I was asked why I volunteer at the library and I couldn’t think of a pithy answer. Books don’t get violent when I say the wrong thing but I couldn’t say that. Books don’t scowl at me while I talk. I’ve mulled over the question a lot and I think I can explain it best by telling you about a certain time in my life.
When my grandmother died, I held a deceased estate sale and I sold off all her things. It felt wrong; pretty uncomfortable. I didn’t know how much to charge. Some items looked like antiques, like this beautiful little china ballerina, but there wasn’t anyone left to tell me about them, or how long they’d been in the family.
As she was my last relative, I felt I should have kept her possessions but I didn’t have anywhere to keep them and I couldn’t pay for storage.
I want to tell you about a couple of days in particular. I’d started looking for secondhand books because I couldn’t afford them new. Secondhand books retain their value if you buy them very cheap and I don’t have much money. My heart kind of constricts a bit when I think about the books I can’t afford. That’s why the libraries are so great. I just wish they were better resourced because I can’t afford subscriptions to the university libraries. More often than not, I don’t find what I’m looking for. Contemporary award winners are already borrowed and classics like My Brother Jack aren’t there either.
I’d always been determined to own the classics. I didn’t realise how many there were. I thought I’d find them in discount bins if I just kept searching but it hasn’t been easy. I spent ages thinking about the ones I’d like to own. Raiding a sale or looking them up online. I couldn’t find titles like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations anywhere. It felt like having these books would swell my sense of self, I guess.
Once, on his way to the toilet, my flat mate took a look at all the books piling up in my room and said, ‘Shouldn’t you be saving?’
I said, ‘What’s wrong with books? They’re still here after everyone else leaves. They don’t care when I misinterpret something. I can go back and reread. Books hang around.’
I reckon a book’s a friend for life. I hope so anyway. My compulsion with the deceased estate sales grew out of visiting the garage sales. At first, I thought the deceased estate sales would be too sad.
Several years ago, when I first started looking for books, I found online that seven houses on this cul-de-sac were holding a joint garage sale. I got off the bus in a suburban street which featured white picket fences and what looked like two point five kids per quarter acre block. I glimpsed the homeowners hovering anxiously next to their foldout tables. I guessed they’d spent half the night mulling over which of their possessions to let go.
I wandered among the stalls and listened to the people haggling. I saw lips pulled tight as vendors stared between their heirlooms and the proffered cash. Like me with Grandma’s stuff, I guess. I had the urge to tell them not to sell anything, to hold on to all of it.
‘Is that OK?’ a little lady with grey hair said to me after naming her price. She seemed concerned with not upsetting me; it was only a dollar.
A woman wearing a fluoro bum bag ducked inside to check with her mum if it was alright to let a coffee-stained and dog-eared classic go for two bucks. I overheard the old lady give the green light and I got The Fire at Alexandria by Marceau.
A girl standing next to me was told the bric-à-brac she’d collected from the stall would cost thirty dollars. She was gripping these little puppets on sticks and a tiny windmill with sails that spun in the breeze. Spun and spun. This kid’s mum shook her head incredulously. The little girl slowly and carefully put each item back in place.
‘But they are handmade,’ the seller said as she watched them go. I wished she’d just keep her toys. Or donate them. But maybe she needed the cash, like I had.
Over the last couple of years I’ve thought about that day a lot; I don’t know why. It was a nice morning; sun glistened on the dewy lawns. Before I left, I picked up a mint-condition Bible with a rose-coloured ribbon wrapped around it from a table inside a garage. While I was leaving, I kept trying to pay but I couldn’t get the vendor’s attention.
I overheard someone else call the homeowner Greg. I half-closed my eyes, took a deep breath and said, ‘Greg, mate, how’s it going? I’ll just take this Bible. Thanks, mate.’
Greg was a tall bloke. He put up a hand and massaged his high, lined forehead as he tried to recall me. I think I could see the guilt he was feeling but I sometimes misinterpret these things.
The reason I picked up the Bible in the first place was that I didn’t have that translation. I like to compare the different versions. I’m not very religious; I don’t know why I do it. It could be to do with the promise of community. I like the idea of people coming together to discuss a book. Coming together at all. I’m not fluent in Hebrew or Ancient Greek, so I guess I won’t ever know which translation is closer to the original.
The Song of Solomon is a giveaway, I reckon. Some versions do it as this love poem. I think love poems are my favourite. I reckon The Song is up there with Romeo and Juliet but Shakespeare is still the best, obviously. Cut him out in little stars or whatever.
I didn’t have much luck at the garage sales. There weren’t many books on the tables. I knew people tended to accumulate their books like trophies. They become a sort of outpost of your personality. A physical manifestation of who you are, what you like. A section of your soul. A reliable item to commune with, I guess.
I decided to try the deceased estate sales. To bite the bullet. I would conceal my interest in the items on sale as I walked past the grieving husband or wife. I didn’t know how to greet them. After all, I was there to buy their ex-spouse’s items cheap. I was profiting from a loved one’s death. Or they were. Like I had.
One Sunday I got the bus north, and watched the northern beaches go by. The road became narrower as it traced the cliff edges.
I walked, following instructions from my phone, until I stopped outside a wooden house which was in the centre of the curvature of the beach. If the houses on the hill in the bay formed an audience for the ocean, it was right in the centre of that crowd. Best seats.
I looked at the Norfolk pines and the surf life saving club and this rocky ledge to the south that I knew was infamous with the fishermen. I recalled seeing a wave smash onto those rocks and shoot up around thirty feet in the air.
I looked up the hill at the house which was squat and modern, the driveway unusually steep. The front verandah loomed above me, suspended on stilts. I laboured up the drive to the front door and saw an older man on the deck, sitting by himself behind a foldout table.
‘Good morning,’ I said.
‘Hi, welcome,’ the man said.
I assumed straight away he was the husband of the deceased. He looked a little baffled but struck up a positive tone. The kind of tone I guessed might turn on a dime, to use an American expression. I sort of expected him to say something like ‘Oh jeez’ and turn away and crumple up.
I said, ‘Books, any books? Mostly looking for books.’
He said, ‘Out the back. How many thousand are you after?’
I laughed too loud and said, ‘Thanks, I’ll have a look.’
A younger man and woman came out of the house carrying tea and a sandwich for the old bloke.
I was spurred on by the prospect of thousands of books. It was an airy home with lots of natural light and floorboards that reflected the sunlight. I saw through the living room windows that the house was encircled by eucalyptus trees. The encroaching bushland was almost coming right inside, which I liked.
I spied about a hundred novels in a glass display case in the middle of the house. I scanned through them and couldn’t see any unusual classics to get excited about. No leather-bound Northanger Abbey, no water-damaged complete poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Emily Dickinson.
I walked slowly, respectfully, out the back with my hands clasped behind me. I was hoping to come across this great sea of novels. I saw lots of tubes of paint and some white china. I saw a kiln which was on sale for five hundred dollars. There was a ‘Very Comfy’ sofa for ten dollars and the other usual bits and pieces. Pillows. Knickknacks. Nothing more to read.
I noticed a man and woman near the china, chatting, using the tone I reckon visitors use in the hospital. Upbeat, defying the situation’s natural, heavyhearted rhythm. From their pious looks I guessed they felt their positive stance reflected well on them. That their tone was respectful. I don’t like that tone.
I like it when people express the emotion of the moment, you know? If I get a chance to express an emotion in an appropriate way, then I try to take it. Otherwise the feeling can drag on for years.
Crying at funerals for instance. I cried long and deep at my Grandma’s funeral. I reckon people might have thought I was a bit unmanly. I imagined them saying How well did he even know her? But there weren’t many people there anyway and I felt better afterwards. It felt right to cry. I think I might have popped if I’d tried to keep that feeling inside.
I’m afraid of bottled-up emotion. Emotional dishonesty. People who bottle up their emotions always take it out on me in other ways. Control themselves, then try to control me. To deal with some anxious feeling, I guess. Make their sense of powerlessness go away. Prevent themselves from being abandoned again. Dead eyes, taut muscles, endless probing questions. Control.
I made my way back to the collection of books. After seeing all the items in the house, I sensed the deceased woman’s presence more clearly. Had her husband and kids bought the kiln and paints to fulfill a dream she’d had as a child? Or had she bought it as a treat for herself? Something to pass the time while she waited.
Going to deceased estates makes you a bit immune. Like where Hamlet picks up Yorick’s skull and starts reminiscing. It can all get a bit like that. Hamlet probably would have a great library.
On the bookcase someone had stuck a post-it note that read, ‘Books one dollar.’ I put together a pile of the best books, contemporary romance and thrillers, and started carrying it to the verandah out front.
As I moved through the house with the pile, other browsers and pickers started nodding to me and smiling as if I was doing these bereaved people a favour. I felt a noble and proud feeling in my chest. I shut my eyes briefly as I nodded to each person sagely.
‘Lovely music,’ said a lady wearing a kind of colourful sari. She said it in that same upbeat tone. The large glass doors at the front of the house stood open and her comment carried to the family.
‘It was Mum’s favourite,’ the young woman said.
That made me wince.
‘Oh. Good on you!’ that young woman said when she saw me with my pile of books.
An older woman approached us with the same frenetic, being-brave rhythm and said, ‘Now we have to check each of these for cash. She used to hide her money in one of her books and we haven’t been able to find it.’
‘Is that true?’ I said, trying to be as upbeat as all these people. Sometimes I have to be careful in moments like this. I can get the tone a bit wrong.
The younger bloke sitting at the fold-out table with the older man wasn’t being positive and friendly. He looked like he was trying on a bit of sullen defeatism. I grew wary. This was the type of situation where a fella might get violent if you got things wrong.
‘That’s a great story,’ I said.
I worried I’d left it too long before responding. I let my facial muscles go slack. I started flicking through the books, trying to give the impression I was the sort of person who’d never dream of taking their mum’s money. The older woman who started the discussion gave me a quizzical look. She took a little step back. I wasn’t giving off the proper show of carefree bonhomie. Although I don’t know if that’s quite right either.
‘I’ve lost count of the books,’ I said. I’d been focused on my faux money checking.
‘I counted seventeen,’ the young lady said in a confident tone.
I got the feeling she knew which way was up and could handle the situation cheerfully.
‘Just make it twenty dollars,’ the young man said.
What a naked profiteer.
‘No, fifteen,’ she said. ‘Round down, round everything down.’
I thought that was nice and that she was saying, ‘Let’s round everything to do with Mum down.’ That was how I’d felt about Grandma. I got the feeling she might have been relieved her mum’s fight was finally over.
I handed the young man a twenty. He side-eyed my wallet. Why was he so thirsty for money? Were there medical bills? Specialists can be too expensive. That would explain why they were selling their mum’s possessions. Better than throwing them out. Maybe not as good as giving them away. Sometimes you have to sell things when you don’t have much money.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I used to buy books at secondhand stores but they’re still expensive.’
‘Yeah, seven dollars,’ the young woman said.
‘Sometimes ten,’ I said. ‘Sometimes more. I have this policy of never paying more than ten dollars for a book. Can’t afford it.’
I wondered if that annoyed the son. I imagined him thinking You’ve done better than that here, haven’t you? Then the young lady said something which I missed because sometimes I miss things.
I said, ‘Yes, I have a policy of never lending out books these days unless I’m happy not to receive them back. I miss them too much.’
I smiled but I reckoned the comment had missed the mark. They shared a look. Time to go.
‘You will have some full evenings with all these,’ the young man said to me in this probing way. I imagined him thinking Why do you want all my mum’s books?
‘Good luck with it all,’ I said and scooped up the cardboard box they’d put the novels in. No chorus of thanks or anything.
I clumped down the steep drive and walked to the bus stop. I looked down at the beach. I finally engaged with the anxious feeling bouncing in my chest. Was coming to the deceased estates wrong? The ghosts of the deceased might follow the books back to my home.
Would there be shadows in the night? Things rustling in the corner? Would I remember the sale I’d bought each book from or would I forget?
Could the books I got at these sales make me feel less alone? I worried they wouldn’t ever really be mine. They would remain outposts of someone else’s soul.
No, the owner had left them behind. This was when I realised that books never leave you. You always leave them. It’s a relationship you control, for once.
Then I had a thought that made the anxious feeling go away. I started thinking I should donate the books I was holding to the libraries. Donate all the deceased estate books. Then I could access them, and other people could too.
From the bus stop I could see the verandah I’d just left. While I waited, I thought about sitting on that light blue wooden deck with its flaking paint, watching the waves smashing into the grey rocks. Painting the naked china. Setting a timer for the bulky kiln and listening to the seconds tick by. Seeing the arms of the tall Norfolk pines quiver in the onshore breeze as the superheated air over the land rushed higher and higher and higher.
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