The zoo at twilight

What is a good day with small children? When I was on maternity leave with the little dude, the first few months, I kept thinking when will my good day come? It seemed a long time before I reached the end of the day and felt like it had been more enjoyable than not. There was a turning point, when I realised I might be  looking for the wrong thing. Like an optical illusion, I was waiting for the point where I couldn’t see the dark image rather than looking for the light image and letting the dark fade from vision in comparison. Once I realised the trick of what to look for, it was clearly there all the time.

Yesterday was a good day. There were little toddler tantrums, and there were moments of them both crying, and there was too much Peppa Pig (I have a love/hate relationship with that pig; the little dude has a love/love relationship). There was an awkward parenting fail when I left bub on his tummy on his playmat while I made the little dude some food, and then bub started crying and I thought it was generic “bored” crying so didn’t tend to him because I needed to get the little dude’s food sorted, and when I got to bub he was lying face down in a puddle of spit up and was covered in his spilled milk. Poor thing.

But still, it was a good day.

I love living in Newtown. Being walking distance from amenities makes life with kids a million times easier and less isolated. We left the house several times, we went to the supermarket, we went to the park, we went to the zoo. There was no-one else at the park when we were there, and bub slept in the buggy while I played with the little dude (goal, tick; goal, tick). We all had an epic nap and didn’t wake until 3.45. I had been meaning to meet up with a friend and her two girls at the zoo in the afternoon. The little dude is morphing from a toddler to a child in his understanding of things, and when I said we needed to go quickly because the zoo was going to shut soon, he co-operated pretty well. Even so we didn’t get there until 4.45, which was 15 minutes before closing. We briefly saw our friends as they left and we arrived.

The staff let us in: 5pm is closing time, but they don’t kick you out at 5, they just let you wander out at your leisure through the one-way after hours gate. Horay for zoo pass.

It was deserted.

We didn’t really see the animals. The animals are a peripheral attraction for the little dude. We went to the area with the rock that sends up a jet of water when you jump on it. The little dude did “make it rain djumping” for a while. There was a brisk breeze and it gusted the water across the path, mist in my face, droplets on my glasses, the baby stirred in his carrier but settled again.

The animals made a lot of noise at dusk, we could hear the lions roaring and we could hear birds shrieking and all sorts of eerie wild sounds that I couldn’t identify. At dusk, the zoo felt like what it was: an area where wild animals live in cages. We mainly spent time in the farmyard section, the little dude looked at the rabbits and played with the drinking fountain. The light started to fade. I told the little dude we would need to go soon, that the zoo was shutting, that there was no-one else here. “Just me and just mummy at the roo” he said, then as an afterthought “and Benman”, then “and the yions and bunny rabidts and birdies”.

On the way back to the gate we passed the aviary with the kea, and they were making a right racket, and the little dude got scared. I picked him up and he buried his head in my neck and said “me hiding from da big noise”.

A child’s fear, innate, primal, the human fear of wild noises at dusk.

An adult’s fear, imaginative, the mother and children locked in a zoo after hours, a premise of a tense psychological thriller, a box office hit?

Later, I read this, “Brief raptures in deserted places”. There is solitude of being fully alone, and there is the shared solitude of being with someone else in a quiet place, and there is a different shade altogether being alone with your small children somewhere unfamiliar and exciting. Part of my consciousness is at his level, aware of things that will be interesting to him, things that will be obstacles, dangers, things that will alarm him. In the moment but not completely, alert to what will happen next, aware of the need to leave before dark, to allow time to get to the car, to stop at the drinking fountain, to ask him to put his hood up against the wind. Aware too of the rhythms of the baby’s breath, the length of time he’s been asleep, aware of when he will next want a feed.

We reached the gate and got into the car. The little dude can climb into his own seat now. It was dark by the time we arrived home, though not late, we were out for less than an hour in total. It’s almost matariki, the day was sunny and bright yesterday but the nights are drawing in sharply. The curtains of our house were open and the kitchen light was on. “Yight on in me ouse!” said the little dude, as he waited for me to unlock the door. I let him in and went back to get bub out of the carseat. The little dude had found my laptop and opened it, and I could hear that confounded Peppa Pig as I entered the house with the baby.


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