Where children used to play


Coloured chalkOnce a year the children come out to play. They arrive with their parents, who are laden with salads, drinks, folding chairs. Cupcakes, chips, plastic plates. The children bring chalk, scooters, skateboards, lightness.

Before long the women have nestled into the folding chairs in the shade of the bottle-brushes and the wattle myrtles. They unburden the loads of their lives by talking of work and holidays and children, in between their offspring seeking attention.

The men stand about in their shorts and their beers, talking of hammers and nails and of children. Sometimes a youngster appears at a father's hip, asking for what their mother has refused.

Once a year the children come out to play. On the footpath at first, in small groups, but then onto the road as a collective of energy and curiosity. They draw pink stick figures on the bitumen with their chalk. They draw a yellow line for scooter races, a wobbly line the length of the 300 metre street. They scribble their names in blue and green and white onto the bumpy tar.

If the children were older — in high school, say — you might mistake the chalk for spraycans, the drawing for graffiti, the playfulness for vandalism.

As the children decorate, their parents talk and turn over sausages in the shade. The coolness is courtesy of a former neighbour who planted some of the street's trees 30 years ago. He and his girlfriend were the hub of the street for many a year. He mowed nature strips, fixed leaking pipes, welcomed newcomers. She talked, spread news and opinions, pruned roses. He hung Christmas lights, played Santa. They hosted the street party year after year, outside their home. Poured the drinks, fired up the barbie. And together they planted some trees.

But a few years after she died — her mind went first, then the rest — he moved across town. At his first street party as a guest rather than as a host, Thank you was written in chalk in big letters on the footpath.

Across town he lived in a different type of street. A busy street with traffic and noise. A place for him and his new girlfriend, but no place for a street party.

Once a year, though, he returns to see the next generation of neighbours. New leaves on old trees. As always, the party is halfway down the street, outside his old home. There's a picket fence where the roses once bloomed. There's a four-wheel drive where the boat used to rest. There's a blue-light alarm system where the Christmas lights used to blink in time. Fresh paint, new grass.

The former neighbour drinks in the shade and talks of hammers and nails and fishing and bait, and of neighbours now in nursing homes and elsewhere.

On the street the children play, some only toddlers, some nearly teenagers. High voices burble and bubble or cry out when knees are grazed. Two of the older boys bring their billy-cart, welded together by their father in the winter. One girl sits on the footpath and reads a book for a little while, her finger following the large print.

Sausages are served with the salads. Drinks are topped up. The talk takes in the weather and the mosquitoes, the rain and the tomatoes.

As the sun begins to drop the parents' unspoken thoughts turn to tomorrow's work, to school, to children's baths. Here and there a toddler is scooped up in loving arms, amid thank-you smiles and promises to do it all again next year. The older children linger but the barbecue is cold now and the cupcakes are just crumbs.

The parents pack up the empty salad bowls, fold up the chairs, cart away card tables. The former neighbour bids his annual farewells again, says he'll be back in 12  months' time. He and his partner drive away. Perhaps he spies, through reddened eyes, his old home, receding in the rear-view mirror.

By nightfall the only evidence of the day is on the bitumen. Cars will drive over the coloured dust tomorrow, cars on their way to offices and building sites and schools. And rain will fall on the chalk too, washing away the stick-figure self portraits, the proud names, the hopscotch squares, the wobbly lines.

The children will wake reluctantly. As they are cajoled into the day they might wonder if yesterday was a dream, a dream their parents dreamt, of life decades past: a dream possibly of false nostalgia, of a time when children came out to play, on the street and on the road, until darkness, each and every day of the summer.


Vin MaskellVin Maskell has written for The Age, The Big Issue, Best Australian Essays (2008) and Eureka Street. He published a collection of his short narratives, Jacaranda Avenue, in 2003.

Topic tags: Vin Maskell, street party, children



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Existing comments

This story moved me to tears, Vin, so perfectly do you capture the bittersweetness of the event, the small subtleties and subtexts, the full flavour of a vintage misdummer evening. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

Peta Murray | 09 February 2011  

Another beauty Vin , just what the world needs ; to be reminded of the beauty .

Peter Maskell | 09 February 2011  

Beautifully written

Gabrielle Bridges | 11 February 2011  

Lovey .....again.

Kim Windsor | 09 March 2011  

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