half hearted promise. But I had The Root and the Flower including The Near and the Far with an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald next to me. And it’s next. Sorry Winston.

The men left on a note of blue happiness.

The Root and the Flower is by L. H. Meyers. I’d read about it somewhere else, never heard of it or him. Published in 1935 and apparently a minor classic and astonishingly imagined. That was enough; I decided to crack it and see what’s inside. It’s about India.

A child came in and gave me two books for the shop. A Beatrix Potter and a Little Golden Book. Both hers. It was raining outside.

‘For you.’

‘Really?’

The child doubled in intensity. ‘Yes.’

I stared at the books, emblems of fortune and compassion.

‘Really?’ Outside, the rain dropped and swam in its own disbelief.

‘Can I keep them?’

‘No, you sell them. Here.’

‘Of course.’

The child’s mother arrived, damp and busy, ‘Come on. You done?’

I looked at the child. ‘Thank you.’

But she’d gone, out the door and into further worlds and busy with them.

After that I drooped softly at the counter; people do come in!

Illustration by Di Fournier

George

After closing up the shop last night I went over to Woolworths and ran into George at the end of the international cooking aisle. I was going for soya sauce.

He was standing with a modest basket of goods and a walking stick. I looked at the walking stick.

Behind him, three people clustered over a shopping trolley: two women and a man. They were fervent. The man, who a sweater hood over his eyes, was saying that he contacted Woolworths yesterday and they told him there was a three day wait. They exchanged significant looks.

George moved closer to me and raised his walking stick. ‘My God, I’ve had health things.’

I asked him, ‘But what have you been reading?’

He said, ‘Barbara Kingsolver. A giant. And you?’

I said, Evelyn Waugh.’

‘My God. A giant. What else?’

I said, ‘The Baron in the Trees.’

He said, ‘Calvino? My God. A giant.’

I said, ‘Albert Camus. The Plague.’

George leaned back and put his basket on the ground. The trio behind him were discussing salad. The man said, ‘Why the fuck is there no lettuce? And try and get oats.’ He balanced on the edge of the trolley with his feet on the rungs. The women agreed, nodding and nodding.

A lady next to me dropped a pack of instant noodles and apologised. A man walked gently behind us, leading a lady by the hand. He stopped at Pappadams. He said, ‘You love these Ettie.’ But she didn’t answer.

George said, ‘Camus. A giant.’

‘I hated him in high school.’

‘High school. My God.’ We agreed about high school and moved together to be out of the way of school children with wet shoes carrying twisties and coke to the registers. A man with a ponytail and wearing thongs said, ‘sorry mate’, to me because he needed sesame oil and I was in the way.

George said, ‘What else? What else are you reading? What about the shop? Are you still there?’

‘I am. It’s ok. But you know how slow I read.’ Then I remembered something: ‘I read Fleur Jaeggy.’

‘My God, who? Who is it? I’ve never heard of her.’

To find a find unknown to George was impossible. But I’d done it. I threw the bottle of soya sauce into my basket triumphant.  The trolley trio looked at me. A lady up the aisle said into her phone, ‘It’s the best air conditioner in the country.’

I looked at George and said, ‘My God George. Fleur Jaeggy’s a giant.’

He breathed, ‘Really.’

‘She’s Swiss, but she writes in Italian.’

George thumped him walking stick on the floor. The trolley trio looked at us again. A lady looked over from Indian cooking sauces. I saw she had Tandoori and Madras, one in each hand. I needed them too.

‘She wrote These Possible Lives.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s three squashed biographies of three of the biggies: Thomas de Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob.’

“I don’t know Schwob. Who’s he? And what do you mean by compressed?’

‘Thinned out. Spare. Carved with a potato peeler. But it works.’

‘My God. How?’

‘Don’t know. But she writes about each of them. Who were they? I don’t know, but maybe I do now. They wrote things. Each biog is a slice. Cut with a razor blade. That’s what they say about Jaeggy: that she writes with a razor blade.’

‘My God.’ George banged his walking stick again. A family with three giant packs of cornflakes in a trolley full of mostly toddlers in beanies all looked at us.

‘George, you never saw such a book. You can read my copy. You’ll die.’

‘My God.’

A couple passed us the end of our aisle, and the women said, ‘Get me some fetta, babe’, and the man turned back toward the refrigerated products aisle without looking up from his phone.

‘George, I have to go.’

‘I, too.’

‘See you soon.’

‘My God, yes.’

We parted, and I moved to the 12-item only checkout and waited behind a lady telling the cashier that the eggs in her carton had gone off.

How strong is his strength?

My grandson asked me this question at the shop. He had my Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader down from the shelf. He knew they had some form of power but isn’t familiar with them yet.

He asked me, ‘Can we measure it?’

‘Oh well. How do you measure strength?’ I asked philosophically.

‘With this ruler.’ He’d found a cardboard ruler inside a book.

So we measured the height of Darth Vader. He was 24cm.

‘He has 24 of strength.’

I agreed.

Luke Skywalker had lost his cloak and tools, so we didn’t measure him. I’d bought them second hand and incomplete. My grandson stared at Luke Skywalker without saying anything.

Then outside the shop, two people passed the window talking together: a father and son talking together, hurrying because it was cold, and both wearing rugged blue jumpers, scarves, and hats:

‘Yeah. Yes. That’s what your mother always said. You should go with that.’

They disappeared toward the bakery.

Noah and I stood Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader side by side. My grandson looked at Darth Vader, ‘Is that the dad?’

I said it was.

‘Why is he the dad? Why is he lost his stuff?’

Suddenly the the same pair passed the window again, this time holding paper bags from the bakery against their chests and still talking:

‘And there was a school teacher fellow here, used to always carry that bag of eggs around with him, remember?’

‘Did he break his boots?’ Noah asked.

I looked at Darth Vader again.

Outside the door a lady said to her husband, ‘You start and stop and start and stop. Now get out of my way.’ He said, ‘Keep your hair on.’

Noah asked, ‘Where’s his power pack?’ I looked back Darth Vader.

‘I think that got lost.’

‘Can we find it?’

A customer came in. She looked at us approvingly. ‘I see you’re busy in here.’

A young man came in for science fiction and looked at Luke Skywalker, who was now propped against Poetry and Plays.

‘Woah, mate. Cool. These for sale?’

I said they weren’t.

Noah, kneeling on the floor, said, ‘He’s lost his powers and coat.’

The customers left. Noah left. I put Darth and Luke up crookedly because I can’t reach. Later, I found the ruler under the chair.