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