As a child I truly believed Mum and Dad were invincible; that they could make right anything that would possibly threaten my happiness. It was a total child-like faith that comes from absolute security. Even at school, my big brother’s less-than-perfect reputation kept me safe from any bullies! My family was my fortress.
I impulsively withdrew further down into the blankets, turning my back to the first rays of sunshine piercing even the carefully drawn drapes. A family of magpies warbled softly, melodically, somewhere close by. I rode their nostalgic song back through years of Saturday mornings, to those long-ago winter mornings when Dad coached the local football team. Mum would park the car under a stand of pines at one end of the oval, the ground beneath, a carpet of browning pine needles, a muted wonderland enveloped in the sharp tang of pine resin. I would slide up next to her on the leather bench seat of the car, the inky smell of the football record strong on my fingers. We waited in the warmth and silence for the siren to sound.
Tea and scones were served at half time on long tressle tables, from huge aluminium teapots, the steam rising into the cold winter air. An odd little old lady with almost clown-red hair was there every week, hoarsely barracking too loudly. She vaguely frightened me, her heavy make-up and cigarette-stained fingers, making her a theatrical figure in my young mind. It all replayed in my head, grainy and stilted, jumping from one scene to the next like an old movie. Even now I look forward to the football season, the murmurings of the crowd, and the predictable banter of the commentators cradling my mind in familiarity. I often wonder why so many parents think children need to be ever stimulated, constantly entertained. I think I would have found it quite threatening and unsettling. Mum always said that boredom fostered invention; all those split-level cardboard doll’s houses, and hours spent singing to the transistor radio on the backyard swing, are happy memories born of such boredom!
Every Friday night was fish and chip night, the smell lingering through most of Saturday morning. I sometimes had the pleasure of watching in fascination as the smiling Italian lady wrapped our order so meticulously, gracefully smoothing each layer of paper, sliding her brown hands along each fold with the care of swaddling a baby. We also welcomed a big bag of licorice all-sorts, with their tantalizing layers of yellow and black and pink. The simple joy and predictability of it all was my dear friend.
I listened to the world waking up around me, and suddenly felt overwhelmingly grateful for all I had. How I loved this house! It belonged to a time when meandering backyards were the norm, and the drone of the motor mower promised the sweet smell of cut grass. Ours sloped gently down to the ageing back fence, large enough to host a Hills Hoist, and a great oak tree, that scattered shiny acorns and crunchy brown leaves in a wide radius, much to the glory of my daughter’s childhood. Backyards are now sacrificed to high-density housing, and lazy Sundays to seven-days-a-week shopping. Each afternoon as the sun went down, it shone fractured light through the wall of windows, scattering precious gems of colour across the floor. The walls were lined in honey-coloured pine that held the illusion of warmth even on the coldest day. In the summer the backyard was a carpet of dandelions, providing an endless supply of childish bouquets and daisy chains, and in winter, a harvest of acorns hidden in the grass, smooth and caramel brown.
Summer was fast approaching now. It was like an audible throb in the air getting ever louder, a sense of excitement building. Or was it just the childhood memory of Christmas time, and six weeks of endless weekends! As a child it was a pilgrimage to the same camping spot at the beach, our beloved cousins on the neighbouring site. Watching Dad pack the trailer was a fascinating ritual. Skiffle boards, ice chests, canvas bags of tent poles were packed and repacked for the perfect balance. My brother and sister and I sat in the back seat of the car, cocooned between sleeping bags and pillows that physically contained our excitement. Ours was the last campsite on the grey sandy track, before it disappeared into a forest of tea trees, that would creak in the slightest breeze. As I lay here in my bed, eyes closed to the present, the blankets could have been that old green sleeping bag twisted around my small body. I could almost smell the canvas of the tents baking in the sun.
I floated amidst these childhood memories, almost feeling the lacey fingers of the seaweed beds that brushed my thighs as I floated above; the tantalizing unknown lurking just beneath the surface. The spectre of womanhood beckoned just a few short years away then. I felt its soft chords drawing me in the furtive glances of gawky boys, and the awkward self-consciousness when I walked the beach alone. But not Marion. Marion was my cousin; a year older, but a world wiser. She was like a mythical mermaid, fascinating every boy on the beach. I was fifteen the last summer we were to camp at our usual spot. Marion told all the boys we were twins, which I’m sure they found very hard to believe. I was small dark and freckly, she was tall with glossy auburn hair and creamy white skin. I’m sure she did it just to make me feel included. I never questioned her motives, just basked in her reflected glory. All the girls were trying so hard to get a suntan, but not Marion. It just made her appear all the more beautiful.
My skin was prickling from too much sun, my eyes stinging from the salt water, when I made my way back up the shaded track to the campsite. It was a muffled stillness amongst the trees, apart from a quiet murmuring that I somehow knew I probably shouldn’t interrupt. His dark hair was such a stark contrast to the white skin of Marion’s thighs. His hands rested on her hips, her arms flung behind her head, her auburn hair spread across the grey sand. I was mesmerized by the contrast of colours, the beauty, the accomplishment that was Marion.
My perfect childhood had crashed head on into the teenage years, that fairly quickly and inevitably avalanched into adulthood. I was eighteen when I met the boy I was to marry. Our life together was like the growth of a creeping vine; eighteen more years of climbing slowly around the solid shapes of our world, spiralling around eachother’s greenness. I felt safe again. When it all ended, I thought I would literally snap from the strain of unnatural directions. No ranting, no raving, just my heart silently breaking. It’s amazing that something so violent can be so invisible. It was then I became my daughter’s single-towered fortress against the world, and my only love became, in the words of James Taylor, “a well-known stranger”. (As she grew older, Jessica disrespectfully referred to her absent father as the “sperm donor”!)
The ensuing years slid by in the busyness of child-rearing, and making ends meet, with no time left for the luxury of a nervous breakdown, or for love it seemed. It eluded me, not that I went out of my way to find it. Only once did my world brush uncomfortably close to anothers.
When I met Amanda, I felt the tug of a kindred spirit, although outwardly we seemed hardly alike. We talked so easily, her free spirit reflected in the warmth and comfort of her loyalty. Dan was her husband. Her eyes would light up when he entered the room, the love and understanding between them made it impossible not to smile. That first summer they took me to their wysteria-covered holiday house by the sea. I’ll never forget that summer, when Dan swept away the last remnants of rejection that clung to my life, light as cobwebs, but deceptively strong. When I think of him now, I remember him at thirty-five, when men are at their most beautiful. I keep the perfect memory of his wild curly hair and brown eyes, and the beauty of his brown skin next to mine. Whenever I’ve seen him in these ensuing years, he still greets me with the same honest joy in his eyes. I think Amanda always knew our secret, although there was a silent agreement never to discuss it. I don’t believe our friendship could have survived otherwise, but I see the flicker of recognition in her eyes even now when I ask after him.
Work and family filled my life, and I became comfortable again. But as Jessie grew up and finally left home, time slowed down to become a constant companion. I’d forgotten how to spend my time, like a game I’d forgotten how to play, or a word I couldn’t recall…until now.
I never thought my heart would feel with such intensity again. I reached across to gently touch his hair, the fingers of morning sunlight gilding his auburn hair. He was still sleeping, his dark lashes resting on his cheeks, so clear and smooth beneath my fingers. My heart pounded with a distantly familiar joy, and I felt my lips stretch in an unbidden smile. His hand slowly came up to catch my fingers, and as his eyes opened to meet mine, he smiled too, so clearly happy to see me. I recognised something in his eyes I had seen before a long time ago, as if I’d known him all my life. We laughed together, rocking under the warmth of the covers as I pulled him gently into my arms. Oh yes, he had his mother’s eyes, my beautiful little man, my grandson!