“What happened Cynthia?”
“Tommy broke the swing. He jumped up and down, round and round, up and down, round and round, till it broke.”
Mummy’s green eyes went black. She’s looking through me again.
“Cynthia, are you lying to me?” Mummy’s voice was in my head.
Think nothing, say nothing, Mummy can’t hear me anyways. What about Tommy? I thought.
Then Tommy jumped on her. Squealing, clawing and grabbing. Mummy picked him up. See, that’s why he cries.
“Tommy does jump up and down on the swing so.” Mummy’s lips weren’t moving.
If Mummy can think at me, I can think back at her. “’Tommy broke the swing. Before.’” I thought. “Tommy broke the swing.”
“Daddy can put the seat back on. Or put the spare one on. Or it’s really broken now. Daddy will know,” Mummy spoke.
Who cares anyways about the swing anymore? Mummy can do whatever I want. Mummy and Tommy went into the house. I had the swing to myself.
That night, I was too busy beating Josie at touch the table, to remember anything. And I grabbed the tablecloth without her seeing me.
Luckily I got back to the big rug in time.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. I didn’t hear anything after that.
Josie and I kept playing with our dolls. Daddy came out. He picked up the broken glass. He put towels down. He had one on his hand.
The kitchen door banged again. His hand really hurt. He was worried. He said something about “Tet ness.” I don’t know what that is. But it sure thought scary.
“I’ll take care of it, Carolyn,” I heard him say, “I’ll find out who did it.” I couldn’t hear anything after that.
Then above me stood Daddy. He was so tall. Staring at me. Staring at Josie. He had the good tea towel too. Wrapped around his hand. Red, wet and dripping.
Think nothing, I thought. Daddy can’t hear me.
I kept playing with my dolls.
“Did you knock the glass off the table?”
“No Daddy. I’ve been playing with my dolls. See this is my special one. Isn’t she beautiful?” Josie held up her yukkiest doll.
“Maybe Josie is lying,” Daddy spoke in my head. I thought at him, “Josie is lying.”
“For the last time, Josie. Did you knock the glass off the table?”
I thought at Josie. “Say yes, say yes, say yes.”
“Cynthia. Were you playing chasings, too?”
“Yes Daddy,” I said.
“Did you break the glass off the table?”
“No Daddy,” I said. Anyways, the glass broke on the floor. Not the table.
Daddy thought, “I have to get back to work.”
“Before the glass fell, I heard footsteps. ” Daddy thought,. “But whose?”
I thought the sound of Josie’s footsteps at him.
“Josie! You, you, you, knocked the glass off the table, didn’t you?”
I thought even harder at Josie, “Say yes, say yes, say yes.”
“I didn’t see the glass.”
“Josie. You need to be more careful. Cynthia too. Both of you.”
Daddy shrugged. He wound the towel around his hand. He went into the lounge room. I heard the TV.
“Cynthia, you heard Daddy, no more running in the house,” Josie said. I thought at Josie, “Stop being so bossy.” Josie made a face.
Josie said, “You cheated at touch the table. You broke the glass. You lied to Daddy. I’m not playing with you. Ever.“ Her lips weren’t moving.
I looked up. I’m on the other side of the big rug. With my dolls. Away from Josie.
I got mad. I thought, I’ll think back at you. I tried so hard. I only got madder. Josie still played with her doll. That nice pretty doll. I wasn’t mad at Josie anymore.
Mummy came out of the kitchen. She looked at me. She looked at Josie. The TV got louder. Mummy shut the door.
I heard them thinking about what’s on the TV. I can’t say what they saw. It’s not allowed.
“Cynthia ran past you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Alex. You can’t keep an eye on them for even a second can you?”
“Carolyn, Josie broke the glass. She said so.”
“Cynthia broke the glass. And you know what Josie’s like, she always takes the blame.”
“Carolyn, what are you talking about? I heard Josie’s footsteps.”
“Didn’t you see Cynthia trip? She nearly fell. Till she grabbed the tablecloth!”
“Carolyn. You weren’t there. You didn’t see what happened,”
Mummy was in the kitchen. With the door shut.
“Of course I knew.”
“You didn’t see what Cynthia did to Tommy on the swing, did you?” Daddy thought. I drew close to the door.
“Don’t you, don’t you start that.”
“Change the subject on me.”
“Don’t get mad at me. I know what I saw.” Daddy was so loud.
“She said Tommy broke the swing.”
“Carolyn. Cynthia broke the swing. She twisted the seat up and down. Unhooked it. Dumped Tommy off.” Tommy was asleep now.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” My head ached.
“Carolyn. I am telling you. Now. Here. Right Now. Okay.”
“She said Tommy broke the swing.” I ran back to the big rug.
“Cynthia said it? Or did she think it?”
“Cynthia said it. I thought she did. It shouldn’t happen until she’s much older.” Mummy thought.
Then my head went silent. I can’t think what I want anymore.
My son, I left you far too soon, Too early to see you walk, Before the first burble of baby talk, But even then I somehow knew you. I almost tottered down the driveway, Bags heavier than my heart momentarily The sunrise a sunset of our last day, I could not bear to say goodbye. I left a failed husband, In the hope I’d still be a father, But for you and me sadly, Time’s lost memory left us apart. Even in those first few months, We were really father and son, As I knew when I held you, When you cried, coped and stopped. And now it’s fourteen years on, I still have my imperfect words, And may find those few more, That would comfort in the years that matter. But what was hidden from view Was that I lost my life saving you, A marriage sacrificed to be sure, Perhaps a son’s love will return once more?
3:06am. He’s crying. The father groggily wakes and looks at the digital clock on the bedside table. The shrouded corpse far across the bed doesn’t move. He hears the seconds dripping.
3:05am. He’s still crying, even if time has ticked backwards. Confused at first, he realises it was 3:05 then 3:06. But the last three hours sleep? Gone in an eye blink. He’s still crying.
And once his other eye opens, the real day will begin. Post the forced wake up, yesterday’s washing must be hung out, snack for breakfast, shower in between, shave while not being cut by an unsteady hand, the new washing hung out to dry, perhaps most of last night’s housework, then the final reluctant rush to work. She’ll sleep through. And the son too.
Maybe a deep sleep on the bus might save me, he thinks. Yeah! But that’s some hope! Then nine hours of bobbing his head up and down with the interruptions and interrogations every minute or so. Selfish people with trivial wants, urgent phone calls or exaggerated crises. Then he’ll tank ten cups too much of coffee. And on the way home, he’s as jittery as Methuselah the bus driver.
And silently, as a burglar, he enters the empty house of no welcome. A kitchen of bowls, cups, saucers, baby bottles, plastic spoons and congealed saucepans. The lounger with scattered clothes both clean and dirty to be gathered, or worse. Somewhere in the fridge, there is a covered dinner of leftovers. Usually his only friends are the freezer, the microwave and frozen pizza.
He slips hopefully unnoticed to visit to his son. As he creeps through the hallway, she’s there. The mother of their child, back to the nursery door, wordless and childless, a pillar of salt with eyes blazing.
He draws close. He takes the usual half step backwards. Then he pushes down the door handle and skips into the open space. If he’s quick, he’ll glimpse his son. Some days he doesn’t make it that far.
“Perhaps this is the day,” he says to himself. “The day when St Thomas finds out who his father really is.”
There he is, in yesterday’s dirty jumpsuit. A covered head, a small contorted face, dolls hands protruding. “My son?” he thinks. He reaches to touch the arms stretched each side of the cot. He stops his breath to listen to the whispered intake of another’s. But she steps inside, blocks his way, steps into him and shuts the door.
“I didn’t disturb him,” he soundlessly whispers. But the standard admonishment is always administered.
Then the flight back to the kitchen, the clothesline and the laundry. Undresses himself in the dark, and slips unnoticed into bed. To sleep wakefully.
3:06am. He checks. Yes they are now both awake. Dreamily, he finds a small mercy. That cry isn’t the endless one-note scream. He forages for the proper definition: a night terror?
A terror shared both by father and son. For nothing can wake her.
If it was that one-note call from hell, it would be okay. He would be at battle stations ready to repel demon boarders. He’d sprint in the dark. He’d take a nanosecond to snatch the child from cot. Forget about unlatching the cot side. Leave that for later. He’s stolen the baby. For then there’s the piercing shriek that dissolves them both. Then that hour long second to pass inconsolable baby to consoling mother. Then silence. Then the bottomless ocean of post pregnant sleep. Which only subtracts a little more from him.
It’s the mummy cry, he recognises. Not to be confused with the daddy cry. Perhaps that doesn’t exist, he thinks. It might if fathers could become pregnant. No it’s the natural order of things, he muses. But it’s still wrong.
“How can she sleep through this? It’s her cry, not mine.” Perhaps a few more moments and she will wake…
He dunks face first into the first pillow, then smothers the back of his head with the other. He turns over and in on himself. He binds himself in his blanket. And he sets a imaginary alarm. She’ll wake this time and there will be peace for all.
Eyes half open he watches and sleeps. The pile of blankets to his right doesn’t move. She’s going to sleep through.
3:07 He’s still crying. Was there a minute of sleep? He can’t remember. In the dusk, the wall of sheets and blankets opposite is unclimbable. But a small gap, might be enough. If he gently disturbs her, she’ll softly wake, yawn and stretch, hear her baby, go to him, St Thomas will be comforted.
And it will be like the old joke. Now we all can get some sleep. That’s the punchline but what was the joke? He scrabbles across and meets two pillows, one on top of another, pressed down under the blankets. He could burrow through but the danger of course is real. For once awake, there will be the usual set-to in front of the baby.
Yet again it’s come to this, he thinks. Maybe this will be the time, when he’ll be lulled to sleep by his father. And know it.
That would be a welcome addition. Then St Thomas will know he’s not a baby napping stranger. Or an absentee father practising for the future. Knowing that, we both can sleep, peaceably, however long that takes. With his mother grateful for the sleep won.
Now, he’s the reproached lover who has started the long walk back. He approaches the cot, walking on the sides of his feet, approaching unheard. But he’s caught out again, even before unlatching the cot. Same as last night. Same as yesterday. Same as the last three months. Or four?
Through the cry, he hears rustling. He looks back. Blankets, sheets and pillows have flown upwards and outwards. The mother, dishevelled, now a phantom. She strides quickly towards the nursery. He’s too tired to shrug off the blow. He never did duck or flinch before. In case you’re wondering , he rehearses, the mark is shaving rash. That is, if anyone asks.
What is she doing? She’s plucking her head. Pulling her hair out? She’s pulling at her ears. Two or three snatches then, two bright objects appear. She throws the earplugs to the floor.
She bares her white teeth and snarls. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Most of that is lost as St Thomas screams even more loudly. She gathers the child, still robed in her blanket and departs to her queendom.
He’s left standing there, too tired to rub his cheek. He thinks, it’s too late to go back to sleep. But too close to dawn to get up. Same and again.
One happy addition, as they say, but all subtractions from now, he thinks. Twelve weeks, two days out, now, isn’t it? Or is that when mother and child came home? Twelve years after that. Then the six or so teenage years. Chained in a land he will never understand.
3:11. He’s crying.
A bald head crowned by a few curls peeks out. Two eyes large and watchful wait and see what I might do.
I’m not moving. I stand silent. I’m a daddy statue.
Tiny hands cover her eyes. She tries to catch my gaze.
No way. I’m having no part of it. Not yet.
She opens them. She peeks carefully at me. Then covers herself with the blanket.
“Peep bo!” The blanket speaks.
That’s my moment. My eyes close. Although I keep the good one only an eighth open. Enough to cheat. Enough not to get caught.
Each time she closes her eyes, I open mine. Each time I see her open her eyes, I close mine!
Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. Blanket on. “Peep bo!”
Blanket off. “Peep Bo!”
“Peep bo!” I say again. Before the blanket went on.
I chuckle as the blanket giggles and rolls on the floor. Then smile at her laughter while she wriggles her way out. Usually she beats me to it. Then as she unwravels…
“Peep Bo!” She got me that time.
The blanket again wraps itself up. It giggles and rolls on the floor. Then she crawls out. And stands a little taller than this morning. Now her jumpsuit is too small for her. But that’s no matter now.
Two arms stretch to the sky. She starts to waggle her fingers. Twinkle twinkle? Yes i’m happy to sing that with her. But no peeking. Otherwise she’ll catch me lip syncing.
Then she stops stock still.
No. I was lucky there. Then not so lucky.
Oh no! Daddy workout time.
Arms stretch high. “As high as the sky.”
I squat down. I waddle towards her. I put my shoulders under her arms. Then my hands around her waist.
I lift her up. Until her head is level with mine. Her eyes are already laughing. Daddy’s doing the heavy lifting now.
I stand up and throw her high into the air.
Giggles, then laughter.
I stop just before I let her go. I’m not a dad, I’m an astronaut trainer. Besides she’ll never get vertigo from me!
“Again. High as the sky.”
More deep squats. More overhead presses. My knees ache. My shoulders sing. I sneak a glance at my burden.
She’s frozen in time!! One arm up, one arm out, frozen in a ballet pose.
Carefully I shift her to my stronger arm. I lean forward, most weight pushed backward and draw back the coverlet, sheet and blanket. Then i place her in her bed as if one false move would be the last. She slumps flaccid in her bed. I cover her up. I start to lightly leave…
Her hand finds my finger. And crushes it. I hold my breath. I listen to her breath slow and deep measuring eternity one second at a time.
It was too dark to film in the pre-dawn twilight. And too hazardous to set up cameras and lights. Or send over their dumb drone in case it crashed and couldn’t be retrieved.
Occasionally, rarely, reality TV did have its benefits and now was one of them. Lonely at last, I thought. But, of course, only for a short moment. For I had to be back ready for the the morning feature. Me splitting wood bare chested (ugh!) for my fans.
I crept softly and slowly still hidden in the night. My torch picked out the sleeping shapes of cows not yet interested in me or milking just yet. Blades of grass reflected their sheen much like shards of green glass. And then the dark swallowed my light. For I had stopped at what looked like a fallen wall.
The last trees I had cleared. I had left those broken remnants to season and dry. And now I was sawing them into logs and later kindling for the winter. And to boost my sagging ratings.
Behind me in the grey twilight, I could faintly see the camera crew near the house. They were trying to keep warm like ghostly puppets that were losing their strings.
But my work was in front of me, the latest pile of logs. I squatted, bent down, leant forward and drew each log into my arms. Once filled, I slowly stood up and started my trek back to the house.
Still, like the twilight, the other inhabitants paid me no attention. They’d wake soon and the routine would begin. Another day in the life
of “Down on The Farm” : the spun (and slowly unravelling) spin-off show. Featuring the recently separated husband of everyone’s favourite reality star, Ella who was doing I don’t know what.
I stopped. I thought I saw something. But it was too dark. There is was again. Behind me, I saw a glimpse of curls, followed by a giggle.
“I’ll catch you,” I thought carelessly. I turned ponderously to follow. “Looks like she’s run around me,” I thought again. I finished my sedate circle. Nothing. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I kept on.
Surprised by my thoughts, I said to myself, “It’s nothing,just your imagination running wild in the wild.”
To keep my load steady, I stopped and crouched slightly. I raised left arm and then right and the logs in my arms settled heavily and made a pile yet again. I trailed my way back towards the house. It was still cool and grey and I was a shadow in the twilight. I saw the green roof turn olive-grey in the approaching dawn. The water tanks : squat and silver like oversize 44 gallon drums.
I trudged slowly. As far as I was concerned I had all day. But in the morning silence, I heard the whisper of a smile again, sent to me on the breeze. “A voice too young yet to laugh.”
I stopped again. I took small goose steps as I rotated trying to see the source of my audio dream. I didn’t want to drop my load yet. Still nothing. But something, it must be something. Perhaps…
There it was again. A whisper, now a laugh, curls and a glimpse of a cornflower dress.
To confound my pursuer, I stopped again and turned the other away.
“She’s quicker than me,” I thought carelessly. “Or will be.”
Ignoring the watchers, who had set up camera and microphone, I reached the woodpile and bowed down : a supplicant making his latest humble offering. I threw my arms forward and stepped back in reverential awe. A clump of logs flew forward, thudding and clunking as they hit the altar. Now for the fun part. I took off my shirt and threw it carelessly away. They’d like that, I knew. Apparently it was worth 20 points each time on the ratings.
Next to the stump was my favourite weapon of destruction. A green triangular headed wood splitter. I balanced it in my hands like I was buying a rifle. The head and handle were still smooth yet to be scarred by combat. That would be years I thought. And I had years now. I waited and felt the presence. A watcher ready to ask me a direct question. But she had years too. I heard the camera crew shuffle nervously, as they moved to keep me in view.
Even though the log pile was just the right height, I still leaned down, forward and across. I picked up log number one. I took its weight, squatted and placed it on the stump. Grey silver bark, wood core like cracked ochre. This one had finally seasoned.
I reached down to take the splitter again.
“And how long does it take to season?”
“As long as it takes,” I replied to myself (I thought). I looked up and around. The crew were motionless. They hadn’t seen or heard anything. Otherwise they would ask for another shot.
So I stilled myself, ignored the voice in my head and swung the splitter. Back above my head. I cocked my wrists and swung it just above the small of my back. I waited until it was just about to fall backwards and have no weight at all.
Like the string holding the arrow, I let go, timing turned into power. I struck wood, felt nothing except the tip tapping the stump. “No effort required,” I thought. Turning logs into kindling is the easiest part. Sure beats cutting down trees and sawing up logs. The dark held its breath and watched silently.
Except it wasn’t the dark.
Two more swings. The rest of log number one split into five pieces. I kicked the kindling away. That one done, I began again. Then I stopped. Someone was still watching me. It wasn’t the cameras. Being watched by them was like being stared at and then ignored as uninteresting.
No I was being observed. Closely and carefully. But not uncomfortably.
This time, I slipped and dropped the splitter mid swing. I turned right then left to catch whoever it was unawares. I saw nothing.
I felt her peer over my shoulder as I fell into the rhythm again. Pick up log, balance, pick up splitter, balance, pull back, let go, split log, split, split and kick kindling. Occasionally, I missed the mark, self-consciously. I would have to repeat the blow. Occasionally, too, I knocked the log over instead of straddling it. And steadfastly, I kept ignoring her.
And in the silence, her presence grew in my mind. I could see her curls, and hear her voice, even when she said nothing. I felt her read my thoughts, turn them over in her mind and read them back to me with another question. And slowly, the dawn crept through and the day began.
Much like the parent I wasn’t and had no intention of being, I more and more hoped that she would go away. Every so often, I would turn around to say it out loud. But I was deterred by the media presence.
I forced myself silent. I knew I would be thought mad muttering to myself in the middle of the bush away from my estranged wife.
And every single time I looked for her, she wasn’t there. She was enjoying this game I knew. She knew where I would move and what I would say before I did it. I senses that this knowledge would not be used maliciously, however, rather playfully and ultimately patiently. For she knew that I would come around. Every so often I would hear a giggle and then a stifled laugh. I knew that she knew. As she knew I knew.
“Who is she? A haunting?” I had heard stories like this. Lost children haunting the place where they had died, waiting for their parents to return. But at dawn? In front of witnesses?
I stopped splitting and looked across at the crew.
“What’s happening?” I asked. No-one replied. “See anything this morning?”
No reply, neither nod nor shake of the head. Maybe they haven’t seen anything. If they had they weren’t saying, they were professional like that. Besides I knew these questions would be edited out.
I still sensed her listening to me. Much like the child I really was, I decided to scrunch the bed covers over my face, hold them close and feign sleep until she left me. I really hoped that she would slip away and find something else to take her attention, as little girls are supposed to do. Well, as far as I knew anyway.
I continued. Pick up log, set it on the stump, scythe the splitter through wood and hope for sparks, kick the kindling away, dodge the odd shower of splinters, the rhythm continuous and all-encompassing despite the warming day and its hardening light.
In the silence between logs, I finally took my chance.
“Are you a fairy? A tree-nymph? A gumnut baby fleeing the evil banksia men?” The smile whispered into a giggle, then she laughed. At her giggle.
And while she looked over my shoulder, she beckoned the silence with more questions. “Who are you?” I asked (silently) in exasperation.
Her reply was familiar. “Why are you chopping wood here?”
“Instead of elsewhere,” was the implied thought I heard.
“Instead of where you’re supposed to be,” she thought at me finally.
I sensed that she was patient. And insistent. She knew I would answer her questions eventually. She seemed to have years to wait.
The sunrise rose above the green roof. And with it, the cold post-sunrise breeze washed over me like ice water. And then I knew where I was supposed to be and why.
I said, “Ella doesn’t want me anymore. I’m not in a fairy-tale anymore.”
But still her silence called to mine. She reached forward to take my hand.
I knew that I could send her away. But she would keep returning until I returned to her now pregnant mother.
The cameras kept rolling as I carried the kindling up to the house.
I like to talk to strangers. It’s fun. But my mum and dad don’t like it. They told me not to.
When I asked why, they said bad things could happen to me. When I asked what the bad things they wouldn’t tell me.
I didn’t like that. I kept doing it. They kept stopping me.
Then I found out how smart my mum and dad are. Everybody still tells me not to talk to strangers. Well almost everybody. Mum and Dad stopped telling me.
I still talk to strangers. I still like it. Strangers say funny things. I ask them questions. Sometimes they tell me stories.
Sometimes my mum and dad laugh too. When I’m grown up I’ll know how to talk to strangers when mum and dad aren’t around.