Get a quick fix of your former wriggling, rhyming, library-going life in this extract from Susan Edmunds’ debut novel.
Editor’s note: Mummy Needs a Break is perfect low-key lockdown fodder. From the blurb: “With a devilish toddler and baby number two on the way, Rachel’s big dream is to one day go to the toilet on her own. So, she’s surprised to discover that her husband has found the time to have an exciting affair while she’s been bringing up their family.”
It’s clever and warm and genuinely funny, ostensibly set in Non-Specific Land but really it’s very clearly New Zealand, and I love that Edmunds (a business journalist who also recently published Starting Out Starting Over, a non-fiction book of pragmatic financial advice for women) weaves in the financial realities of sudden single motherhood. I’ve read the first chapter of her next novel, too, and it’s even better: Mummy Needs Help, out in June.
Thomas was swinging on the gate when I arrived to pick him up from nursery, next to a girl in a t-shirt at least two sizes too big for her. They were both filthy from the knees down, with tracks of sand in their hair.
“Mummy! My mummy!” he shouted as I hauled myself out of the car.
I pulled his bag out of the cubby hole by the door, and a plastic bag full of wet, blue clothes came somersaulting down with it. As I had expected, almost everything in his lunchbox was untouched, except for the yoghurt and cookies, which were gone.
He allowed himself to be clipped into the car seat, wriggling as my mid-section got in the way as I fastened the buckles. When he was secure, I paused, jangling my keys in my hands. I desperately did not want to go back home – and work could wait. “Shall we go to the library?”
There was something about the fish tanks, the long staircases and my insistence on quiet that appealed enormously to Thomas when we went to the library. We only had to be nearby, and he started off in the direction of the big grey and glass building. Some of the librarians knew him by name, even though I had been avoiding them and using the self-checkout system for years.
When we arrived, the front sliding doors were emblazoned with posters. Pirate treasure hunt day, dress as your favourite book character… When did libraries become so busy? Then I realised. It was the school holidays. Parents who had forgotten about the library all term suddenly became avid library users, wanting to drop their kids off for a couple of hours, if only to use the free wi-fi.
We wandered in. The noise from the kids’ area filtered through, past the reference books, the magazines and the shelves of online orders waiting to be picked up.
“Can we go and look?” Thomas pointed at the children’s section and smiled in what I knew he thought was his sweetest way. In truth, it looked as if the dentist had just asked him to show him his gums.
It was some sort of “music of the world” class, led by the same guy who did his best to wrangle a range of kids’ music sessions through the week.
I had started going to one because, in the haze of terrified-new-motherhood, I had been convinced that if I did not have a full week of classes set up for my son by the time he was six months old, I would stifle his mental development. I pictured a 30-year-old Thomas pipped at the post for the Nobel Prize, demanding to know why I had skimped on baby yoga.
At the music class, parents dutifully, self-consciously, sang the songs and did all the actions – some of the regulars were quite enthusiastic while reluctant stand-ins barely moved their lips.
The teacher was one of the librarians, and he was the one reason I persisted past the initial visit. He was about 40, with dishevelled short, dark hair that was starting to acquire a smattering of grey at the temples and rimless rectangular glasses that slipped down his nose when he launched into a song with particular gusto. At the beginning of the class, I had not thought much of him. But the longer I watched, the more impressive he became. It’s so easy to seem forced and condescending when you try to make kids laugh, but he had perfectly mastered the magical vocabulary of weird sounds and silly songs that would always get a giggle – even from the adults. He was perennially happy, but not in that fake way that lots of people deploy around kids, and his smile seemed to light up every bit of his face. I would bet the loose change in the bottom of my handbag that he’d never “developed feelings” for someone while his wife was pregnant.
He’d won my devotion completely one morning when Thomas decided he did not want to be there. Rather than being awed by the chirpy music and enchanted by the books, he balled up his little baby fists, threw back his head and started to wail. And wail.
The teacher had stopped, and I’d thought he was going to suggest we leave.
“We’re having a great time trying out these instruments,” he’d told the children, “but the best noises are the ones that really convey an emotion.” He’d then pointed at Thomas. “Can we all try to make the funniest noise you can think of to help this guy feel a little bit better?”
The older toddlers had responded with raspberries and popping sounds, and it wasn’t long before Thomas was chortling his delicious baby giggle.
This time, the teacher was channelling Elmo for an assembled group of bored preschool-aged kids and a smattering of parents who were trying not to be spotted checking their phones. He brandished a collection of what looked like traditional Mexican musical instruments – bashing out a rhythm on one, waving another in the air. Thomas was transfixed. I tried to guide him to a seat on one of the flashing stairs.
We squeezed into a corner, next to a woman who seemed to be wrangling triplets – three little girls of about four, dressed almost identically, with blue bows in their brilliant blonde hair. She was trying to get them to pay attention but they were more interested in poking each other’s eyes and whacking each other with books when she wasn’t looking. Thomas was clapping to the music and nodding his head out-of-time. Such is the toddler way. I tried to maintain my zen and pull my best supportive smile – inwardly pleading for the noise to end.
I exhaled heavily as I leant against the glass wall, hoping my top was long enough to meet my leggings at the back. It was unlikely the rest of the library patrons wanted a detailed view of my underwear making a break for freedom over the top of my pants.
I was at peak pregnancy. My legs had ballooned with fluid, as they always did by late morning, and most of my shoes no longer fit. Even my maternity leggings were struggling to cover my bump and the singlets I had bought – that claimed to be perfect for pregnancy and breastfeeding – looked set to be able to cope with neither. I would have taken my wedding rings off, but my fingers had swelled too much. My breasts had leaked through two sets of breast pads, and I already had that distinctive old dishcloth air about me, which surrounds lactating mothers. I know people say pregnancy is beautiful, and I still held out hope that I would turn into some kind of Earth Goddess soon. But, at 38 weeks, I was still waiting.
Thomas stood up and started to edge down the stairs, shaking his arms to the beat as he went.
I pocketed the phone on which I had been tapping out a text telling Stephen exactly what I thought of him. I reached down to put my arm around Thomas to try to draw him back up close to me. I could feel his body zinging with energy. Soon he had ducked out of my grasp and was edging still further forward towards the Very Attractive Man. I tried to shuffle along behind the seated parents to get closer to him, but while the audience seemed happy to let a two-year-old through, they were not so keen on having his barrel-like mother follow. “Excuse me,” I whispered as I stepped on one woman’s handbag. “Sorry,” I ducked my head as a man grabbed his child out of my path.
But soon Thomas was a good couple of rows ahead of me, and still progressing. “Thomas!” I hissed. “Come back here, darling.” Some of the mothers in front of me turned and glared. I rolled my eyes apologetically. Thomas kept working his way forward. Soon, he was in the front row.
The teacher smiled at him as he stamped and clapped, getting closer and closer. Then Thomas’s arms were in the air, trying to grab the instrument in the teacher’s right hand. I tried to push my way down the side of the crowd to where the man was trying to continue his show, grinning as he stretched to hold his instruments higher and higher out of Thomas’ reach. But Thomas wouldn’t be dissuaded.
The stares of the other parents were boring into the back of my head. I stretched over the row of children right at the front and grabbed Thomas, throwing him over my shoulder in a movement that sent a wrench of pain across my stomach. He shrieked. One of the girls who sat in a perfect cross-legged position in the front row covered her ears and scowled. “We are going home,” I muttered.
“Don’t feel you have to go,” the man taking the class had finished his song. “Stay, if you’d like to. It’s nice to see someone getting into my warbling.”
I turned, grimacing. “He’s a little disruptive.”
“He’s fine, aren’t you, little man? A bit of enthusiasm is what we like to see. Do you think you could give me a hand? I don’t want you to take my instruments, but I’m sure I can find you some of your own.”
He shuffled over and reached for another stool, pulling it beside him. A woman handed him another set of maracas. Thomas was spellbound. “I help.” He wriggled up. I reached for my phone to snap a picture as he joined in, at the top of his lungs, with a rendition of Wheels on the Bus. I must have looked puzzled because the librarian caught my eye and grinned. “Not exotic, sorry. Finished the song sheet a bit too early.”
I became aware of a woman standing at my elbow, watching them. “God, he’s gorgeous, isn’t he?”
“Thanks, I think he’s pretty lovely.” I turned to look at her. Her gaze was fixed on Thomas and the teacher. Thomas’s cheeks were flushed from the exertion of bashing along, wildly off-beat. The librarian was monitoring his movements and looked to be biting back a laugh.
“Oh no,” she put her hand on my arm. “Not him, he’s cute, I mean Luke. I never miss his class.”
Mummy Needs A Break, by Susan Edmunds (HarperCollins, $29.99 paperback) is available for $4.99 as an ebook during lockdown.
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