It was day two of the eight month adventure and jet lag wasn’t getting a look in. When I landed in Sydney yesterday I’d spent the day with Simone and her phone as we drove around the city ferrying children to school and playgroup and swimming lessons, Simone and her phone joined at the ear, or connected via Bluetooth as she offered dubious parenting and relationship advice to the variety of people with one syllable names (Bec, Jess, Kat, Nat, Gem, Em, Han, Tan) who called throughout the day. At playgroup I joined in with parachute games and play-doh fun with the children and parents, whilst Simone sat on a gym bench at the edge of the room and chatted away to her constant stream of callers. In the evening I had my first taste of a chaotic evening at home with Simone and her phone. Cooking a meal whilst simultaneously holding a phone to your ear is a tricky thing to do, even if you’ve had as much practise as Simone has, and consequently we all dined on chicken nuggets that were too dry and broccoli that was too wet. The children were not so much put to bed as ordered into bed in the style that an angry sergeant major might use, and Simone just laughed at me when I offered to help with bedtime and told me that I didn’t know the routine. Once the kids were in bed, out came the laptops. Simone and Dean stared at their screens all night, and I went to bed soon after the kids, as it was now Tuesday night in Australia and I hadn’t done any sleeping since I woke up in England on Sunday morning.
The next morning I woke up in time to watch Simone and her phone negotiate a chaotic breakfast, and then everyone disappeared to school or work or daycare. And I had a brilliant time. I figured out how to catch a train to Circular Quay and quickly established that there were no place names on the Sydney train network that would be suitable for my next hamster. And then I had several wonderful hours of walking around enjoying Circular Quay. This is where the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are and even though I visited many times during my eight month adventure, the novelty of seeing it and being there never wore off.
I had strict instructions to be home in time for tea, but when I got back to Simone’s house there wasn’t even a whiff of a chicken nugget cooking and Simone had a face full of thunder.
“Hello,” I said with extra enthusiasm as if that might help diffuse whatever the latest drama was.
“Aunty Caz!” shrieked the children and threw themselves at me in delight.
“Get off Aunty Caz and leave her alone,” shouted Simone, and then said “what are you doing tomorrow?”
“Going to Bondi Beach,” I replied, although I was fairly sure from the look on Simone’s face that these plans were about to be scuppered.
“That’s fine,” she said in a tone that suggested it wasn’t fine at all. “But none of the children are allowed to go to school or daycare tomorrow because today they all got sent home with conjunctivitis.”
“No worries,” I replied. “They can come to Bondi Beach with me.”
Simone didn’t seem to appreciate this as a viable option, so the next day, the three kids and I stayed home and had a lot of fun. The night before I had filled some disposable gloves with water and different cordials so that we had some frozen colourful hands to play with in the garden the next day (I left a couple of frozen hands at the back of the freezer to freak Simone out at a later date). We made jelly and fairy cakes, drew some pictures and played a game where we were a family of monsters. The rules were devised by the three year old and quite complicated, but we enjoyed it nevertheless.
The five year old had to do some school work. His sisters and I listened as he read a page from a book about insects, then he wrote a few sentences about our jelly making in his news book and then he had to practice writing the letter k. But not the normal letter k that is used widely in print and handwriting around the world, he had to do line upon line of cursive ks the sort of k you only come across when your great aunt sends you a handwritten letter, or when you’re in Key Stage One at school. It’s a hard letter to do when you’re five and a lot of his attempts looked more like capital Rs than cursive ks but you could see that he was making progress and improving as he went along.
It seemed a bit of a dull activity, sitting by yourself writing k after k after k so I sat next to him and made it a shared experience by writing a few ks of my own on another piece of paper and putting what he was doing into context by talking about how there’s a k in his first name and in other words like cake and koala and it was all going very well until Simone burst through the door, phone clamped to her ear and what do you suppose her first words were:
“Sorry Bec, one minute, I’ve just got to shout at my child.” And then she held the phone briefly away from her ear and out came a barrage of unnecessary shouted admonishment.
“Stop talking to Caz. You’re supposed to be doing your work. You’re always doing this… don’t you dare argue with me” (as he tried to protest) “You put your head down and do your work.”
Well, I was far more bewildered by this outburst than the five year old because he is sadly used to nonsensical acts of weirdness from his mother, but I still remember her as the fun loving eighteen year old I made friends with a lifetime ago, so I found it much harder to compute.
“Actually,” I said. “He is doing his work. We were just talking about the letter k and thinking about all the different words that have a k in them.”
“Nuh,” she said. “He just wants you to think that. He’s wasting time. He always does this.” She glared at her son and shouted at him to do his work, then went back to her phone and said “sorry Bec, we’ve got a bit of a situation here.”
She marched over, grabbed the piece of paper, took no notice of how the capital Rs slowly started to look more like ks as the line went on and declared “This is yuck work.” Then she grabbed a rubber, erased all of his work, accidentally tearing the page with her furious rubbing and said “Do it again. Concentrate. And don’t you dare talk to Caz.”
The five year old hung his head and started to cry and Simone was back on the phone apologising to Bec for interrupting the phone call. She disappeared into her bedroom talking away on her phone and closed the door at which point the three children and I breathed a sigh of relief.
She emerged almost an hour later to find us playing in the garden and immediately started to question the five year old about his letter ks with the same sort of intensity you’d expect to find in a murder enquiry. She inspected his work, decreed it to be much better and then told him to apologise to Aunty Caz for wasting her time.
“He wasn’t wasting my time,” I said as the five year old mumbled an unnecessary “sorry Aunty Caz” at me. “And he doesn’t need to apologise. We’ve had a great day and it was me talking to him about his work, not the other way around. I was just trying to make it a bit more fun.”
“It’s not supposed to be fun,” Simone replied. “When you have kids, you’ll understand.”
Oh. That old chestnut.
It was dry chicken nuggets for tea again, this time with peas, sweetcorn and overcooked pasta. Throughout dinner there was excited anticipation – from me at least – about the jelly we had made earlier. Simone took three jellies out of the fridge and banged one down in front of each child, paying no attention to the fact that the children might want to choose which colour to have, or that I might want one too.
“Oh but….” said the five year old.
“Don’t you dare argue with me,” shouted Simone. “You have the one you’re given.”
“No,” I said. “He’s made a special one. He mixed all the different colours together to see what happens.”
“It was a science experiment,” added the five year old quietly.
“Oh. Well I didn’t know that,” said Simone and allowed the five year old to go and get his experiment jelly and a blue jelly for me.
Before we even finished the jelly Simone had to quickly phone Kat, so she threw a copy of Rapunzel at the three year old and informed her that Aunty Caz would read it to her.
So after the jelly we settled down on the couch, the three children and me, and I started to read the story. We had nearly got to the end when Simone ended her phone call and announced that everyone had to get up and go to bed immediately.
“We haven’t finished the story,” protested the children and I.
“It’s bedtime,” Simone replied.
“There’s literally one page to go,” I argued.
“Nuh. They’re going to bed.”
And so they did. Simone shouted her way through the bedtime routine and we definitely could have finished Rapunzel without it adding to the length of time that bedtime ended up taking.
Simone and her phone were more stressed than usual because today she had been offered two new jobs. She could either choose to spend five days a week doing a highly stressful job that involved supporting children who had been removed from abusive parents (yes, I saw the irony there too) or she could spend three days a week devising educational apps for a start-up company, working from home for much of the time.
“Seeing as you have three children under five and already seem quite busy (I thought “busy” sounded better than “stressed”) it doesn’t sound like taking on a full time job is the right thing for you to be doing right now,” I offered. “And the full time job sounds like it could be quite emotional and stressful. If you took the part time job you’d have a lot more time and energy to spend with the kids, and you’d be at home a lot more too.”
Dean – the husband – glared at me from over the top of his laptop screen. “Simone is a career woman,” he said crossly. “She needs to think about her five year plan.”
“She’s also a Mum,” I replied and was given one of those deathly stares that suggested I should shut up now or catch the next plane back to England.
“I’m going to phone Nay,” announced Simone. “She’ll know what to do.”
Despite having a name that sounds like the noise a horse makes, Nay was full of good advice, or at least I thought so because it was identical to everything I had said.
“You’ve got three small children,” said Nay. “I feel like it’s not the right time for you to be going full time, plus that job sounds like it could be quite stressful. You should take the part time job.”
“Do you know what? You’re absolutely right,” said Simone. “Thank you. You’re the first person who’s actually said anything sensible that makes any sense. That’s totally put it into perspective for me. Nobody else understands like you do. You’re the best.”
What? How about when I said exactly the same thing as Nay did ten minutes earlier? Surely Nay was in fact the second person who’d said anything sensible that made any sense. And surely I was the best for looking after the kids all day, and being brave enough to give my honest opinion about Simone’s job dilemma despite the fact that her husband was giving me the death glare?
Then Bec rang because let’s face it, it was at least an hour since she’d last spoken to Simone. Simone launched into an appreciation speech of how wonderful Nay was, stopping only to shout at the five year old for getting out of bed to come and tell us he had a tummy ache. Dean spent the evening with his screen, Simone spoke to each of her one syllable named friends and had several identical conversations as she told them all she was taking the part time job, and I had another early night.
The next day was Friday. Apparently the window of contagiousness for conjunctivitis was now closed which did make me wonder if I was going to get it and take it round Australia infecting other backpackers, seeing as I’d spent the previous day with three contagious children. Everyone was going to school, to work or to daycare. I was a little bit disappointed, because I had enjoyed my day with the kids yesterday. It was so much easier to have fun when Simone and her phone and Dean and his screen weren’t there.
But I soon got over it, because I caught the train to Bondi Beach, had a delicious chocolate milkshake, rented a surfboard and spent the day on the beach.
It was not a surprise to see that Simone was on the phone when I got back.
“Caz is here,” she announced to her caller. “Yeah no Caz is awesome. She looked after all three kids yesterday all by herself. Yeah no, we’re having the best time. Kay I’m gonna go talk to Caz and call you back later.”
Wow! An appreciation speech and priority over whoever was on the phone. Things were looking up.
“That was my mother-in-law. I’ve been trying to get rid of her for ages,” said Simone. “So anyway, I have news… I’m taking the full time job.”
“Well because Dean phoned me up at work today,” Simone said this as if talking to people when she’s supposed to be doing something else was a completely rare occurrence. “And he made me realise that I’m a career woman. I’ve got to think about my five year plan.”
“So what is your five year plan?”
Simone was stumped. “Um…”
“What about the kids? You said you were already feeling like you were missing out just working three days.”
“Yeah, I’ll miss not going to play group,” said Simone and I cast my mind back to Tuesday when all the other parents had been playing with the kids whilst Simone and her phone had hung out together at the other end of the room. “But Dean and I talked about it a lot and this is definitely the right decision.”
I had offered to shout us all takeaway pizza that night, partly to pay my way and partly because I couldn’t stand the thought of more chicken nuggets. So I was surprised when Simone started pulling the infamous nuggets out the freezer.
“Nuh, the kids aren’t having pizza, it’s just for us,” said Simone when I enquired.
“I was planning to get it for everyone,” I said. I had envisaged a fun family evening with pizza and garlic bread and the rest of the jelly for dessert.
“Nuh,” said Simone. Clearly in her eyes pizza couldn’t compare to the nutritional value of the chicken nuggets.
So we had our pizza evening, but it wasn’t the fun social event I’d hoped for, not with the kids in bed, Dean on his screen and Simone on her phone. Obviously she had to call all her one syllable named friends to tell them that she’d changed her mind and was taking the full time job after all. They all seemed to think this u-turn was as crackers as I did and Simone sounded less and less convinced of her decision with every call she made.
The pizza at least was delicious, even if the communication and chat between the three people in the room was lacking.
Simone was busy telling someone called Mon that Caz was here and Caz was awesome and Caz was having a great time in Australia and I wondered how Simone could possibly know that when she spends all her time talking to other people and not to me.
But I didn’t mind too much. I’d managed to sort out an Australian sim card whilst I was at Bondi Junction. Ironically I could now call and text England at a far cheaper price than I ever could when I was in England using a UK sim. And now I had unlimited data too. I busied myself putting my Sydney and Bondi photos onto Facebook, and sending messages to friends via texts and WhatsApp. And there we sat in the living room having a wild Friday night, ignoring the television, ignoring each other, silently shovelling pizza into our mouths and staring at our screens.
Well if you can’t beat them, join them.