“Open your mouth, and close your eyes,” Phoebe says in a voice brimming with glee.
”Ew, it’s not one of those grapes, is it?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Very well,” I bend down, close my eyes, and open my mouth. In pops a morsel of withered, cloying sweetness more than halfway to being a raisin.
“Yecch!” I laugh, fishing the thing out and flinging it into the trash.
“It’s a secret grape, it has secret powers,” Phoebe says, offended. “Now, open your mouth and close–”
I shoo her off and resume wearily unpacking the bags of kitchen miscellany we’ve brought back from Maine. The grapes were supposed to have accompanied us on the two-day journey up to New England two-and-a-half weeks ago, but didn’t, and when we got back they were pretty much the only edible thing in the fridge, apart from mustard, which does not go down so well with children as a stand-alone snack. So I brought out the aged grapes, heaps of the wrinkled things, and slowly, over the course of the morning, they have, indeed, been disappearing down three junior-sized gullets. Molly, alas, is missing out; she’s gone to work with my husband in order to finish her gargantuan helping of summer homework in the relative tranquility of a newspaper office.
Paris bounds into the kitchen, rigged up in explorer gear. “What’s for lunch?”
“Bleah!” He sits down cheerfully, plucks a handful, and begins stacking them. “Look, a snowman!” Violet and Phoebe trail back into the kitchen eccentrically draped in scarves and boas; one of the younger children’s first acts upon getting home from a trip away is always to raid the dress-up box.
“A snowman, Violet,” Paris says, “and look, the CN tower.”
“Say, why don’t you spear them on toothpicks,” I suggest, on the sudden urging of my inner craftsman. “You could make sculptures. It’s got to be better than eating them.”
The children goggle at one another, as if to say, “Whatever will she think of next?” and Paris obligingly yells, “Aw, yeah!” Out comes the box of toothpicks and the children set about plucking and spiking.
“I’m making a princess,” Violet says, predictably.
“I’m making a lion,” Paris murmurs, instantly absorbed in the task. “Raargh.”
“What about you, Phoebs?”
As I finish unpacking, I find I cannot quite get out of my head the news nugget a friend has just imparted over the phone. She agonized before telling me, and debated with her husband, but finally decided I ought to know that a registered child sex offender lives two blocks away from us. The offense was eight years ago, and the victim was a teenager; my friend was sending me the link to the website. As it happens, the subject had come up while we were in Maine; a friend of my stepmother’s recently discovered that in her small coastal town there were 30 such registered sickos. I feel curiously calm and resolute, in a better-the-devil-you-know sort of way.
“Mummy, look! A scarecrow in a garden, with crops and stuff.”
“Fantastic, Paris. And that?” I ask, pointing to a wilted spiky thing.
“A turkey. Now what should I build?”
“How about a skyscraper? Now, children, I’ve got to go lie down. When you’re done spiking grapes on toothpicks, why don’t you do some drawing? Paris, you’re in charge. And darlings–”
“Please be quiet.”
And they are quiet for what seems like ages, and, to the comforting patter of rain outside, and in my third-trimester vastness, I am just dozing off when there’s a distant thud, or slam, from downstairs. Somebody dropped something, I think sleepily, but when no screeching ensues I begin drifting off again…
The voices seem to be coming from the street. Someone has set up a lemonade stand, or something. I hear an adult chuckle, and a child replying.
The child sounds familiar.
I heave myself up out of bed, and walk groggily towards the window. And there they are, standing in the drizzle: Violet in a leotard, Phoebe in scarves and boa, and Paris in adventure gear. They have brought out wooden trays and are trying to sell their withered-grape-and-toothpick sculptures to passersby.
As fast as is possible in my leaden state, I rub my face, hurry into my trousers and shoes, and galumph down the stairs. I burst out the front door.
Three shining, innocent faces turn to me. Two weeks in Maine and they’ve forgotten the rules of urban life. “We’re selling sculptures,” Violet says gaily, pointing to tiny labels on the merchandise. “Would you like to buy one?”
“You must not come out in the street–ever!–Without telling a grownup, you know that!” Their smiles falter. I am not shouting, I am not ferocious, but curse it, I am horribly aware of the felon two blocks away.
A fellow comes out of the embassy next door and grins at us. “Very nice work,” he tells the children. On other occasions, he has bought their lemonade and cookies, but today he climbs into his SUV without making a purchase.
I crouch down, hold Paris’s arms, and look him earnestly in the eye. “Darling,” I say, “We live in a city. You must never leave the house without asking first.”
“But we didn’t want to wake you.”
“Sweetheart, there are bad–” I glance at the girls, who are looking at us, doe-eyed. This is one of the most beastly jobs in parenting, isn’t it? Conveying the dangerous complexity of the world, without scaring the life–and joy–out of your children? “There are bad people who might want to steal children,” I tell him flatly. “As you know. “
“I can protect us,” he says solemnly, and a pain stabs through my heart. His cheeks are still rounded; his eye is clear and brave. He is eight years old. “But I’m sorry, Mummy.”
“That’s my boy. Ugh, it’s too wet out here, anyway, let’s get this artwork inside.”
He brightens. “Hey, would you like to buy some?”
I am opening my mouth to say “no thanks,” but what comes out is, “I’ll pay 25 cents to each of you for your best ones.”
From Paris, I buy a four-story skyscraper with a peaked roof (the lion he throws in for free), from Violet I get an exceedingly needle-like Christmas tree, and from Phoebe a “star” consisting of a single grape with spokes radiating out from it like a bicycle wheel.
Such are the perishable treasures of motherhood.