I have not been a nice mother this morning.
I told F off and made him cry (okay, whimper unconvincingly), as much from my own frustration as legitimate rebuke.
In my defence, it was 6.30am this morning.
A few weeks ago, one lazy Sunday, F was reading in his room and complaining about being bored and I was going through old boxes and reminiscing, when I stumbled upon a story I had written when I was ten. I’d written it for my younger sisters, about their Cabbage Patch dolls Julie and Lisa (reborn as real live kids), and they loved it at the time. I was pleased with it enough to enter it into a kids’ story competition. It didn’t win, but it was highly commended and my name was printed in the paper.
My dad then typed it up for me (it was the days before computers) and printed it off for me at the school where he worked. I bound it into a book, and painstakingly illustrated it with pictures that now embarrass me with their tragic reflection of 1980s fashion sense. (Julie, Grade Three, wears an off-the-shoulders fitted top with a matching ra-ra skirt and dangly earrings on the last page, for instance.) Being a grown-up almost-prize-winner, I had given the book a professional edge with a dedication to my sisters on the back cover, along with an ‘acknowledgements’-style solemn thank you note to my father, ‘the typist’.
On this lazy Sunday, I asked F if he’d like to hear a story I wrote when I was a little girl. Being a seasoned story lover, he said yes. And so I pushed aside the clothes and toys I really should have been making him tidy up from the floor, and the two of us sprawled on our stomachs on the carpet, side by side.
As I read this story I hadn’t revisited in years, I cringed at my ten-year-old naivety and clumsy language. I persevered despite its faults: trying, in fact, to gloss over them by enthusiastically acting out the dialogue (mostly fights between the sophisticated Grade Three Julie and her spoilt pre-school sister). As I finished the story, I dared to really look up at F to gauge his reaction.
‘That was GREAT!’ he said. ‘Do you have any more?’
Actually, I did. There was a sequel in the same box, written in old-fashioned, practically illegible cursive, importantly marked ‘CONFERENCED’. It was called ‘Lisa Runs Away’. Flattered, I fetched it and read it aloud as F lay on his back beside me, squinting up at the ceiling in concentration.
‘Brilliant. Anything else?’
I had one more: a version of the original story that I’d rewritten when I was much older, probably eighteen. I was relieved to discover that it was much better. Not an undiscovered masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but not bad. When I finished reading it, I asked F what he thought.
‘Better than the first one I read, huh?’
‘No. I liked the first one best,’ said F, emphatically.
For the record, the story is pretty much as follows:
Lisa is a pest. She annoys her big sister Julie all the time and does naughty things. But she never gets told off. Their mother tells Julie off, but excuses everything her favourite does. Lisa decides she wants to go to school and mum has to say no, not until she’s older. She doesn’t like being told no and is determined to go. The next day, Julie is at school when she hears a voice from the reader cupboard. Lisa has somehow snuck into her classroom and hidden there. Julie tries to conceal her presence, but naughty Lisa goes too far and makes a scene. When she is discovered, the teacher tells her off and they call mum to come and pick her up. Julie wonders ‘whether Lisa will ever stop being a pest’. (‘NO!’ says F gleefully, when we get to that point. ‘She WON’T, will she?’)
A few days later, F was having night frights about ‘straight lines’. (And no, it’s not supposed to make sense. At least, I don’t quite get it.) It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s so spooky-sounding – and, I have to admit, so classically autistic - that I tend to indulge him rather than tell him to go back to bed and not move, as I do when he just says he’s hungry/thirsty/wide awake.
‘I’ll read you something and then you can go to sleep,’ I told him with a sigh. ‘Pick something.’
‘Can you read me Lisa the Pest?’ he asked. I had put in back in the box in the cupboard, along with old diaries and letters.
I went into the hallway and opened the cupboard. I took down the vacuum cleaner and its parts, the big plastic box where I store F’s paintings and drawings and stories, and yanked out my box from underneath. I crept back to F’s bedroom with the story and lay my head on the pillow beside him, pulling out my travel torch.
‘You will close your eyes as I read, okay?’
‘But I won’t be able to see the pictures.’
‘Bad luck, I’m afraid.’
When I finished, he turned to give me a sleepy hug.
‘Mum, can you leave that on my bookshelf so I can read it whenever I like?’
‘Yes. I know it’s very special, so I’ll take extra good care of it.’
After school the next day, I came in from the kitchen with a plate of buttered toast and found him on his bed, hunched over something.
‘Look’ he said, turning around. ‘I’m reading your book.’
‘So you are!’
I have to admit, I was feeling pretty damn chuffed by now. But not just chuffed. I don’t know what the feeling was exactly, but to know that my son was getting so much enjoyment out of a story I had written for my sisters when we were young ... that something that was really special to us was now special to him, without my even trying ... It felt good.
‘I think,’ he declared, ‘that you should win a PRIZE for this.’ He paused, thinking hard. ‘You should win ... The Angus & Robertson Prize! You should be on the Angus & Robertson Top Ten Bestsellers!’
‘Um ... thank you.’
I’m still not sure how a child whose parents are avid supporters and frequenters of Melbourne’s best independent bookshops identifies with Angus & Robertson, but I took the accolade as seriously as it was meant and kissed him for it.
In the next few weeks, F took to carrying the book around with him – out to dinner (twice), on day-trips and train journeys, to the breakfast table. Every once in a while I would get another heartfelt appreciation of my writing talents, based on this book.
‘If I was your age when you were ten and I knew you and I read this book, I would think that you should be an author when you grew up!’
‘Can I photocopy this book and bring it to school? I’ve told [Crush] about it and she’s interested to read it.’
And then, on his last day of school ...
‘Can I bring it for show and tell? Please.’
Vanity got the better of me.
‘Do you want to photocopy it first?’ he asked.
‘No. I trust you. I know you will take very good care of it. Won’t you?’
He smiled at me, basking in the reflected confidence.
‘Yes. I certainly will. Don’t worry about it mum.’
Of course, he was right. I should have copied it.
Because last night, I rang his dad (who had picked him up) to check that the book came home okay. He hadn’t seen it. Frankly, he wasn’t interested. I tried to drum it into his head that the book had great sentimental value for me and I needed to know it was okay before he left for Queensland and Christmas the next day.
‘Please look,’ I said. ‘I’ll wait.’
‘It’s dark in his room and he’s assleep.’
‘Please do it in the morning and call me.’
‘Okay, I’ll call you if I find it.’
‘No. Call me. I need to know.’
‘You’ll do it?’
‘Yes, I need to go.’
‘So, you promise?’
‘He won’t do it,’ said The Husband, as I hung up. ‘You’d better call him early tomorrow.’
I called him at 6.20am this morning. He was in the cab. He wasn’t going to call me. Did he find it?
‘Um, no.’ He sounded distracted.
I asked F what happened. He said that he definitely took it home, it had been in his bag, it was on a pile of schoolbooks. I talked to his dad. His dad said, absently, that he had checked the pile, yes, and it wasn’t there, no. I talked to F again. My voice was steely.
‘So. It’s gone.’
‘Noooo’ he wailed.
‘Yep. Gone. And I trusted you to take care of it.’
F started to whimper, a kind of simulated crying that generally demonstrates he is upset, but would like the listener to think he is more upset than he is.
‘Can you write it again?’ he asked.
‘No. I cannot write it again.’
By then, I’d already spent the past few bemused-but-proud weeks reflecting on why F loved the story so much, even as I couldn’t help cringing at it.
And what I’d figured out was that it’s a story no adult could write: it reflects a child’s experience of the world. As a grown-up, I just couldn’t create a mother so obviously and unfairly biased towards one child over the other. I don’t know that I’d write dialogue between two sisters who say ‘SHUT UP’, ‘No, YOU shut up’, ‘No, you shut up’, ‘Stop copying me’, ‘Stop copying me’, ‘I SAID stop ...’ etc. I wouldn’t open with the two girls buying loads of lollies at the corner shop, or have Lisa throw a cat out of the window. But that’s what makes F love it so much.
When I got off the phone to F and his dad, I went back to bed and threw myself face-down on the pillow. Aware that the Husband was listening, if not exactly watching (6.30am!), I had a little whimper. Kinda like F’s I-am-upset-I-swear-I-am whimper.
I boarded the train to Adelaide feeling like something had been scooped out of my chest. I was grieving, I realised.
Grieving what? My story. A little. It was a lovely memory of my early relationship with my sisters. But it was more than that.
I was – am – grieving the loss of something special that F and I shared, something that I can’t recreate by writing another story. It’s a bit like when he lost his Care Bear in Prep and I cried as much as he did, knowing that I’d lost forever the little boy he was with that beloved bear.
Ah well. I guess there will be another special thing.
For now, I need to call my son and say sorry for making him cry. Okay, whimper.
* POSTSCRIPT: F rang The Husband while I was writing this, on the train from Melbourne to Adelaide, and told him that he had found the book in his bag. All of us are very, very pleased. But hell, I wrote this bloody post on the train, in the dining car, the keyboard wobbling as I typed, and I'm not consigning it to the virtual bin just because its whole premise has collapsed.