It’s a special day at Auskick. F’s father is overseas and he hasn’t seen his little brother for just over a fortnight. He asked me on Friday night if I would invite his stepmother and brother to come to Auskick.
“No offence Mum. I really like this house and it’s really fun ... but I miss Baby Brother.”
His stepmother has never been to Auskick before, though Baby Brother usually comes once a fortnight, with his dad. They live on the Other Side of the Westgate Bridge. I doubt that she’ll come.
To my surprise, she emails back to say that she’ll be there if the weather is fine. (Baby Brother has a cold.) Saturday morning is crisp but radiant: a golden haze bathes the world in a cold glow.
I like the fantasy of a Love My Way kind of blended family. You know: they have dinner at each other’s houses and joint family celebrations, they babysit for each other, the stepmother and real mother occasionally meet for coffee. Sure, there’s the occasional barbed comment, but generally they’re one big family, where all the people who have to see each other on a regular basis all feel comfortable with each other, and invested in each other’s happiness.
We’re pretty good, as these things go, but we’re certainly not the fantasy. F lives with his dad and I on a weekly rotating basis. His dad and I talk on the phone a fair bit about how he’s going at school and how much sugar he’s having and who needs to put in what forms to school. We do run joint birthday parties for F, though we draw the line at Christmas. And we swap days a lot – when his dad goes overseas, when either of us has an after-school-hours meeting or an evening engagement. (And, for those who watch LMW – I’m a slightly dishevelled dark-haired arty type; the stepmother is a cool, organised blonde with a real job.)
Anyway, it’s well known that The Stepmother and F are not the best of friends, which is why I’m surprised that she decides to come to Auskick. He says she’s “cranky”. She says she “doesn’t understand him”. F was almost the deal-breaker in their relationship, but somehow they got past it: bought a house in a blue-chip suburb, got engaged the same day, then married and had a baby. Just add water for an instant happy family. Except it’s not.
It’s a segregated household. When F is there, The Stepmother looks after Baby Brother and The Ex takes care of F. Sometimes they meet in the middle for family time. Until The Ex quit his job three weeks ago, I picked F up from school every day. Every second week, when he finished work, the Ex would drive across the Westgate to pick F up at 5.30pm or 6pm and bring him home for dinner and bed. The Stepmother works from her lounge room at home, often with Baby Brother in the background. But F is not part of her equation, or her responsibility, unless specifically called upon.
F’s godmother is also coming to watch him play this morning. She emailed last night to ask me what his team colours are. “There are no team colours,” I write back. “They do wear black or red bibs, though. And his team is North Melbourne. They’re blue and white.”
I spot her as I climb through the hole in the cyclone wire fence separating the skate ramp and the football oval. Her neck is swaddled in an enormous blue and white scarf over a navy knit top. She is buttoned into a 1960s style knitted coat, white with navy pin stripes. It skirts her hips in a jaunty A-line. She is scanning the field from behind large prescription sunglasses. She is a vision of childlessness in a sea of tracksuits, padded parkas and misshapen woollies. She is even wearing lipstick. When she sees me, she responds with the energetic wave of a morning person.
“Nice colours,” is the first thing I say. “I’m impressed.”
She gives a little half-twirl.
“Coffee?” I ask, after pointing out The Husband and F on the oval.
“We-ell ... it’s okay. It’s not BAD. It’s pretty good for coffee you can get at a kids’ football game.”
“I can only do one coffee a day.”
She follows me across the bitumen fringe of the oval and past the huddle of parents standing around the card table where they will later sell $2 hot dogs and alarmingly coloured ‘fruit’ drinks. There is no line in front of the small van parked in the oval’s driveway: a coffee machine, some jars of marshmallows and cartons of milk, and stacks of Styrofoam cups. A small boy takes my money as I place my order for a latte with his apron-clad mother.
“Wow,” says The Godmother.
We sit on a bench facing the oval, within (far) sight of F and The Husband, deep in footy drills. I unwrap a muesli bar from my bag. The Godmother and I exhale gossip in heady clouds: people we work with, people we used to work with, our partners. We talk in the uninterrupted flow of freelancers on day release – which we are. It’s exhilarating, having real world conversations like this at a kids’ event. Worlds are colliding, and I like it. F spots us and sprints across the oval, his face urgent.
“Hi, Godmother! Water, mum! I need water!”
I pull out the Auskick drink bottle he left by the front door this morning and hand it over. He gulps at it, hands it back, and disappears.
The Godmother and I jump the fence and follow him across the oval to stand at the edge of the training drills: rows of small figures, most of them in official AFL jumpers and shorts, stand facing each other across the grass. The coaches and their helpers – The Husband among them – stand in the centre. The lines wriggle back and forth, side to side, as the boys push and shove and wrestle each other. Headlocks, grabbing at torsos, skipping and dodging. I see F. He is a wrestler, his face intent. It’s just fun right now, but my stomach twists with the possibilities of it all.
“I hate the way boys do this,” I tell The Godmother. “I can’t watch him. By the way, The Stepmother is coming today. She’s bringing Baby Brother.”
That’s when we see her, standing just outside the fence of the oval, head darting about in search of a familiar face. She is easy to spot: a smooth blonde curtain of hair falling over a sensible black woollen coat; a marshmallow blob of puffy parka and oversized beanie wobbling at knee-height.
“We should wave, right?” I say. “We should go and bring her over here?”
“Yes,” says Godmother. “We should.”
The marshmallow is clutching a fist-sized green ball. He is beaming from beneath wisps of orange hair that have escaped over his forehead. He staggers determinedly across the oval, towards the boys and their balls. More specifically, he staggers towards the nearest bright yellow football and bends to pick it up. It is bigger than his head; the size of his torso. He drops it and kicks it along the ground, then follows it with a beatific smile. I have seen him do this before, but it still staggers me. F at his age had no more interest in a football than he did in a bug or a leaf – that is, some, but not much. And he certainly had no idea what to do with it.
“I remember when F was five, his teacher told me we needed to teach him ball skills. I used to kick the footy with him in the driveway after school, and he’d be practically in tears. I used to bribe him, saying that after one more kick he could go back inside to his books and comics.”
The Godmother laughs. I look over at F now, chasing the ball with the fierce, unyielding devotion that usually drives him to tears of frustration at least once a game.
The Stepmother and The Godmother and I settle into a rhythm of small talk, mostly about working from home, which we all do.
“How’s it going with The Ex working from home now?” I ask.
“Well, he hasn’t been here much.” Pause. “But he’s ... I guess you MUST have heard about the new MacAir laptop?”
“He loves his toys. Anyway, the week before he left he spent all this time playing with the computer and trying to get the Macs to talk to each other and I was in the lounge room, working, and the network was going down because he was playing with it.” She sighs. “So, I’m getting more work done now he’s gone. But a week’s long enough. I’m ready for him to come back now.” Baby Brother is snuggling into her chest, his little arms diving into her armpits.
“Muuummy!” he wails. She holds him close.
“It’s his cold. He’s a bit clingy,” she says. “I had to take him to the toilet with me this morning. I had to sit him on my lap.”
“Wow. That sounds awful.”
It’s conversations like this that convince me I don’t want to have another child.
This is alright, I think. This is really going well.
Baby Brother totters across the oval again as we talk. He stands, transfixed, between the goalposts. A flock of boys swoops back and forth in his direction, following the ball sideways towards him. The Stepmother runs to rescue him. While she’s gone, I start telling The Godmother about my fights with Australia Post this week, and the fact that I’m not getting my mail. The Stepmother comes back for the end of it.
“You should get a PO Box,” she suggests.
“I did. That’s the problem. The redirection isn’t working. Parcels are going to my house. Or they’re just going missing.”
“Oh, I hate that,” says The Stepmother. “I’m always having to chase missing parcels for work.
“The Husband won’t let me talk to Australia Post anymore,” I admit. “After I swore at them the other day.”
“You swore at them?”
“Yeah. I ... it was after a couple of weeks of phone calls, and they’d been really stuffing me around. They kept saying that everything should be working, and then this woman realises that the parcel redirection has never been activated at all. And that she couldn’t do anything about the missing parcels. She suggested I ask everyone to send everything registered mail.”
“You can’t do that.” The Godmother.
“Yeah, I get that at Christmas. Parcels going missing and they tell me that nobody took them. Yeah right! I bet lots of people would like a new tent for Christmas!” The Stepmother manages a camping supplies business.
“So, what did you say?” The Godmother asks me.
“Oh, I told them to go fuck themselves.”
“Yeah, I said fuck you. She was going to hang up on me. She said ‘goodbye, Ariel’. And I said ‘Oh, fuck you.’ I know.”
We’re all laughing now. I am emboldened.
“Yeah, that’s right, before I said that, the thing that made her decide to hang up on me, I said ‘if you weren’t owned by the government, you’d have to be accountable. I pay for a service, you wouldn’t be allowed to not deliver it’. So she said ‘goodbye Ariel’ and then ... then I said ‘do I have to call A Current Affair on you to get a result?’ And then she said ‘goodbye Ariel’ again. And THEN I said fuck you.”
The Godmother and the Stepmother are looking at me in disbelief.
“I know ... I know ... I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I threatened to call A Current Affair on someone.”
I decide not to tell them that, after I swore, a small voice piped up from across the room and a small head bobbed above the couch and said “MUM!”
And that I said: “I know darling, that was so naughty of me. I said it after they hung up, but it was so naughty of me.”
“You said it after they hung up, huh?”
“That’s $2 in the swear jar.”
I’ve revealed bad behaviour to the other side of the family, though only part of it. But we’re all laughing, we all hate Australia Post, and we’re all exclaiming over Baby Brother’s ball skills and cheering for F when he gets the ball. This is going just fine.
At an Auskick earlier this year, the second of the season, things between The Stepmother and I didn’t seem to be going so fine. She wasn’t there, of course. She’d been a bit short with me on the phone lately, and I asked The Ex if she had a problem with me.
“Oh, no more than usual,” he replied distractedly. “You know, no more than she usually does.”
“What do you mean by THAT?”
“You know, nothing more than the usual.” His eyes glanced off me and skittered over the field.
“What problem does she USUALLY have?” I asked.
He turned and looked at me blankly, deliberately, stretching out the moment.
I walked off and took a seat by the goalposts alone, too irritated to follow the conversation further. I sat and glared into the game.
About ten minutes later, The Ex came to squat beside me, Baby Brother following some metres behind him on precariously steady legs.
“He-eyyy, what’s GOING ON between you two?” asked The Ex. Nothing much, I’d thought before this. I told him that it was just her tone on the phone lately, and that last time we’d come to pick F up, instead of inviting me in, she shut the door in my face and went inside to get him.
“Oh dear,” said The Ex mildly, and drifted off again, drifting back a minute or two later. Just standing there.
“I mean, I’m always nice to her. The Husband is always nice to you. And it’s not like she’s the best stepmother in the world either. F isn’t dumb. He knows she doesn’t like him and he reacts to it. I guess it’s not her fault if she doesn’t like him. But still.”
I didn’t mean to say any of this. But after I had, I was shocked at The Ex’s reaction. He didn’t deny it; he didn’t try to spin it. He just stood there, accepting it. Which chilled me to the bone, because I’d hoped I was imagining - or at least exaggerating - the situation between F and The Stepmother.
I’d nursed a subterranean, complicated anger at The Stepmother ever since.
The Stepmother and The Godmother and I are chatting. I mention that I am doing something mundane, like taxes or cooking meals more often. Something too boring for me to remember what it was.
“Why?” asks The Godmother.
“She’s becoming a GROWN UP!” says The Stepmother, gleefully. I look at her. Did she really say that? Has she forgotten who she’s with? Does she think she’s in the kitchen with The Ex?
“I wouldn’t want to be a grown up if it means being like you,” I think, cattily. “So what if I don’t own a house and I don’t earn a lot of money? At least I’m interesting. At least my work is interesting. At least I’M NOT LIVING WITH YOUR HUSBAND!”
We move on, quickly.
It’s the final moments of the game. F gets the ball in a daring semi-tackle. He runs towards the goal posts, aims and kicks. It’s a goal! The three of us cheer and call his name. He runs in a circle on the field, his grin visible from the sidelines. He directs princely nods at his team mates, acknowledging their admiration even before they give it. The boys gather in a tight circle, then scatter. F runs towards us. The game is over. He runs, smiling, in a straight line. He is going to hug someone. He bends and embraces his brother in a running tackle, picking him up and running him towards us. Baby Brother’s arms flail at right angles from under his embrace; his legs dangle as if bracing for a fall. His orange head nestles in F’s chest. Happy (muffled) squeals emerge from his resting place. F puts him down and smiles into his face, their eyes just centimetres apart.
“Did you see me kick a goal at the siren?” he asks us.
“Yeah!” says Godmother. “We all cheered your name. Didn’t you hear us?”
“No! Did you? Thanks for coming, Godmother. Thanks for bringing Baby Brother, Stepmother.”
And the brothers are off, following The Husband across the oval to kick the footy one last time.
The Stepmother, Godmother and I continue to chat. We talk about the boy next door, who I love.
“Oh ... he’s so difficult,” says the Stepmother.
“REALLY?” I say.
“Oh, well he used to be.”
“I never have any problems with him. Though if he ever spoke to me the way he speaks to his father, I’d be giving him a good smack! But he’s fine with me.”
“Oh, YES!” says The Stepmother. “And where do you think he gets THAT from?”
“OH yes. She’s AMAZING.” Said in a tone that implies she’s not really amazing at all, not in a good way.
I actually really like Boy Next Door’s mother, who is almost the age of my own mother, but is also practical, sensible, and has child-rearing ideas that are surprisingly similar to my own. She’s a bit of a drill sergeant in manner, but she’s got the proverbial heart of gold. She does nag her laid-back husband to death, but he’s the kind of old-fashioned bloke who stops at the pub and has a beer and a smoke while he’s waiting for his fish and chips to be ready to pick up. (At 5pm in the afternoon.) Their whole dynamic is based on her being the in-control nag and him being the put-upon husband who gets to roll his eyes when he’s told to do things. They seem to like it that way.
“I like to listen in on their conversations,” I admit. “F and Boy Next Door, I mean. The other day I heard BND imitating his mum. It was hilarious. ‘HUS-BAND, do the dishes! HUS-BAND, fix the dishwasher!’ He said that he reckons women do all the work because his mum’s always telling his dad what to do. I told him that his mum’s the one who makes sure the work gets done, and that I’m sure she actually does plenty.”
We all laugh at the imitations, united in judging someone other than each other.
It’s in this spirit that we get a bit carried away.
“I have to be at work soon,” says The Godmother. “If we’re going to get that coffee ...”
“Yeah, I’m going to get a coffee, too,” says The Stepmother.
The Godmother and I look at each other.
“Why don’t you join us?” says Godmother.
“Yes, go on.”
“Um ... okay, sure.”
And so we all end the morning squeezed around a 1950s laminated table built for four (The Godmother, The Stepmother, Baby Brother, F, The Husband and me), eating muffins and sipping lattes/hot chocolates/babycinos and continuing a polite conversation that is beginning to strain at the seams, but manages not to tear.
Maybe we’re not quite so far from Love My Way after all.
Even if The Husband and I do get home and exclaim over the way The Stepmother talks about how F “comes to stay” with them. (“He LIVES there half his life!” we exclaim, a little self-righteously.) And I’m sure I saw her file away the fact that I gave F a hot chocolate, even though the two families have agreed to minimise his sugar intake.
Ah well. The road to blended family heaven is paved with barbed comments. But at least we’re all trying.
* btw, this all happened a week ago, but I'm a slow writer