It’s 8.30 am and he’s trying to hurry his daughter out the door. She’s doing her usual morning panic – suddenly remembering that it’s Thursday and she needs her library bag. He never yells at her while she’s flapping around the house trying to find things. Instead he relishes the time to think about where he will be in less than an hour.
And that’s enough to keep him calm.
‘Come on, Dad. We’re going to be late.’
He smiles at that. As if it’s nothing to do with her. ‘Did you kiss your mum?’
‘She’s in the shower.’
He doesn’t take her hand as they cross the road. She’s too old for that now, she says. But she still expects him to carry her school bag. He doesn’t mind. He likes the feel of the little pink strap cutting into his shoulder, crumpling his suit and marking him as a parent.
When his daughter first started school he never took her in the mornings. She would nag him to, but he was already at work by the time she woke. He never knew her teachers or saw her classroom, or managed to make it to special school assemblies. And then it all changed at last year’s school picnic, and Thursday suddenly became the day he could go in late.
They walk quietly, each lost in thought. She’s wondering how to avoid doing sport. And he’s thinking about what he will say to Luke’s mother. How he will start it this week. What small talk they’ll make as they move away from the watchful eyes of the other parents.
‘I don’t feel very well.’
‘You’ll be fine.’
‘No really. I don’t.’
‘You’ll be okay.’
He speeds up a bit now. Walks faster, making her skip to keep up. He can’t have this conversation. He can’t let her think they’ll turn back. She’s always going on about feeling sick. A funny tummy. A sore throat. He’s used to it. All kids do it. He knows that. But she can’t be sick on Thursdays.
‘Dad, slow down.’
‘You’ll be late.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Didn’t you want to show me something in class?’
‘Yeah, you did.’
She’s stopped at the edge of the road. When he turns back he can’t believe how tall she is. Even sitting down all scrunched up at the curb, she still looks almost adult size. But the pout, the lip hanging over, is pure child. He’s angry, then. Her backpack is suddenly heavy on his shoulder. He drops it and hears something crunch as it hits the ground. He paces across the road, daring a car to swipe him. When he reaches her he senses the tears that are about to start and knows he has only moments to calm her before it ends, here on this corner, and they remain trapped by a tantrum.
‘What is it, hon?’
‘You’re not listening.’
Even to him, it sounds pathetic: protesting that he’s a great father, when they both know the truth.
‘No, you’re not.’
‘I feel sick, Dad.’
‘Is it sport?’
He knows about this. He knows how wobbly she can turn on a
‘You sure? Because I spoke to your PE teacher and he said if you don’t want to learn hurdles you can just run. And you like running, don’t you?’
He doesn’t understand how this is happening. He sounds like he’s talking to a five-year-old not a nine-year-old. In six months, she’ll be double digits.
‘It’s not sport. I just feel sick.’
‘Okay. Well let’s keep walking, because we’re already on our way and when we get to school we can go to the sick bay.’
He reaches for her hand now, grabbing it so she can’t change her mind, and he leads her across the road as though she’s elderly.
‘Dad? Did you like school?’
‘Yeah. I liked my friends. I liked playing footy. Reading. And art.’
‘It’s not that bad, is it?’
‘No. It’s okay.’
He’s still holding her hand. It’s sticky, like it was when she was a baby. He lets go, embarrassed. She doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t know much about his daughter anymore. None of the fathers seem to know much about their children now. He used to know things. He remembers when his wife was in hospital for a month and he had to do everything. Make lunch. Take the library books back. Sign forms. Organise play dates. And he was shocked that he could do it all and that it wasn’t actually beyond him. But that was years ago. Now he has trouble keeping up with teachers’ names, and her friendships, and what she likes and doesn’t. They talk sometimes. But it’s different. She asks questions and he reassures. And he’s not even sure he does that very well.
‘Why don’t you like sport?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But it’s fun.’
‘No it’s not.’
‘But you get to be outside.’
‘I never get picked.’
Now he’s angry with her again. He knows she doesn’t get picked because she doesn’t try. She doesn’t care. It’s not important to her to run fast or jump high or throw a ball through a hoop. It’s all beneath her. And the other kids must sense it, so they don’t pick her and it’s her own fault. He would never have picked her at school either. He would have picked the kids who were hungry for it. The same way he now picks his staff.
‘Maybe you should try harder.’
‘Yeah. I do, Dad. I’m just not good at it.’
‘You can be if you try.’ He sees her face then and wonders if he’s gone too far. ‘Sorry.’
‘That’s okay, Dad. You’re probably right.’
‘No, I’m not. I’m not right. If you don’t like sport, you don’t like sport. That’s okay.’
People are always commenting to him about how agreeable his daughter is. How pleasant she is. What good manners she has. It used to make him proud. But now it worries him. She never argues. Never complains about things she does or doesn’t have. Sometimes he tries to push her into a fight, but she never bites, and he wonders what’s missing. He wonders how he created someone so compliant.
‘I really don’t feel well.’
‘But we’re almost there. See?’
They turn the final corner. The roundabout parents fret over when they first start letting their children ride to school alone. His wife wants him to consider letting their daughter walk herself to school. But he can’t. If he does that then he has no legitimate reason to arrive at school on Thursdays. And he likes meeting Luke’s mother there, at the school gate, just as the bell rings. They can pretend they are saying hello, and then the other parents leave and they’re alone. And they can walk off toward the tram stop, but then, suddenly turn down the lane behind her house, to the little gate there.
If he’s not here on Thursdays he worries she will find someone else. Another father to play out her games. What would he do then?
He wonders if he should have worn a different shirt. His wife bought him this one. He wishes he’d left the green one on – the one he bought himself when he was feeling free. But on Thursdays he always dresses in something his wife has bought him. It’s his little concession.
It’s odd, he thinks, as he strides along next to his daughter, that he never actually feels guilty. He should. He knows that. But he doesn’t. He’s doing his bit by walking his daughter to school. He kissed his wife goodbye. Complimented her on the dress she was wearing. Agreed to dinner plans and then left the house like he does every morning. But this is not every morning; this is his little hunger being fed, his little once a week.
His daughter presses the button as they wait for the lights to change. He never understands why she has to press it. A lollipop man does it for them, but she says she likes doing it. Banging it hard, trying to make it turn the lights faster. When she was younger, he would have explained to her how the lights are on a timer, and that nothing anyone does can make them change.
At her house, they don’t talk about their children. He doesn’t even know what Luke looks like. But he does know she likes being licked on the inside of her arm. And that she always washes the sheets on a Wednesday night so that they are clean for their mornings. He knows she likes it quiet. She likes to hear him breathe. But he doesn’t know how she takes her coffee or if she eats meat. Some moments, when he pulls the little wooden gate shut behind him, smoothes his tie down, and walks off down the cobbled lane, he hates that he knows nothing about her.
When they met, at the school picnic last year, he knew he looked good. He’d tried to get out of going but his wife had insisted. Said if she had to suffer through small talk with other parents then he could too. He took a bottle of wine with him. Nobody else did, and his wife scoffed when he held her out a glass. He wanted to tip it over her dress.
But then this small, white, delicate hand had reached out and taken the glass from him and he looked up and that was it. They didn’t bother with small talk. They just knew.
The lights change and he drags his daughter across the road. Only a little way now and he’ll see her. First her lips will f lash red. And then he’ll see her long hair, messy and up. She’ll be wearing something black, marking her as a city-dweller. And those quick eyes will spot him before he spots her, and he’ll have to swallow the smile that grows in his throat.
Across the road he smiles at the limping lollipop man with his vest too tight and his shoulders too low.
He wishes she’d stop talking. Just walk in silence and shut up. And then he realises that he’s wished that ever since he first taught her to speak. How fast the pride at his daughter’s enormous vocabulary disappeared, to be replaced by the boredom of listening to each word.
He stops then. Ready to yell, to beg, to plead her to stop about her tummy. But as he turns toward her he sees how green she looks. Her face so changed. Her eyes glazed and faraway. If he knew her better, he’d know what she was about to do, but because he’s been absent from these warning signs it comes as a shock when she vomits a cascade of spew down over his trousers and onto his favourite shoes. And then it’s too late to jump back, to turn her round and lean her into a garden. It’s done. He’s stained with it.
‘Ah, fuck! ’
All around him are other parents, walking to school. They pull their children to them to avoid whatever contagious mess has just happened in front of them. He’s so stunned that he doesn’t even think to be embarrassed.
‘That’s better. My tummy’s okay now.’
‘Well my shoes aren’t. There’s carrot on them.’
He doesn’t know what to do. He can feel the vomit seeping through his pants and wetting his legs. He won’t make it to school. He won’t see her. He won’t touch her. And he can’t even phone to explain why.
The lollipop man is smirking. He wants to punch him, but he can’t with his daughter watching. He knows it must look funny. But to him, right now, with vomit dripping onto the ground, and his daughter staring up at him with her big, brown eyes, he just wants to leave his life behind.
He doesn’t know where they come from, but he feels tears running down his cheeks.
‘Dad? You okay?’
Dad. Such a forceful sound for such a small word. It used to make him happy hearing it, but now it just makes him cry even harder. Drop down onto the ground where the vomit smells, and his pants are wet, and sob. It’s all just choking out of him. Noise and snot and bubbles of salt all pour out of him, like they’ve been trapped underground.
He hears the lollipop man blow his whistle. The pedestrian-crossing sounds. More kids file past on bikes, scooters, feet. One calls out hello to his daughter, and another one laughs. A parent stops and asks if everything’s okay, but he can’t stop crying, can’t answer.
His daughter stands over him now. She looks down on the bald patch on the top of his head, and sees the dandruff worming its way down around his neck. She doesn’t know what to do either. Her dad’s never done this before. But she likes him down there, on the ground. Sad and little.
She reaches out and slides her hands under his arms, burrowing around to his back and hugs him. Hugs him so hard she thinks she might break in half. He sort of leans into her and she into him, so that together they hold each other up, balancing like a squat wooden top. And she thinks how nice he smells, even with all the vomit around them, and she really hopes she’ll be just like him when she grows up.