Portrait of a Courtyard in Australia
Let me paint them for you now—four children not yet three feet tall in a courtyard next to a pool and a block of apartments, running past the passionfruit pole, round the banksia tree. Then down on all fours, roaring like tigers, baring their teeth. Then hands together as if in prayer, but placed over heads like shark fins as they swim through an imaginary sea.
At three and a half, Kazuki from unit seven is the leader of the sharks. Fluent in Japanese like his mother, he speaks English to Dad (who’s Malaysian-Chinese). Lucas from number eleven enters the courtyard with an unstable toddle and a giant grin. Not yet two, he’s still filled with wild wonder for the world. He’s tall, like his father. Un beso por las chicas, Papa tells him and Lucas toddles over to the girls, purses his lips, leans in. Sienna allows un besito; Kaitlyn pulls away, lets him fall to the ground. Kaitlyn roars and says to anyone who’ll listen, I’m getting big-gah in a proper Aussie accent though her father’s Welsh and her mother’s American. Kaitlyn lives in unit three. Sienna, below in unit two, is the only kid born to Australian-born parents, though her grandparents came here from Bulgaria in 1956.
These are the children and grandchildren of foreigners who left their families and flew from far-off lands in search of something more—more trees, more jobs, more sea, more blank white beaches waiting for footprints. Or, less—less work, less traffic, less pressure, less violence, less stress.
We still visit those we’ve left behind; we still pack up and fly “back home”. And when one family goes, the courtyard feels empty and blank. And when that family returns, emerging bleary-eyed from another season, another time zone on the other side of the world, someone prepares them dinner, minds their child for an afternoon. We’ve no need for babysitters in this block.
Now the little ones are on their feet again in the short grass of the courtyard running, chasing one another round the frangipani tree, uphill and back down, running as if their lives depend upon it, then collapsing, erupting in giggles. It’s Tuesday afternoon; the shade is increasing, moving in a steady line across the grass—can you see it? Girls in matching curls bounce with every step, hopping now and squealing in absolute delight, while their parents complain about sunscreen and rising rent, crazy weather patterns, trouble in paradise—floods in Queensland, a cyclone about to hit the Northern Territory. A child tumbles over, pauses, then wails; an adult scoops him up in one automatic motion and we think, not for the first time, that we never owned adulthood, never really felt its weight until these, our children, handed us this role. We dust the little one off, silence his cries with the promise of a ginger biscuit, yes, yes, one for you, too—I’ll fetch the packet.
And, oh, look who’s coming now out of number 17: beautiful, fair-haired, nine-year-old Charlotte. She speaks French like her Belgian father and stands a foot below the adults, one foot closer to the little ones (literally and figuratively). Four pairs of toddler eyes turn in simultaneous adoration. Charlotte’s long legs can kick a ball in a perfect straight line. The littlies run to her, pulling one arm here, another arm there. Charlotte, they say, Charlotte!
The evening’s getting on; the heat is lifting. Clouds move slowly across a wide blue sky. “They going home, Mama,” Kailtyn says, pointing up, “Clouds going home.” Someone ducks in to cook dinner, someone else brings a small table, which is filled with plastic bowls of carrot sticks, apple, seaweed, cannelloni beans. The kids eat; the mums talk—about bad eating habits, erratic potty training, uneven sleep schedules. Dads come home from work, switch places with Mums. On Friday nights two Dads (one, a carpenter, the other, a surveyor) drink beer and talk about construction, almost oblivious to the kids running wild all around them.
But here, now, I’ve only shown you the bright colors and every portrait has some dark. There is the neighbor among us, a single mum, who takes a blade to her wrist every couple of months. The ambulance arrives, paramedics rush to the same door, ask us to move the kids, clear the courtyard while they bring her through, bandaged and broken. We steal glances from windows. We talk about buying her flowers, this woman with the poise and figure of a dancer. But then she comes back from the hospital wearing a simple arm brace, as if she’s merely sprained her wrist and she’s all smiles as if nothing’s happened, which makes it easier for us to ignore. We go back to the kids in the courtyard, return to the business that is life with small children.
Of course we all talk of houses and back gardens, of owning our very own yard, with a veggie patch perhaps, or a trampoline. And when we hear the neighbour pissing on the floor above; when we hear the couple next door having sex, we long for a house with four walls unconnected to anyone else’s. We dream of closet space (for toys, for winter jumpers, for surf boards and golf clubs and the stand-up fan). We dream of a room of our own to write or draw or read or work. We live in tiny two-bedroom units that mirror one another, with matching balconies that face the courtyard and the morning sun—too hot in summer. We smell each other’s sizzling sausages on the barbeque; we inhale cigarette smoke on a Saturday night as it drifts into our living rooms (for this is Sydney and windows are open nine months of the year). At three a.m. we hear each others’ children cry, awoken by some demon in their dreams. And we turn in our beds, try to sleep. Houses in this part of Sydney average $1.7 million; we make do with 70 square metres (230 square feet); we make do with listening to each others’ arguments and bodily functions. We share a courtyard.
I am Kaitlyn’s Mum; I am the American (though I’m learning to talk about my child like an Australian, I’m learning not to brag) and though I, too pine for a house, I’m grateful for this cosmopolitan urban commune of sorts. I use to write about community, back when I was doing my doctorate in New York. I analysed ecological ideas of community in theories like Deep Ecology. I debated and wrote papers on issues of Global Warming, socialist ideals, Marxist theories, feminist texts. I hung around with abstract concepts, used terms like diaspora and ‘ludic logic’, ‘cultural barriers’ and ‘unheimlich’. I had no idea. And although I haven’t left that world completely, though I still cycle off to the university once a week with big words and bigger texts, on those days I feel far from grounded. And I look forward to the ride home after teaching a hundred students in four tutorials. I hear the kids before I see them. They run to the courtyard fence and smile down. Mummy! they all scream at once.
And though I have little common ground with the other Mums in the courtyard—they believe in God, they watch TV, they vote conservative, they don’t drink wine, they don’t read novels—we live with our differences, raising our children together. We bathe each other’s kids and set them on the potty. We put them to bed, singing in our native tongue—a Chilean folksong, a Japanese lullaby, Yankee Doodle. Our children enter each other’s houses as if they own them. In summer they learn (from one another) to swim in the pool beside the courtyard. On spring evenings and winter afternoons they run around the grass, hopping like kangaroos, climbing like koalas, laughing, running, sometimes pushing, crying, occasionally sent against the brick wall into Time Out.
All told these kids speak five languages—English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and then they speak their own. Sometimes one will call out; the others follow until they’re all screaming in unison. Four toddlers squatting on their heels, yelling out with passion something only they can understand: “OOHHAAAAHEEEE!”
Three women in the block are pregnant now. And as I sit here in the living room at my laptop rushing to get these words on the page before the pre-school bell rings and I have to pick up my daughter, bring her home to the courtyard, I hear a neighbor yell up to the balcony below my own, Any action yet? The prospective father laughs, says ‘no’ and I know that I won’t have to ask when the baby comes; I’ll hear her newborn cries and I’ll run down with a fresh pot of soup or a packet of diapers. We’ll all rush to welcome this, the newest addition into our Australian courtyard.