At four in the morning I heard it. A scratching sound, above me in the van. Claws on canvas. Something nestled up there, behind the tent she was sleeping in. Earlier, before I’d gone to sleep, I’d checked on her. Arms splayed out either side of her, so still and calm in her slumber. So defenceless.
I lay there, dithering. It was probably nothing, but then we were in Australia. What if it was a snake? It could have slithered into the cool canopy while we weren’t looking.
I got up and shone a torch into her travel cot. There was nothing except for her. It was empty, cosy, all clear. But the canvas at the back reflected the beam of light back at me, so all I could see was a wall of blackness. No way to tell if anything was lurking behind it.
The reasoning that allowed me to go back to sleep – after a good forty-five minutes of waiting, and listening, and checking – was that even the nastiest nasty couldn’t make its way through canvas walls. For the rest of the night I woke frequently, startling each time a whisper sounded above me.
The two-tier sleeping system works well until you hear things above you!
It came as some surprise to find out just how much of the time you spend worrying that your baby could be ill, injured, or dead. For me, it started pretty early. Seconds after she was born they whisked her away, a crowd of people gathering around her unresponsive form as I shakily tried to get out of the birthing pool. I couldn’t even see her, didn’t even know that she was a girl until there was a collective sigh of relief and a little wriggling thing was brought and places on my chest. Needless to say, this wasn’t the calmest start to being a mother.
I’m sure every parent can relate to that moment when you go into your baby’s room to check that they’re still breathing. The thing is, sleeping babies are so very still. They get a faint bluish tint around their eyes, sometimes the mouth hangs open, slack. Hardly reassuring.
So calm. So still.
You’ve all done it. You creep forward, watching carefully for signs of the chest rising and falling. The room is dark, the smiley crescent moon night light casting a yellow glow over the scene. Was that a movement, or did you imagine it? Too hard to tell.
You go closer. Holding your breath, you lower a hand, hovering it inches above their face. You tense, waiting for a puff of reassuring air. It could be their breath you feel, or maybe it’s your own, or a draught through the window. It’s still hard to be sure.
Eventually you lean your face down, your nose a hair’s breadth from theirs. Are they ok? What if something happened and you missed it? Perhaps the warmth you can feel coming from this precious body is the last, and you foresee all your hopes for this blossoming human being shrivelling up next to a miniature coffin.
That’s when they move. An arm shifts, a leg shuffle, maybe even the head turns and the eyes open. You’ve never ducked down so fast in your life. Staying close to the ground, you shuffle backwards, praying they haven’t seen you. Of course it’s great that they’re ok, but please god don’t let them wake up.
The joys of parenting.
If that’s just what happens when they’re having a nap, imagine all the wonderful ways you can really hone your paranoia when you take them travelling around the world with you.
Firstly, there’s worrying that something terrible is happening when you can’t see them. Back home, this was limited to the pram, the moses basket and the sling (yes, I even put my arms around her to check that her ribs would push out against me when she breathed).
On the road, there are many more options. Our current mode of transport is a camper van. How very adventurous we are, winding our way up the east coast in a rickety thing that creaks and groans whenever we go over bumps. The freedom of the open road, the possibility of stopping anywhere you like. We’ve seen the breathtaking expanse of the Blue Mountains, the wide sandy beaches of the Gold Coast and the dripping rainforests of Queensland.
The views have been pretty impressive
It also means that she is strapped into a rear-facing baby seat, far away at the back of the van. Sometimes we’ve been chatting, planning our next stop, singing along to the radio, when we hear a noise in the back. We wind up all the windows, turn off the music and strain our ears. Is she ok?
Invariably she’s making one of her new noises – the high-pitched squeak, or the rumbling growl, or the inhaling and shouting at the same time, which sounds a bit like a creaky gate.
I would love to tell you that we hadn’t pulled the van over to check if she’s been too quiet, or too loud, only to find her either snoozing quietly or playing contentedly. But hey, I’m only human.
The next one is the fear of dropping her. Back in the flat, that was limited to some strange idea that she could somehow fall out of a window or slip from the carrier while I’m walking. Small fry compared to what was to come.
In Tokyo, you can go up to the 45th floor of the government building in the area of Shinjuku for free. This gives you a grand view of the entire city. The skyscrapers are so numerous they look like blades of grass in a grey lawn, stretching away from you. Here and there are splashes of green or open spaces where the metal towers don’t reach. On the day we went, there were brooding clouds and a blood orange sunset that made the whole thing look like a scene from Independence Day.
Anyone seen any aliens?
I stood with my face against the glass, peering down at the movement of cars like ants below. She was strapped to my chest. Suddenly, I panicked and stepped away. What if she fell? This was, of course, absurd. We were in a building. Behind a window. It didn’t matter how much I told myself this, my pulse still lurched when I stepped closer to get a better look.
Even worse was to come in Singapore. We went up to the observation deck of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, a gargantuan thing that dominates the skyline of the harbour. It looks something like a giant surfboard on stilts. Right at the top, you get a fantastic view of the city one way, and the sea the other – teeming with tankers. Around the edge is a see-through wall, very high, very secure, but with just a little gap at the bottom. You probably couldn’t squeeze a finger through it. Needless to say, we didn’t go too close to the edge.
So very high
The worst was on the Skyway in the Gardens By the Bay. I’d seen the Supertrees on Planet Earth II with David Attenborough so I was thrilled to see them up close. They’re enormous. Each one is wreathed with plants – a vertical garden with myriad species. They also collect rainwater and solar power, so they’re like environmental engines for the rest of the garden. And they’re very high. You can take a lift up and walk high above the canopy, looking over the impressive gardens.
The stunning Skyway
I don’t usually get bothered by heights. Even something like this, which was basically a bridge with little more than a fence either side, wouldn’t normally bother me. But I found my legs shaking every few metres. I’d stop, trying to dislodge the image of her little shape plummeting to the ground below. It made no sense. She was strapped securely to my front, there was no way she could fall out, yet my outpouring of logic couldn’t help my shivering legs.
The final one for me is water. Her complete inability to respond to her surroundings makes putting her close to any water terrifying. Once, when bathing her, she slipped out of my hand a little bit. Just enough to get a splash of water on her, but she must have seen the panic on my face. She freaked out and we had to do a swift exit. Now I’m pretty confident when washing her, but there are other places that feel outside my control.
Hold on tight!
Out here, the possibilities of submerging the baby are varied. We’ve splashed in the shallow and impossibly warm waters of Hervey Bay. He saw rays scooting along over the surface of the sand, not far from where we tried out her new wetsuit. We’ve splashed down Eli Creek on Fraser Island – the largest river on the world’s largest sand island. We’ve taken boats across Tokyo Bay, across Sydney Harbour, out to many islands on the East Coast of Australia. And each time, even if it’s only for a fraction of a second, I hold her close and swallow down the image of her making a small plop into the surging waters beneath us.
The clear waters of Eli Creek
As for my clawed creature, it turned out to be a dead palm branch that was resting on the top of our camper van, scraping in the wind. The next morning I moved it forward so I didn’t have to hear that sound anymore.
While I don’t spend all of my time on the road concocting horror stories in my head, it’s surprised me how often these macabre flashes have occurred. It makes me see other parents differently, knowing the shivering fear they swallow down in order to smile and walk down the road with their children every day.