It shocks them to discover the sun is not a thing of beauty. The mother and the boy venture outside and though it is morning, the heat thrashes their skin. Hats are pitiful protection – little wonder the locals don’t wear them.
They hurry back inside.
This house was built in the 80s and retains its orange lino kitchen and ineffectual fans. Concrete walls trap the humidity, making the mother feel as though she’s wading through broth. In the years she’s been away it seems the house has grown hotter. Bigger, too.
Her own mother – the boy’s babcia – senses her discomfort. The babcia fiddles with a dial on the wall, but the fan refuses to gain traction.
She says, ‘Everything in this house needs work. It’s too much for one person.’
The mother says, ‘Sit down, it’s fine.’
Come midday, the mother and the boy collapse on her childhood bed. The only way he can sleep is with his face pressed to hers. They lie like this, nose to nose, his arms circled around her neck while she inhales his mango-ripe breath and tries to intuit his dreams.
When she wakes, her limbs are sore from stillness and she tries to free herself from the boy. Gently, she lifts his arm and shifts away. His eyes snap open. He kicks off the sheets, heavy as sails, and cries, ‘No, no, no’. The mother tells him she is sorry.
They are like nocturnal frogs or bandicoots, their eyes unused to sunlight. In Melbourne, the days were dark, spent in a cramped living room, the whiff of damp nappies in the air. The mother and the boy soared the skies in make-believe planes and though they could have gone anywhere, he always wanted to go to Darwin. He turned it into two words: Dah Win, breathing its name to life with a touch of the toddler exotic. It was a place he knew from pictures. Internet-supplied images of crocodiles and terracotta cliffs. Sunsets of cartoonish proportions. And the orange-hued photo of herself, as a child, posing in her homemade swimsuit under a bougainvillea. The boy would point at the pictures and say, ‘We go. We go.’ She held him off with a word suspended in time: ‘soon’. She promised: ‘Soon, I’ll take you. Soon I’ll show you where I grew up.’ She hadn’t been back for a few years, not since the funeral. A day of muggy heat and a sky that darkened with promise. She remembers a flash of lightning, but the rain never came.
Now they are in Darwin, the boy is incredulous. He keeps asking, ‘But when we go to Dah Win?’
‘This is it,’ she tells him each time, making a sweeping gesture with her hand. ‘This is it,’ she says, though she can hardly believe it.
Bringing the boy here is like trying to transplant a freesia or a sweet pea into the torrid northern soil. The boy wilts. He is irascible and quick to tears, by turns hyperactive, then listless. The babcia has a solution: TV. She says to the mother, ‘You used to love Sesame Street when we came to Australia. I watched it with you. That’s how we learned English.’ The mother pictures it, her boy sitting on the lino floor, head craned towards the screen. Even turned off, it lures her with its siren call: take a break, take a break, take a break. But back in Melbourne the maternal health nurse terrified her with stories of television-fuelled toddlers who, when their parents cut off their supply, become angry as ice addicts. She says no.
They circle through the suburbs, driven by the babcia in her Mazda (which, despite years in the sun, remains an undaunted shade of yellow). Their tour has been inspired, not by a particular desire to see anything, but by the respite offered by the car’s air-conditioning.
As they cruise through Wulagi the babcia says, ‘Want to visit one of your old friends?’
The mother says, ‘I don’t know anyone here anymore.’ She’d left for uni when she was seventeen. The choice, at the time, seemed so clear: get out or get knocked up.
In the back of the car, the boy, exhausted, starts to grizzle. The mother loosens her seatbelt from her chest and manoeuvres around, slips a dummy into his mouth. He sucks noisily, blinks, and closes his eyes.
If he was older she would tell him this: behind the city that goes by the name of Darwin there is another one, a phantom city. As they drive, it reveals itself by the Anula Park oval, where the most beautiful girl in her school once forced another girl’s head inside a Sportsgirl bag. Pulled the drawstring tight around the girl’s neck and tied it in a double knot while everyone else watched and laughed. It’s over there, at the high school in Casuarina where the teachers, less fettered by curriculum than today, offered lessons in socialism, Shakespeare, and how to handle a stop-and-search by the police.
It lingers in the park where she used to stroll with her father whenever she came home, her on foot, him in his wheelchair, neither of them talking much, surrounded by the hum of late afternoon traffic and bush turkeys scratching in the scrub.
The front room of the house, which used to be her father’s study, has been transformed into a playroom for the boy. It is filled with toys from the local op shop, all carefully cleaned by the babcia. The boy isn’t used to having so many things. He launches his body around the room like a pinball, frantically pushing the rocking horse before tipping over a box filled with vehicles and planes. When the babcia pops her head into the room she laughs at the plastic scattered on the floor. She says, ‘Thank you for the chaos, little one. That’s just what we need around here.’
With a truck in each hand, the boy scampers around the room, his nappy so heavy it sags. The mother lifts him onto the large oak desk. This is where her father, a Buddhist, used to practise his Sanskrit. He sat for hours at this desk, dipping his fountain pen in a pot of black ink before etching calligraphic letters in his notebooks, prayers no-one else could understand.
Now the mother rests her hand on the boy’s stomach, holding him in place on the slab of oak while she rummages for a clean nappy. She pictures traces of prayers, in letters opulent and refined, imprinted on his Melbourne skin.
A collage decorates the wall of the boy’s playroom, made by the mother on one of her previous visits home. When her father became ill she started taking pictures of him, snapping him while he sat on the veranda drinking jasmine tea, or while they were strolling by Nightcliff beach. Soon she had enough images to fill the equivalent of a couple of old-fashioned rolls of film. She had them printed and turned them into a collage. In the photos her father is gaunt, unwell, gamely smiling.
The collage is in her line of sight as she unpacks nappies on the oak desk. Looking at it now, she would like to burn it. What possessed her to give him this gift, a patchwork of images of a dying man?
Grief, she realises now, is a form of impairment.
When the boy was twenty weeks’ old, hidden inside the mother’s belly, she went for an ultrasound. In the doctor’s office she removed her scarf and coat and lay on her back, her breaths heavy with the weight of her growing organs (uterus, placenta) and the weight of the boy’s own body. On a screen fitted to the top corner of the consulting room, she saw the amphibian-like creature inside her. She saw him kicking. She saw him sucking his tiny thumb. Then, superimposed on the black and white image appeared splotches of red and blue, like a cyclone warning.
She didn’t think of it again until the boy was born and each simple task (sterilising bottles, folding clothes) took on the magnitude of cleaning up after a tropical storm. It was more than just exhaustion. Everyone told her that when she had a baby she would be flooded with love. What they didn’t tell her was that life’s traumas would resurface too.
Their days in Darwin are structured around the search for coolness. ‘Let’s go to The Roma Bar,’ the babcia says this morning. ‘Treat ourselves.’
A damp facecloth in her hand, the mother pats down her son’s prickly-rashed skin. ‘I thought it was gone.’
‘It’s still around,’ the babcia says. ‘It’s just different.’
They drive to the city centre and score a park on Cavenagh Street. The mother wrestles the boy out of his safety seat and, with her free hand, shields his face from the sun as she rushes him to the shop awnings. The Roma Bar should be here, between the Indonesian takeaway and the hippy clothes shop. In its place is a backpacker travel agency advertising tours for The Red Centre. ‘It is gone,’ she says to the babcia, who is catching up. The boy’s skin is already damp and he whimpers.
The babcia points to the other side of the road. ‘They moved it.’ She leads them across the traffic and into a café that looks like an operating theatre, with surfaces of polished steel and glass. The babcia says, ‘I told you it was different. Anyway, who cares? It’s air-conditioned.’
They sit by a window overlooking the palm-lined street. The café is hushed, scattered with people in collared shirts who read newspapers or stare at their screens. The boy is getting rowdy and they occupy him with sugar: a babycino and a smartie-covered biscuit as big as his head.
‘Remember your father used to bring you here on your birthdays for a hot chocolate?’ the babcia asks. ‘Well, not here, exactly.’ She nods to the window. ‘Over there.’
The boy picks up a knife and starts licking it.
‘Stop.’ The mother frees the knife from his fist.
The window offers a view of the place where the real Roma Bar should be. Though she hasn’t been there for years, she can picture it. Plywood walls crammed with screen-printed posters demanding land rights, safe abortion and better pay for nurses. In the middle of these, a tea-towel showing children in a playground and the caption: It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. The café always clattered with noise: coffee machines whistling and waitresses shouting orders.
Dishes, laden with crepes, plonked onto tables. Coffee-stained cups washed by hand. Mostly the place was filled with local lefties: women in sarongs and wooden earrings, and men in batik shirts unbuttoned to reveal their fleshy bellies. She and her father always sat at the same table, by the huge, heat-warped poster of a palm tree on a tropical island. Amid the noise, the gaps in their conversation didn’t seem to matter. Looking back, she realises she should have been bolder; she should have besieged him with questions about himself, while there was still time.
Now, the babcia is teasing the boy, pretending to devour the last of his biscuit. He informs her that sugar is a sometimes food and snatches back his treat.
The babcia says, ‘Who would have thought one day we’d be sitting here with your little baby? You always said motherhood wasn’t for you.
How did you put it?’ In a voice that is almost falsetto, she says, ‘There’s no way I’m becoming a domestic drudge.’
The mother scrapes some crumbs off the table into the palm of her hand. ‘Did I really say that? God, what a wanker.’
The babcia laughs and cups her hand under the boy’s chin. She tells him, ‘You have your grandfather’s eyes. Grey, sometimes blue.’
Outside on the street, office workers walk in twos or threes, clutching takeaway sandwiches and sushi. They are hatless, smiling, and filled with purpose.
The playroom is the one place in the house where the boy is happy. It is cooler than the other rooms, facing, as it does, away from the sun. The boy and his mother sit on the floor, zooming his plastic planes through the air. She lands one on the desk, on a runway lined with nappies.
Towards the end of his illness, her father stopped studying. Sanskrit was replaced by a fixation with babies. He wanted to know when she was going to have a child. Convinced she never would, she kept her answer vague. ‘Soon enough,’ she said. Followed by, ‘Why don’t we go sit outside?’
When he died, she wondered if she’d got it all wrong.
For a long time she didn’t have a word for it. Then she learned Hannah Arendt did. Natality. What gives meaning to life, Arendt said, is not death. What gives it meaning is new life. The birth of ideas, art, people and trees – this is what sustains us.
The boy now abandons his plane and climbs onto his rocking horse. ‘Push,’ he orders, and the mother prompts him with a please. He grips the wooden handles with his fists; at the base of his fingers are small indents that, with time, will protrude into knuckles. She rocks him beneath the collage. If she’d got pregnant sooner, she could have brought her child here to meet her father. But then she would have lost the chance to have this child, this wilful boy who obliterates her with his beauty.
On their last day in Darwin the sky turns black. The sense of want, hanging in the air, is magnetic. The neighbour’s dog rouses itself from the veranda and staggers down the street, whimpering. Finches squawk in the trees. The smell of the almost-rain makes the boy frantic. He runs in circles while the mother paces under the dark clouds, waiting. Thunder rolls from one end of the sky towards the other, and is so loud, so tangible, they can almost see it. The boy screams – he’s never heard anything so loud. The mother scoops him up and kisses him. ‘It’s alright.’
The thunder booms again. The boy crushes his face against her chest and braces his head with his hands. Then it comes. The rain spills, each drop so abundant it could fill the palm of an adult’s hand. The boy cranes his head towards the sky. The mother lowers him to the warm bricks. He stands in his nappy, arms outstretched to the heavens as though he has manifested the rain from his own small body.
Just then the frogs begin to sing, a discordance of bleats, each note competing with the other, producing a song louder than thunder, a hymn to all that is brutal and true.
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