Monday, May 10, 2010

10. If you find yourself heading down a very steep hill, you've gone too far

Walking up the road to get cinnamon and buttermilk to bake a cake, when the phone rang.

It was going to be Divine Ginger Cake with Caramel Icing. The recipe was in the lift-out book my mother had found in her Women’s Weekly magazine. ‘Make that for me one day,’ she said, pointing to the picture of Divine Ginger Cake when she gave me the recipe book.

So I was going to make it, but walking up the road to the shops, my phone rang and it was my mother. ‘The picnic time has changed,’ she said, ‘now it’s at 11.30.’ I looked at my watch, and it was 11.15. So no cake.

My sisters and their husbands and small children, and my brother and his pregnant wife, all around a table for our Mothers' Day picnic yesterday. Fenced-in playground on the left, tennis courts to the right, soccer fields all around us.

‘It’s the park where you used to play tennis,’ Mum told me on the phone, ‘with that boyfriend you had, years and years go,’ and she said his name.

‘It’ll come back to you,’ she said, ‘as you drive,’ and she gave me directions, in the vivid way she has, second right into Cook Street, cook like the chef, and you’ll pass a school and a post office, the leaves are changing colours there, and the park’s on Park, which is appropriate, isn’t it, she said.

He was a good tennis player, that boyfriend from years and years ago, with a swift, sharp serve. We played at night, the lights too dim, tennis balls lost in shadows.

‘If you start to head down a very steep hill,’ said Mum, ‘you’ve gone too far.’

I turned off just before the very steep hill and found the park, the tennis courts, football fields, family, children playing in the playground.

He’s a facebook friend now, that boyfriend, but we’ve never caught up. I mean, there has never been any: ‘How the heck are ya, whatcha been up to these last twenty years anyhow?’ I think it has been twenty years. Yes. It has.

He sent me a friend request, is all, and I said okay. Then I looked at his page. He’d been involved in a recent food fight with one friend, and exchanged a flurry of kisses with another, but otherwise nothing much was happening there. No photos, no details, no status updates. I checked a few more times but all was quiet. The remains of the food fight congealing on his wall.

It was a good day, the picnic day, sun warm, shade cold. A song, though — Kokomo, by the Beach Boys — it kept humming in my head, which was distressing.

We never had anything in common, that boyfriend and I. My sense of direction – the fact that I get lost so much – it bothered him enormously. But he taped his Bryan Ferry album for me, and wrote out the song titles in red ink. For ‘Slave to Love’ he put a heart shape instead of the ‘o’ in Love. Also, he sometimes gave me bars of Lindt chocolate.

At one point during the mothers’ day picnic, Charlie came and took my hand and said, ‘I need you, Mummy,’ and took me directly to a flight of steps. ‘I need to go up those steps,’ he said. The stairs took us to the roof of the toilet block, and we stood up there for a few moments, watching a game of soccer from above.

‘Some kids were throwing rocks at me,’ he said, eventually, and he pointed out the kids.

So we walked back down and two small boys were kicking a ball around. Those kids, I said, were throwing rocks at you?

The boys admitted it at once. They said they had to throw rocks because they didn’t want him to play soccer with them.

I spoke to them quite firmly and said you must never, never, never throw rocks. Also, I said, you be nice to people, please.

Charlie seemed cheerful and we went back to the picnic and the playground.

A sister took Charlie aside for a moment, and then he approched me with a white paper bag, ribbons tied around its handle, and a pink card covered in owls. Whoooo has the most Special Mum? said the card, and inside my sister had traced around Charlie’s little hand with blue ink. In the paper bag, was the latest Lorrie Moore novel. I didn’t even know Lorrie Moore had a new book out! It’s hard to explain how happy I was with the whole thing.

Some time later, a few of the sisters said, Hey, what are those boys doing to Charlie? and I looked through the playground fence, and it was the rock-throwing boys. One of them was picking up a stick, and somebody said, ‘That one just called Charlie stupid!’ I got there fast. The boy dropped the stick. I started talking—stridently, or maybe more than stridently —‘You do not speak to people that way! You do not call people stupid! He is certainly not stupid! You be nice to people, please!’

I went on at this child quite a bit.

I wondered if I’d gone too far, and then my five-year-old nephew said to me, surprised, ‘Is that boy one of your childs?’ So maybe I had. But actually, I didn't care.

Charlie seemed quite happy now, and he held onto my hand and said, ‘I’m not stupid, am I?’

We drove home and I was singing that song, Kokomo, to myself, and thinking, shhhh, stop it, why do you keep singing that, and then I remembered that boyfriend from years and years ago – when he first asked me out I was working in a toyshop for the summer, and he came into the shop on a hot day, and I was sitting on the carpet, unpacking toys, and he asked me out on a date, and Kokomo was playing on the shopping centre audio system. Funny, the things that come back to you as you drive.