Fiction

The Removalist
by ZOE KARPIN

What does it take to throw off old constraints when the past comes whispering to me? His deep voice tells me he didn’t expect a woman to apply for the job. I ignore it now. When he gives me the job I assume he is desperate since nine thousand books have to be packed and sorted by Sunday. We start Saturday. He’s made no secret of his ignorance about books too and why he had the brainwave to advertise at the uni I go to. The owners want the books sorted into fiction and non-fiction and the fiction into genres and non-fiction into categories of study. He laughs. He can’t even tell fact from fiction.

Now that I’m at the job he tells me the owners are elderly and wanting to move from their place in Bondi and are starting with the books. He has said, ‘It’s a messy job.’  This has only added to my desire to do it. I want to get my smooth, unblemished hands as dirty as possible.  I have stepped into the back of a big, nineteen-fifties house in Bondi and into an enormous white-painted, sandbagged room filled with the sweet vanilla smell of paper, adhesive and degraded ink. It is chaotic; curling paper and buckling book covers are carcasses strewn on the floor and prostrate on hardboard bookshelves. While some books stand on the shelves as in a library, others are jammed against the walls in piles. All are wreathed in a tangle of heavy dust and black grime.  Why is it such a travesty of a library?  He doesn’t know why.  The owners are embarrassed by it so he hasn’t pushed them on it. They are away for this weekend so he can get on with the job, so I can’t ask them even if I wanted to. He says, ‘It’s good they are away anyway, because they wouldn’t like a woman doing this job and especially a little one like you.’

When he says this, I actually have to fight off a sudden sensation of extreme femininity. He makes me feel like I’m dressed in a soft, satin nightgown or our traditional costume of long skirts, mantilla and fluttering fan, not my oldest blue jeans. My parents, who came here in their twenties, are concerned that I do not know where they came from or where I am going myself. However I grimace, breathe in and shove my long dark hair into an elastic band. At the moment, I’m planning to transform the Removalist in my head so that it grows breasts and moulds to my curvy shape. I’m building my strength and independence with this opportunity.

It began when the pandemic started and my flatmate was caught back in Brisbane, abandoning me; I had no other choice, then, but to put aside my old habits, my learnt neediness and do what I usually would leave for other people, namely men, my father or brothers, to do for me. A YouTube video told me how to change the non-working headlight bulbs on my Honda and it was easy. My arms, though slight, worked like levers and I built my self-reliance. I could throw away the frilly, sickly cushion of bystander, watcher, sideliner, viewer, and audience, break out of the cage that had contained me forever.

During lockdown, books were my closest companions and a way of melding into another’s mind during the long lonely nights when I forwent hopes of finding warm embraces and sweet tingling lips. They saved me from sinking into the mud of my misery, my abject torment of solitariness.

Now focussed again on books, hard copies, I concentrate on cleaning those covered in dust and mildew, putting them into boxes according to categories. Fiction and non-fiction are all mixed together. I pick out the fiction first and put it into genres: romance, history, detective, science fiction, Gothic, mythology and my favourite: literary fiction.

He is sitting on a canvas chair in a space near the grey-painted wooden door and watching me in my low V-neck T-shirt. He is glancing unconsciously at my cleavage. I think it’s more appreciative than sleazy and I’m a bit flattered. But he does mutter something about expecting me to be good with cleaning. I act like I haven’t heard it. He is about my age, tall with brown eyes, wearing blue shorts and a blue T-shirt, uniform like. Once not so long ago, I could have slipped into a romantic fantasy about him and our meeting like this but not now, not anymore.

Instead I’m following the old owners’ thinking lives, to the places they’ve been in books.  I’m wading in their history slipstream. I cannot let them down. I pick up the piles of books scattered on the floor as if wading with a net in an ocean of different types of fish. He doesn’t respond to my discoveries. ‘Here is an old edition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Look at this. An early copy of David Copperfield.’

‘Maybe worth something,’ he says.

There are many Shakespeares, Chaucers and famous Anglo twentieth-century male fiction writers: Joyce, Hemingway, Patrick White. I have only found English female writers. There is not even one old copy of a book by an Australian female writer. This is what I read mostly. He has told me the owners want to keep only the classic fiction in good condition. I’m responsible for the culling. Some books are yellow with age as well as torn and blistered, not worth saving and will go into boxes into his truck to be taken to recycling places. Perhaps half, though, are creamy leafed as if blanched and boiled in some preservative – these are for keeping. I flex and bend my arms as if I am a conductor in control of the orchestra; my muscles, the biceps brachii, which join together at the elbow and rotator cuff muscles in my shoulders, silently sing in harmony. It takes him no time to bundle the books I’ve sorted for keeping into their marked boxes. The unsalvageable books go into boxes to be put into his truck.  I urgently want to do this: what a real removalist does. He objects. ‘I do not want any accidents,’ he says. ‘Do you know how to lift boxes onto a trolley?’

Despite my pleas, he still refuses to allow me to pack the truck, but when he goes to the toilet, I sneak a box of the rubbish that isn’t so heavy onto the trolley and take it up the ramp into his truck. I enter a new, sacred, silver space. I am partaking in an ancient male ritual. I take photos inside and run my hand along the truck’s metal cage sides. I get out of the vehicle just in time.

I turn my attention to picking out and sorting the good from poor condition non-fiction according to the categories of Science, Natural Science, Biography, Autobiography and Australian History. I find many books on unions: the Eureka Stockade, The Workingman’s Paradise, and The Tailoresses’ Union of 1882.

‘Why are there so many books on the Union Movement?’ I ask him.

The owners had relatives in the Holocaust. They had a big clothes factory in Surry Hills.  Turns out they are friends of his grandpa. He is only charging them for my wage.

And I say, ‘You’re kind.’

He blushes. And he tells me some more. ‘You know – it’s my grandpa and all. It’s been hard with Covid. My mate and I will move them later. Deal with this first. But everything’s on the internet now. If I had my way I’d chuck all the books out, all nine thousand books, be done with it.’

‘But we are conservators,’ I declare. But by saving these books I hope to emerge a new shape, undergo a metamorphosis. I add, ‘You can feel the heft of a book when it’s in hard copy. They can be shared easily, soft- and hard-covered editions. Hard editions – there are a few good examples here.’ And I ask him to look at the soft brown leather. ‘Press your thumb into this cover of Robert Tressel’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.’

I review all the fiction and non-fiction books sorted.  We stand together and gaze at the packed books.

‘You must read something,’ I say.

He laughs, pauses, then says, ‘Yes. My truck manual.’

He takes more piles of the just sorted books, throws them into more boxes with extraordinary precision and speed. ‘I’m a bit interested in Science. Maybe, if I had more time…’ he says.

‘Many books on science here,’ I say.  ‘Lots on Darwin.’ I flip through The Voyage of the Beagle. The cover has a skin-like tear, like a layer torn from the epidermis, so the dermis is peeking through. I flick through the subcutaneous tissue – the pages.

But he expected more to be done by now. ‘It’s a pissy little job,’ he says. He wants six thousand books packed today so he can finish early tomorrow and go fishing. ‘No time to read the bloody books,’ he says. ‘You can’t slacken off now.’

I wasn’t intending to, but by now it’s becoming difficult for me to sort from the floor. My calf muscles are aching and the bending part of my spine, the lordosis, is like a plant whipped by wind. The problem has also been making enough room for two.  The area with unencumbered book-sorting space is quite small despite the room’s largeness. We accidentally touch, often, though we gave up apologising to each other an hour ago.

All of sudden, he opens up to me. He doesn’t want to do removals in five years’ time. By removals, he means furniture moving which is his mainline business with a mate. He has had a slipped disc but he doesn’t know what to do that isn’t so hard on the body. We are both embarrassed by this revelation and continue with our jobs in silence. Only the thud of books, the scrapping of paper, my heavy breathing is heard for a while. By the afternoon there are fifty completed boxes, about fifty to sixty books in a box. Then I sigh and stifle a yawn. My T-shirt needs squeezing out. I eat a pre-packed cheese sandwich while he continues packing and moving.

After the food though, my muscles rev up. So at three forty five there are almost four and a half thousand books packed, approximately half. I’ve done it, broken the back of it. That’s enough for today.  I know he can’t finish the job without me. A big dog basket sits in the right-hand corner of the room with a red rug inside; oh to curl up inside it. However I’m really happy with myself. And I have a suggestion for him. He should borrow or take the books on Science depending on the condition of them for research. ‘You’ve got time to do more study. You could do some course in science.’

He smooths his hair. But he’s not a reader. As for studying? He shrugs his shoulders, but smiles. He’s pleased. He indicates my hair. ‘Look at you.’

There is a cracked mirror in the corner of the room. I go to it. My face is smeared with dirt. Cobwebs fill my hair. My T-shirt clings wetly and my jeans are covered in black stains. It’s wonderful. It’s a far cry from my national costume, the polished ruffles and flouncy frilled dress.

‘I’ll need a good shower after this,’ I laugh deeply. I haven’t laughed like this since before the pandemic.

Zoe Karpin is a Sydney short story writer and has been a teacher of English for migrants and refugees for many years. Her short stories have been published in Mascara, Sudo, FemZine,  more recently in Going Down Swinging, Dot Lit, Hecate and others. She writes about women’s issues and is interested in how ideas have as much effect as a material force in our lives.