IF IT KEEPS ON RAINING…

The rain is coming down. Heavy, then moderately, lightly. But always there, like a tapping on the head from a playground bully. This morning we went out for food supplies to last us until next payday. Roads get cut off around these parts when the rain falls day and night. Especially after months of drought. 

Three days ago we complained of soaring temperatures and brown grass which crackled under foot. The dam was so low our pump could no longer do its job and send water up to our top tank. The water in the tank that runs our toilet, the water that waters our veggies and flowers. And we were traveling north – a camping trip. The last hurrah before term starts. The toilet was in pieces as we packed up the camping stuff and the flowers were turning to dust. 

Next morning a light rain was falling. The plants would be saved! We were traveling north to Bargara near Bundaberg. Cylcone Oswald was giving Cairns a bit of a going over, Gladstone too. 80mm of rain in Bundaberg was mentioned. It didn’t sound a lot. 

The husband came in, covered in his waterproofs. Son No.1  and me (the reluctant campers) were in the kitchen. “You sure you two still want to go?” We laughed, ha-ha-ha – just like that Peter Sarstedt song. “Yes”, we said, beaming. “We like an adventure.” 

It rained lightly all the way up there. Nothing very alarming. The sort of rain that curls my hair horribly. The sort of rain that you could slip on if you ran on the concrete at servos.  But Bundaberg is flat, it’s where they grow a lot of sugar cane. For the famous rum. The sides of the roads were flowing with enormous puddles which lapped tantalisingly, metres from the road. 

We cancelled our campsite booking and booked into a motel. We shuffled around the local area in acres of waterproofing, looking for somewhere to eat that night. A lovely restaurant on the front. The plastic awning was firmly held down. I devoured my oysters with smoked salmon and caviar watching the surging sea. The violent swaying of palm trees. It looked delightful this side of the plastic, drinking bubbles and dining on seafood. 

I was woken at 2am by Son No.1 calling for the dog, who was safely tucked up in kennels several hundred kilometers south. For the rest of the night I lay listening to wild winds and hammering rains. I dozed off at 5am only to be woken by the husband. “If we don’t get out of here now we might get stuck.” 

Stuck in a motel room, metres from a growling sea. Living on frightened fish and local rum. Mmmmmm. 

We drove home in driving rain to more of the same. 

Food and wine, some decent telly, a fab book about MI5. Trouble is the kids want me to join in the Chilver-Family-Wii Tournament. Not easy for a girl with no hand to ball coordination, well coordination at all and absolutely no competitive streak. You never know. I used to be pretty good at ‘Risk’.

Then the news. A tornado had ripped through that lovely little town of Bargara. Many injuries and houses badly damaged. We all watched in shock at the streets on the television where we had wandered cagooled-up only the the day before last. I thought of the young and friendly waitresses who had made our evening there so special. Our thoughts were with them, the locals and the holidaymakers who had decided to stay on. 

Fast forward a day. I’ve been kept awake all night by wind lashing the hundreds of trees which surround our house and rain. Constant, heavy, on-a-mission rain. Our land takes the runoff from 300m metres of road. It cascades in three spots like waterfalls. Only now it’s not cascading. It’s pumping it out like it means it. Flood waters rush in several directions cutting off the washing line and looking dangerously near to my car. 

My boys were surfing on the gulley only yesterday, when the water came up to their ankles. Now they would surely be washed away on a dangerous current, in water knee deep or worse, to one of our dams. The dam that was too low to fill our tank only days ago and is now overflowing. 

Apparently our little town had the highest rainfall on the coast last night. I know, I listened to all 177mm of it.

Those surfie boys of mine are today frantically sweeping water away from our house. The husband is making himself useful by filming it. And me. Well I’m writing my blog. 

SEE BELOW FOR THE HUSBAND’S FOOTAGE OF OUR WET WEEKEND

http://youtu.be/nByS0R0IxL0

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DADDY, MUMMY AND BABY MAKES THREE

I order a coffee from the woman behind the counter. Wooden tables have replaced the dirty yellow formica and ceramic tiles have been laid on top of lino of the 60s and 70s. I didn’t think the café, a favourite haunt of Mum and Auntie Annie’s, would still be here. I sit waiting and remember another table.

Teatime, Mother fried chops to go with mashed potatoes, which are usually lumpy with too much margarine, and tinned peas. I am doing my homework although how my brain works on this kind of food surprises me. I have taken over a part of the formica topped table in the middle of the kitchen which annoys her.

“Mary! Have you finished? The table wants setting.”

My mother, Audrey, wears an apron over a thick shapeless grey dress. The sort of dress which should have been prison regulation The apron is the only bright thing about her. I made it in needlework class with lots of help from Mrs Beale who said I wasn’t a natural needlewoman. I chose orange as it is a happy colour.

Mother doesn’t look happy. The bright orange apron tied over the awful dress, two spots of pink appear on her cheeks. A hand pushes unwashed hair back from her forehead as the other one turns the chops with a fish slice. Three chops. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. A little rhyme Daddy used to say. That’s who we are waiting for, Daddy. Neither of us says it out loud. The big hand of the kitchen clock moves in small jerks towards the six at the bottom, which makes it half past. He’s home at the latest by quarter past usually.

Mother arranges the table mats and the cruet set around my books. We exchange a look. Mine curious, hers daring me to ask. I don’t. She sits down and smokes a cigarette still pushing back her greasy hair.

“I like that apron on you, Mum.”

“Get away with you”. She looks cross but when she gets up to check the chops she bends down and kisses my head.

Mother always has things to do. Gilly’s mum reads stories to her. They spend hours reading after school. Sometimes her mum forgets to put the dinner on, so immersed in fairy tales they are; Arabian Nights and The Shoemaker and his Elves. Our dinner is always on time, 6.15pm sharp. When I came home from school Mother was already peeling spuds with her pink rubber gloves on. Strange that someone so set on hygiene should smoke so much. And in the kitchen too. Her index and ring fingers on her right hand are a rusty colour like her skin had leaked something poisonous.

Linda’s mum works in a shop so she goes there after school. She talks to the kids of the ladies who shop there. Her dad works away a lot, selling things. Linda and her mum are like sisters, they’re that close.

I look at my mum. Harassed that her routine has been disrupted, washing down bench tops that already gleam. She doesn’t go in for conversation, even with Daddy. They don’t talk or laugh or tell each other jokes. When I went to Gilly’s on the weekend her mum laughs and says. “Oh, stop Gerald! I’ll wet my knickers I will”

Mother waited until the big hand clicked into place, seven o’clock. Time to serve the chops. She laid three plates on the kitchen table. One for Daddy, one for Mummy and baby makes three. She didn’t recite the rhyme, only Daddy ever did that. Mother was silent, a busy silent. I imagined the room was filled with those speech bubbles with different comments written in them, with none of them attached to Mother’s lips. They just floated around, putting different ideas in my head.

Mother brought the blackened fry pan to the table and plonked each chop on a different plate. I look up, she looks down, her eyes still daring me to say something. I say nothing. Mother dumped and ladled the vegetables next to the chops and gave the nod to start eating.

She removed the orange apron and hung it up on the hook Daddy had screwed into the wall. She seemed to disappear into the drabness of her dress. Perhaps that’s why Daddy hadn’t come home, he couldn’t see her. But what about me? Surely he could see me.

I saw through the pale meat. I don’t think it will have much taste left now, I’d better eat it though, Mother went to a lot of trouble cooking and what with Daddy being late. My mind sorted through the possibilities. Had he been in an accident? We didn’t have a car but Daddy could have been mown down by a maniac who veered off the road and mounted the pavement. I stopped eating to consider this. I liked the word maniac, as I liked the word berserk but I didn’t like to think of my Daddy mown down.

Or he could have got into a fight with one of the customers who came into the printers where he worked. Daddy worked in the office which meant he wore a tie to work. I was very proud of this. I even learnt to tie his tie myself so I could help him in the mornings. Daddy pretended not to know how to tie his tie and I pretended not to know that he was pretending. I especially like the dark yellow tie with criss-cross patterns. Most of the children in my class, their daddy’s wear overalls to work. Some didn’t even have daddies, imagine that.

I watch my mother, her blank face. I’ve heard people say about wiping the smile off their faces. Mother had wiped hers off forever. Her eyes stared straight ahead as she chewed each piece of meat many times before swallowing it. Even the gristle. Sometimes I’d watch her in the mornings when I was tying Daddy’s tie, in the reflection of the mirror on the wardrobe. Standing there looking like she wanted to say something, to join in but she always walks away silently, as if she had never been there at all.

Where was my Daddy? I wanted to yell out the question burning a hole in my brain but I had a feeling Mother didn’t know either. I couldn’t read the expression on her face as she didn’t hold with expressions, but I could feel the disappointment.

Aliens. Maybe Daddy had been taken by aliens. That would be it. Daddy was interesting enough to be taken by aliens, for their experiments. He read books, not magazines like mother. “Mary, would you look at all these books!” My Daddy would stand in the good room, sweeping his arm like an actor in a play. He’d nod and tap a finger on the side of his nose. “That’s the secret, pumpkin. Broaden your horizons. The pen is mightier than the sword.”

He’d pick me up and twirl me around the room. I liked that. It made me feel dizzy and loved at the same time. I didn’t know what horizons were apart from that line you watched between the sea and the sky, when you didn’t want to be sea-sick. And as for pens being mightier than swords I wasn’t sure that could be right. All those bic biros Daddy bought home from work and I’d seen a real sword on the telly, rusty but looking mightier than an old biro, especially one that leaked in your top pocket. And you wouldn’t lose a sword down the back of the couch.

But Rory Baxter said aliens didn’t exist, his brother Martin said so. Anyway I didn’t want aliens to take my Dad. What about the time difference. Half an hour for them could be like a hundred years for us. And I couldn’t see me living until one hundred and eight. Well, maybe if I gave up ice cream and played more sport. No. It wasn’t aliens.

“Eat your dinner Mary. Don’t let it go cold.”

My mother’s voice finally hooks up to one of those speech bubbles. I look into her eyes, her eyes were grey like mine. It was like seeing a sadder, older me staring back.

Later, as we wash the dishes; Mother washing, me wiping because I miss bits, I look at her again. A tear escapes down my cheek and I feel my lips start to wobble.

“Don’t you give me one of your soppy looks, Mary Shaunessy. I don’t know any more than you do.”

“But couldn’t you go down to Preston’s, see if he had to work late?”

“The Prince Alfred, I shouldn’t wonder.” Mother’s lips tightened, pursing like the rubber thing we push our tea towels into.

“I’ll go.”

“Oh you will, will ya? I’ve never chased after a man in my life, my girl. I don’t suggest you do either.”

“Mother. It’s important.”

She put her hands on my shoulders and attempted a kind face.

“This is grown-up stuff, Mary. Don’t you be worrying about it.”

But I did worry about it. Daddy didn’t come home that night, or the next. I even went into the police station on my way home from school. Constable Reed, who was on the front desk, wrote down stuff, the particulars, but he had an odd look about him. Half-arsed Daddy would have said.

The days dragged by as if they had drawn to a stop altogether. I didn’t mention it to Gilly or Linda at school, they had been my best friends since start of primary but I felt ashamed. I wasn’t good enough for my Daddy to come home and I didn’t want to talk about it. About three weeks later as I crept into the house after school, I heard voices from the good room.

“Oh, Josie. What am I gonna do?”

“Audrey, I could skin him. My own brother. Going off with that Annie Taylor. Shameful it is.”

Annie Taylor? Aunt Annie. She wasn’t my real auntie, like Auntie Josie, but she had been friends with mum for years. They went to see films and had coffee in town sometimes. During the school holidays she dragged me along. Auntie Annie had a little girl, about seven, Rita. She always had a snotty nose and she never said a word. What would my Dad be doing with Auntie Annie? I dropped my satchel to the floor. It made a thump noise.

“Mary? Is that you?” I couldn’t speak.

“Oh bloody hell, Audrey! Do you think she heard me? God, I’m sorry.”

Mum came through to the hallway where I stood, at the bottom of the stairs. I had turned on the waterworks as my Dad would have said, if he’d been here. If he’d been here I wouldn’t be crying though.

“Oh, Mary! I’m sorry. I know it’s hard and that you miss your Daddy but I’m sure he’ll get in touch with you love. You know he loves you. It’s me he has the problem with.”

She put her cheek on my cheek. I could feel a flame burn under my skin. Mother took me up to my bed and put me under the covers, fully dressed. I slept for hours and when I woke up she didn’t make me eat my dinner. She made me cheese sandwiches which I love. She sat on my bed, quite suddenly, the look on her face as if she was as startled as I was to see her there. Her head bent, she struggled to speak, in panic and gasping for breath, like when you swim in the deep end and you can’t reach the side.

“My mother died the year I turned ten, ill for months, lying in her bed and us kids thinking she couldn’t be bothered. We weren’t told that she had cancer. One day she wasn’t there when I got home from school. My dad sat in his threadbare armchair by the fire and drank. Alcohol I mean, Mary. He was an alcoholic, do you know what that means?”

I nodded. I knew she was trying to make me feel better but it didn’t work like that. She’d had a hard life but it didn’t make things any easier for me knowing that. All the time she spoke I thought of my dad. Not in an accident or taken by aliens. In a seaside hotel maybe, with Auntie Annie and snotty Rita. Twirling Rita around so she felt dizzy and loved, letting her tie his tie when he wore one. I couldn’t feel anything, as if I was made of plastic. Auntie Annie with her bright tight clothing and her yellow hair, smelling of perfume and wearing pointy shoes.

We had a shoe box in which we put all the photos before putting them in albums, but no one got around to doing it. At home I spent all my time in those shoe boxes, looking for photos of my Dad, for a sign in his face that he planned to leave us. A wistful glance or a sad face. Ordinary family snaps, on the beach, at the shows and in the back yard. One day I came home from school and Mother wasn’t in the house. I panicked, running through to each room twice before I noticed the back door open. Mother stood over a pile of wood and grass, putting clothes on top. Dad’s clothes. We didn’t speak as she lit a match and threw it into the bottom of the pile. I had already rescued the dark yellow tie with the criss-cross pattern. I had it under my pillow. It made me dream of Dad so at least I got to see him sometimes.

A week or two later I received a postcard from the seaside, in my Dad’s writing. He didn’t say much, didn’t mention Auntie Annie or Rita. He told me about the big ships which sat on the horizon and the fish he’d caught. He finished by saying he’d be seeing me.

A few weeks after that he drove up, unannounced, in a car. Dad said it was an Austin, red with spots of rust. Excited and happy I jumped into his arms as Mother stood on the doorstep, smoking a cigarette.

“See you passed your test, Dennis.” Her eyes narrowed.

“Yes, Audrey. How else was I to see my little girl? You’ve been getting the money I sent?” Dad looked tired and pale. I wasn’t sure if Auntie Annie knew how to cook.

“Oh yes. I’ve been getting it. Make sure Mary’s not late for her dinner.” And with that the door slammed.

Dad shrugged and smiled at me. Picked me up and twirled me round but it didn’t feel the same. He took me for a drive in the country then to a cafe in the town where he bought me a chocolate shake and two jelly snakes.

“This is the café Mother and Auntie Annie used to come to.”

Dad reddened, his lips straightening into a thin line. “I know it’s difficult, Mary but you’ll understand one day.”

I nod but in my head I wished those aliens had taken him. It would have been easier that way. Nothing would ever be the same now. It hadn’t occurred to me that my Daddy would disappear one day and if he did that it would be because he had chosen another family to be in.

He only came to see me a couple times after that. A few years later my real Auntie Josie told Mum and me that Dad and Auntie Annie had had a baby. A boy, Dennis, after my dad. I finished high school and got a job in the city, left Mum the same as my Dad had. We were never close. Dad leaving hadn’t bridged that gap.

I see her now and then over the years and as I got older I understood how painful it had been for her, but Mum being Mum she just couldn’t show it.

I sit at the table with my coffee. The dregs cold, undrinkable. I still wait. The door opens and an icy draught blows in from the street.

“Mary, love. Are you okay?”

Yes, darling. I’m fine.” I look into the eyes of my husband. Ben and Jess stand behind him, obscured by the bunch of flowers they are holding, lilies. Orange; a happy colour.

“Mummy! Mummy! Can we have a milk shake?”

“Yes, kids. Then we’ll go to see Granny, hey?”

DRY RUN FOR THE EMPTY NEST

This week I put my boys on a plane for New Zealand. It’s their annual trip to visit their Grandma, Auntie and Uncle. From here that’s a three hour flight. They’re away for a whole week. They were excited but a little nervous. I waved them off with an over-optimistic smile while my stomach lurched and rolled.

The house is silent. Apart from the tapping of computer keys in my husband’s office. The heat is oppressive and hangs in clumps, distant birds call reluctantly. No cries of ‘Mum! Where’s my red t-shirt with the dog on it?’. ‘Can we play on the Wii?’ ‘Will you read me a story?’ No one needs me. Those cries remain, echoing through my head, stripped violently from the airwaves. I can still hear them.

The husband doesn’t notice. Doesn’t say anything. He likes the peace. He misses them but he’s not pining.

Is this what it’s going to be like in five, eight, ten years time? Just us aging parents and a dog once loved by children. The bathroom floor clear of wet towels and swimmers. No squabbling. No endless chatter. Like now.

A mini-break by the sea. Listing on the sand, swimming in the ocean and the river. A perfectly grown-up dinner. Lying on the strange bed under a different fan. Breakfast then home to our empty house. Means we took advantage, didn’t waste our time as a couple while the boys were hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Best not think about distance. Day 3. Time rolls on but distance stays the same. For now.

We hear from the family, the boys are having fun. I’ve heard it said that when their kids are away parents feel younger, energised and free. Not me. I feel older. Are there extra lines on my dehydrated face or do I just have more time to stare at them? I had no idea when I yearned for a baby quite how my life would change. How terrified I could be of school camps and journeys they took in other people’s cars. It all started with my head lying on a sleeping baby’s chest. Checking he was still breathing. Who knew that the child that kept you awake with snorting and mewling could then become so quiet, just as you drifted off to sleep.

And the happiness I would feel as my bright eyed toddler negotiated around the furniture. Surely he was the most beautiful baby in the known world. Christmas faces glowing, grubby mud pie cheeks. Their first taste of ice cream. They haven’t even seen the snow yet as they clock up another school year in what appears to be a matter of months.

Bring home your dirty washing, your unaccompanied minor tags like Paddington Bear. Sing out of tune and tell stories in real time. And stay.