Max and Noah took a picture, but the camera wouldn’t work. They took seventeen photos because it is impossible to lift a thumb off the camera icon once it is down.
Usually there is another thumb over the camera lens. All they capture is thumb. Still they admire it, ‘Look at this.’
They can’t get their own heads in the frame both at once. When they manage it, they take seventeen photos of thumb. Then they examine each one as if choosing a prize family portrait. And they found one!
Max and Noah are getting on with things. They have their own version of work. It is very intense. Today, the trees need petrol to keep going.
There is a pipe buried at the base of the tree. They place a piece of bark over its lovely mouth and stare at it.
‘Petrol in there.’
They squat, and stare at the piece of bark and the pipe, more thoughtfully.
Suddenly they rise up and go for the hose, drag it, grunting, panting. It is too long; it’s heavy and it knots its stomach and argues with their small feet. But they yank and wrestle it into place, refusing to give up.
Then they place the nozzle into the pipe and it fits. It is not a tree. It is a train.
And the water cooperates, a beautiful cold flood that darkens the ground and makes them briefly examine their feet. They check the bower, check the nozzle, check the fuel, crouch and stare, absorbed in the small heaving fountain. Noah taps the tree on its spindly shin. He says, ‘Done.’
Max agrees, ‘Turn off.’ But they can’t. The work is too important. They can’t leave it, the tap is too far away. They remain with the train, stroking its hot roaring flank, loyal and possessive…
Matchbox cars are always good. These are old, some sand from a sandpit in the seventies fell out all over the carpet. Digger, trucks, tractors, trailer, the trailer with a sharp edge.
Pa says, watch that trailer, it has a sharp edge. But Max has already assessed the trailer rubbed his thumb across the razy edge of its spine, noted it with interest.
Should file that off! (But doesn’t.) As it’s not been done for three generations.
Max adds noise to the vehicles, amazing that he knows so much engine talk!
Pa dozes next to the car park, the toys were all his, then our kids, now the grandkids. Must be the same play in a different decade, on a chilly evening, Pa snoozing and Nan reading and the dinner not even ready yet.
There is a family gathering at the end of summer. The oldest of this bowlful, the great grandparents, look benignly down across everyone. The youngest on the playground, the two year olds, look up in astonishment at everyone.
Noah and Max aim their cousinly flights through two things only. Matchbox cars and slices of bun. There is a tiny digger of monumental value. This is because it is a digger, a tiny yellow plastic digger that they both want. The digger. They can both say digger. This word, for Max and Noah, lives in the cave of their mouths, already there, a solid, tasteful item. Digger. And there is the added delicious conflict that there is only one toy and two of them. This conflict provides enough material to enrich the entire afternoon.
They zone from table to garden and back again. They have stolen a thousand pieces of doughnut and bun. Great Grandma encourages the thefts, she looks on with approval. They are able to carry an entire theft in one fist. Mashed in with the cakes are the digger, the bulldozer and the cement mixer. The cement mixer is full of doughnut.
They have found a patch of garden that contains loose dirt; wealth equal to gold, diamonds or cordial.
Here they sit serving their own version of refreshment by the fistfuls until suddenly they both stare at the digger. There is a lurch and a chase, but they are only two years old and the purpose of the conflict becomes lost in the joy of muscle, movement and a snail.
(Reminders of toilet, safety and manners flick at their ankles and are ignored, lost).
There is another chase that ends suddenly because nobody has the digger now, it is lost. They stand perplexed. Suddenly they forget the toy and there is yet another race, wobbly, wild and scribbling, but the nappies weigh heavily, ballast is out of balance and there is a fall. There is exhaustion and despair and then finally, tears. It is time to go home.
It is time for dinner and the babies must take the high chairs and be contained. There is good food, spaghetti, and bread and cheese and jugs of cold water and noise and the evening heat dusting though the front windows and over the swing and ding of the evening meal.
Nobody listens much to anybody else. Everybody eats, everyone has had a hard day, worse than anybody else’s, that’s for sure.
Noah and Max, lords of cheese, glance about, sighting opportunity, examining small pieces of carrot, spilling anything possible, shout on urgent notes that end before they can think of the exact meaning, kick and become abruptly silent and then swing again at the escaping idea.
Sometimes they unexpectedly notice each other as though from a vast distance even though it is about five cm. Then they join hands, share evidence of their existence which consists tonight of mirth and carrot mostly and also spilled and other edible things. Then they can shriek with triumph, kingly because they still rule the experience, their thistly hair seems to stand on end in amazement.
Later, tidying up, I find a small plastic tractor and a lego block amongst the mess on the floor and I put them in the sink with the rest of the dishes.
Noah came to visit on a really hot day. But the heat does not cause a toddler to slow his breathing or his intentions. The heat does not exist when there is a task to do. In my shop there is a vacuum cleaner and it is outrageously sitting idle. Noah knows what to do with idleness and he immediately puts the pieces together, provides the engine with his own heart and the voice of the machine with his own throat and he vacuums furiously here and there and all round his feet and all around his world.
He rebuked me soundly when I shortened the pole for his own shortness because he is not short and because this was wrong. He does not need ill-informed assistance from me; what he needs is the floor of my bookshop, a machine and an opportunity. And then, while he laboured across the small estate of my bookshop his small face was both alive with intention and lit with approval.
Noah is up on the big bed. When he arrived up on this new exhilarating surface that dips and falls and floats mountains all about him, his muscles suddenly grew eyes. The first dive plunged him a possible ten miles and the cushioned landing told him that he might now fly. So he did.
Gravity stepped kindly to one side and allowed him to drop and leap, spin and swim in a flightless, effortless baby way for which had had no words except “bang”. He tackled pillows and cushions head on, fell backwards, lunged up from his back to his feet and forward in a delicate, balanced arc, exploring the physics of his own weight, correctly predicting the next fall and timing it accurately with a shout: bang.
There is a collision of head and elbow and Noah rises with one hand held out, acknowledging the grandparent injury and then already wading forward into the next operation, arms raised, his bones warm with cooperation and his fingertips feeling the edges of the air and informing his shoulders of the next plan.
But then, eventually, it is time to get down. He surrenders his feet to the old rules of hard floors once again, walking stoutly, rolling slightly because he is not yet two, lifting his feet at shadows, printing the ground with care and precision because he is not yet two and staring down at his new knees and his new feet that are no longer buoyant and that are not yet two.
Max is caught in the greater goodness, dithering between Pa; fishing, and mummy; holding the world. He is printing his ideas across the warm biscuit sand amongst the fragments of fried bracken that are too sharp and sand dunes full of chewy green grasses and it is an edible day. On the edge of the sea is biscuit dough, and next to that the cold clear waves chew gently on the side, adding a chilling fringe around the banquet. To us watching, drooping in the warmth, who have lately received not one but three grandchildren, he dandles and drives from one to the other, splits his heart fiveways to fit parent and grandparent, all future mishaps and his own cold, delicious feet.
Max is gazing through the eye of a squid. It is bright and soft with sea and also, now dead. Max breathes in and treads through the smell and says: smell. Then he says Pish. On the warm, white track through the sand dunes, he says: smell. There is no breeze there, he holds both hands out in front of him as though touching a delicate curtain of salt, seaweed and heat.
Noah and Max stand at knee height and note details from complex hectares of information. There is nothing that does not add value to the hour and a caravan park yields an astonishing harvest. Once, a boat engine, unseen, coughed seawater from its throat. Once, a small girl rinsed a set of textas at the rain water tank, the cement turned briefly purple. There is a strange bird that bites the air sharply, causing a brief pause in life everywhere. Once a monarch butterfly came into the tent and provoked anxiety. The air is full of taps and sunlight, hoses, glass bottles rattling empty melody in crates, tent pegs, buckets, low voices humming and humming, on the grass a lost child’s sandal with green tinsel tied to it. Max wanted the tinsel.
Each infant begins on a startled intake of breath, a raised hand pointing to eternity and an eye contact with anyone to ensure collaboration. It is possible sometimes to pull out a word. Once, a baby cried somewhere and Max said: cup. When their own baby (Finn) cried, Noah said: no.
But when sea water churns coldly through sand barriers and chokes up small legs and moves the entire surface of the earth sideways without stopping there are no words yet to fit over the blend of terror and radiance and hold it still. They can only look at each other’s faces and read its diabolical intensity there.
Max and Noah are on the edge of the sea and playing in that slice of joy that lies directly where the sea meets the sand. Here they can trot about with competent feet, carry sand in grainy wet loads and roar bravely at the sea. They can enter the water and become caught in the muscular pull of cold weight around their hearts and quickly stop still. Max sniffs the surface and is shocked with salt. They both make squinting eyes. The bay is a lagoon nursing heat and light and small children, beyond them, a dog swims patiently in and out, enclosing his owners in soft ripples, there is no noise, Noah says: doggen.
And they keep playing on, smudged and warm and covered in beach and the dog swims silently by.