The children’s cubby

The children’s cubby has the look of a big top. It’s the sort of blanket that is cotton-waffled, woven, and when the light shines through it, it looks holey, like surgical mesh. This morning the sun is coming through the windows on the east side of the lounge room, just like it always does, honeyed on the floorboards. There used to be ankle-thick shag pile carpet on this floor, mustard coloured. We pulled that furry scab and revealed the shiny underneath. The floorboards are beautiful, waxed but spotted with white paint. In places there are white footprints, handprints smudged, the ghostly remnants of people. I like the paint spots; it means the kids don’t have to worry, the floor is not precious. They drop paint on it, too.

“Are the painters dead now?” my big child asks, as they trace their fingers over the white outline of a boot. My child is lying under the blanket big top. There’s a broom handle stabbed into a white bucket of Mobilo at the centre of the tent, which makes a tall, tapered roof. The blanket slopes down and, just like a circus tent, slopes up again. The blanket is anchored to five wooden chairs that circle the centre. The blanket is rubber-banded on, at each of these chairs. It’s a beautiful cubby.

“Maybe they’re just old,” I say, from outside the cubby.

“They’re definitely dead.”

“Come and play,” my little kid says, taking my large hand in his small one. Once I’m inside he begins collecting things for the tent. He brings in a papaya. A punnet of cherry tomatoes. Three lemons. Satisfied with the food supplies, he goes out for masks, kids’ cloth masks, three of them: the Harry Potter mask, the pink unicorn mask, the mask with jungle creatures on it. A bottle of water. Books, many books. He begins eating the cherry tomatoes; he pops them one by one into his mouth until they are all gone. He loves cherry tomatoes, cracking them between his teeth, the rush of juice and seeds. The punnet is empty. He puts the three lemons into the empty punnet and closes the lid. I let the points of light play over my palm.

Beside this airy and beautiful circus-like tent are two other cubbies. They’re connected, open into it, but these cubbies are made with the couch cushions. These cushions are from our modular velvety couch, purchased from a woman who spent all of her very first pay cheque on it in the ’70s when she was 19 years old. The foam is hard, robust, they’ve lost none of their shape. They’re big, heavy and square. The woman who used to own this couch vacuumed it every day. She said, dust, that’s the enemy of the couch. She is not dead yet, but she is very old. Of course, we don’t vacuum the couch and in each seam is a collection of crumbs: chips, toast, popcorn. What should I call these crumbs with their now universal greyish once-was-food colour? We’re letting the crumbs and the dust have its way with the couch. These big squares of couch have been made into “safety cellars”; this is what my children are calling them. My big child is now in the safety cellar. The door, also a couch cushion, is closed, but it doesn’t fit quite right and there’s a sliver where I can see their eyes, the top part of their lovely face. It’s a small space and as they move around in there some of the cushions tumble and we have to rebuild. I suggest we don’t have a back wall on it and my child, aghast, says, “The hurricane will get in”. We construct a sturdy back wall. These two safety cellars stand alongside the beautiful circus tent. They’re dark inside. The children go in and out of these cellars. They consider building me a cellar but we have run out of cushions.

“Earthquake,” the big child yells. The two children leap back into the safety cellars and close the doors. They stay in there giggling until the danger has passed. Last year we stood in the kitchen together watching the Hills Hoist shift in space, the strange rumbling sound of an earthquake that was like gentle thunder, unbelieving. My brain tried to find reasons for the earth shifting beneath my feet. Just someone taking out the bins, perhaps? I don’t think the safety cellars would be safe in an earthquake. Under a table, I hear, is the best place, so if the house collapses around you, there’s a bit of air while you wait for rescue. The children come out of the safety cellars. They play, leaping in and out of the tent.

“Hurricane,” the big child yells, always the architect of the game. Again they close themselves up in their safety cellars. They are both having too much fun and the safety cellars collapse around them. From above the rubble I can see arms and legs, as if cut off by the pillows. I can’t tell whose is whose, which kid belongs to which leg, which arm. A long hank of hair seems severed from a head.

I remember when I was a kid, hiding from the cyclone at the centre of the house, each of the windows taped with a cross of masking tape. Watching them bow in with the wind as the glass remembered it was once liquid, was maybe still somewhere on the way to being liquid. Just masking tape, holding everything together.

The kids start up a noise and I can’t tell if it’s laughing or crying, there under the rubble. I get tangled in the cotton blanket, trying to check on them, and I bring it all down. The broom handle knocks me hard on the head and for a moment I’m in the black, seeing stars.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "The children’s cubby".

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