WATCH

Got a new band put on the watch yesterday. The old one had curled up from years clasping my wrist. Looked all right on the outside, but inside it was worn and stained, the leather disintegrating under the surface. Looks horrid, Cal said, cracked and scaly. It reminded me of my legs. Old man’s legs with papery skin. Running about a tennis court doesn’t result in fresher, younger epidermis. Not to look at anyway; it must be doing something for the muscles, surely.

Played a couple of mixed doubles matches, standing in for a chap who’s injured. Last week the opposing team were all so young you could see the outline of school uniforms on the tennis kit. I did all right for someone giving away multiple decades; the sets were even but we lost by a few games on count-back. It not being my team, I didn’t care much as long as I played OK, which I did.

Afterwards there is supper. A couple of Men’s teams were outside singeing sausages and drinking beer. We were inside with cheese and crackers and dips and grapes and lemonade. Someone’s mum put this together, I thought.

They were nice kids, and not quite as young as I thought. Three in first year uni and one in second. He was the captain. I asked what they were studying and one, a girl built like a willow-wand but with the heaviest serve of all the women, grinned and challenged me to guess. I got two straight off and one with a bit of help. Smartarse. But I could not guess Twiggy. 

Politics, she said. How depressing, I thought, but didn’t say.

Got home and limped to the shower. Three close sets on a Thursday night. Jeez.

Horizontal at last, but legs aching so much I couldn’t sleep. Got up and did a few laps inside the house, trying to avoid cramp. Kept the lights low, to fool myself I was a few laps away from Lethe. Clocks grinned in the gloom as I passed them. Reckon they were mocking me. Eventually I took half a pill. Fuck it, I need sleep.

A Sunday morning game with a mate has become a ritual. Sometimes I manage to beat him, mostly he out-runs me. Younger legs and years of playing competition squash. He’s an executive. Knows how to get the job done. Last week it was a war of attrition; at six-all we agreed on an honourable draw. This week he rolled over me. My body was still grizzling about the mixed doubles. Recovery times lengthen, relentlessly, until you tear or break something and it ends. Now that’s depressing.

But I love it (though less when I’m crap, like Sunday).

When I got home the boy asked, could you not play next week as it’s my birthday?

There was a hesitation. I was thinking, the party is not until the afternoon, what’s the problem. A childless moment that passed. Sure, I said. We’re having pancakes, he said. Excellent.

It’s a significant birthday, though he won’t let us talk about the obvious. Thirteen. That last syllable serves up all kinds of complications, and soon he won’t want to spend time with his boring oldies. Tempus fugit says the smug new band on my watch. Shut the fuck up, I snarl. But somewhere I feel hourglass tears falling.

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DOUBLE FAULT

It’s dull outside. And cooler too. The stillness is a little uncanny after the hot winds of the morning. I umpired the boys tennis match and could feel the sun on the back of my neck. Did I put sunscreen between collar and cap? Lately I’ve been worried about melanomas, especially on the forearms. That’s the place that gets the most sun, other than your face.

Sunscreen didn’t really figure when I was a kid. We’d joke about the first burn of summer and boast about how much skin we could peel off after the radiation subsided. Didn’t wear hats, either.

Hot on the back and windy too. The courts are raised, at the south end of a large oval. The northerly whips across the grass and through the cyclone wire fencing, shredded into turbulent spears. One end of the court gives plus twenty kph, at the other the smallest boy can hardly hit the ball over the net.

Our team won because the opposition only had three players. We fiddled the rules so that all four of our lot got one set each instead of two. Winning by forfeit isn’t satisfying but it’s winning none-the-less. Last time I took him he didn’t get a game in two sets and I was angry. How could you be that bad? I didn’t say anything but he knew he’d been rubbish. By the time we got home, he’d forgotten (maybe) but I hadn’t. Not the crapness, nor the loss, nor my disappointment. Always remember your failures. But don’t worry about sunscreen. Family lessons. Terrific.

I’ve just delivered him to a friend’s sleep-over birthday party. The family has a pool, which the kids love because they get to mess about and the parents love because it tires them out. Later they’ll play video games and try to get away with watching an inappropriately violent movie and my bloke will go along with it but won’t necessarily enjoy the entertainment.

He asked whether he could run through the stuff he was taking. Big trip: Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning. I said, sure, but I’m legendary for forgetting stuff. Anyway, we thought he had the bases covered. Swimmers, towel, toothbrush, clothes, phone (a new item, to go with Big School), sleepwear, book. Book? Well, he said, if I don’t like the video game I’ll go and read. Or if they are noisy until really late. The first weeks of secondary education have been full-on.

As we walked down the street it started drizzling. Guess we won’t be swimming, he said. It’s actually quite nice, I said, swimming in the rain. Peaceful.

Dropped him off, said hello to the host parents who are good friends, and the other parents. Offered a drink, but said I needed to get back.

Back through the drizzle, as refreshing as sorbet. Back to the stillness of an empty house and my turntable and vinyl to pierce the tranquility. And maybe a book.

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CHRISTMAS EVE

It’s early on Christmas Eve, just after seven. Still and overcast outside; mild but it will warm up later. Not too much though, the high thirties days are promised for later in the week. This year we get a temperate Christmas.

The house is quiet. Lulled by the low cloud, birds have slept in; their morning chatter drifts through open windows. Inside it’s silent. The boy is still abed and Cal has gone shopping for Christmas supplies. I’m going early, she said, it’ll be nuts by nine o’clock.

Silhouetted against the window is the tree, dark against the grey-blue sky. Even in the semi-dark I can see the drooping fronds. If there was more light I could see the tree’s sagging shoulders and wilted waist.

Cal ordered an Oxfam Christmas tree. It’s well covered with decorations and tinsel, but they don’t hide the desiccated limbs and browning pine needles. The tree arrived on a stinker of a day—a hundred degrees in the old currency—and never recovered. Always striving for perfection, Cal wanted to buy another one and start again but I couldn’t face the dismantle-rebuild, the floor covered with scented hypodermics, so I said no. As each day has passed I’ve felt more mean.

In the afternoons when the summer sun slams through the window she looks sadly at our dying tree but it’s too late to do anything now. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the boy transitioning to adolescence. He’s holding tenaciously onto ‘believing’ and we’re going along because we’re no more ready to surrender the innocence of childhood than he is. A part of me, a hard-nosed bit, wants to announce to all and sundry that this will be the last year of  Santa. Never liked the materialistic old bastard anyway. But I won’t, and even as I write I’m working out how to stop the boy reading this, because he is entitled to his naivety, to his participation in this December ritual. Shit, his Daddy has even played Father Christmas and got paid for it!

Decorating the tree is a Mother and child thing in our house. My contribution is to hang a couple of Christmas LP covers on the wall and a string of lights in the front window.

When I hung the lights this year, there was the usual awkwardness of tangled wires and the nervous tinkle of the glass globes knocking together. As I hooked them around the edge of the frame, they tapped against the glass, a rhythm evoking memories. We used to be on your family Christmas tree, they whisper. A spindly fake pine made magic by the deep, vivid colour of the decorative candlelights. These lights are as old as I am, still intact and still willing to cast their fifties glow into a different suburban street.

When I turned them on this year, they flickered then went dark. I carefully went around the perimeter, pinching the globes into their sockets. After all, they’ve been sitting in an old suitcase in the garage all year. Touching each candle seems a way of re-connecting with them, bringing them to life. When I get to the last globe, a red one (they are the best—deep scarlet with a glowing heart) it breaks into my hand. I’ve squeezed too hard and the glass, a half-century old and more, has fractured. Oh. There’s some anguish in my voice. Cal comes in to check I’m all right.

It’s OK, I say, but there’s a tightness in my throat. She hears it and says nothing. I hold out my hand with the crimson shards. The family Christmas lights, I just broke one. She nods. You OK? I nod back. We’re both thinking of my mother’s death, in April but so long ago. That’s quite all right in one way, but the death of the lights somehow hurts.

I scrabble around in the box, so old it is a collection of bits of cardboard rather than a container, and find a couple of loose globes from another, long defunct set. I screw one into the string and flick the power point. The lights burst into life, except for the odd one. It remains dark, but completes the circuit.

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*

THE LONG FAREWELL

When your child starts school, one of the biggest changes is the use of the refrigerator. Not the inside—the essential foodliness of the contents remains the same—no, I’m referring to the outside.

Where once a clean brushed-aluminium surface gleamed in the morning sunlight, perhaps adorned with a socially aware sticker or a novelty magnet, now sprouts a wilderness of notes, notices, essential phone numbers and lists. It’s like the chaotic desk of a harried admin officer has been flipped to the vertical plane and had a handful of advertising magnets flung willy-nilly at the mess.

When the boy was young, we had a couple of non-matching sets of letters and numbers on the fridge door as an encouragement for him to forever associate words with food. Just joking. They were for play, and for announcing special timelines or events.

“Four weeks to Xmas!”

“Cats for the premiership!”

“8th Birthday party on Saturday!”

The exclamation mark was one of the most used tiles.

As he became a little more sophisticated, sometimes I’d put up a phrase relating to current affairs and see how long it took him to notice the covert communication. In the lead-up to the last election, for instance, I mounted a political message:

“Darth Vader for President”

Usually it took the youngster mere seconds to notice the change on the fridge door, but he’d only comment when he thought the line was worthy of notice. Our fault. We’ve trained him to be a critical consumer of media, even fridge-memes.

Change is constant. Every phase of childhood is more complicated than the previous one; the new version overlays the old so effectively you can sometimes forget what the little fella was like. Browsing old photos or mini-films can mist you up quicker than you can say “The long farewell”.

Because that’s what it is, being a parent. A series of lettings go coupled with moments of holding close. When he’s sick he still needs us for comfort and re-assurance, but other times he’s immersed in a world for which we have no key, no entry pass, no real training. It’s how it should be, and doesn’t change one jot the immense love I feel, but often I notice a twinge of sadness, a stab of pre-emptive grief. Childhood, endless when we traverse it ourselves, passes in a blur of days for a parent—especially when there is you and a single child.

In our home, we are fast approaching the end of Primary School. Six years of elementary education have been completed; the new year will usher in a new adventure. Not sure if we are ready, but the boy is. He is tall and twelve and up for the next challenge. Deep into the endless Wheel of Time fantasy novels, downloading complicated sheet music for Undertale tunes, using language I was grappling with in senior high school. I hope I can keep up.

Yet in the rush of daily routines and weekly cycles, some things stand out.

Recently the lad was unwell. Just a cold, but a nasty one that laid him low for the best part of a week. Mum re-arranged things so someone was at home, offering paracetamol and comfort as required. He lay on the couch and read or watched old DVDs. It’s funny, that. When he’s unwell he reverts to entertainment from long ago, like Thomas the Tank Engine or re-reading Captain Underpants.

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A.A. Milne’s classic books were featured one sick-day. As I departed for work he was well into Winnie-The-Pooh and when I returned around supper time he had just finished The House At Pooh Corner.

I sat next to him on the couch. And after checking on his recovery, I made an observation.

You look a little sad, I said.

He fiddled with the sash on his Star Wars dressing gown and nodded. The books sat next to him on the other side. The same volumes that had entranced and entertained me as a child.

Not quite knowing how to proceed, I waited (a skill still needing considerable practice on my part).

It’s the ending, he said.

Of the books?

Yes, he said. The second one especially. Christopher Robin is leaving. He’s going to school. It doesn’t say exactly, but that’s what’s happening.

There was a very slight quaver in his voice.

It’s a long time since I’ve read The House At Pooh Corner, I said. Maybe I better refresh my memory.

He reached for the book and carefully opened it.

CHAPTER X

IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN AND POOH COME TO AN ENCHANTED PLACE, AND WE LEAVE THEM THERE

The boy sat quietly as I read the chapter, easing a little closer as he detected the occasional sniffle.

Eeyore’s poem provides an eloquent summary.

Christopher Robin is going.

At least I think he is.

Where?

Nobody knows.

But he is going—

I mean he goes

(To rhyme with “knows”)

Do we care?

(To rhyme with “where”)

We do

Very much.

Yes, we care very much.

And when Pooh and Christopher Robin are at The Enchanted Place, and Christopher Robin knights Pooh and Pooh worries about being a bear of little brain and how he’ll live up to being a knight if he doesn’t understand Christopher Robin’s world, and when he wonders if “being a Faithful Knight meant that you just went on being faithful without being told things” it was all the boy’s daddy could do to contain his love and grief and overflowing heart. So he reached his arm out for a hug and the boy nestled in and they held each other and who’s to say whether there were tears or who was comforting whom but it felt good.

A few days later I noticed a new message on the fridge door.

Time g0 to

colLge and

make U prouDs!

Eeyore would complain about the grammar, but Pooh would understand.

It’s the long farewell, you see.

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