I really don’t want to make this phone call. But I dial the number anyway.
The phone picks up at the other end, a child answers, and I’m about to launch into a high-pitched, nervous Hello-is-your-mommy-there routine when I realise it’s not a real child but one who’s been recorded in a message.
“Hiiiiiii….. This is the Addisons’ house.” (A breathy sigh and some adult promptings in the background.) “Say your number and — and — who you are and my mommy will call you.” (Another pause and more prompts.) “Or my daddy. But not Sammy, because he’s a cat and he can’t talk.” Beep.
Crystal’s parents probably love this message. However (and look away now if you’re easily shocked) I don’t find other children as cute as their parents do. Not that I’d ever admit it, of course. It would mean social suicide for Jack if his mother didn’t openly consider his little friends to be “precious” or “adorable.”
“This is Libby Patrick,” I say. Ugh. Leaving messages, for me, is almost as bad as listening to those recorded by nauseating five-year-olds. “Your daughter gave a gift to my son at nursery school. You might be missing an item from your model car collection.” I give my cell phone number and hang up.
Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Certainly, it will be a picnic compared to the next stage of the gift-returning process, which is the extraction of a red, collectible, model car from Jack’s sticky grasp.
I find Jack in his bedroom, making soft vroom-vroom noises and scooting the Ferrari around his Lego table.
“Sweetheart,” I say, bending down to his level, Supernanny-style. “Would you like to go to the toy shop? Maggie’s coming over later for tea. We could all go out together and buy a new toy car for you.”
Yes, I know. Total coward. A stronger woman would explain the situation and firmly tell Jack he must give the Ferrari back to his little girlfriend. No bribes, no tantrums, no more cars to add to his already expansive Hotwheels collection.
Jack looks up from his impromptu racetrack. “Another car?”
“So I get two cars today?” His voice rises an octave in excitement at his good fortune.
I consider my next words carefully. They could mean the difference between peace on earth and Armageddon in New England.
“Well, yes. But not at the same time.”
Jack narrows his eyes at me.
“I mean –” I flounder “– I’ll buy you another car, but we have to give this one back to Crystal.”
Jack picks up the car and hugs it protectively. “No.”
“She shouldn’t have given it to you. It belongs to her daddy, and now we have to give it back, but I know you’re disappointed, and I’ll buy you another car to make up for it.”
A nice one, I think, although not one that goes for 150 bucks on eBay, but Jack is having none of it.
“No! It’s MINE! Go AWAY!”
He hugs the car even tighter and throws himself on the floor in the foetal position. This is what comes, I think, of letting him watch American football all winter.
Come on, Libby. WWSD? What Would Supernanny Do?
Probably not what I do next, which is wrench the car from his hands and put it on the top shelf of his bookcase. He jumps to his feet, ineffectually trying to reach it down again, and calls me something that I can only imagine he’s learned from lip-reading football coaches on TV when the opposing team scores a touchdown.
“You do not speak to Mummy like that,” I say, wagging a finger at him and trying to keep my voice low and authoritative while disguising my shock at his new vocabulary.
“Yes I do!” Jack roars. “You took my car!”
He aims a kick at my shins. A four-year-old shouldn’t be able to inflict much damage, but this one is still wearing his Timberland boots and has accurate aim. I’m sure the Patriots would be interested in having him on the team one day, but right now –
“You little git,” I mutter through gritted teeth. “You want to play football? Let’s do timeout.” I take him by the shoulder and propel him through the bedroom door to the Naughty Spot outside the linen closet. “Sit there. Five minutes, and don’t you dare move.”
I go downstairs to attend to the twins, and Jack sits, cross-legged and seething but subdued, outside the linen closet.
I’ll give it to Supernanny, this Naughty Spot technique really works.
* * *
As I finish filling the twins’ sippy cups, my cellphone rings. It’s Crystal’s mum, who sounds confused when I tell her we have an item that might belong to her but, upon checking the display cabinet in her TV den, gasps and confirms there is a gap that should be filled by a small Ferrari. She would appreciate its return before Crystal’s daddy notices, she says. Her tone indicates that it’s all Jack’s fault and that he’s coerced her daughter into stealing.
“While you’re on the phone,” she says, “may I ask — are the crackers that Jack gave Crystal gluten-free?”
It’s my turn to be confused now. “Crackers?”
“Yes, crackers. They look like animal crackers but darker. She’s allergic to wheat, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, turkey, and soy, so I need to check what’s in them before she eats them.”
It’s amazing the child eats anything at all. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Jack gave Crystal two pencils. Not animal crackers.”
“Maybe they came from the school party, then,” she says. “But the wooden box was definitely from Jack.”
Box? I rummage through Jack’s backpack before answering. Beth’s wooden box from Maggie, that Jack took in for show-and-tell, is not there.
“Does it have pictures of fairies and toadstools, by any chance?” I ask.
* * *
Crystal’s mum was quite unreasonable. Apparently, it was OK for me to traumatise Jack by taking her husband’s toy Ferrari away from him, but not OK for her to traumatise Crystal by taking Beth’s box from her. “But your little girl is only a baby — how will she know?” she said at one point in the conversation. Finally, grudgingly, she agreed to return the box, but only when I hinted I might put Hubby’s little car on eBay.
I’m still fuming half an hour later when Maggie arrives, bearing a box of homemade cookies.
“I thought we could have these with our tea. Jack loves cookies,” she says, looking round. “Cookies, biscuits, whatever he likes to call them. Where is Jack, anyway? Still at school?”
I slap my forehead.
“Still in timeout.” Supernanny recommends a minute on the Naughty Spot for each year of a child’s age, so according to my timeout calculations, Jack by rights should have started male menopause.
I creep upstairs, thoroughly ashamed. “Jack,” I call. “It’s OK, sweetheart, you can get off the Naughty Spot now. Mummy’s so sorry…Jack?”
Jack has already taken the initiative and vacated the punishment space. I look in his room, expecting to see him playing with Ironman and Captain America, but he’s not there. He’s not in the bathroom, or the twins’ room, or our bedroom.
“I can’t find him,” I say to Maggie, hearing the panic in my own voice. “He’s just — gone.”
“He can’t be. Think. Where did you leave him?” she asks, as if he’s a bag of shopping or my reading glasses.
I point. “On the landing, by the linen closet. But he’s not upstairs–”
Maggie ignores me and tiptoes up the stairs. I follow. She stops by the linen closet, turns and puts a finger to her lips, then quickly opens the closet door.
Squeezed onto one of the shelves, concertinaed into a space far smaller than I’d ever thought possible, is Jack. He has cookie crumbs smeared all round his mouth and down the front of his T-shirt, and looks very happy.
I’m too relieved at seeing him to be cross that he’s eating between meals. On the other hand, all cookies and snacks have been banished to the top shelf of the pantry where he can’t reach them, so—
“What are you eating?” I demand.
Jack, I can see, is trying to hide something under the pile of pillowcases he’s sitting on. I reach into the closet, under the pillowcases, and pull out a box.
A varnished wooden box, painted with trains and cars, the one Maggie gave him for Christmas. I reach under the linens again and pull out another box. George’s. They’re both heavier than I remember, and they rattle.
I open one, and then the other.
They’re full of cookies: the animal cracker-type cookies that Crystal’s mum had described.
“Did you get these cookies at school today?” I ask Jack.
He unfolds himself from the shelf and squirms free. After a pause, he nods.
I’m getting to know that pause-then-nod technique. It means he’s telling fibs.
“Did you take them from the pantry?” I ask. “Did you climb on a chair and take these cookies from the snack shelf?”
Because the thing is, these cookies look familiar.
Jack shakes his head vigorously. He’s not fibbing. He mutters something.
“Excuse me?” I lean down to hear him better.
“I said they’re biscuits not cookies.”
“Don’t push your luck, sunshine. Stop contradicting me.”
Maggie holds up her hand. “Let me see.”
After a quick glance, she says: “Jack’s right. They’re not cookies, they’re biscuits.”
“They look like animal crackers to me,” I say.
“In a manner of speaking, I suppose they are,” she says. “They’re Fergus’s special canine-celiac dog biscuits.”
* * *
In the kitchen, I read the empty packet of Fergus’s dog biscuits that Maggie has fetched from her house. The calorific content is terrifying.
“No wonder Jack’s been putting on weight,” I say. “And no wonder he liked being in timeout so much. It was snack time, with his secret stash under the pillowcases.”
“More to the point, no wonder poor Fergus has been starving.” Maggie strokes Fergus’s head. He gazes up at her, his eyes half-closed. ”But Jack loves these things. He must really like this little girl to give them away to her.”
I put the packet down, and look for the phone.
“That reminds me, I’d better call Crystal’s mum,” I say. ”I should let her know Jack’s present was gluten-free after all.”
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #73
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Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.
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