For the past few years my mind has been a stationary bike set to hyper speed and I feel like I’m burning rubber but getting nowhere as I second-guess myself at all the work related opportunities coming my way, and I’m feeling a little bit stressed, to be honest, and guilty at how my role at home is changing, and every time I try to chill out and regain my bearings the TV, or the newspaper or the radio reminds me of the world’s horrors and I should just be happy and grateful twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, shouldn’t I? The stories stay with me even after I turn off the news, turn down the radio, throw the newspaper in the bin.
I got Tyson to sleep a while ago and I’ve been sitting here on the end of his bed with my elbows on my thighs, my head in my hands and so it’s a shock when he sits up in bed, suddenly, his face blotched in shadows by the light of the bedside lamp, and whispers Mine eyes, Daddy.
Both he and Maki are so heavily inflicted with conjunctivitis right now that even in the semi-dark they appeared to be demons touring for brains, but that’s okay, really, because I’ve been surviving my insomnia-ridden nights lately by listening to Dr Hook classics including Sexy Eyes, and all that together – the dread tiredness, the eye focus and the devil in my children – is resulting in a cagey uncultured dullness that makes the idea of having my brains eaten out by my own spawn a kind of relief.
On top of having the two and five year old home with conjunctivitis all day I also had to pick up a queasy Archie from school before the lunch time bell and I’ll blame the lack of sleep again on the certainty I felt – as I looked into the rear vision mirror at Archie’s slack-jawed tongue-lolling – that there’d be helicopters circling overhead by the time we got home, journalists in protective gear on the front lawn and photographers crowding the Tarago for action shots to go with tomorrow’s headline: First Cases of Ebola Found in Australia!
As I’m lying Tyson back down my stomach bubbles and lurches and by the time I’ve tiptoed out of the room my eyes are stinging so bad I have to cover them over like I’ve just been maced and there’s a split-second where I’m wild with fear, petrified in the hall, the image of a plane parked at the Melbourne Airport with one currently asymptomatic passenger from West Africa disembarking and whistling his way across the Tarmac. I only snap out of it when I imagine myself smiling at him as we accidentally bump hands reaching for the same shiny apple at the supermarket because, well, it seems a bit far-fetched.
By the time I crawl into nine year old Archie’s bed for a night time cuddle I know I’m just sick, not pandemic, and I’m even trying to cheer myself up by comparing death to a really good night’s sleep.
‘How you feeling Arch?’ I ask.
‘Good,’ he says. ‘I’m better.’
‘I’m going to take my kinder photo to school tomorrow to show Aden what he looked like in kinder.’
‘I’m pretty sure he has that exact same photo, Arch.’
‘Yeah, but he probably can’t find it.’
‘Okay, you can take it,’ I say.
‘Dad, there were two Aden’s in my kinder.’
‘I know,’ I say. ‘The Aden you thought was always good and the Aden you thought was always bad.’
‘But the good Aden wasn’t in the photo,’ Archie says. ‘Where do you think he was?’
‘I dunno,’ I say. ‘Maybe he was out saving people… from floods.’
‘Good people do that kind of thing,’ I say. ‘You’ve never saved anyone from a flood?’
‘Looks like I’m lying with the bad Archie.’
Archie smiles and rolls his eyes in a way that tells me he’s now old enough to expect my humour, to shrug it away, to love me at the same time. When he shifts closer to lie on my chest for a cuddle I’m feeling sick and worn out and melancholy and the voice inside my head says, this has been the fastest year of my life. I can’t slow anything down.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘You better not cuddle me too close.’
‘I have Ebola.’
‘It’s… gastro and conjunctivitis and ten years of insomnia all at once.’
Archie starts rubbing his hand over my head and face, despite my warning, in a grown up way that feels gentle, wonderful.
‘Where do you think the good Archie is?’ he says, playfully.
‘He’s probably out,’ I say, still trying for a laugh. ‘Saving people. From floods.’
‘But there are no floods right now.’
‘There are always floods, Arch,’ I whisper, but seeing sand instead of water and a photo in a newspaper I haven’t been able to shake since yesterday; two hundred men, stripped to their underwear, marching towards their desert execution. ‘Somewhere in the world… no matter how good things are…’
My eyes open as if I’ve taken a hit by a stun gun when Archie says, ‘Just like there are always people in their warm beds…’
‘That’s true,’ I say.
‘But what if at night time… there’s a flood?’
‘I’ll come running to save you because I’m your Dad,’ I say, after the slightest pause.
There is no pause at all before he replies, nonchalantly: ‘Not all Dads do. Some Dads kill their kids’ and the wheels are spinning again, faster and faster, as I think back on Luke Batty’s story in the newspapers I was reading, on the TV reports I was watching, on the radio I was listening to, wondering how many times Archie was right there, almost ten years old, looking over my shoulder.
‘Not many Dads, Archie, in fact, hardly any at all,’ I say, as I turn towards him and take my turn to soothe, hand running through his hair and tracing around his ear. ‘I get carried away sometimes by sad stories… do you?’
Archie shrugs and it’s hard to tell if this is something he’s really worried about and the confusion triggers a memory of me as a seven year old topping and tailing with my best friend Michelle. There was my father’s hug and the smell of beer and my Mum’s long hair covering the two of us and her affectionate whisper and then came the sounds of the party from the lounge room as Michelle and I watched traffic light reflections gliding across her bedroom wall. Each one represented a death somewhere in the wide world she said to me, like a character from an Enid Blyton novel. We knew about death back then but not the way that kids know about it now.
‘I haven’t got Ebola. Just a rumbly tummy and a case of the pink-eye,’ I say, aching inside and out, but offering a smile. ‘And there may be one or two messed up Mums and Dads out there in the world who do mean things to their kids but there are always always many many more Mums and Dads cuddling their kids in their warm beds.’
‘Just like there are always birds in the sky?’
‘Oh my God,’ I whisper, staring at him, as stunned as I’ve ever been by anything ever before. ‘…yes.’