How to not get in trouble

Jasper is at cricket. It is his third day of five hours per day at an expensive boys’ school.

A man not right in the head asked if he could feel his hair. What kind of man? We are on the bed together while I quiz him. I am getting dressed because when you are paralysed dressing means rolling around on the bed, moving the lifeless legs like they belong to someone else. The dog is with us. Jasper is rolling with the dog. I am rolling with my trousers. Occupied by movement he often comes out with stuff. The other place to talk is in the car when there is no eye contact. The worst place to talk is the kitchen table.

The man wished he was playing cricket in the under nine’s, Jasper says. My mind goes to paedophile. What was this man doing there I ask, not wanting to sound alarmed, alarming. He knows I am worried. I am always a dead give away. Did you let him feel it I ask? Well kind of. I got away from him pretty quick because he was kind of weird. The man spoke like a kid but he was an adult says Jasper.

In my head I am asking Was this man a pervert? Or was he an innocent keen on the blonde, messiness of a small dude’s hair.

I don’t spend too long on these thoughts. I can extrapolate. I can delve beyond.

When I was in primary school I took sweets from a man as I walked home. He was an old man; I think he wore a large coat. He handed out sweets from a crumpled paper bag and I took them. Boiled lollies; the type that take ages to suck down to nothing, so I had to dawdle to avoid getting home before the sweet had dissolved to nothing. Till the evidence was gone. My tongue worrying the indents of my molars where the stickiness stuck. The only bad thing about it, I thought, was that it could rot your teeth.

Then in Assembly, the entire school sitting crosslegged on the verandah, the dusty boards dirtying our school tunics, we listened to the head master talk about not taking sweets from strangers. Had I been seen? Told on? There had been reports and it was dangerous. How so, I wondered. But nobody said how so. I thought maybe the sweets were poisoned. I thought of the old man who gave the sweets and how sad he looked and how much sadder he would have been if I had said no to the sweets. I wanted to defend the old man and say the sweets were good, really good.  And taking the sweets had made him smile. But I didn’t want to get into trouble for having taken the sweets in the first place.

When asked in assembly if anyone had taken sweets from the old man no hands went up. Heads swung round and we all looked at oneanother, but no hands went up.

There was a cemetery near where we lived as kids and my sister and I spent many hours in its unkempt bushland.  It was a wild, hot place. Its bush rang with cicadas and the earth was dry and cracked under our feet. Gravestones were lopsided, flowers were old or plastic and weeds grew. Large black crows picked their way over headstones cawing. Dead leaves and twigs underfoot rustled with the movement of disturbed reptiles. For suburban kids it was our wildnerness.

Only the soldiers’ graveyard was well kept with green spongy lawns and rose gardens. Here we were solemn. This part we visited with our parents, walking peacefully, reading plaques. Marvelling at young death. Imagine dying at 18. Our parents had taught us to respect this part of the cemetery. We weren’t permitted to rush around it or make a noise. Just like church, but outdoors.

But the remainder was a playground.  When our parents banished us from the house on a hot summer’s afternoon, when they couldn’t bare more Monopoly, we rode off on our bikes to the cemetery, dropped them in the gravel and played on fallen tree trunks and behind grave stones. We were nearly always alone. Sometimes people passing through, or walking their dog looked at us askance and we would still ourselves till they passed on.

Here we came upon a man who turned and opened a coat to show us his erect penis. We skedaddled. On bikes, we could get away fast. Gravel crunching beneath black rubber. Back to the pavement, outside a house with a picket fence. Safety. We were surprised. What would he want to show us that for we asked one another? No pleasure could be gained from that sore and swollen thing, surely. We knew it was weird. And children have an instinct to run and avoid weirdness. We thought we were somehow to blame for what we had seen. We instinctively knew that we would be in trouble for having seen it. So we told no one. Telling no one means you stay out of trouble. Just like taking the sweets. No one but the old man who gave them to me knew I took them. Then how could I get in trouble.

Because when your nine you just don’t want to get in trouble.

You want to play fair. You don’t like people who cheat. Jasper gets out in cricket first ball and the coach, the nineteen year old, tells him it is up to him if he is out or not. But he was stumped fair and square so he says he is out. Otherwise it is cheating he tells me. No one wants to cheat like the English.


There are six adults and six children under nine. It is a military style operation to get there; to make sure we all have our beach gear, Italian coffee maker, global knife, parmesan grater.This year we didn’t take the eggshell foam mattress to put atop the hard bed with its slippy vinyl cover. Later we regret that, when we wake stiff and feeling our middle age. It is a half hour ferry ride across choppy water. There are the women at the accomodation office to get past. Each year the scrutiny of the Rottnest Island Board gets more intense. Soon they’ll be retinal screening.

There are three boys who are between eight and nine years old. Two are blonde (one has never washed his hair) and one is dark. The dark haired boy is the elder, freckled and takes the lead. They become specks on the beach. What can they be talking about as they amble, the three of them, towards a large sand dune with a boogie board to send down the slope. They love to ride their bikes and go to the shops unattended by an adult. This is the first year that they have seemed mature enough to do it. They must buy white sugar for the morning pancakes. They get sugar cubes by mistake and I am reminded of sucking a sugar cube, feeling it dissolve between tongue and roof of mouth.

Soon they are angling for a yoyo each. They are counting up their coins. They ask for paper and a pen so to do the maths. Hugo The Brave is the one to ask the adults for the extra cash required. At first it is four dollars then it is ten. No is the answer.

But there are rocks to climb, quokkas to count and the West End to reach and seals to see that loll like fat women on lilos. Their flippers poke from the water, warming themselves in the midday heat.

At Longreach the dunes are irridescently white. The weather is fine. So fine that the water is a relief. Its coolness can be a shock. Ears ache after a big swim. The bay’s seaweed is a deterrent. Pete and I swim out to the green buoy and beneath us swims a ray, bigger than our arm span. A Steve Irwin ray. We watch the water. Its rhythm and its beat.

The boys catch inedible fish from Fay’s bay, but on  Baboo’s boat they manage to catch skippy to eat. On the jetty they catchbug eyed squid and, dropped on the boards, the squid gives a fluorescent light show. Into the inky bucket they bring back to the cottage Emma reaches and pulls out the squid. She prepares and shallow fries its sweet flesh and we all eat the entree the boys have caught.

Rottnest is about the beach and the sun and the hunger for large lunches. Masses of bacon for nine BLTs. Wine in the afternoon on the verandah watching the sky change colour. Sitting on the couch that has been manouevred outside with my feet up I read William Maxwell. Music is discussed endlessly. 1001 songs to hear before you die. The Rolling Stone mag is bought – a Beatles tribute. We can see the mainland in its haze of heat and smog.

We have a dinner at the pub and fend off the seagulls that threatened to steal the kids’ food. The littlies bring cups of seashells from the beach to tip on the verandah. To the right of the blip on the horizon that is Perth smoke can be seen. The next day we discover it is the Claremont council chambers that have been lost to fire. Riding back to Longreach Bay at night the boys must avoid the quokkas that poke from the road like furry rocks.

The boys take sand into their beds at night and scrunch up their sheets. They climb in and out of their bedroom window and leave wet board shorts on the floor. They wear the same t shirt for days and their skin begins to brown. Jack gets sunburnt under his eyes.

Camilla has the youngest children and she is curtailed by the timetabling of naps. The toddler and the baby fight over the beach equipment. Afterall it is new and shiny and the green beach watering can is a very fine thing. The bucket wars. The wear your hat war. Wars over sunscreen and wearing your rashy. There are treats handed out and eaten with a coating of fine white beach sand. Raff is three and desperate to be included in the games of the big boys. Hi guys, where are the boys? He does his bit in the construction of the beach pyramids and the lining of the river Nile with beach grass trees.

Pete, Graham and Troy use the skim ball till their middle-aged shoulders are aching. They switch to their non preferred arms and laugh at their girly throws. Beach cricket  gets too competitive and the small boys have wandered off and left the Dads to it.

In William Maxwell’s So Long See you Tomorrow I read “My father was all but undone by my mother’s death” and I love the use of undone. The idea of the man unravelling, of him never being whole in the first place. In my head there is an image of the man, the heart of him threaded as if by a shoelace and then it is gone and he has spilled out.

Yoyos are bought. One is dodgey. Jack has the dodgey one. It pivots and fails to come up its string. Donk it hits the ground. They are for ever winding them up. Hugo’s is working and Jasper’s too. Graham can still Walk the dog and Round the world and Baby’s cradle. Remember Coke vs Fanta.

When Hugo, the nine year old, must go home to the big smoke of Sydney the two eight year olds are without their rudder. The two blonde boys  are undone. They go into a slump, saying Rottnest is no longer fun without Hugo, and it takes them a day to rediscover their own spirit. Jack gets a new Yoyo. It works better. Monopoly deal around the table, but Pete feels the need to get outside and ride. Otherwise children could end up embedded with crazy bones.

Jo and Steven’s kids turn feral after dinner. There are four screaming children in a mosh pit on the floor by the sink. Louder than loud. Pete suggests no holidays with children under five. Tom Tom is forced to give  beetroot a go and proceeds to vomit over the verandah rail.  A bucket of water is sloshed across the concrete. Emma can’t stand it any longer. I’m done, she says, retreating to her cottage. Steve and Pete argue the virtues of the calender ap vs the To do list ap of their Iphones. Neither will back down.

The boats in the bay turn to signal a change in the breeze. Near the shop the sound of the large wind energy vane; whoosh whoosh.  Monotonous and beautiful. Ducks on the ocean. The wind sings through the Rottnest island pines. A family stands outside their unit while a metre long Dugite snake slithers around their yard, tongue flicking. It slips around their bike wheels and through a helmet that lies on its side.