Twelve is a slippery age, a time of shape-shifting and metamorphosis. My son, towering above me, smiles and pulls me in towards him in a gentle embrace. His chin rests on my head. He giggles, and I squeeze him round the middle. Through the accident of birth, I am a little mother. A child-woman with her own half-grown, giant-sized boys. The younger one too is gaining on me. At ten years old his gaze is almost equal with mine.
“I’ll be taller than you soon, Mum,” he says, and what can I do but nod. It won’t be long now.
It’s as if my smallness has placed me strangely in their world. Long ago I became one of the kids, jostled along in the pack like we were all a bunch of clumsy puppies. Following our noses, unsure of the way.
“Take us down to The Knoll, Mum,” the oldest says, “Come on, I know how to get there.”
It’s a swimming hole, a secret haunt, with a rope swing. I’ve lived in this same green hollow of a town for most of my life, but I’ve never been to The Knoll. I envisage cigarette butts and half-hidden bongs, rubbish and the scent of teenage transgression, but the afternoon is sticky and hot, and I don’t mind being wrong.
“Okay,” I say, “But if any other kids are there, we leave. Right?”
They accept without question the strange rules I have invented.
On the school bus my boys have learned the whereabouts of this hideout. Behind the old church, through two sets of fencing: one barbed, and one not. The grass is long, and we slip through, on the lookout for snakes. There is a worn path down to the creek. It is damp, as though a troop of wet feet has just passed through.
“There’s no-one here, Mum. We’ve missed them,” the younger one says, “That’s good, isn’t it? We can be here for a bit?”
We stop at a wide corner of the creek, grassy on either side. There are no cigarette butts, no rubbish. It is, in fact, quite scenic – an old wooden railway bridge curves away to the left. There is no sign of the encroaching suburbia of my town, just grass and trees and the gentle flow of water. At the base of The Knoll is a giant disused cement water tank half built into the bank. I sit on the top, and watch the boys try to get the rope. Ragged, with inverted bike handlebars knotted on the bottom, it hangs over the water, just out of reach.
“You better check it’s deep enough first,” I say, and my big fellow scampers down the edge and plunges in.
“Can you touch?”
He swims around, and ducks down, heading for the bottom. The water is clear enough, but I can’t see him. I know he will resurface, and he does.
“I can’t even get down to the bottom. It’s real deep.”
I peer across at him.
“Alright. Come on. Let’s see you jump.”
They fish the rope from the air with a stick, and then they are away. Lithe, muscular, beautiful, one by one they swing out across the water, dropping in at the highest point. How to describe such grace?
I catch myself thinking of their countdown to manhood. Right now they seem at some pinnacle of evolution: smooth-bodied, open-faced, ready for the world. They fly across the water with no hesitation, no missteps or fears. The creek swallows them up, again and again, and each time they are reborn, their faces breaking through the water’s surface, joyous and alight. I wonder what happens between here and there; between now, and becoming a man. I live on a winding dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, but I am not naïve to the next steps. Alcohol, drugs, pornography, fast cars, junk food, and the shallows of a consumer culture with no end. We do not have wireless broadband, mobile reception, or even commercial TV, but I know I can’t keep the world at bay forever. The question of what makes a man looms large in my mind, and I must admit – I am more than a little afraid.
“Mum, you have a jump,” my big fellow says as he pulls himself up the muddied slope.
“I don’t know if I can,” I say, but I know that I want to.
“We’ll help you. It’s easy. You just hold on, and let go at the end.”
The littler one watches me from the launch pad on the bank. He holds the spindly end of the rope in his fingers, his body quivering with excitement or cold.
“I bet you can do it, Mum,” the older one tells me, “I bet you a dollar.”
I stand up, and strip off my clothes. Down to my bra and undies, I am vulnerable, uncertain. The path is slithery, and I slip awkwardly towards the jumping spot, gripping small saplings as I pass. At the precipice, my son transfers the cold bike handles into my hands. I stand on the edge, holding tight and looking out at the expanse of the water.
“Push off Mum, just lift your feet.”
And I do.
The rush of air against my body makes me squeeze my eyes closed. On a pendulum, I am flying blind. A wide arc through space.
“Let go … NOW!”
My fingers unclench, and I drop from the rope with an unwanted cry. The water breaks around me, and I surge downwards like a bullet. There is no rock bottom, and after a moment of stillness my limbs kick in and I swim back towards the surface. Pushing into the world, spluttering and laughing, my eyes and nose and mouth are full of water.
My boys grin from the bank.
“You owe me a dollar!” My big fellow calls, punching a fist in the air.
Twelve is a slippery age, on the brink of any number of beginnings.
“Go again Mum. Go again.”
I tread water and look up at the sky. It is the deepest blue, without a single flitting cloud. There is nothing to signal the world is changing, but above me the pendulum rope keeps swinging, marking time.
First Published in Meanjin Volume 71 Number 2, 2012