Parents in decline

by Craig Cliff

EVERYTHING IS FINE and then one day it isn't. Rogue jets on shower nozzles start spraying at odd angles, getting us in the eye when we open the shower door. Bathmats never seem to dry. When we eat toast a daub of Marmite is left on the corners of our mouths. When we go for a coffee mug it's always one cupboard over, the cake forks always one drawer down.

We strike red lights on the way to work. Arguments over the kitchen roster happen daily. Shoelaces keep coming undone. In our hands the laces feel like cold spaghetti.

Hot days are too hot and coat the bellies of our cars in tar and road metal. Gloomy days promise rain and break that promise: the water seems to hang above us, waiting for the courage to dip a toe into our lives. Our lawns stay green except for brown spots the size of fifty cent pieces, clementines and tea saucers that begin to appear.

Deadlines at work are brought forward. Long hours are put in, genuine late nights, before the deadlines are extended again.

Conversations stop when we enter the room.

Unnecessary apostrophes litter newspaper headlines. Captions name the wrong people. Yesterday's TV listings purport to be today's. Our sports teams lose. Players get injured in new and unlikely ways. There are rumours of iniquity that we suspect will never be substantiated.

New taxes are introduced targeting fringe benefits we actually receive. The roading company that's finally repairing the potholes in our neighbourhood goes into receivership. A large government department announces a small number of layoffs due to restructuring. Friends and siblings worry about their jobs, the future.

We forget to log out of our emails at home. Just once – or once each – but it's enough to leave us shaken.

Possums get into roofs. Starlings nest in gutters. Neighbours have babies, the babies get colic. Our own children remember old fears. They resist bedtime. They beg to be let into our beds or creep beneath our covers by stealth. We dream that we roll on top of them while sleeping, our extra five kilograms -– the eminently losable five that never goes away – suddenly pins us to the mattress as our children fight for air.

We buy stonefruit too late in the season, hoping they haven't been refrigerated.

When the wind blows, tree branches fall on fences, parked cars. Bird's nests lie upside down on footpaths. In the morning we hear the crunch of eggshells beneath our feet.

We talk about it, of course.

'Everything is a little off,' we say.

'We're going to hell in a hand basket.'

All conversations end with: 'You be careful out there.'

It rains properly at last. Jackets lose their waterproofing. Rubbish bins fill with busted umbrellas. Milk sours before its best-before date. Crumpets are mouldy after one day.

We continue to dream, continue to vex each other with our own tediousness.

I am on a road trip. 'Do we have another set of keys?' I ask Katrina, looking at the campervan we have parked on a high-arcing bridge across a calm harbour. 'No,' she replies as the keys to our campervan, our hotel room, the padlocks on our suitcases, our front and back doors back home, my childhood home and the safety deposit box that exists only in my dreams are blown from my grasp. I watch them go down, down, down into the water.

We wake with tight jaws.

Tissues are secreted in pockets when we do the laundry. T-shirts shrink. Elastic goes in underpants.

Our cars need warrants of fitness. Tyres don't have enough tread. Brake lights are on the fritz. Driving away from the mechanics, hundreds of dollars poorer, strange lights begin to flash on dashboards.

I am taking a bath and, though the taps are off, the water continues to rise. I pull the plug but the water keeps rising until it slides over the lip of the bath and cascades onto the floor. Aaron comes into the bathroom and berates me. Somehow we both know it's my fault.

Emma Hayes, the high school girl who has babysat once or twice for everyone but isn't very reliable, goes missing.


MY BUTT STARTS bleeding. I go to the doctor. It's not cancer, just a fissure of the anus. I've been over-extending myself, pushing too hard on the toilet. It'll heal. I'm given a pamphlet on fibre and told to look up a clip on YouTube that shows what a year's worth of an American's crap looks like, compared to that of an African tribesman. I don't ask where in Africa he's from – it's a big place – as I might actually watch the clip.

I'm careful. I eat more fibre. I don't push too hard.

My butt keeps bleeding.

I tell Her because maybe I'm not alone in this inconvenience, given everything else that's happened.

'Really?' She says. 'You told me that?'

'I just thought… Did they ever find Emma Hayes?'

'She turned up two days later with a sore throat and a bad tattoo.'

I eat bran flakes, raw broccoli, raspberries, savoy cabbage, puy lentils, pinto beans, edamame, avocado, artichoke hearts, turnip greens. I try to stay seated as much as possible to help my fissure heal. I roll around work in my office chair: to the printer, to talk to Joel in the next cubicle, to the water cooler. The only place I don't sit down is the toilet. I squat like my doctor mentioned the tribesman did in the YouTube clip that I know by now I'll never watch.

The mayor is having an affair with an advisor many years her junior. It's all over the news.

The brown patches on our lawns grow to the size of Frisbees, BMX wheels.

She sees me rolling my office chair toward the elevator and looks away.

I worry about the blood I'm losing, all that iron. I eat more red meat, medium rare at first, then rare, then blue. I eat carpaccio for the first time, steak tartar. I start hankering for horsemeat and buy dodgy frozen meals. Spaghetti Bolognese. Shepherd's Pie. Katrina squints at me, as if she's just stepped out onto the street after a matinee performance. As if she recognises the shape of me, but can't yet make out my features. She continues making meals for herself, Reuben and Olivia. 'You do what you gotta do,' she says, her voice dripping with admonition.

We meet at the beach house. 'What's new?' I ask, meaning, 'What new thing has gone wrong in your life?'

'My phone battery won't hold a charge anymore,' She says. 'There's a piece of popcorn, a fragment of hard kernel, stuck between my molars.' I wonder when She went to the movies, and with whom. 'Oh, and because of my phone, I keep missing calls from an unknown number. I think it might be my dentist. How's your butt?'

'You don't really want to know.'

'You're right, I don't.'

'It only bleeds when, you know, I go.'

'So…this,' She says, dismissing the living room of the beach house, its threadbare rug and isobars of sand, its Louis L'Amour novels and potted cactus, with a wave of Her hand. We've made love on that rash-causing rug. We've lounged half-naked, reading choice passages to each other from High Lonesome and Borden Chantry.

I bow my head.

When I get home Reuben has sprained his ankle. Olivia's swallowed Bernard T Bear's right eye. Katrina is searching for her favourite pair of earrings. The dog is outside eating grass.

'Things should get better from now on,' I tell them.


THINGS DO NOT get better. The dog dies. The neighbour's dog dies. The canine epidemic sweeps through town. There are stories of people taking healthy dogs into the woods and shooting them.

Emma Hayes disappears again.

A swarm of plastic shopping bags menaces the supermarket car park. Eggs break in their cartons and cover the zucchini and coriander in albumen.

Louvre windows refuse to open. The dollar soars. Exporters throw in the towel. Still, the price of petrol continues to rise. The young man who was sleeping with the mayor takes his life. People want to know how he did it – it's all they talk about at work the next day – but for once the media is coy.

There's no word about Emma Hayes.

'How's the keister?' She asks me at work.

'Keister? Where are we, a speakeasy?'

'That'd be nice.'

'Would it?'

I've half expected Her to start losing Her hair, or develop some glandular problem that makes Her puff up like a marshmallow in the microwave. But She looks the same.

'How are your kids?' I ask.

'They fight. But that's normal, I guess. And yours?'

'They're taking the dog thing hard. Olivia refuses to go to playgroup.'

'Mmm. The dog thing. I'm glad we're cat people.'

I bow my head.

'Be careful out there,' She says.

Olivia agrees to re-enter the world if we get another dog. We are not allowed to get another dog, not until they figure out what's causing the canine epidemic.

Reuben no longer sleeps. As soon as we leave his room he's up and watching Aladdin on his iPad. Always Aladdin. His little face is beginning to sag, like an apple tree overburdened with fruit.

'Why Aladdin?' I ask my son, my sweet boy overburdened with consciousness.

'Flying carpets,' he replies.

I wait for him to go on, but he doesn't. 'You know I'd get you one if such a thing existed.'

He shrugs his little shoulders.

I find Katrina outside, looking at the lawn. It's patchy but no worse than last week. The trees – those that withstood the gales – look healthy enough in the blue wash of moonlight and other people's televisions. I think of what to say to her. Some message of hope, reassurance. This has just been a blip. A rough patch. We'll soon have another dog.

The phone in my pocket vibrates. I consider whether to step back inside and answer or slide my hand between Katrina's straight black hair and her neck and be hopeful and reassuring. It's stupid and self-centred of me, but it feels as if the fate of the world rests on this decision. I am stupid and self-centred. The fate of the world rests on this decision.

And I could go either way.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 44: Cultural Solutions © Copyright Griffith University & the author.