Rocketboy

Rocketboy hit the ground running. It was not to be his greatest escape but it was the first he attempted forwards rather than backwards.

Rocketboy’s locomotive skills had progressed in three clear stages from birth. First: flexing. Which, admittedly, didn’t really get him anywhere. Lying on his back, he would rock from side to side, pedalling and kneading the air with his legs and arms while his gummy, blue eyes tried to focus on some, as yet, unattainable object of desire, a part of the world whose reason for being was to provide traction for his red, flabby arms and bulbous knees. Something that wouldn’t slip away like the air.

Then: crawling. The first time he managed this, he took himself by surprise. I had placed his favourite toy, Mr Winky, on the ground in front of him. Mr Winky was a spherical, felt penguin with comically bulging eyes and eyelid flaps that were designed to be drawn up and down over his eyes. The packaging it had originally come in had named him Mr Blinky, but within ten minutes of the penguin being removed from its cellophane and cardboard, Rocketboy’s firm and precisely-directed affections had led to a rechristening. At the sight of the toy, Rocketboy gave a pleased gurgle, raising himself from his stomach onto his hands and knees and, with an outstretched arm, pushed himself towards it. Only to find himself crawling backwards. A frown replaced the grin and he waggled his loaf-like head from side to side. He tried planting his hands more firmly on the floor and doubling the slide-rate of his knees but his jumpsuit failed to grip the carpet and his legs simply slid faster back and forth on the spot.

Before he finally resigned himself to crawling backwards, the carpet in the lounge and hallway became streaked with friction marks and he put three jumpsuits out at the knees. However, on this first occasion, after struggling in one spot for a few moments, he resumed his backwards crawl until his way was obstructed by the TV cabinet. He laboriously manoeuvred his way around to confront the object that was impeding his regress. He pressed his face against the glass, leaving thin streaks of mucous and drool. As I picked him up and cradled him in sweeping arcs out from my chest, I could see the beginning of an idea forming on his face. By the end of the week, Rocketboy had realised that he could get wherever he wanted to go simply by facing the other way.

Finally: running. Three months after he learned to crawl, Rocketboy had developed a precarious, tottering gait which made it appear as if he had discovered the secret, downhill slope beneath the level-seeming appearance of surfaces. He fell frequently and generated most of his pace through a wild flailing of the arms. But within only a few days he was able to outpace Mother over short distances. At first the transition caused him some pain. Even a slight tilt of his outsized head was enough to send him caroming into walls and furniture. I would often pick him up from where he lay at the foot of the steps or against a wall and blow gently on his reddened forehead. I think, though, that his cries were not in response to pain, but surprise at the obstinate and unyielding nature of objects. It was not long before he was using this quality to his own advantage. Knowing that forward progress came only at the price of roughly equal lateral movement, he would fix his gaze firmly on his goal and set off, bouncing from wall to wall, absorbing their stored energy (and the energy of chairs, desks, stools and benches) through his skull  and transferring it to his legs, yawing at oblique angles like a tubby yacht tacking off the marker buoys instead of around them. This zigzag motion proved useful in other ways too; even on the long hallway stretch Father found him difficult to catch. Later he learned to absorb the impact through his shoulders and arms, rather than his head, which made me sad because he no longer needed me to minister to his bumps and bruises, but also very proud.

Rocketboy attempted his first forward escape during the time of Father’s Rethinking, when Father was spending hours on the couch watching television or sighing heavily as he paged through novels he’d bought for University courses and never read. Over a period of several weeks, Father seemed to take on extra weight without becoming any more substantial. Without hearing or seeing him, without even turning my head, I could sense his flabby, downcast spirit enter a room. I was even able, just by pausing a few moments inside the front door when I got home from school, to tell which room of the house he was in. But his Rethinking seemed to eat into the time he had available for personal hygiene so it wasn’t long before we could all tell where he was at any given moment by the musty and defeated odour he emanated.

The exact time of Rocketboy’s first forward escape can’t be determined but was sometime between the hours of one and four in the afternoon, while Father was watching television. It had been a bitter blow for Father when Mother, who was still working, had directed him to do the shopping during the day instead of leaving it for her to do on the weekend but I learned that those shopping trips, which started out as weekly wholesale resupply campaigns but became daily outings, were soon as necessary to him as the faintly tragic look he he had begun to adopt. One day when I was home from school with an upset tummy, he took me with him to the supermarket and I watched him spend the morning in the queues at the meat counter and the checkout and in the nearby food hall, discussing with a group of housewives Cliff’s impending marriage to Mara and the pressing question of whether Mara’s unfaithfulness with Vincent would be revealed by Vincent’s sinister cousin, Christoph. So it was at the moment of Father’s greatest weakness that Rocketboy made his escape. Rocketboy had been sleeping all morning on the armchair next to the couch and so had the advantage of being well-rested and mentally alert. Father had only had four hours sleep the previous night and his brain was fogged with the fortunes of the Rawlson family and the goings-on in Green Glass Bay.

Father had taken to leaving the front door open to hear the arrival of the post during his programs but, even so, Rocketboy’s escape would have ended inside the house if Father had fixed the latch on the screen door like Mother had asked him. As it was, after slipping to the floor with only a faint thump, Rocketboy tilted out the lounge room door, corrected his course against the wall opposite and tacked rapidly up the hallway, breaching the screen door simply by lowering his head and pumping his legs a little harder. He encountered our garbage bin just outside the gate and its inertia sent him into the hedge in front of the house next door, which yielded to Rocketboy’s outthrust arm, leaving long raking scratches up to his elbow. Father found him during an ad break, sitting in the gutter, puffing and redfaced, too stunned to cry, attempting to come to grips with a world without fixed points or limits.

Father described Rocketboy’s escape to me that night as he put me to bed. Of course it was understood that Mother was not to be told.

Father’s Rethinking lasted three months and for each of those months Mother’s voice rose a semitone. I was having piano lessons at the time so I was able to check. As well as rising in pitch, her voice acquired a penetrating quality that even two years as the head of the Products department of an investment bank had not been able to give it. At the time, Rocketboy and I shared a room and one night I was woken by his crying. After I had quieted him by lifting him up to my chest and blowing on his forehead – a trick that by then had already grown old but worked still, I think, because he knew how much it meant to me – I heard what had woken him: not so much Mother’s voice, audible from the other side of the house as the low, feedback screech her voice was setting up through objects in the house. Rocketboy eventually settled back to sleep but Mother’s speech lasted another half hour and caused one of my china rabbits to judder and march over the edge of the bookshelf, bouncing onto the thick carpet on our bedroom floor. In the morning, we found two glasses shattered in the draining rack by the sink. The kitchen window was slightly open and the cord from the blind had wrapped itself twice around the rack. Mother blamed the cat.

Mother also arranged to have us babysat during Father’s Rethinking. We only had one babysitter, Melanie, who lasted two days. Mother asked her to leave when she came home and found that Rocketboy had taken a black permanent marker and left a trail along the carpet from the lounge room through every room he had visited before the ink had run out on the tiled laundry floor. Mother said she could get that kind of help from Father for free. I had been colouring in pictures of life on the goldfields at the time but that night, as she put me to bed, Mother  made her disappointment with us all known. The discussion from our parents’ room later cracked the bathroom mirror and permanently upset the TV’s reception, much to Father’s dismay.

It was at around this time that Rocketboy discovered stairs. Since his movement relied on making use of the secret slope of even level-seeming surfaces, the true slope of stairs was a particular peril. The stairs into our backyard accelerated his velocity one afternoon and transformed his gait into a high, bouncing tumble that broke his left arm above the wrist. He was in Emergency for three hours and in two plaster casts for three weeks. The first cast had to be replaced at the hospital after he scooped half a bowl of stewed apple into it to relieve the itching.

The stairs leading up into Mother’s and Father’s bedroom met him as he plunged downward avoiding bathtime one evening and their sharp corners brought to an end his first full tooth, marking not only the beginning of his weaning, but also the period of his most prodigious escapes. Rocketboy had been teething since the time of the backwards escapes but each tooth had turned out to be a harmless nub of enamel that barely managed to break the surface of his gums. None of them seemed to cause him any trouble and so we were not aware that his dental development had advanced at all until one day Mother, who had been nursing him at her breast, gave a yelp of pain and surprise. She pulled him away from her chest and deposited him on her lap, snapping her bra back into place. That was it for breastfeeding. Rocketboy’s first full tooth was the final straw, it seemed. In the first four months Mother had had mastitis three times in her left breast and each time had expressed painfully and sometimes in pink, swirling clouds of milk, from that breast while feeding Rocketboy from the other, which itself became sore from overuse. So, on the day she discovered Rocketboy’s tooth and after she had straightened her shirt as well as her bra, Mother handed him over to Father and left the house. When she returned, forty-five minutes later, with two feeding bottles and a wholesale drum of baby-milk powder, Rocketboy was redfaced and wheezing and had strewn Father’s anxious, placatory path through the house with rejected dummies. He brought the powdered baby-milk back up in one quiet but expansive heave and then in two thin, foamy streams from his nostrils. It also gave him a rancid smell that wafted across to my bed that night whenever he stirred. It was in no way to alter Mother’s resolve, but it was the next morning that Rocketboy left his first tooth, pink and glistening, at the foot of the steps to our parent’s bedroom.

During the two months that followed, which coincided with Mother’s trial promotion, Rocketboy executed all of his most famous escapes. The back-fence escape: another occasion when a more timely piece of repair work by Father would have restricted Rocketboy. He managed to reach the end of our block that time, the narrow lane behind our house offering a nicely defined zone for his ricocheting progress.

The mailbag escape: into which he tumbled headfirst, but which only took him to the end of the street before the postie, reaching into the heavy canvas sack strapped to the side of his motorbike, discovered a number of undeliverable items and returned the most obvious one to our house. The other items of mail had been rendered undeliverable by Rocketboy’s lather of dribble and his response to the initial bladder-loosening trauma of finding himself in a dark, airless, crackling space.

The hall cupboard deception: not an escape in the truest sense, but an exploit which brought Mother home from work and involved five of our neighbours and the local police in four hours of increasingly feverish searching. Whether by design or accident, Rocketboy, in tacking up the hallway, had stumbled into the cupboard and caught his arm on the dog-collar and lead that were hanging from a hook inside the door, pulling the door closed behind him. Father, when he came out of the toilet and found the screen door open, assumed that Rocketboy would be found in the gutter, clumping handfuls of leaf mulch together. When he wasn’t, Father initiated the search that required Mother to leave her promotion interview, delaying her next incremental upwards step by a full financial year, placed a strain on his relationship with our next-door neighbours, who would never again look him in the eye when they passed him on the street, and later necessitated a visit from a social worker, who was referred by the police who were called in the third hour of the search. Rocketboy, meanwhile, had fallen asleep shortly after entering the cupboard. He would have remained undiscovered much longer if it hadn’t started raining, forcing Father, who was making wider and wider sweeps on foot through our suburb, to return for his raincoat which was hung up beside the dog lead.

And the shopping trolley exchange: which took place in the food hall of the supermarket on one of Father’s shopping days and was solved fairly easily by a sharp-eyed, blonde woman called Mrs Tolland who we were later to call Sarah although Rocketboy, for a time, called her mum.

During these two months, I spent a lot of time trying to think of ways to keep Rocketboy at home. I would sing to him at night and talk about the things we would do together the next day after I got home from school. His three favourite activities, apart from escaping, were being swung round and round in my arms until I collapsed dizzily to the ground, still holding him to me, playing with an inflatable ball that was brightly coloured and as big as he was and nestling into the crevices and caves I made for him out of cushions, pillows and fluffy toys, then being tickled until the whole structure collapsed around him. However, none of these activities, on a day when the opportunity presented itself, were enough to stop him attempting an escape.

I made a mobile out of felt and wool in the shapes of bats and moons and flowers to hang over his crib and make it a more interesting place to be, but early on one of the bats began to droop on its thread and eventually tickled his nose while he slept. The next morning, cranky and redeyed, he directed an accusing stare at me and I took it down.

I began to hold him long into the night, well after he had already fallen asleep, feeling his curved, warm weight growing heavier and heavier in my arms, trying to keep his lolling head from flopping over my elbow. After I had finally laid him in his crib, I would stand over him, straining to hear his breathing, happy even to have his buttery, baby-milk formula smell in my nostrils.

Not long after Rocketboy’s prodigies, however, Father’s Rethinking came to an end. I could no longer sense him slouching around the house. Instead, he was brisk and active and smelled of a new aftershave. He repaired the front screen door and the back fence. He bought a green halter and lead that he used to fasten Rocketboy to the trolley on shopping trips. He began again to limit his TV viewing to sport and news, with only the occasional lapse. While never able to shatter crockery, his voice became as audible as Mother’s in the discussions that would run on into the night.

After this, Rocketboy’s escapes became increasingly perfunctory, although he did turn blue struggling at the end of the lead in which he became tangled the first day it was attached. Generally, though, he would make it to the lip of the shopping trolley and not bother to topple over the side or he would allow himself to be caught before making it to the hallway. Instead, he focussed his efforts on straightening his course, dividing his gurgling and ululating vowel sounds into discrete units by placing consonants in between and on sleeping through the conversations that continued to rise in pitch at the other end of the house. Within a year he had clambered over every one of these landmarks. It seemed to me that he was preparing himself for something that he still couldn’t see clearly but knew, instinctively, would require him to be well-rested and in full control of his speech and gait.

Rocketboy’s greatest escape, however, like mine, was far from immediate and in the end it required little effort: only a divorce, a death and a slow tumble down the level-seeming surface of years.

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Stories and other writing by Ben Thurley

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