"Kenneth Cook is very popular at the moment," the bookseller says, handing over the small stack, his thumb pinning the receipt against the cover of the title which has suddenly caught his eye.
He baulks, almost imperceptibly, like a child playing pass the parcel, maybe realising he should've charged more.
"Everyone's after this one," he says, more to himself than his customer.
Knew it, I think, greedily taking contractual ownership of the bundle, replacing his thumbprint with mine.
I was lucky to spot the little novel, out of place and discarded on top of the poor old V-to-Zs, perpetually spilling out on the carpet; a garden edge of back-bending couldn't-be-bothereds. [If you want to be noticed on a bookshelf, call yourself "McSomething". I'm pretty sure Cormac McCarthy's real name is Greg Wilkins.]
The musty aisle had held me just long enough to make the surprise score. I was running late but the place has an inviting compost claustrophobia to it. We could be in a seductive glen, trapped inside a time-thieving fairy ring. Outside, years may be passing by, children growing old, mountains forming. As surely as second-hand smoke is bad for you, the decay of second-hand books must be good; intoxicating spores riding blood to the brain, igniting crackly threads first sparked and unspooled when a homemade drawstring library tote was as magical as Aeolus' bag of winds.
Wake in Fright has been hot for a while now. The 1961 cult Australian novel spawned the cult 1971 film directed by the guy who did Weekend at Bernie's. There was also a 2017 mini-series which nobody watched.
The (excellent and faithful) film version became mythical because the negative was famously lost then found again, it marked the beginning of Jack Thompson's film career, the end of Chips Rafferty's and it featured a very real and very ballistic kangaroo hunt.
But, as great as the film is in its own right, the source material - a tale of Australian ugliness - remains a good reason to scour the A-to-Ds.
I read Cook's debut novel years ago but never had my own copy, so I grabbed this common-as-muck edition with no greater ambition than to stow it away for another time. It could well have remained unopened had the shop owner not deemed it conspicuous and it was as we discussed the folly of two-up and the decided unpleasantness of Donald Pleasence in the movie, I absentmindedly flicked through the pages to discover an inscription, a name and date, in black Fineliner running diagonally beneath the author's bio.
It was a distinctive name, somehow familiar, and a Google search revealed it - almost certainly - to be that of a celebrated Canberran who had died almost exactly one year to the day of my transaction.
Supremely talented and accomplished in his field(s), the man was a husband and father and, based on his many, many tributes, was one of those extraordinary human beings who made a difference to the lives of those blessed enough to have been in his orbit.
Like Kenneth Cook, he'd died far too young and his passing (on a local, national and global level) was a genuine loss.
So, now I own a novel this special person first read, I assume, in 1991 and what a strange, intimate connection this has generated, as if you've learned the identity of your organ donor.
Our saliva has been absorbed by the same yellowing paper, we've carried the same book to bed, let it collapse onto our bellies as they inflate in the surrender of slumber. The same words have made us both pause and stare and contemplate a truth, a regret, a victory, a loss.
Given the timing of (our) book's appearance at the second-hand shop, I've also become voyeur to a family's grieving process. Twelve months seems about right to perhaps begin the journey of emotional and physical decluttering, shed those things peripheral, distracting (like tatty paperbacks) and lock in and distribute the things with deeper significance.
As any antiques dealer will tell you, "provenance" is the difference between basic, better and best. The story behind an object can be even more important than condition or quality or brand and although my edition of Wake in Fright is officially only worth $3.50 (sucker) it holds far more value to me because of the attached history between two strangers.
Living in a country village with history at every intersection, we're lucky (or cursed) enough to be exposed to totems which tell the story of our past every day.
From the atrophied trophies in the pub which signal a time when sport was so integral in bringing isolated communities together, to the timber fence posts which still stand in the sodden ground as testament to an era when hardwood was cheap and plentiful, the echoes of provenance are everywhere.
My wife is particularly fond of the enamel teapot which resides in the community hall kitchen. Big enough to supply the entire town with a cuppa and still be able to top up the fire tanker, the white elephant is one of those diegetic stalwarts which could recount the details of a thousand Christmas lunches and New Year's dances and music festival moshes and Dimboola weddings and wakes and CWA meetings and working bees.
In fact, our big teapot is about the perfect vintage to be found in the town hall of Cook's Bundanyabba, the harsh inland anti-oasis' many drawbacks (arsenic in the beer and an overabundance of suicides among the more pressing issues) completely lost on its devoted inhabitants.
"Everybody likes The Yabba. Best place in Australia," a cabbie, without a hint of irony, tells protagonist John Grant before the supercilious schoolteacher's hell ride into the Outback begins.
Our speck on the map can lay claim to the nasty side of the bush too; hoons, violence, greed, stupidity, ignorance, but we're also regularly delighted by all the good, like the time we hosted an impromptu reunion of the descendants of those who built our house well over a century ago.
They left us with a rare photo of our home, its pioneering family standing resolutely on the front verandah. The funeral day snapshot reveals the sepia schematics of how the place actually functioned back then but more importantly provides a precious glimpse of the people with whom we feel forever connected through a common story.
Sort of like sharing a good book.
- B. R. Doherty is a regular columnist.