I looked across the aisle and saw a little girl with her family. The mother and father weren’t looking at me, but I was positive I could see irritation in their profiles. I felt they wanted to glare at me but knew they could not rightly, for babies ‘just cry’, don’t they?
The little girl, however, had no shyness about staring at me as Daniel wriggled about and fought against my hold on him. Her large, wide eyes wondered what I would do to make my baby stop crying. But you can’t make a baby stop crying, can you? How do you do that? It was just so unusual for Daniel to cry and I was both terrified and alarmed. What on earth could be his problem? He was so excited only minutes previous, and I was looking forward to him lulling to sleep as the cabin hushed, air conditioning swooshing, flight attendants were seated and the only movement was the occasional visitor to the toilets.
‘You’re the mother’, the little girl’s eyes bore into my embarrassment, ‘How are you going to make your baby stop crying?’ She wasn’t looking at me unkindly, but with genuine interest how it would be done.
‘I don’t know!’ I said in my head as I looked at her annoyedly.
She looked across to her parents, who flashed only a brief look in the direction of her silently enquiring face, and then stared directly ahead as the plane rumbled onward and upward. I was certain the people in the seats both before and behind me were loathing their placement. And I, or Daniel and me, we were the cause of their loth.
My breast! I suddenly thought as Daniel’s fingers caught in my hair and, having found something to hold rather than flapping about in my face as I turned away, yanked in anger. My head dropped almost down to the seat rest and a tear sprung to my eye. I knew I was ridiculously sensitive, but it seemed an assault on me by my own baby boy.
Trying to free my head from Daniel’s pull-release-pull and screaming, wet, red and curled up face, I fumbled to release my breast from under my bra. The little girl’s interest had intensified and her mouth had fallen slightly agape at our spectacle. We were still rising in altitude, although were more level now, but the seat belt sign was still on. If I could just free my breast, it would do its magic and Daniel would lull into the gorgeous cherubic sleeping bub that I knew so well. This one, seemingly in agony, was a stranger to me.
I heard a sigh and tut from the people in front of us. With Daniel’s gummy maw wide open before me, howling enough to deafen even the Pilot, I felt certain that the energy of all the people in the plane had gathered in thunderclouds above their heads and joined together and was brewing in anger, resentment at Daniel and me that we would spoil their 4 hour flight to Melbourne. The clouds overhead were thick, it felt, and ready to rain down on us. All it would take would be one outspoken person, and the whole plane might join in. God, Daniel, please shut up!, I thought achingly.
I tried to force Daniel’s head under my shirt to meet my nipple. He struggled as you would if someone were forcing your head under water. I shot a look at the little girl, hoping hopelessly that something else might have taken her interest. If only someone would get a heart attack and go into the throes of dying, nearby her…but no such tragedy offered itself in our stead, and we remained the circus to which she now seemed to be enjoying her ringside seat. I tried hard to jam Daniel’s head under my shirt but because he panicked, as if I were attempting to drown him, he would not take. If he could just smell that comfort and dissolve into the bliss of a woman’s bosom…
The seat belt sign turned off and I was horrified someone might walk past and see me attempting to “drown” my baby, or suffocate him, under my shirt. I gave up. Daniel screamed and screamed and cried and cried. If we could have some of the snacks the stewards plan to bring around, we could be saved, I thought to myself, and then pressed the buzzer. In the delay it took for someone to attend, I imagined they were drawing straws to see who would get the short straw and “have” to attend to us.
A young woman of about 20 attended, perfectly coiffed and figured and looking very “together” in her uniform. With one hand on the seat in front and one on the seat behind, she stood square alongside us, and raised her eyebrows. Her magenta lips ventured a slight smile and she waited for me to talk.
“Um”, I said above Daniel’s howls. He had gone into overdrive now and was surely, surely overtired. I wondered now whether it had been a mistake to have us get up so early and be so busy all morning. “Are you serving a meal today?”
“Yes”, she said.
“Could we please have ours now instead of later, because I am sure it will help my son. I didn’t feed him in anticipation of the meals, but I didn’t realize he’d be hungry so soon.” The stewardess looked at me, disclosing the slightest expression of shock when I said I hadn’t fed my son, and then told me she couldn’t serve us before everyone else, no. As she turned to leave, I saw the little girl was still staring in our direction and I felt like swearing at her to look away. This really, REALLY was not entertainment!
“THEN” I said loudly, to be heard above Daniel, and the stewardess turned back toward us, taking up her square position again. “Then could we please have some cheese and biscuits or something? It’s just that I think him chewing something would be good – or opening the little packets, you know?”
She looked at me, her eyes not even appearing to consider my request.
“We have to do things in order”, she said. I didn’t know what this was meant to mean. I thought that customers would be priority no. 1, which in the order of things, was first.
“We serve First Class first,” she then explained to my puzzled expression. I was a bit baffled. How could giving a lowly Economy Class passenger some cheese and crackers be so out of order it “could not be done”?
“But”, I said, “Just something – you know, you’ve got things there. Just whatever you choose – anything – a distraction.”
The stewardess repeated that she was unable to help me, and left.
I felt abandoned by the stewardess’ departure. I thought it was her job to see to the comfort of passengers, and the whole plane full of passengers would be looked after if she could just care to help me do whatever it might take, to have Daniel settle. But it seemed to be all my responsibility, no-one else’s, and I alone had to find the solution. I simply could not understand why he had become so crazy with tears when it was not his nature. I wanted to tell society with the storm clouds thickening above their heads that it wasn’t normal for Daniel to be like this, not normal at all. Lightening might strike soon, if Daniel didn’t quieten. There would be a flash of anger, a spark in our direction, and there would rain down on us exhausted looks and judgments, irritation, and eyes to the effect that ‘you’ve ruined our flight’.
I wanted to cry. But I felt angry, really angry. I bet if I were a man of a family, the stewardess would have found it possible to sneak a little plastic packet of biscuits and cheese without anyone in First Class standing up to make a First Class complaint. Or even if I were a single father – just, a man. I felt impotent, ineffective as a female. Unimportant. I had let people short-change me at times, had bought more sausages than I wanted when a butcher told me he only sold them in kilo lots, which I knew was ridiculous. I had let people push in at school, I had crossed the street to avoid boys when walking as a teen, feeling so ugly, so minimal. As a female, I was nothing. Powerless.
Let. I had let. When would I stop letting these things happen to me?
When I had taken my landlord to court when I was 17 and he wouldn’t give my bond back, I went to the Tribunal not because I felt strong and capable, but simply because I could not “let” that happen to me. I let so many things happen to me days before and days after that court date – but how had I found the guts to enquire “how it’s done,” to fill in the forms, lodge them, be patient in wait, to turn up at court and state my truth? How had I, at 17, gone so far and then under oath, nervous and trembling within, told a Magistrate the truth, that my boyfriend never stubbed his cigarettes out in the landlord’s carpet, and all the things the landlord claimed as his reason for needing new carpet in his little abode, well, they were not things I or my boyfriend had done.
How I had found the guts to take that course and then stay that course, I really did not know. I was so grateful to my sister Deana who had accompanied me that day in court, to be moral support. Although I had won my case and the landlord had to give my bond back, which I then paid back to my sister Wendy who had lent me more than I had at the age of 17, in order that I could leave Dad’s – although I had won the case, I’d gone straight to the toilets and cried, and cried and cried and cried. The entire ordeal had so frayed my nerves. I had gone into it with nothing but my words, while the landlord had a fistful of quotes from carpet layers and painters that he had offered as evidence to the Magistrate, that these things need doing in the little abode he had built himself (with a shower cubicle in the kitchen) – needed doing because of me. Up against a man, I was. And I “won”. But cried. I so cried.
And here I was on a plane, my baby screaming in agony in my lap, and I could not bring myself to demand anything, to raise my voice, to say “Well that’s pretty rotten service”, like I wanted to. I was petrified because of judgment. Society was judging me a bad mother because my baby was crying and I could not quieten him. I hated them. I leaned back in my seat and collapsed within. Hate, hate, hate, pulsed in me. I hated all the people in the plane as much as they surely hated us.
The little girl wasn’t as interested in us any more, thank mercy, for she had been given a colouring book and pencils by the ariline staff. If they could give her something, why couldn’t they give Daniel something? So what if it was food?
Fine, I decided. I have the most amazing endurance, Society. I will let Daniel cry in my face and tangle my hair and be blind to the journey and scream and scream and scream, since the air stewardess won’t help. Just hope you’ve got endurance too. And with that thought, I sat back and stared out the window. I saw the clouds beneath us, the steadiness of the plane in flight, seemingly going nowhere in space but going hundreds of miles an hour, and I blocked out Daniel’s voice. He continued to wave his arms and scream, cry, rage, ache, but as there was nothing I could do, then I would do nothing.
Time passed, and Daniel continued to scream. People made audible sounds of annoyance, irritation, and I blocked them out. I just sat, letting him scream in my face. This was not the normal Daniel. I had no idea why he was going off. I could not help him though I had tried. The airline staff did not care to help him. And I would stop too. I’d tried everything, they’d tried nothing, so we’ll just wait. We’ll just wait.
After a long time, the defined length of which is locked in a memory that has decided to block it out, I suddenly saw a string of big red beads fly up over the seat in front of me. A hand, female and aged something about 50, held them dangling.
“Give him this!” a voice barked.
Daniel, who was on an uptake of breath when the beads flung over, held his breath. He and me both looked at them: fat, strawberry coloured, gleaming.
“Er…” I said, hesitating. The hand waggled the beads impatiently. I took them, and the hand disappeared.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.” Daniel looked at the beads I now held in my hand. With the moment seeming to hold a spell that could be cast, if played right, I jiggled them gently, and stopped. I looked across at the little girl, and she was staring at us again. Her eyes were not so wide any more, just curious.
“Wow,” I said to Daniel, although I felt like crawling up and dying, “Aren’t they beautiful!” He stared. A little cough spurted as he let his breath go and a tear, which had just made its way down his cheek to his chin, sat glistening, waiting for gravity to claim its flow. He lifted his little hand up, halfway toward the beads. It seemed he had not the strength to lift it any higher, so I slowly descended the beads into his open fingers. The little girl continued to watch.
“They’re just like rocks from planet Mars, or strawberries that have been frozen” I said, in my lightest voice of wonder. Daniel took the beads, which made a clashing sound as I let them go and they fell into his grasp. The tear on his chin dropped to my knee and was absorbed by my jeans as a tear that had held itself in the corner of my eye, waiting for freedom, the moment to be allowed to express, fell down the side of my face. The stress I felt was enormous.
The little girl watched as I gently repositioned Daniel from facing me howling and protesting, to sitting on my lap, a string of beads before him. He brought his other hand up so that two hands held the magical beads. Society’s storm clouds evaporated, and there was clear skies overhead. I took a big sigh.
“Cornelius (the cat) would love these beads,” I said to Daniel. “They’re so special.” He turned them over in his hands and then picked them up as if one by one, to bunch them up in his fist.
“Shall we count them?” I asked Daniel, but he made a noise that threatened the displeasure of an infant, and I quickly changed the subject.
From that moment, Daniel was absorbed. We did all sorts of things with the beads, none of which were interesting to me, before I gently lifted the armrest next to me so that Daniel could sit in the space of two seats and play with them alone. I remained sentry, my hand ensuring he would not scramble off the seats, until some 20 minutes later Daniel decided he might like to lie down. Lying down, the beads hanging over his face, his arms began to drop. The big red beads settled one by one on Daniel’s cheek, down his shoulder, and came to rest on his belly where he lay, sleeping, holding them.
“Chicken or pork?” the airline stewardess asked. I turned from staring out the window to look at her. If only you knew what I have just been through, you f*king bitch, I thought. “Chicken”, I said.
She leaned over as I opened my tray table, and I took the meal from her hands.
“Orange juice? Water? Lemonade?”
“Orange juice, thanks”, I said.
“Oh, isn’t he beautiful”, she said, looking at Daniel, his pink lips pouting with the slightest hint of cheek of a grin.
“He would have been beautiful a lot sooner if you’d given him some cheese and biscuits”, I said, not sure myself that was quite the truth – but still…
The stewardess looked at me, then through me, and then beyond me to ask the man in the seat behind with the most lovely, lovely smile, would he like chicken, or would he like pork?
That was Ansett Airlines. I would not deny to admit: when they went into liquidation some years later, I thought, “Hmmm, must be the customer service”…