Samanta Shweblin is the writer of an acclaimed short novel called Distancia de Rescate, the translation of which (renamed Fever Dream) has recently been longlisted for the Booker. ‘Distancia de Rescate’ translates to ‘Rescue Distance’, a term Samanta invented to describe the variable safe distance between a mother and child.
I haven’t read the book yet (I may not ever, it sounds terrifying) but I immediately identify with rescue distance. What distance would I need to cross to cross to save my child from harm? How far away is too far? And also, because distance isn’t always a physical thing but can also be measured by your level of attention, what is a reasonable thing to be rendered distant by?
These are all question that underscore pretty much everything I do these days.
Rescue distance is the reason why I sleep more soundly with all five of my family under one roof. It is the reason why I sweep the floors and fold the washing after I’ve instructed the children to disappear outside. Somehow, if someone gets crushed by a hay bale, it’s better to have been sweeping floors than googling hairstyles and listening to My Dad Wrote a Porno.
Anyway the rescue distance thing really hit me in the winds last weekend when I got on a plane and flew away from my children for the first time in over two years.
The anticipation of a stretched connection between my children and their parents manifested in me being hyper-organised late last week. I was so ahead with the washing that I washed a jumper before it got dirty. I wondered about freezing whole lunchboxes of food and whether brushing the dog for longer would reduce dog hair issues while I was away. I cleaned crisper dishes and oiled dry scalps. I dusted regions of the house that would have seen me reported to the authorities if houses had feelings. The children didn’t have a mother, they had a very boring, distracted and at times demented micro-manager. Which was dumb because we were only going to be away for two days and their very capable, dog-hair friendly grandparents were taking over.
Once on the plane, I felt the rescue distance stretching at 10,000 feet. At 39,000 feet it was entirely compromised and I mentally reviewed our orphaned children plan. And then I read a glossy magazine and thought about shoes and we landed in Melbourne. There the airport was so shiny and so filled with busy important looking people and we were with friends and there was no one telling me they had an itchy bottom or wanted a milk shake and I jumped in a taxi and felt no tugs just adrenalin and blessed freeeeeeeedom.
This adrenalin rush (commonly associated with excitement but also fear) carried me all through lunch and an afternoon ON MY OWN on CHAPEL STREET where everything inspired me. It was intoxicating. I was so drunk on it that I very nearly bought some smurfs and a floaty vintage dress with huge yellow flowers because the shop was so cool and quirky and un-Tasmanian-farmers-wife. Thankfully (or regrettably depending on my mood) I had to leave the shop to find a loo and had my senses restored by a passerby wearing Ralph Lauren and my son ringing up to ask where I’d hidden the remote controls (in the spice drawer).
Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get tarted up for dinner with dear old friends and fabulous new friends and best friends like FRENCH CHAMPAGNE. Rescue distance tugs didn’t stand a chance even though I knew the children were having their brains blunted by the telly and even though in hindsight, getting squiffy on champagne is about the best way to exceed rescue distance. But you know, dapper waiters and interesting conversations and eye fillet. And more champagne.
The next morning, I was woken by a text message. I cracked open last night’s carefully applied smoky eyes (now more like a pair of tiny fire pots) to squint at the harsh light of day threatening me through the break in the curtains.
“Lovely article about your mum in the paper,” the text said, “What an inspirational woman she is.” And then bing-bong, in came another text, saying much the same thing. And like a falling climber jolted by the snap-catch of a safety rope, I was suddenly very, very far from where I was meant to be.
My mum, by the way (except not by the way, I’m really segueing into a blatant boasty bit) had just (whilst I was gamboling along Chapel Street) become a Companion to the Order of Australia. This awarded “for eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree in service to Australia or humanity at large”. And there I was, dribbling into a pillow with my eyes stuck together. And what’s more, I thought as I lay there, Mum sewed my sister and I some tiny bed clothes for our dolls house. She read us Charles Dickens and she was never far away. Not champagne and aeroplane distance away.
Except I called her and she said of course she was. Of course she had days of waking with a champagne head. Of course they left us and flew away sometimes. She glossed over her investiture to talk about Acland Street and how my friends are and the garden she saw in Canberra. Her humble nature is second nature and her voice made me homesick.
But no time for homesickness. Off for another glamorous meal. Another party. I phoned my friend and said, “Please tell me you’re not gardening and doing craft with the children.” And she said, “I’m not gardening” which meant that she was beading elaborate jewelry with her girls whilst feeding them kombucha and they would live long lives as master craftswomen.
But then homesickness and guilt was confronted by Mr Mojito and Mr Mojito clobbered the life out of them and before long I was exchanging outfits with a friend in the loo. We were, of course, hilarious.
Lunch went well into the night and after a long sleep there was only time the next day for a shower and the trip back to the airport. I could feel the relief of the closing rescue distance even before we got there. On the way back in, the plane flew over the oval where our son was playing footy and I felt silly and excited about seeing them all again. I wished terribly that I’d bought them the smurfs.
We landed in good time and decided to try catching the end of the footy game instead of going home. As we pulled up at the oval, my phone alerted me to another message: “Meg was it Ed that was injured? I hope he’s ok.” And we couldn’t see the grandparent’s car anywhere and I imagined head injuries and thought, RESCUE DISTANCE EXCEEDED RESCUE DISTANCE EXCEEDED. And I promised myself I’d stay home and pull weeds and make pikelets for my children and all their friends for thes rest of my days.
But that was a knee jerk panic reaction because of course we should stretch the rescue distance, of course we should. Ed was fine, just a bit of a knocked leg. He survived without us and the house didn’t burn down, no one choked on dust and only one geranium got nibbled by wallabies in the garden.
We can’t, no matter how present and pikelety we are, stop bad things happening. I could swear off French Champagne for the rest of my life but all it would result in is me missing out on French Champagne for the rest of my life. We can’t hover about waiting for disaster. Imagine what paranoid little wimp-bags we’d all raise.
And at some point it’s no longer appropriate to present your children and their friends with pikelets.
And it was fun, the weekend. Really fun. With superb food and good friends and syllabub. And many, many laughs. I will do it again (not for a good long while, my constitution needs to recover) because now that I’ve stretched the rescue distance and nothing actually snapped, I know I can do it again. Perhaps next time with a good less worry and without the need to arrive home, change immediately into gardening clothes, dig a hole, play stacks-on with the children and make them listen to Beethoven.
Perhaps next time I’ll stay three nights and buy the floaty yellow dress. Bugger the smurfs.
*Thank you to Bob for ‘squiffy’.