The paediatrician pinches a wad of baby flesh and plunges her syringe into the right thigh of an unsuspecting George.
A couple of seconds of silence while George’s bottom lip sticks out and he fixes me with a reproachful stare. Then, tears squirting from his eyes, he opens his mouth wide and lets rip a bellow that echoes around the small consulting room, the corridor outside, and probably the waiting room as well.
Undeterred, Dr. Lowell picks up another syringe and sticks it in George’s left thigh. The bellows treble.
“I can give Elizabeth her shots now, as well,” she says, as she presses a small, circular Band-Aid over each pinprick. “She also should have had them several weeks ago.”
The last time I fell for this trick and had both twins vaccinated on the same day, I didn’t sleep for three nights, while I paced around the bedroom with one or the other feverish, grizzling baby. Our usual doctor, the lovely Dr. Wong, who is out sick today with a nasty dose of flu, learned from this. She would never make such a silly suggestion.
“I’d rather deal with just one at a time, thanks. We’ll come back next week. I doubt Beth’s going to catch hepatitis B by then.”
Dr. Lowell reaches for another vial and needle as if she hasn’t heard me. “Best to get it over with,” she says. “If you could just take Elizabeth out of the stroller and undress her—”
Dr. Lowell doesn’t have children. She has a chihuahua. I’ve seen her on Main Street, carrying it around in a wicker shopping basket, dressed in a little pink doggie sweater — pooch, that is, not paediatrician. The Coffee Posse warned me long ago that I should avoid this doctor if possible.
Today, thanks to Dr. Wong’s flu, it wasn’t possible.
“No,” I say, more firmly. Instead of unbuckling Beth from the pushchair, I strap George in beside her.
George’s roars have diminished to hiccuping whimpers. I stroke his head and tell him he’s a brave boy and that he can have some ice cream when we get home.
“He’s fat enough already.” The doctor throws the needles in the sharps bin, and snaps off her blue latex gloves.
I’m not sure I’ve heard right. “Excuse me?”
“Childhood obesity is a real problem. He’s already at the 95th percentile for weight. And you need to watch the weight of your older son, too. Neither of them need ice cream.”
Enough. This doctor visit is over. I wheel the pushchair through the doorway, grazing the paint on the door jamb in my rage.
“And I don’t need a chihuahua fashion expert pretending to be Jillian Michaels,” I tell her. “Come on, Jack. Let’s you and me and the twins go to Baskin Robbins and pig out.”
* * *
“And then, the old witch says my boys are fat and they don’t need any ice cream,” I say to Maggie. “So here we are with a gallon of full fat chocolate brownie ice cream to share with you while you tell me all about your holiday.”
We didn’t go to Baskin Robbins, in the end. We went to the supermarket to buy Maggie’s favourite flavour to share with her. She came back from the Seychelles yesterday and I was dying to hear all about it.
Maggie scoops the ice cream into three dishes, and gives the small one to Jack. The largest one she gives to me, because I have to share mine with the twins. Then she pulls a dog bowl out from under the kitchen sink, fills it with a can of premium dog meat, and gives it to Fergus, who is watching her every move with an adoring expression.
He never looks at me like that. Perhaps this would be a good time to approach the subject of her keeping Fergus indefinitely.
“Nothing like ice cream for de-stressing, I find,” Maggie says, shovelling in a mouthful and closing her eyes.
I’m guessing she’s not talking about my own post-doctor stress levels. I’ll mention Fergus another time.
“Was it so hard, spending five days on a tropical island?” I ask.
Another spoonful. Maggie nods.
“I was there as a witness.”
Blimey. I didn’t expect that. Witness to what, I wonder? Drug deals? I’ve heard rumours of Maggie’s hippie past, and there’s sometimes a suspicious whiff of ‘herbal cigarettes’ on her back porch, but this was different. Dangerous, even. You hear about people giving evidence then ending up in neat little dismembered parcels in the bowels of New York’s sewers.
“Will you have to move, or change your identity, or anything like that?” I’d hate to lose my friend just because some drug cartel had it in for her.
Maggie wrinkles her nose and squints at me. “What do you mean?”
“You know — like witness protection.”
Maggie puts her spoon down in her dish. She laughs, and laughs some more. She picks the spoon up, but has to put it down again because she’s still laughing.
On one hand, I’m pleased because I’ve amused Maggie and made her laugh. Laughter is better than ice cream for stress busting. On the other hand, I’m really offended.
“What did I say?” I ask, when she’s quiet at last.
“I wasn’t a witness to a crime,” she says. “I was a witness to a wedding. One of those barefoot beach weddings. My daughter’s.”
And that’s all she would say about it.
But I surmised that, for Maggie at least, it wasn’t a happy occasion.
* * *
As I zip Jack and the twins up into their coats to walk the couple of hundred yards to our house, Maggie says, “You know — don’t take this the wrong way, but that miserable doctor might not have been entirely wrong. You’re struggling to fasten Jack’s zip.”
Et tu, Maggie?
“The zip is stiff, and Jack is not obese. Thank you.” I’d like to say more, but I need to ask her soon if she will take Fergus off my hands. It wouldn’t do to ruin a beautiful friendship at this point.
“No, I didn’t say he was.” She hesitates. “But he’s…hefty, isn’t he? Heftier than he used to be.”
Maggie shouldn’t go on tropical vacations if it makes her this argumentative. I have a perfectly good mother-in-law available if I want to be insulted.
“Even if he is–” I say “— and he’s not — children need it for their growth spurts. They can’t be expected to follow the standard growth charts all the time.”
Maggie holds up her hands, palms outwards, in a “peace” gesture. “Of course not. Anyway, it’s none of my business. Do forgive me, my dear. Tell me, did they like my Christmas presents?”
“They loved them,” I say, stalling for time. They had so many presents from fond grandparents that I can’t instantly recall what Maggie gave them.
“Handpainted, those boxes are. A relic from the time I owned the craft store in Main Street.”
A-ha! Exquisite little wooden boxes with hinged lids, painted with trains and cars for the boys, and fairies and toadstools for Beth. No wonder I couldn’t remember them instantly — I hadn’t seen them since Boxing Day.
“They’re absolutely beautiful,” I say, quite sincerely. “The children loved them. I’ve put them away safely for now, of course,” I add, crossing my fingers behind my back.
Maggie nods. “A good idea.” She opens the front door and looks outside at the descending clouds. “You’d better go before this mist turns to rain. Where’s Fergus…I might have known, in the kitchen, asking for more food! I don’t know where he puts it. Anyone would think he was never fed. Don’t forget to take the rest of your ice cream with you.”
“You keep it,” I say, having just caught sight of my post-Christmas reflection in Maggie’s full-length hallway mirror.
As children, dog, and I hurry home through the rain, I reflect sourly that one member of the family won’t have to diet this January, and can eat as much as his canine heart desires.
Another reason — the final straw, even — why Fergus has to go.
* * *
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Image: Travel – Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net