In my attempt to not embarrass him, I keep my cool.
There are stairs at the entrance to the sign-in area for the GATE visual arts testing all-day workshop. Deliver me from evil. This is not supposed to be a test of a parent’s resolve, or a parent’s coolness under pressure. We have already waited as a herd of uninformed, uninstructed parents with our stressed and unenthusiastic eleven-year olds – asked to do a whole day of testing during the holidays to get into an arts program at the public school of their choosing. Everyone would rather be somewhere else (like still in bed) as opposed to at this seventies High school that resembles more a detention centre than a place of learning.
They have an arts program here too, but amongst the grey shoddy brick and the moth-eaten grass, I feel distinctly unartistic.
We follow the mistaken directions of a janitor in a fluoro vest. By luck we find a ramp that allows us access to the sign-in area where the two women are perplexed we had issues. A pin-striped suited man says he wasn’t informed someone would be attending in a wheelchair. I am a parent, I say. I need to drop my child off and pick him up. I presumed the school would be accessible. It is a government school, is it not? In the year 2013. As a community we are interested in equal opportunity and access, aren’t we? Isn’t it your job to check things are equal for all? I am speaking to people who have never encountered a problem with stairs. It never crossed their minds. Legs like racehorses. And when I suggest maybe some better signage for the other souls who stood about with us wondering where to go, she says, yes we had the same issue last year. I feel Jasper at my side willing me to shut up.
I don’t want to shut up. I want to tell pin-stripes how it is. Blonde bob too. I have the urge to push my point. To be understood. Be in my seat for a moment, looking up at you from the height of a ten-year old, and feel my rage, my frustration, my sadness, my awkwardness. Jealousy. In the end my voice a quiver. Just to get my son to the test.
He is there now. Breathe. And I am in the State Library that I still call the Alexander library – where around tables bunches of students work in groups of four or five. Through thinking doors. Entering a vacuum. Ahh books. Students are plugged into music, others have their phones by them to keep an eye on their social networks. During their short interludes of study they are silent, but mostly time is spent idly chatting, files open, pens down. Denim-clad legs all a jiggle. From the mezzanine level there is the shrill cry of toddlers and babies. Libraries are not silent spaces anymore and it seems nobody expects them to be. A dirty homeless man makes use of the nice surrounds and finds himself a comfy chair to settle down in. He carries on a conversation to himself.
I am in the medical section – pouring over neurology texts trying to make sense of the limbic system and the brain. I draw it, as best I can. I wish for coloured pencils like the ones Jasper might be using. I remember anatomy and the feared neuroanatomy lectures. How is it that something as squidgey as jelly, as unctuous as mucous, be so complex? I read about the primitive brain. The one we share with other mammals. A rat in a cage. A red light flashes and then the rat receives a shock through the floor. Next time the red light flashes the rat anticipates the shock and so now simply the appearance of the flash results in fear from the rat. You know how when you smell the antiseptic in a doctor’s surgery? This is how I feel about the sight of stairs when my child needs to be at the top of them and we are at the bottom. It is primitive. It is amygdala-based. It sets physiological events rolling and I have to rein them in with the cognitive powers from my higher brain. In the end we are all just brain chemistry.
I head out on the street to find lunch. I am not hungry, just conditioned to seek food at this time. If I were Graham I might wait till I had an appetite and it was the inconvenient time of three o’clock. The bain-maries would be empty or else diseased. I eat half the sandwich and leave the rest beneath the paper napkin. I should have asked them to remove the cheese. I’m not really fond of seeded mustard. I go back to the library past some book shops. I am drawn inside to their smell. I pick them up, finger the covers, read their opening lines, think about purchasing because I love the way that word follows that one, the perfect sentence, but think of my house and the way it risks being subsumed by tomes.
On the incline heading back to the library a woman wants to push me. She offers help. I decline it. She says, “it looks hard – the pushing.” It is. Shrug. But. I can do it. We hang on, at least I do, to the things we can do. Having her push me would be worse than she realizes. A stranger on the handles of my chair, her breath behind me. Like looking at a flight of steps. Only Jasper, and Graham, take the handles of the chair and push on an ascent. They sense the need. There is no call for them to ask, for me to accept. To some a marathon is the street. The pole vault a six inch kerb. A steep driveway is my Alpe d’Huez. I shuffle to the front of the chair to get an inch taller to reach a neurology text from the top shelf. I could ask some one. Instead I stretch. How long my arms have become.
Two girls sit opposite each other – grilling the other on the epidermis. Do you know what a mast cell does? She takes her red plastic sandals off – they are jellybeans like the ones we wanted in the seventies. Her feet could be sweaty. She folds her legs beneath her on the chair. Her heels in her buttocks. Her brain makes them do it. Her spinal cord too. Effortless beauty. I watch them. Leg envy. Maybe we don’t need to know all the fancy stuff, she says. Who cares that mast cells release histamine? Somehow I think she will need to know. Next question. Name the two stages of wound healing? To think there are only two.