Screen-free Day

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Anna Goldswor­thy

Foot­steps thun­der down the pas­sage and the bed­room door is flung open. I hold up one side of the doona. There are good as­pects to this: a sleek back snug­gles into me; a downy nape is lodged against my nose. There are also bad as­pects. “Mummy, what time is it? I’m just go­ing to turn on the light and check.” “Don’t do that. Just check my phone.” “5.24. Does that mean there are 26 min­utes un­til 7?” “Yes. No. Let’s just go back to sleep.” “But what time is it now? I’m just go­ing to check. It’s 5.27.” A rig­or­ous com­men­tary is pro­vided on the predawn min­utes. Even­tu­ally, 93 min­utes have passed. “Mummy – guess what! It’s seven o’clock. You have to get up and play with me. YOU SAID you’d play with me!” “But it’s not a school day. Why don’t we just sleep a bit?” The light is turned on; the blinds ping up. “You have to get up NOW.” “But look: one of my eyes doesn’t even want to open.” “You have to OPEN it. I’ll help you.” Eye is help­fully propped open. “What are we do­ing to­day? Can we go swim­ming?” “Maybe.” A howl emerges from the op­po­site bed­room: “But YOU SAID we’d go on the pad­dle­boats to­day!” “Can we do swim­ming NEXT?” “Yes. I mean, ‘some­time’.” “And YOU SAID we could make cup­cakes to­day. And I ONLY want to make cup­cakes that are straw­berry on the bot­tom.” I search for straw­berry cup­cakes on­line. The only acceptable cup­cakes are multi-fac­to­rial, in­volv­ing such things as straw­ber­ries dipped in choco­late. We com­pile a list of in­gre­di­ents. The usual is­sues of break­fast and get­ting dressed. I call to book a pad­dle­boat. Ap­par­ently there is no great de­mand for pad­dle­boats at present so we will be okay. We drive to the fan shop on South Road to buy a new re­mote kit for the fan. “But we don’t even want to go here. I’m not com­ing in. Yes I am. No I’m not. Why do we have to be here? But we don’t even need a fan in our room.” I suc­cess­fully pur­chase the fan kit, which re­mains un­ri­valled as the day’s pin­na­cle of achieve­ment. We drive to town and find a park on War Memo­rial Drive. While try­ing to fend off help­ful fingers at the ticket ma­chine, I ac­ci­den­tally pur­chase a max­i­mum du­ra­tion ticket of five hours. Since we have made such a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment, it seems a good idea to spend more time in town. This is sub­se­quently re­vealed to be an er­ror. We cross the footbridge to the pad­dle­boats. O al­ready has sore legs. R sug­gests we go on a Pop­eye boat cruise in­stead. O agrees, so R im­me­di­ately changes his mind. “Can we go on Pop­eye NEXT?” “Yes. I mean, ‘some­time’.” Then R again changes his mind and wants to go on Pop­eye, so O in­sists on a pad­dle­boat. A kind young man sup­plies life jack­ets to the boys, and helps us into the pad­dle­boat. He points out that it would be er­gonom­i­cally un­sound for me to sit in the tiny cav­ity at the back meant for chil­dren. O re­fuses to sit in the cav­ity for chil­dren. It is demeaning. Even­tu­ally he agrees to sit in the mid­dle be­tween me and R as we pedal. We launch onto the Tor­rens. O cries out im­me­di­ately: “I HATE this!” I draw his at­ten­tion to some­thing in the dis­tance that might be a duck. “We have to go back STRAIGHT AWAY!” R iden­ti­fies the refuse we trawl through, in the fas­ci­nated man­ner of David At­ten­bor­ough: “And now we’re ap­proach­ing a tyre. A plas­tic bag. A hula hoop. WHAT’S THAT?” A duck ca­daver, buoy­ant and feath­ery. “I STILL HATE this! We’re go­ing to FALL IN!” O at­tempts to stand up; R of­fers to swap places; I urge all present to re­tain their seats. There is only one other pad­dle­boat on the wa­ter: a pony­tailed man grimly ped­alling with a sullen girl. It has all the hall­marks of a pa­ter­nal ac­cess visit. I wave as we pass; no­body re­cip­ro­cates. We pedal to­wards some dis­tant lit­ter and then I steer us back to shore. “But it hasn’t been 30 min­utes! I want to do it again and sit in the mid­dle this time! It’s NOT FAIR!” “NO MUMMY I HATE THIS!” The only way out of aw­ful­ness is to trump it with greater aw­ful­ness. “I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we go to Run­dle Mall and spend your pocket money?” Ev­ery­body jumps from the boat with alacrity. We cut through Hind­ley Street. There is an al­ter­ca­tion ahead of us. As we pass the per­pe­tra­tor, O drops my hand and lingers along­side him.

“Is that a ROB­BER?” We de­cide to have sushi in the food hall at the Myer Cen­tre. I know. Don’t even say it. Af­ter­wards, we are once again in Rebel Sport. For a very long time. We buy more wa­ter bal­loons, and then I take them to the base­ment, where I of­fer to sub­sidise house­warm­ing gifts for their fa­ther. Con­struc­tive sug­ges­tions are ig­nored in favour of laven­der air fresh­ener and a con­crete dragon. I fear he will sus­pect me of mal­ice. I take them to a lolly shop (!) and al­low them to buy lolly bags (!). They both press the lift but­ton at ex­actly the same time and then shout that the other one pressed it first so it’s their turn to press the lift but­ton in­side. “THAT’S IT. WE’RE TAK­ING THE ES­CA­LA­TOR.” No­body ar­gues. My scary voice is be­com­ing more con­vinc­ing. We make our way back to the car. They ac­cuse me of be­ing “lost again”. On the way home, via the su­per­mar­ket to get cup­cake in­gre­di­ents, they ac­cuse me of be­ing “lost again”. The usual things at the su­per­mar­ket. O spends his re­main­ing pocket money on cards for “very spe­cial peo­ple”: “I mean the peo­ple in my nu­cala fam­ily. You and me and R. And Daddy.” When we get home, he opens one of the cards and draws a pic­ture of a small boy con­nected via a love heart to a big per­son with too much hair. He sticks one of his new lol­lies to the front and gives it to me. I for­give him ev­ery­thing. We de­cide to do some craft. I at­tempt one of those plaited stream­ers. It feels ther­a­peu­tic for about five folds, but then it just keeps go­ing. “But, Mummy, YOU SAID we would make cup­cakes to­day.” We start mak­ing cup­cakes to­day. Un­usu­ally, R of­fers to help too. O asks, “But who’s the best boy at mak­ing cup­cakes?” “Well, you’re usu­ally my spe­cial helper, but now it looks as though your brother is go­ing to be a great help too!” “I’m the best!” “No, I’M the best!” “Why did HE get to add the flour AND the sugar?” “I’m mix­ing!” When two peo­ple ag­gres­sively mix the same bat­ter, it be­comes messy very quickly. O gets choco­late on his nose, and launches into a funny Christ­mas song: “Otto, the brown-nosed hu­man!” The cup­cakes go in the oven; the straw­ber­ries are dipped in choco­late. This seems like the ideal op­por­tu­nity to at­tempt za’atar roasted sweet potato pearl bar­ley, which I have never made be­fore. “What’s that? It looks DIS­GUST­ING!” “I HATE al­monds!” “I HATE goats’ cheese!” “Can we please ice the cup­cakes now?” “But, Mummy, YOU SAID you’d play Game of Life!” “Not right now, dar­ling. I’m cook­ing you din­ner.” “But you SAID.” “Maybe to­mor­row.” “But that’s what you said yes­ter­day.” “Maybe af­ter din­ner then.” “But can we please, PLEASE play it now?” I freeze at the kitchen bench with the knife still in my hand. Pos­si­bly a vein pulses in my temple. There are no fur­ther questions at this point. I covertly ice the cup­cakes, im­pro­vis­ing with a zi­plock bag, as they (amaz­ingly) eat their za’atar roasted sweet potato pearl bar­ley. The ic­ing emerges from the cor­ner of the bag in long, grey­ish-pur­ple worms, so that it looks as though each cup­cake is topped with a small set of in­testines. But the boys are ef­fu­sively com­pli­men­tary. They are the best cup­cakes they have ever eaten. I start run­ning the bath. “But YOU SAID we were go­ing to play Game of Life to­day.” We play Game of Life Em­pire, a truly hor­ri­ble game in which you seek to ac­quire the world’s “top brands”. I hate it so much I ac­tu­ally try to win, to bring it to a quick end. Just when I am head­ing to the fin­ish line with a full com­ple­ment of brands, R steals Ya­hoo! from me. Even­tu­ally, bless­edly, we fin­ish. No bath tonight. O demands I read him “The Man from Snowy River”, re­quest­ing trans­la­tions of ev­ery col­lo­qui­al­ism. At the end he re­mains unim­pressed: “It’s just about some horses run­ning. Some­one chases them. So what.” The kitchen is a mess. I want the chil­dren to be asleep. R is in his ex­pan­sive bed­time mood. When I fi­nally coax him into bed he is aquiver with re­quests. I need to tell him three funny sto­ries about when he was a baby. And then just one more. “Please, Mummy. PLEASE.” And then some­thing em­bar­rass­ing that hap­pened to me when I was a teenager. No, it can’t be that one be­cause he’s heard that one be­fore. “Please, Mummy. PLEASE.” Then he has an in­spi­ra­tion: why don’t we com­mu­ni­cate with each other through sign lan­guage in the dark? “Please, Mummy. PLEASE.” And fi­nally: “Imag­ine if cities could tele­port, and Ade­laide swapped places with Can­berra. Would Can­berra still be our na­tional cap­i­tal or would Ade­laide?” I re­ally want to give him the right an­wer, but can­not think what it is. In­stead, I start laugh­ing and find I can­not stop. He meets my eye, and then joins in.

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