COUCH

I’m sitting on the arm of the leather couch in our family room. Its brown skin is pocked with scuffs and scars; ribbons awarded for fifteen years active service.

In the house where I grew up there was no couch. The lounge room had two armchairs and a matching ottoman. It had two in-between chairs too, used by my sister and I when we were big enough, but no sofa. The family living in this house did not sit next to each other. They didn’t do closeness.

So I’m looking with affection at the careworn covering of our family couch. Careworn. Worn through care. We’ve sat on it to watch Thomas The Tank Engine and The Terminator. In the cracks between the cushions are layers of crumbs and debris that probably support several complex ecosystems. Life on the surface filtering down, nourishing those below. I hope the microbes are happy in their microbey lives; falling in love, producing little microbes, making beds out of skin cells and sporting fields out of lost shirt buttons.

This lilliputian reverie is abruptly interrupted by the impact of my fourteen year old son, hurtling across the room and rugby-tackling me so that we both collapse backwards onto the cushions. He’s done it a thousand times before, a game we’ve played forever. A decade ago I used to have to push myself backwards to achieve the desired result—a tangle of limbs and giggles and a victory squeak from the boy as he grinned down at his vanquished Daddy. 

But he doesn’t need any help now. Almost as tall as his Mum and more than half my body weight, the moment of impact has a combined mass of 140kg. So backwards we go, thump! Ha! So loud and deep was the young fella’s triumphant shout that I did not hear the crack of splitting timber. It was only later in the evening when we were siting in a line watching a bit of TV that I noticed I was sliding forwards. Not just bad posture; the sofa had developed a pronounced tilt. Inspection revealed a fault line gaping between arm and body, the latter having subsided to floor level as if finally succumbing to years of play wrestling.

I pointed out the collapse to the others. They both stared at me, seeking to gauge my reaction. Because I am not always OK around stuff being broken or damaged. In the house of my childhood objects were supposed to last forever. Breaking things through overuse was frowned upon, even growing out of clothes viewed with suspicion. Wilful damage was a capital offence. I once hid at the top of the back yard willow for three hours after breaking a garage window playing cricket.

A kind of reverse scarring results from this insistence that things have to last. An obsession with protection stifles exploration and kills spontaneity. Scarring is the inevitable by-product of use. It’s a result of life.

I looked at the couch and at my partner and son, and smiled. It took a little effort. This couch has been good to us. It has opened its arms to a thousand cuddles, hundreds of rough-and-tumbles and we are sitting on it together now, despite the list to starboard. We continued watching tele.

Things wear out. People too. 

But love doesn’t.

CHRISTMAS ADAM

Morning, I said to the boy. Isn’t it a lovely day? Clear, bright sky, not too hot yet.

It is, he replied. And Merry Christmas Adam.

Christmas Adam?

Yes, he explained, the day before Christmas Eve. Oh, OK.

Funny what they come up with, kids. Raised as a strict atheist, the mythology of this centrepiece of Western civilisation still infiltrates. Even here, downunder, where all the trappings and symbols are entirely out-of-place. No need for strings of lights to brighten dreary streets when it’s warm and light until nine o’clock in the evening. Yet we add to global warming with our tree lights and exterior displays though those who would most enjoy them are tucked in bed by the time you can actually see them.

Don’t be a Grinch, says the boy’s mum. I don’t do Seuss, I snap. I learned from a newspaper quiz that the Grinch has a dog named Max. The boy enjoys reading me the quiz when we get the paper. Sometimes I score well, mostly not. The Grinch’s dog? What kind of opening question is that? Who was the bumbling spy in the 60s sitcom? What was the name of the wild boy in the wolf suit? He laughs and carries on with the questions. I do awfully, as usual.

It is indeed a glorious morning. Perfect for busking.

That’s what the boy is off to do in a few minutes. There’s a community market in the car park of the university not far from our home. Same university I worked at for fifteen years. Can almost walk around it now without a shudder, which is good because the grounds are lovely and there are ducks on the lake.

The market will be bustling on Christmas Adam. Fruit and Veg, garden stuff, food caravans, trash and treasure. And buskers. A middle-aged pan flute player, a stringy girl scraping at her violin, the sullen adolescent whose cheap acoustic guitar is drowned by the hubbub. 

Our boy wants to get there early to get a good spot. He expects stiff competition for his Christmas Carols. Last week it was raining; few punters, even fewer buskers. The market organiser invited him to stand under his awning, which was sweet. He did well, partly due to the lack of competition, partially from compassion on the part of the marketeers. Compassion. A good word for any time of year. Most of the people who gave me money were older, he said. 

Today it will be a barrage of Silent NIghts, a cacophony of carols. Should a non-believing child with a clarinet profit from a once-religious ritual? Commercialism. A good word for this time of year. There’s nothing we need; let it go.

What do you want the money for, his mum asked. Anything special? 

He hesitated. I want to buy you and daddy presents, he said.

Isn’t it a lovely day?

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EVE

There’s an orange pumpkin-shaped bucket next to the front door, full of sweets to bribe wide-eyed children in pointy hats and surly teens daubed in fake blood to go away without hurting us. The candy is individually wrapped. Halloween OH&S Department won’t allow any touching of naked treats. Must protect the junior ghouls from germs.

I usually feel angry about the ritual. Take this American crap away from us, it’s not ours! More commercialism, more meaningless expenditure. Don’t think, don’t reflect, just buy the sugar.

Yesterday I had blood taken for the annual tests. My pathology collector was very efficient and if I’d remembered it was almost Halloween I’d have tried a vampire joke. Instead I went to buy croissants as a reward for fasting overnight. What deprivation. Yet I deemed the delay of breakfast a suitable excuse for indulging. How soft we’ve become. 

The supermarket had a front line of seasonal lollies and other Halloween paraphernalia fully five yards long. I wondered if they had the individually wrapped eyeballs. I like those. Many cyclopses died in their creation. A young mum with two kids in tow stopped in front of me, a look of dismay on her face. Running the sugar gauntlet to get bread and milk. I left her to it.

It’s another appropriation of a pagan festival, of course. This time Celtic New Year, once the first of November. In this country it was taken over by a horse race, first Tuesday in November, but I don’t join in the holiday. I’ll be working, powered by the leftover sweets from the pumpkin bucket. Maybe the candy eye-balls will give me extra insight.

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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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