The sun flashes through gap-toothed pines. Cottonwood seeds wheel over the white roof of the supermarket, hitting the windows of the cars that rip along the highway beside us, their force pushing us into the edge of the sidewalk. Ash is on my back, his little arms thrust out to the sides like wings.
“Ah-ma-wah-ma-wah-ma-ma,” he mumbles, pressing his cheek into my shoulder.
His body has no balance in the carrier; he leans and bobs. It is like carrying a fish tied to a chair.
“Stay with me, little monster,” I say. “We’re going swimming.”
The bag has been packed by my sister, Ash’s mum: two cloth nappies, a bottle of milk, two plastic bags, spare pants in case of diarrhoea, a little pottle of grapes and mandarins cut in half so he won’t choke. I have a fear of babies choking under my supervision. I imagine watching them go blue, and not remembering the thing you are supposed to do. Is it hitting them on the back, or fingers on the chest? Babies die so quickly. That is all I remember from my first aid course—they have an undeveloped cough reflex.
On some level, I’m expecting disaster. I can’t even keep cactuses alive. It is a wonder they let me borrow him for the morning, to go to an unfamiliar part of town, no less.
Still, what power I feel charging down the road! This is what it must feel like to kidnap a baby from a hospital crib!
“Ah-ma-ma-ma-da,” sings Ash.
“Ah-wah-ma-wa-ma-wa-ma,” I chant back.
Someone has plastered the bus-stop signpost with puppy and kitten stickers. The timetable to Kilbirnie goes 9:12, 9:27, 9:43, cat-with-heart-eyes, 10:27… I scrape the cat’s chest to see the number: 10:03.
“Not too long, Ashy,” I say.
“Dah,” says Ash, pointing toward the powerlines.
“Yes, little monster, a kererū!” The kererū flaps its wings, kererū-rerū-rerū-rerū all the way across the road.
“Adah,” says Ash.
“I know, I know.” I say, and I do know; the weight of it, thundering upward, whero-whero-whero like blood beating from a heart. “And look, bus!”
There are two others on the bus, a man in black with a grey mop beard and a girl, headphones on, mouthing lyrics into the window. Ash wobbles in the carrier on my lap as we trundle past the supermarket and down Riddiford street, past a line of palm trees outside the hospital where Ash was born
“Dah,” says Ash, pointing to the hospital. He seems so in awe that I think of saying something about how the world is not so magical as to deserve that kind of acknowledgement. I have plans to be the cool aunt who teaches the kids how to roll cigarettes and tells them about the real world.
Yet now we can see two purple and teal lions watching from a painted brick wall. Now we can see a shop-window-sofa with skin like an armadillo. We can see the shop where they sell gold kaftans, and the Mexican restaurant painted in flames. A man buying lemons stops to pet a friendly labrador. A manicurist runs onto the pavement to toss a bag of fingernails in the trash.
Ash seems hypnotised by the colours streaking fast over his eyes.
We turn past the library. I’ve never been this way before. We’re passing unfamiliar houses in mustard, magenta, pale teal and lavender.
“Adah,” says Ash, pointing.
“Oh yes, a taniwha,” I say, and it is: a big green beast in the school yard, spitting children out of the pink tunnel of its mouth!
And then we are over the hill, the road cutting between two cliffs, bent pines reaching towards the bay. Down through a grove of wrinkly pōhutakawa trees, past tomato gardens balancing in old-tyre terraces. Past the tennis club. This must be our stop.
“Thanks,” I say to the driver. I heave Ash onto my back. We walk through a veil of fruit flies, down the hill.
“Ah-ma-wa-ma-oo-ma-ma-ah-na,” says Ash.
“Here we are,” I say. Wet kids are running in the carpark, chlorinated water weeping from the pipes.
The baby pool is a cyan pond with little holes and lollipop poles for water to spurt from and coloured balls, like the ones in a McDonalds playground, bobbing in the water.
We sit down. Ash holds on to the edge of the pool, grinning like he’s water-skiing. Two waterlogged toddlers, carrying coloured balls from the far side, wade over to put the balls into the hole where the water came out. They are intent in their task: stick it in, whoosh, out. Stick it in, whoosh, out. Their mother crawls over, axolotl-like, bosom underwater.
“Hello,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. Ash stands up and dives, arms-first, into the water.
“No!” I fish him out. “Don’t do that.” He grins. “I’m his auntie,” I explain.
“Well, you’re doing a great job,” says the mum. “How old is he?”
“One.” Ash is looking at the kid playing with the coloured balls.
“Adah,” he says, pointing.
“Sammy, I think he likes you,” says the mum, but Sammy takes his balls and runs away. Ash leaps toward Sammy and I grab him by the waist.
“You can’t swim,” I say.
“Dah!” says Ash.
The mum drifts after her kids into the lower part of the pool where another mum is throwing the little coloured balls to her children. The two mothers are gliding swiftly around on their hands, their muscled forearms carrying their weight as their children, like the coloured balls, run away from them.
“Let’s go swimming,” I say, and grip Ash between my legs, letting him ‘hold on’ as I spin around on my back, whoosh, my hands to the pool tiles. He grins.
“Heh!” he says, satisfied.
“Let’s go down the other end” I say and I drag us both down there where the coloured balls have gathered. The water feature turns on and warm water begins spraying out in arcs from the centre pole.
“Dah!” says Ash, pointing.
“Dah,” I agree. The water pisses into my mouth. I spit.
“Here.” I give him a red ball.
“Dah,” he says, pointing to a yellow one with his free hand. I let him grab the yellow one. Another little boy comes along, picks up a ball and screams as he throws it back at the water.
“Argh!” he says, then picks up another one and screams again. “Argh! Argh! Argh!” The balls spin out from him. Ash wriggles free of me and lunges towards the boy, a ball in each hand. I catch him before his head goes under.
“Bah! You can’t escape me,” I say, trapping him with my floating legs.
More mothers are floating around now, two women with matching dark hair, grinning like twin Cheshire cats. They smile at me and I smile back. And so we carry on around the pool, floating and smiling. How serene motherhood appears to be. But the little boy is still throwing and screaming. My throat tastes of chlorine.
“I think it’s time to go,” I say after a while. I have no idea how long we have spent in the pool. Time is muddled in the moist air.
In the changing room, I feed him grapes and mandarins from the little pottle while I wrestle him into his new nappy. I keep him on the chair with my leg while I change myself.
We stop at the café on our way out. It is loud with pool sounds and a little bit steamy. The formica tables are littered with coffee mugs. I put our stuff down on one of the seats and line up.
One of the mothers is organising her three toddlers, each eating a slice of scone with butter and a choice of spreads. She smiles at me. I smile back to show I am in on it – the joys of motherhood and all – though the administrative complexity of her morning tea would be enough to overwhelm me.
“Mummy, muuumyyy,” the oldest kid moans. “We only get ice cream when you want ice cream but I really need ice cream now!” The kid’s face is glistening.
“Hello?” says the cashier. I turn back abruptly.
“Hi. Black coffee to takeaway, please.”
Finally we are in the clean air again. We walk back up to the bus shelter outside the tennis court, cotton wool clouds pulling overhead. We wait for the bus, which takes us back over the hill, past the pōhutakawa trees and back to Riddiford street where we get out and start walking up the other side of the valley.
“Ah-mah-awa-ama-ma-ma-ma,” Ash sings into my shoulder.
“Ah-ma-ma-ma-ma,” I say. His eyes are closed. The wind picks up speed when we pass the rugby field and the pine trees. I lumber slowly, like an elephant with my human cargo, the world laid out behind us.
Madison Hamill is a Wellington-based writer and publishing student. You can read her work on the Spinoff, Sweet Mammalian and Turbine or listen to an essay from her upcoming collection ‘Specimen’ on RNZ.