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Still Life With Children
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Still Life With Children

Chapter One - A Present for Me

Call Me Dad. I'm a regular hail-fellow-well-met, kingdom for-a-horse kind of guy with four small children who light up my life but nevertheless manage to occupy a fair amount of my - Not now, honey, Daddy's busy, and could you please take that out of your mouth... if you see what I mean. Thea and Sam are the oldest. They're twins, almost seven years they've been together and they have yet to agree on anything except that bedtime comes too early and dessert too late. Imogen is four, something between a princess and a dervish, and Ed is two, something between a nine-volt battery and an Act of God. My wife goes under her own name. I stay home with the children while she dashes all over the continent, but don't be fooled by frequent-flyer points, I'm the real traveler - expand my horizons without leaving the neighborhood, punch a hole in the envelope every time someone has a dentist's appointment, live the adventure in my own kitchen.

That's where I am when the phone rings. I'm making dinner - actually I'm bouncing Ed up and down on my shoulders and trying not to move my feet while I check on the pizza. I don't want to bounce too hard and flip Ed into the oven, or step on Imogen, who has wriggled across the linoleum to twine herself about my ankles, or overcook the pizza. It should have been done fifteen minutes ago, but this is a Friday and on Fridays our oven takes longer to do things. On Tuesdays and Sundays it burns things - also on holidays. On Saturdays we warm something up on top of the stove, or order in. When the phone rings I have to move fast. I close the oven door, reach for the cookies, stuff one into Ed's mouth, bend over while he slithers off, hold out another cookie for Immie, step out of her fearsome grasp and walk calmly to the phone.

That's great! I say. We'll see you soon. Love you too.

Sam wanders up from the basement, where he has been panning unsuccessfully through a river of toys to find the one he wants. You know the one, he tells me, his lower lip thrust out. The little pink elephant with the trunk that goes up and down, only it doesn't because it's broken. One of the feet is broken too, and the tail. You know the one, Dad. Don't you?

I shake my head, a non-verbal lie. I threw the toy out a few weeks ago when I came upon it suddenly while vacuuming. Mom will be home for dinner after all, I tell him. Isn't that great? He stares accusingly at me. Does he suspect me? The guilty flee where no boy pursueth. Mom was home last night, he says.

Thea's eyes brighten at the prospect of her mom coming home. She'll be able to see your present! she tells me. I've been hearing about this present ever since Tuesday. This is Thea's first week in Grade One and already she's made something for me. I'm touched. Sam is elaborately untouched. It's his first week in Grade One too, and all he's made is a name for himself. See him, I hear kids whisper to each other in the schoolyard as we walk past. That's Ed's brother - Ed having made an even bigger name for himself by hiding in the nine o'clock line-up with the other children and, while I was searching frantically through the schoolyard, somehow finding himself in the front row of the Grade Four class, saying, Good morning, Miss Thompson.

Thea is on fire to show me the present. She and I have had a guessing game about it already this afternoon. I've discovered that it is small enough to hold in my hand and that it doesn't make a noise - Unless you drop it, then it makes a falling noise. Thea is very literal. Imogen asked the first question she asks about everything from breakfast cereals to beachballs these days - Is it red? Thea's answer was, Only a little bit is red. And another bit is yellow.

I can only think of one thing. Is a bit of it green? I ask, wondering if she's made me a traffic light. She's driven with me often enough. Maybe she feels I need a reminder, something to study. But Thea, having pondered deeply, shakes her head. None of it is green.

We're all together in the kitchen, minutes away from dinner, and I'm not dashing around distractedly. What an opportunity for family hygiene. Wash your hands, I say. Thea's face wrinkles up. I hope she isn't going to make a fuss because there's no time for explanations here, handwashing is a guerrilla action, a quick in-and-out, a raid on Entebbe, compared with bedtime, which is more like the battle of the Somme. What's for dinner?
she asks me suddenly. I know that smell. I open the oven door. Celery sticks and corn on the cob and milk and bananas and cookies, I say, reaching inside, and overcooked pizza. I take the smoking pan out of the smoking oven and close the door quickly. What I can't smell doesn't need cleaning.

Septmeber is the start of the new year. I know there are calendar years and tax years, years of revolution, years of the dragon and the sheep, fiscal years and pig's years that you can't make silk purses out of - but for me, ever since I reached the age of four, the year has always started after Labor Day. Everything is new again then - the sharp pencils, the clean white notebooks, the nearby faces, the shoes. Babies grow up in September. They go off in the morning without you, and when you pick them up at noon they aren't babies any more. It's been a while since I was in school, but September is still the axis of my life. The pull of nostalgia is strongest then, the feelings of possibility - this year I'll be in the marching band, do a dislocate on the rings, find out what on earth a logarithm really is, ask Genevieve Mathis if she'd like to, you know, walk home together. This year I'll learn how to make pie crust, toilet train Ed, do my Christmas shopping early, remember everyone's dental appointments, get the porch repaired, win the lottery and find the perfect cottage. Possibilities.

The evenings are starting earlier than they used to. The last of the sunset catches the glass of our front door as it opens with a squeal which is echoed by the children. Mom's home!
Sam and Thea dash down the narrow passage to the front hall. Imogen takes the detour through the living room. Ed bellows from under the tap until I let him go, and he takes off after the others. He's a hefty little guy with twinkling ankles, he doesn't run so much as bounce on the tips of his toes, looks like Babe Ruth on the basepaths.

No Matter how often I see it I love the scene in the hall, my wife knocked over by a creaming wave of children in the high tide of welcome, her stem, worldly business face dissolving into the smiling, loving one I know better. Isn't that great! she says, bending down. No, did you really? and Good for you! She scatters kisses and squeezes, and climbs to her feet. Her clothes look five years older than they did a minute ago but she sure doesn't.

Guess what? Imogen shouts the latest news bulletin up at her. Dinner is all burned. Dad called the oven a nasty name. And then we had to wash our hands. My wife has a smile for me too. The celery sticks aren't burned, I say.

Dinnertime follows its predictable pattern, I find myself more involved in Ed's food than my own. Tonight it's egg salad and celery - no it isn't, it's egg salad and carrots - no, com niblets. No. Ed isn't fond of vegetables. He eats his egg salad. I don't know why I let Ed get away with not eating his vegetables. At his age Sam and Thea had them twice a day or starved. You work so hard to get everything right for the first child and, by the fourth, you take a halfhearted shot and then give up. If Ed wanted a martini I'd probably start by saying no and end up asking him if it was dry enough and would he like an olive with it. Only of course he wouldn't want an olive because it's a vegetable - unless, like so many other things we thought were vegetables, it's really a fruit.

The most surprising foods are coming out of the closet these days, declaring themselves to have been fruit all along. I wasn't that surprised about tomatoes and avocados. I knew they were fruit, they didn't ever try to be anything else. But cucumbers - I was shocked when I found out - and zucchini too. Not that I mind, some of my favorite foods are, well, fruity, it's just that zucchini and cucumbers look so very much like ... vegetables. I'd never suspected, but there they were on the front page of the supermarket flyer - Fruits of the Season - and I shook my head and thought, You just never know. I made sure my carrots were safely bagged, I tell you.

I've drifted off topic. I seem to need a lot of sea room under my literary lee, possibly because I float so lightly on the water, possibly because I'm such a poor sailor. After dinner my wife takes Ed upstairs for a meaningful moment - diaperful anyway - and I tidy away the dishes and wipe the counters and the table, and then wash the floor to make sure I've got every crumb. While I'm at it, I do the baseboards and vacuum the downstairs and hang the tapestries I wove during naptime and finish scoring my concerto and dash off a proposal to the UN because really that situation in central Africa is taking too long to solve. Ah, fantasy is wonderful stuff. What I really do is stack the dishes in the sink and pick up fossilized bread pills and com niblets from under Ed's chair. Thea stops me from tidying up any more and tells me I have to sit on the couch. She has a surprise for me, she says. A present.

She hands over a small flat rectangle, about the size and weight of a license plate. What do you think it is, Daddy? she asks coyly, but with a big grin. Imogen trots over and asks if she can help. We pull at the wrapping paper together. From the doorway Sam says very casually, It's a yearbook.

Thea swells up like a balloon and chases her twin brother out of the room shouting, Quiet, Sam! I pretend not to hear. I wonder what it can be? I say. It's well and truly wrapped. Immie gets some tape on her hands and we have to pause and get it off. Come on, Dad, says Thea. Sam, from behind the couch in the living room, calls, It's a yearbook.

SAM! Thea's starting to get upset. There there, honey, I say.

My wife comes in, carrying Ed. He has his angelic moments, soft and cuddly, but this isn't one of them. He squirms until she lets him down, and he makes a beeline for the tape on the floor, picks it up and can't get rid of it. So, what do you think of your yearbook? my wife says. Isn't it great?

Thea puts her hands on her hips. MOM!

He hasn't opened it yet, calls Sam. Mom puts a hand to her mouth. Imogen starts to giggle. Ed has the tape off his hands now. It's stuck to his foot instead. He pulls at it and sticks it back on his hands. Open the present, my wife tells me. Before we all die.

Imogen and I tear and tear. The wrapping paper comes off in spaghetti strips. Isn't this exciting, I say. I can't bear the suspense. What do you think the present is, Ed? He's busy sticking tape on himself. Yearbook, he answers without looking up. Thea sits down and starts to cry. At last, all the wrapping is off. Well, I say, look at that. I hold it up. DAD'S YEARBOOK, it says on the front cover. Red and yellow, as advertised. Not green. Isn't that beautiful! Thank you, Thea. Thank you very much.

She brightens instantaneously. Her emotional weather system is one of those speeded-up satellite photos you see on the nightly news. It's hard to nurse a storm when you're already in the middle of a sustained ridge of high pressure, and anyway the latest in sports is coming up after this commercial break. The whole class is making yearbooks. We're going to write stories and draw pictures in them every week. I asked Miss McQueen if I could make a yearbook for you because I know you write stories too. And she said yes, so I got extra sheets of paper and made your yearbook and put on the wrapping she says all this very fast, her face an inch from mine - I helped, Sam interrupts, and I thank him quickly. SAM! yells Thea. I was going to say that.

I pick her up to give her a big hug. Thank you, I say again. It's one of the very best presents I ever got. I can hardly wait to start writing in it.

Her face falls apart faster than a superhero landing on the piano keys. Poor Batman, it happened yesterday - one arm is still jammed behind middle C. What's wrong? I ask her. She buries her head in my neck. I don't want you to write in the yearbook, she says. I don't want the pages to get messy.

Oh.

It's not really a book, she says. It's a present. This makes perfect sense to all the other kids. They nod. They've given us presents before. Presents are for admiring - for putting on the fridge or putting in a bowl or putting away in a special drawer. Fair enough.

That night, after bathtime and story time and bedtime and drink-of-water time and back-to-bed time and whimper time and cuddle time and back-to-bed time and by-the-way time and get-back-to-bed-this-instant time and Daddy-I've-spilled time and if-I-have-to-go-up-these-stairs-once-more time much later that night, I take Thea's present out of the special drawer in my desk and admire it again. DAD'S YEARBOOK.

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Excerpted from Still Life With Children by Richard Scrimger Copyright © 1997 by Richard Scrimger Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

 

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