When a book leaves its author’s desk

“When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Artwork by Rhett Dashwood

Looking at things

There are caterpillars on the grape vine. They are amazing. They are so liddle.

‘Why are they so liddle?’

‘Where’s his mum? Where’s his eyes? Where’s her arms?’

The caterpillars are a nuisance. But today they are astounding. They have a looping liquid walk, so hip that small children must imitate it.

They are the colour of pests.

But this one is crimson, emerald, gold, charcoal, the colour of bees, the colour of lego, of lollies, of excavators, of liddle amazing things. My grandsons hold out grubby hands to help him from leaf to leaf. They offer him extra leaves because she has no mum. They look for her nest, they plan to make him a better house – with a door. Her will love it.

They watch him eat, leaning so close that surely the caterpillar must sense something, but it swings its enormous eyes around and down again, serene over its leafy cabbage meal, warm under the hot breath of my grandsons who won’t come away in case a bit of life happens, and they miss it.

Later they tell Pa, ‘There’s a caterpillar on your stuff.’

‘Is there.’

‘He is. He’s eating everything, her is.’

They are gleeful. Then they go back to sweeping, back to the sandpit, back to the marble run, the biscuits, and sunlight coming through the bathroom window and lighting up the soggy face washer and somebody’s hat left in the sink and the tap still dripping all over everything.

There’s a meeting out in the bay

There’s a meeting out in the bay. I saw them in the water, five or six women all wearing hats, and in their midst, an esky floating. Some were sitting and some lying down, the water lapping at shoulders. What age…it is impossible to know. But all made strong outlines; the circle was a strong circle. The sun shone, and the bay was quiet and held its waters evenly so as not to annoy the speaker.

When the speaker spoke, and this could be any one of them at any time, the others listened as women who are friends do. I guess they talked of nothing less than life as women do. I guess the rummaging in the esky paused for the important bits. On the shore a fisherman stood at a stone sink and looked at the group every now and again. Another man stood in the doorway of a shack with a beer and a lightly anxious expression. In front of one of the shacks, a child, a little girl in bathers and one red sandal, scoped the group fiercely through a pair of binoculars.

I’m not busy

I saw somebody say this – those exact words in answer to a question, ‘I guess you are really busy.’ And the person answered, ‘No, I’m not busy.’ She was young.

I say I ‘saw’ somebody say it because I did see it. The utterance was so shocking and unexpected that I saw it. Saw her face and her mouth meaning it. I’d never heard it before, and never have again. I never forgot it.

Because when she said it, her face had so much movement and her thoughts didn’t crash into anything. Imagine the staggering reality of not being busy. A big space of wasted grass with no list. No shopping. No plans except one that’s still on the fridge from last year. And walking next to fences. Rain on your thumbnails. No gasping for air already used up first thing in the morning. Waiting with both feet down. Marking the back of your hand with a dry paintbrush. Evening. Where light and night even out into a nice flat plum. Imagine your time with a faint slice of beautiful thick emptiness right at the bottom. And your feet planted, both down on the warm wet bricks and you seeing that.

Painting by Carlos San Millan

Christmas when you’re little

It was always really good. There was snow and lights at night even though the days were 42 degrees and leaned sideways to get out of their own sun, and it didn’t get dark anyway. Santa came in a front end loader down one end of the wide dusty main street where I lived. The front end loader was a sleigh. The sleigh must’ve landed on the beach. The reindeer were resting in the stables at the back of the bank. Santa was real even though all the farmers standing on the edge of the pageant made out they knew him.

We had a school concert and sang, ‘Turn on the Sun’, as loudly as possible, and the teacher said, ‘Not so loud but very good’, and looked tired, and we were told to wear orange T shirts for the concert, and one kid wore green anyway. And at school, we made coloured cellophane stained glass windows that always looked magical even if you messed up the glue and got told off for taking more than your Fair Share of the slipping cellophane that drenched the world in hot emeralds and lemonade and made the teacher not be there.

There was always snow, snowmen, lanterns, bonfires, and mice that delivered peanuts. We decorated the classroom with paper chains made from brennex squares from that cupboard, and the teachers talked in the corridors, watching their classes through the doors, ‘Four days to go, ladies,’ and us kids kept on snipping away trying to make the longest chain which was always won by Jennifer, whose dad was a doctor so that was why.

I got a copy of Heidi, from my Nanna, brand new, and I lay on the couch willing it to not disappear. The decorated tree caused sickening sensations because it was behind a closed door, and only glimpsed if the door was snapped open, only giving the mind an overheated look at broken rules, ‘You at that door again?’

‘I’m not.’

We drove to nativity services in all the neighbouring places because my dad was the minister, and we went past paddocks and farms and silos and sand dunes, staring through the car window at the impossibly black blue sky with too many stars, scoping for the sleigh which was following our car anyway, too close to be seen. At the little peninsula churches, the warm stone sitting comfortably against all the hard work, the back hall all lit up with the people making food, the tree decorated with their paper loops that were not as good as ours, and the service that you sat through waiting for your name called so you could go out and get a Christmas stocking that might have the glory of glories, a bubble blowing kit. It did. And the carols piled up massively with that many voices, and no one said, too loud to Silent Night, and all the adults quiet for once. And the nativity, the real hot blowing animals, the sheep with hooves that dented your ears, and wise men wearing magic genie colours and proper shepherd’s stuff and a baby doll that was ok, and Judith as the Mary (her again), and the stink of it all, and it shot through your body and your mind making it into your bones so you always had it in you, and you looked for it every Christmas.

‘Come on, we’re going home now.’

‘Can’t.’

Trying to get at the lamingtons, knowing you’d get another one because the minister’s kids always did. And beating Susan, whose dad had the bank who had the reindeers but so what.

Next year, all again.

Softly, softly past the bookshop

Softly is what the footsteps are as the walkers approach my windows. I can’t see anything, I don’t hear anything – and then they burst across the glass in swinging lines and elbow angles and singular bobbing heads, and there are swirls of conversation bits that all go upwards.

‘It was like, fifty bucks, on the sale section. I was like, yeahhhh.’

People walk past in rows and clots. A slow plodding adult will be followed by totting small shapes with softly moving spokes; I see their eyes flash enormously at the wooden cat in my window.

‘Quickly, come on…’

Bright orange blooming briefly against the glass indicates workers moving and eating and reading phones at the same time, even while crossing the road. They stop and start and spill soft drink.  ‘You got my keys? Troy, where’s the keys?

Once a lounge cushion was thrown out of a parked ute which then backed over it and drove away, leaving the cushion to be flattened again by the bus behind them. The bus driver looked out of the window and shook his head, not smiling.

A still shadow means someone has stopped and is probably peering in. A lady once stood writing the names down of the books in my window, but she didn’t come in. She kept biting her lip and frowning to see the titles.

Large groups are usually heading somewhere together. They darken the whole window and deafen even the traffic beside them. They make jokes, ‘Look, Joel, there’s a book about you here.’ Everyone looks at The Dork Diaries in the last window and exchange a bit of laugh with each other, then move on, anticipating the pub. The Dork Diaries will be hilarious then.

Older people go steadily and stop often and turn to each other to talk, sometimes for a few minutes. They check bags and tissues at the same time. They rarely check a phone.

‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. I heard her say that…she should stay there is what I think.’

‘It takes all sorts.’

‘Well I suppose that’s true in its way…’

This moving activity, like a single day-length message, never ends. It is endlessly comic, delicate, and alive.

Sculpture by Jurga  

Walk properly you idiots

There is a row of people waiting to cross the road. They are lined up precisely, like a fence. Across the road there is another row of people, also waiting to cross.

Everyone’s heads are turned in the same direction, assessing the gaps. But the wait goes on and on, people begin to talk, especially those who know each other.

One lady says, ‘This road…’ but I cannot hear the rest. A man nods, his face turned to the traffic.

Across the road, people come off the kerb, move out, then go back in again. They shrug and laugh, showing nonchalance and humour.

On this side, three tradesmen have joined the row, carrying food and cokes. They brace their shoulders and wade out, their orange vests illuminating a path. The traffic slows. Everyone surges.

A group of three friends make to follow, hesitate, move back, move forward. Splutter, laughing.

One girl says, ‘For God’s sake, walk properly you idiots, and they hold on to each other and move with determination. But there is a long quiet gap now, they walk across easily, and behind the group, a little old lady moves quickly, darts between them, and makes the kerb first.

Image by Julia Whitehead