Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Smalltown boy

The first thing you do when you leave the city is buy a car. It took us a couple of weeks to find the right one -- and to persuade Busytot that, alas, not all Volkswagens are Beetles -- but we’ve now officially joined the age of the combustion engine and the station-wagon driving classes at a single stroke.

The salesman was a sweetie, and hilariously young: he allowed as to how he was nearly born in the back seat of a 1981 sports car and had, as a consequence, been a car nut ever since. Demonstrating the grunty eight-speaker stereo (cassette player included!), he tuned us in to a classic hits station playing big bad matey-eighties hits by Huey Lewis, Bon Jovi and their smooth-chested guitar-crotched confreres. "Oh man, I love this old stuff!" he enthused, as Busytot's dad suffered a series of terrifying 1ZH flashbacks in the back seat.

Great as it is to be able to zip around to the mega-ultra-superstores, to buy things in bulk (and bulky things), it is surprising how much you can do here locally and on foot. Especially in the neighbourhood we’ve fetched up in, which is full of little family-run corner shops. Run by Italian families, Greek families, Portuguese families, Korean families, Indian families, they feature everything from biscotti to kim chee and authentic NYC bagels.

Busytot is adjusting pretty quickly to the slower pace of small-town life. The stroller is in hiding while I attempt to get him more used to, as the poet Rex Fairburn put it, "walking on my feet." He walks on his feet all right, at the approximate speed of an elderly snail, so I’m getting to know the neighbourhood in what you might call excruciating detail. It took us 45 minutes to get to Lulu's café the other day – a destination about 50 yards from the front door – but en route, we met a cat, three old ladies and two friendly students.

We also completed some painstaking and important experiments into the magical melting powers of mud puddles when the air temperature hovers slightly above freezing. Conclusions: snow melts, as does ice; mittens and socks, on the other hand, don’t. It's not rocket science, but our tests were thorough, repeatable, and the results were definitive. (Precisely for those reasons, we're not expecting a call from the Bush administration any time soon. They seem to prefer their science docile and creative, if not creationist.)

How far away can the spring thaw be? A huge snowfall the week we arrived turned quickly into sheets of ice, and then briefly the other day into mud, but more subzero weather is on the way again. The other weekend, we made a quick foray to the nearest playground, which is in the lovely East Rock Park. The jungle gym itself was largely thawed out, but the ground below was a mix of hard-packed snow and ice puddles. All over the park were huge shallow sheets of groaning, creaking pack-ice, and off in the distance boys played ice-hockey on what was either a deliberate or impromptu rink in a particularly large hollow.

It was two weeks since Busytot last saw a slide, which is about a year in toddler time. So he went bonkers on the play equipment while his father and I quietly froze to death, cracking Scott of the Antarctic jokes that stopped being funny at about the point I ceased to have any feeling in my fingers, which was, in fact, about halfway into the first joke. If we’d had a huskie on hand, I would have eaten it raw, if only to warm up my mouth for a brief second.

We finally dragged the boy, kicking and of course screaming, away from the playground, only to add injury to insult when his Dad slipped on the ice while holding him, and both of them landed bottom first with a loud crunch. Ah, the fresh air, the freedom, the healthiness of small town life!

On the other hand, there is something regally satisfying about stomping up the stairs onto your front porch, and coming into a warm house, pausing only to decide which of several rooms you might sit down in to drink your warming cup of cocoa. All that space.

And all that cold weather outside, all those iced-over playgrounds. The temporary solution to the conundrum: a ten dollar space hopper, and full rein to leap off any surface in the house onto the impossibly plush carpet installed by the landlady to cushion the falls of the previous resident, her very elderly mother. It’s like a trampoline underfoot, and hopefully it will cushion us through to the real spring thaw, whenever that finally comes.