On the holy terror and absolute love of parenting
Picked up by Octavia outside the book shop, the kid and I clambered into the back, to the soundtrack of classic hits from what seemed to be a tape she was playing. We were thankful to get in. The sun was blazing and we had been squeezed into a skinny strip of shade at the book shop entranceway while we waited. And there at all because my phone battery had died in the museum halfway through arranging this pick-up, and we’d had to go to the shop to beg for a few minutes of charge. Richard had asked Octavia to take us out to Warrington, to their hut of a house there. We were visiting from Wellington, and the plan had been to take the kid along the Otago Peninsula, but Richard had pivoted. Warrington Beach or Blueskin Bay would be just as good, he suggested. I’d been trying to sell the kid on the seals, albatrosses and penguins of the peninsula, and had paused when he’d proposed the pivot on the phone, in my last minutes of charge. The pause was only at the altering of the story of what the day ahead would hold. I wasn’t wedded to the plan, or to anything. I am the easy of the going, as Starfire of Teen Titans Go would say.
At five years old, my boy remains shy around strangers, so conversation in the car was muted. I tried to keep my pronouncements free from vagaries, irony and the implied, based on the little I have gleaned of how to make conversation less tiresome for people with Asperger’s. I kept my questions direct. Octavia laughed and was personable, failing to fit neatly into my version of her category. I sang along with Abba, and the kid did too, doing the “soo-pah-pah troo-pah-pah” bits with me.
We arrived and Richard took us to Blueskin Bay where he said we might get some cockles and have a swim.
Bare feet on sharp shells,
half a k to the sand bank,
the sun sears my back.
It is good to be the easy of the going, both because and in spite of the fact that it lands one in situations one is not expecting and for which one is unprepared. One copes. I have a pompous saying: “I live in the exigencies.” By this I mean that I batter around like a pinball doing what I have to do to get through the day. Being a parent puts this into multiball mode, most of the balls slipping through your paddles as they flap madly, your eyes unable to focus on any one ball. I think of the oft-lofted chestnut, “May you live in interesting times”, an eyebrow raising as the millionth bore explains it is an old Chinese curse. “May you have a child” is basically the same thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a child. But if you have one it will be a curse. An interesting curse. I adore my kid. I am terrified of all the harm that will befall him. This is the curse. The constant adoration and fear that one calls responsibility.
Every step was painful on my bare feet…I lifted the boy and sat him on my side to carry him through the deeper section. The extra weight pressed my feet into the shell blades….The water was up to the base of my sternum and I began to question my choices
We waded out into the deeper channel. The tide wasn’t entirely out or in, and large sections of the mudflats were immersed in seawater. Every step was painful on my bare feet. By a stroke of luck I had brought the kid’s surf shoes along with me, so he at least was protected from the blades of the cockle shells. When Richard had mentioned getting some cockles I hadn’t imagined that every inch of the bay would be littered with their shells, and a few centimetres into the sludgy sand, the cockles themselves, alive alive-oh. Literally millions of them. Right there and requiring no effort at all to reach down and collect. Richard was a few metres ahead of us and now swimming. It was clear that it would be too deep for the five-year-old to wade through. I was topless in khaki shorts. I had in fact brought my togs along, but they were back in the bag I’d left beside my shoes. I lifted the boy and sat him on my side to carry him through the deeper section. The extra weight pressed my feet into the shell blades. Walking was awkward, and with every step I envisioned toppling over and losing the boy in the drink. Counter-intuitively, though the channel was deeper, the water ran faster through it. The current pulled me one way, my teetering on the cockle shells sent me another, the imbalance of the kid on my hip pulled me a third. The water was up to the base of my sternum and I began to question my choices and the wisdom of the man I was following.
Richard too was in khaki, a greener variety, and still wearing his button-up shirt. If every other aspect of our beings didn’t project the opposite effect, people might have thought we were military types. Instead, poets. Richard swimming in his soggy green shirt, and me wincing my way forwards.
The night before, I had been in the Inch Bar with poets Talia and Kay. Talia had relayed an anecdote, the upshot of which was: you can’t trust writers. To other people you can tell your stories, your anxieties, indignities, the family scandals, and they’ll listen, maybe they’ll tell someone else who will tell someone else, and the worst you can expect is that it will get back to you garbled, and you’ll realise a handful of people know your business when you would prefer that they didn’t. But you tell something to a writer and they will type it up. They’ll use it. It’s the idea behind Nora Ephron’s quip” “Everything is copy.” Nothing in life is off limits if it can be repurposed as art.
I realised as I teetered on razors holding my son back from the current that wanted to swallow him that I would write about Richard, and, yes, Talia too, who was correct to be wary of the rest of us. Worse, the thought delighted me.
Spoonbills sniff at shells.
Herons shrug. The godwits flop.
I am short-sighted.
We made it across the little strait and onto an island of a sand bank. Why we had headed there wasn’t clear beyond my own grim need to make it that endpoint, to achieve something for the pain and the hundred lacerations I imagined criss-crossed my feet, leaking a mist of blood into the water. I refused to look at my soles, knowing I still had to walk back again to the far shore and didn’t need to know the extent of the damage. Now we began to dig in earnest for the cockles. The large ones I called ‘big mamas’, and the kid started to dig with more relish, enjoying the phrase as much as the objects themselves every time he could announce that he too had found a big mama. We had no bag, but the legal limit was 50 per person per day, so we carried back armfuls across the strait to our belongings, finding an easier path that avoided the deeper section. At our bags, Richard produced a sack and went back to the shallows to fill it with more of the bulbous little bivalves.
As we walked back across the mudflats over the last stretch of agonising cockle shells, my son had turned to me, and said, “This is the greatest place in the world!”
My son ran after him to supervise. Enough time had passed with this new person and now the shyness had evaporated. I watched them as I gathered up my things. The kid splashed past where Richard was sitting and into the water. I admired Richard’s laissez faire demeanour. To him this was just another human in the world that would need to either sink or swim on its own. True at all times, but I flap around in multiball mode, desperate not to be neglectful. Now I inspected the soles of my feet, particularly in the places where the sting was sharpest. Nothing. Not a scratch. Perhaps a redness. Perhaps none.
Another redness emerged. I had slathered the kid’s sunscreen on, had got him into his all-body wetsuit-like togs, but hadn’t thought to protect myself after taking off the T-shirt. I burn easily and was now thoroughly scorched across the back and shoulders. Like every other idiot, bathing unprotected in this wash of radiation and risking cancer, I thought about the burn fading to a tan and smiled.
Back at his little place in Warrington, Richard washed the cockles and we pushed them into a large pot of boiling water over an outdoor hob. I was a vegetarian for over 20 years and one of the things I would trot out as the reason was that I wouldn’t kill anything myself, and as I wouldn’t, it would seem uncool to slide that task over to someone else. I have long since abandoned my principles. And here I was now murdering 150 cockles. At best an accomplice. If I murdered 150 people I would be thought to be a maniac, but this casual act would go unremarked upon, the lives extinguished unmourned. I felt discomfort, to expose my son to such casual brutality, but the moment passed and I realised the discomfort was affected – a discomfort at feeling no discomfort. We enjoyed chewing our way through them.
Earlier, as we had walked back across the shallow water of the mudflats over the last stretch of agonising cockle shells towards the deliverance of my shoes, my son had turned to me, his eyes wide, and said, “This is the greatest place in the world!” I am not by my nature spontaneous, but through my passivity – my easy of the going – I am whisked to destinations I would otherwise never self-select. Sometimes the little pinball paddle gets lucky in its mad flap and whacks the ball back up into the merry whirl of lights that bing and bong. I am the millionth bore to tell you this. Parenting is accursed and joyful.
Stupefying by Nick Ascroft (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25), named in ReadingRoom as the best collection of poetry published in 2022, is available in bookstores nationwide.