Sunday, December 23, 2007

Lisa the Pest (20/12/07)

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.
‘Yes please.’
‘Um, okay.’

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.’
‘Um, okay.’

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.
‘You looked?’
‘Um, yes.’

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.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Hell is other people: Carols in the Park (2006)

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.’
‘You can.’
‘Up there?’
‘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.’
‘What’s that?’

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.

Jingle Bell Rock: Carols in the Park (2007)

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?’
‘Maybe, then.’

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 ...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Eight things meme

Here is my response to the eight things meme currently doing the rounds (via Redcap)

Eight things I am passionate about:

my son
the rest of my family - my husband, my parents, my siblings
books and writing
water - the sea, anywhere else you can swim
independence - I HATE being told what to do and when to do it
travel - a new passion, but one I think about a lot
justice - from my son's classroom to the wider world
original thought and expression

Eight things I want to do before I die:

travel more
write a book and have it published
live by the sea
stay in the same job for more than a year
spend lots more time with my family
read loads more books
be published in The Age, preferably in the books section
live in New York awhile

Eight things I say often:

F**k (maybe I shouldn't, but I do)
Puppy (a pet name for F that I am supposed to not use, but I do, I don't even know why)
This is the last straw
This might be stupid, but ...
Hell yeah
Say 'please'
I'm not everyone else's mother, I'm your mother
If you do that/say that one more time ...

Eight books I've read recently:

Darkmans, Nicola Barker
Through the Children's Gate, Adam Gopnik
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Moshin Hamid
Addition, Toni Jordan
What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Asperger's Syndrome and Your Child
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Eight songs I could listen to over and over:

Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve
High and Dry, Radiohead (or anything on The Bends, really)
Been Caught Stealing, Jane's Addiction
Common People, Pulp
Today, Smashing Pumpkins
Living in the City, Stevie Wonder
How Soon is Now, The Smiths
She Sells Sanctuary, The Cult

(not terribly eclectic, me - and yes, stuck in the past)

Eight things that attract me to my friends:

No-bullshit honesty
A sense of humour
Similar interests, particularly an affinity for books
A talent for original thought
The ability to stand up for what they believe in
Being themselves
Having all their own, natural body parts (unless they need an artificial limb or something I suppose)

I'm not a big tagger, so anyone who feels like doing it (and hasn't been tagged), let me know in the comments!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A hypothetical holiday

There’s nothing like a holiday to refresh the mind.

That is, unless your holiday is punctuated by a helluva lot of work. Including spending your first day finishing up an already overdue 3500 word assignment - albeit in a beautiful setting, your laptop perched on a deck overlooking bush and framed by jasmine, taking breaks to swim and eat fish and chips.

And by getting up at 6:30am the following day to catch the bus back to Melbourne, where you will do more work and attend your work Christmas party.

At said Christmas party you will proofread the publication you had hoped to be proofing for the last time at lunchtime that day, amusing yourself by scaring people off, waving said publication at them and inviting them to help. To your horror, said publication will still be unfinished at this time. (It will have, since the weekend, been under the control of Someone Else.) Someone Else suggests you come back at 3pm the day after the party to do a final proofread. You point out that you will be at the beach, approximately three hours away, and that you will have no internet access. You reluctantly outsource your editorial duties.

Despite the fact you don’t drink much anymore, you down successive glasses of white wine and champagne in an effort to erase the panicked anxiety you feel. Luckily, you don’t (you think) say anything particularly stupid to anyone. You are pathetically, overwhelmingly grateful for the presence of your Longstanding Friend, who offers to help you proofread. In fact, without you asking, she takes half the pages from you and follows you to the doorway of the club where your party is being held, where you both settle behind the counter with your pens and your wineglasses, squinting through the dim light and battling your lightly toasted brains.

You catch a cab home after midnight and fall into the empty bed awaiting you at home. You wake feeling ill at 4am. And again at 5am, 6am and 7am. At 8am you tumble out of bed, check your emails, throw some clothes on and catch the train to Footscray station, where you embark for the beach again.

The journey to Melbourne approximately 24 hours earlier was peaceful, drowsy. Your few fellow passengers had slept on the bus from the beach. Today, just a couple of hours later, the bus is full of tourists: backpacking teenagers in skimpy singlet tops and short shorts, a Japanese couple with cameras swinging from their necks, pensioners in polo shirts. The mood is festive; instead of air-conditioned silence, the bus is noisy with piped commercial music that assaults your hungover eardrums. Luckily, you have come prepared with your i-Pod and a selection of music loud enough to drown out Sneaky Sound System or Celine Dion or whatever the hell is popular at the moment. You mainline The Smashing Pumpkins at full volume as the bus navigates the Great Ocean Road.

You are cranky. You are aware that you are deserting your post by leaving your work unfinished, but also aware that this is not what you signed up for. And that staying would be deserting the post at your marriage. You try very hard not to think about work.

Back at the beach house, you bundle yourself in a pink blanket and huddle on a cushioned bench on the balcony with a book. Sulphur-crested cockatoos flock in a tree over the road, like jaunty Australiana-themed Christmas decorations. A pair of magpies swoop towards your head, flying low over the balcony. You retreat inside. The book blocks work out of your mind for a while. While you’re reading it. Every time you stop, the details of work and all the things you can’t control crowd in once again.

The following afternoon, you walk on the beach. It’s cold: tracksuit weather. Still, you know that the water is your best chance of feeling better again.

The water is choppy, magnificent in its fury. This is a grand tantrum, not a petty, circular buzzing argument: your own state of mind. You stand, thigh deep. The waves loom above you in the near distance. Turquoise walls of water rise, curve and dissolve into dramatic sprays of foam, spat back to shore. It is so cold that your skin actually tingles; tiny electric needles of shock. It is strangely pleasant after the initial sting. You throw yourself against the waves, over them, with them, standing still as they crash over you and through you.

You realise that perhaps you don’t find the sea relaxing, as you’ve always thought. Perhaps a better word is ‘exhilarating’.

You scan the distant waves for dark shapes. Against your will, you imagine a sudden pressure on your thigh, jaws clamping around you. You creep towards the shore. You tell yourself how silly you’re being, remind yourself how few people are actually attacked by sharks each year in the whole of Australia. Remember that it’s more dangerous crossing the road than standing here. You make your tentative way back towards the horizon. Followed by the slow creep back. It’s like a clumsy underwater dance.

You are no longer thinking about work. And on the way home, it remains, if not gone, banished to the dark corners of your mind.

Another day at the beach; this one glorious, sun-soaked. It leaves your hair thick with saltwater and your back streaked with sunburn, despite your regular applications of sunscreen. You finish two books: really good books that you don’t have to read for work. You eat lots of fish and chips and Magnums for dessert and walk the beach and the tracks around the lighthouse.

On the car ride home, you and The Husband manage to chatter about inconsequential matters. You remember your wedding two years ago at this same coastal retreat (your mother-in-law’s house, in fact) and reflect on how life has changed for the better.

At home, you unpack the car, hand your straw hat back on the hook in the bedroom, and sit down in your bathers and shorts to read the mail you unpicked from the mailbox.

You read the letter from Centrelink advising you that they want to prosecute you for fraud as a result of overpayments from three years ago (the result of a disputed phone call; overpayments you have been paying back, in instalments, for approximately three months).

That hard-won holiday insouciance dissolves as you read.

All those high-voltage thoughts, not just about this but about work too, crowd back into your head before five minutes have passed.

You lie awake past 3:30am and are almost (but not quite) late for listening to kids read in your son’s classroom the next day.

Welcome home, you think.

Friday, December 07, 2007


I have been here:

more specifically, here:

and here:

Normal blogging to resume shortly ...