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Sport 39: 2011

Clean hands save lives

page 32

Clean hands save lives

The eldest was climbing over the front seat and standing on the shopping and I was buckling the baby in at an angle where my back would go any second and it was stinking hot. The sort of heat where you want to shave all the hair off your head and body and lie on the bathroom floor.

You can’t have a biscuit until we get home and you wash your hands, I said.

We’d just lost a week to puking and loose bowels. I wasn’t risking another round. I’d given in and bought the biscuits. I was weak, and in need of some peace and quiet.

Fuck you, said my first born.

The one that took thirty-six hours and a knife to come out.

I looked him square to make sure I’d heard right. He’s only four. He had that look, the one handed down from his mother and his mother’s mother. A heavy-lidded self-righteousness.

The two-year-old started banging his feet against the back of my seat and calling out, Mine! Bicksit! Mine!

That’s the thing with the youngest; they can’t even talk properly, yet they have an instinct for fueling a situation. I did my best impression of my mother.

No one is having anything until everyone has washed their hands, I said.

Hear that voice—I was no one’s mother, just a maniac with a hygiene fetish. The idea was growing in me, taking on a greater importance than it deserved. In the interests of peace, I should have let it go but I wasn’t that flexible. I was the iron rod of law. I was a failure of imagination. After all, I argued to myself, clean hands save lives. But here we go, they’re both crying, even the four-year-old, who should have been quietly anxious.

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Right. No one is having any biscuits, I said.

This only increased the volume.

A car pulled up beside us, with some friends in it. They don’t have children. As a consequence they don’t drink until six o’clock and have good digestion. They smiled and waved. I smiled and waved back. My heart wasn’t in it. All the windows were down, so everyone could hear the kids indulging their sense of injustice.

Lucy said something to me. I saw her lips move but I couldn’t hear a word over the racket.

I held up my hands to show her it was no use.

There was dirt under my nails and the fake tan I’d slapped on that morning had developed into orangey blooms between my knuckles. It was my attempt at personal grooming. I’d read it in the Sunday magazine—shave years and kilos off with fake tan! Having said that, my hands have always been a bit wrinkly. A boyfriend once held them up like specimens and called them little chimp hands.

Lucy, who is English and always polite, touched her smooth hair with her white hand. I realised at once that the magazine was wrong and Lucy was right.

She said something to Grant, probably something like—You see— and they smiled again and waved goodbye.

I reversed the car out of its park.

We drove home the long way, around the sea. I wanted to give us some horizon to focus on. We were on the edge of a beautiful city. The south coast, where I’m trying to grow these baby mongrels into happy men, looks like the sea ripped the land off with its bare teeth. Ships had sunk off here. Fishermen died. Once walking the baby, I found a dead penguin. I wanted the kids to know this, to offer up a wider perspective and find a way through the developing bad mood. I’ve also discovered that sometimes if you surprise a crying child with information, they go quiet.

I pulled the car over and pointed at the water pump station.

This is where they put the ship wreck victims, I said.

The four-year-old sniffed and said, What? The two-year-old almost stopped crying and looked at the four-year-old.

When their boats smash on the rocks and they have to swim ashore, I said.

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I was emphatic about the smashing.

They’ve lost all their worldly possessions and half their families, and this is where they stay, I said. I gave a little sniff too.

We could all feel it; a wave washing over our car. We held a brief, respectful silence. That’s a good thing about kids, the way they’ll readily change direction.

The four-year-old looked suspicious. What do they eat? he said.

He is practical, with an instinct for survival. He’ll go far, even with me as his mother.

Biscuits, I said.

I unbuckled the kids and we walked over to the dangerous rocks. I lifted them up and we sat in the afternoon sun, our bare arms turning red. The sea breeze lifted our hair which is exactly the same colour so that’s what we looked like—three in a row, a family.

We were quiet while we chewed on a few biscuits. The Interislander was coming in. It was shining and almost too bright to watch. I let the kids tip the rest of the biscuits onto the rocks, in case it sank.