Haul self out of bed, where I planted myself in a sulk last night after The Husband and I had a minor squabble that felt bigger than it was. The Husband is up already, stirring his rice porridge on the stove, ready for Auskick’s guest spot at the MCG.
“Hello!” he chirps. “I love you. Do we love each other today?”
“Yes,” I grunt. Back in the bedroom, I flinch as I pull on my jeans from the bedroom floor, where they seem to have absorbed the morning cold. A glance in the mirror, a brush of eye-shadow, fingers through my hair, and I’m out the door for take-away coffee. The Husband and I rendezvous at the train station, hunched into our black parkas.
Train arrives. Sit backwards. Feel queasy. Determinedly sulk out the window.
“Sitting backwards makes me feel ill.”
“Oh, is that why you’re so grumpy?”
The Husband resumes his serene gaze over the industrial straits of Kensington and North Melbourne.
We walk from Flinders Street station to the MCG, along the river. The scenery is beautiful: bare-limbed European trees stark against the bleak sky; the Yarra a serene sheet of grey glass. Old-fashioned brick buildings, once sky-scrapers, squatting far below the cold modern columns of the CBD in the distance: the old Herald Sun building, with its block white letters silhouetted in the smoggy air, the gloomy post-splendour of the Forum. A Ferris wheel with pink-and-blue-and green seats stands by the river, beside a gelati and donut van and a roundabout, all of them empty. We cross the bridge over the tennis centre to the MCG and breathy voices whisper and chant by our knees, didgeridoo music swirling behind the song. The disembodied voices, indigenous storytellers, are emanating from loudspeakers built into the bridge. My head spins with the paradox of it: the expelled original inhabitants of the land singing over the sodden green lawns of the tennis courts below. The bridge feels quite literally haunted by those who came before us. In my bleary discontent, I am thrown off balance by it. I stop in the middle of the bridge and catch my breath.
“I don’t like this.”
The Husband laughs.
As we round the concrete stadium of the MCG, the conquerors’ playground, I feel that time to clear the air is running out. Any minute now, we will be deep in a sea of parents and kids.
“I was angry with you,” I blurt out.
The Husband looks at me.
I tell him my side of last night's argument.
“Okay, fair enough.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I was just sharing my opinions.”
I fear I have overreacted, and wasted a good 12 hours on misdirected sulking.
The Husband is crushed when he’s told that the game plan has changed, and the AFL honchos running the day have decided parent helpers aren’t allowed on the ground today. He’s not a registered Auskick coach, so he’s stuck on the sidelines with us. He was looking forward to getting out on the lawn almost as much as F was. He’s been talking about this all week.
F bowls us over with a flying hug.
“MUM! THE HUSBAND!”
I look at his legs, pale and purple-tinged. He is wearing navy cotton school shorts with a khaki padded parka.
“Have you got my lucky skivvy?! Look at my footy shorts!”
“They’re ... great.”
I have a thing about F wearing shorts in the cold. He has no sense of the weather at all, only what he wants to wear. It’s part Asperger’s, part small boy. His dad, who is English, likes to argue that at his boarding school in Scotland, boys wore ‘short pants’ all year round and it never did them any harm. We have had shouting-over-the-phone fights about our differing views on appropriate winter clothing. I let this one go through to the keeper. After all, there are other boys in footy shorts. And he’s going to be running around anyway.
The Husband pulls F’s lucky skivvy out of the plastic bag we’ve brought with us, along with his prized footy boots. The lucky skivvy is yolk-coloured, close-fitting, with a number one drawn on the back with a black permanent texta and a picture of grass and a leg kicking a footy drawn on the chest. Artwork courtesy of F, of course. The mythic game where F kicked seven goals, he was wearing that skivvy, he told The Husband on the phone this morning, so it’s lucky, and must be worn to the G.
I watch him, in his yellow skivvy and navy knee-length shorts and long white socks, playing a ferocious game of handball with The Husband at the outside wall of the stadium. His hair brushes his eyebrows in its grown-out mop-top. I realise, ironically, that he looks like a little autistic boy*, surrounded as he is by kids in top-of-the range official AFL gear and smart, camera-ready combed hair. He doesn’t care. Neither do I, not really.
A beatific carrot-topped marshmallow totters past, throwing a small red ball at the MCG wall. He barrels into the concrete and turns back again, as if on auto-pilot. A blonde woman snatches his ball and puts it in her pocket. I am appalled. How dare she steal a strange baby’s ball? The blonde woman looks up. It is The Stepmother. I’m impressed. We exchange wary smiles and she looks away again, following Baby Brother’s trajectory into the crowd, as he heads for the yellow Auskick ball passing between F and The Husband. The Ex ambles over with his own ball, just for Baby Brother. The Stepmother appears at my shoulder.
“Hey,” she says. “I’m going to get coffee from the van. You want one?”
I don’t really, but appreciate the gesture so much that I decide to have one anyway.
“Sure. Thanks.” I fumble in my over-stuffed bag.
“Nah, I’ll get it. Don’t worry about it.” And the crowd swallows her up.
Kids and parents enter the MCG via different lines. F squirms with excitement in the line beside us. We offer parting encouragements.
“You’ll be great!”
“Remember to have a positive attitude!”
We don’t want it to be like last year, when the game ended with him wandering a corner of the vast oval, blinded by howling tears, snot running into his open mouth. Punching himself repeatedly in the head, growling “I suck at this! I’m no good! I hate myself!”. Last year we didn’t know he had Asperger’s, or at least we didn’t yet believe it. Last year, we hadn’t briefed the coaches on his condition, or convinced them of the fact that his tantrums were due to something other than over-indulgent parenting.
We sit in at the bottom of the stands, just metres away from where F is training. There is The Husband, me, the Ex, The Stepmother and Baby Brother. The Husband stands up in his seat, his eyes hopefully on the oval.
“What are you doing?” I hiss. “Sit down next to me.”
“I’m looking to see if the security guards disappear so I can get onto the ground.”
I leave him to it and look around glumly, unable to get into it. I don’t really know most of the parents here.
“I don’t think we can have another child.”
“I don’t think I can bear the idea of starting again with having to make friends with parents. You know, starting at the beginning again.”
The Husband doesn’t reply. He is intent on the fun he’s missing out on.
The Husband and I have moved closer to the action, away from The Ex and The Stepmother. The drills are going well. F is joking around with the kids on his line. They take turns jumping on each other’s backs, grabbing for imaginary balls. They shout excitedly to each other. It looks like there is real interaction going on, not like last year when it was F crash-landing endless jokes against a blank wall of bemused indifference.
‘This is going great,” I say. “Much better than last year.”
“Yeah, it is.”
Baby Brother appears in the row of seats in front of us, propelled by unsteady legs. He is like a jagged game of Tetris: zooming back and forth in one direction, then another, seemingly automatically, often for the sake of movement itself. A shiny red football gleams atop an open bag: a patent leather apple. Baby Brother moves towards it as if hypnotised. He stretches out a small hand to stroke it. The owner of the ball laughs as he pulls it away onto his lap.
“You can’t blame him,” I say. “It’s a great ball.”
He grins back with an edge of forbearance. Baby Brother’s face crumples for no longer than a beat, then he turns and waddles back along the row of seats, into the arms of his mum.
I move to the edge of the seating and take photos. Through the lens, the small figure that is F stops, looks straight at me and waves proudly. They are handing out black and red bibs. The game is starting.
And it is sadly, predictably, awful. The four parental figures and one toddler negotiate the maze of seating together to follow the leaping figures on the field to the twinned goal posts where the game is being played. We lean over the pooled water on the ledge of the oval fence and shout encouragement across the ground.
“You can do it!”
“Get in there!”
“Good on you, F!”
“Remember your attitude!”
We marvel at his doggedness, the way he throws himself in front of the ball, under the scrum, his arms clutching for it at every chance, however slim. He is a rag doll, forever flung to the ground, picked back up and flung forward again. Physically, he is remarkably hardy. But it doesn’t take too many setbacks before the first tears come, and once he cracks, he is soon broken.
Normally, they’re not allowed to tackle. The referee, who isn’t usually with this group of kids and doesn’t really know them, shouts for F to get in there and tackle. So he launches himself at the kid and takes him down like a ten-pin bowl. And gets a penalty. Because the coach didn’t literally mean ‘tackle’, he meant ‘knock the ball out of his hands’. And F doesn’t know the difference. He passes the ball to a team-mate near the goal and the team-mate kicks a goal. F was trying a manoeuvre where the kid was meant to kick it back to him once he repositioned himself. So, he was inconsolable over that. There were other moments, including one where he charged a team-mate who had kicked a wide ball to him, stopping just short of thumping him. Once, he listened to me when I said “F! NO! DON’T DO IT!” The other times, I was shouting into a vacuum. Making a fool of myself, I’m sure, but I couldn’t help it.
“You can’t get upset,” says The Husband. “It won’t help him.”
I nod despairingly, watching him drag his feet across the field, pinned by the weight of his melancholy.
At the end of the game, he bleeds towards us, howling his frustration.
“This is the worst game ever! It’s the worst day of my life! My team-mates wouldn’t pass to me! No one would pass to me!”
His coach tries to comfort him, as he has throughout the game, but now that there’s no next step to hurry him onto, no game to pull him back to for a moment, he has come completely undone.
“Come for your team photo mate,” urges the coach.
“No, I don’t want to.”
“It’s to remember the day by.”
“I don’t want to remember this day. I never want to remember this day.”
“Come on, mate.”
F stops to the side of the gathered crowd, the whole of Yarraville/Footscray Auskick, smiling for the cameras crowded on the other side of the oval fence.
“My feet are pinned to the ground,” he wails, holding his whole body determinedly still, his arms rigid by his side, his fists balled. The coach scoops him up in his big arms and carries him over to the group, where he stands him back on his feet. The Husband, the Ex, The Stepmother and I cheer and whoop. We call out that he’s played a good game. Last year, we greeted this kind of behaviour with stern admonitions. I’m still not sure which approach we should be taking.
F plants himself apart from the group, to the side. Separated by a good metre or two from the rest. His arms crossed, he scowls at the cameras.
The Husband and The Ex leap up the maze to meet him as he leaves the oval. The Stepmother and I stand looking at each other. For a moment, we don’t talk; but it’s not awkward, not really. We are joined in this moment. Despair, frustration, confusion, melancholy, embarrassment.
“He said he doesn’t want to remember this day, but he'll remember it now,” she says. “And the pictures will tell the story.”
“Yep. I wish I could pay the psychologist to come here, watch a game, and give me notes afterwards on how to handle this.”
We both laugh.
“I wonder what it must be like for you ...” begins The Stepmother, a little uncertainly. “Do you understand what’s going through his head, what he’s thinking ... you know ... You must understand the way he thinks.”
It’s the first time that she has ever acknowledged that I have Asperger’s, too, and one of the most personal conversations we’ve ever had. Or that I’ve had with anyone outside my family, really.
“Yes,” I say, after a pause. “I do, to some extent. I understand the thinking behind it. But I don’t know what to do about it or what to say or how to help him.”
“I hate team sports myself, I’m terrible at them,” she says. “So, I would never be in a situation like that anyway.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We slowly ascend the stadium, together, bonded by caring about what just happened, by having to deal with the fallout, and by hating team sports.
At the top of the steps, we pause and talk about dealing with F, how much of his behaviour is about Asperger’s and how much it’s kid stuff, and she talks about the division of labour in the house – how she’s mostly with Baby Brother so The Ex can spend time with F. Which I knew, but seems more benign, more practically driven, the way she outlines it. Even as we’re talking, I’m moved by the boundaries that seem to have dissolved between us, maybe not entirely, but certainly a little. And the emotion and interest in her voice heartens me, reassures me that even if she doesn’t ‘get’ F, she does want to.
The boys rejoin us and we leave the MCG together, F's family, The Stepmother and I ambling behind the four men.
They pause at the ice-cream van.
“I think one of those would make me feel better,” F tells his dad, with a weariness that is only part affected, and he buys him a chocolate-coated soft serve with coloured sprinkles. I watch him bite into the surface.
“Hmmm, I’m glad it’s you and not me today.”
And we peel off in separate directions, F lost in his sugary consolation as we call out our farewells.
* by this I mean that autistic (or Asperger's) kids/adults often don't care much about what they wear, or about wearing clothes to fit in with what everyone else is wearing.