The other morning my daughter came into my room saying she had just dreamed there were crocodiles under her bed. She wasn’t distressed, more surprised and curious. I cuddled her and we talked about other things and I wondered if the dream had been real or an excuse to share time in the darkness with me. Either way I didn’t mind. It reminded me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child where a wolf’s head sat on a wood pile between me and my parents. It had teeth and angry eyes, but no stomach, so why would it eat me? Terrified and intrigued, I was often too scared to get up to the toilet and repeatedly wet the bed.
As I’ve grown up I tend not to have nightmares, the real life fears of being a parent hold greater sway over me. That said, lately I have been sleeping badly and some pretty bizarre images have popped into my head. The most notable involved being required to keep live pieces of human flesh in my mouth for medical purposes. They didn’t taste bad, and there was no way I wanted to chew or swallow, but the spongy texture and metallic taint of haemoglobin had me on the point of gagging. I woke hoping the foreign flesh was of a blood group compatible to mine.
As I lay with my 6 year-old listening to Bad Jelly the Witch, singing out our favourite lines (“tree, tree, 1-2-3, make it very big for me”… “steekeeble-steekeeble knickers, knickers, knickers!” et. al) my girl asked if there were crocodiles in New Zealand.
I said, “No. Well, only in zoos,” and told her about Charlie, the famous crocodile I used to visit at the New Brighton ‘Mini’ Zoo with my sisters and mother. It was pretty sad, even to a kid in the ‘70s. Stuck on the outskirts of Christchurch with a tiny concrete pool and not enough space to turn around, he (or she, as it would turn out after ‘he’ died) never seemed to move and looked depressed (if a crocodile could have a psychological condition). As ‘he’ was always in the same position we weren’t certain that he was real, but we never bashed on the glass to get a reaction as other ‘naughty’ kids did. We were always too keen to get on to the friendly otters who stuck there tiny paws through the mesh to shake hands.
All this I told my daughter; she’s a great lover of animals, and understands that it is not their nature to be caged for our entertainment.
What I didn’t tell her was that when I was about 7 or 8 something happened that burned into more than my memory.
We were at the zoo seeing if Charlie had budged from his miserable ledge by the puddle of water. While my sisters and mother stared at the static reptile I checked out the tiny turtles in the aquarium opposite. Suddenly, my world went very peculiar. I felt warm and heard a hum inside my body which increased to a ringing bang that threw me backwards with a scream, hitting Charlie’s glass panel hard. My mother, assuming I was being stupid, slapped me across the face as I bounced back and fell onto the wet concrete. I didn’t feel the slap; it was too much like a dream. What I did feel was the two bloody burn marks on the top of my left foot. An exposed live wire had been hanging underneath the turtle’s display and I had just suffered a strong electric shock (something which would happen again, many years later, but that time I would recognize it).
The owner came in to check out the noise, apologized and laughed it off with an “oops, must fix that”. I was in too much shock (pun intended) to cry or make a fuss. The wounds scabbed-up to the size of two 5-cent pieces. I never saw a doctor (as I said, it was the ‘70s) but instead was sent to see the electrician that lived next door who assured me I was within inches of dying. The condescension impressed my 7 (or 8) year-old mind and I wore the incident with pride.
I think slightly differently of the whole thing now and at some point will tell my daughter about the shock. But she doesn’t need to know about the slap and not seeing a doctor.
It’s only 3 years since she lost her Gran E and I lost my mother.
I thought about all this as I held my girl, closing my eyes in the long darkness, resting from her constant questions as Bad Jelly attempted to eat brave little Tim and Rose. I remembered I used to have a crocodile. It had bright white teeth and a delicious soft texture. I treasured it for years, sticking my finger in its mouth, or attaching it to my nose, pretending it was gobbling me up to amuse my sisters.
It was the only present I got when I turned 6, which sounds a bit sad, but there was a reason for it.
Some weeks before my birthday, while my mother was on the phone, I climbed onto the kitchen bench beside Mum’s shiny new electric fry pan. Somewhat obsessed with Tarzan (old movies played on the telly every Saturday) I slipped the electric cord through my belt and with a “hey, Mum, watch this!” jumped to the floor, thinking the weight of the attached pan would halt my leap, leaving me swinging like Tarzan on a vine. Not a very realistic expectation but I was, like my daughter, a rather imaginative child. Of course, the big golden fry pan came with me to the floor and my mother let out a horrified scream.
I was not hurt by the floor, or falling heavy pan, but the impact snapped it’s plastic (or Bakelite) handle. It wasn’t replaced for over a decade.
Kids often do naughty things without realising it. It only became clear to me what I had done when Mum didn’t smack me, crying instead for her new appliance (things were very expensive and hard to replace back before we joined the disposable society). She played the ‘wait till your father gets home’ card.
I was terrified. Dad never did the smacking. Like most of the parenting in my family, it was always left to Mum.
After my younger sisters went to bed there was a meeting at the kitchen table where they coolly decided that my punishment would be the cancellation of my upcoming 6th birthday party. To my fearful young mind that seemed a good deal. I hated (and continue to despise) physical violence.
Maybe they thought better of that decision later on but felt unable to back down, because closer to the day Mum told me that Dad was taking me to dinner for my birthday.
I have no recollection of where we went (there were no child-friendly restaurants in the land of ‘70s Christchurch, and I was a fussy eater) but I vividly recall him taking me up the escalators to the toys on the top floor of the wonderfully art-deco Millers department store. As was his way, he said nothing about what was happening. We walked up to a wall filled with playthings and I was invited to pick something. I did not know what to choose. There were so many toys, most of them clearly worth more than Dad could afford. How do you act in a situation where reward is mixed with punishment? I was taking too long and reached for the nearest thing, a very realistic 5-inch rubber crocodile with bright-white painted teeth.
My parents weren’t ogres; they were loving, fun and caring. And like people who put animals in cages, to ‘save’ them or ‘educate’ children, they strove to do their best.
I have little doubt that in years to come my daughter will have unsettling stories to tell about my efforts at parenting. You do what you think is right, don’t do other things in case they are wrong; worry yourself to death on both counts.
There are many reasons why people sleep badly. For me, it happens when I am stressed or over-worked. And while I can tick both of those boxes at the moment I put my present fractured sleep down to it being the anniversary of those days and nights when I sat with my sisters keeping our dying father company, easing his discomfort as we could, trying to will his release from torment.
There’s so much I could write about watching a loved-one succumb to self-imposed starvation but I shall not ‘hammer the mahogany’ as JK Baxter put it.
That week in a secure dementia facility wasn’t a nightmare. It felt unreal; full of fun, beauty and humour. There were no crocodiles under the bed (well, there may have been), no strange flesh in my mouth.
Things happened I’m desperate to get out of my head but they can wait.
Was the crocodile really the only thing I got when I was 6? Having just hosted my daughter’s 6th party, I find that hard to accept.
Just as I can’t believe that in the morning it will be two years since Dad died.
I’m hoping that when tomorrow passes, and my daughter is back from her mother’s, I can sleep; free of the words that fill my head. And that in years to come my daughter will think well of my choices, good and bad, and that any nightmares that snap from below will be faced with tenderness and warmth.