Georgie heads towards a bench in the shade. No prams or bags or snack boxes on it. No other parents looking for playground chitchat. Max scuffs along a few metres behind her. He’s waving a stick like a metal detector and mumbles to himself. Georgie sits down and waves for him to hurry up. She should’ve shelved it by now. You can’t hurry Max. He’s always walked to the beat of his own drum. At his own pace. He stops for a moment to look at the sky and holds two hands up around his eyes like binoculars. He’s looking, maybe at something, maybe at nothing.
Georgie whistles. He takes his hands down and comes over to her, sitting on the bench and pulling off his sandals.
‘Not so fast, mister!’ She grabs an arm before he slips away. ‘Sun cream.’
‘Okay.’ He holds his hands out for a squirt and gets to work on arms and legs while she deals with his neck and face. He’s still going when she is done, rubbing in any leftover cream. More thorough than she is, these days.
‘Now can I go?’
‘Yes!’ Georgie leans her cheek out for a kiss and grabs him into a cuddle at the same time. He’s soft and if she catches the right place on his head, she swears it still smells like a baby.
They both have pale skin and freckles and no business being in the midday sun, so their park visits are usually in the early morning or late afternoon. Fine by Georgie. It’s just babies and toddlers at that time and tired parents who need to get out of the house. The kids toddle around Max but don’t demand anything of him. They take a bucket or spade occasionally. The parents bend down and ask if it’s okay and he nods. He’s always been a generous kid. Sharing has never been the issue.
Max crouches over the sand with his legs spread wide. Georgie stands up, ready to take him to the toilet block. He’s never done a wee in the sandpit before. But he bends down lower and sand is suddenly flying out from between his legs.
‘Are you digging up a bone, Maxie?’ Georgie sits back down.
‘Arf. Arf.’ He keeps digging.
‘Found anything yet?’
‘Roooow.’ He walks over to her on all fours with a sad dog face. Georgie leans in and gives him a scratch behind the ears. One of the mums looks over at them from the swings.
‘Probably no bones here, Maxxie. How about we build tunnels and castles instead?’
‘Woof.’ He shakes his bum in lieu of having a tail to wag. They play this doggy game at home. Sometimes, she even gets down with him and they roll around on the floor with tickles and Max’s gulped giggles. It started as a distraction from his screaming. When he didn’t get something, he would scream and hit. She spoke to him about using his words, but that didn’t resonate. One day, he screamed in her face and she barked at him. He stopped and laughed and started barking too. Then when he got angry, instead of yelling he would bark. She would try not to smile when he stood there with his arms crossed and brows ridged, barking like a dog. It got it out of his system. He’d turn from an angry pup back into her little boy, and she’d go from growly top dog back to his loving Mamma. He’d come for a cuddle and they’d snuggle on the couch. She’d pet him. A little scratch behind the ear. A pat along the back. And he’d fetch something, a book to read or toy.
‘Okay. Enough of the playful puppy game. That’s one for at home.’ Georgie leans down to Max and brushes some hair out of his eyes. There are a few more families in the playground now. Some of them with older children. Max leans back on his haunches ready to howl. ‘How about a cheese stick.’ Georgie quickly finds one in the snack bag and holds it out like a treat for a good boy. She pats the seat next to her and he sits down and grabs the snack.
Georgie scruffles his hair. ‘I think you’re really a mouse. All the cheese you eat.’
‘Squeak,’ Max answers. He swings his legs and takes a sip from his drink bottle.
Her beautiful boy. Sometimes, Georgie looks at him and thinks that her heart is going to burst. At pick up time, everyone stands around, waiting like a crowd at the airport. She’s not good at school gate small talk, so she is always a little off to the side. They’re all there, parents, dogs, younger siblings, grandparents, and nannies, stretching a neck to see if their child is coming. She can’t see him. And then he’s there and her heart bursts. He’s carried by the crowd and jostled towards her by the bodies on either side of him. He’s made smaller by a big bag and long shorts, but he’s there.
Max holds his hand out for more cheese.
‘No, mister. Have a bit of a play. We can have more later.’
His hand is still out. She tickles it and nods to the sandpit. Max gets down in the sandpit. Georgie packs his drink bottle back in her bag and fishes around for her phone. Max is at her feet on all fours again.
‘Woooof. Woof. Woof.’ He has his angry face on. Georgie giggles and looks back at her phone. He barks again. She looks around the playground. A few of the kids are watching.
‘Come on Maxxie. Let’s leave it for now.’
He sits on his haunches and holds his hands out. ‘Roooow. Rooow.’ His pleading puppy is perfect. His eyes are big, head cocked to the side, whine drawn out long and loud. Two kids walk over. They’re bigger than Max. Older. Probably brother and sister. They have the same thick dark hair and long faces.
‘Okay. Maybe some crackers.’ Georgie gets the snack box out of her bag but is too late.
‘Here, boy.’ The girl smiles at her brother who whistles and holds his hand out. Max turns around and pants with a tongue hanging out. He’s smiling and goes towards them. There’s usually a rush of relief when Max finds other kids to play with. He’s not generally part of the pack. Georgie sometimes worries that this precious child of hers isn’t a great fit with the modern world. He has a big heart and a wild imagination. He’s sensitive and dreamy and a total original. Kids sniff that and try to snuff it out. He’s told her that he sometimes spends lunch in the library. She hopes it’s because of his love of books rather than any lack of friends.
Georgie doesn’t like the girl’s tone. She sits forward. Alert. Ready. She can’t control what happens in the school playground or the classroom. But every other moment, outside those gates, she can be his mother.
Max follows the kids out of the sandpit on all fours.
‘What’s your name?’ The girl squats down next to him and strokes his head.
‘He’s even got a dog’s name,’ the boy says. The two kids giggle and Max joins them. Georgie is ready to pounce.
‘Want to play with us?’
‘Yeah!’ Max jumps up and follows them as they run off towards the slide. They climb up the side, then take the stairs, then swing themselves up along railings before sliding down every time. They chase round and round and after each other in circles. The sister throws herself down the slide, head-first on her tummy, then head-first on her back. Max hovers at the top of the slide. He lies down head-first and then gets back into a normal position and pushes himself down. His shorts slow him to a stop and the other two pile up behind him. The brother pushes Max’s back with his feet. They all get moving again and end up in a tangled heap at the bottom of the slide. Georgie stands up to see. There aren’t any tears, just Max is rolling around and laughing. She sits back down again but still leans forward to see them past the bushes. They come back to the sandpit but settle in at the far end from Georgie.
‘I’m just getting my things.’ Max is breathless.
‘You’ve made some new friends?’ Georgie puts his hat on and offers him a sip of water. He takes a quick gulp and nods. Then he runs back to them with his sand toys. The sister takes the bucket. The brother gets the spade and Max is left digging with a plastic crab. They build castles and knock them down, then run around the playground marking their territory.
Max will sleep well tonight. On the weekends, Georgie has to plot in enough activities to tire Max out. It’s different with an only child. They won’t just run around a garden on their own. Or the park. Well, Max won’t. So, she makes sure they go to the pool or get on their bikes or scooter up to the shops to drop off their library books. She thought clock-watching was something only mothers with babies did but here she is having a quick look at the time and hoping this might last for another forty minutes.
Mornings are what Georgie likes best. Max crawls into her bed with three soft toys. He lifts her arm to position himself just right. They often fall back to sleep, tucked tightly into each other. She gives him warmth and comfort and security and surely that goes some way to balance what she can’t give him. On bad days, when other people make themselves feel worse by thinking about what they haven’t done with their life or how ugly and unlovable they are, Georgie thinks about Max growing up. She thinks about lengthening limbs and a deepening voice. Her beautiful boy is replaced by an unrecognisable man, one who leans away from her hugs and kisses and doesn’t need a soft pat to fall asleep. She has nightmares about this stranger in her house, this man-son. And when she wakes from them, she feels dirty and distressed.
Every few minutes, Georgie looks up. The kids never settle for long and there are five of them now. Two preschool girls have joined them. They run a few metres behind but catch up eventually and no one seems to care too much. They’re back at the slide where a few toddlers climb the steps carefully and hold up the line. The oldest girl pushes forward. Somebody falls over and one of the toddlers starts to cry. By the time the parent arrives, the big kids are long gone.
It’s getting hotter now and the bench is losing its shade, so Georgie moves along. She scans the playground perimeter but can’t see Max. She stands up. Dread spreads through her. She’s suddenly cold. Max gone. On her watch. All her vigilance. All these years. All the precautions she’s taken, the way she’s lived with her body as a shield for him, all the decisions she’s taken on his behalf in the name of protection, all of that and he disappears while playing in a park. She grabs her bag. Panic and tears combine as she calls his name.
‘Max!’ She scans and stops. He’s crouched low behind a bush. He has a finger up to his lips and Georgie sees the oldest boy leaning into a tree and counting with his eyes closed. It’s gone. In the same instant that her life could have been taken, it is restored. She feels silly and looks down. She doesn’t want to know if other parents are looking.
Someone else has taken her seat in the shade, so she ends up on one of the rocks. It’s not as comfortable but has a better view of the whole playground.
‘Woof! Woof!’ Max is on all fours again. He has a big puppy-dog smile and rubs against the knee of the older girl. One of the preschoolers hands over a stick. She throws and points to it.
‘Fetch. Go on. Fetch.’
‘Fetch!’ the boy says.
‘Fetch it. Fetch it.’ The girl starts a chorus and the preschoolers join in. Max happily crawls after it and comes back with the stick in his hand. He drops it at the feet of the older girl.
‘Good dog,’ she says. The older boy comes back with a packet of crackers. He holds it out to her sister. She takes one and pushes it in the direction of the preschoolers. They take one each. Max stands up too.
‘You have to beg for it,’ the girl says. Max gets back down and kneels with his hands held out in front of him. ‘No, like a dog. Paws.’ She holds her hands up curled like two paws. Max copies and tilts his head to the side.
‘Roooow,’ he says.
‘Good doggie.’ The girl gets down and scratches around his ears then holds the packet out to him.
Georgie is gripping the edge of the rock. She’s about to go over but the kids are all standing again and Max is laughing and eating snacks with them, so she stays where she is. The girl disappears and comes back with a sarong. Georgie can’t hear them but Max is back on the ground. The preschoolers laugh
while the older girl tucks the sarong into Max’s T-shirt. It’s rolled like a leash and she gives him a bit of a push to get him
‘Enough!’ Georgie shouts it over the playground. She marches over to them. ‘We’re going. Max.’
Max stays where he is. Georgie pulls the sarong out from his T-shirt. ‘It’s time to go.’
‘We were just playing.’ The girl’s shifted stance is concave and full of attitude. Georgie throws the sarong at her and holds a hand out.
‘Now. Max, come now. We’re going.’
‘I want to stay.’
Georgie bends down to pull him up. She can’t. He’s made himself heavy like a toddler. She used to grab for him, to pick him up mid-tantrum. But she couldn’t. He’d be loose-limbed and impossible to lift.
‘I’m playing with my friends.’
Georgie crouches down and takes a deep breath. She and Max are eye-to-eye. ‘Come on. Time to go.’ He doesn’t move. The other kids stand above her in a line. The oldest girl is right by Max. Her brother is next to her. The little ones fall in on the left. Georgie is in their shadow. She looks at her little boy. ‘Come on.’
‘Stay Max,’ the girl says. She rests her hand on his head and he leans in to her leg.
‘Let’s go. Now.’ Georgie holds a hand out.
Max springs forward and snarls at her. His canines look more like fangs and Georgie falls back in the sand. The kids laugh and she hears Max’s gulped giggle, louder than all of them.