‘Don’t turn your back on the sea,’ I say to my five year old. She is tiny and big all at once. The big open beaches that the city offers slightly terrify me, but I have to take her anyway. I’d grown up playing along the shoreline of Stingray Bay, a sheltered cove that seems safe but isn’t. At least here in Adelaide there are flags and lifesavers, the mainstays of safe Australian beaches.
The night before I’d woken with a craving for salt on my lips. I stayed awake for hours thinking about where I could get a boogie board. I imagined myself floating on the foam board I didn’t actually own, looking for waves to catch. A memory: my friend George and I, eight years old, new boogie boards for Christmas. We met in the shallows unexpectedly one January, and spent an entire afternoon tumbling on the waves. I have not seen George since I was eleven and I have not been on a boogie board since I was twenty-eight, the year before my daughter was born.
That’s why we were at the beach now, all because of a thought I had that wouldn’t go away. No boogie board though, just a longing for salt water swirling around my toes, the spray whacking me in the face every now and then.
It’s only Mama when she thinks she’s in trouble or she’s ill. On Bluey the titular character and her sister also say Mama this exact same way. My little one has always said it, even before the blue cartoon dog and all her related merchandise made their way into our lives.
‘Why can’t I turn my back on the sea?’ Her tiny hand clasps my own, but she’s already breaking away from me, desperate to get back into the shallows to play.’
‘You need to watch what the sea is doing. A big wave might break and you need to be prepared.’
She nods, my slight explanation enough for now. The spray whacks us in the face again. She splashes back.
The dishwasher goes bust. Of course it does. I am slightly Bridget Jones, and slightly Wilma Flintstone. I’ve always expected things go wrong, and I’ve always waited for someone else to fix it for me. Bridget Jones was a hot mess, but Wilma had the can-do-if-I-outsource routine down pat. You need to admire her for that. She had Fred, or Barney, or if they couldn’t work it out, there was always someone else to help solve the problem.
There is no one else now. There’s only me.
I pull out the dishwasher manual, rereading each step, muttering under my breath the same way my mother would proofread my homework in primary school.
‘Are you sure this is what you’re meant to do?’ she would ask, frowning at whatever the worksheet said that week.
‘Yeah… I think so…’ I’d trail off and turn back to my Baby-Sitters Club book, the cover half falling off because I’d read it a few too many times.
I take a deep breath. What would Kristy Thomas, president of the BSC, do? My knowledge of the inner-working of Kristy’s mind only comes up with one idea: wear a baseball cap with a collie on it.
That’s not helpful. I pick up instructions again. The landlord left all of the instruction manuals for the appliances in a bottom drawer in the kitchen, probably in the hope that he wouldn’t have to do any repair work himself.
I skip to the troubleshooting section. I follow the suggestions. I wait for the pop, and then the click, and then the water starts draining from the bottom of the dishwasher.
Without anyone to celebrate it with, I drift off to my happy place. The beach, again.
It is late at night. Most of the world is asleep, but I rely on the gig economy to make ends meet which is why I’m reading a story about a woman finding herself in Byron Bay instead of snuggled up in my own bed. In the story woman walking along the beach, trying to channel dolphins somehow. I’m muttering the words under my breath, unsure of the point of all of this. I’m supposed to be editing it, but since the words are all a bit gobbledygook I can’t make sense of it.
‘Mama?’ My daughter calls again. She is not sick, just startled awake by silence.
‘Mummy’s working, darling!’ I say in my best mum-voice. Before I was a mum I heard the best mum-voice at the shops, at work, at church. Use a sweet-talk nickname. Be firm, but kind. Make sure other adults within earshot would nod approvingly at whatever was being said.
‘Mama! I want water!’ She yells the words back to me, her voice getting louder and louder, as if I can’t hear her properly.
I think about all of the parenting blogs I’ve read. Giving into her wishes is going against the grain. Don’t do it, all the websites warn. A glass of water turns into a trip to the bathroom, and that turns into ‘tell me another story’, and then that turns into ‘I need some milk this time’.
I don’t care.
My child wants water. I save my work, turn away from it and fill a glass. My daughter drinks it in three big gulps, and then hands the empty glass to me.
‘Thanks, Mama.’ She rests, her head on a Wiggles pillow, her small body covered by a quilt I made long ago, before she was born. I will probably never have time to make a quilt again. I watch her sleep, then slowly back out of the room, keeping my eye on her the whole time.
I turn back to the Byron Bay story. I can taste the sea salt on my lips again. I’m in the ocean as a small child, riding the waves with my friend. I take a deep breath. Maybe this story isn’t so bogus after all.
We will go back to the beach tomorrow. And maybe this time I will take a boogie board.