Coming Home

August – 2015 

I’m back on Australian soil. Bee has come to the airport to get me and he sees me before I do. His arms wrap tight around me and I’m so surprised that I accidentally hit an old lady in the side and I’m apologising to her while he’s trying not to laugh and I’m thinking that this is the moment I’ve imagined for so long and of course it happens like this. Of course.

Six weeks apart and here he is. Tall and grinning and real. All those letters and the longing and the endless thoughts and this is it. He picks up a big box and hands it to me. It is filled with gifts, each wrapped carefully, tied with string.

I unwrap them as he drives. Among them is a polaroid camera and a little purple key. “That’s your key to the house,” he tells me. Purple is my favourite colour.

We stop by his house to pick up some things. Before I left for America I’d put up a hundred post-it notes with the things I loved about him on his wall. He’s added a hundred more with things he loves about me. I sit on his bed and I read them. I’m floating but what I really want is to sink deep down into this moment. Maybe I’m jetlagged.

We drive to mine. This is where I’ll be living and I’ve never seen it before now. It’s so much nicer than I imagined. There’s a big bathtub in my bathroom that is perfect for Alba. He walks me through the house until we get to the door that leads to the garage. “There’s one more thing I want to show you.” He opens the door and there in front of me is a new shiny purple bicycle with a wicker basket.

In bed we find our places again in the shapes of one another. I wake at sunrise overflowing with unbridled happiness, the potential of life exploding just like it did when I was a child. I wake Bee and cry with joy into his shoulder as he kisses me over and over. I’m not floating any more, I’m here, feet in the earth.

We go to Fremantle to get Alba. Every single time there’s an element of shock in how beautiful she is. How sweet her voice sounds. How whole it feels to have her back. She’s a real living person and she’s running into my arms, to me, to her mama.

We all play at a park together. There’s a moment where Alba asks her papa to push Bee on the swing and the image looks so absurd to me it makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I think of myself years ago and I wonder what I’d make of my life now.

We buy Alba a little wooden camera and she spends the entire afternoon running around town taking pictures of flowers, of strangers, of graffiti. Not only does she have two parents who are photographers, but now a step-dad too. No wonder that camera looks at home in her hands. Bee asks me seriously, “How soon can I give Alba her own film camera?” And I’m laughing.

For a few days being home and being part of my little family again is perfect. Sunlight filtering through the trees as Bee and Alba play on the grass, baths lit by candles, all of us cosy on the couch watching films – that kind of perfect.

But then the lows come. And though I expected them after the transition of touring to parenthood, they take my breath away. It’s impossible to fully comprehend how dark the shadows are when you’re standing in the light.

The hopelessness rushes in and over every thought. Little things grow big. I spill hot tea down my hand and all of a sudden my tears are spilling too and there is Bee, steady as ever. I hold onto him tightly, like he is a rock and I’m desperate to not be pulled away by my torrents of emotions. Sometimes I hurt the people I love when I’m like this but if I’m ever looking for some kind of negative reaction from him to fuel my mood, nothing but love ever comes.

His Mother tells me, “I see you as fire and Bee as water.” And I wonder if she knows just how right she is.

I grow tired of feeling so much. Maybe it seems poetic in retrospect but in the moment it’s just ugly and exhausting. So much frustration lies in the senselessness of my sadness.

But luckily, as effortlessly as rain clearing, the darkness lifts. Suddenly life is full of promise again and the shadows feel so far away. How easy it is to forget they were ever there.

What has happened to my easy, happy little baby? I was unprepared for the tumult of toddlerhood. I’m in the middle of a hard phase and it’s breaking me. Mostly it breaks my heart because I know she is feeling so much and there’s little I can do but be there for her.

I had so many ideas of who I’d be as a mama. I would always be strong, calm and gentle. Full of energy to play all day long. Who is this girl raising her voice, bursting into tears and putting on a disney film just for some peace? Imperfect through and through, but loving, always.

“All I want is for her to be happy,” I cry to Bee when Alba is finally asleep. There is comfort in having someone to share all of this with. Before it was just me and the rough patches were brutal. When Bee reassures me I’m a good Mama, Alba is okay and this will pass, I believe him.

And it does pass, just like my own did. She is back to her affectionate, bubbly and happy self. God it feels good.

She’ll be okay. And I’ll be okay too. This life thing is quite a whirlwind and I’m just glad we’re there to hold each other’s hands through it all.

I’m turning twenty-three tomorrow. I have a little party, just a few of my friends and my failed bubble tea cocktails that end up poured down the sink. By 9pm it’s just Bee & I. I’m not feeling so good about this whole birthday thing.

At times life and love is as cinematic and romantic as I want it to be, but mostly it’s just moment after moment. I so wanted this birthday to be more than a moment.

The next morning I’m just wishing this day would just pass. Bee asks me to pack a bag for the night. I spend most of the three hour drive looking out the car window thinking about how old I’m getting and how I should have done more by now. What a joy I am to be around sometimes, I’m ridiculous.

We arrive in the middle of nowhere. Bee takes my hand and leads me through a valley. I’m still uselessly fighting to stay sad, but out here that fight doesn’t last long.

There are hundreds of big white lilies growing all around us. The petals are so smooth they look like they belong to another planet. We walk until the dirt turns red and the earth becomes rock and the tree cover becomes bright blue sky. Bee helps me down to a cliff edge where we have a picnic.

“Feeling better?” Bee asks. I’m smiling, I can’t help myself. Below I can see the shore and the sea. We trek down to the sand and we stand in icy tidal pools and kiss. In that kiss there is only our love. The sun disappears into the sea.

We eat dinner in Margaret River and as we’re both sitting there in the stillness that comes from being truly comfortable with someone, I have to admit it is all panning out quite wonderfully.

Bee tells me we’re sleeping in sleeping bags in the forest and I am up for anything, really. We drive in the darkness for an hour before stopping. I open my door and find myself beside a sweet little cottage in the woods. “So I lied… we’re not really staying on a forest floor tonight.”

Bee lights the fireplace, we share chocolate and peppermint tea and play games until late. We can watch the stars from our bed and we make love and laugh and talk for hours. With the heaviest eyelids of all I whisper, “This was the best birthday ever.” And Bee replies, “There’s still more to come Nirrimi Joy.” Of course there is.

The next morning we are descending from the glaring light of the sun into the pitch black of a deep cave. The railings are wet and cold beneath my fingers and the deeper I go the more I am overcome with an emotion I’ve never felt before. I have to stop and breathe. The stillness is piercing and the blackness is absolute.

I feel such a powerful connection to my indigenous ancestors and to this Earth. I feel in my body where I have come from and the generations before me. How different this country was not so long ago. How deep the history hurts when I let it.

We crouch beneath a low wall of stalagmites and go deeper into the black. We turn off our torches until there is only the sound of water dripping and our slow breathing. I am twenty-three and I am still afraid of the dark. I wonder if there are Bunyips (Aboriginal dreamtime monsters) in this cave until I can’t bear it anymore and turn on my light.

On our way out the light is falling in sheets, like entire galaxies are contained in those beams. I wave my hand through them and watch the particles dance around me. When I climb out of the dark cave after hours it is like seeing colour for the first time.

We drive to a place called Sugarloaf Rock. I lay back against a smooth flat rock and watch transfixed as rocks as tall as houses are engulfed by violent waves. Sugarloaf looks like a mountain rising from the sea. I could watch for hours, but the sun sets in all of it’s glorious colours and it is time to make the journey home.

I write until it is so late it’s almost early and then climb into my bed with Bee, whispering “I love you,” to which he replies softly in his sleep, “I love you, Nirrimi Joy.”

First Aid Kit

{watch me in high definition}

Last July I went on tour with my favourite band across America. Above is a montage of our adventures,
& below is the photo series I captured on the road. This is the story. The beauty in all the little moments.

Minutes before the first show of the American tour.
Johanna & her little brother sinking into a motel pool in the heat of the Deep South.
Signing endless autographs.
A little girl recognises the sisters on the street.
Klara getting ready for a show under fairylight-strung trees in Austin, Texas.
Johanna fills a bath with fruit loops and milk.
A little studio set up outside the Artist’s Lounge at a festival in Birmingham, Alabama.
Klara sleeping in after we spent the night drinking in a dive bar and singing karaoke.
Little feathers stuck to the wall in a festival trailer.
The sisters dancing and playing around backstage.
Embracing green after the grey of so many cities.
Crossing a river outside the Wolf Trap Theatre.
Johanna’s Mama helping her with her dress.
Pre-Show ritual.
Post-show buzz.
Johanna watching unfamiliar places pass through the tour bus window.
Festival crowds like colourful seas of people.
Klara writes lyrics on her hand so she won’t forget them at the Newport Folk Festival.
Playing in a water fountain in Columbus, Ohio.
Home.
Sound-check.
Headlining in Detroit, singing along with the crowd.
Exploring another city.
The girl’s Mama & Papa, sometimes the family joins their tour.
The stillness that sets in just before walking on stage.
Matching tattoos. Johanna, Klara, Mama.
Playing for the CBS morning show.
Our little capsule beds on the bus.
Magic in the pre-show madness.
Playing the summer stage in Central Park.
Getting lost in New York City.
Catching the subway on our way to the biggest camera store I’ve ever seen.
Johanna at sound check.
Klara at soundcheck.
The dressing room in Detroit.
The fans that wait all night to meet the girls.
Klara looking out of another hotel window at another glittering city.
Riding in buggies around Lollapalooza, Chicago.
Sisterhood.

Waking in New Cities

How can I ever tell you the story of the time I toured with my favourite band across America with all the joy and beautiful madness it contained?

It’s the night before I leave to go on tour with First Aid Kit. It’s just me now and I am curling up cold in my lover’s empty bed, as I have many times before. He’s on a mountain somewhere in Tasmania. I speak to him on the phone beneath the covers and moan about how early I have to wake to catch my flight. He laughs and says, “Well I would love to wake you up.”

So he does. In the freezing cold 4am darkness he drives into town just to call me. Just to say, “Good morning Nirrimi Joy, I love you.” While I mumble some sleepy silly thing that reminds him of what it’s like to wake up beside me.

And with that little token of love the adventure begins.

It will take two days of travel to get to Austin, Texas. Walking through the airport with my backpack makes me feel like me again. My mind is full of what’s to come. It’s like I’ve fallen away from reality and into a story.

I’m walking through the streets of Austin with Antonio, dipping in and out of the sounds of live music playing at the bars we pass. I’ve known his work for years but never met him. He’s in town to watch First Aid Kit play. Funny how paths cross over like that.

I didn’t know a thing about this city before today but I’m quickly falling for it. I get a burrito from a row of food trucks. We find a candlelit bar behind a bookcase with great big red leather couches. Antonio introduces me to whiskey sours. I’m back in a place where strangers actually talk to one another and it feels good.

I get back to the hostel late and notice Bee is online. The little messages after days of travelling feel so big. Tomorrow it all begins and I should sleep but of course I don’t, love is a drug. Then the sun is rising and I’m feeling that sick and panicky feeling I get when I’m overtired.

I get to the venue as Klara and Johanna are doing soundcheck. They are real and I am here. Klara catches my eye and grins. I go backstage and meet their mama and brother but everything is a haze and I can’t keep my eyes open so I nap.

That night I try to photograph them playing but I realise it’s not what I need to capture. I need to capture the things others don’t see. The connection of sisterhood, what happens off stage and life on the road.

A fan of mine called Eleanor has come from hours away and bought a ticket to tonight’s show to meet me. We find a quiet place to talk. Her eyes are wide and she’s nervous. I hug her like she’s my little sister and she thanks me over and over for meeting her but really I want to thank her because she (and everyone like her) makes all the work I put into sharing worth it.

When everything is packed up we head to the tour bus. It’s huge inside. There are three rooms and in the middle room are our beds, all squeezed on top of each other like little capsules. Mine is one on the very bottom. This is home for the next three weeks and it’s perfect.

We make our way through the deep south. We stop in Jackson, Louisiana where the heat burns my feet. The water in the motel pool is like a bath. Everything feels so big and spread out here. So different to back home. Like even the sun shines different.

Klara and I go to the cinema. We come in late and walk through the darkness hoping we don’t stumble into anyone. When the film ends and the lights come on we see with absolute glee that the entire cinema is empty besides us. We run through the aisles like kids.

We go out for meals together; the sisters, their family and I. They speak Swedish a bit and I don’t mind so much but it seems to highlight the way I don’t belong here. Like I’m just an extra in a film, not really a part of the story but there anyway.

The girls are playing at a festival in Birmingham. Wherever we go I wear a band around my wrist that reads ‘artist.’ It’s my ticket to everywhere but I’m not really playing. I’m just a small girl with a camera who no one knows. I feel like the crew don’t understand why I’m here.

I’ve never felt this way. On commercial and fashion shoots my job is to lead and my vision is important. But here I am shooting photojournalism and as a photographer, my place in the heirachy of the music world is much different to the fashion world.

I have to be a ghost here. To step into the shadows or to step on toes to get the images I need. Often people will talk to the girls but never meet my eye. The camera around my neck is a cloak of invisibility.

But when I’m just with the girls things are different. We’re equals. Eventually I begin to find comfort in the invisibility and the lack of pressure. Grateful for the way I can wander around a festival unseen where they would be swarmed by fans.

Apart from the silent battle with my ego, life feels so good here. In the loud moments it’s exciting and fascinating and in the quiet moments I dream of coming home to Alba and Bee. I daydream about everyday life beside them. Going grocery shopping, running baths for Alba, baking, late night conversations, park trips and being home. These mundane things excite me like nothing else.

They play Forecastle Festival. I wander through crowds melting under the sun until I’m near the front. I watch the girls play up on the big stage and Johanna sees me and grins. I grin back. The girl beside me screams over the music to her friend, “Oh my god, oh my god, Johanna just smiled at me, did you see that?!” And while they’re freaking out I’m giggling.

We’re at the hotel lobby drinking cocktails and Christian (from The Tallest Man on Earth) is asking Klara & I how we met. Klara tells him she followed my blog for five years before she invited me to a show. She says when I replied it was a big deal. I might feel small sometimes here, but I know to Klara I’m not.

We go to a dive bar with the band. It’s rough and drinks are cheap, it’s perfect. Klara is singing along to the songs she’s chosen on the jukebox and says we should go to a karaoke bar after this.

When she steps onto stage I look around at everyone. No one is really watching and I’m smiling because I know in a second they will be. Klara belts out Adele and the room gets loud as everyone cheers.

But then I have to follow her up and my cheeks are burning and I’m wondering what kind of insane person does karaoke with the lead singer of their favourite band anyway? But actually it’s just Klara and she’d love me regardless. So I get up there and sing a love song I used to sing as a teenager. When I finish she tells me, “Nirrimi! You need to sing!” and I take it to heart.

We go to another bar and when boys come up to us while we’re dancing we pretend we’re engaged to each other. We get back to our hotel room at 4am and when we’re in bed and the lights are off I tell Klara I love her and I mean it.

It’s midnight in Columbus and we’re hungry. We walk through a big park with old streetlights talking about how we’ve hurt the people we love. We bring home lucky charms and almond milk and eat cereal in our hotel bed watching American talkshows. I write in my journal, “I am so fucking happy. Every single day. I can’t even remember what it’s like to be sad. I want to bottle up this joy to keep forever.”

They play a show in a big theatre in the forest. The air smells so good I want to run out into the trees and soak it all in. I watch from the very front and centre. My hair is messy and I’m wearing the same clothes as yesterday but it doesn’t matter. There are hundreds of people behind me and yet it feels like it’s only us.

I’m growing used to life on the road. I’m home in the feeling of the bus moving at night, accustomed to the rhythm of packing and unpacking my backpack. The back of the bus feels like my writing space and I write with a blanket draped around me until late. I write blog posts, short stories and a script for a -short film- my friend is directing.

I’m a part of the Söderberg family now. I call their parents mama and papa and I kiss their little brother on the head as though he’s my little brother. I’m not an extra any longer, now I’ve found my place in this story.

We’re staying in a tiny motel in Salem, Virginia when Johanna tells us she wants to take photos in a bath full of fruit loops. It’s so silly and slimy that we all end up laughing and in that rainbow mess of a moment I almost never want to go.

In Floyd the girls are doing a radio interview. They’re asked about the times they played for Patti Smith, Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris. They act like it’s not much of anything, they always do. Their feet seem so firmly planted on the earth they are knee deep in the dirt.

One minute we’re telling bad jokes in Southern accents and acting out goofy scenes and the next the girls are playing in front of so many people it’s hard to tell where they end. Like ordinary girls playing the parts of superstars and dreaming of home.

Things aren’t always good. Johanna loses her voice, some equipment breaks, the girls argue, things go wrong. When I’m telling someone about Alba I find myself in tears in the middle of a sentence. But life is moving too fast to get caught up in negativity.

We fall asleep in one city and wake up in another.

I’m in Camden, New Jersey. I can see Philadelphia’s skyline across the river. Nylon magazine are interviewing the girls. “What’s the wildest thing that’s happened so far on this tour?” they ask. Klara looks to me smirking and says, “Nirrimi, what’s the craziest thing that’s happened?”
We both know we have no hedonistic tales of hotel destruction or drug-fuelled rockstar parties. “One night we had lucky charms for dinner!” I laugh.

When I sit at the table in the festival dressing room my arm gets caught in my camera strap and it falls to the ground. The sound it makes as it hits the tiles makes me sick. My lens is smashed just months after getting it fixed and it’s the only lens I have with me. I cry at the table. A child holding a broken toy.

I think this means it’s over. I don’t have the money to fix it or buy another. I put a post on instagram about it. Within half an hour a girl going to tomorrow’s festival in Newport offers me her lens and another photographer offers me lenses to use from NYC to Chicago. I can breathe. My online community caught me again and I love them.

The Newport Folk Festival is all kinds of wonderful. I watch the girls play from high up where I can see the grounds covered in people like a multicoloured ocean, and then beyond I see water with dozens of little white boats. The image is so poignant to me that I’m desperate to not take it for granted.

Later Klara plays a Bob Dylan cover with Hozier. When I watch her on the big screen I feel so proud. I know this girl now. I saw her write the lyrics across her palm so she wouldn’t forget them, I felt her nervous energy before she stepped on stage. This girl is goofy and loving and always thinks of others before she thinks of herself. There she is in front of thousands and she’s killing it.

At dusk I walk alone down to the river and watch the city lights reflect like bokeh in the water. Life stops for me for a moment so I can catch my breath. I begin another letter to Bee in my head. Later in the tour bus I will switch international roaming on, even though I know it will cost me a fortune, and I will sew together all the pieces of my day and my love into a letter. Just like every night.

We’re driving around New York City in a van and I’m recognising the streets I walked at sixteen and feeling so many worlds away from that me. Maybe in a few years time I’ll be back and feeling distant from this me too. I seem to grow and change so fast. The girls play for CBS morning TV and I come along to the studios with them.

Klara tells me she wants to buy a camera so we take the subway to the biggest camera store I’ve ever seen. There are tracks on the roof where packages are being moved to different counters like little trains. My sentences all run into each other in excitement and we decide on a Canon 7D.

It’s the hottest day of the year and they’re playing a show in Central Park. Catering has great big pizzas that remind me of late night New York City adventures as a teenager. At the after party there are people everywhere, even Meryl Streep is here. I’m swept up again in this feeling of not belonging to this world, I know it’s stupid but I can’t help it. I’m worrying too that I’m not getting the images I need.

Klara senses that I’m down and says, “I’m bored. Let’s go back to the hotel.” We drop off our things and walk the city streets in search of a psychic, but since it’s too late we settle for having pretend lesbian feuds in the street instead. We’re yelling and crying until the urge to laugh is too much that we can’t keep our characters up. New York feels like the only place we can get away with this madness.

In Detroit the air is so hot and so thick I feel like I can barely breathe when I’m walking down the streets. The buildings are mostly boarded up but there is a charm here that I wish I could know. One of the harder parts of touring is we hardly get to know the cities we’re in. Sometimes we’re not even sure what city we are in.

This is the second last show. That realisation makes it hard for me to watch them play at all. But I shrug off the sadness and I go down into the thick of the audience. It’s sweaty and loud and absolutely brilliant. First Aid Kit are headlining. It’s different watching from down here, the energy of all the people dancing and singing around me is contagious.

Johanna is so magical up on stage, all her tenderness and wonder translates into her presence. She throws her long blonde hair into the air as she dances. Klara is full of power. I put down my camera and record it all to memory. This show is my favourite of the entire tour.

Hours later we’re sitting backstage and we look out the window and see all the fans waiting on the street, guitars and records waiting to be signed. “Someone has a ‘marry me Klara’ sign and a tee shirt with your face on it, Klara!” I say in mock-horror.

I stand outside our bus with the two other band members, Scott and Mel. Fans get photographs and autographs from the girls and I watch their faces lit by the endless flashes of cameras. They’re always in the shadows and perhaps that doesn’t bother them, but it makes me feel a great tenderness towards them. It’s maybe 3am when we finally leave.

We’re at Lollapalooza in Chicago. We are driven around the festival in buggies through crowds and crazy little lanes going so fast we’re all clinging onto the sides. Chicago is beautiful. I’m walking in the city with Klara and someone mistakes me for Johanna and it seems so absurd and funny we play along.

When the girls play the last show I am here for, I dance with their mama at the side of the stage. Even after so many shows I’m not tired of hearing them play. I don’t think I could ever be.

Lucidity grips me as it does when chapters finish. The sky is deep blue and buzzing with dragonflies. The city skyline is outlined in bright lights. Klara and Johanna keep giving me these looks and I know they’re feeling the finality like I am. Johanna tells me she misses me already and I wish she wouldn’t because it reminds me that I miss her already. Their mama says, “I feel like I have four children now.”

We watch Paul McCartney play and sing along to ‘Hey Jude’ with the tens of thousands of people spilled out over the lawns. I find a bare spot on the grass and sit, writing letters to these people I’ve come to love. Fire shoots up and lights the stage and then fireworks; a navy sky painted in purples and pinks and yellow shooting stars. The first time I watch it through my camera but the second time I’m there. The sight burned into my memory forever.

When I’m back in the bus I realise this is it. It’s all over. I’m caught between Klara and Johanna and they’re not letting go of me. “Touring won’t be the same without you,” they say. Their mama opens the door and when she sees me she begins to cry. Isak asks me to stay. This is one of the hardest goodbyes of my life.

I jump down from the bus. It’s a movement I’ve grown so used to now. As I walk away Klara and Johanna come out and they yell to me. Things like I love you and I miss you. They’re waving and shouting and I keep looking back to these two girls who feel like my sisters amidst a convoy of tour buses. Then they are gone and I’m left with just the silence of myself and the soundscape of Chicago.

The moment I get into my hotel room I drop my backpack to the floor and all my walls fall down too. It is like I’m living the last three weeks all at once. I am laughing hysterically, shouting, crying, jumping on the bed. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe any of it. Their love still hangs onto me like they never let go. I thought I was sad when I left but now I feel so much closer to Alba and Bee and I am happy. So happy.

I look out the plane window and the sky is bright with stars. They are like little holes poked in the black fabric of the world. It reminds me that I am small. I am just a tiny speck and out there down below are two other tiny specks who wait for me and love me. The greatest little specks I’ve ever known. And I’ll land and be wrapped back up in them all over again. I’m coming home.

 

(These are outtakes from the tour. Full photo series & film coming next.)

We Will – A short film about love

 

‘We Will’ is a little film about two women falling for each other and the highs and lows that accompany the wonderful madness that is love.

It is still illegal for same-sex couples to get married in Australia. Let’s share relatable portrayals of love and help to normalise something that should already be normal.

Directed by: Laura Nagy 

Written by: Nirrimi Firebrace, Samuel Leighton-Dore & Laura Nagy

Actors: Bianca Bradey + Madeleine Withington

Cinematography: Emma Paine // Editing: Nicholas Lever // Still Photography: Samantha Heather // Sound Design: Jay Daly // Song: “Stones” by Bec Sandridge // Production Designers: Nicholas J Ford & Ash Bell // Styling: Julia Rose // Title Designer: Natasha Saba // Camera Assistant: Jac Norton // Bridal Dresses: Kelsey Genna // Stage: Holler & Haul 

 

Playing Mama

July Part One – 2015 

Perth chills me to my bones the moment I step off the plane. It’s made much colder by Bee’s absence. At his house I trace his words on the love letter left behind on the desk. I think of how he was right here in this very chair only days ago writing it. By now he is many towns away, making his way across Australia. I water his plants and I curl up in the empty bed. I can’t get warm. This is what I get for dating a landscape photographer.

Dread finds me and it lays itself over me like a thick blanket. I get Alba back tomorrow. I miss Alba but I don’t have a home for us yet. I can’t stay here while Bee is gone. I feel so unsettled and lost. I’m longing to talk to Bee but when he adventures he rarely has reception. I call Alba’s Papa. As I explain how hopeless I feel I begin to cry. He calms me and says I can stay at his house while he stays with a friend. By the time I hang up things are okay.

His place is small but it’s a home and it’s right by the heart of Fremantle. Alba is so happy to have me back, she’s running around showing me and telling me all kinds of things with this big contagious smile on her face. It hasn’t been so long but I notice new freckles forming across her nose and her golden curls taking on a life of their own, just like mine used to.

This will be the hardest bit, I think. I just have to get through these weeks and then the next time I have her I’ll have a home and we’ll have Bee and we’ll feel settled.

Sometimes raising a toddler is wonderful. While I’m showering Alba kisses me through the glass door, time stands still as her little lips press against mine on the other side. She says “I love you,” and tells me I’m beautiful often and out of nowhere. She is a cat meowing and crawling through the grocery store. She is a princess collecting flowers for a party. She is a dragon hiding in her cave beneath the sheets.

Often, after bedtime stories are finished and we’re cuddling in bed she’ll apologise. “I’m sorry for being grumpy at you today,” she’ll say, or, “I’m sorry for breaking the glass.” And I’ll hug her extra tightly and tell her I understand that she feels a lot, because I feel a lot too. It must be hard to be three.

But sometimes it is challenging. One day we go the markets. She is being so sweet and mamahood feels just the way I’d imagined. I tell Alba she can choose anything she likes for lunch and she chooses a salad. But when she takes the first bite she realises it’s spicy. She reacts by pushing it away and it falls from the table across the ground. She is screaming and crying in my arms and the market is packed. I’m trying to get her to drink some water but she pushes that away too and it spills across me.

I’m trying to calm her and everyone is staring at us. Alba is so loud and it’s just me and if only someone would help but no one ever does and I feel their eyes on me. I imagine they are judging my youth and my mothering and my daughter and I’m trying not to cry but suddenly I can’t help it. So there I am in the middle of a busy market in tears with my toddler screaming at my feet. This isn’t how I imagined it.

On the bus ride home she lays over my lap. “I love you to the moon and back,” I tell her, as I often do. She says, “You too Mama.” The tough moments always highlight the quiet loving moments that follow.

On the walk home from the bus stop we pass some barking dogs. Alba tells me they are talking to her and she stops to bark back. My arms are full of groceries and all I want to do is get home. I’m about to move her along but then decide against it. I let her bark to her heart’s content and when she comes back to hold my hand and tells me what the dogs were saying I realise with regret how often I stop her from being her.

That night Bee drives through the night to find a town big enough to have reception. He’s been exploring Tasmania all alone and he’s not enjoying it as much as he usually does. He’s never had anyone to miss before.

“How would you feel about me flying you and Alba to Tasmania? I could rent us a little place for a few days until you have to leave for America?” I laugh at the insanity of flying all the way there and back for just a few days, but mostly I laugh because he’s the one who is supposed to have it all together and I’m supposed to be the dramatic one.

My baseline every day is joy. I wake up to the sun shining and Alba sleeping beside me. I think of the love in my life. I’m not as afraid as I was and Bee is never entirely gone. I carry him close in the love that fills me, the love that is his and is him. Every night that comes, my last thought is not of wanting him but of being glad to have him.

We stay with my friend Emily who is another young single mama. During the day our toddlers play together and at night we stay up late talking about mamahood and eating too much chocolate. It feels so right to be here. It makes me long for a home even more.

“How about this,” Bee says, “My Mother lives by herself in this big house and she wants to rent out a room. She’s travelling most of the time. It’d just be a little home for you and Alba until we find a home for us?” I think about it.
“It’s weird isn’t it?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, “But I like weird and I really like your Mum. Will you visit?”
“All the time, until you’re sick of me.” And just like that I feel better, I have a plan.

Emily takes me to a friend’s sons’ birthday party. There are parents and children everywhere. I am suddenly struck by the realisation that I don’t have a community and that I don’t feel like a parent. It’s like I’m only pretending and someone will find out any moment that I don’t actually belong here. I’m in the shadows writing in my journal or on my phone, hiding out of shyness, out of the feeling of not belonging.

The nights leading up to leaving Alba are hard. Once she’s fast asleep I find myself tracing her skin and memorising her features. I’m so conscious of her. The sound of her voice, the smell of her hair, the weight of her body and her stories; all of her stories.

I’m grateful Alba isn’t sad when it’s time to swap over. But… though it is hard to admit, there is a small selfish part of me that is hurt by that too. I miss her before she’s even left my sight. My tiny, beautiful girl. How can I ever explain how hard it is to not be there every time she falls over, or to laugh at her jokes, or to braid her hair, or to cook her healthy meals with everything she needs. My greatest job of all is taking care of her and I can’t always be there to do it. But luckily her Papa is, and he does it with just as much love.

Before I leave for the airport I go to Bee’s house and cover his bedroom wall with post-it notes, each with something I love about him. I sit on his bed and I read them one after the other.

I’m leaving for the airport and I am just Nirrimi again. I’m going on tour with my favourite band for nearly three weeks across America. I sling my backpack across my back, it’s all I need, and I’m gone. Off to chase another dream.