Once upon a time, we didn’t have to worry about gathering in cafes or playgrounds. We could take our grandchildren to story time and listen to the librarian. But there was a flaw in this utopia. My story starts in the distant past of 2019, but quickly reaches the present, when we have the time to do lots of research. This is a true story.
The waitress smiles as I edge the pram into the tiny café. ‘A flat white and a babycino,’ she says to the barista, not needing to ask me any more. Harry climbs out of the pram onto a stool and I get his helicopter out of my bag. He pulls it backwards and it shoots across the table. He laughs when I put my hand out to stop it, turn it around and choof choof it back to him. He flies it up into the air, spins its blades then turns it over to explore its wheels. The one at the front is a different size to the two at the back and he touches all three as if each different set of indentations imparts the wonders of the universe, his face set and contemplative, the tips of his fingers investigating one then the other.
Our drinks arrive and I tuck a serviette into the neck of his jumper. He takes the spoon and scoops into the froth on his babycino. His hand is almost shaking with the anticipation, but he has learnt that big scoops get lost down your front in big chocolate-wasting drips. Every speck of froth, and chocolate, disappears lovingly before he puts the spoon down. He takes the glass in both hands, sips from it and positions it back on the saucer. He looks to me to make sure that I have also put my cup back on my saucer, then takes his up again. He coordinates our sips until the last drops are gone. We both drink some water, placing our glasses back on the table carefully. I pay the smiling barista while Harry climbs into the pram and I manoeuvre it back out the door.
It’s bright outside. Sharp rays of sun fall on the footpath and I pull the hood over the pram, reluctantly, as it cuts off my view of Harry’s head, his pointing finger for every firetruck or machine, and his comments on the passing parade – ‘dog’, ‘car’, ‘bus’. He only started talking recently and each word is a jewel. We make our way down the streets towards the sea, the sound of the surf drowned by cars and the push of the wind. Waves approach the shore but break out of sight on the thick yellow sand. Clouds gather at the back of the sky, grey and white and clumpy.
As we reach the playground Harry slithers out of his pram and runs over to the pole with the red button. He presses the button greedily, over and over. It doesn’t operate anything, but it’s there, and all of the kids revere it. Today he adapts the game by sliding around between the back of the pole and the bench, saying ‘stuck’ then reaching around to press the button from there and – as if the button releases him – wriggling out and jumping to freedom.
He’s in the ‘stuck’ position when a little white-blonde boy comes over and stealthily presses the button. Harry stops and looks at this disturbance, but the little boy runs off to another pole, hugs it, flings himself back from it and falls down. Harry pulls himself quickly out from his pole and runs over to the other pole. He hesitates as he reaches it then swiftly throws his arms around it. He laughs as he hugs the pole, throwing his head back as if he has just discovered joy. Then he lets go and lies down on the astroturf, exactly replicating what the other little boy had done. He looks back at me uncertainly, upside down, then jumps up and does it again.
My weekly visit has become a ritual – babycino, then the playground, then story time at the library. This is half an hour of stories, songs and little games, with a craft activity – a chaotic jumble of gluing and grabbing – at the end. Sometimes Harry brings me books to read but today he sits with me on the steps of the little amphitheatre in the kids’ library as we wait for the librarian to come in. We watch the bigger kids start to cluster on the floor at the feet of the librarian’s stool. Harry stays with me. He’s younger than them. It’s for pre-schoolers really, but he loves it. He watches every move the librarian makes. In the early days, before we knew to sit in the middle, he devoutly watched her turning the pages of the books even though she forgets to angle the book to show the kids on the sides. He knows all the actions that go with the songs, but doesn’t need to do them. Sometimes, in a dreamy, hypnotic state, he’ll open and shut his hands slowly, or loosely approximate the movement from heads to shoulders to knees to toes. Sometimes, at the beginning of story time, he’ll stand up when she says to, and clap his hands and stomp his feet to show he’s happy and he knows it. But mostly he just sits next to me, and watches. I feel obliged to participate for him, pushing myself to sing the songs and wave my hands and twinkle them above my head. Harry will then make the diamond, matching thumbs and fingers with care.
I go into story time intending to just relax and be with Harry, but there always comes a moment when I feel a clicking in my brain. Usually by the second book where animals – of indeterminate sex, by the drawings – are all male. The word ‘he’ starts to grate on me like a rusty windmill creaking in the wind, or worse. It doesn’t have to be a he. It could be an it. Or there could be a he and a she. I start to feel like a pusher, bringing my grandson to this place where the ascendancy of ‘he’ is drip-fed into him, one book of happy rabbits at a time. I feel the word seeping into him, filling him with the knowledge that the world is populated almost exclusively by males.
I look at the little girls on the floor, staring up at the librarian as she reads. I feel their little souls shrivel as they find so little room for their thoughts and ambitions. Maybe today we will have one of those books with an aggressively female character, more masculine than the boys, more active, jumping higher, leaping further. They’re generally self-conscious in addressing the bias (Mary was the best football player in her whole class …), full of superlatives. The little children, startled by these feats, start to wriggle.
I drag myself back. One little girl, wearing a tutu, has come in late, picking her way down the stairs to join the children on the floor. Her tutu scrapes against everyone she passes and she walks more and more gingerly as children complain about its scratchy edges, shrink away from her or hit out against it. Another little girl whispers loudly to her mother, ‘Is she Cinderella?’
The librarian has five little finger puppet monkeys jumping on a bed. Why are they all male? Then she has five little finger puppet ducklings getting lost one by one behind her back. Why is the only female a mother duck quacking for her ducklings? Why do all the librarians do this?
I sit with Harry, feeling his being pulsing around him, steady and focused, absorbing the librarian and her words. Those words that are taking hold in him, creating images and thoughts and dreams and memories. They’re the words that are forming in his expanding brain and his own soft, precious little mouth. He’s already a complete person – who he is, is established – but his edges are permeable. He sits and watches and the world pours in, unfiltered.
Kathy Prokhovnik writes fiction (long form, short stories and microfiction) and non-fiction. Her blog covers all bases. Her story ‘Still life’ was a finalist in the MRP short story competition 2019 and published in We’ll stand in that place and other stories. She was recently awarded a two-week fellowship in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre 2021 program to work on her second novel, The Dogs.