Building Up

The day had apocalyptic overtones from the get go. I crunched two dead cockroaches going from the bedroom to the bathroom. The milk was already off, three days before the expiry date. The front door opened into an early morning oven, littered with rutting geckos and Ritalin-deprived skinks. I recoiled from the distinctive broil of rubbish in the wheelie bin. It smelled like yesterday’s onions and armpits. My fingers burned on a Domino’s pizza voucher roasting quietly in the letter box.

No mail for us.

I wrestled Little Tea into the car along with Rabby and George, his soft toy sidekicks, and an orange plastic tractor. You never know when you’ll need one.

“Air con?” he said. The kid’s not stupid.

It’s bloody hot, there’s no way round it at the moment. It’s Suicide Season, Mango Madness. In the Top End, we’re all going troppo. We fuck and fight, cry and cuss, drink and drip and dance. The build up starts sniffing around us like a dog on heat in September, sometimes even at the Darwin Festival if you’re really unlucky. This year, we are definitely unlucky.

But you really know that the build up has hit when you get breath tested at 9:30 in the morning, taking your kid to Fun Bus at the Anula Playground.

I’ll tell you, that’s where all the booze hounds are hiding out. Clearly the local constabulary had seen last week’s artistic efforts.

“What do you make of these, Officer?”

“Hmmm. Looks like they’ve used fingers, a dish scourer, and a toy car to spread those paints around. And I smell trace elements of food colouring.”

“Definitely under the influence.”

I wasn’t too worried though. After all, Little Tea wasn’t even driving. But the HiLux in front obviously knew what was coming. He pulled off onto a side street, ignoring the officers waving him over. The wheels squealed and he took off into the badlands of Wagaman. No one gave chase.

Too. Fucking. Hot.

I cleared the breathalyser and turned off Lee Point Road. As I drove past, just one hundred metres away from the alcohol and drug testing station, I could see one of the many old mates of Darwin’s Northern Suburbs leaning back in his plastic chair, pulling on a bong.

Happy Thursday to you, Old Mate.

I drove a bit further and soon enough I was standing at the playground, reenacting The Hunger Games with a bunch of other parents as we unleashed a dozen toddlers on three toy cars. Ah, peace at last. We raised our luke warm water bottles in silent toast. The children are distracted. We are free. At least for ten minutes, or until someone gets seriously maimed by a stick.

But it doesn’t take long for our own frustrations to bubble to the fore.

One of my fellow Mum mates was a bit over it. She’d been overlooked for a promotion at work; someone considerably less qualified and committed had snaffled the position.

I shook my head. Typical.

We stood there for almost a half an hour, beading perspiration in the sun, swapping our stories of fury, disgust, and woe. People who had unfriended us on FaceBook. Unreturned emails. Banking bust ups, bureaucratic battles. The driver who beeped at me because he had to wait while I turned right into the Casuarina Pool car park. A good friend who is waging simultaneous war on Darwin City Council, Kmart, Woolworths, and Big W over abandoned shopping trolleys on her street. The Weetbix encrusted on our kitchen floors like cement. One hour waits at the doctor’s surgery. Things you can’t unsee, like band aids floating in public pools and people using the Foreshore BBQs as a place to relieve themselves. The stale ham and cheese rolls I bought at Coles. Anyone using a leaf blower.

“Why are we even talking about this?” my friend asked. “Who even cares? For starters, that job would be a whole lot more work for no extra money.”

I shrugged. All personal slights are worse in the build up, I said.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, they say. But what if all you’re doing is sweating?

On the way home, I got cut off mid-lane while going through the traffic lights.

Jesus! I slammed on the brakes. What even was that?

“Jesus!” parroted Little Tea from the back.

I decided it was time to abandon the road rage and the griping and the personal slights and find some joy in all this humidity. I started stalking the suburbs, the shops, the twists of beach and creek and bike path near my house. It might not fill a stadium or even a cinema, but there were definitely pockets of the stuff.

Humidity joy.

The tata lizards that frenzy along the fence line and across Trower Road.

Mildly rubbish image because they move so fast, definitely not because I’m a shit photographer…

Scales of light shimmering in the swimming pool.

Frill-necked lizards that prance down the middle of the street, like yoga divas in active wear.

Mangos the colour of sunset, spilling out of crates and car boots, for sale all along the Stuart Highway.

Licks of thunder and unexpected early rain wrung from passing storm clouds.

Flocks of magpie geese gathering on school ovals, like teenagers swapping swigs and ciggies.

Then the bursts of colour on suburban verges, flowery ice cream cones amid the foliage.

The bright ‘80s pink of stretching bougainvillea strands. Frangipanis rimmed with gold. The flame trees that blind the weary driver.

If you’re really glass half-full about the whole thing, there’s even novelty in the temperature drop when you move from the side of the footpath in full sun, to the side shaded by building awnings. Hot. Slightly less hot. Hot.

And when I think about it some more, I realise how many significant life moments have happened for me in the build up.

There have been road trips and relocations, from Darwin to Broome, and Alice Springs back to Darwin. Some regrettable and highly avoidable boggings. A particularly outrageous house party that featured gold lame bikini cartwheels, a recreation of the crucifixion, and illegal skinny dipping. Another which featured rainbow leggings, leotards, and a memorable dance-off between the People’s Republic of Jingili and the United States of Millner. The Cold Chisel concert six years ago that marked the beginning of Mr Tea and me.

Over a decade of build ups, I’ve found people and I’ve lost them, too.

Maybe I can see the build up’s virtue as a time of transition. Of growth, change. Anticipation and evolution and creation instead of damp, unruly catastrophe. The season becomes an active verb. We are building up.

I don’t have to search too far for more examples; one of them is sitting in my living room. A robust nearly two-year-old: the epitome of frustration, sweat, and tears. A boy who tantrums when he is separated from that beloved orange tractor to sit in the high chair. Because he needs the green shorts, not the blue ones. And he wants popcorn instead of vegetables for dinner.

But around these gusts of rage, there are also joys, plenty of them. There are micro steps and great leaps forward. Two months ago, Little Tea didn’t know his own name. Now the sentences have two, three words, sometimes four. He can drink from a cup (sort of), make fart jokes, pack up his toys (if he feels like it) and pull a coffee table book filled with Northern Territory wildlife from the shelf and identify all the birds. Brolga, jacana, ‘poonbill, darter, he recites, flipping the pages from my lap.

Strange to think that almost two years ago, I was sitting right here, gestating in the build up. I was cooking and cleaning and packing a chest freezer with meals, mostly stews and soups, comfort food ill-suited to our life in the tropics. Then I’d put up my legs when my ankles tripled in size. Those were hot days, too, a hot daze, in the hottest part of Australia, during a heat wave. The air was as warm as my blood and the poinciana trees were bright red, as they would be every year on Little Tea’s birthday.

And this year, I’m building something again. Eyelid by eyelid, toenail by toenail, organ by organ. My body is swollen with the construction of it all, with the weather, and also the $1 packets of mixed lollies I’m compelled to buy at the Nightcliff IGA. It’s familiar territory, and also different. There are new symptoms, flutters I might not have recognised previously, but I’m still waiting, wondering. Watching, worrying, and waiting some more. Our daughter is due in March, along with the last of the rains.

The more I think about it, the trudge towards the proper monsoon season is just like pregnancy. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Like build up air, you breathe it all in, every clammy mouthful, until the taste ricochets from tongue to toe. Until you’re spent, exhausted, wasted. The small joys are profound, but so are the indignities, the frustrations. The melancholy can be crippling. The craziness is gripping.

But eventually the waters break. Sometimes early, sometimes late. You scream or you don’t, while the whole gushing thing plays itself out, like the best and worst music of your life. Epic, grinding, bloody, and finally, euphoric.

Then, the build up is over. There’s relief. New life. And the caravan goes on.

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Have child, will travel

I’m a mum now. It’s never so obvious as when I pack my hand luggage for our trip to Bali. Oh, and when the obstetrician put a purple splay of limbs on my chest after 14 hours of labour and said, here’s something that will prevent you from sleeping, ever, ever again. Deal with that as best you can. But yeah, apart from that, definitely the hand luggage. In goes: ten nappies, three spew cloths, a baby sleeping bag, one packet of wipes, a handful of plastic bags, two rattles, an industrial sized bottle of hand sanitiser, a breastfeeding pillow and an artisanal rubber giraffe called “Sophie”. The backpack is stuffed to zipper-popping proportions and none of the stuffing is for me. In the end, I manage to squeeze in a kindle and a set of head phones for myself. And my passport. I remember a meme I saw wandering around the internet before I gave birth:

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie.”

I remind myself of that annoying piece of interweb trite as I caress my laptop lovingly before moving it from the “to be packed” pile and placing it under a mess of t-shirts in my cupboard so no robbers will ever find it. Stupid, sacrificing, self-flagellating motherhood. Give me my goddamned pie. And Microsoft Word. And the second season of The Americans. But it’s not all bad, I guess. We’re going to Bali for a family holiday – Me, Mr Tea and Baby Tea, who is now six and a half months and teething like a rabid dog. And who’s got time for laptopping anyway?

A word on Bali, especially for the postgraduate, single origin coffee drinkers amongst you. When I lived Down South, no one went to Bali for holidays. Well, sure, some people did, but as far as I was concerned they were mostly sports teams who wanted to drink their body weight in booze and, occasionally, each other’s urine. In a close-minded sweep, of the kind that we love to do in Australia where we assume that other countries exist purely as our playground and have no intrinsic value as a nation or to their locals, I reserved the entire island of Bali for footy bogans and their relatives on extended family holidays, especially if they liked getting their hair braided and having a squawking Kids Club nearby. And why would you lie about by an artificial pool, drinking lurid cocktails and watch other people’s kids savage each other with pool noodles anyway? No, I was going off to eat hot pot in Chengdu, to get diarrhea while trekking the Thai-Burmese border, to go to South Pacific islands without paved roads or green vegetables. It was the traveler’s life for me, by gum.

But when I moved to Darwin, I was forced to rethink my holiday prejudices. Of course, Territorians can still play bogan in Bali as well (if not better) than the rest of Australia. We like a wind chime and a knock off watch as much as the next punter. Many of us dress our toddlers in Bintang singlets and when the question is posed on local social media pages as to whether “midget boxing is a laugh worth seeing?” – there are plenty of compatriots who can (and will) answer, mostly in the affirmative. But the flight to Bali is only two and a half hours away – significantly shorter (and ridiculously cheaper) than grabbing a plane to Melbourne or Sydney. Also I worked full time now. That whole lying by the pool thing had more charm. And the Darwin old hands showed me another side to the Bali holiday equation. They had beautiful Balinese furniture in their homes; they spoke of yoga retreats and cooking courses and charming men called Ketut and Nyoman who could usher one across the island to mystical temples and boutique homestays. It wasn’t all Kuta, beer and skittles, they said. Ubud. Sideman. Amed. Lovina. Nusa Lembongan. Lombok.

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Anyway, I began making a regular pilgrimage to Bali, ostensibly to do yoga but really to read books on a day bed. I’d stay in Ubud, wandering rice paddies and photographing doors and attempting to eat, pray and love, but mostly just eating. On one of my wanderings, I met a woman who’d just come back from the Gili Islands. Gili Air, she said, was magic. Palm trees, white beaches, no cars. Overlooked the island of Lombok. And she’d stayed in a place owned by Nigel from UB40. What a character, she chortled!

I came of age to UB40. When I started watching Rage in the late ‘80s, it was all “Kingston Town”, ad nauseum. The lyrics are as good as I remember:

And when I am king,
surely I would need a queen
And a palace and everything, yeah

UB40 was also the soundtrack to my year in Tonga. You could walk along the main road in Nuku’alofa and listen to “Red, Red Wine” just through the speakers of passing cars, all tuned to the same radio station. You couldn’t buy much in the way of red wine down town, but you could slow jam to it all you wanted, along with Eminem, Kelis and a particularly ubiquitous Pacifica remix of “Who Let the Dogs Out.

And now Bali had discovered my soft spot. Forget white sand and beach front cocktails. There was a chance to meet Nigel from UB40? I made my calls and got on a fast boat. After a slightly sickening trip across, I got off at Gili Trawangan to a sea of bronzed backpackers frolicking in the water. I could wait for an interisland boat to Gili Air, they said, or Nigel himself was just around the corner grabbing supplies and could give me a lift if I stuck around for another hour. So I did. And Nigel picked me up, tattooed and mouthy, with an accent that came straight out of an Essex pub.

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I was beside myself with excitement. And when he offered to buy me a gin and tonic after we rolled out of the outrigger canoe on the nicest stretch of white sand on the island, I rolled up my sleeves with anticipation. Ready for him to confide all the stories from the road, the time he played pool with Mick Jagger, the process they went through to give “Can’t help falling in love with you” a reggae make over, whether Ali Campbell and Maxi Priest ever got into fisticuffs. But Nigel just wanted to talk shop: the resort, the website, how hard it was to get good help around here, etc. I was disappointed but I didn’t want to be uncool. I didn’t push it. If Nigel wanted to forget his days at the helm of UB40, well, that was up to him.

There wasn’t any Wi-Fi to be had on the island in those days, but I checked Wikipedia when I got home. No mention of a Nigel in UB40.

Anyway, such were my previous Bali hijinks. And these are the things you can do, travelling without a baby! Restaurant hop, snorkel, chase down never-were celebrities, travel between islands without a crate of your favourite disposable nappies. I wasn’t convinced that Bali with a baby would be as much fun.

I remember my grandmother rolling her eyes once when recalling a particular family holiday at the beach. “Everyone else had a very nice time,” she sniffed. “But I just had to do a lot of cooking in a kitchen that wasn’t nearly as good.” Is that what a holiday with a baby means, I wondered? Not sleeping, but in an exotic location? Breastfeeding, changing nappies and reading Where is the Green Sheep? for the eleventy millionth time (spoiler: that sheep is always asleep, smug little fuck) without all the infrastructure at home that makes it easier?

And the whole process of Becoming Mummy has taken some work for me, much more than I expected. I’d always wanted to have kids, and yet I often found myself mourning my child free life, feeling around for it like a phantom limb, even the bits of it that weren’t that good, like being seriously ill for two years or meeting Nigel from UB40 only to have him bitch about his work-life balance on a beautiful tropical island. And also not actually be from UB40.

I dropped into work with Baby Tea a few months ago, and one of my colleagues looked up at me curiously. “So what’s it like, being a mum?” she said.

Gosh, I stammered. Exhausting! Hard. But good. Yeah, hard but good.

As if motherhood was a yin-yang, swirls of black and white with a tiny circle of hard in the good, and a tiny circle of good in the hard. Later, I berated myself. Motherhood: exhausting! Hard but good! Surely I can do better than that! My younger colleague probably didn’t care anyway, but I felt like I’d done my new life a reductive disservice. Still, I wasn’t really sure how to describe it.

Motherhood. Was it those first six weeks when it felt like I was hit by a truck, every single day? The parts of my body that were cracked, torn, fissured? The hunger that had me eyeing off Mr Tea’s dinner plate every single meal, all “are you gonna eat that?” Was it regret: that I used to talk about important things like politics and journalism and The Bachelor and now I said things like “How did you get food in your ear?”, “Gentle with mummy” and “Come on, all the other babies are wearing their hats”. Or the jealousy that shot through my body when I heard that someone else was going to live in New York, had published their first book, was putting on a festival show? The feeling that I was a fraud of a mother, singularly ill-equipped to deal with a tiny person, who shat and screamed and cried without explanation?

Or was it the way I would choke up singing songs or reading stories to him because he was so goddamned beautiful? Hard but good didn’t touch the smell of his breath: gummy, warm and milky. Or the time he was nuzzling into my shoulder and I thought we were having a moment but actually he was busy pulling on a blanket behind my head. And hard but good seemed wholly inadequate to describe my 5am fit of exhausted hysterics when Baby Tea did a projectile wee into his own mouth, a perfect looping arc of piss.

Of course, being a Mum is all those things. Feeling—and being—fraudulent, exhausted and elated all at the same time. The hunger, the crying, the stories and the songs, the piss in the mouth. It’s all of the light and all of the dark, all things ordinary and extraordinary.

And in travel, as in life.

Our trip to Bali with a baby in tow was great. Not because I “found myself”; I didn’t. Not because I realised my new life as a mother is better or worse than being childless; it isn’t. Not because the holiday was perfect; it wasn’t. We breastfed endlessly in uncomfortable chairs, read the Mem Fox canon for hours, administered baby Panadol in desperation at 3am, dealt with overflowing bodily fluids in the back of taxis. At one point, Baby Tea was crying inconsolably at the airport. I’d fed him, we’d changed nappies, jiggled him, sung songs, shown him the planes from the window. Eventually I handed him over to Mr Tea and muttered something about needing to go to the toilet. I didn’t. I wandered through the bookshop, washed my face, bought ice cream, briefly fantasised about catching the plane home solo (or to, say, Berlin) and then slowly, reluctantly returned to my boys.

“See?” Mr Tea said to our babe. “I told you she’d come back!”

“You have my passport,” I replied.

But overall, travelling with a baby rocked, in a way that I never expected. Cranky old men melted. Balinese women gushed. They told me birth stories and added to the obscure parenting advice column: “Shave his head three times!” “Don’t let him eat pineapple before he turns one!” Immigration officials were kind. They let themselves stop looking for drugs or terrorists for a few moments and tickled Baby Tea’s chin or exclaimed over his newly minted chompers – “Rabbit teeth!” Airport queues were easier, friendlier places. Groovy Malaysian teens took selfies with him. Japanese tour groups pointed at him like he was Lady Gaga doing a fashion shoot on location. Language was less of a barrier. Strangers gave us things and talked to us and picked him up for cuddles. I took him down to see the seaweed farms on the southern tip of Nusa Lembongan, but mostly just to bask in his radiated glory as we walked around. When we climbed out of the pick-up truck on return, a girl I didn’t recognise from our resort yelled out, “Hello Baby Tea!” I must have looked confused so she said, “Don’t worry! We all of us loving Baby Tea so much!”

I got time to wallow in those jolts of joy and the growling, protective love that comes from the bottom of my belly, even despite bouts of hammering sleep deprivation and the occasional, shameful, running away fantasy. I found some space this holiday for the old me and the new, the life I’m not leading and the life I am.

And you know something? I reckon that Kids Club/lurid cocktails/toddlers in Bintang singlets concept has more merit than I previously thought. Maybe next holiday.

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Only in the Territory – The Baby Edition

You know you’ve given birth in the NT when…

Your obstetrician comes in to break your waters in what looks like his pyjamas and a pair of crocs.

Another local mum-to-be solicits on Facebook: “Wanted: stripper for baby shower…who is willing to dress in a nappy…only needed for 10 minutes. Will pay in beer.”

You find yourself on a plane heading Down South five weeks after birth and your child starts screaming when you put a jumpsuit on him. You realise this is the first time he has worn clothes.

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You emerge from childbirth to the news that another NT politician has resigned.

One of the midwives tells you about how she took her two-week-old on a prawn trawler from Cairns to the Torres Strait (ie: you should toughen up and stop crying about breastfeeding already).

A fellow in-patient offers to do a Maccas run for everyone on the ward.

There are lengthy conversations with your significant other about how close you can get to the due date before all fishing/sailing/boating/camping/4WD expeditions must cease.

At some point in your third trimester, you find yourself bogged, on a dubiously small charter plane, in the middle of flood waters or in a boat without a back up fuel tank.

The hospital car park features multiple examples of bush mechanic mastery.

Croc spotted at Royal Darwin Hospital.

Croc spotted at Royal Darwin Hospital.

On the tour of the hospital prior to giving birth, partners are offered the chance to try out the nitrous oxide. One of the younger dads volunteers eagerly. “You feeling that yet?” asks the midwife in charge. He shakes his head, shakes his head, shakes his head and then lets out a big sigh. “Woah,” he says. “Yeah. That’s good. Kinda like being stoned.” He looks up with a start. “I mean, if you’ve ever done that.”

The anaesthetist gives you an epidural and turns around to your partner and says, “You much of a fisherman?” When Mr Tea looks bemused and says yes, he is gifted the one-use only medical pliers “for his tackle box”.

The hospital birth classes include the gentle suggestion that Dads might want to “wet the baby’s head” with fifty of their closest friends OUTSIDE of the maternity ward.

You spend a good part of your last childless day watching the epic kitchen bench battle between a cockroach and a plucky bunch of green ants.

It was looking good for the green ants for awhile but in the end Goliath the cockroach won, despite missing a few legs. Which is why they will survive the apocalypse.

It was looking good for the green ants for awhile but in the end Goliath the cockroach won, despite missing a few legs. This is pictorial evidence of why they will survive the apocalypse.

The first 24 hours is a blur of morphine and birth hormones and it takes until 9pm on day 2 before you realise you don’t know how to change a nappy. One of the midwives kindly offers to give you a little clinic. The nappy pins dispensed by the hospital are a little blunt, so she runs one through her hair to grease it up.

You can hear a string of expletives from the next birthing suite, followed by a shriek: “Get THIS BABY out of ME!” You start to get anxious and the midwife tries to comfort you, “Don’t worry. Her baby’s twice the size of yours and she’s had no pain relief.”

The arguments begin about when you might start attaching a baby capsule to a tinny. (For the record – Me: Never. Mr Tea: Yesterday.)

Your newborn family pictures are interspersed with screen shots of the BOM radar (because yours aren’t the only waters that have broken).

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There’s a bag of mangoes in the patient kitchen.

While you get a blood transfusion, one of the nurses makes small talk about how dogs are less likely to attack after it rains.

The baby pages of the NT News are slightly less funny now that you realise that Quinoa, Kale, Sailor and Shazeeequala will be at your kid’s birthday parties for the next 18 years.

“The backyard pool: How soon is too soon?” is a popular topic of conversation with other new mums.

One of the best presents you receive is a battery-operated fan for the pram.

At a BBQ, comparing birth stories with some other recent mums, one of the partners pipes up. “Childbirth….pfffft…I don’t even know why I had to be there. What did I do, except pat you on the back and say there, there? You’re just a spare prick at a wedding. I’ll tell you the real pain. Getting your kid’s name tattooed on your ribs the next day. Worst 15 minutes of my life.”