WINNER OPEN CATEGORY
Ben takes a deep breath, holds the air in his lungs until it stings, then exhales, imagining it’s fire. The anxiety doesn’t subside as he goes about preparing the ingredients.
While the oven preheats, he mixes flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Then milk and lemon zest and egg. His heart palpitates as he beats the batter, and it thickens into a creamy blob. He pulls down the patty pans from the cupboard—frilly pink, spotty blue, stripy yellow—and places them into the tray. With the mixture now at the right consistency, he spoons it in and pushes them into the oven.
His finger circles the inside of the bowl and he sucks off the sticky sweetness. Next he makes the thick icing. If his mother-in-law could see him now—baking, domesticated, using her old lemon curd cupcake recipe. Though, she never believed he amounted to much. He got the luxury of being able to stay home and draw pictures on his silly little computer or create silly little logos for cafes or restaurants or aquatic centres, and spend his morning making silly little cupcakes.
His phone buzzes on the bench. The Learning Sanctuary. All the childcare facilities in Brighton have cult-like names that made him wince when it came time to select one: Haven, Cove, Oasis. Or they would add the letter ‘Z’ where it should have been an ‘S’ to seem kooky and different.
‘Hello,’ he says, dabbing sweat from his brow.
‘Mr Riley, hello. I’m ringing to let you know about an incident involving Otto. It’s no drama, but I’m hoping I could grab you for ten minutes when you pop down to the fête.’ The teacher has a childlike squeak to her voice. The line crackles.
With an obnoxious buzz, the oven trills. Stiffness travels through his body.
Tinsel decorates the cyclone fence outside the kindergarten, it snakes around in gaudy green and gold. Ben shakes his head, it’s just gone November. He struggles to navigate the bolt gate with his plate of cupcakes wrapped in clingwrap.
Excited squeals pierce his ears. An unsupervised tangle of children wraps around every inch of the playground: slides, swings, monkey bars. Groups of twos and threes.
In the corner he spies Otto, sitting alone, scooping sand into a truck. The brick wall behind him features a mural of flowers and balloons, with the slogan: Meet your best friends, today!
‘Hey mate,’ he approaches Otto, who smiles and resumes his sandpit adventure. ‘I’m just going inside to chat to Miss Nguyen.’
Teachers have decorated the centre in plastic bunting and streamers. The fête is a low-key affair to raise money for one family whose father has bowel cancer. The mothers all think they’re doing this bold, noble gesture, when really, they’re just trying to validate their own existence as glorified ambulance chasers. Ben has never met the father with bowel cancer, or the mother. Otto’s only been at the school for three months.
Parents huddle inside. Groups of twos and threes. He places his cupcakes onto the trestle table, next to a tray of lamingtons where someone has painstakingly written out every ingredient on a brown card.
Conversations hush as he makes his way around the room, seeking out Otto’s teacher. He smiles benignly at two of the mothers, Victoria and Ali, both deep in conversation. They acknowledge him with a curt nod.
The odour of stale wee and antiseptic cleaner permeates the classroom space. Thick pink envelopes sit in the children’s cubbyholes. His eyes find their way to Otto’s—last row, empty. Last week the envelopes were green for Violet’s birthday. Otto wasn’t invited to that one either.
He spots the teacher. She waves him over with a sympathetic smile and she tells him what’s happened. Everything he’s heard before—there were similar issues at the preschool back in Sydney. Otto has trouble expressing how he feels; has trouble settling when you leave; has trouble making friends. Today he’d bitten Lucinda because she wouldn’t let him play on the swings, then after he was told off he wouldn’t stop screaming and started hitting one of the assistant teachers. With nothing more to say, Ben nods, apologises for his child, and returns to the mothers.
He dissolves in the room, unsure how to talk to any of them. Otto is still playing by himself. Does he even notice he doesn’t have any friends? Does he know he’s different? The naughty kid, that’s what people had said about him back in Neutral Bay. They’d still be living there if it weren’t for Felix’s new job at The Alfred Heart Centre.
‘Did you make these?’ one of the mothers asks him, pointing to one of his cupcakes with smooshed icing. She’s tall and thin, with light straw hair that makes her skin look red. ‘What’s in it? My Isabella is allergic to egg and I don’t let her eat gluten.’
Ben stands cloaked in a coat of invisibility. After an appropriate forty-five minutes, speeches have been made and money raised, he collects Otto’s bag and walks outside to grab his child. As he walks out, he notices only one of his cupcakes has been eaten.
‘The teacher wants us to get Otto tested,’ Ben tells his husband, as he walks into their bedroom. Felix has a weariness around his eyes, deep wrinkles in his forehead and an exhausted hunch to his stance. He shrugs. After twelve hours working on valve repairs and coronary artery bypasses, Ben knows the last thing he wants to talk about is their son.
‘Maybe you should book an appointment, I’ll find a specialist at the hospital. You know my mother finds him a handful.’ Felix doesn’t give him a kiss but heads straight to the en suite. The affection fluttered out of their marriage around the time Otto started speaking in garbled words. Papa for Felix. Daddy for Ben.
In the corner are several unpacked boxes filled with books. Their house feels unfinished. Photos need to be hung and they haven’t figured out what to do with their artwork. The last time he tried to talk about it with Felix they ended up in an argument. This rented house is pokier than where they used to live. The floorboards are uneven, and the entire place needs restumping. They weren’t to know these small details; they only saw the house online. His mother-in-law had cautioned against listing their North Sydney bungalow—test the Melbourne market first, see what fits, and you’ll make squillions when you sell, you lucky boys.
Oodles of furniture still needs replacing. All of it too hard.
Felix slumps into bed. The distance weighs on Ben; they’ve run out of things to say. Discussions exist in an Otto-shaped vacuum. Does their four-year-old know he’s their only topic of conversation?
Sadness ripples through Ben and he turns off the light, mumbles goodnight and rolls away from Felix.
Around two in the morning Otto’s screams wake him. Felix lays asleep, snoring in stertorous bliss. Ben follows the noise down the hall.
Otto wriggles in his bed, covers discarded on the ground. Ben picks him up and he hiccups. A pinch of soft yellow streetlight spills in from the crack in the curtain and bounces off Otto’s curls. He has the same hair Felix had as a child. A full head of sunshine. He hiccups again. His tears cease. Ben dabs his eyes and tucks his child back under the covers and waits with him to make sure the night terror has passed.
As he makes it back to his strange, darkened room in their sinking house, nothing settles the slippery uncertainty in his guts.
Ben stands outside the Learning Sanctuary with Victoria. Both are early for pick up. Her Lululemon’s hug her stick thin legs, and her hair is pulled into a strict, no-nonsense ponytail. From Instagram he gleaned she’s the type of woman who has assembled a coterie of white women she calls her #mumtribe, despite not understanding how redundant and elitist it sounds, and in between being a #girlboss, she updates her followers daily with mundane activities like what she’s cooking her family for tea: #healthyeating, #cheatdays, #mumofboys.
‘We were so excited to have a gay family join our little community,’ she says, eyebrows arched, her forehead smooth. ‘You know I voted Yes. My husband didn’t.’
‘Good to know.’ Ben’s jaw clenches, aware he hasn’t fulfilled the gay stereotype she would have learned from television. He wears oversized flannel and trackpants and forgets to wash his hair. His stomach now rolls into itself. Only fifteen years ago he would have proudly marched shirtless down Oxford Street, covered in glitter.
Victoria continues. ‘Ali was saying how good it was for the area to finally have some diversity, a bit of difference. A gay dad, how about that? But, then you know…’
Maybe he should stop by Country Road and pick up one of those sweaters with the branding stitched across the chest. He could take his pick—navy, olive, rust. Those sweaters were the unofficial Brighton uniform. Every off-duty father chucked one on to pop down to the shops. This homogeny will be the death of him, but at least he’ll dress the part.
‘It’s been a difficult adjustment for us all,’ he admits.
‘Sometimes you just need to try a bit harder to adjust,’ she replies brightly.
He doesn’t get the chance to respond because more mothers have joined in the waiting game, and he doesn’t feel like talking to them with their judgemental stares. He stands against the signpost, his leg bounces and he waits for the kindergarten program to finish so he can go inside, pick him up and take him home and they can make dinner.
The paediatric specialist told them a few weeks ago that cooking was an enjoyable activity to keep Otto stimulated. He has a lot of energy, he doesn’t find loud noises startling, he maintains eye contact, keep him busy with drawing and sports and cooking, not the television. Blue light is like heroin for developing brains. Hearing the assessment made Ben feel guilty, sometimes it’s easier to plop Otto in front of a show than try to negotiate with a child terrorist. Television placated Otto and meant Ben could still focus on doing some of his own silly little work.
As he drives them home, he mulls on what Victoria said: Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. It’s never just ‘dad’ like the other men, it’s always ‘gay dad’; it’s never just ‘wedding’, it’s always ‘gay wedding’; it’s never just ‘uncle’, it’s always ‘guncle’, which sounds like you’re retaining water. Faggot godfather would be age inappropriate. Ben’s sick of the labels. Even when they try to heteronormalise their life, it comes with a caveat, as if to call out their differences instead of gentle assimilation.
Today the envelopes in the cubbyholes are lavender. There isn’t one for Otto. He feels a dip of melancholy, then a tremble, like the flight of a monarch butterfly against the washed-out afternoon sky. His baby. Something breaks inside. He takes the envelope out of Zane’s cubbyhole and furtively shoves it into Otto’s bag.
Ben waves off the teacher and takes Otto’s sticky hand. Even at four, Otto looks like a teacup version of Felix with his wide amber eyes, dimples, and crooked nose.
At home, Ben opens the envelope. It’s Calliope’s birthday—in two weeks from now she’s turning five and would love you to celebrate with her down at the Brighton Beach Garden where there will be fun activities and surprises and could all the parents please bring a small plate of something, because it’s so close to Christmas and everyone is very busy.
While Ben makes dinner, Otto sits at the table and fills in the Disney animals colouring-in book. With no care for the lines, he takes the pencils and drags them across the paper until a jagged mess fills the pages. Ben plates up the pasta and tells Otto to clean up. He keeps colouring.
‘Please, mate,’ he says, tea-towel slung over his shoulder. He bends down to grab the book and Otto lets out a bloodcurdling scream. A knot twists in his stomach as Otto’s howls continue. He marches him to the bench in the hallway and waits four minutes until Otto has calmed down.
‘I want Papa,’ Otto says, as he pushes pasta around the bowl. ‘Not Daddy.’
‘Eat,’ Ben replies.
Bath time is the next hurdle. Otto yells, refusing to get into the water and when he does, he splashes it everywhere.
‘This is the worst day of my life so far,’ he bellows. Ben stifles a laugh.
Drops of water dribble down the mirror and make the tiles slippery. Half the water escapes the tub. The knot in Ben’s tummy moves up to his lungs and he has difficulty breathing.
Then Otto refuses to brush his teeth.
‘Papa,’ he says again when Ben passes him his dinosaur toothbrush smeared in bubble-gum blue toothpaste. ‘I want Papa.’
‘And I want you to clean your fucking teeth,’ Ben snaps. His tone sibilant and firm.
Otto stares at him like a possum and withdraws into himself. He shoves the toothbrush into his mouth and scrubs.
Ben is lying on his side when Felix comes in. It’s past midnight, an odour of bleach and artificial oranges wafts off him. Felix bends down and kisses his forehead. Ben keeps his eyes closed. Felix shuffles around the room, undresses, the belt from his pants chinks against the button. On his way to the bathroom, he knocks into the unpacked boxes and curses. Even with the door ajar, golden light spills into the room, eradicating the night. Ben opens his eyes and listens to the patter of urine stream into the toilet bowl.
On the day of Calliope’s party Ben stands in the kitchen buttering sweet white bread, cutting off the crusts and turning it into triangles. He scatters hundreds and thousands over them and layers them onto a plate. One of the nice flowery ones his mother-in-law gave them. He places the last triangle and his muscles tense.
There is a wrapped gift for Calliope on the dining table. An Elsa barbie doll that sings when you flick the switch on her back. As a child he would have hacked off her mane of blonde hair with scissors, he did it to all his sister’s dolls and she never forgave him.
He’s made Otto wear a new shirt from Country Road, it’s yellow and black checks. He saw another kid wearing it, so he got it. Felix is still asleep after working eighteen hours yesterday. He doesn’t leave a note when he leaves.
Ben bundles Otto into the car, along with the gift and the plate of fairy bread.
‘Now mate, best behaviour. Make sure you wish Calliope happy birthday,’ he says.
‘She’s not very nice,’ Otto replies.
‘Even still, it’s her birthday so be nice. It’s important to make friends. You could ask them about Bluey, you love Bluey.’
He navigates the backstreets of Brighton. Anxiety shoots through his limbs and gurgles his stomach. A headache pricks at his temples as he parks his car.
Over by the picnic tables, the balloons bop in the breeze, groups of parents stand in twos and threes shaded by Moreton Bay Figs. Children run amok.
‘Look, it’s Otto.’ Victoria smiles at Ben as they approach, ‘Nice sweater.’ He’s wearing the new one with the words Country Road stitched across his chest and the words sell-out rushing through his head. She turns back to Ali, who is showing her something on her phone. Otto runs up to several of the children, who quieten and stand around him with apprehension.
Ben drops the fairy bread onto the table. There are sushi rolls, vegan stuffed capsicums, and charcuterie artfully placed on a chopping board. He doesn’t know who Calliope’s parents are, but Calliope runs around in a bright blue dress. She resembles Dorothy with her pigtails.
Sweat gathers under his pits and seeps down his back. An ant tickles its way across his ankle.
‘So lovely you could join us,’ Victoria says, once Ali’s distracted with her child.
‘Which ones are Calliope’s parents? I need to thank them.’
‘You haven’t heard? Derek took a turn last night, Jen rushed him into the hospital. Bad reaction to his chemo meds. I’ve pulled all this together. Calliope is staying with us.’
The bloody saint, he thinks.
She takes a sip of prosecco. ‘Did you not see it in the WhatsApp parents chat?’
Ben shakes his head while she keeps prattling. He’d muted that the first week Otto joined the school. There were only so many pictures of other people’s children running around doing dumb shit that he could stomach. Within half an hour his headache’s fully formed, and he searches out Otto.
His child is chasing the birthday girl, a maniacal grin plastered across his face. Otto catches Calliope and tugs her hair, he shoves her, and she falls over onto the spongy soft grass. The wail of the child punctures the chatter of the adults. A second that stretches for eternity before they all snap into action.
Flies land on the food and ants crawl over the pieces of uneaten fairy bread. Victoria’s plastic face is blotchy and red. One of the other parents has wrapped Calliope into a big hug.
‘Daddy,’ Otto squeals as Victoria grabs him by the wrist, finger pointed.
Ben’s heart sinks and his nostrils flare. His eyes glaze over, and he stands frozen.