I’m determined that this year’s Carols in the Park is going to be different.
For one thing, I have organised with a friendly mother to meet up with her tonight. So, I will have company. For another, F has joined the choir this year and will be up on stage, singing. We are part of things. We will engage.
I pack our patchwork quilt and a small, pathetic picnic, cobbled together from muesli bars, bread and butter sandwiches, cling-wrapped ham, and empty water bottles filled with juice and water. It’s all I can salvage from my near-empty kitchen. I’m pretty sure there will be food and drink there, anyway. I bring a book, just in case. And a pile of Yu-Gi-Oh magazines for F. I’m tired, and contemplating catching a cab to the park (a $5 ride) when F walks into the bedroom wearing his bike helmet with his red shorts and red and green Sylvester and Tweety tee shirt. If he’s ready to ride, so am I.
As we load up the bikes on the back verandah, we hear the front gate swing open and shut next door. Footsteps sound by the back fence.
‘M!’ shouts F to the boy next door. ‘M! I’m afraid I can’t play with you tonight. I have Carols in the Park and I’m singing in the choir! SORRY!’
‘That’s okay,’ comes the reply. ‘I have my school’s Christmas concert anyway and Santa is coming.’
It’s a short bike ride and I feel a little ashamed of the near-cab experience. I guess it feels easier than I imagined because this year, F is riding his own bike rather than sitting, heavily, on the back on mine. He is excited, and shouts conversationally at me as we cycle along the footpath of Somerville Road. Trucks and cars stream by, dulling his small voice into an indistinguishable drone. I shout back lots of ‘uh huh’, interspersed with instructions about when to stop and where to turn.
The park is sparsely populated when we finally arrive. The yellowing lawn is bordered by card tables, covered with brightly coloured cupcakes and lolly bags. A small fenced enclosure houses animals, once again. A couple of lambs, a chicken, a goat. A man in a too-tight red tee shirt emblazoned with ‘Kingsville Carols’ is helping the musicians unpack their gear from a van parked in front of the stage, a lumpen black block in the centre of the park. (I later find out he's the recent mayor.)
F runs for the playground as I lock up the bikes. I carefully unfold our patchwork quilt by the stage, nearby another couple of rugs. A woman walks by barefoot, nursing a can of beer. I watch her polished toenails pass. A mother I recognise trots officiously across the park in a Christmas apron. She carries a paper cup with a coffee company logo in one hand. I pick up my purse and follow her trail, back in the direction she came from. Yarraville Cellars has a tent here, next to the coffee wagon. I pick up a bottle of Margaret River sparkling and two plastic cups for $10 and make my lazy way back to my quilt, secure in the knowledge that tonight I have company. Tonight, I will not be conspicuously out of place. Tonight, I will be comfortable.
I sprawl on the quilt with my book, leaving the sparkling unopened for now, sipping at my water bottle instead. George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ crackles and blares near my bowed head, the syrupy lyrics jamming in my head with the description of an elderly Egyptian aristocrat preparing for his lover in my book. After a while, I wonder where the mother I’m meeting is. It’s now the time she’s due to arrive, 6pm. I stand to look for her. As I do, my eyes meet a familiar gaze. An ex of mine, my most recent and most contentious (four years ago, for the record) is standing on the blanket directly behind me. Weirdly, he emailed me about reviewing his latest book earlier today – the first time I’d seen or heard from him in months. Of course, he lives in the neighbouring suburb – this one, in fact – so it’s not entirely surprising that he’s here. Except it is.
It’s that familiar, stilted mix of awkward and familiar, as we discuss today’s email and the fact that his son’s primary school choir is performing tonight, too. I hadn’t realised. A tall, slender, pigtailed girl stops at his side.
‘H. You remember Ariel, don’t you?’
She squints at me, unsure. He gestures at F, buried in a Yu-Gi-Oh magazine at my feet.
‘You remember F?’
A shadow of recognition passes over her face. She nods a little and smiles at me. I say a cheery hello. She is a lovely girl. She met me and F just once. She and her young brother were floored and kinda spooked by then-four-year-old F’s excited, unpunctuated stream of chatter. (The Asperger’s, I now realise.) I think she liked me. I gave her some pretty bangles and a girls’ comic I’d picked up from work. She told her mother about me and her mother freaked. Ah, memories.
I count out my change, now aware of eyes (maybe) (probably not) on me from behind. F stays on the rug, reading, while I fetch us sausages in bread from a stand run by the local Scouts. $1.50 each. Bargain.
‘Can I have an ice cream too?’
I inspect my coins.
‘Do you think your dad will give me a couple of dollars to buy chips later if I buy you ice cream?’
The Christmas-aproned mother stops at our rug and bends down close.
‘Hi. Raffle ticket? Go on.’
I count out a dollar from the silver coins I’ve given F for ice cream and write his name on the ticket. She gives us a printed booklet containing the words of all the carols and the logos of all the sponsors. F digs a biro out of my bag and sets to work circling all the songs he likes best. ‘Silent Night’ is in, ‘Rudolph’ is out. He is sad that ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, his favourite, is not there.
On stage, the man in the too-tight red tee shirt speaks into a microphone at 10 minute intervals, welcoming everyone and exorting them not to forget that Yarraville Cellars, the Scouts, the coffee place and the ice cream van are all here, and all selling stuff.
I’m really starting to long for my companion to arrive. The rugs are closing in, forming their own mismatched patchwork on the grass. The happy chatter I know so well – and dread – with its reminders of high school and cliques and me not belonging to one, not even to one person. Maybe this is why I love books so much. (It’s not.) With a book in your hand, you don’t look alone, you look busy.
Every once in a while, a small girl from F’s class will wander by. They say hello to us. F smiles and greets them, then returns to his magazine. The girls run shrieking around the park, weaving in and out of the rugs. Some of them are girls F plays with in the playground; girls from his class.
‘Why don’t you play with the girls? Your friends.’
He shakes his head. One of the girls is his Crush. This, I think, is the problem. He has been hanging out with The Crush more and more this year, to the point where he has been playing with her in the yard most days, rather than with his mates. I overhear him say things to her like ‘you look nice today’ and ‘that was a really good kick’. In this year’s music concert and his recent assembly performance alike, The Husband and I have noticed him standing on stage or sitting in the audience stationed conveniently beside her, shooting her the occasional reverent glance.
I should mention here that The Crush is absolutely stunning. Her father is Maori, her mother Anglo Australian. She has long, straight, shining hair that hangs halfway down her back and smooth dark-olive skin. Long dark lashes, huge brown eyes, a shy, sweet smile – and a healthy twinkle in her eye. She could easily have been drawn by Walt Disney. Even I have to admit that she is a pleasure to behold (as well as a fabulous girl - spunky, tree-climbing, kind). Her mother laughed to me, at F’s birthday party, that her daughter has been the token girl at a lot of boys’ birthday parties this year. F knows at least four other boys in his class who have whispered about being ‘in love’ with her.
The problem is that a week ago, The Crush’s best friend asked F, witheringly, if he was ‘in love with Crush or something?’ He of course said no, but his former best mate retorted that yes, he is, and he knows because F told him so. F was inconsolable after school that night (‘it’s humiliating’) and is now too embarrassed to talk to her. The real tragedy in this is that The Crush has been a wonderful friend for F, complimentary and encouraging about his efforts to improve his attitude and be a better friend. I love the way he is when he’s around her. (The other night, when I put him to bed, he sighed and told me that he's been wondering if all his recent good behaviour has been because of him, or because of her influence on him.)
But I have to let him be. I can give him advice about pretending it didn’t happen and not letting a couple of mean remarks lose him a good friend, but I can’t walk him over there and make him play with the girls again.
F and I are alone for about an hour. On a neighbouring rug, a loud-voiced woman barks a litany of complaints.
‘What the hell is wrong with her? I didn’t bring her here just to stand around. I don’t wanna be here anyway. Why is she just standing around? That’s it. I’m never getting takeaway again if you don’t appreciate it. What’s she DOING? I don’t want to be here.’
She and her husband are eating McDonalds, their burgers still half in their wrappers. I feel sorry for the girl standing around somewhere, presumably over in the playground. I fantasise about telling the woman to shut up or just go home. I try to bury myself in my book.
F licks his ice cream cone in the middle of the playground, watching the surrounding chaos. He is still stubbornly solitary.
I hear my friend the mother greeting a chain of other parents on her way over to our rug. She breezily apologises for being late.
‘It’s fine’ I say. ‘Want a drink?’
I probably could have been talking to some of these parents myself, this year: I’ve seen them at parties and exchanged pleasantries outside the classroom. But something in me is frozen. I feel safer behind my book. F and I are a fine couple.
F’s friend, L, crashes onto the rug beside us. He’s wearing a cotton wool Santa beard with a fur-trimmed hat and red tee shirt and shorts. He is buzzing with excitement. F joins him, and together they disappear into the playground. At last.
F’s father appears, camera in hand, and sits between us. Feeling better already, I offer him my plastic glass of sparkling. He sips at it and passes it back. He tells us that his wife and son were ejected from the Toy Library today, in the moneyed suburb where they live, because his son (just past one year old) was too noisy. His wife was volunteering at the time. The sparkling makes it even more hilarious.
The kids from The Other primary school file onto stage, all wearing their school uniforms and Santa hats. They kick off the first of three carols.
‘They’ll probably kick our asses at this, too,’ mutters my friend the mother (MFTM). She is up with things like inter-school rivalries, much more a part of the community than I will ever be. Apparently, they regularly beat us at sport.
F’s father and I squabble about school uniforms and who has more shirts at their house while the kids sing ‘Jingle Bell Rock’.
Then, it’s the moment we’re all here for. The Other primary school kids file off the stage and our kids take their place. They are wearing an assortment of red and green clothing. Some of the girls wear strappy, flowery dresses. They are beaming with pride. F stands, straight and tall, in the front row. He sings loudly, solemnly, enthusiastically. Most of the kids hold their songbooks in their hands, but his is at his feet, held in place by his sneakers. He’s obviously been watching what bands do, or something. He squints at his feet during the lesser known song, eventually giving up and reading the songbook of the girl next to him. I notice, regretfully, that The Crush is at the other end of the stage tonight. F’s friend L is a few rows back. He occasionally leaps up, his jaunty red hat poking above the heads in front of him. His grin threatens to split his face in half.
The Deputy Principal appears at my side, standing between F’s father and I.
‘Look at him’ she says. ‘He’s come so far. You must be so proud.’
We are, of course.
‘He said he wanted to join the choir because they needed more boys and he felt it was his duty’ I tell her. She laughs.
As they finish, I push my way to the front of the stage and open my arms for F to leap into them. His father is right behind me. As we all stand around congratulating the kids, waving at passing choir members with the ‘thumbs up’, a keening, wailing noise fills the air, coming closer and closer. It’s a fire engine, sirens blazing. A man dressed all in red, with black boots and a belly-deep white beard, is hanging from it, waving.
The kids swarm towards the engine, an instinctive mass of excitement. F is at the front of the pack. I run, barefoot, burrs prickling the balls of my feet. An anarchic line is forming behind a plastic chair that Santa is being led to. Squealing, shrieking, swelling and lurching. It’s survival of the fittest, as the kids squash forward, pushing in and out and squeezing each other tight in a serpent-like kid sandwich. I shout at them to all take three steps back to give the ones at the front breathing space, and sort out a couple of the obvious skirmishes in front of me. ‘Back of the line!’ ‘Give her some room.’ ‘Your big sister was in front of you a moment ago.’
‘WOW!’ says F. ‘My mum, the policeman of the line, huh? Who would have thought it? She should be a footy umpire!’
Ten minutes later, we have a lolly bag and are making our way back to the rug. F’s father is going home. I ask him to buy me chips first, and he does. We have a pleasant walk around the park. When I get back, F is reading his Yu-Gi-Oh magazine, eating lolly snakes and watching the band, made up of some musical parents, sing jazzy Christmas songs.
MFTM and I eat the lime flavoured chips and drink most of the sparkling, before F asks to go home. We leave her the rug and the remainder of the food and drink before we return to our bikes, and cycle home in the fading light, shouting conversation as we go. As we idle at the traffic lights at the top of our street, I notice a golden peach sunset bleeding into grey-lined clouds over our shoulders.
The Husband is waiting in the lounge room when we get home.
‘How was it?’
‘Great’ says F. ‘Can I have a drink, I’m thirsty.’
‘He was wonderful. He sang beautifully. We were so proud. And I was the policeman of the line. For Santa. F couldn’t believe it!’
‘Yeah, I was embarrassed. I couldn’t believe that everyone knew I was your son. It was humiliating.’
‘Oh.’ I am annoyed. ‘Well, maybe I won’t come listen to your class read tomorrow, then. If I’m so EMBARASSING.’
‘NO, mum!’ He throws himself to the ground and hugs my ankles, pinning me to the middle of the hallway. ‘NO!’
‘But I thought I was embarrassing.’
‘Not in the classroom mum. THEN you’re actually being HELPFUL.’
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night ... and all that jazz ...