I dress them in clothes I have made for them. Bent over my sewing machine during the few hours their sleep gave me each day I had stitched maternal joy into the stripes of his shirt and the cut of his pants. I had sewn my baby daughter a pinafore green as mint and sprayed with white flowers.
We stride to the station where wonder widens my toddler’s eyes as the train slides silver into the platform. We choose a seat because it has a window. He kneels up and my hand rests on his bottom to steady him against the rock and swing of the train. He watches backyards flash by with glimpses of vegetable plots and swimming pools, clothes hoists and cubby houses and rope swings dangling from thick old branches. He gestures with excitement towards cars that pass like toys below us as we cross a bridge. He watches the graffiti sashay across old red brick walls and garden escapees ivy, morning glory and geranium shamble down the railway cuttings.
My infant sleeps pink as a rosebud, oblivious to the world that waits for her. When the train hisses to a halt at Flinders Street Station I lever the pram from the carriage and wait for my small son to grasp its handle. Then we step into the ritual of our day in the city.
We will visit their dad in his high rise office where if we stand close enough to the window we will get giddy looking at the city surging beneath our feet. Men wearing loosened ties and shirt sleeves rolled midway up their forearms will lean backwards from wheeled office chairs and call “Gidday mate!” Women in black pencil skirts and stilettos will bend into the pram to croon at my baby. Amid the latest financials flickering on computer screens someone will scoop my son onto a knee and let him press buttons that make a graph expand and contract.
Eventually he will slide down to swing the golf club the brokers use to practise putting when they’re bored by quiet markets. We will visit the Myer toy department with tables spread for play with wooden train sets and figurines and chunky blocks in primary colours. I will find the ‘mothers’ room’ and nestle my daughter to my breast. Patience and stillness will slow time and there will be only the rhythmic snuffle of a baby suckling. We will meet their dad for lunch, my son perched on a seat so his feet swing high above the floor and his chest draped in a napkin so big we could wrap him in it.
But first we must catch a tram.
“Quick,” I call, “Do you want a ride in a tram?” It is really a rhetorical question but he is a good toddler and answers anyway.
“Yes please, Mummy.”
Still he holds the pram and its sudden movement tugs at his infant voice as I break into a run and skitter across the road to the tram stop. When there is a gap in the phalanx of passengers jostling at the tram door I grab my son’s hand and ease him on in front of the pram. He disappears into an infantry of legs. Just as I begin to tilt the pram onto the running board the tram jerks forward, stops, jerks again and then is rumbling away into the traffic with my child on board.
I hear irony in the ice cream vendor cheer of its ringing bell. I watch its heedless bulk pass the steeples of St. Paul’s, pass the flutter of plane tree leaves and when it is past the next intersection I wake from the dreamy slow motion feel of disbelief and race back across the road to the footpath. As I career up the street the pram slews through the oncoming pedestrians like a loose cart from a carnival ride. People leap sideways, mouths startled open and eyes stunned wide as they try to evade the erratic dash of my carriage and me. I call sorry occasionally but mostly I call my son’s name or cry incoherence.
My breaths become gusts that leave my chest with a wrench. I sweat while my blood booms in my head. The tram’s number is scalded onto my mind’s eye and as I run I watch the returning trams hoping that each one will be the one that carries my boy.
When I calculate the tram must soon be on its return run I cross to the tram stop and wait. My face leans out and around the gathered passengers so hope and I can watch the numbers. With time now to think I imagine grisly scenarios. I see him getting off unseen at a distant stop to find me as his face begins to crumple with panic. I see a stranger’s hand leading him away with false promise in the lure of smiling reassurance.
“Come on. I’ll take you back to Mummy.” I hear as they slink off into the seething city, my son’s eyes still wide with wonder and awash with trust.
Then the number I seek appears. I crane my neck to see into the tram and there he is in his bright stripes and his hand-made trousers kneeling on the seat looking out the window.
“Didn’t you want a ride on the tram, Mummy?” he asks.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)