The first inkling I have that Carols in the Park will not be fun comes before I even manage to park my bike. F jumps off his cushion on the back and runs excitedly towards the playground and back.
‘Wow!’ he says. ‘This looks great!’
The park is lined with card tables covered in home-made cakes and biscuits, glitter glue, stickers and Christmas ornaments, and racks of tee shirts. A stage is set up in the middle, with a loudspeaker blaring 80s pop into the rapidly cooling evening air. There is a caravan selling Mars Bars beside the sausage sizzle. And a baby animal farm with lambs, guinea pigs, goats and puppies.
Clusters of grown-ups sit on rugs and deck chairs gathered around the play equipment and in front of the stage. Some of them attend to small children, but most of them are chatting among themselves, waving plastic wineglasses or stubbies.
Children are darting excitedly about everywhere, scrambling on the monkey bars, jostling at the stalls, running from one activity to the next. One small boy wears a Santa hat. Sisters wear matching Christmas dresses, red and green and gold, trimmed with red tulle and teamed with Blundstones. They have tinsel in their hair.
I walk up and down the playground, looking for somewhere to chain my bike. I pause at several likely looking wooden posts, but they all prove too thick. F darts to the slide and back, to the cake stall and back.
‘Mum! Mum! What are you doing?!’
‘Wait here,’ I manage, through gritted teeth, wheeling the bike further down the road, where I find a plant tethered to a conveniently sized wooden stake.
‘Can I have a sausage? A cupcake? I want to play!’
I spread the rug near the stage and take him to the sausage van. We eat what will pass for dinner and watch the crowd, then F runs off to play.
I am painfully self-conscious, as I always am at these occasions. I am not part of the Mother’s Club. I can carry on a conversation with some of the parents some of the time. There are two mothers who sometimes invite F to play and me inside for a coffee; one of regularly. There is another who often stops me in the schoolyard to say ‘We MUST catch up. We will.’ We never do. This embarrassing charade has lasted a year. Her son approaches me at the school gate and asks ‘when can I play at your house?’ ‘Any time’ I say, but his mother always hurries him off with apologies. This mum was standing beside us as F and I applied sauce to our sausages, but didn’t look at us. Now I notice that she had inadvertently set up camp behind us. Our eyes don’t meet.
I sprawl on my stomach on our quilt, facing away from the mum and my other ‘neighbours’, with their wine and conversations, and pull The Monthly from my bag.
Small feet run across the corner of my quilt, kicking dirt over my pages. I brush it off and keep reading. Now is the perfect time, I tell myself, as I swing my bare feet behind me, to catch those articles I missed on the first read.
F’s sneakers skid into view. I close the magazine and shoulder my bag.
‘Should we look around?’
We visit the baby animals. F sits on a hay bale, hardly daring to breathe, as a guinea pig is placed in his lap. He strokes it tentatively at first, then with confidence. His face is intense with pleasure. He pats a sleeping dog, an indifferent lamb and passing goat.
‘You try’ he says as I watch him marvel at the lamb. ‘Wouldn’t you like a jumper like this?’ he enthuses.
He sits with the dog, watching to see if it will wake. I take a photo. At the gate to the enclosure, he pats a girl on the arm.
‘Excuse me’ he says solemnly. ‘I recommend that you pat the lamb.’
‘S and A said this would be boring! Boy, were they wrong!’
After we make a Christmas ornament, he returns to the playground, I to my quilt and magazine. The wind is cold, and I wrap myself in a scarf. The wind whips at the gap between my jeans and my flimsy Indian shirt. I tug on my jacket, but it rides up again.
F leaps over my legs and lands hard beside my head. He pulls an Andy Griffiths novel from his backpack and settles companionably by my feet.
‘Don’t you want to go play?’
‘Nah. Can you read to me?’
I wriggle around to face him and we lie on our stomachs together. We suck on candy canes as I read. Raindrops fall on the page: lightly, gradually at first; then steady, hard drops.
F has brought a smaller patchwork quilt, a Christmas quilt my mother made for him. He helped to choose the material and lay out the pattern. I pull it over our heads as I shelter, just as the PA crackles, Duran Duran stops mid-lyric, and the mayor introduces himself.
‘Wow,’ breathes F. ‘He’s famous.’
The school choir are on stage. A teacher with a guitar starts the first song. Around us, none of the kids or parents are singing. F scowls through the rain.
‘I want to sing too.’
‘Here, you can.’ Under the quilt, I start to sing. F is not mollified, though he half-heartedly joins in. My jeans are sticky with wet. F and I are waging a war over the quilt.
Santa is coming, with presents, in one hour.
I gloomily reflect on my crappy performance as a mother tonight. One of the two friendly mothers walks past. I am too fed up to say hello. I’m afraid of what else I might say. Inwardly, I am furious. With myself, with the parents who don’t speak to me and with this whole stupid school where nobody is like me, not at all ... and of course, yes, with myself.
And even though I know it’s NOT about me, it’s about F, I am ready to go home. He sneezes.
‘Okay, we need to go.’ I jump to my feet.
‘You’ll get sick. You’re getting a cold.’
As I shake dirt from the quilt and roll it under my arm, the mother camped beside me looks over and smiles. She rolls her eyes, complicitly, and I smile back and wave.
Bitch. NOW she can see me. Oh well.
F mumbles and whines all the way to the bike. As I pad the back bike rack with the quilt, the PA dies. Two latecomers head our way.
‘It’s all off’ someone tells me. ‘We’re going home.’
‘M just arrived as everyone was going home!’ says F, TOO gleefully. ‘He’s too late, isn’t he?’
I mount the bike and squint into the rain as I glide past the queue of parked cars.
‘When we get home’ I shout over the traffic, ‘our Christmas tree will be waiting for us to decorate it. I’ll run you a hot bath and get the decorations from the garage and then you can have hot Milo with marshmallows.’
F sighs contentedly. His whine adjusts.
‘Oh, mum’ he says. ‘You’ve just cheered me up by saying that.’
Ten minutes later, as I turn into our street, I do something I know I should not.
‘F’ I call. ‘Do you wish I was more like the other mums, that I hung out with the other mums?’
It’s actually something I think about a lot.
‘No mum’ he says. ‘I like you just the way you are.’
‘There is ONE thing I’d change ...’
‘... but it’s really something I’D have to change.’
And we’re home, The Husband opening the front door to greet us, and a pine tree on the verandah.
* NOTE: I found this written out in an old notebook, and it just seemed to me to illustrate how much things have changed (for the better) in a year, and I'd never posted it, so decided I would now.