Lost In Track Changes is an ongoing literary remix experiment featuring Cate Kennedy, Fiona Capp, Krissy Kneen, Ryan O'Neill and Robert Hoge. Starting from a short work of memoir, the authors remix each other's work in series, with changes tracked between. This series commences with an original work by Cate Kennedy. Check in again next week to read the first remix of Cate's story.
[tabs style="boxed"][tab title="In Front of Kmart 1.0"][dropcap]F[/dropcap]ive days before Christmas, I was sitting on a plastic bench outside Kmart in a shopping mall, gathering strength for the onslaught of buying gifts nobody wanted or needed from department stores I usually did anything to avoid entering.
A young harassed mother near me was losing the plot with her young son.
The kid was about four and was clearly feeling as rattled, exhausted and overwhelmed as everyone else trudging around – or at least, as I was.
Christmas carol muzak swamped the air. The young Kmart staff, while remaining stony-faced, sported synthetic Santa hats as they manhandled boxes of crap across the registers.
It had been a lean year financially, one I had spent away from Australia living in a far poorer country, which I was missing so deeply I felt almost immobilised with the sense that I’d made a terrible mistake in returning. The last place in the world I wanted to be at that moment was outside a megastore glittering with tinsel and merchandise, watching a young woman grab her little boy by the arm and start shouting at him.
‘Listen to me!’ she yelled, her face close to his. ‘That’s it! We’re going home now, do you hear me?’
She shifted her massive plastic bags of Christmas shopping out of her way with her leg so she could give him a good shake. The boy tried to direct his eyes somewhere else, out of the line of fire of her furious glare. Maybe she expected more resistance from him. Maybe she thought the idea of going home, far away from this wonderland of noise and toys, would make him crack and start crying and pleading. When it didn’t, her fury increased. She tightened her grip on his arm and shook him again.
‘Santa’s not coming,’ she shouted. ‘Santa hates you.’
The little boy went very still. He closed down.
Nothing stopped for him, not his mother’s hysterical frustration, not the grim strangers striding all around him, not ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ inanely looping on the mall tannoy. It all just went on around him as he absorbed this blow, like a child on a street in the wake of a detonation; deafened, stunned, eyes wide, the world blown open.
I stood up and walked over to them. I put my hand on the mother’s shoulder. ‘You need a break,’ I said. ‘You don’t mean that. I know you don’t. Here – let me take your little boy for a while and you have a break in that café there. Just sit in there and rest and I’ll take him for a walk outside and find a tree somewhere and sit under it. Then later you can say sorry and go home and wrap up these presents together and put them under the tree. How does that sound?’
No, I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. I caught my husband’s eye and knew he shared my unhappiness at being back in Australia, caught here in the very vortex of commercialism we both despised, witnessing something so miserable that it flooded us both with fresh misery.
I haven’t mentioned my husband sitting there until now, but let me paint him into the scene now. I need this for context, for narrative, to make you understand why I didn’t rise to my feet, propelled by righteous anger and a larger, calmer compassion, and approach that seething young woman at the very end of her tether. I looked over at him and for a second the notion of standing up and intervening hung between us, then I felt a wave of pure despair. It held me in place like an undertow.
Believe me, I feel with you the narrative lockstep which now requires me to expand on this despair, to illustrate how this vignette is now progressing accordingly to mention that our marriage was teetering at that point, limping along on the baldest of tyres, almost out of gas. That we had no energy in ourselves to alleviate each other’s misery, that we had lost the power and the will to do so. To turn this story to our endless true subject: myself. To make this boy and his mother bit-players in a drama about a faltering marriage, to show how this moment was the all-important tipping point, then moving on to the Me Show - the two of them nothing more than extras. Catalysts. It’s typical of life, I am sure you will agree, to provide us with our turning-point catalysts outside Kmart, to allow us to use others in this way.
Wait. I don’t want to go there. I stood up. I walked over to the mother and her son. The mother – somehow, implausibly, I’ll work on this part later – allowed me to crouch down in front of her son, ignoring her, and speak to him.
‘It’s not you,’ I said to the white-faced, trembling little boy. ‘You’re fantastic. Do you hear me? You’re a great kid. Don’t worry – your mum’s under a lot of stress and adults say lots of crazy things they wish they hadn’t said later. OK? Remember what I’m telling you. It’s not you.’
No, I didn’t. You know I didn’t. The moment hung there, the chance to change the narrative. I assessed the energy and grief and courage it would require, to thresh and flounder against that debilitating undertow and stand up and do it.
I looked over at my husband, lost in his own immobilising grief.
I’ll tell you, although I don’t need to now, that the relationship crashed and burned a few short months later. It’s enough that you know that I’m left with this – myself sitting, doing nothing, and that boy would be eighteen now and I think of him all the time. I can tinker with the script all I like but this is the story I’m left with. Had I risen, I would have been the catalyst. I would have been someone else’s turning point.
Had I risen, I wonder if I would even have had to write this now.