The Greatest Showbag on Earth
Josh starts nagging us to walk faster the second we get through the turnstiles. He doesn’t know what it means to work on your feet five days a week, just to blow half a day of wages on admission. He wants to go straight to the showbag pavilion, probably because he’s never had to deal with the throng of sweaty outer-suburban bodies himself. Like most unpleasant things in this world, that’s my job.
‘If we buy the showbags now,’ I explain, putting on the stern paternal voice that I hardly believe in anymore myself, ‘we’ll have to carry them around with us all day and the chocolate will melt in the sun.’
‘No it won’t,’ he fires back. ‘I’ll just eat it now.’
‘It’ll make you sick.’
This is the first time he’s sworn at me. There’s been eight months straight of dissent and I see now that it’s all been building to this blunt retort. I know that just by weighing up how to respond, I’m already losing his respect. If there’s any left. I have half a mind to clip him over the ear, but I don’t want to do it in front of Charlotte or any of the other ghastly families in the vicinity, because then they’ll mistake me for the bad guy.
‘I’m the one who makes the money in this family,’ I say, panting, ‘so I’ll decide when we get to spend it, bullshit or not.’
That shuts him up.
The showbag pavilion is already packed to the rafters. If there is a hell, I’d bet good money that it’s an eternal showbag pavilion. I’m tempted to bore straight in there and buy Josh his showbags now, so he can try to eat all his chocolate at once and end up vomiting. Then I’ll say, ‘I told you so.’ Or not even say it. Just let him struggle around in the sun all day, chocolate drunk, and not say a thing.
Fi always used to wait with the kids while I waded through the human crush to buy overpriced chocolate bars and Asian- made toys that’d be lucky to last a month. I realise that I’ll either have to leave the kids standing outside the pavilion unsupervised, or get them to brave it with me. Neither is a good option. I can’t wait until those showbags are in my hands at the end of the day.
Then we can find the car, which is parked in the front yard of a Chinese family who are making a killing off this bloody thing, and it’ll all be over for another year.
I can’t even remember what their showbag allowance is supposed to be. Are they allowed three showbags each or have they got forty dollars each to spend? Charlotte always likes to get the Bertie Beetle showbag. I remember that much. But it’s probably the cheapest thing in all of Homebush and it’d be unfair if it counted as a whole showbag. That was another thing Fi always took care of. I never realised how we’d divided all the things in our life into such clear jurisdictions. It feels like every week I’m discovering systems that used to be in place.
There are prams and balloons and marching bands and face- painting stalls and food outlets all around us. I know the idea is to embrace the festivity, and maybe I did once, but all I can think about now is the petrol, the parking, the price of admission, the rides, the hot chips and God knows what other expenses that might pop up. Are they charging us to use the toilets yet?
Mum gave me one hundred dollars last night to put towards the show. It really pissed me off. I know I’ll spend the money, because my pride isn’t worth taking fairy floss out of the kids’ mouths. There was genuine pity in the way she closed my hand around the two yellow notes, not even expecting a thank you, like this was how life was going to be from now on. I never planned on being an object of pity. Who does? But once you are—once people start looking at you with that pained, sympathetic smile—it feels like a long, long road back.
I proposed to Fi on a Saturday evening in Centennial Park, just before the fruit bats started going berserk. A colleague at the brewery had suggested the location. We packed a picnic and sat in the shade by the water. Young children were flying kites and climbing the fig trees around us. I couldn’t think of a more perfect park in the whole world.
It was funny in a way, sitting there all afternoon, knowing what I wanted to ask, but still feeling nervous about it, trying to find the perfect moment. Nowadays I think there is no perfect moment. I remember the way the wind was blowing Fi’s hair across her eyes and her talking about how she’d love to live in one of the houses with big wrought-iron gates overlooking the park. She said the whole park could be our kids’ playground. I felt so proud knowing that such a beautiful woman wanted to be the mother of my children. If I’d had any sense, I would have come out with it right then and there.
Fi suggested that we take a walk to get away from all the kids and the weekend revellers. As we were walking beneath the paperbark trees, I realised that I was behaving like a teenager on his first date, trying to keep the conversation flowing, wondering if he’s going to pinch a goodnight kiss. I won’t pretend I didn’t need to shit. It was absurd, because I knew Fi—or thought I did—and we’d already shared the most intimate moments of my life.
We ended up at one of the cricket ovals, watching the end of a match. All those men dressed in white, shouting out nonsense to each other, it seemed like a pointless exercise to me. Eventually, as the players were collecting the cones, I reached into my pocket and put my hand on the ring box. My words didn’t sound as momentous as I’d hoped. Fi started laughing, which was the one response I wasn’t expecting. She told me she’d found the ring in my bedside drawer a few weeks ago when she was looking for batteries. But the answer was still yes.
The sun is already oppressive. I realise that I’ve forgotten to pack the sunscreen. Not that the kids care. They’re already surveying the carousels, the revolving teacups, the rollercoasters, and the people dangling from giant robotic arms, screaming as one. I’m stunned by how much the rides cost. Isn’t the Minister for Fair Trading supposed to keep an eye on these things? I’d like to boycott all of them. But that’ll just give Josh even more ammunition the next time he starts whingeing about what a cheapskate I am.
‘Can we please go on the Haunted Hotel?’ asks Charlotte, squeezing my hand.
‘It’s not even scary,’ says Josh.
I see Charlotte instantly change her mind.
I know I shouldn’t think of an eleven-year-old as my enemy, particularly one I helped to raise, but Josh’s insistence on making every day an ordeal for the three of us is as big a crime as any that’s been committed. I don’t know what he thinks he’s achieving by doing it and I’d be surprised if he knew. It’s hard to believe he hugged me when I gave him a Rabbitohs footy on his eleventh birthday.
A group of boys in their early teens are mocking the man driving the miniature railway. ‘Don’t trust him in that tunnel,’ says one of them. His friends give him a round of high-fives, as though it’s the wittiest thing that’s ever been said. The driver is managing to stay in character, but I can tell it’s getting to some of the parents. What’s the world coming to? If there’s any justice, the boys will learn firsthand what a child molester is sometime soon. That’d shut them up.
The worst thing is, I know it’s a phase that Josh is going to pass through too. I can already see it in him. That dumb mob mentality. Then there’ll be Charlotte’s teen years. I don’t even want to think about those. The energy it’s going to take, just trying to hold everything together for the two of them. I don’t think it’s in me. I can’t even figure out how I’m going to summon the energy to make it through today.
‘How about aquick walk through the nursery?’ I say, remembering how Charlotte used to love feeding cups of hay to the baby goats.
‘It stinks in there,’ says Josh.
I look to Charlotte for support, but I can tell she doesn’t want to stand up to Josh.
‘This is why the show actually started,’ I say, pointing angrily at the nursery, ‘to let the country people show off their lifestyle to city people like us.’
They’re not interested. I can hear Fi’s voice in my head, telling me for the umpteenth time not to lecture them.
I let Charlotte play the laughing clowns instead, even though she’s got no idea how to factor in the delay between dropping the ping pong balls and when they funnel into the numbered rows. It’s infuriating to watch. I try not to start calculating how much of my weekly wage each ball is worth. Josh convinces Charlotte to let him drop the last few balls in the clown’s mouth, but even he can’t seem to figure out the timing.
The carny—a thin man with gaunt features and sport sunglasses—flicks me a sympathetic smile. I know he’s faking it because I’m used to the real thing. I don’t know how he sleeps at night, charging what he does, but I’m sure it’s with a heap of heroin in his veins. Even though he doesn’t realise it, we’re united in this moment. I too am relieved that Charlotte hasn’t scored enough points to win a major prize, because it means I don’t have to carry a big stuffed unicorn around all day.
I watch Josh and Charlotte climb the rainbow slide, carrying their magic carpets. I sit on a bench, enjoying every second off my feet. Parenting is an ongoing equation of time spent on feet subtracted by time spent off feet to determine a state of mind. Josh thinks I fake the pain. Right now he’s not moving any quicker than I do, trudging up the stairs, making a point of showing me how lame he thinks the slide is. Why can’t he just work with me today? We’re all in it together. We all wish it could be just like last year.
The thing I remember best from last year is the four of us watching the woodchopping. I know it meant nothing to the kids, but it was always Fi’s favourite part of the show. A young Tasmanian kid—he can’t have been older than sixteen—was going up against his dad in a heat of the tree-felling. The old man gave him a good thirty-second head start. One of the other axemen was already started on the second side of his pole. I said, ‘He’ll never catch them,’ and Fi said, ‘Let’s just wait and see.’ She was right. The old man pipped his son and the other bloke right at the finish.
All I want today, the one thing I want to do for myself, if that’s such a crime, is to watch ten minutes of the woodchopping. It’s funny how someone like Fi, who couldn’t give two shits about sport, was always so fascinated by the tree-felling. I never bothered to ask her why, but my guess is it was the thrill of watching the axemen climb their poles and hack away at their blocks, balancing on those wobbly planks, knowing they could fall at any minute.
The kids are at the top of the slide now. I study the scattering of clouds above the football stadium and hope they’re going to bring rain. The kids set off at the same time, but Charlotte picks up more speed than Josh. Her high-pitched screaming is the only sound I hear in the whole showgrounds. I watch her small, innocent body ride the pink undulations and I realise why I love her the most. She’s the only person I know who looks at me and doesn’t see an object of pity.
I’ve thought about killing myself. I know it’s not a healthy sign. I’ve even started thinking about how I’d do it. There’s a big difference between planning it and actually going through with it, even if the online doctors say you should seek help immediately if you’ve started considering the logistics of it.
There’s a train station on the Illawarra line. It’s the stop before we get off to visit my parents every Friday night. There are only two platforms. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty quiet. I’d never do it at peak hour, disrupting all those innocent commuters, making thousands of people late for work. We’ve got enough congestion problems as it is in this city. I’d do it late at night, after I’ve put the kids to bed and packed their lunchboxes, when no one’s life would really be inconvenienced.
I try to build up the nerve to talk to Josh as we’re queuing up for the dodgem cars. He’s still pissed off about the showbags and having to go on the rainbow slide with Charlotte. He’d rather go on Free Fall, No Limit, Power Surge, the Zipper and every other ride that’s probably going to end with an investigation from the coroner’s office. But it’s not going to happen on my watch.
‘You happy to drive by yourself, big man?’ I say, pretending everything’s rosy between us.
‘Obviously,’ he says, not even looking at me.
I can’t stand the self-consciousness. Doesn’t he realise that no one’s watching him, assessing his reaction to everything I say in case he gives even the slightest hint that he loves me? Would it be such a crime to love me?
There are about thirty people in front of us in the queue. I try to calculate our chances of getting through in the next group. It’ll be tight. Charlotte is tugging on my sleeve and trying to inch forwards. I’m not sure what else she expects when she insists on coming here. At least we’re not asylum seekers. I look at the family in front of us, all decked out in their Holden gear, and I could swear that this is fun to them. They probably can’t wait to go to Bathurst later this year and camp out with all those other rev heads. Ford versus Holden, who gives a shit?
We make it through to the racing track and there’s hardly any space between the dodgem cars. They’ve packed it even tighter than last year. But that’s the way it’s all going. Less space equals more money. I fasten Charlotte’s seatbelt. I’m counting on this being another respite for me, driving around to the monotony of Top Forty music, enjoying being off my feet for the stingy few minutes that they afford us.
The music starts and the attendant tells us to drive in an anti-clockwise direction. I swerve around a mother–daughter combination, narrowly avoiding their rear bumper, and I can feel a smile working its way across my rigid lips. I squeeze Charlotte’s shoulder. She keeps saying, ‘Watch out, Dad!’ as though our lives depend on it. We get our first nudge from another car and it sends a pinch of pain down the left side of my neck. The fun is over.
Josh is stuck in the corner, spinning his steering wheel around furiously. An attendant hops onto his bonnet, grabs the wheel and helps him reverse out of trouble. We get banked up in traffic on the opposite side of the track. We’re at other people’s mercy now, wedged sideways between cars. I see Josh coming straight for us. There’s menace in his eyes. I have just enough time to brace Charlotte for the impact, but she still screams right in my ear as he cannons into the side of us.
We finally get a respite from the sun in the food dome. This is my one chance to save money. The kids both take sample slices of Granny Smiths from the Woolworths stall and I feel instantly relieved that they’re eating fruit. That’s one jurisdiction that was never mine: enforcing the consumption of fruit and vegetables. Nowadays Josh will only eat vegetables if he can put tomato sauce on them.
We move on to the dukkah stall, but Charlotte says it all tastes like bird food. The two pieces of bread I manage to cram into my mouth are bursting with flavour, but what do I know? The kids are more excited about eating sour watermelon straps. I already know they’re going to hate me when I refuse to buy any for them. The woman at the stall senses it and doesn’t give me too much of a sales pitch. Even total strangers are getting into the swing of pitying me.
‘Why can’t we just buy one thing?’ asks Josh, putting on the whiniest voice I’ve ever heard. ‘You’re such a tight-arse.’
I don’t even bother with a retort.
I notice the cramped stall that our brewery has set up. A bearded kid in a black apron is flogging one of our new craft beers. I’m tempted to grab a sample and hear his spiel. But the beer tastes a bit fruity for my liking. It’s more for the hipsters in Surry Hills. Besides, it’d take about two hundred and fifty of those small plastic cups to get me to where I want to be right now.
At the chilli stall, the samples are ranked out of ten in terms of heat. I challenge Josh to a friendly competition. We start at the Kangaroo Punch, which is ranked six out of ten, and scoop it onto our rice crackers. When we get to the Dragon’s Blood, I feign that I’m struggling, for Charlotte’s sake.
‘Keep going, Dad!’ she says, looking genuinely concerned for my wellbeing.
We move on to the Taipan Venom. Whoever comes up with the names for the flavours is actually doing a commendable job. Not that it’s even about the flavour anymore. Why would anyone in their right mind want to buy any of these? I can tell Josh is feeling the heat. So am I, but I’m not going to let him win. There’s one thing he’s forgetting: I don’t care what happens to me.
‘That’s not going to be much fun on the way back out,’ says the attendant to Josh as he’s trying the Scorpion Strike, which is ranked fifteen out of ten. I see a glimmer of panic flash across his face.
I know I’ve got him beaten.
I was at a hops farm in the Derwent Valley when Fi called to tell me she was pregnant. My reception wasn’t great, but I heard her say something about baby names. I started running between the bines, past all the bright green cones, trying to find a spot where I could hear her properly. By the time I finally got an extra bar of reception, she sounded so calm and devoid of joy. I assumed it was because she’d had time to absorb the magnitude of the news.
I didn’t learn much about sourcing hops to the North American market that afternoon. The whole time they were leading us around the farm and through the picking shed, I was lost in my own thoughts, trying to wrap my head around the news. At the end of the tour, I went for a walk on the farm. They were mid-harvest. I felt like I could keep walking forever, playing with all the possibilities in my head. The one thing I resolved was that I’d give the kid the greatest life anyone had ever known.
We sit in the shade of the grandstand. My hips are killing me. The officials are raking the lawn after a heat of the standing block. A few of the tree-felling axemen are inspecting the large poles on the far side of the arena. Josh is eating a cup of hot chips and Charlotte is eating a deep-fried potato on a stick. I haven’t eaten since the food dome. That chilli isn’t sitting too well. But it doesn’t matter. For once, I’m relaxed.
The announcer introduces the six axemen competing in the next heat. One of them is the Tasmanian kid from last year. He hasn’t put on much weight. Looking at him, you wouldn’t think he had it in him. There are two New Zealanders, one man from Queensland, one from Victoria and one from New South Wales. I ask Charlotte who her money is on and she picks the Queenslander because he’s got the biggest muscles.
‘One . . . two . . . three!’ says the announcer.
The crowd starts cheering as the Tasmanian kid plants his first board in its pocket. Chips of wood are flying everywhere. You’ve got to appreciate the strength and the endurance of these men. I’m sure they don’t make much of a living from it. The Queenslander finishes the first half of his block. The Tasmanian kid is making up serious ground on him. I find myself clenching my fists and barracking for the kid out loud. I can’t remember the last time I got this excited about anything.
‘Dad,’ says Charlotte, raising her voice to be heard, ‘I think I cut my mouth on the stick.’
I glance at her and she scrunches her face up. ‘You look fine to me,’ I say.
‘Can you hold on for just a minute?’ I ask, as the Tasmanian kid starts leaping nimbly down his boards, collecting them as he goes.
I look back and see her probing her mouth with her thumb. She pulls it out and there’s the slightest trace of blood. It’s enough to send her over the edge. I should have known it was too good to last.
‘It really hurts,’ she says, eyes welling with tears.
‘Okay, okay, let’s go and find the St John van,’ I say. ‘Keep your fingers out of there.’
‘Finally,’ says Josh, the little shit.
I apologise to the people in our row as we block their views on our way past. Charlotte is already wailing, thinking she’s gaining sympathy. I can hear blocks of wood being hacked into and the crowd getting louder all around us, but I don’t even want to look. The one thing I do see, to my disbelief, is Josh drop his paper cup on the stairs and keep walking.
The kids’ faces are already pink. They’re telling me what showbags they want. I’m trying to repeat them in my head so I don’t stuff it up and incur any more of Josh’s wrath. Peppa Pig, Starburst Super Bag, Bertie Beetle, Cadbury Favourites, Hubba Bubba and the Greatest Showbag on Earth. But if they’ve sold out of the dart rifle, Josh wants the M&M’s Family Bag instead. Instead of what? Has it always been this complicated or is my memory deteriorating?
‘Please wait here,’ I say.
I look at Josh. You’re a big kid now, my look is telling him. This is a watershed moment. Embrace its importance and don’t knife me in the back like you’ve been doing nonstop for the past eight months.
‘Okay, Dad,’ he says, like there’s no reason for me to doubt his commitment to the cause.
‘Make sure you stay with your brother,’ I tell Charlotte. She’s forgotten all about her mouth now. ‘I’ll be back soon. I want to see you both standing right here when I come back. In this spot.’ I can already hear the collective murmur of the showbag pavilion. It’ll be a miracle if I get through it without murdering someone.
‘Hey, Dad,’ says Charlotte. ‘When’s Mum getting back from her holiday?’
I feel like someone has stabbed a dozen knives into the gaps of my ribcage and left them all jammed in there.
‘I don’t know,’ I manage to say.
‘What do you mean?’
My top lip is trembling and I already know that Josh will never respect me again. But when I look up, expecting to see his scathing expression, there are tears in his eyes. He can’t even look at me. The last thing I feel like doing anymore is leaving them.
‘Tell you what, Charlie,’ I say, getting down on one knee.
‘Why don’t we forget about the showbags for now? On the way home I’ll stop at the supermarket and the two of you can spend a hundred dollars on lollies and chocolate and anything else you want. Then we can all go home and make the greatest showbag on earth together.’
‘But I really want a Peppa Pig backpack for school,’ she says.
‘I’m sure we can track one of those down somewhere at DFO,’ I say, pretending I’ve considered it.
‘No, it has to come in a showbag.’
A bag in a bag. I can’t even begin to figure out how to refute her logic.
‘If you thinkaboutit,’ says Josh, surprising me with the optimism in his voice, ‘we’ll probably get twice as much stuff at the supermarket.’
I see the possibilities flash across Charlotte’s face. Josh wipes the mucus from his nose onto his sleeve. It feels so strange and so warm having him on my side.
‘I think we should go for it,’ he says.
‘What if we get in trouble for eating too much unhealthy stuff?’ asks Charlotte.
‘You won’t get in trouble,’ I say. ‘I promise.’
‘Alright, if you promise.’
I grab both of their hands and head towards the turnstiles. I don’t want to give them time to change their minds. We pass the showbag pavilion and I still can’t believe my luck. I’m actually looking forward to going shopping, racing home and spilling our bounty over the kitchen table. I’ll let them stay up as late as they want and their tongues can turn blue from sucking on cheap sour straps. For now, thinking about their little blue tongues is enough. Just enough.
When There’s Nowhere Else to Run is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $27.99, and available from your favourite bookshop or the Allen & Unwin website.