Penelope Lively and I.

You may be wondering why the top copy of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger has slipped off her pile and is teetering on its back without dignity. Pushed perhaps; back-handed and left floundering like a flipped tortoise. I know why, but it took me some time to figure out. The carpet underneath these two innocent-looking stacks is a sensible shop-brown, as you can see, and covers the steps towards the back of an out of the way bookstore in a lane in the middle of a Perth suburb of unseemly prosperity. You can’t walk up these steps; they are covered in books. Books to be sold, books to picked up and paged through, books to be put back down again when their blurb is not sufficiently enticing or the protagonist has not called out loudly enough to the distractible browser. That is my book, next to Penelope Lively’s. THE Penelope Lively, Booker prize winner, Golden Booker pursuant, goddess of story and character and altogether blisteringly magnificent bookwright. My first reaction, upon seeing my book next to hers, was unclear, a little soupy. Was it a feeling of delight unsure how to embody itself – oh there I am, yes, that’s me, oh no, nothing really, no don’t worry, oh yes, ha ha that IS my book next to Penelope’s – or was it more a deadly slug of imposter’s guilt (I must move it before anybody notices and makes some sort of curare-like comment)? I would take a photo anyhow; record the moment, in case this dizzying proximity proved temporary. Why, though, I know you are asking, was the top of her pile tipped backwards, blood rushing to its head, whilst my pile, although not Euclidean in perfection, was at least orderly.

We must turn our clocks forward several hours to find out. Everybody must leave, the lights must be switched off, and the heavy lock on the door latched shut for the night before the mystery can be solved.

If you’re reading this, then you are the sort of person who understands that there is something otherworldly about bookshops. They’re non-Newtonian. Normal rules don’t apply. It’s at night time that the readers, the sellers, the wanderers, the eagle-eyed, those of us who drearily adhere to the constructs of the universe’s physical laws, when all of the people, anybody with mildly human form, obediently leave.

And that is when others arrive.

At night, Claudia, from the depths of Moon Tiger, stretches her long, sensuous limbs, and slinks out of her pages. She has not been to Australia before; Penelope sent her many places, but not here. She is faintly, and briefly, repulsed. The sneer of the sun has faded a patch of carpet nearby. The room seems safe and lazy; neither are qualities she admires. She sniffs. She is sure she can smell beer. It’s yeasty, whatever it is. She perches above her pile of books, and crosses those shapely pins. I shall wait, she thinks. Good things come to me. They always have. Tom, might be here, she thinks with a start. After all, if no laws apply, and I am here, why can’t he be. Her stomach contracts, her throat tightens. She puts a hand to that now world-famous red hair, hoping it survived the exit from the pages. And she waits.

Unhappily for Ms Hampton, who sits, twirling the back of an earring, looking serene on the outside while she is all anticipatory turmoil on the inside, it is not Tom that turns up, but Raymond. Dr Raymond Filigree has snuck out of Dustfall, and is looking around, confused. He is not confused because he is in a Perth bookshop, at night; not the size or the flesh or the universe he thought he ought to be inhabiting, but because he is always confused. You see, while both Raymond and Claudia could escape their books, they could not escape their characters. They seem to be the only two who’ve had the temerity to climb from their paragraphs this night, certainly up on the step area. Several other characters are milling around other shelves further away, but they are too small to climb down, their voices too slight to call out.

I would love to tell you that Raymond and Claudia got on famously; that Claudia inhabited her role of journalist and peppered Raymond with questions about Wittenoom, fascinated by the corporate and government cover-ups and their contempt for human life, and that Raymond would have melted at the sight of Claudia, completely forgetting about the odd, angular, widowy looking Miss Rosa hanging around in her cabbagey kitchen back in the book. I don’t pretend to understand why, but they detested each other immediately. I could sit here, on this page, pontificating why that might have been, but I will never know this part. It’s all second-hand reports, you see.

There’s conflicting acounts as to how Moon Tiger was toppled. It happened sometime near dawn. It seems as though Claudia, distraught that she wasn’t going to spend her precious time watching the sun rise from a slow-moving train in Egypt, drinking the last drops of gin from a crystal tumbler, gazing as the colours of the Nile morph from gold to pink to the shimmer of white daylight, while great herons and ibises fly by in streaks, not in the company of Tom’s powerfully evanescent beauty, threw what could only be described as a tantrum, leaving Raymond silent and apologetic in that English way of his, sorry that he hadn’t realised until too late her distress.

And then it is over. The bookseller unlocks the door, and comes into work for the day, She tidies up some of the piles of books, but not this one. Perhaps she knows too. She is a bookseller after all.

About the author

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. Also, she writes.

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