There was The Year of Nivea for Men, The Year of Joop and sadly, The Year of Blue Stratos (and I didn’t even own a hang glider). This last January I turned forty-five. For my previous three birthdays the twins walked to the local pharmacy and bought me some kind of fragrance gift pack. This year it was to be The Year of West Indian Lime.
“Bit of an old man’s fragrance?” said Suzanne (my wife, in jest I hoped).
“Cheeky cow!” I replied in jest.
The two girls were piled on top of us in bed amid the torn wrapping paper.
“Ready for breakfast in bed Daddy-o?” asked Pip.
“Sure am,” I said.
The girls scuttled out to the kitchen. As we listened to various clinking and crashing, Suzanne ran her warm hand under my t-shirt. “Date tonight old man?”
“I won’t say no.”
The other fragrances I recall from that January were new shoe leather, sunscreen, pencil shavings and “forgotten banana in schoolbag” as the twins returned to school at St Matthews.
In February, I arrived home from work one night to find Pip and Charlotte singing:
“Hearts on fire for the love of Jesus
Hearts on fire for the love of the Lord”
It was pretty harmless stuff, but it struck me they were 9 years old and I’d neglected to introduce them to rock and roll. That weekend we had a couple of hours to spare and I suggested they watch the musical Grease.
“It’s got some great songs,” I said. The girls weren’t so sure. “It’s mum’s favourite,” I offered.
“What’s Grease?” asked Charlotte.
“Ahh, a bit like hair mousse,” I said moving things along and loading the DVD.
In March, Pip and Charlotte were invited to a classmate’s party and I witnessed the arms race that is girl’s birthday parties rise to a new level. We headed out empty handed because instead of a present we were asked to make a donation to the Royal Children’s Hospital. I was okay with this because it saved me a trip to the shops to buy some crappy toys. Walking up to the party house we saw a small herd of Shetland ponies being groomed on the footpath.
“A bit early in the year to go straight to nukes,” I said to Albert, father of one of the Kiaras (there were two in the class).
“I thought the donation was a nice touch,” he said, “but this equine extravaganza? I’m not sure what it says?”
“It says, we don’t need any of your crappy toys thanks very much,” I replied.
In April, Anthony Browne caused me a Grade-3 hamstring tear (the bastard). It happened in the father’s race at the St Matthew’s sports carnival.
“Are you sure?” asked Suzanne.
The main problem with being forty-five is all of your prime athletic memories are well over twenty years old.
“No worries,” I replied, as I trotted down to the start line on my forty-five year old feet.
I lined up with the other fathers. I got a reasonable false start but was immediately surprised by the pace. I remember thinking, I better put my foot down if I’m going to win this thing. Anthony Browne wasn’t in the race, of course, but as the author of the children’s book My Dad (I’d been reading it to the girls for the best part of ten years) he had subconsciously led me to this place and time (for those unfamiliar with the text, it features a dad who wins the father’s race at sports day, easily).
At the forty-five metre mark there was an audible pop as my right hamstring let go. In the next stride I went down (heavily).
“Why did Daddy-o fall down?” Charlotte kept asking as I limped to the car carrying the picnic rug and fold-up chairs – agony on so many levels. Fortunately St Matthew’s is a small school and this happened in front of only four hundred people.
In May, we drove over to my mother-in-law’s house for lunch.
“Eye spy with my little eye, something beginning with W,” said Pip.
“Give us a clue,” demanded Charlotte.
“I already gave you a clue, it starts with W,” giggled Pip.
“Good one Pip,” I said.
“Don’t egg her on,” said Suzanne, stifling a grin.
“No! You need to give us real clue,” protested Charlotte.
“Alright. It’s outside the car,” replied Pip.
“Alright.”“Give up?” asked Pip.
“World!” declared Pip triumphantly.
Wow, sometimes it takes your kids to point out the obvious. Our silence was broken by the rumbling of some old ‘fifties cars as we pulled up at the traffic lights.
“Check it out girls, hot rods,” I said.
“Cool,” said Charlotte.
“They’re shiny,” said Pip.
“They look like the cars in Grease,” said Charlotte.
“That’s right honey,” I said. “Go greased lightning you’re burning up the quarter mile,” I sang.
“Oh please,” said Suzanne. “Travolta is rolling over in his grave.”
“I don’t think he’s dead yet,” I offered.
As we pulled away from the lights I kept pace with a 1955 Pontiac, open top.
“Daddy-o?” asked Pip.
“Is it a real p*ssy wagon?” she asked (innocently, it seemed).
I made that snorting noise you make at times like this.
“Maybe a bit too young for Grease?” said Suzanne.
“Oh look,” I said, “we’re nearly at Grandma’s.”
In June, supercouple Albert and Li An separated. It came as a shock to everyone except Albert. I was standing on the sideline watching the girls play soccer against St Cecilia’s. It was about what you expect from Under-10 soccer: a knot of twenty kids in the centre of the pitch kicking each other in the shins, in light rain.
“Hey Jeff,” said Albert. He joined me under my golf umbrella.
“Hey Albert,” I said, “that woman still giving you grief?”
Albert (father of one of the Kiaras) owns a medical clinic and is always bending my ear about his personnel issues. I’m a psychologist so I try to be helpful. One day I might get really sick.
“Why, what did you hear?” asked Albert.
“Your practice manager?” I asked.
“Oh, that.” He looked crestfallen. “No. Look I suppose I should tell you Li An and I aren’t quite together.”
“None of us have it quite together, mate,” I said, “that’s the first thing you need to know about marriage.”
“I’ve moved out,” he said.
“Shit, mate. I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“Albert and Li An have separated,” I said to Suzanne the minute we got back from soccer.
“What? Are you sure?”
“Albert just told me.”
Suzanne and Li An had been on the Saint Matthew’s fundraising committee together. Suzanne had found Li An formidable of intellect, superior of stamina and flatter of stomach. I don’t know how she does it, married to a doctor blah, blah.
“They seemed to have it sorted,” said Suzanne in amazement. “She’s got this whole perfection thing going.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I think I saw a glimmer of triumph in Suzanne’s eyes. She shook her head immediately as if shaking off the thought.
“No, you don’t wish that on anyone,” she said solemnly to herself.
I had the strangest image in my head at that moment; our scruffy family mutt had just beaten Albert and Li An’s pedigree miniature schnauzer in a dog show.
“No, of course not,” I replied.
But it did make me think how often we threatened to throw our marriage out in the heat of an argument – as if it wasn’t the most important thing in each of our lives – as if we could recreate anything like this whole from the sum of other parts.
In July, what with one thing and another, Suzanne and I failed to get together in any intimate way. The root cause was a the TV programmer who shifted Hawaii Five-0 to Thursday night. Thursday night was no good.
“Bastard!” I said (once I realised).
“What’s up sweetie?” asked Suzanne.
“Hawaii Five-0,” I said. ”It’s always been on Wednesday.”
The girls looked up from their homework, bemused (what with Daddy-o swearing and all).
“Any chance you could role model how an adult deals with something that’s not the end of the word?” said Suzanne (only slightly sarcastically).
“You don’t understand,” I said.
What Suzanne didn’t understand (yet) was Hawaii Five-0 was positively correlated with our sex life. Let me explain. Suzanne mostly watches home renovation and reality cooking shows. Some nights it made me wonder what we had in common. I, on the other hand couldn’t bring myself to watch another bathroom makeover (I’d done three real ones with my own hands, which is sufficient for one lifetime). The only TV show we watched together was Hawaii Five-0, on Wednesday, on the couch, together. Not Monday when Pip has karate. Not Tuesday when Charlotte has swimming. Not Thursday when Suzanne has Pilates. And not Friday when we’re all too tired for anything. I explained this to Suzanne. If I’d had a whiteboard marker handy I probably would have drawn a diagram.
She looked at me for a long moment.
“We can still have date night on Wednesday,” she said (non-sarcastically, it seemed).
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll put it on the schedule,” she said.
I was about to say, you mean it’s not on your schedule already? (but thought better of it, of course).
In August, I met Albert for breakfast at The Resident. It was probably more of a beer meeting, but I didn’t know anyone who went out to the pub anymore. Besides, early morning was the only part of my schedule I had any flexibility over, provided I got up early enough.
“Did you know divorcees are more likely to die of heart disease than married couples?” he began.
“On that cheery note,” I said, shaking his hand. I looked at the menu. “You going to have something?” I asked.
“Nah, just coffee.”
He looked gaunt.
“So, no chance of you getting back together?” I asked eventually.
“No. And actually I’m getting used to the idea.”
“You know what they say about the truth, mate?”
“I will set you free?” I said.
“Yeah but first it will piss you off.”
“I gotta say Albert, it used to piss me off a bit when Suzanne held you up to me as an example. You know, pointing out some shortcoming of mine.”
“I got sick of having myself pointed out as an example,” said Albert. “Wasn’t it enough that I was holding down a good job as a GP? No, Li An wanted me to open my own clinic, which I did. And which made me miserable. I just wanted to treat the patients I enjoyed treating. I didn’t want to be a businessman. Then it’s the big house. Then she wanted an Audi Q7.”
The coffees arrived. I nodded.
“Yeah,” I said trying to make a joke, “what’s up with the small Asian woman in the German luxo-barge thing?”
“I’m also an Audi,” said Albert meaningfully.
“I’m also an Audi. An accoutrement. Another box to be ticked. She started with the doctor husband, tick. Then she wants the successful businessman, tick. Then the big house. You get it?”
“How did it come to a head?” I asked.
“One night I arrived home and she was off to some school committee meeting. You know, breezes past me in the doorway looking fantastic. I looked at her going out the door and thought, who is this person who I don’t have sex with anymore?”
Albert looked reflective as he stirred his coffee. “How do you keep it fresh?” he asked, almost as an afterthought.
I wasn’t sure I had an answer. The truth was I’d made love to the same woman for thirteen years and sometimes I wasn’t sure if we were getting any better at it. Suzanne did call me Mr Reliable (but maybe that meant Mr Predictable). Some days I worried I was losing the knack.
“Um, well, Suzanne still likes doing it in the shower,” I offered.
“And you don’t?”
(Lately I found myself worrying about slipping over).
“I’m not as flexible as I used to be.”
“And my knees hurt after a while.”
“And my right ear keeps filling up with water.”
In September, we went to lunch at The Langham for Father’s Day. Pip and Charlotte left the table to browse the deserts.
“How’s Daddy-o enjoying his Father’s Day?” asked Suzanne.
“Please call me Jeff,” I said (something bugged me about my wife calling me by the same name the kids used).
“Okay Jeff,” she said (mildly annoyed, it seemed).
“I don’t want to stuff this up,” I said.
“No, us. This Albert and Li An thing. He looks shocking. He’s not going to be right for years. I don’t want to stuff up what we have.”
“Is that a clinical term? It would be ironic if the psychologist stuffed up his primary relationship.”
“It’s not funny,” I said. “Are we going to make it?”
Suzanne took my hand, “I promise not to stuff it up. How about you?”
“I do,” I replied.
In October, I watched a middle aged Chinese woman pay $1.4 million at auction for a modest house in our neighbourhood. It was something to behold. She didn’t speak English so there was an Asian realtor standing next to her telling her how much she was spending. Also standing next to her was her husband holding a large Louis Vuitton handbag (presumably not his). I remember thinking henpecked was probably a word found in every language. It was a record sale for the neighbourhood and afterwards the neighbours gathered to discuss the significance.
“Where is all this money coming from?” asked Helen, our Greek neighbour. “I thought the Chinese were only allowed to take fifty thousand dollars out of the country.”
Roy, the local Jim’s Mowing franchisee, chimed in, “it’s globalisation. You can’t keep buying all your stuff from China and not expect some of them to get rich eventually. That’s what globalisation really means, if you live in a nice part of the first world, eventually the river of Chinese cash floods your neighbourhood.”
“I suppose it’s okay if you already own a house,” said Helen, “keeps the property value up. But first home buyers haven’t got a chance.”
“The only retirement strategy I can see,” said Roy, “is you hold your property until you’re ready to retire and cash in to some overseas investor to buy yourself a nursing home spot.”
I watched the husband follow his wife into the house to sign the paperwork. He was still carrying the handbag.
In November, Pip was admitted to hospital. There was bleeding on her little brain. She’d fallen from the monkey bars at school (it’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often). At first the teacher thought both girls were hurt, but Charlotte was simply lying down with twin empathy. I prayed for the first time since Suzanne’s dad was dying – I mean I really prayed. It was the simplest prayer a father can make; please let us be together for as long as possible.
Afterwards we were all in Pip’s hospital room. She was bandaged up, absolutely still, angelic. Charlotte was cuddled up next to her, they were both sleeping. Suzanne was sitting on my lap in the visitor chair with her head against my neck.
“Should we take Charlotte home?” I asked.
“No. We’re all here,” said Suzanne.
In December, we slept in on a Friday morning. It was near the end of the school year and we were all going to fall over the finish line. Suzanne and I had tried an unscheduled Thursday night date after Hawaii Five-0, making it two date nights on one week. I looked at the clock: 8.10 am, twenty minutes to get ready for school.
“Shit, we’re late,” I said.
“Argh, the girls have an excursion,” said Suzanne from the depths of sleep. “I haven’t got their back packs down from the attic yet.”
“Let’s just take them in late,” I said rolling over.
“No, they’ll miss the excursion bus.”
Suzanne was up now, hair falling down over her face. She pulled on a pair of jeans over her slim brown legs.
“Come on,” she said, “we know how to do this.”