On umbrellas (and other things)


I took the borrowed umbrellas out of the borrowed car and held them out to the Floppy Adolescent standing beside me. As he reached across his forehead and pulled his fringe into place, I drew my arm back.

‘It’s all right,’ I said. ‘I’ll carry them.’

‘You don’t have to carry them all. We can carry our own.’

‘No thanks. That’s an argument waiting to happen.’

‘Mum, please. You can trust us. It’s just umbrellas.’

We have been together, the three of us, the two of them and me, for a week and they have been together longer, their extended Abu Dhabi summer break taken in a South Australian winter.

Brothers on holiday together.

Needle, bicker, hug, laugh.

Rinse, repeat.

Add umbrellas.

I handed the umbrellas to him (I know, right) then I locked the doors of borrowed car and the rented apartment and we began our walk towards the tram.

‘Oh God, look at you,’ I said to the lads. It is as if the outside light is somehow different and suddenly I could see them for what they were. Their jeans ripped at the knees, the sleeves of their jumpers too short, everything unwashed. How long has it been since anything saw the touch of an iron?

‘Mum, we look fine.’

‘Howcome you care so much about your fringe, but so little about your clothes?’

‘Mum. Please.’

‘At least tell me you thought to clean your teeth.’

The look! Teenage disdain perfected, but these days I am unaffected.

‘That’s the tree!’ The lads both pointed. They have been kicking the footy day after day for hours. At least once per session as far as I can tell the footy lands in the fork of one of the Norfolk Pines that line The Esplanade. This day, a police car had pulled up to watch them throwing rocks into the tree as they tried to dislodge the ball. ‘It’s all right,’ the lads reassured me when they recounted the story. ‘They were laughing. The had to watch us because there was nothing else for them to do. They’re bored. No one robs houses on Thursday morning.’

We arrived at the tram.

It used to be that when we came back on holidays I had an Australian SIM, an interwebby usb, a metrocard for the tram. Now too much time has passed and the SIM is too big for my phone, the telco has deactivated whatever it was that fired the usb, the metrocard is lost. I stood in front of the ticket machine and followed the steps, one by one, none of it in my memory now, everything being relearned. One dirham coins look like ten cent pieces to me, but not to the machine. We had gone two stops before I was holding our tickets. In the seats at the front of the tram umbrellas had turned into swords.

By the time the tram arrived at Victoria Square the darkness had started to fall. The lights were coming on, the street lights white, and a soft and buttery glow came from the office windows. When I am travelling, this is the time that I feel most alone, most not-at-home. My breaths grew shallow and caught in my throat. I swallowed to pop my ears.

Pirie Street. Rundle Mall. We got off the tram.

‘How far is it?’

‘Just down here.’

‘Yes, but how far? How long will it take us to get there?’

‘Not long.’

‘How long is not long?’

We crossed North Terrace, walked past Parliament House and the bleak, grey space of the Festival Plaza, stark and barren even in the soft light of the early night.

Inside the Festival Theatre it was how it had always been, but it was not what it used to be. Everyone used to be younger, the carpet used to be thicker, the stairs down to the bistro were steeper.

We looked at the bar snacks menu and I ordered. The cabernet sauvignon could have had more shades of marshmallow, the chicken wings could have had less sauce, the salt and pepper squid could not have been more like rubber. The chips were good, but there were not enough to go around. You never know with chips, do you? Sometimes too many, sometimes not enough, never just the right amount.

Bicker, needle, hug, laugh, bicker, needle, hug, laugh.

My boys looked shabby and they had umbrellas.

‘Please,’ I said. ‘Do we have to be the loudest wherever we go?’

‘Mum.’ They spoke in unison. ‘It’s only jokes.’ They wrapped their arms around each other’s necks and walked back up the stairs.

We watched The Book Of Loco a play about a mother’s death, migration and displacement, the edge of madness. I know, right?

I felt my Floppy Adolescent sitting with me and I remembered. My father and I sitting in the Keith Michell Theatre watching a Harvest production of Equus. Or maybe it wasn’t Harvest, but it was certainly Equus. And I felt so grown up sitting with my father. And when, at the end, my Floppy Adolescent stood and clapped and said, ‘That was amazing,’ I could not stop myself.

‘Oh God, you’re crying, aren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Mum. Really?’

On the walk back to the tram it rained and we were happy to discover that our umbrellas were fit for purpose. At the tram stop it was cold and it was windy and there was no romance in public transport. The rain died down as we got on and by the time we reached our stop there was no more rain, the wind had stilled.

A few steps away from the tram and we could hear the sea, the waves rolling in. All week I have been falling asleep, waking up to this sound. Sometimes it soothes and other times it stirs, whistling through my veins like they are empty alleys in my soul.

A man on a strange reclining bike rode past and out onto the jetty.

‘Do you think he’s going fishing?’ That’s my youngest boy.

‘He hasn’t got a rod. Are you stupid?’ And that’s my oldest.

Bicker, needle, hug then laugh. They looped their arms around each other’s necks and walked, loped two steps ahead, elbows digging into ribs, knuckles ground against skulls. Bicker, needle, hug then laugh.

From behind us I heard the rumble, loudly, of a plane.

‘That’s the plane to Dubai. That’s the one we catch.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because it’s nearly ten o’clock and this is Adelaide.’

I looked in the direction of the airport, but I could not see the plane. Too much cloud? Taken off in the other direction? I wanted to speak. I wanted my boys to know, I wanted them to understand that this is an Adelaide sound, that when I was their age and my parents brought me to Adelaide and we stayed in my grandfather’s house this was the noise that woke me. Planes just taking off or landing. This was the sound that reminded my body where I was, where I had woken. Somewhere safe that wasn’t home. I had no idea that those planes were flying to places I would one day see.

The lads ran on ahead. My heels clicked on the paving, the sea rolled in, the wind had started again.

There was no rain and the Norfolk Pines were silent.