Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Employable vibes

I must be giving out excellent professional vibes today.

A random stranger practically leapt out at me as I was barrelling across Bourke Street Mall today and asked 'you wouldn't happen to be looking for a job, would you?'
'Um, nooo,' I replied, and he disappeared. What in the hell was that about? What kind of job does one recruit strangers for on the basis that they happen to be walking past? If I hadn't been in such a hurry to get to the bank, open an account, and dash back the way I came in time to make a lunch date, I would have gone back and asked him WHY, just out of curiosity.

I was twenty minutes late for my lunch date, as it happened. Over papaya fish curry, I was chatting about my upcoming trip and my dilemma over whether to spend extra money I've earnt from a juicy freelance job on a side-trip to New York or on rent and basic living costs when I return to no job. To which my fellow diners responded by urging me to apply for a maternity leave position, as one of them will be taking leave later this year. It's a good job. I'm well qualified for it (if I say so myself!) and I've been working with this publication as a freelancer for over three years, so I know and like the team. And I'd get to leave after a year (my average and preferred length of time at a job) with no guilt attached. I'm tempted. But I did give F a very smug talk last night (in response to a question from him) about how I left my job to spend more time with him (true). So I really should stay on track and keep my nose out of it. Though I did leave promising that I would seriously consider it ...

It's nice to be asked, anyway.

First day of school

F was not looking forward to his return to school at all. Or so he said. Until yesterday afternoon, when he pulled out a lettering set he got for a goodbye present from The Husband and made himself an intricately designed 'school folder' out of a discarded manila envelope, with his name and grade in fancy letters. Next, he packed the envelope with the map of the school and all the classrooms and his class list, both provided last year.

He still said he wasn't really looking forward to school.

After dinner, the jig was up. He confessed to being excited, his whole body buzzing with it. He cleaned out his schoolbag. He packed a book about naughty schoolchildren, which he said he would ask his new teacher to read to the class as an example of how NOT to behave. He began plonking various containers on the kitchen table as suggested lunchboxes. These included a shoebox and a Lego container.

We selected and packed his school lunch together after dessert. (Watermelon, a carrot, wholemeal crackers with cheese and two cream biscuits.) He solemnly packed it in his bag, along with his freshly filled West Coast Eagles drinkbottle - a Christmas present from an aunty.

I took his schoolclothes off the line and folded them on the end of his bed.

We were ready.

The bedtime story he chose was, of course, a school story: 4F for Freaks by Leigh Hobbs.

He literally wriggled with excitement as I left the room and switched out the lights. Every time I passed the bedroom door in the hallway, he was squirming back on forth on the bed, contorting his quilt into increasingly odd formations.

'Is it really true that the quicker you go to sleep, the quicker you wake up?'

I woke to a boy in my bed this morning - the small kind.

As I opened the front door to go, he darted back into the house and returned with a shiny green apple.
'You know what you should give to your teacher ...'
Okay. Good sign.
I looked at his head. During the holidays, he has decided that it's cool to wear your cap backwards. In fact, he's told me that he'll 'look like a nerd' otherwise. I've tried, without luck, to convince him it's the other way round. Now, he has tucked up the backflap of his school cap and turned it backwards.
'If a teacher asks you to turn that around, you must do it' I tell him.
'Yes, mum.'

'Are you going to be a good boy for me this year?'
'Uh huh. I have no interest in toilet humour.'
'You don't?'
'No. No interest at all. I mean, I think it's funny when, in The Bad Book, [someone whose name I've forgotten] takes off all his clothes. And when Horrid Henry shows his undies. But I would think to myself "that is something I SHOULD NOT do'."

As we cross the creek and approach the start of the cul-de-sac where the school resides, F squeezes me tight around the waist.
'I'm so happy!' he beams.

It's a good start to the year.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Surrogate children

I think I must be missing my boy.

Last night, after dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I read bedtime stories to her foster child, J. He’s nearly five, and just starting to love stories, though his concentration was waning by the end of the second one. At dinner, I was seated next to J, who was more keen on anecdotes than eating.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, as our plates emptied and his remained full. ‘I can’t hear you. I won’t be able to hear you until you’ve had four more mouthfuls.’
He shovelled in four hasty forkfuls of peas and continued through his mouthful.
Later, I asked him a question he wasn’t too interested in.
‘Sorry,’ he said, putting his hands over his ears as I had earlier. ‘I can’t hear you’.

Tonight, it was dinner at the North Melbourne Town Hall with two good friends. The heat of the day was slowly evaporating, and the beer garden, blessed with the beginnings of a cool breeze, was packed. While one friend was fetching a round of drinks, mid gossip about old boyfriends, I looked down to see a small girl hovering at my elbow. Dark eyes, long dark hair to her waist, rustling red dress. She whispered a hello, and I engaged her in conversation about her pretty dress (yes, I know) and what she ate for dinner.
‘Who’s that?’ she asked, pointing at my friend.
‘She’s a fairy princess,’ I said. ‘Doesn’t she look like one?’
The small girl frowned and my friend, elegant but utterly street smart with her short red ringlets, square glasses and sleeveless woollen vest, laughed and nodded.
‘She has wings,’ I said. ‘Sparkly ones. They’re in her bag.’
The girl’s eyes widened.
‘Can I see them?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘They dissolve in the light. She can only take them out when it gets dark.’
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ I whispered. ‘It’s a secret.’ I put my fingers to my lips. The girl smiled and mirrored my gesture. Our companion returned with the drinks and our conversation drifted back towards grown-up topics. The little girl returned to her table.
She’s got wings!’ I heard her say. ‘They’re in her bag!

On Tuesday night, I rang my dad’s house to speak to F. He sounded a little perturbed.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘I’m watching a movie, Fantastic Four.’
‘Oh, that sounds good. Is it good?’
‘Yes.’ Pause. ‘I’m right in the middle of it, actually.’
‘Oh. Would you like me to let you go, so you can get back to it?’
‘Yes please. Bye Mum.’

I guess he’s having a good time.

Two days to go and I’m there.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Going, going gone

I am feeling distinctly weird.

The Husband is now in Guadalajara, Mexico. He left on Friday. His mother and I escorted him to the airport, where we both clung to him and cried. Especially me.
‘I don’t know why I’m doing this,’ he told me as we sat, hand-in-hand, on the grey plastic seating by the departure gates. I told him that he would have a wonderful time and an incredible experience and that we’d see each other soon. Or, at least, I think I did.

After the cliché-ridden farewell (hugs, tears, ‘now I’d better go’, ‘now I’d really better go’), I slid my big black sunglasses from atop my head to cover my face, not caring how stupid I looked, just wanting some kind of shield between my puffy eyes and the world. My mother-in-law swept me up in a hug and hurried me out of the building in a swirl of chatter, suggesting coffee in Carlton on the way home.


It had been an odd week. The farewell party, exactly one week earlier, was the first time that I felt it was real, that The Husband was really going.

The next day, Saturday, was his last day with F, the first of a series of ‘last days’. We went to the beach, they had a Lego Star Wars Play Station marathon (I let them play for FOUR HOURS. Okay, I fell asleep, woke up and realised they had been playing for FOUR HOURS and promptly switched it off), and The Husband assumed bedtime story-reading duties. In the morning, The Husband went to work for the Last Time. He knelt and said a heartfelt goodbye to F, who was sprawled on the floor making a comic book. F was pretty casual about it, until he got up to follow The Husband to the front door. There, he looked up me and said ‘Mum, we won’t see [The Husband] for a really long time, will we?’ I said ‘no, we won’t’ and he threw himself into The Husband’s arms, hugging him tight, his head buried in his shoulder. I stood in the doorway and cried.

Sunday, F and I had some Quality Time, hanging out around the house reading together, lunch in Yarraville, swimming and a playground in nearby Kensington, and dinner for two at F’s favourite restaurant on the way home. The morning farewell had made me painfully aware that not only was F leaving to spend two weeks away with grandparents, but soon I would be leaving for Mexico. When F’s dad arrived to pick him up at 8.30pm, F held onto his bedposts and shook his head. ‘I want to stay. I haven’t spent enough time here with Mum.’ It wasn’t difficult to change his mind by reminding him that he was about to go to Queensland in the morning (7am flight). Queensland means Granny and Grandad’s swimming pool, Dreamworld, Seaworld, Movieworld, and some kind of themed space restaurant he visits whenever he’s there.


Monday was farewell dinner with the mother-in-law, her partner and their foster child. It started off grim. I was mopey and somewhat angry. Nothing had been worked out for where the dogs would go, and I was feeling stuck with the dilemma of what to do with them. A kennel looked like it would cost a couple of thousand dollars we don’t have. The foster child, being four years old, was in particularly chatty spirits. I wasn’t. At the dinner table, my mother-in-law asked me something about how I felt about leaving F, and I broke down into sobs. Not tears trickling discretely down the cheek – gasping, boo-hoo-ing sobs. There were reassuring words and reminders that they will be popping in on F to see how he’s doing while I’m gone, and the conversation moved on to The Husband’s sister, who is living in London and miserable about it. My mother-in-law broke down into sobs, and it was our turn to comfort her. By the time the fresh berries and cream were brought out for dessert, the funereal air of gloom that had hung over proceedings had dissipated somewhat.


Tuesday night, I race home from work to conduct a phone interview with Canada. (The last phone interview for some time that will be conducted with my husband wandering in and out of the study in the background.) After my dictaphone has clicked off, signalling that the hour is up, I wander outside, where I find The Husband tossing a tennis ball to the dogs in the driveway. Friends are coming over any minute for a farewell drink, he tells me. Another round of goodbyes. The evening ends on the back deck, as The Husband and guests sit on the couch and drink beers, while I loll on an armchair with a G&T. Then it’s take-away dinner and bed.

All day, I’ve been getting more and more irritated with The Husband. I’ve lunched with a former colleague who is leaving her own husband (for indisputable reasons), a colleague who used to give me ‘oh that’s normal, we fight like that too and look at us, we’ve been married for nearly twenty years’ advice. It was good advice, but now, as she muses that all those little things in her relationship really were ominous after all, I can’t help wondering. All afternoon, small gripes nibble at the edges of my consciousness. Tonight, by the time I go to bed, I am quietly furious with unvoiced angst. And it has all congealed around one central grievance: if he really loved me, why would he plan to leave me FOR SIX MONTHS straight after we get married? How can he really care about me if he leaves me all alone? Which leads to thoughts about how lonely I will be when he’s gone. Which gives birth to a blanket despair.

I go to bed sniffling a little. He comforts me, but not enough to combat my angst. He falls asleep. I am furious. How can he sleep when I am suffering? He clutches a pillow to his chest like a lover. I yank it from his grasp and throw it at the wall. He blinks at me. I grab my own pillow and stalk out of the bedroom. On the couch, under a blanket, I sob and sob until my head aches and my eyes are hollow. It is late when I finally tire myself out and fall asleep.


Wednesday. The Husband yells from the bedroom when the alarm goes off. I peel myself off the couch twenty minutes later and sleepwalk into the shower. I peer at myself in the mirror. I look ill. No time to address the problem. I pull on jeans and a singlet top and throw last night’s neglected book in my backpack. On the train, I stare out of the window as the stations flash past. Halfway to the city, I pull out the book, a connected short story collection by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. It draws me in from the first page and distracts me from what I am beginning to recognise as a bad case of narcissism (acted out in the form of a tantrum worthy of a pre-schooler).

The Husband and I speak during the day. Neither of us mentions last night, but as we talk about other things, the memory fades. Tonight is a farewell with The Husband’s dad and his brother, in Carlton.

The restaurant we’ve arranged to meet at is closed, due to a family funeral. I book us into a Mexican restaurant on Johnston Street, Fitzroy instead. Apparently, it serves authentic Mexican cuisine, as opposed to the Tex-Mex fare of most Mexican restaurants. I have to admit that I adore Tex-Mex – nachos and burritos and enchildas - and hope I will like this, too. After all, soon I’ll be eating it every day. On the way to the restaurant, early, I run into The Husband and his brother in an adjacent bar. I was planning to retire to a nearby square of lawn and read my book, but I join them instead. The restaurant is pleasant, unpretentious, decorated with a map of Mexico on the wall and dancing skeletons in the window. Our waitress is Mexican, and she talks to The Husband about Guadalajara. She assures my brother-in-law that he won’t taste the chocolate in his mole sauce. The atmosphere at our table is festive, celebratory. The men drink Mexican beer and my father-in-law, a seasoned traveller, offers tips on navigating LA airport. The meals come. My brother-in-law tastes the chocolate in his mole sauce, but doesn’t mind it. My enchiladas verde turn out to be smothered in lime-green salsa. (‘Ah’, I say to The Husband. ‘So verde is green?’ I tell myself once more that my Year 12 French (green: verte) will help me navigate Spanish. My meal is not bad, though the accompanying beans taste straight out of a can, complete with briney juice.

We finish our meal with cinnamon infused Mexican coffee and I take a round of goodbye photos. The waitresses bring us enormous hats to wear. One of them, studded with glass stones and silver sparkles, sits heavy on our heads as we take turns with it.

Then we are off to Readings to buy books on the way home. I greedily buy four, as I won’t be able to buy English language books soon.

The night ends well. Last night, I was convinced that that was how I would feel from then on – devastated, desperate, angry. Tonight, I realise with relief that I’ve got a lot of that out of my system in one big temper tantrum.


Thursday. My last day at work for the week. (And one more week to go!) I’ve taken tomorrow off to accompany The Husband to the airport. Apart from work duties, mainly supervising my (delightful, supremely competent) replacement, my big task today is to process my passport application.

Come midday, I walk to a nearby Post Office where an appointment for the passport interview is unnecessary. The woman at the counter recognises me from when I had my photos done last week. It took five tries to get it right. (‘Don’t worry,’ she’d told me. ‘Not everyone is photogenic.’) At the counter, I realise that I haven’t filled out the form. I did it online until I reached the bit about providing the number of your stolen passport (which I don’t have) and had to give up. Obviously my brain processed that as ‘I have done my passport application’. No drama. I retired to the back of the post office, filled out the form, and returned to the counter. I HATE doing these things with a passion, partly because I don’t drive and therefore have no photo ID, which causes complications. In this case, I needed two guarantors to sign photos confirming that I am indeed me. The interview is fine, every box is ticked off, until we come to my photos. I confidently hand over my guarantor forms and my signed photos and wait.
‘What’s this?’ asks the clerk, returning my photos. ‘Why is this signed twice? And why is this one blank?’

I look. One of the photos carries the specified declaration: ‘I confirm that this is a true photo of (exact name on passport)’ with the signature of my mother-in-law’s partner beneath. So far so good. But beneath that is another signature. The signature of my boss, my other guarantor. And the other photo, the one that was to have carried his written confirmation and signature, is blank.
I curse my boss aloud, swearing floridly.
‘I don’t know why he did that!’ I tell the clerk, vaguely aware that she has little idea what I’m talking about. ‘I TOLD him SPECIFICALLY not to. I TOLD him what he had to do in great detail. I can’t believe this!’
She tries to look sympathetic and asks me if I want to take a new set of photos now. And tells me that not only am I missing one guarantor (the Boss), but his signature invalidates my other guarantor. I need to find her and ask her to redo her declaration on a new photo.
‘You’ll probably need to pay for a priority application if you put it in later than today,’ said the clerk. ‘If you’re travelling on that date.’
Last week, I’d had to try not to giggle or smile as my photo was taken. This time, I try to temper my glower into the camera. I am not successful.

Back at the office, my boss greets me at the door.
‘How did it go?’
‘Well, pretty badly actually.’ I tell him what happened and he looks suitably sheepish.
‘Oh nooo. I’m sooo sorry.’
I bring him the photo again and instruct him in detail what to do, again.
‘The really bad thing,’ I say, ‘is that I have to use this photo. I can’t even believe that I have to show it to you. Don’t laugh.’
I hand him the photo. He laughs until his eyes begin to tear. I can’t blame him.
‘Are you sure,’ he gasps, ‘that they’ll let you into the country with this photo?’
‘Yeah, I look like a serial killer.’
‘You look like a little Dutch girl, with those plaits. An angry little Dutch girl.’
‘I actually thought I looked like trailer trash, like a hillbilly from South Carolina or something.’
‘Oh, YES.’ He laughs harder. ‘Leave it with me.’

So. The passport application will need to be processed on Monday. And I was so angry as I walked back to the office that I didn’t stop for lunch. (I did, however, eat a Magnum.)

Thursday night, we go for dinner a deux at The Husband’s favourite local restaurant. His dad comes over to drop off his old laptop (a year-old Mac Powerbook), his farewell gift to The Husband. I try not to fall asleep on the couch as they go through all the computer’s features. The Husband has a million things to sort out for the morning. I photocopy some documents for him, then, assured that there is nothing else I can help with, I retire to bed, where I read and attempt to stay awake for as long as I can (until 11.30pm). The Husband goes to bed after 3am.


Friday. Post-airport. The mother-in-law and I have coffee and tarts at Brunetti’s in Carlton. We talk about other things. We visit my sister-in-law at work, nearby, and go our separate ways. I browse the second-hand bookshop on the corner of Lygon and Elgin streets and buy an Aldous Huxley book I think I should read. Feeling purposeful, I go to the Post Office to process my passport. I discover that I’ve left the documents at home, having absentmindedly taken them out of my bag before dinner last night. I catch the tram home, via the city, where I stop to buy This Life on dvd. I go home, go to bed with a glass of water and a roll of Pringles, and watch the dvd, taking time out to call my son in Adelaide. He shouts into the phone, ‘IT’S MY MUMMY!’ He is at a restaurant with my sisters. We can barely hear one another over the background noise. ‘I can’t hear you’ he says. ‘I’ll go outside.’ My sister comes on the line.
‘He just walked out of the restaurant!’ she laughs.


I stay in bed all day Saturday, sleeping and eating and watching my dvd. I feel in limbo, removed from my ordinary life. It is strange to think that The Husband doesn’t live here, that he won’t come home and pick up his dressing gown from the end of the bed or change the pile of CDs beside his computer.

I get up to feed the dogs. I speak on the phone twice, once to the Husband in Guadalajara and once more to F in Adelaide, where he answers the phone at my mother’s house: ‘IS THIS MY MUMMY?’ I think he misses me.

In Guadalajara, The Husband is disoriented. He misses me, too. He says that the city is nothing like he imagined. It’s older, poorer, more run-down. Apparently the road from the airport is lined with shells of abandoned cars. He is the only gringo on the streets near the inn where he is staying. He feels the stares: not unfriendly, but curious. He has been to Wal Mart for supplies. They have all the western goods (and brands) you’d expect, only with Spanish labels. He tells me he has bought a packet of Doritos. He has been there for half an hour.
‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ he says.


I feel lucky to have two people who love me and miss me. It’s time to pull myself out of my self-indulgent slump.

Sunday morning, I go out for breakfast. I email The Husband (who is feeling somewhat better). I call F. And I don’t return to bed, or my dvds, all day.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Last days

On Friday night we had our farewell bash for the Husband, vaguely combined with a birthday for me. In my experience, these combined bashes never quite work out that way (kind of like combined birthday/Christmas presents). One occasion always overshadows the other, and on this one the Husband’s Big Trip was definitely more significant than my week-old not-so-significant birthday. Which was fine – when your birthday is four days after Christmas, you get very used to people being distracted on the occasion.

It was a good party, though the Husband I had a minor domestic as we were getting ready, while a terribly polite friend of his, who’d arrived early so he wouldn’t have to go home between work and us, sat beneath the air conditioner in the study and pretended it wasn’t happening. The Husband and I are opposites in many ways. One of those is our approach to household cleanliness. I’m no domestic goddess and he, despite initial New-Age mumblings about being a contented House Husband to my Career Woman, is even worse. But whereas I am at one with my inner (and outer) slattern, he inevitably becomes Martha Bloody Stewart within a couple of hours of guests arriving. Which is generally too late to achieve much. Hence, he gets very frustrated and brings up all the Home Beautiful issues that have been stewing beneath the surface since the last blow-up. And I react badly. The storm usually subsides when we finally laugh at ourselves.

So, on this occasion I arrived home from my first week back at work (and my first week of training my replacement) to find laundry thrown all over the bedroom and the couch throw and cushions and strewn across the lounge room floor. I had cycled home from the train station, my ankle-length dress whipping up dangerously above my knees as I rode. I spent the journey clapping my right hand from the handlebars to my knees and back in a possibly doomed attempt to protect my modesty, and arrived home sweaty and flustered. My hair felt like I’d rubbed it in hot chips and I had about an hour to shower and change before people started arriving. Plus, I also had to tidy F’s room before his dad (due ten minutes ago) dropped him off. And this was no ordinary clean-up.

I had arrived home on Tuesday night (my first day back at work) to find my desk covered in even more debris than usual, the expired food from the fridge plonked defiantly on the kitchen table, my own bedroom carpeted in half my wardrobe, and half the house rearranged. And F’s room completely trashed – toy boxes on the bed, comics buried under blankets, cushions and sleeping bags, clothes and textas and drawings everywhere. All of this was part of the Husband’s cleaning-up method, aimed at making previously stashed-away clutter unbearable, so that life is unbearable until it is cleaned up. I’d grumpily done my room and desk until late on Tuesday night (F was at his dad’s this week, so his room seemed less urgent). Wednesday night I got home from work and didn’t move from the couch until bedtime. Thursday night we were out until 1.30am at a very pleasant (and boozy) farewell dinner with some of the Husband’s work friends. So, that night, Friday night, I had to fix F’s room so that he could eventually go to bed, and so that the kids coming to the party could play in there.

I’d known this all day (all week, in fact), but the minute I spotted my laundry-strewn bedroom, I was hit by a tsunami of anger and sheer bloody exhaustion. When there came a knock at the door, I wrenched it open with a snarl, only to find the Husband’s friend (who I had been forewarned about, but had momentarily forgotten) grinning back at me. He was closely followed by the Husband, who went to kiss me hello. I turned so it landed on my cheek and stomped off to have my shower. The fight culminated with shouting in the kitchen and wrestling over a glass of water in the hallway (he didn’t want me to drink out of the new glass yet – it was for the mojitos, I insisted I would drink out of any damn glass I chose to), which predictably spilt all over the carpet.

An hour after my bad-tempered arrival home, my Friend with the Kids (I only have one) swept in. I abandoned my green garbage bags, gave what was left of F’s mess a quick tidy around the edges, and began pouring drinks. We settled at the kitchen table, as the Husband set up a bar on the back deck and began preparing the mojito jug, popping back to take orders. I joined him on the back deck, ostensibly to restock the drinks fridge, but really to test the marital waters. He greeted me with another kiss.
‘No cheek this time?’ he quipped.
‘Do you love me now?’
‘Always did.’
Domestic over, though there was a dangerous moment when the Friend with Kids commented on how tidy the place was, observing: ‘Ariel, you’re not known for being neat. It must have been the Husband’. I dryly informed her that, while usually I could laugh at myself along with everyone else, today was not that day and she should leave it alone. She did.

The mojitos were good, the weather was suitably balmy, some guests arrived early and stayed late, others came for an hour and disappeared. I caught up with old friends, including one couple I ran into at the local pool during the week and invited on inspired impulse and the (much-loved) Friend with the Kids, who made the trek from Gisborne. F had a brilliant time, eating chips and drinking lemonade, playing his Lego Star Wars Play Station game for far too long, worshipping his Bionicles with B, the youngest visiting kid, and making a cubby by torchlight in the backyard, oblivious to the grown-ups downing mojitos and designer beers as he squeezed past them. He even dragged his sleeping bag out onto the deck and had a nap on the couch there with B, before returning to the Play Station. It was only later, when the Friend with Kids departed along with F’s playmates and he was sent to bed, that he took stock of the situation and decided to befriend the grown-ups after all, playing the cute card on various lame-excuse-driven trips from his bedroom to the kitchen table (which my friends had colonised for some reason, creating a kind of Friend Apartheid between us and the Husband’s guests – who I do like - on the deck).

Predictably, my (one) single nightclubbing friend arrived after all my other friends had left. He had fallen asleep on the couch after a big one the night before. It was good of him to then catch the train here and walk the twenty minutes from the local station, pre-mix Jim Beam and Cokes in hand. Apparently, he encountered an all-male twenty-something party along the way, and was rattled when a stray bottle smashed at his feet. (‘Sorry mate!’ they yelled, and invited him to join them.)

We ended the night with Nightclub Friend, the Husband’s early guest, and the Husband’s conspiracy theorist friend, who regaled us with stories about how he has actually bet money on the likelihood that world oil will dry up completely in 2007. The Husband encouraged me to share my own half-joking apocalyptic contingency plan (which I drunkenly did) - that we should start stockpiling bottles of water somewhere for when we run out. As you do at 2am, we began discussing whether we should store the water at my mother’s house in Adelaide (problem: if oil runs out first, we won’t be able to get there) or in the shed (problem: we don’t own the house, and it would be a bugger to lug hundreds of bottles of water around with us every time we move house).
‘I guess at least my mother would be saved if we were stuck here,’ I sighed.
‘That’d be good. You’d want to save your mother, wouldn’t you? You want to take care of your mother most of all,’ rhapsodised the conspiracy theorist.
‘Well, and my son, really.’

Of course, it wasn’t long after that that our remaining trio of guests banded together to catch a cab to the inner north of the city, where they all variously live. The Husband and I waved them off at the door and returned to the deck to inspect the after-party debris and savour the fairy lights (brought out for special occasions only) for a few last moments before bed.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Hell is other children + my child

F is no longer playing with his best friend, outside the schoolyard. That’s it.

So, now I’ve done one more thing I always told myself I wouldn’t: I’ve messed with my child’s friendships.

But it’s not just that F and A don’t play nicely together anymore. It’s not all about the rude words, the dobbing, the tantrums, the attitude. It’s also that I can’t stand Those Conversations with The Mother anymore.

I can handle criticisms of F’s behaviour. Even if I don’t agree with the interpretation, I can listen to it and (mostly) respect it. But criticism of my son that centres on ‘his personality’, I won’t tolerate. That’s a criticism of who he inherently is.

After two Very Bad play dates this week, the first at my house, the second at The Mother’s, I decided to be honest about what I see as The Problem With F.

‘I think,’ I told the Mother, ‘that part of F’s problem is being an only child. He has no family here with kids, I have no friends with kids, and he’s only just got a brother. He’s good with me, and he’s usually very good in the classroom these days. It’s in the playground and when he has kids over that there are problems. My instinct is to say that he can’t have friends over to play, or visit friends, anymore, but that won’t solve anything. He needs to have other kids over more, unfortunately. He needs to learn how to play with them properly.’

‘Oh, I don’t think that’s the problem,’ said The Mother blithely. ‘I think the problem is his personality.’

I looked at her, not quite believing my ears, and not sure if she meant what I thought I heard.

‘Um, yes, the way his personality is influenced by being an only child.’

‘Oh, no. It’s just his personality.’


I’ll backtrack now, to the first Very Bad play date. My house. Wednesday. 8.45am.
I open the door, in my pyjamas, to the Mother, A and his younger brother, W. They are dressed in matching outfits, with matching vinyl backpacks. The Mother is on her way to work, and I have the boys for the day.

Somewhat inexplicably (to me, anyway), the Mother has insisted on packing lunch for her boys, though I’ve told her not to bother. After all, I’ll be feeding F.
‘It means they can just eat when they’re hungry, and they won’t have to ask you for food,’ she explains.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve told F not to constantly ask for food at her house. The Husband’s less charitable view is that it’s because she thinks we won’t feed them properly. The genesis of this is an idea we once had (and discarded) for similar reasons. F went to play for the day at a friend’s house, for the first time. When he was dropped home, he crawled out of the car and literally collapsed on our doorstep, moaning and clutching his stomach. (I’m going to be siiiick!’) He’s a drama queen, so I poked him and told him to get up. The mother dropping him off cheerily informed me: ‘Oh, he’s probably a bit full. He’s had chips, popcorn, cake, two bowls of chocolate ice-cream – he asked so nicely for a second bowl, I couldn’t say no – and biscuits. Boy, he loved my biscuits. Couldn’t get enough of them!’ I looked at F again. ‘Can I go to bed?’ he asked in a small voice. That’s when I knew he was genuinely unwell. I spent the next 45 minutes reading him stories while he moaned on his bed. We thought about sending him with a packed lunch next time, but discarded the idea as too rude. (Though I’m well aware we could be projecting, in this case.)

Anyway: the boys raced into the lounge room, where F and The Husband were playing F’s new Lego Star Wars Playstation game. The Husband downed his control and disappeared for a shower. F, still in his PJs and dressing gown, tossed a coin to decide who should take over the Husband’s turn first. I set the timer for 12 minutes and arranged that the boys would rotate every time the timer went off. I disappeared too, to the kitchen to make breakfast pancakes. Down the hallway, I could hear the bickering start.
‘I want to be Luke.’
‘No, I do!’
‘Euuwww! I’m Princess Leia! Help me change characters! I’m a girl!’
It is my policy not to know anything about working the Playstation, which I loathe. It means that, at times like this, the Husband is summoned to sort things out.

The Husband has things to do today, he informs me as he scarfs down his daily rice porridge. I eye him suspiciously.
‘So, you’re leaving me alone with the kids?’
‘I’ll hurry back.’
I think about this, and decide I’d rather cope on my own. They will drive him even crazier than they will me. And there are some perks to being the stepfather.
‘Don’t,’ I say. ‘Take as long as you like. As long as you can.’

Soon, the boys are all furnished with honey-smeared pancakes. W has brought breakfast as well as lunch. His plastic container of Nutri-Grain languishes uneaten on the floor. I tell them Play Station time is over. After F gets dressed, they descend on his room to play their favourite game, Pooland, which consists of F and A making a cubby under the bed, with an adjoining cubby for W between the bed-end and the wall, where the toyboxes usually sit. W comes to inform me that he needs help clearing the territory, and I oblige.

Half an hour and much merriment later, they have moved on to Lego. I am summoned to adjudicate on who got which piece first and who snatched from who. At some point, I admonish F for not sharing a new Christmas toy.
‘We share with him at our house!’ exclaims A, and I agree.
After a few rounds of me being Lego Judge, the boys migrate to the study, where they sprawl across the floor, drawing. They are relatively content.

I pass F’s bedroom and pause in the doorway to inspect the damage. It is a spectacular mess. The toyboxes are empty; their contents forming a second layer of carpet. The floor rug ripples like the aftermath of an earthquake, littered with Lego and other debris.

I summon them for a clean-up. I get a chorus of ‘excuse me, but I didn’t play with that one’ and ‘I didn’t touch those toys’.
I channel my mother: ‘I don’t care who made what mess. You all clean it all up.’
They do.

‘Excuse me,’ calls A. ‘F isn’t really cleaning up. We’re doing it all.’
I look at them. A and W are mechanically piling toys into boxes. F is wandering across the room, singing to himself, fondling a piece of Lego.
‘Okay,’ I concede. ‘You boys can go back to drawing.’
They disappear in an instant.

So begins an argument that escalates to some smart-arse remark I don’t remember. I smack his hand, not very hard. He glares at me defiantly.
‘Didn’t hurt.’
I smack him again, harder.
‘Still didn’t hurt.’
‘What,’ I say, ‘on EARTH are you doing? Why would you say something like that to me? Why, F, do you WANT me to hurt you?’
‘I’m trying to show you how tough I am,’ he spits.

I am astounded at his honesty. And furious, of course.
I tell him that’s ridiculous, that showing me how tough he is does not impress me and won’t help him one little bit. At the same time, I’m aware that the ‘tough’ image is for the benefit of his friends on the other side of the door. So. It starts, already.

I tell him that there will be no more Bionicles again, for the rest of the week. His entire body clenches with anger, concentrated in the tight fists bunched at his sides. He fixes his gaze on me and yells, at the top of his lungs.
His eyes dare me to respond - and recoil from the possible consequences.
‘That’s your Lego and your Exoforce and your Bionicles and your Playstation gone for a week. Your friends can play with them, but not you.’

I am engulfed in the same pure anger he is burning with. The flames have leapt across the divide between us. I stand there and splutter, genuinely speechless. He has never done anything like this before, never. Well, not since the terrible twos anyway. And he didn’t swear then.

I scoop up the toyboxes filled with Lego and take them to the study, one by one. A and W watch, wide-eyed, as I stack them neatly. I manage a smile, and a few reassuring words. ‘I know what you should do!’ shouts A excitedly. ‘You should tell him Santa won’t come to him next year! No Santa!’ I manage a ‘hmmm, maybe not’ before I storm back into the bedroom, green garbage bag in hand.
‘That’s IT!’ I shout. ‘I’m taking some of your toys to give away to kids who deserve them. You’re obviously spoilt. You’ve got too many things.’

I am shocked anew when the tiny powerhouse that F has become, fuelled by rage, is upon me. A punch lands in my chest, hard and deliberate. Another first. I look at my son and I don’t recognise what I see glaring back at me. I am appalled, at both of us. I grab him and try to smack his bottom. He ducks and weaves, twisting in my grasp, manages to squirm himself away from me. His triumphant grin taunts me. There is no doubt about it. He is winning and I am losing control fast. Okay, I’ve already lost it.

‘Go to the laundry,’ I order.
I try to bundle him up under my arm, but it is useless. He grips my legs with his, an angry koala at my ankles.
In desperation, I pry him off, shut the door on him and call F’s father on his mobile. He is at the cricket. With his parents and his new in-laws, who will all be most impressed that I need his help to discipline his son. Oh well.
‘F is being physically abusive,’ I tell him breathlessly. ‘He punched me and now he won’t do anything I tell him. I don’t know what to do.’
‘Well, send him to the laundry.’
‘He won’t go.’
‘Make him.’
‘I can’t. I already tried.’
‘You’re bigger than him.’
‘I know.’
Eventually, he offers to speak to F. I gratefully accept. As I said, I am desperate. I give F the phone, tell him who it is in ominous tones, and watch him take it reluctantly. I stand back and wait for a grim telling-off to begin.

I hear: ‘So, mate. I hear you and your mother are having some problems. What’s happening?’ He sounds chummy, inviting confidences. I listen to a few more lines of this before snatching back the phone.
‘Be angry!’ I say. ‘You can’t be nice to him. He punched me! Be stern with him.’
I pass back the phone and watch F listen to more of his dad’s calm exhortations to please be good and show your mother some respect. To be fair, as he listens, some of the heat dies down. His eyes lose that possessed gleam and his body language softens, goes limp.
I put away the green garbage bag - my concession to a truce. The rational part of my brain begins to take control again, my instincts and emotions receding. We have some stern words about respect and appropriate behaviour, language and attitude. I tell him to clean up his whole room, not just the recent mess.

I return to the study, and sit at my computer. I smile inanely at A and W and ask them about their pictures.
‘Remember how you were going to give F’s Bionicles to his friends if he was naughty?’ asks A.
‘Mmmm,’ I mumble.
‘Are you still going to do that?’
‘That was before Christmas. It’s passed now.’
‘So, will you do it?’
He returns to his picture.

F comes to show me his clean room. He is meek and obedient. Peace reigns for a while. I make F grilled cheese on toast for lunch, with apple on the side.
‘Can we have that?’ asks A.
‘You’ve got your sandwiches.’
Their faces fall. I return to the kitchen and immediately relent. I bring the boys grilled cheese and apple. They eat companionably over a Superman comic. After lunch, they want to play Pooland again.
‘Outside,’ I say. ‘I don’t want the room trashed again, and you don’t want to clean it up. Do you?’
They don’t. I help them forage for blankets, cushions and sleeping bags, which they trail outside. I read my book on the couch, inside.

I receive various complaints. Bad words. Not sharing. I deal with them. W runs screaming into the house, F’s Hot Wheels fleecy blanket streaming out behind him. F is in hot pursuit.
‘Give it back! Give it back!’
W has conducted a raid on F’s fort. I remind W he has his own blanket for his fort.
‘But I needed another one.’
‘Well, you can’t just snatch something someone else is playing with.’ I fetch him a large towel.

The Husband rings from the relative safety of Highpoint Shopping Centre. I give him a brief run-down.
‘Do you want me to talk to F?’ he offers. I am reminded of how much I love him. I tell him I’ve got it covered. W appears at my side, grinning up at me.
‘I’m Darth Maul!’ he beams from beneath a swirl of texta.
‘Oh, W,’ I say. ‘No! You can’t draw on your face with texta.’
F and A run by, squealing with approval.
‘NO!’ I shout after them. ‘You can’t draw on yourselves with texta!’
I tell the Husband I really should go. I am about to hang up when F and A run past again, covered in texta. They bolt into the bathroom, followed by W. A slams the door behind them. Hard. The door is faulty and is never shut, because it jams and can’t be opened. Right now, it is jammed at a very strange angle.
‘Oh nooooo,’ I wail down the phone. ‘I really have to go now.’
I tell the Husband he should shop as long as he can. One of us might as well be sane tonight.

I peer through the crack in the doorway at the boys. F and A’s faces are worse than W’s. They are all giggling madly.
‘I’ll open the window and we’ll all climb out,’ announces F.
It takes me roughly 15 minutes to get the door open. It feels much longer.
I catch the boys as they pour out enthusiastically.
‘I thought we were going to be stuck FOREVER!’

‘I need to wash your faces.’
I do A and W first. It takes a long time. The boys giggle as I come to F. He rolls up his sleeves.
‘He did his willy, too,’ says A.
‘And his bum,’ echoes W.
I inspect his handiwork and grimly deposit him in the shower.

After all the boys have been cleaned up, I feel slightly bad. They were being creative. They were naughty for using texta, but what if I had face paint? I am inspired. I dig out a few old lipsticks I never use. I take them into the backyard and tell the boys they can use them to paint their faces.
‘This is make-up,’ I say. ‘It’s MEANT for faces.’
Ten minutes later, the boys visit me in the lounge room. I regret my decision. A has covered his entire face in glitter-flecked orangey bronze lipstick. He shimmers as he bounces excitedly before me.
‘I look CHINESE!’ he shouts.
I haven’t seen any Chinese people with glittery bronze faces, but I am too gobsmacked to respond. This time, it’s my fault. He has also helped himself to my mascara, which he has used to paint his eyebrows.

I let them dance about in front of my bedroom mirror for as long as I can stand it. I take a group photo, then summon them to the bathroom for another round of scrubbing. They emerge with raw red faces. I leave A until last. I takes a very, very long time. When I finish, his eyebrows are still tinged with glowing orange, as is his hairline. I can’t help laughing. He looks vaguely demonic.
'I’ll have another go later,’ I tell him.
He runs off, grateful for an end to his ordeal.

I return to my book. A soon appears before me, sniffing and rubbing his shoulder. His other hand grips a light sabre.
‘F hit me.’
I yell for F. He appears, wielding his own light sabre.
‘Did you hit A?’ I demand.
‘It was an accident.’
I look at the light sabres.
‘Did he hit you with the light sabre?’ A nods.
‘Were you having a light sabre duel?’ He nods again.
‘Was it an accident?’ Another nod.
I dismiss them.

There is lots of to-ing and fro-ing from the yard, F’s bedroom and the study. There are squabbles over using W’s red light sabre. (‘It’s mine, and I want my brother to use it, not F.’ I allow this.) Half an hour later, there is a squabble over F’s green light sabre. (‘I want my brother to use it,’ says A. I don’t allow this.) There are tears when F adds something to W’s picture. I tell him off. A leans over and adds something.
‘SEE!’ yells F. ‘A did it!’
W sniffs.
‘He’s allowed to,’ he says.
‘Oh, and you don’t like me. I get it.’
‘I do. You’re my friend,’ says W solemnly. ‘But he’s my BROTHER.’ He shoots A a worshipful glance. It seems that the old F-A alliance has shifted in favour of a brotherly one, today.

When The Mother arrives to pick up the boys, she asks how they were.
‘Oh, you know,’ I reply. ‘They were, um, interesting. You know how boys can be. There was a bit of fighting, and F was pretty naughty. But it was okay.’


I have a blissful day on Friday, my birthday. After the early morning festivities, I drop F at the Mother’s soon after 9am, telling him to treat The Mother with respect and do as she says. The Husband and I spend the day eating, shopping and lazing about.

At 6pm, I arrive at The Mother’s. She leads me into the kitchen, where smoke is pouring from the griller. Forgotten toast. F and W are quiet, nestled under a sleeping bag before the TV. A is nowhere to be seen.

The other tells me that she has had a tough day. Apparently, A had a screaming tantrum when F wanted to play with his new toys. Didn’t even want him in his bedroom. He is asleep in the mother’s bed. They had an afternoon nap together while W and F watched a DVD.

Apparently, the boys were badly behaved at the Vic markets, this morning’s outing. They were giggling and pointing at a girl’s exposed muffin top as they walked behind her. Her friends overheard and turned around. They were shouting questions at passers by while The Mother was making purchases at a stall.
‘Well,’ I admit. ‘I guess I have seen F do that before. On Grand Final Day, he was stopping people in the street to ask if they were barracking for Eagles or Swans.’
The Mother doesn’t react.

‘And they’ve been talking about sex again,’ she continues. ‘They were teasing each other, saying they wanted to have sex with a girl at school. And they said something about boobs.’
I sigh and apologise.
‘Why do you think F is so obsessed with sex?’ she asks.

My mind whirrs. On Wednesday, A was just as bad as F on this topic. I wonder whether to mention this.
‘They were all talking about that a bit on Wednesday,’ I venture.
‘Mmm. It starts, then goes around in a circle, doesn’t it?’
‘I think it’s about having just learnt how babies are made and getting their heads around it,’ I offer, deliberately keeping it plural.

‘I think it’s because he’s so accelerated in his reading,’ she says, reprising her theory from a few weeks ago. ‘I mean, he can read anything, so who knows what he’s reading? He’s obviously reading beyond his age. Like that book he brought over.’ She gestures at a nearby table, where Andy Griffiths’ The Bad Book sits. ‘It’s totally inappropriate and very rude. It’s all about bums and things.’
I am momentarily floored. I didn’t really think when I put the book in his bag, but now it seems obvious that that was a bad decision.

‘(My husband) bought some marvel comics the other day,’ she continues. ‘They were aimed at eight-year-olds, I think, but we couldn’t believe it. There was some very suggestive stuff in there between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. Not explicit, but you know, implied. F must read that stuff. Maybe that’s where he gets it.’
I reiterate that I think it’s Where Did I Come From? that’s the influence, but she ignores me.

Then she makes the comment about how F’s problem is obviously his personality. I call F and find his shoes. We make small talk while I tie his laces and tell myself furiously that I have HAD ENOUGH. The Mother wishes me a happy birthday and gives me a plate of biscuits on the way out.

As we ride home, I lecture F about respect and lack of it and furiously interrogate him about his day.
‘A wouldn’t let me play with any of his toys,’ he complains. ‘He was angry that I was in his room, so he said: “you want to sex with X”.'
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said he wanted to sex with her.’
I give him the talk about appropriate language and ‘it’s for adults’ and ‘just because he said it, doesn’t mean you should’. I tell him that the Mother now thinks he’s a rude child and that it doesn’t seem that he’ll be welcome there again. I tell him that his bad behaviour is not a nice birthday present for me.

The Husband greets us at the door. I fill him in. I am confused. I don’t quite know who I should be angry with about what and to what degree.
‘That’s f**ked,’ he says. ‘What a bitch.’
‘He’s not playing there again, even if he is invited,’ I decide. ‘I can’t take more of this. And they don’t play well together anymore.’
The Husband takes F by the shoulders.
‘Mate,’ he says. ‘No matter what (The Mother) says, you’re a great kid. We think you’re great.’ He hugs him.
‘Your behaviour today was not great,’ I add. ‘But you are.’ I apologise about my comment about his behaviour and my birthday, and he cheerily accepts.

I’m left feeling more confused than ever and pretty sure I haven’t handled this entirely well.

F**k it. It’s my birthday.

We all go out to dinner, to a local place we know F likes a lot, and I read him stories while we wait for our meals, holding him very close on my lap.