An ESME Essay Showcase Award submission
Wandering along the West Australian south coast, wintery elements jostled for control. Our walk motivated by a break in bleak storms and driving rain that plagued this holiday. I’d thought a change of scenery would be a good thing, take a break, get away, just the two of us. Being trapped in musty hostels, where trail walkers’ socks provided the eau-de-day not what I envisaged.
But now I have reached the point of beginning to long for the presence of my ex-husband. Bad, I know, but at least Jeffery embodied semi-adult conversation, at least slightly closer to being adult than Tash.
“Are you sure, Sues?” He always made my name seem plural, something he should be familiar with, seeing from his actions it’s possible to assume he wanted more than one woman in his life. “We separate and it will only be you and Tash; you really want to be a single mum?”
Even though we fought more than talked, what I wouldn’t give for a bit of those verbal exchanges now. Just a conversation, the least mummy deserves after meeting the demands of a needy preschooler: serving a picky eater, song singing, hand-holding, and bottom wiping. Not too much to ask, for a little philosophical manipulation of the grey matter.
As soon as we are on the sand, Tash starts kicking. Doesn’t seem to matter how many times I have told her not to kick the sand, she still does. At least there are no sunbakers, swimmers, or other family groups to suffer her attack of grit. I admit a good strikeout at strands of dead seaweed can be positive.
A group of people drifts about in what seemed like small circles, gesticulating and seeming to talk to themselves. I am about to throw myself down at their feet, chanting, “Please, fellow adults, take me into your midst; I will listen to your warbling, anything.”
But before I can prostrate myself before them on the sand, a man came up to us and said, “These people are having therapy, so would you mind not disturbing them?”
Terribly sorry, I must have missed the sign that said, “Track to Greens Beach is closed to the general public because of a therapy group. . . .”
“What’s therapy?” Tash asks, once we were out of earshot. Why is every little thing part of a question? What am I—Mumma Google?
Therapy: probably an easy one. What your mother wants. What I wouldn’t give to be gently nurtured by a therapist, don’t really care if it’s psychoanalysis, physio, hydro, or even drugs, any type of therapy, counseling, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, anything—I’d line up for it! Thought salt-laden sea air might be therapeutic, so far, despite deep breaths, taking of air is not working for me. But I chastise myself. Her question isn’t really about me. Short answer, kid: therapy is one of the reasons we are here. Too harsh, you think?
“It’s when you do something to make yourself feel better. Like ice and a bandage for a sprained sore leg, like drinking hot honey and lemon is for a sore throat or a tablet from the doctor . . .” I know, give the child something relevant. Step two, check her understanding by re-use of the new term as a question, “But what do you think can be therapy if the sickness is inside your mind?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you could sit on the beach in winter, listen to wind and waves. Many people believe because the ocean always moves, you can watch and somehow feel you belong, or its shifting makes you feel better.”
A dramatic pause while we both stare out at waves, trying to focus on a small part of the crowd of “white horse” tops. Hold off on the Holy Mother–Madonna images, please, there isn’t a whole lot of sharing going on, more like an ambience of enduring each other’s company. Time to find a game in the hope of keeping her occupied, I think.
“See if you can follow as a piece of water moves?”
But as soon as one patch of water is found, everything changes place and the spot we began with has relocated, disbanded or spread out, rolled over and under, and become another liquid space somewhere else. Starting to evoke nausea. On the pro side, I can’t help thinking wouldn’t it be nice to just vanish like that? By now the man who asked us to move away still casts preoccupied glances in our direction as if we will somehow upset beachside biorhythms. Any minute now he will come over and insist we make ourselves invisible. We will be turned to salt-encrusted, knobbly limestone rock towers from his mere stare. So I try to nudge Tash away from staring. Thinking there must be a whole field of physics forces to be studied associated with a preschool child’s stares.
She turns her button nose in my direction and asks, “How would you get therapy?”
This one brings today’s tally of questions to 56, give or take. As soon as I can get rid of that big, bright I symbol, which declares my status as font of information concerning all knowledge, the happier I will be. Is this what everyone else has to put up with from their kids?
“Some people use music or write it down or give themselves a good talking to; these are all other types of therapy,” I say, vocalising more wishful thinking than imparting knowledge.
Pimple-like periwinkles cling to wave-lashed rocks. Their tiny cones resemble pointed humbug lollies.
“What are those?” Tash asks, terminating therapy as a subject, in favour of something more tangible. A voice inside is currently screeching, Aaaargh, not another one! Yes, I know, my rage is unreasonable, but how many more?
“Shellfish, clinging to the rock.” I run my fingers across their crests, smoothness at odds with a lumped pattern. “Another way to have therapy for your mind is to watch others solve problems, like in films or plays; some people even write stories for therapy; or you could pretend.”
Sand grit collects on my arms as I squeeze as much of me as is possible into a lump shape on the rock. “See! I’m a shellfish clinging!” Then I wouldn’t have to talk, answer questions, keep my patience, or be the perfect single mother everyone expects of me.
“Yer and I could pretend to be a wave crashing!” Her arms spread wide, as Tash jerks with full weight on each foot and adds a bouncy dance to complement. Oh, great role-play, I think, two elements colliding—where did she pick up such expressive dances? I feel the need to add my own interpretation to her movements.
“Then your sickness, in your mind, might be you feel too many rules are keeping you too controlled, holding you back, so you imagine yourself being something that cannot be held still. The waves, they’re always crashing, always moving, no person can control them.”
“Or a seagull, flying.” Tash adds to this alternative with a similar wave dance.
“Another free, wild thing that won’t be held back. There is a book about a seagull called Jonathan Livingston Seagull; we all read it when I was young. He was tired of flying like a seagull and really wanted to soar like an albatross or eagle.”
What a lovely thought, time to read a book in peace, even one as thin as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. These days I can’t even rely on toilet time to provide secure moments of serenity.
“What’s an albatross?” I should have guessed a literary reference from my youth too adult for Tash, or any child, to take on board.
It’s only morning; the question tally will be in triple figures before we tuck into wherever we are staying tonight. The burden of her future stretches out ahead for me, alone. Almost as desolate as a Nullarbor Plain crossing.
“An albatross is a beautiful bird that seems to sail on the air, hardly ever fluttering or moving a feather. Yet sometimes when they come into land, this master of the skies goes so clumsy people call him a ‘goonie bird.’” Imagine if human parenting filled the same parameters as birds: raise the chicks, leave them behind until they take to the air rather than starve to death. Too much, my brain constantly oversteps the mark.
“Birds like those ones we saw, hanging in the air?”
“No, Tash-babe, they were hawks; they hover, like a helicopter.”
Bringing her on this trip—was it the right thing? So much to see. And so many people watching us, waiting for mother mistakes. I am desperate to clock off, have some downtime, and pass her onto someone else. But ringing in my head are those words, “Go ahead, split up with your husband; toss him out on the reject pile, Suzanna Gibson, and your father and I won’t help. You’re on your own, with the child. Have you really thought about the impact on Tash? Don’t expect us to be at your beckon call; we’re too old for that sort of responsibility.” Only time my mother calls me Suzanna is within an ultimatum.
Our stroll around the beach has meant we are close to Elephant Rocks, giant pachyderm-shaped lumps of granite. Frozen in time as they crashed through coastal shrubs on their way to the elephants’ bathing beach. The sharp tang of Melaleuca coastal shrubs competes with salt air.
“I’m going to climb to the top and ride an elephant.” Full-on energy gushes through my daughter’s limbs in sight of this new challenge. Off she runs. Phew, I get a tiny reprieve. Her action might be fired by the need to be king of the castle, but I am not concerned with potential climbing injuries. She returns, disappointed, because these rock-phants do not kneel to allow a climber to take purchase. There are no child-climbing imperfections, racks, ropes, or handrails. Thickets of various green-grey bushes also provide a kidproof barrier.
When Tash finds me again I am exploring some basalt ledges. This rock has a different texture, alien compared to the flat, smooth, elephantine granite. Glittering, black terraces step down to the water, with cracks and lumps forming millions of gnome-like heads.
“I’ve found a throne,” the sitting mother says. Rank has to have its privileges, right? Why shouldn’t I get the best spot? The matriarch has to win the crown.
What am I now, walking encyclopaedia as well as bountiful provider? What about if my coffers are bare? I feel as if there has already been too much given. A little tough love, my dear child; go find your own throne. As if reading my thoughts, Tash wanders about in the rocks to locate a seat of power, but only after testing two unsatisfactory niches, all the while grumbling to herself.
“This is your throne, your majesty, and these are your people.” The sweep of my arm personifies rock knobble-bowed heads, the mass of her court appear unsatisfied, before their child monarch.
She sticks out her chin in a pint-sized parody of power, “You can call me ‘Your Highness.’”
“Your people, Your Highness, they’re here to ask you for some bread; they are starving. See their backs are bent, and they’re bowing and cowering, ‘Give us some bread!’ they are saying.”
“No, that will make them beggars. I will make them work for their bread.”
Despite this proclamation, Tash throws them imaginary loaves.
“But won’t that make them beg for more later?” Mummy gets one question back, but the tally sheet is nowhere near even.
“By then they will be my slaves.”
I find another seat, facing the other way.
“You’re facing the wrong way,” Tash yells.
True, my view is the land, not the sea. “I’m not facing the wrong way, only a different way! Anyway, who is driving this train?”
She laughs and runs away. Trouble is, Tash has run directly into the therapy group who are now shuffling back along the beach. Must be their bus parked not far from our overloaded station wagon. My heart sinkswhat sort of people are they? Recovering addicts? Paedophiles? Alcoholics? Anger-management cases? I bound up to my little girl, too young to really understand stranger danger.
“So cute, mother-daughter matching outfits,” said one of the group.
“She isn’t my mother,” says Tash. “She is my servant.”