I wrote this story on a camping trip in Sawtell a couple of years ago. It recently came third in the Writers of the Coral Coast Short Story Competition
Who does he see when he looks at me? Does he see the girl I am inside or the actress played by an older woman? Someone middle-aged who scrubs up well. I am his mother. I make his lunch, buy his shoes and all I want him to do is tidy his room and not get in the back of his mate, Declan’s car.
I’m not old but I’m on the conveyer belt that takes you there. Options are few now and I can’t get off. My age has gone beyond the median point, it stretches out before me and I can see how short it is now, how insignificant. How one day I will slowly fade to dust. One cough from a careless bystander and even the dust will disappear.
Graeme and I share a bottle of wine at the end of another day. Billy’s music throbs behind a slammed door. Does he know that 20-odd years ago I saw the band he’s listening to now, in London with a man who had hair down to his waist. A man who isn’t his father. What would he think of that?
“Graeme, do you ever feel scared that time’s running out?”
My husband smiles. “No, love. You know me, I try to concentrate on the now.”
“Sometimes I can’t breathe properly, thinking about not being here. Billy going on with his life without a mother.”
Graeme looks at me, his face serious for once. “He’s in year 12 and you won’t always be here, Jo. One day the sun will come up and you won’t be here to see it.”
“I know, I’m a control freak. I won’t ever let go.” I laugh but there’s fear underlying it.
When I was seven I would wake screaming, calling out for my mum. “I don’t want to die.” I would wail into the night. Mum would brush the sheets distractedly, she wouldn’t even sit on my bed. “Think of something nice, Joanne. Think of Christmas and all the presents you’ll get.”
And I knew. I knew that she was frightened too. I watched it in her death mask, as she slipped away years later, still sniping and complaining. Raising a child on her own was hard but Kaitlin Young found nothing easy. In the end I held her thin, cold hand in the hospital, trying not to crush her bird-like bones. She was in her late fifties, perhaps she would have lived longer if she hadn’t given into fear. “You can’t do yoga, Joanne. It’ll send you mad.” “Don’t be late, I can’t sleep until you’re home.” I remember her brushing my hair roughly as her sobs ripped and grated. I had been caught stealing chewing gum and mum had read in a tabloid newspaper about a child who had started her criminal career with petty theft and gone onto murder. I thought she was mad but am I any different? I’m starting to develop an oval look to my mouth, like I’m channeling Edvard Munch. I inherited that from her, that and frizzy hair.
I remember Billy as a small boy, three years old, how beautiful he was. The best time of all, we were each other’s world. I miss that fair haired child with a grief that’s overwhelming. My big boy is drifting away and the more I try to bridge the gap, the more he steps back. And I become sniping and demanding, trying to mould his life when I have no right.
Graeme suggests we take a trip, get away for a few days, drive south. He knows I love the landscape, the cliffs and beaches, little coves.
“Billy has exams, you know that.”
“I meant the two of us. Billy needs his space, Jo.”
I know he means Billy needs his space away from me and he’s right. I’m like a dried-up ancient woman sucking away at his life force. I have become my mother. “Sit with me, Joanne. Tell me what you’ve been doing.” I’d slam the door behind me. A chat with my mother sapped my joy, made everything greyer.
I stand in the kitchen, stirring the sugar in my tea when my son’s shadow reaches the floor, almost touching my feet. It stops, falters. He knows I’m here. “Do you want something to eat, Billy?”
I hear his retreat like air escaping from a balloon. My attempts at mothering flop empty on the kitchen tiles. He doesn’t need me anymore. But he is the bookend between me and my mortality. Graeme laughs at me, he finds my preoccupation with death endearing. He can’t see the shadows, fingers of fear that live on inside of me, in the womb where Billy nestled a long time ago.
We pack the two-man tent, the one only Graeme can put up. I sort out some groceries hoping we’ll eat out. I’m not an outdoors sort of woman. We have a deal, Graeme and I, he does the lawns, windows, water tanks and the swimming pool while I have my interior decoration, cooking and laundry. When he’s to be found covered in grime and sweat replacing pumps and washers, gaskets and air filters, I’ll be on the lounge, drinking coffee, my head in a Margaret Atwood. The thought of living outside, if only for a few days, has panic rising inside me. I can’t remember the last time I spent any time outdoors. In my house-car-shopping mall days.
Graeme pats me on the bum to signal it’s time to leave. Billy is still sleeping. It’s Saturday, no school.
“Don’t worry, love. He’ll be fine. I told him to go to Ruth’s if he needs anything.”
My sister has six kids and can’t wait for them to leave home.
“He’ll be fine.” Graeme rubs my hand as we drive south on the highway. Graeme says that Billy’s a normal boy, attempting to untangle himself from the jaws of his family, into the world. A vision of a mother rabbit eating her young flashes behind my eyes. I look out of the car onto greens, blues and browns. Nature’s palate is not a broad one. I love those paintings where the artists have picked out reds, pinks and oranges. Their eyes catching unseen shades as if some colours have died and the painter is flirting with their ghosts. Graeme asks what I’m thinking but I don’t know how to explain about the colours to him. Billy would know, at least a year or two ago he would have. Now he can’t share a room with me, let alone a thought.
“Shall we pick up a coffee, Babe?”
I nod and am aware how feeble I am. Graeme puts so much into our relationship, without asking for much in return. We continue our journey down the highway, driving south to cooler climes and sipping our long blacks. The weight that has anchored my chest for weeks lifts slightly. The breeze rustles through the trees and speaks to me through the open window, as if the words, spoken in tiny fragments, bristle the leaves. My breath deepens and fills my chest. After weeks of wasp-like gulping breaths my body feels as if it’s being fed. I smile at Graeme, who smiles back as always.
“You look beautiful, Jo.”
Graeme has booked a campsite by the ocean. Rocky cliffs and ever-changing tides. Slate grey clouds float on a rosy backdrop. By the time Graeme has pitched our tent I have made a modest meal of salmon and crunchy lettuce. We sit in our camp chairs and clink our frosted wine glasses together. I sense something moving in me, not gone but wandering into another room. Maybe there is a life for me and Graeme after Billy has moved out. Giddy with a hint of a way forward and the wine I sigh.
“I love you, Graeme.”
Graeme smiles. “I know you do, sweetheart.” He clasps my hand as the weather changes and droplets splash into our wine glasses. And I can’t tell my tears of relief from the rain that washes the past away under a southern sky.
A couple of mornings later, as Graeme takes down the tent and I watch the tide draw towards the horizon, I’m still frightened. Of Billy growing away from me and my inevitable death but I have made a decision. Not to control, not to grasp onto time that runs like grains of sand through my hands. To respect my fear as if it were a surging ocean and know that tomorrow grey may turn to blue.