This is an edited extract from Boomer & Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s, published this month.
We wake to the shrill of the phone. It’s Vanessa, calling to announce that she’ll be arriving early. She’s decided to make a banner, and she needs my help.
Last night, after more drinks than usual, I’d already begun to regret my decision to accompany Vanessa to the G20 protest. It’s the end of a long working week and the last thing I want is to leave the house and walk around the city – for any reason. Let alone to spend the morning knitting together a tentative new friendship. But I’ve made the commitment, and there’s no turning back without seeming rude, not to mention shallow.
Besides, as I’d told my childless friends Nikki and Kabita last night, an invitation to an anti-globalisation protest is a novelty in the schoolyard. And, as I didn’t tell my friends, Vanessa seems oblivious to the fact that I somehow don’t fit in there. Unlike most other mothers, who make conversation about the weather and the teacher but never cross the line into intimacy, she doesn’t seem to mind that I’m so much younger than them, that I share custody of my son with his father, that I don’t own a house or belong to a playgroup. When, a few weeks ago, I tentatively approached her on the bitumen beside the school’s community garden as our sons giggled and whispered to each other, she accepted my invitation for Angus to come and play at our house – and what’s more, she returned the invitation a week later. The few other times I’ve approached mothers to extend a play-date invitation, they’ve come up with reasons why it won’t work, not today. Only Conor and Seth (whose down-to-earth dad picks him up) have been over to play, or vice-versa.
When I arrived to pick up Leo, Vanessa invited me into the hallway, sat me on the couch in her gleaming display-home family room, and confided about her issues with her mother and her passion for the writings of George Monbiot as she filled two latte glasses at her bench-top espresso machine.
At last, I’d thought, as I left the house an hour later, having accepted the invitation to today’s protest, I think I’ve found a friend with kids! Conveniently forgetting that I do have two whole friends with kids: Lucy and Linda. But Lucy is from the world of the schoolyard, while Linda is from the world of work, of books. Vanessa seems like she might be a border-crosser.
When Vanessa rings the doorbell, I’m standing barefoot on the bathroom tiles, shrugging my hips into jeans. Remnants of last night’s mascara are – I will later discover – smudged from my eyelashes in a charcoal bruise halfway down my cheek. Vanessa is dressed for the protest in t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, sensibly armed with a backpack and water bottle, her medium-brown hair scraped back in a no-fuss ponytail. She edges uncomfortably through the doorway, three rolls of packing tape under one arm, two enormous slabs of white card under the other. After the obligatory exchange of cheek-pecks, I lead her down the hallway, wrestling the placards – almost as tall as I am – out the back door and onto the back deck, where I perch on the arm of our outdoor couch and continue the work of waking up.
After telling me how the nice lady at Mitre Ten had given her these discarded cardboard advertisements for free and helped confirm they were just right for a protest banner, Vanessa springs into action. Do I have scissors? String? A lead pencil? I obediently fetch the requisite tools, then shuffle back to my position on the couch, angling my damp hair towards the sun. I’ve been to protests before, but never prepared to this level. I think I’d kind of shambolically grabbed supplies for the day (water, camera, purse – and if with Leo, books and food for him) and lurched out the door.
‘What do you think we should write?’ asks Vanessa, her sneakers flexed beneath her as if for take-off, knees bent purposefully forward.
‘I don’t know,’ I say dumbly, wishing we could forgo the banner in favour of breakfast along the way. Perhaps at a cafe in the city. Degraves? Poached eggs on toast, a latte…
Vanessa has a few ideas, she says. Her first one seems fine: Free Trade Makes Third World into Fourth World. I don’t have anything better in mind. In fact, I’m still preoccupied with food fantasies, interspersed by pondering whether I said anything stupid over last night’s drinks. And whether – as I watch across the straggled lawn through the shield of my sunglasses – my husband is planning to strip our lemon tree in its entirety. He’s on his way to visit the anti-whaling boat, the Sea Shepherd, with his best friend Carlo and his wife Jane. He is systematically filling large green shopping bags with donations for the cause.
Vanessa traces out her slogan in careful block letters on the cardboard, having first wiped it clean and dried it in the sun for five minutes, the end signalled by her wristwatch alarm.
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ she says. ‘But do you think you could help?’
‘Oh. Sure.’ I join her kneeling on the deck. We chat idly about school as we form letters using strips of packing tape. I begin to enjoy myself. It’s a bit like school art class, or playing ‘making things’ with Leo, who’s at his dad’s this weekend. I wish he were coming with us – he’d be having a wonderful time right now.
‘Don’t you think,’ says Vanessa, leaning back on her heels and frowning critically at my handiwork, ‘that you should be using three strips of tape for each stroke of the letters?’
I meekly add extra strips to my undernourished half of the sign.
Tony brushes my cheek goodbye as he leaves for Port Melbourne with his three bags of lemons. The tree seems unmarked by the raid; its branches still heavy with the remaining fruit. Vanessa glances at her watch. ‘Shit,’ she says. ‘We’d better hurry.’
Driving through Footscray, ABC Radio commentators talk about the crowd gathering in front of the State Library. It’s 12.10 pm. We’re running late, but we have a beautifully executed banner in the back seat.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Vanessa. ‘I got up early but I just got sidetracked. I should have been at your house earlier.’
‘That’s fine.’ I don’t mention that I wouldn’t have been up – or have answered the phone – earlier anyway.
We park in North Melbourne and take the tram to the city. Passengers struggle to manoeuvre past our banner, folded in half where the tape joins the two placards. We step off at Bourke Street Mall and Vanessa prepares to unfurl her handiwork.
‘Let’s wait until we get there,’ I say quickly, self-conscious in the crowd of shoppers milling in the sunshine. We pass the queue in front of the Myer Christmas windows: children in strollers, families with fistfuls of shopping bags.
‘We should open the banner now,’ says Vanessa. ‘We’ve got a captive crowd!’
‘Let’s not,’ I say. ‘We’ll get in people’s way.’
We talk about the idea of bringing the kids as we turn onto the river of people on Swanston Street.
‘Miles was shocked when I told him I wanted to bring Angus,’ she says. ‘I told him what you told me – that you took Leo to the S11 protests in his stroller and he was fine.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Oh…’ she pauses, a reel of expressions flickering in her eyes. ‘Nothing.’
Leo had passed a blissful day back then, when S11 meant a globalisation conference, not the demolition of the World Trade Center in New York. I recall him cradled in the lining of an open parka, laid over the tiles of a Southbank cafe, inhaling milk from a bottle as friends and I ate lunch. A friend of his dad’s – a journalist – holding Leo before a blank-faced police line, both of them smiling for the camera. He’d been passed around for hugs and photo opportunities, entertained by parades of shouting clowns, tulle-skirted hippies and amped-up bongo drummers.
When we get to the State Library, the crowd is underwhelming. Less than the five thousand estimated on the radio this morning, which Vanessa and I had scoffed at as inadequate on the way here.
‘Oh,’ she says, standing deflated behind her banner. ‘I thought there’d be about ten thousand.’
‘Yeah.’ A wave of exhaustion crashes over me. Lightheaded, I glance hungrily across the road at Melbourne Central shopping centre, where there’s a food court. Vanessa unzips a lunchbox from her backpack and offers a shortbread biscuit – a practice run, she says, for baking with the kids at school next week. Accepting with more enthusiasm than I’ve mustered all morning, I wonder where all her energy comes from, vaguely aware of being a wet blanket.
Vanessa talks animatedly, between shortbread bites, about George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent and the notion that third-world nations should withdraw from dealing with first-world governments; have their own treaties. If only more stay-at-home mums spent their free time reading Monbiot and forming theories about global justice, I think admiringly. After all, it’s the middle-class, home-owning, interest-rate-fearing mums and dads who drive politicians’ actions.
I see myself as socially aware, politically informed. But somewhere along the way, thinking about jobs and overseas trips – and before that, impending marriage – I’ve lost touch. I skim the right newspapers and websites, watch Four Corners while I eat my post-dinner chocolate ice cream, and occasionally fall asleep with Lateline on the television at the end of the bed. But I haven’t been engaging with the ideas I find – rather, I observe them as part of the rolling backdrop to daily life, like the weather reports.
The last protests I attended were against the 2003 war in Iraq, as we were poised on the brink of invasion. I read books on the situation and interviewed the authors. I organised political events at the bookshop I worked at. On the night of one major anti-war protest, I was among a crowd in our basement bookshop as protestors marched and chanted overhead. My colleagues and I took time off to march in another protest, joining it as it passed the shop, marching under a lovingly prepared banner emblazoned with our shop’s logo. That was four years ago.
Standing at the State Library in my sensible sandals and cheesecloth embroidered shirt, outwardly the stereotype of a right-on protestor, I know that Vanessa is the one actively surfing this particular zeitgeist. I’m just paddling in the shallows behind her.
A dreadlocked 20-something slouches by in torn cargo pants, flashing us the thumbs-up. ‘Nice poster!’ A black-clad hipster with a white card at his belt reading MEDIA snaps a photo from behind an enormous lens, followed by another passerby, grinning in solidarity from behind a camera phone.
‘She did most of it,’ I admit.
A diverse crowd lolls on the library lawns. Some listen intently to the speakers, who pour words into megaphones from the back of a ute parked by the kerb. Others talk and laugh among themselves, sharing food and snapping photos. Men with bandanas tied over their noses, Zapatista-style, amble past others with slogans across their chests (‘Capitalism makes me see red’). Others seem to be making their political statements in a more abstract manner. As always, there’s a cluster of girls in pink tulle fairy skirts. On the other side of the lawn is a bearded man in an identical skirt, worn over jeans. But there are also middle-aged mum-and-dad types – like us – some of them with kids in tow. Drums and clowns dart in and out of the crowd. It’s like a street fair. But that’s how I remember the S11 protests, too.
The carnival atmosphere is marred only by the flanks of police, many of them in riot gear: plastic face masks, batons. A row of stone-faced officers in reflective yellow vests lines the kerb of Swanston Street. Watching them, my confidence erodes at the edges, just a little. I remember arriving home from S11 flushed with the satisfaction of a good day out, then fielding calls from my family and friends who’d been absent, all of them breathless with sensational news reports and fears for our safety. I’d reassured them we were fine, as Leo pawed through a brightly coloured board book on the couch.
As the march finally begins, half an hour after our late arrival, I make sure we aren’t in the first few rows, just in case there is trouble. Our banner stretches across one lane of Swanston Street. My shoulders ache almost immediately as I hold my end high. A megaphone leads a chant at my back: ‘Whose streets?’ / ‘Our streets!’ / ‘Whose war?’
I look over at Vanessa as she yells, ‘THEIR WAR!’ I feel like I do at birthday parties and school assemblies where they sing ‘Happy Birthday’: too self-conscious to join in, too self-conscious not to.
Saturday shoppers line the streets, watching amiably. Many of them have brought out their phones and are snapping photos: amateur journalists enjoying their sneak preview of tonight’s news bulletin.
‘See, these people are on side,’ I shout across the banner. ‘That counts for something.’
‘Why don’t they join in?’ frowns Vanessa.
We round the corner and turn past the Nike store as we make our way up Bourke Street.
‘I’ve got a Nike bag, look,’ says Vanessa in a furtive stage whisper. ‘And shoes.’ She waggles a foot, pausing momentarily in her marching.
‘No one will notice,’ I assure her.
‘I thought about covering them with paper,’ she continues. ‘But I decided that was silly. They’re old. I’m not going to throw them out.’
‘No,’ I joke. ‘You don’t want to waste the labour of those tiny hands that made them.’
She doesn’t reply.
The crowd comes to a halt at Collins Street. The Socialist Alliance hands out red flags as if dispensing lollipops; a red-shirted student leads another round of chants through his megaphone. Exotic birds perch in trees, wielding expensive-looking cameras. Policemen sit on horses in a distant line. I swing my camera towards them; one of the policemen has his own camera directed back at the crowd. Helicopters circle overhead. In an office building across the road, more photographers lean out a window. Everyone is watching everyone else. Nothing is happening.
Back on street level, we stand still, anchored by our banner. I wander aside to buy a magazine from a Big Issue vendor, pushing past a Superman in drag, inexplicably slathered in blue body paint. As I return to Vanessa, she makes a face at my magazine, saying something about wanting to support the Big Issue, but deciding not to because only half the money goes to the vendors.
‘I write for the Big Issue,’ I remind her. She half-shrugs, as if to forgive me.
At this point, two friends arrive – coincidentally, former Big Issue colleagues.
‘It’s not like S11,’ observes one of them, as the crowd cheers a protestor brandishing a fire hose from a roof. Bodies lurch towards the spray, seeking relief from the afternoon sun.
‘I think people have lost their taste for violence, after the other September 11.’
‘It’d be good to see a bit of a scuffle though,’ sighs my other friend, looking out at the beatific fairies and painted toddlers waving red flags. ‘It’s always nice to see a bit of passion.’
It’s time to go. My friends suggest we leave our banner behind.
‘Yes!’ I agree, too eagerly. My arms need a rest. And I haven’t abandoned hope of detouring for food and coffee on the way home. ‘We’ll be gone,’ I say, trying to sound persuasive, ‘but our message will remain.’
‘Wouldn’t it be better to take our message out there, to the streets?’ asks Vanessa.
I photograph her with the banner before we leave, promising to email her the image.
‘Maybe we’ll get home and find out that it’s all happened after we left, or when we weren’t looking,’ I say, and we all laugh.
We farewell my friends and – at last – Vanessa and I decamp for coffee and cake.
When I get home, I check the Age website. Plastic-clad protestors have splashed urine and hurled safety barriers at police. There are photos of faceless bodies in anti-contamination suits; I remember seeing them dancing in the street.
Later, Tony arrives home from his Sea Shepherd pilgrimage, euphoric. He’s met the crew, including the founder of Greenpeace. They loved the lemons.
‘And look!’ he says, reaching into his backpack.
‘Oh,’ I drawl. ‘So you’ve been to the revolution and bought the t-shirt?’
His grin collapses, and I apologise.