Learning to fly

by haywardhelen

The only chink in my husband’s cultural armour is what he calls ‘a trip to Bunnings’. Six days a week he sits in his wooden temple in the garden, tapping out book after book – interrupted by the odd game of real tennis. Bar occasional work trips to Melbourne he can always be found there, rain or sun, writing, reading, taking notes, emailing, drinking coffee, staring into the vegetable garden, plotting to change the world – and increasingly succeeding.

About once a fortnight he comes up the back steps and says simply, ‘I’m off to Bunnings’. And then, ‘does anyone want to come with me?’ Bunnings isn’t our nearest hardware store, but it has a better selection of wood than our local one. This is important because when John isn’t in his temple, at the tennis club, playing with Emma, doing Suduko or on our bed reading, he’s in the basement – earmuffs on – making things out of wood. His regular trips to Bunnings are, for him, a vital necessity. Making things out of wood is what keeps him sane and makes him happy, no matter what else is happening in his life.

Our daughter Emma is more easily persuaded than our son Alex to join John in these trips. These days Alex has better things to do than go to Bunnings – surfing the net for a new bike under cover of ‘doing my homework’ is his current staple. Besides, Emma and John enjoy these trips. She’s young enough to be allowed to tease him, yet old enough to engage in conversation at the traffic lights.

Some subtle bribery is part of the mix. For Emma a trip to Bunnings is code for ‘and when we’re there, you can buy something small’. Luckily for John Emma isn’t a shopper. ‘Something small’,for Emma, might be a toilet plunger, a plug with a long chain, some balsa wood or – as in this last trip – a coil of bright orange nylon cord.

A thick rope hangs down from a birch tree in our back garden, directly over some paving stones. The handyman who helped us to renovate our house helped Alex to rig it up, now three years ago. Children, he said to me – as if in this area he knew best – need a few thrills.

For the last three years this thick length of rope has hung from an old birch tree, brushing my face as I duck by with a basket of washing, or a barrowful of leaves. From the hall upstairs I’ll see Emma swinging on it, dreaming up something to do. Or she’ll be tying one of her hand-nailed contraptions to it. Or she’s just hanging on it, perhaps imagining flying – a recurring fantasy of hers. Alex, more practically minded, might be trying in vain to hang a swing from it, or attaching his bike to it for a stunt I daren’t watch.

If our birch tree grew on the edge of a creek, it would be perfect for a splashed entry with  the aid of a rubber ring. But there is no creek in our back garden. Instead there are paving stones directly beneath, then a plant in a large wooden barrel, a small box hedge and then grass.

John and Emma return, a couple of hours later. Emma is triumphantly carrying a long coil of orange cord. Does she have a plan, I ask her tactfully, for her bright orange cord? No, not yet, she replies, in a slightly dismissive tone that suggests any possible use for her orange cord is beside the point.

In no time she has attached one end of her orange cord to the rope hanging from the birch tree, creating a continuous cable to the other end of the garden. After much banging in the basement a badly nailed open cable car soon appears, which she hangs from four hooks to the orange cable.

The following day, within hours of Alex’s return from a mountain-biking camp, full of fit energy, the cable car is broken. ‘It was an accident’, is Alex’s only explanation. For the next couple of weeks the orange cord, now lonely and no less orange, spans the garden – like an abandoned modernist artwork.

Now that Alex and Emma are teenagers, I find it harder to lure them out of the house and into the garden. Especially after school. Hunger, weariness, the Internet, and curmudgeonly homework all conspire to keep them indoors. But lately, with daylight saving and warmer evenings, the garden has tempted them out again.

Late on Tuesday afternoon I’m down in the vegetable garden, shoveling a layer of compost on top of the layer of straw that I’d put out the day before. Bother, I think to myself, really I should be putting the straw on top of the compost. John yells his goodbyes from the back door, off to a work dinner. Emma squeals with delight at some game with the rope, interrupted by Alex’s manly whoop.

Evening will soon fall and supper demands my presence in the kitchen. I can hear Alex and Emma’s game reaching tipping point. But I don’t intervene. There are some things they have to work out for themselves, I say to myself, purposely keeping my head down gardening.

Following a moment of quiet, I hear the soft thud of Alex’s footsteps in the grass. ‘Emma has fallen’, he said. ‘I think she’s alright’.

Two weeks ago I tore a tendon in my knee bushwalking. Completely forgetting this I take off in a sprint. As I race over the grass I pray that Emma really is alright. So many near shaves over the years, so many ‘what ifs?’ – and yet somehow we’ve always come through.

But Emma isn’t alright. There is grass in her mouth and she’s moaning softly, crying. She begs me not to touch her. I have that sick mother feeling. I have no idea what I should do. I crouch down and take the grass out of her mouth. Do I move her? Not move her? Keep her talking?

‘Can you wiggle your toes?’ I ask. Emma wiggles the toes of one foot through her sandal. ‘Your fingers?’ Yes. Okay, I think to myself, she’s not completely broken. She may look like a ragdoll on the grass but her spine seems to be intact.

Alex stands by, moving from one foot to the other. ‘She just flew off the rope’, he is saying, as if in a voiceover. And then, after a pause, ‘I don’t really know how it happened’.

Oh my God, I say to myself. Please let her be alright. More minutes pass. She moves her bottom, and then her arm. I feel a rush of relief and gratitude.

After fifteen minutes that feel like an hour we get her up off the grass and hobble her inside, where she lies ashen on the sofa. She’s still crying, still in shock, still trembling. At least, I think to myself, she can tremble.

Holding her bunny and listening to a Postman Pat story doesn’t help. It isn’t just shock. And so it’s another hobble to the car and a trip to Emergency – straight past the restaurant where John is in the middle of his work dinner. Alex stays behind – ‘to do my homework’.

At the hospital – the private hospital across the road from the public hospital – the staff is calm and warm. Emma stops shaking. A nurse undresses her, puts her in a gown in a bed, and hooks her up to three monitors. We attempt a fumbling explanation. Something about swinging from a rope in the garden, receiving a tug on the rope from her brother, then letting go of the rope and flying through the air before coming down on her legs and tummy face down on the grass.

After a brief consultation, just long enough for them to decide that Emma can wait, a curtain is pulled around her bed. On the CCT screen I watch a woman being admitted in the bed next to Emma’s, clearly losing a lot of blood and causing staff to sprint around the ward, consulting with each other in hushed energetic tones.

Emma and I soon tire of watching her monitor – heartbeat, blood pressure, and oxygen. So we play hangman in the back of my diary. My word is November. Hers is light, which she’s staring at above her bed. And then we just wait.

The doctor, wearing casual clothes and runners, checks Emma, tests her urine and, after more waiting, decides not to xray. He asks her to stay another hour, just to be sure. When they finally discharge us it’s late, complete with an envelope of painkillers and a sick note for school – and the doctor’s warning that she’ll feel much worse in the morning.

Alex is eating peanut butter on toast, not doing his homework, when we get back. The house is exactly as we’d left it, except that the windows are all black. I help Emma on to the sofa and make a thrown-together supper – we’re all starving.

Undoing the dishwasher with Alex, I suggest that he needs to take more responsibility when he and Emma are playing. And yet even as I speak I can’t help feeling that – like hounding him to do homework – he isn’t really taking my words in.

Back from his dinner, John is full of concern and love, taking the stairs up to Emma’s bedroom two by two. Just as John’s footsteps reach overhead, Alex turns to me, his arms full of plates, and murmurs that he can’t really imagine life without Emma. ‘Neither can I’, I reply, not wanting to add anything.

As I listen back in my head to what Alex has just said, it strikes me that he has understood. And it’s his use of the word ‘really’ – ‘I couldn’t really imagine life without Emma’ – that gives him away.

All the next day – yesterday – Emma lies in her bed, listening to an audio book, moaning every time she turns. By late afternoon she’s berating John for falling asleep while reading to her. Down in the kitchen, preparing supper, I feel overwhelmingly thankful that yet again we’ve been let off the hook. And also cross at myself that, by late evening, all I can think about is whether Emma will need another day off school.