A customer asked for a copy of The High Cost of Living by Marge Piercy and published by The Woman’s Press. I don’t have it, but I’m interested in it because everything published by The Woman’s Press is excellent. So now there’s two of us need a copy.
I read another chapter of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; a Hawaiian author new to me. It was recommended, and it’s brilliant.
People are sitting outside the bakery, enjoying the warm day and talking very loudly. Here are the topics I’ve overheard so far: the dam in Echunga, the price of fuel, the rain coming next week, where to buy tickets to the Strathalbyn show, why Coles have put their Christmas decorations out already, and if the trains are running this weekend. Two men also discussed heart surgery and how their mate, who isn’t there, ‘isn’t seeing the whole picture’.
It’s warm today. Short sleeves and older people in caravans put on sun hats to go to the bakery. It’s the October Labour Day long weekend, a celebration of the eight-hour working day won for us in the 1850s.
Motorcycles are passing in long noisy chains.
Robert came in for Mysteries of the Dreaming, but it hasn’t arrived. He said about Labour Day that people will celebrate anything as long as there’s a drink in it.
A man came in and asked if I sold tickets to the Strathalbyn show, but I don’t.
A family came in and bought all my Eragon books and one DK Book Of Flight.
Two ladies came in, turned around and left immediately. One said, ‘See you when I’ve got my glasses.’
Someone wanted Anne Cleves mystery books. A family came in needing tickets to the Strathalbyn show. A man outside told someone on his phone that there was no way he was returning to that construction site.
I gave directions to the art gallery (across the road), the public toilets (across the road) and a good pub (up the road and around the corner).
A dog urinated under my window. It saw me through the window but just kept doing it anyway.
I sold a copy of Seven Little Australians. Then I went outside to stand in the sun and feel good.
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.
Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky. Moon-fingers lay down their same routine On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys. Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.
I want to be bruised by God. I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out. I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed. I want to be entered and picked clean.
And the wind says ‘What?’ to me. And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say ‘What?’ to me. And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark. And the gears notch and the engines wheel.
People gather in the shop to talk, and then they leave again. They need to say goodbye to each other.
People gather on the footpath outside and talk about things. Then they need to leave each other again.
People talk on the phone: inside the shop and outside the door; they talk on their mobile phones and need, each time, to end the conversation.
People buy books and talk to me. Then they need to leave and say goodbye to me. It’s such a simple thing. But it isn’t simple – it’s complex, and the ways to bid another person farewell are endless. The ritual of saying goodbye is sculpted with tools as fine as needles in order to fit the situation.
A man outside the shop is pacing with – not an infant – but a phone. The phone is more demanding than any infant – and far less rewarding. The phone is hard and disinterested and alive only through one plastic airway. The man was tense, needing to share information with a listener who was not interested.
‘I’m actually the son of the deceased and – ‘
‘Yes, but that wasn’t done.’
‘It wasn’t done.’
‘Just leave it.’
‘Bye.’ The word ‘bye’ bruising the end of the conversation.
A child leaving behind her mother and three books under one arm. She turns to wave at me and to wave the way children do: the open hand going back and forth rapidly, level with the flower petal face, byyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeee: a ribbon of sound that ends on a note of hope and the child still looking back at me to see if I heard. I did.
Robert who gets to the door and remembers something and comes back and then leaves again, bobbing forward and backward, clutching the door, thinking about Carlos Castaneda, ‘Yes, ok, bye. Yes bye. Ok. Bye. Ha-ha, bye.’
A tradesman on a mobile at the kerb, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Ok mate. Yeahr. See ya. Fuckin idiot.’
‘Bye my dearest. See you soon.’ And cardigans and pearls meet in a heartfelt.
Young women talking, intense, buttoning up coats and paying for books, ‘Thank you so much, bye‘, and there’s an emphasis on the ‘ye’, a tiny precise uplift in tone and volume to indicate energy because the day is not yet done.
School children in noisy clots on their way to Woolworths, ‘See ya idiot man.’
‘Stuff you Adam.’
And me, telling my mother, ‘Ok, see you later. I’ll see you tonight, mum.’
‘There’s no need to check on me.’
‘I’m not, mum. It’s fine. I’m coming to visit.’
‘Well, don’t if you’re busy.’
‘I’ll see you tonight.’ This phrase, this time, a code for everything said but not said.
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.’
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.
My first time in Darwin: like a dream. Heat, light, rain: we breathed it in. It was hard to breathe. Then we had to come home again. Everything was different there.
At Mindil Beach, people were soft and relaxed. The market was busy. There was every kind of food. We couldn’t choose.
My grandson climbed into a tree with a trunk like an office block. Twisted roots hung from gigantic heights like tropical thighs: he scrambled and climbed, and soon two more children joined him, clambering in the heat and the extraordinary light. I wondered out loud: is it an avocado tree? A child answered me seriously: no, it’s not avocado. It’s a lemon tree. The other child said, ‘It’s a tree tree’. I walked the tree’s perimeter. There were empty wine bottles in the sand underneath. The little girls were called to family. My grandson was called down. He came, bouncing through green worlds.
Live music: the singer absorbed and passionate, apologising because she was so happy. She sang with closed eyes, leaning into the heat of the evening. We all sat about on the grass eating. Behind the singer, another performer setting up.
Amongst the market tents, so much food, coffee, soap, jewellery, clothing, my grandson got a small metal hovercraft. Music. The stall holders gossiping in tight warm knots between tents.
‘That’s not what they said last week.’
‘I know mate. It’s bullshit.’
We walked without a plan. I, myself, want to live here. But everywhere I go, I want to live there.
An Uber driver started before I was properly in the car. He said, ‘I’m so sorry madam.’
In the foyer hotel we were offered a complimentary drink. There was cold water, fruit juice, soft drinks, beer, red and white wine. I selected a frosty bottle of white wine and cradled it to the lift. A group in the foyer were about to complain. The wife told her husband he could have a complimentary beer. He subsided.
‘Geoff, do you want a beer?’
‘Well. All right. If there is one. All right then. I will. Why not.’
One morning, we went to a market. Food, coffee, fruit, vegetables, crystals, everything in dense warm quantities. A lady shopping in a bikinis and bare feet and a gentle crocheted shawl against the rain. And it’s raining. I saw a mountain of bananas. The stallholder with earphones was dancing delicately behind his stall. I should like to live here.
We stood with coffee. A young woman passed us, talking straight into a video call. I saw briefly on the screen, a face. It was a loud conversation. We only heard her side of it.
‘Have you just woken up?’
‘Who’s that with you?’
‘Did they stay?’
‘Are you sleeping together?’
‘Fuck you Damien.’
It’s so hot here. We’ve been cold for some time in South Australia. From our hotel one morning, it rained and rained. I filmed it on my phone as if the sound of rain was new to me. It isn’t. But intensely hot rain: that is new to me. I want to live here.
Up on the top floor, the hotel sunset bar: open from 3pm and with free canapes for all the guests. We rush up in the lift at 3.30 to try the canapes: square bowls of twisties, cheezels, pretzels, a beetroot dip with no spoon, corn chips, a tray of sweating cheese slices, a bowl of fuzzy lollies. A hot metal bath of saveloys.
People approached the buffet with delight. Some still have their bathers on, fresh and relaxed from the hotel pool.
‘Oh, you’ll like this. These little sausages.’
A man piled cheezels into a bowl and added tomato sauce. He carried it over to the pool table and his mates rushed over for the same. A man at a little outside table stacked cheese slices and ate them folded into small squares. A bottle of beer sat cold and ready, happy to wait for the good folded cheese. His companion, in a smart suit, drank red wine, and in front of him, a plate of humble saveloys.
The staff rushed, for they were understaffed. They apologised. They rushed to make it nice for us. Diners kept arriving, gazing rapt at the buffet, piling plates and sitting outside to enjoy the view: this is most of Darwin city and the horizon, a jewel at any time. And then the sun goes down in a blaze of arrogant light, stripping and taking with it any values you’ve held right up to that point.
I sampled the joy of the diners as they passed me with saveloys and corn chips and decided that I too was joyful. A waiter settled margaritas in front of a group of women who clutched each other’s hands, thanking him, and him smiling and rushing for the next order.
My grandson passed me with a bowl of furry lollies, his face a lit lamp. He left the tongs on the floor. Happiness: obviously what we allow.
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?’
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.
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.
‘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.