‘Let Me Blow My Nose into Your Clothes and You Can Dig My Grave by the Ocean’ by Xanthea O’Connor was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
I have a fresh burn on the back of my left wrist, about the size of a ten-cent coin. It’s encrusted with cracks of red and yellow and has a bright pink ring around its perimeter. I’ve had burns like this before. I know it’s going to weep and scab and leave a scar that’ll lighten over months, maybe years—not days or weeks.
I got it three days ago while baking potatoes in an unfamiliar Airbnb kitchen during our first week in New Zealand—the oven turned all the way up to 250°C. I hoped every slice of roasted, starchy carb would crisp and brown and make us all feel less homesick. The oven door bounced back up as I rushed to take the pan, distracted by a bottle of wine and children playing and tense adult conversations. I felt skin sear and congeal. I ran it under water for a minute, blood pumping through my wrist painfully, but didn’t want to make a scene. Not with everything that’s going on.
This pandemic has delivered outcomes to decisions at breakneck speed. In the weeks before national lockdowns seemed inevitable, I agonised with friends about whether we were going to live crammed together with our partners or be unable to touch anyone indefinitely. Employers decided whether it was kinder to keep staff on or award them a severance while they could still afford it. People stared into their pantries and medicine cabinets, thumbed the icon of their banking app constantly, bought chickens and started feeble vegetable gardens—all the while wondering whether they were doing enough to stay safe.
I was staring down the barrel of ever-depleting, non-essential casual work at libraries and hospitals in Melbourne, sleeping on a couch in a Brunswick East share house full of kind friends. Boxes of my things were stacked haphazardly through the garage, blocking the washing machine. The garden was overrun with stinging nettles and I didn’t completely understand which kitchen cupboard had been assigned to me. When I was asked to help get a four-year-old I’d been babysitting safely to New Zealand, I had a one-way ticket in my inbox within an hour. The flight was for the next day. I packed in twenty minutes. Back then, we all supposed the infection and the fear would blow over in a few weeks—a month, max.
The kid I’m looking after asks to touch my wrist while we’re making pancakes. His eyes widen as his forefinger approaches, digging gently into the now hardened, brown scab. I try not to flinch, to let him be curious about how bodies work.
‘Xanthea, what is it?’ I launch into an explanation of how our blood works and how our skin heals, but before I’ve finished my first sentence, he’s wandered over to the knife drawer. ‘Don’t say anything, I’m just having a look,’ he says, hand raised against my protest. His accent is a mix of influences: his English dad when he articulates every consonant in ‘beautiful’, his American mum when he yells ‘MOM’ to get her attention and his many-vowelled ‘no’ that he’s developed from his time in Australia. His accent is something scrambled and complex, our baselessness reflected in it. I try to catch his attention again with the sizzle of new butter in the pan—the scrape-and-flip of bubbling batter.
After breakfast, we walk down to the beach in Waimarama, the little coastal town we’ve found ourselves in for the self-imposed quarantine as international visitors. The shoreline stretches out for uninterrupted miles. A rock the size of a cruise liner sticks out of the water, about half a kilometre from the shore. I pick up the kid and spin him around until we collapse into a dizzy, giggling mess. He crawls over and pushes his nose into my pastel green t-shirt, wiping along the edge of my sleeve. I cringe at the sticky wetness against my arm. Kids are always getting snotty noses, I remind myself, it’s nothing.
We walk up to our towels and I bury him in the dry sand, teaching him how to cast bat shadow-puppets on his fresh grave. He reaches out for me with both hands. ‘I need my tissue.’ I tap down the loose sand covering his feet and ankles, running through a mental itinerary of every item I’d packed for that afternoon that could serve to blow his nose on.
Only three months ago we were on our first outing. I was trying to stop him licking the damp, crumbling floor at Flinders Street Station. I wasn’t sure there was a working lift at Parliament Station, so I panicked and got us off early to double-check on my phone. I was overwhelmed. I needed to slow down and plan things I hadn’t even thought about planning. I’d never had to think about lifts and strollers, about navigating this city with more than my two legs and a backpack. His hands and mouth were still caked with the vanilla ice cream he’d swindled from me on the way to Richmond Station, refusing to go to the toilet upstairs and clean himself up. He put his tiny hands up to my face when I suggested it, turning comically on his heel. ‘Please stop talking,’ he said, before rolling onto the floor and dragging himself along the ground to a vending machine with a loud, zombie moan. Only thirty minutes into our first outing and he already knew I was a complete pushover. His tiny nails were filled with dirt and his flyaway curls caught on sticky cheeks. I got him to lean over a drain while I splashed water over his screwed-up face, his protests growing more persistent. ‘No! I want to be dirty.’ My arms and hands felt weak, uncertain how to contain this chaos.
We move houses after quarantine, away from the beach to a house up on a hill overlooking a small town called Havelock North. Two weeks into level four lockdown in that house, the scab on my wrist fell off in the shower. We go for a walk in the sprawling gardens of a community art centre that we’ve never seen open. ‘These berries look delicious,’ he says, grasping at weeping branches heavy with small red fruit. They look angry and poisonous. ‘Remember, we don’t eat things outside that we don’t know,’ I say in my firmest voice, hoping this stance won’t traumatise him into a picky eater. ‘I won’t.’ He grins, running under the overhanging branches. I settle down to read, just out of sight, listening to him hum Zombie Jamboree on an endless, joyful loop. Then, in a tone I hadn’t heard before: ‘Mam—I mean, Xanthea? Xaaantheeeee—’
I dive under the tree and find his head at an odd angle, neck caught between two twisted branches gripped by white knuckles. He looks down at me, scared, feet trying to scramble back up the trunk to take the pressure off his neck. His neck. I try not to think about what will happen if his foot slips. I run under to gently boost him up, comfort him, figure out how the fuck he got his head through that gap and how to get it out. I try not to think about which emergency service I’d need to call in this foreign country town during a level four nationwide lockdown if he is truly stuck. I guide his head down, cheeks scraping along the bark until he screams out, tears welling, body shaking and radiating anxious heat. I take another moment to refocus, to compose myself.
‘Hey, honey,’ I say. ‘Breathe, okay? I’ve got you. You’ve got to trust me here. Breathe.’ I don’t believe myself, but his eyes latch onto mine with heartbreaking earnestness. He takes a slow breath in through wobbling lips. It gives me another second to think, his body relaxing under my hands inducing some kind of calm reciprocity. ‘Okay, kid, let’s get you out.’
I end up pushing him up and all the way through the tiny gap. When he’s finally safe in my arms, I try not to hug him too tightly. Holding his head to my chest, I wipe away my own tears of relief. I don’t want to freak him out into never climbing a tree again. ‘Did you know your bum is smaller than your head?’
I ruffle his hair with both hands and he lets out a muffled giggle. ‘I have a huuuuge head!’ Unfazed now, even though his eyes are still two watery blue pools, he wriggles down and runs out from under the tree. ‘I think I’m ready to go home now, Xanthea.’
Ready to go home. Those words sit inside the earth uncomfortably, seismically, as we meander through the cemetery, passing his favourite cluster of graves. A recent afternoon was spent assigning crumbling effigies to every person he knows. Mine is topped with a white marble angel—three bodies marked on the plot already. Pushing his stroller back up the hill, I look down at the darkened scar on my wrist. We’ll be here months, maybe years—not days or weeks.
Xanthea O’Connor is a writer who grew up in the Whadjuk Region (Perth) before moving to Naarm (Melbourne) in 2017. In 2019, she took part in the Melbourne Recital Centre Residency and the Glenfern Fellowship. As of March 2020, she’s happily stuck in Aotearoa.