Last night I made all the school lunches and packed the bags and had just about everything ready to go so I have no idea why we’re on the verge of running late right now.
It’s 8.37am and if we don’t board the Tarago in the next ten minutes I’ll miss the late hour songs on Gold 104.3 and will have to listen to the freaking news on the way to school, and yes; first world problems and rah-rah-rah, but I seriously hate that.
A quick scan of Archie, Lewis, Tyson and Maki tells me that they’re looking pretty sharp and ready to go and I’m just about to give the five-minute warning to sprint down the hall when Archie says, ‘Dad, is my hair alright?’
‘Holy crap,’ I say, the prospect of rocking the suburban streets to the financial report a sudden likelihood. ‘How did I miss that?’
Somehow, despite looking into the eyeballs of my four children dozens of times this morning, I have failed to notice the very obvious disaster that sits just a few inches higher on their heads. Archie is suddenly transformed into a chimney sweep; Lewis, with his long locks, becomes Medusa, his thousand snakes laugh-hissing at me; Tyson becomes a screeching cockatoo; and Maki becomes a hyper-hirsute marmot dipped in maple syrup and blow-dried.
‘Everyone to Mummy and Daddy’s bathroom quick,’ I scream, calmly.
I lead the way with purposeful strides and reach the bathroom and have the tap running within seconds but when I turn around Archie is the only one there. ‘Hurry up!’ I yell into the others, hoping to reach three pairs of ears, just as Maki enters, points a finger at me – like we’re best mates who have just caught up at the ARIA music awards – and says, ‘I need to do poo!’
‘Oh my God,’ I say, using my glare to point at the toilet. ‘Climb up there and get into it. Make it a quick one.’
‘You do poo too Daddy!’ he says, maintaining his rap-star squint and frown.
‘What?’ I say, distracted, keeping an eye on his safe mounting of the toilet while holding a finger under the tap to wet down the boys hair with some semi-warm water. ‘I don’t… um… maybe later.’
My eyes remain fixed on the toilet for a second longer and even when I turn away I see it in my mind’s eye because it offers a reprieve from my current panicked state and speaks to me of long minutes sitting down in the quiet; of magazines; of Facebook updates; of a little nap perhaps, but then – in the very same second – it reminds me of the potential consequences: fingers reaching under the door; the distant sound of hard objects striking the Plasma, children screaming for me, the smell of hair burning, terror-born fissures…
The water’s finally warm when I notice ten-year-old Archie frowning at himself in the mirror and turning his head and lifting his chin.
‘Twenty-five,’ he says, letting his hands drop to his side a little despondently. ‘I can count twenty-five freckles now.’
‘Is that all?’ I say, running a brush through his hair and feeling a little worried. ‘I could strip down right now and beat your freckle count easy.’
‘You do poo now Daddy!’ Maki says, safely squatted down and on the job, scowling at me.
‘Yeah, but not on your face,’ Archie says, as Tyson appears at the door.
‘Dad,’ Tyson says, smiling sweetly at me. ‘Is my hair alwight?’
‘Al… right,’ I say correcting him, as Archie’s sticks his head over the sink and awaits his wetting.
‘Is my hair al..right?’ he asks again.
‘It’s a bit cockatoo,’ I say. ‘It probably needs a comb.’
‘It doesn’t!’ he screams, raising two fists and looking dramatically towards the sky as he sprints out of the room and down the hallway.
‘You… do… POO!’ says Maki.
‘I don’t need to right now!’ I say. ‘If I try I’ll cause myself an injury.’
‘Hey, Arch,’ I say, as I scoop up handfuls of water and start his soaking. ‘Everyone has something that they can look into the mirror and focus on and worry about. And almost everyone does. And all that tells us is that everyone is different. And that’s wonderful. When I was a teenager I worried about my long hair because the left side curled to the right in the shape of a ‘J’ and the right side also curled to the right in the shape of a ‘J’ and no matter how much I wet it or blow-dried it or gelled it, it would curl back again, so that I always looked like I was standing in front of a giant fan, or running sideways…’
Archie laughs a little which is pleasing and so I take a second to spin 180 degrees, wipe Maki’s bum, pull up his pants, place him next to Archie, and wash my hands.
‘Do poo Daddy,’ he whispers, Chucky-the-doll-style.
‘I also worried about the gaps in my teeth…’ I say.
‘Why didn’t you get braces?’ Archie asks, as I dry his hair a little and run a comb through it, and then wet my hand and pat down the shorter, spikier strands on Maki’s head.
‘Because I was worried about what I’d look like wearing braces,’ I say. ‘And I always worried that I wasn’t strong enough, or that my muscles weren’t big enough… and sometimes, even though I now know that none of that stuff really matters, I still worry about that…’
‘Why?’ he asks, as Maki runs off and Tyson walks in, fake-crying, like he’s resigned to a premature death at the gallows, stands in front of the sink and says, ‘Alwight… I mean al… right.’
‘I don’t know Arch,’ I say, as I wrap a towel around Tyson’s shoulders. ‘Probably because I’ve been worried about it for so long that it’s become too hard to shake. It happens to so many people. There’s an entire world trying to tell us that we’re not quite right, Arch, trying to trick us into comparing ourselves to one type of body and one type of behaviour and one type of… ‘
‘Oh my God!’ Tyson, yells as I hold his head in place over the sink and scoop water onto his hair. ‘It’s too much Daddy… it’s too much!’
‘And you know Arch. The world tricks us like this by showing us only one kind of body in the movies and only one set of teeth on the television… and the magazines use people who all look the same… and you can’t even trust that, not for a second, because they take photos of people to advertise a product and use computers to remove a little bit of chin or a little bit of leg or a couple of freckles and so even the people you see in the magazines don’t even look the way they do….’
‘I can’t find my library book, Dad,’ Lewis says, from the hallway, as Tyson checks himself in the mirror and then runs off.
‘Here Lewy, grab this and comb your hair,’ I say, picking up Reservoir Mum’s hair brush and piffing it into our bedroom, relieved to see him pick it up. ‘Your book’s behind the couch near the blackboard.’
‘My life sucks…’ he says.
Archie’s still lingering by the sink and I’m still feeling like I’m stumbling around the point here and I feel I need to keep yammering on to get it as close to right as possible – even though that may mean kissing my Tarago disco session goodbye. ‘So instead of seeing our amazing freckles and uniquely spaced teeth and our potentially trend-setting unalterable hair styles…’ I say, pausing only to scream, GRAB YOUR BAGS AND GET TO THE CAR one more time. ‘… we see mistakes and errors and feel like we’re not good enough… and we spend so much time being unhappy with who we are, and it’s ridiculous and horrible and makes millions of people very very unhappy… and I don’t want you to feel like that… and I can’t stop you feeling like that… because the whole world’s a lot bigger than me and your Mum, and it’s going to become more constant in your life than us… but I want you to think about this conversation whenever you’re looking in the mirror and get tricked into feeling unhappy with how you look.’
Archie nods and continues lingering and we can hear Lewis and Tyson and Maki yelling and fighting their way into the Tarago.
‘And do you know – just to prove how make believe all this body stuff is – sometimes the magazine people remove freckles from people’s faces, and other times they call them beauty spots and add them to people’s faces. And do you know that some people use makeup to put beauty spots on, just to go out for a coffee? None of it makes any sense.’
‘That’s like Oh in Home,’ Archie says. ‘He puts on a beauty spot.’
‘What’s Oh in Home?’ I say.
‘The blue Alien in the movie.’
‘Oh yeah,’ I say. ‘See? Okay let’s go.’
Archie heads out from the bathroom and I follow right behind and when I look at the back of his head I can see what a shoddy job I did of combing his hair and I’m unsure of myself and feeling a little helpless but I have just enough time to inhale and exhale, before we reach the hall, and to accept that I’ll be worried about my boys for the rest of my life, that I may never feel like I’ve got it right.
‘Hey Arch,’ I say, catching him, bending down and wrapping my arms around his shoulders. ‘You’re not perfect… because no one is… but you are perfect… because there’s no one else like you… do you know what I mean? I’m not sure how to explain it…’
‘Yeah,’ he says, as I kiss his face and release him.
After the buckling in, I mount the Tarago and turn the key and when I see that it’s only 8.49; that there may be a song waiting for me after all, I am showered in hot, steamy, relief.
‘Hey Maki,’ I say, as I hit the pre-set button for the station I love best. ‘I might do poo when I get home.’
‘Can I play the iPad?’ Maki asks.
‘Umm…’ I say, turning up the volume, overwhelmed to hear the last chorus of Best of My Love by The Emotions. ‘Sure…’