‘Drop-off Time’ by Kelly Chandler

Kelly Chandler is a writer, editor and Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellow. During her fellowship she is writing about step-parenting and what it feels like to be called someone’s ‘spare mum’. Her project, called The Other Mother, is a mixture of memoir, essays and interviews. This story is an extract from the memoir and is set about six months after Kelly started seeing Pete, and his two young boys: Luca and Charlie.

Image: Anne Roberts (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Maybe Mum’s right, I need to bribe them into liking me. Especially Luca, who is three and already wising up to my awkwardly placed fart jokes. He’s also starting to smell my thinly veiled fear of small children.

I know he is obsessed with trains, so on my lunch break today I found a toyshop and bought a gold freight train. I even checked the gauge so it goes with his train set at home, that’s how strategic I am.

The plan is to hold on to this shiny thing until I find something equally awesome for his older brother. Then I’ll find the perfect moment to bestow gifts, then receive a shower of love and gratitude in return.

Probably I’ll give up the goods sooner, though, like the very next time Luca fixes me with that stare and says, ‘No! I don’t want Kelly here’.

It’s drop-off time.

Pete’s ex-wife and her new bloke stand at the front door with green shopping bags full of clothes to exchange and rumpled notes about school excursions.

Drop-off. This is what happens to me when the kids come back to us: I drop out of my regular life and into a very loud, very messy, inner-suburban terrace-shaped vortex.

At the front door, Luca cries as though there’s a hole in his heart. His mum tries to soothe him with a high voice. His mum’s boyfriend uses a deep voice to make conversation with Pete. Charlie is up there with them, quietly taking it all in.

To avoid the whole crazy scene, I cower in the kitchen.

Charlie wanders down the hallway and finds me perched on the bench, leaning back on one hand so that my reflection can’t be seen from the front door.

We only saw him last week, but he seems suddenly older, like a real prep kid. He walks with his chest out and holds his shoulders differently. Maybe that’s a sign he is overwrought, or hanging out for a proper hug from his dad, or simply stuck in the kitchen with a woman on a weird angle. I don’t know his signals yet and there’s no David Attenborough series on small children for me to torrent.

We don’t have much to say to each other. A friend told me once about a new mother in suburbia, smiling anxiously at her infant son. ‘I just don’t know what to say to him,’ she told her neighbour. Now I know how she feels.

Luca chases his mum to the car for another cuddle and his howls echo down the hallway as Pete carries him inside.

The couch is too small for the four of us, so I hover while Pete administers toddler sedatives: Dora the Explorer. I wish I hadn’t had that glass of wine. I wish I had more wine in my glass. It feels unnatural being so close to other people’s kids. I have enough trouble getting to know other adults. It’s like having new housemates all over again, except that I’m no longer the shortest in the room.

I’m scared to make eye contact with Luca in case he starts crying again. Instead, I look toward the Tupperware cupboard where I’ve hidden the golden train and think…now? Could I bring it out now and save the day? But it feels like such a cheap trick.

‘Wrestle!’ calls Pete.

There’s a tangle of limbs and high-pitched squeals that test the limits of human hearing. Luca breaks away and targets me like a lion with its prey: he roars and I brace for impact as he throws himself at me and, impossibly, I catch him without doing either of us an injury. The crowd goes wild.

‘Again!’ calls Luca.

We’re all flushed and smiling, collapsed together on the couch. The tension broken. It’s bedtime.

I sit at the kitchen bench while Pete settles his boys, and think about dodgy Gwyneth Paltrow movies. Sliding Doors in particular. The different futures I can imagine for myself.

Occasionally, Mum mentions a chap she dated in high school. He’s a prawn farmer up north now. Her eyes fill with humidity as she takes her mind up the coast to an old house on stilts, designed to catch the afternoon breeze. Would they be happier together, despite the smell of crustaceans? In love for a long time? Would they raise a crop of burly blond children? Would they be good kids? Would her ankles still swell in the heat? It’s hard to see.

After we go to bed ourselves, the house is dark except for the comet tail of dust and gas that trails off my interactions with this strange new cluster of humans.

After we go to bed ourselves, the house is dark except for the comet tail of dust and gas that trails off my interactions with this strange new cluster of humans.

Sleep rolls over and puts its back to me. Pete is so still that I’m certain he is awake, or maybe dead, and the longer I leave it the less I know what to do next. I run through some different tomorrows.

Like when Luca says: ‘I want Kelly to go away’, I will let go of my teacup so it smashes to the ground and yell: ‘Well, fuck you too,’ and storm out. Never come back. I will sneak back in to my old one-bedroom apartment and return to watching Rage and eavesdropping on drunk passers-by.

Maybe I could find a nice new man with no children. But it took so long to find this man. I like this man, with his symmetrical head and big, kind brain. I don’t want to imagine any other man.

Maybe his ex-wife will move overseas and just take the kid who hates me. But then I’d only have two-thirds of a Pete. Less.

Maybe she’ll move overseas without the boys and we’ll have them both full time and eventually I’ll turn into one of those stepmothers on the frozen sidelines at the under-10s footy on Sunday mornings, cheering when the team kicks its only goal for the quarter.

We could try to grow a girl together to offset all those penises, but girls become teenagers and I’ve got some payback coming to me for the way I treated my own mum and stepmother. Plus there’s no guarantee we’ll have a girl, and then we’ll have three boys.

Oh my. I’m going to end up driving a seven-seater all over the city, taking the kids from sports practice to swimming lessons to piano, then one party to another until they finally get their driver’s licences. Then Pete and I will lie awake in the darkness, listening for the door and hoping that they make it home safely. Then when we find out they’re taking drugs we haven’t heard of, we’ll have to try them ourselves so that we know what we’re dealing with. I don’t think my liver can handle that any more.

Down the hall, I hear Luca call out in his sleep.

‘Give it to me! Give it to me! Give it to me!’ he says.

He is only three years old and dreaming about trains again with his little fists clenched. I am nearly 40 and it’s time to grow up.

Beside me, Pete shakes himself awake and goes to check on his little boy.

 

Portrait of Kelly Chandler

Kelly Chandler has been published in the Age, The Lifted Brow, Griffith Review, Big Issue, Slow Guide, Death Mook and New Zealand Herald. A former editor of Voiceworks, Chandler was chair of the National Young Writers’ Festival and journalist trainer at the trilingual Independent newspaper in Vanuatu.

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