It’s the kind of awakening that makes you realise you did get to sleep after all. You gradually realise that you’re conscious, which in turn makes you realise you must have been unconscious at some point, even though your memories of the previous night are full of staring at the red eye of the digital clock: 1am (you’re wide awake, might as well get up), 3am (back in bed, surely you can fall asleep now), 5am (please, please let me get to sleep).
It’s 7.10am, so you – I – close my eyes again, squeeze them shut, and try to eke out another half hour of sleep before I get up for Auskick.
My thoughts are full of work undone, deadlines looming, interview subjects not returning calls, work submitted ... and a dog biting a child on the face. A child who is coming over soon, to go to Auskick.
Once again, those thoughts stubbornly push aside the fog of sleep that hovers tantalisingly close. This means that I when I get up at last, at 8am on the clock (which means 7.45am), I am awake.
Mum is buried under a quilt on the couch, only her hair visible: light golden brown with a bolt of silver at her hairline. The Husband and F are at the breakfast table, eating rice porridge and crumpets respectively. The dogs are pattering around the room, their toenails clicking on the wooden boards.
I am in the hallway when the doorbell rings, and duck into the bathroom, pulling the sliding door behind me. The Husband is in there too, peering into the mirror. He looks at me for a moment before leaving to answer the door. I hear murmured conversation, lowered voices, excited small boy yelps.
How was he? I whisper, as The Husband rejoins me in the bathroom. BND’s father is still quietly angry, but affable enough, he reports.
“He’s here,” he calls over his shoulder, as he moves into the hallway. “That’s a good start.”
“Who’s here?” asks F, bouncing on the carpet outside the closed door.
The wind grows colder as we walk down the road towards the oval, climbing the path past the skate ramp and towards the hole in the wire fence. I duck and stand, holding up the wire that runs horizontally across the hole to make more room for Mum.
“I hope you remember soon that I am getting older,” she says, as she straightens her back.
“Nah, you’ve got at least another ten years. Or more. Look at your mother!” Her mother was still tap dancing, performing in travelling revues at nursing homes in fishnet tights, when she was sixtysomething. HER mother, when the show stopped at her own nursing home, would stand in the aisle, holding tight to her walking frame, to shout and wolf whistle.
“Hmmph,” says Mum.
We queue for coffee and carry our stryofoam cups to the edge of the oval, where we sit on a bench side by side and squint across the grey expanse of sky to where the boys – The Husband, F and BND – are forming lines and starting their drills. The wind assails us, sending a spreading chill through my body that settles in my toes and marbles my hands, even as the coffee warms my palms through the Styrofoam.
We move onto the grass, where it is even colder, and I shrug into my (fake) fur-lined gloves and hunch into my scarf. BND’s father appears behind the goal-posts, drinking from a silver column and sucking on a cigarette. I try to catch his eye, then try not to. Mum demonstrates how penguins take turns shielding each other from the wind as I think about the mark on BND’s cheek and watch warily, intently, as F frowns and pushes his shoulders out in the first sulk of the match: disturbingly early.
Needless to say, my early, unwanted hunch is correct. Mum tries to distract me with stories about football matches on the oval at the high school where she teaches as F’s behaviour descends from bad to worse. I watch him throw himself onto his stomach on the grass; wander the oval crying; limp behind the ball, crippled by tears; punch an opposing team-mate in the arm; wave his arms in the air, giving himself up to the rhythm of his wailing. Finally, he drags himself towards us, his face red and eyes swimming, shouting that he doesn’t want to do Auskick anymore, not ever again, that he wants to go home.
I am glaring into the wind and the grey day that I have unwillingly emerged into after a sleep I don’t remember having. I am thinking that I have a dog who bites children in the face and a child who has tantrums on the football field and punches people and that this is the first day of Auskick for Boy Next Door and that his father is there watching, watching our family’s atrocious, antisocial behaviour once again.
“I don’t want to EXIST,’ wails F and I snap back at him, like a rubber band suddenly let go:
“Neither do I.”
Mum, on holiday from Adelaide, on the second real day of her long service leave, looks at us both as I grab him by the arm and pull him after me under the rails surrounding the oval, hissing at him that I am ashamed of his behaviour and that he is a bad sport and that I will be very happy to take him home.
Tears and snot run into his mouth.
The Husband calls from the oval as we stand by the hole in the fence: me on the street side, F on the football ground: just. He beckons F back, and I let him go, on the provision that he doesn’t let him back into the game. As The Husband holds him by the shoulders and talks him out of his hysteria, the team begin shedding their red and black bibs, dispersing to kick a shower of footballs towards the goals in a celebratory frenzy.
The Father who has told his children not to play with F because he has a bad attitude climbs through the hole, his two sons behind him. He smiles at me, too brightly, as he passes.
“Terrible weather we’re having.”
“Yes,” I say, as his sons look at me with interest. “Yes, it is.”
I wave at the mother whose son plays at my house every Monday, standing by the canteen at the bottom of the hill, but she doesn’t see, or pretends not to. When I climb down to join my boys – and the next door boys – she is gone. Through the grey haze in my head, I impute dark motives to her disappearance.
Our next door neighbour chats about the football game and his son’s enjoyment of it before his tone drops an octave, and he addresses the elephant (or dog) in the room.
“I was angry as all hell yesterday,” he says. “When I saw how close it got to his eye. But, as I was saying to The Husband, we don’t want to make you get rid of your dog. Maybe you should get him a muzzle?”
“Oh no! We want to get rid of him. I can’t have the risk of ... I feel sick about what happened ...” Tears enter my voice. “I’m so sorry.”
We change the subject quickly, as he gives his son money for a second hotdog.
The coach pulls me aside after The Husband kisses me goodbye and escapes to his scheduled Chi Gung session in South Melbourne.
“Are you alright?” he begins, his hand comfortingly on my arm. I nod. We talk about what he said to F, and what I’ll say to F, and how I lost it a bit, too. I tell him that we’re getting F emotional management therapy, which might help, and he reiterates that he has good football skills, if only he can manage his emotions.
“I told him that he’s my star player, and that I rely on him. That when he gets down, he’s letting down the team. Because they rely on him for morale.”
There are no words for my appreciation, but I do my best.
We all walk home together – Mum, me, F and the next-door crew, the boys running and skipping ahead, stomping their spiked football boots into the cement pavement. As we reach home, F is invited over to play. He comes home first, to change his shoes and socks, and I apologise a bit, explaining that although I was disappointed and his behaviour was bad; I’m tired, too, and I might have overreacted.
“I only slept a couple of hours last night.”
His warm body is a soft blanket around my chest and shoulders.
“Mum, you should go inside and have a nap, Really!”
And he is running to the gate and across the footpath, leaving Mum and I alone on the porch.