I picked up F from the V-Line platforms at Spencer Street Station this morning. He saw me before I saw him.
I had turned to watch another platform, unsure of where his train from Geelong would arrive, when I heard a raucous chorus of my name and “MUM!” There he was in his new striped hoodie, leaning under the weight of his bursting school backpack, flanked by his cousin J and my mother-in-law’s partner E, all of them smiling and waving – the boys beaming, E looking weary.
F had been staying with them at Aireys Inlet for the past few days. The night before, when my mother-in-law rang me to make arrangements for today’s pick-up, I’d heard the boys in the background. They were telling horror stories in the dark, she told me, with neon glow-sticks instead of a campfire. They had planned a rock disco.
E and J caught the train back to Geelong, fortified by fried rice and sushi from the station food court. We caught a tram down Collins Street to the CAE Library, to take back the DVDs we’d had borrowed the week before.
F has recently developed a passionate love of a fast food outlet in a Collins Street food court called Wrapz. When I took him and the boy next door to CAE library last week, I’d popped in there on a desperate impulse on our way home, when I realised it was 3pm and F hadn’t had lunch. F had a beef supreme wrap – basically, a tortilla wrap with bacon, beef, lettuce, tomato and barbecue sauce. Boy next door and I munched through hot chips with chicken salt as F rhapsodised about his wrap and the boys watched the football on a television screen playing silently overhead.
Today, F was ecstatic when I took him back to the food court for another hit. They were giving out mini Easter eggs at the counter, which he gleefully pounced on. He was just as eager about filling out a form to join the Wrapz Club. He asked for a pen and I watched as he carefully filled in his birthday and email address in biro. (“I’m not giving them my phone number though!” he said, a little scornfully, with a teenager’s cynicism.) The woman behind the counter gave a little start when he handed over his form in exchange for his meal.
“Would you like an Easter egg?” she said.
“I’ve already had one,” he admitted, a little sadly.
“You can have more if you like.”
He delicately picked another shiny foil egg from the plastic tub, thanking her immaculately, his face glowing with awe.
“I don’t think they get many people joining their Wrapz club,” he whispered as we sat down at one of the white plastic squares beneath the television. I think he was right.
“Can we go to Haighs?” he asked as we ascended the escalators back to the street. Last week, I’d taken him and Boy Next Door to Haighs and bought them each a small white chocolate Easter Duck. As we strolled back through the arcade towards Collins Street, each of us nibbling on our chocolate, Boy Next Door had ruminated, “When I grow up, I want to be a chocolate taster.”
“I know someone who’s a chocolate reviewer,” I said.
“Wowwwww,” they breathed in unison. “Cooooool.”
“You know, my mum worked at Haighs in Adelaide when she was a girl. And so did her mum, my nana. They got to eat as much chocolate as they wanted while they were in the shop.”
This was even more impressive.
I’d actually been planning to take him back to Haighs, to get him a small something as an Easter present, as he went to his dad’s house tonight.
“Mum, you go look around,” he said. “I’ll look at the bars, I think.”
He lined up behind the considerable queue at the counter, with its glass display case of finger-sized bars and delicate dollops of filled chocolates, while I mooched around the edges deciding what I would buy myself for Easter. (The Husband doesn’t eat chocolate, and doesn’t do Easter presents, but it’s a great excuse for eating chocolate guilt-free and I refuse to miss out.)
“Mum, do you mind if I do this alone?” F asked firmly but politely as I crept up on him in the line. A two dollar coin shone in his open palm.
“Of course. I’ll go to the back of the line.” I figured he was spending his pocket money and wanted to do it independently.
“I’ll have a dark chocolate peppermint frog,” I heard him say. He doesn’t eat dark chocolate. I realised that he had a plan, and what it was. The small paper bag passed seamlessly from his hand to me, leaning past the people between us in the line. “Happy Easter Mum,” he said solemnly. “I know it’s your favourite.”
“Thank you so much darling.” I hugged him tight, and he let me. “I am so surprised. Hey, you’ve got a dollar left.”
“I do too!”
“Will you get yourself something? You could buy yourself a frog.”
“Oh! I can too!”
And he bought himself a milk chocolate peppermint frog. Outside in the arcade, I showed him the egg and the palm-sized bilby I’d bought as his Easter present.
We unwrapped our chocolate frogs and ate them walking back down Collins Street.
“This is pretty good, Mum. You’re right.”
“I know.” And I thanked him again, enthusing carefully (and genuinely) over how wonderful my frog was and how it’s my absolute favourite.
“I wanted to get you something,” he said. “Because you won’t be with your family over Easter.” I was so pleased that I took a detour by tram to Carlton to pick up a special order book that had come in for him. (A book which he had announced he planned to take out from the school library and keep until it was marked lost, so he could read it whenever he wanted. I ordered it instead, telling him this was a better way to keep the book.)
When we got home, some hours later, he trotted down the hallway to deposit his things and stopped dead in the doorway of his bedroom, gaping at his bare mattress, the bedclothes piled on the floor, and the stale whiff of urine.
“Are you wondering what’s going on with your room?” I asked.
“Yes. I am.” He had spent a whole morning cleaning it up before he last left it.
“Um ... I’m really sorry but ... J wet your bed and we couldn’t get rid of the smell.”
There had been an overlap where my mother-in-law, J and E had stayed at our house while we stayed at theirs in Aireys Inlet, then we’d all met up there before The Husband and I came home, leaving F behind. During their stay, the accident had happened.
“It was an accident,” said The Husband, appearing behind us.
“He didn’t mean it,” I echoed.
F sighed. “I know,” he said. “He has a problem with that.” He seemed to accept it. The Husband and I looked at each other, relieved.
“We’re buying you a new mattress before you come back next week,” I assured him.
“Yeah, when I was there he had an accident,” F continued.
“Yeah, he pooed in the bath.”
“What?” J’s problems, as far as we know, only happen at night. He’s school age.
“While you were in there?” asked The Husband.
“Yeah. I just looked and there was this big brown thing floating in the bath.”
“Oh. Did M and E know?”
“Yeah. They weren’t impressed.”
“It was pretty big.”
“That was a bit naughty.”
“I know.” And he sat down on the couch to watch the football. The Husband clutched my arm as I moved to follow him into the lounge.
“You know, I did that when I was his age,” he whispered, giggling.
“Don’t tell him that.”
“Of course not.”
It’s household legend that on F’s fifth birthday, The Husband (then The Boyfriend) told him a story about how he had pooed in the backyard when he was four years old. We were out to dinner at the time and I was not amused. Later on, when he got home, The Husband came back from a visit to the outside toilet, doubled over with laughter, to find an example of the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (I was still not amused. Then again, I have told F some pretty stupid stories about my own childhood, and was just lucky enough not to be flattered with imitation.)
During the brief period at Aireys Inlet when we were all there together, a motley jumble of family in a two-bedroom house, I reversed tradition by taking the boys to play football in the park while The Husband read on the couch inside. I'd been reading with him when I'd got the call to help get the football out of the tree.
"She'll never get it," I heard F say as I followed J down the hall and out the back door. "It's hopeless."
Of course, this made me determined to get it down. I had to climb halfway up the tree while one boy passed me the tallest household object they could find (a mop) and the other shouted directions at me from the middle of the lawn. Eventually, the ball spilled down the branches in jerky stages, to much cheering, and the boys began to kick again while I extracted myself and jumped down. At the laundry door, after I put the mop away, I looked back.
"Come play with us!" said J.
"Maybe later. I'm reading, you see."
"Come ON, Mum!"
"See you guys. Later." I watched the ball soar across the yard and just escape the clutches of the tree. I winced.
"Okay," I relented, figuring I'd be back climbing the tree again soon anyway. "Why don't I take you to the park for a kick?"
"Put something warm on first."
"Really? YOU'RE taking them for a kick?" said my mother-in-law as I explained the plan and the boys yelled and yanked jumpers over their heads.
"Wow," said The Husband.
"Have fun!" said E, a smile playing at the corners of her lips.
I held the ball as we ambled down the dirt road, past the playground and along the inlet, past the beach. The boys directed the game.
"Markers up! Markers up!" they shouted. It's a game The Husband invented, I think, where one player kicks the ball into the middle of two others, who fight to mark it and kick it back. Once a player marks the ball without dropping it, they become the kicker. I started off as the kicker, and then each of the boys roundly beat me, each in their own way. F and I tackled fiercely - he's one of those kids who doesn't feel a thing when he's in the thick of a game, and loves to plunge himself into it. (Though I yelled to him "Be careful of my kidney! You know I'm not SUPPOSED to tackle!" - I have one kidney and was in fact told by my doctor aged five that I'm not allowed to play football. This made me very happy in years to come.) J, who is tiny for his age, surprised me by simply outrunning me, ducking and weaving with an admirable nimbleness. And each of them conspired to kick to each other rather than me when it was their turn to be kicker.
I surprised myself by having fun - though I was the first to quit, pleading exhaustion. We'd played doggedly through a gauze of grey rain, oddly shimmering in the sunlight that bled from the clouds. After the pinprick haze faded, a great rainbow stretched overhead, seeming to rise out of the sea to arch over the tiny J on his carpet of green and the murky inlet with its leggy white birds and driftwood.
"Look!" I said, and we all stopped to marvel at it before playing on.
Then I hunched into my damp hoodie while the boys ran up and down the skate ramp, squeaking and sliding on the metal in their wet sneakers. They shouted and took turns at being Wrestlemania heroes until the cold took over and I rounded them up for home. We took turns at telling horror stories on the way back to the house, and got so engrossed in them that instead of going inside for baths and showers as planned, we crouched in a corner of the garden in a circle and kept going. My mother-in-law leisurely circled the clothesline, taking down the washing, as I reached into the depths of my memory to retrieve the threads of a gruesome story I'd once told F that he'd asked me to tell over breakfast a few days earlier. I'd sleepily refused, telling him I was too tired to remember it. Now, F graciously steered me back the many times I veered off track. Next it was J's turn to tell another story.
"You tell good stories," he breathed, his blue eyes shining Disney-big in the descending darkness. "You tell another one."
"I think we all tell good stories," I said. "But maybe we should finish them inside."
My mother-in-law followed at our backs, the last of the washing in her basket. Inside, the small house was wreathed in the aroma of E's roast chicken. That night, the three of us football players and storytellers sat at the dinner table in our flanelette pyjamas, while a fire crackled and spit in the corner of the room (courtesy of The Husband) and the floor rocked gently below us with the sea winds.