On Saturday, F and I trekked out to Readings Carlton to meet a certain idol of his. Author Andy Griffiths, king of the kids thanks to his wicked, Paul Jennings-ish sense of humour … and his wholehearted embrace of bums and toilet gags.
F is a big fan. He reads Andy’s Just series (Just Kidding, Just Annoying, Just Stupid) so often that the books look as if they’ve been buried under a few acres of landfill (which his room DOES sometimes resemble). He reads them on the train, in bed and on the toilet. More often than I’d like, about an hour after bedtime, I’ll open the door to the toilet and there he is, pants around his ankles, frowning intently at a Just book – with the look of a boy who has been hiding out in there for a Very Long Time.
Sunday, we had another engagement F was very much looking forward to: a birthday party for his sometime best friend, A. F had played at A’s house once or twice a week, until A’s mother cut off the play dates ‘until further notice’ a couple of months ago. She said she couldn’t cope with her son’s behaviour when F was over, and she was punishing him by depriving him of F’s company.
My fellow parent had not liked F very much for quite a while. Who could forget such gems as ‘the problem with his personality is …’ (one of them was ‘he reads above his age level’, I kid you not) and her ongoing annoyance that he had told her son where babies come from?
When I got back from overseas, my ever-so-slick ex had wrangled a couple of mothers into helping him out by each having F after school once a week. One of them was a single mother, who was helping him because he told her he was ‘all alone’. I pointed out to her that the Ex has a stay-at-home wife. (‘Oh god’ she said. ‘I never thought of that.’) The other was The Mother.
On my return, I offered to have her son every week for a while, or for the boys to play at each of our houses on alternate weeks. I could somehow sense that she wasn’t up to having F every week. In fact, while I was in Mexico, the Ex had laughingly told me about a few incidents where he would arrive to pick F up and find her having a meltdown over the boys’ behaviour.
The first Wednesday I was back (their old play day), I found F outside A’s classroom, giggling together over AFL trading cards. The Mother was looking slightly panicked by his presence.
‘But I play at A’s house on Wednesdays!’ F protested when he saw me.
‘Not necessarily anymore. We’re going home now.’
‘Can F come and play?’ chorused A and his younger brother. ‘Pleeeeease?’
The Mother smiled, with her mouth but not her eyes. I’d spontaneously taken her boys the previous day because she’d had a headache.
‘Oh, okay’ she said.
The three boys raced ahead to the bike shed. I suggested the alternate weeks idea.
‘YES!’ she said, relieved. ‘Let’s do that. W [her youngest] was playing with A and F in the playground at the start of the year and I was worried and I spoke to his teacher and she said that’s normal, that’s fine for preppies to hang out with older kids they know. Now A is playing with B in the playground instead, so THAT’s good, but W is still playing with F. And he’s been coming home saying rude words ever since he started school and he NEVER did that before. So, yeah, it would be good to, uh, limit the amount they …’
At this point in the monologue it seemed to dawn on her that I wasn’t suggesting the boys only play together every other week, but that they rotate houses. She paused.
‘Yes, okay, let’s do that. Swap houses every week. Okay.’ She sounded like she wasn’t sure how to get out of it. Which I’m sure is exactly what happened between her and my Ex.
I bolted home across the park. I had mountains of work to do and I was (really truly) all alone for a month with F. I planned to make use of my newly gifted time to get through some work. As I sat down at my computer, the phone rang. I let it go through to the answering machine, listening to see if it was something I really needed to answer. No one spoke.
At 6pm, I arrived at the Mother’s front gate, as arranged. Our two small, fluffy white dogs yapped piercingly at my side. Her waist-high black dog barked back menacingly from behind the gate, lurching its great head through the bars to gnash its teeth at us. I stood there, shouting ‘F! I’M HERE!’
The Mother arrived and escorted Kujo into the house. She scurried back to the fence.
‘Oh GOD’ she huffed. ‘I called you as soon as I got home to say I’m sorry, I can’t do this, and ask you to pick him up. But you obviously weren’t there yet.’
‘Well, it wasn’t REALLY his fault.’
Apparently, A offered F his bike to ride home. F rode it. A started screaming and wailing that he wanted his bike. They caught up to F, who was waiting further across the park. A screamed that he wanted his bike. F said no, he gave it to him. The Mother said to A ‘no, I heard you give it to F, you can’t take it back.’
‘But, you know, he really could have given it to him anyway’ she said to me now. ‘He could see how upset he was. But anyway …’
A screamed all the way to the end of the park, where F waited to cross the road to A’s street. He offered A the bike. A screamed no. ‘But I wanted to ride it HOME FROM SCHOOL!’ he apparently wailed. ‘We’re NEARLY HOME now!’ And then once inside, he didn’t want to share his toys either, the cause of more screaming.
‘A is so HYSTERICAL’ wailed the Mother. ‘He says such NASTY things to me, to get a rise out of me. I don’t know where he gets it from. Neither of US are like that.’
I shake my head and commiserate as F comes out, schoolbag in hand, to join us. W scales the fence as F and A exit through the gate. They’re obviously fine now, all three of them squealing excitedly about nothing much.
‘I think’ said the Mother. ‘That we should not have F over any more. Until further notice. You know, to punish A.’
‘Okay’ I said, probably quite snippily, and stalked off down the street with the dogs straining at their leashes and her two boys following us on scooters.
‘F was bad’ W told me.
‘W’ I snapped. ‘Every time I see you, you tell me F was bad. He never tells me anything bad about you. Maybe he will if you keep doing it. I don’t really want to hear it.’
‘He took my brother’s biiiike’ W drawled, in that sing-song ‘I’m dob-bing’ tone.
I swung on him. Inappropriately. I’m 31, he is five.
‘Well, I heard that your brother gave him the bike. That your brother threw a tantrum about it. It sounds like your brother was naughty.’
F was looking at me with wide eyes.
‘No, he waaaasn’t. It was his bike. F was bad.’
‘He wasn’t, W. And I don’t want to hear it.’ I walked off, ignoring his shouts to the contrary at my back.
F didn’t say anything as we crossed the creek on the path home.
‘You won’t be playing there anymore’ I had to tell him. ‘It’s because of A being naughty, not you.’
Saturday. We are on the train, our first leg of our journey to Readings. We are deciding what to get A for his birthday. I suggest that maybe we should get something at Readings.
‘YES’ says F firmly. ‘Do you know that they don’t have ANY BOOKS? Really, mum. Their bookshelves are full of toys. Toys! A is NOT that into reading. All he reads are COMICS. We MUST get him a book and get him into reading.’
I am amused and tickled and pleased for so many reasons. As a bookworm, it’s nice to be reminded (by his natural enthusiasm) that my son is one of his own volition, not my pushing. As a profound disliker of The Mother, I am bitchily amused by his observation. As his mother, I am amused by his staunch statement. And as a lazy woman embarking on a lazy Saturday, I am pleased that we can kill two birds with one stone at the bookshop.
‘But we can’t get an Andy Griffiths’ says F. ‘[The Mother] hates Andy Griffiths. She says he is inappropriate.’
‘Ah, yes’ I say. ‘Though we could get him The Cat on the Mat is Flat. That’s not rude. It’s just silly.’
‘We’ll get him Maxx Rumble. A is into footy, so he might get into that. And it’s illustrated by Terry Denton. Will he be there? He can sign it!’
‘Oh. I think he is.’
‘Good. That’s settled. Do you know they don’t even get bedtime stories?’ says F, full of seven-year-old scorn. ‘They just get bedtime TOYS.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true. I’m sure they have books. Maybe they’re somewhere else, not in their rooms.’
‘They don’t! I’ve SEEN their house.’
I’m not sure. The Mother is a crazy bitch, but I know she reads.
The children’s buyer at Readings is an old friend. F looks at the table of Terry and Andy books and asks her where the Maxx Rumble books are.
‘You’re so clever!’ she tells him. ‘I forgot about them.’ F fetches them from the shelf, feeling very important, and hands them over, keeping one for himself. He takes a place near the signing table and sits between a couple of 11 and 12 year-old boys. One of the boys clutches a pile of the Just books.
‘Oh. I have them’ says F.
‘I LOVE the Just books’ says the boy. ‘I have the whole series.’
‘Not Just Shocking’ says F. ‘That’s not out yet.’ I don’t know how he knows that. I don’t know that.
‘I KNOW’ breathes the boy. ‘I have the whole series except that one. I HAVE to get it as SOON as it comes out. If I don’t get the whole Just series, if I don’t get Just Shocking, I will DIE. My life WILL NOT be worth LIVING.’
F looks at him in solemn admiration.
‘Me too’ he echoes approvingly. I can barely contain my amusement. This boy is talking exactly like F.
The three boys begin an animated discussion of the ‘bumosaurs’ in the new book and the characters in the Just series. They talk in detail about characters, events and favourite stories. I buy F the new book at the counter and get back just as Andy and Terry arrive.
The boys gaze at them in awe.
F is the star of the show. Or maybe, he's the sideshow. I veer between amused, proud and mortified. I'm not sure how much I should let him be and how much I should urge him to pull his head in. When the kids are asked to demonstrate farts, his is the grossest. He asks questions about ‘the time your sister Jen …’. He suggests Terry add a poo to his picture of a bumosaur. He suggests Terry name a bumosaur after him, inspired after another girl gets the honour. At question time, he shows signs of being one of those incredibly annoying people at writer’s festivals. The ones who make a statement instead of asking a question. ‘I was wondering, the other day I made a new comic about Bum Man. And his power is earthquake farts.’
‘And your question?’ asks Terry.
‘Well, Andy, I wondered if you would write it as a story in Just Shocking?’
When F’s turn comes to have his book sign, Andy greets him by name.
‘This one is for Terry’ F says. ‘It’s for my friend.’ He gets his Bumosaur book signed, then moves over to Terry.
‘Terry, my friend’s mum is NOT IMPRESSED with Andy.’
Terry laughs. A lot.
‘Why is that?’
‘She thinks his books are INAPPROPRIATE.’
Terry laughs more.
‘Tell Andy. Hey Andy.’ He plucks his sleeve. ‘F has something to tell you.’
He repeats his statement. Andy splutters with laughter.
‘I think she sounds inappropriate! No, really, she’s absolutely right. My books ARE inappropriate.’
F goes home happy. So do I.
I tell him many times pre-party NOT to tell The Mother about what Andy Griffiths said about her. And what he said. I can tell he is dying to do it.
Sunday. I remind F as we cross the park not to tell The Mother about Andy. (He is recalling the incident.) I remind him two doors from the house not to tell the Mother about Andy. ‘Yes mum.’ I remind him that there always seems to be trouble here and that he must behave. ‘Yes mum.’
I find another parent lurking at the gate, looking worried. Kujo throws himself at the bars in a frenzy.
‘I’m not goin’ in there with that dog!’ the parent says. ‘I’ll wait ‘til someone comes out.’
‘Yeah, me too’ I concur. I’m sure Kujo doesn’t bite, but he puts on a pretty convincing show.
The Mother soon arrives and pushes the dog inside and out the back.
‘Hi’ she says.
‘Hi’ says F. ‘I went to see Andy Griffiths yesterday!’
I hold my breath. The Mother actually rolls her eyes at me and makes a disapproving face. It’s as if he told her we went to Sexpo yesterday. I am, as always, gobsmacked by the weird lack of social niceties. Who does she think took him to see Andy Griffiths? Why would I join in the disapproval?
‘Oh DID you?’ she says wryly. ‘And was he RUDE?’
F is off down the hallway, thrusting his present at his friend. Crisis averted. For now.
Another mother, dressed gaily in Bulldogs colours, breezes out the door, after arranging that she will pick her son up when the game finishes.
‘So, what time do I pick him up?’ I ask. I always ask this question when I drop him off anywhere, just to make sure I’ve got it right. But it seems I’m being confronting.
‘Well, B’s mum is coming at the end of the footy, so late in the afternoon. And the other kids … well, some of them are staying later and … The party finishes at three. Pick him up at three.’
She could have just said ‘three’.
I arrive to pick F up at 3pm. There’s no dog at the gate, so I am able to ring the doorbell. The Mother sweeps me down the hallway. A huddle of boys in football jumpers are watching TV. All except F, who is nowhere to be seen. They swing to look at me.
‘F said a bad word’ says A.
‘Okay’ I reply.
I give The Mother a questioning look.
‘I think he might be upstairs’ she says. ‘In A’s room.’ I nod at her and climb the stairs. The door is locked. I knock. No answer. I call his name. The Mother is behind me. She pokes a wire into the lock, as if she’s done it a million times before. F stands glowering at the door, arms crossed.
‘I have had the worst day in my entire life’ he grunts.
‘What’s wrong F?’ asks the Mother, bending to look at him and putting her hand on his arm. ‘Don’t exaggerate.’
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘What’s up?’ I ask, a sinking feeling in my stomach.
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘We can’t help you if you don’t talk,’ she coos.
‘We’ll talk on the way home.’ I take F by the hand and lead him downstairs. He says a grumpy goodbye to his friend, under duress. A waves cheerily back at him. He gets his lolly bag. The Mother follows us to the door, and then the gate. I say as little as I can without being rude.
‘What happened?’ I ask.
They had a fight over footy cards. A said his were lame. He said they weren’t. They shouted at each other.
‘And you said a rude word?’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said B was an idiot.’
‘That’s the rude word?’
‘Did you get sent to time out?’
‘[The Mother] sent you up there?’
‘How long had you been there?’
‘Not that long.’
‘Was [The Mother] very angry?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She told me never to use that word again.’
The Mother has told me that her own mother used to call her stupid and an idiot and that she never wants to hear those words in her house.
I was pissed off. I admit that I have no sense of what’s reasonable where this woman is concerned now. To use a cliché, I’m a lioness with her cub. I know The Mother doesn’t like F and I can’t trust anything she says about him because she is biased. Any other parent, any other house, and F would get a talking to. I have no problem whatsoever, in principle, with any other adult telling F off or putting him in time out. As it is, I brushed it off. I’m sick of the ritual of punishment on the way home from A’s house. I told him I don’t think it’s a big deal. I told him I’m more concerned with how he treats people than the words he uses (I know – not always true) and that though he shouldn’t have fought with B, it sounds like there were a few people at fault. I asked him if anyone else was told off. He said no.
We walked to the supermarket and did some grocery shopping. When we got home, I made him a hot Milo with three marshmallows and cooked roast for dinner, with lots of roast potatoes. We watched The Simpsons together (VERY inappropriate, I’m sure).
The Mother has been avoiding me after school since I got back from overseas. Which I have appreciated, actually. Today, she was all over us.
‘HI F. HI there.’ Some white noise about her after school plans. Me, too pissed off to actually listen. All my conscious attention on not being rude. ‘Have you recovered from yesterday F?’
As we walked down the road from the school, she chattered to our dogs. The Evil One lurched at her, barking. F looked her in the eye.
‘He doesn’t like you,’ he said.