Following is an extract from the second chapter of Lessons from a Two Year Old. Enjoy!
Johnny sprang off the chair, ripped off his pajamas and grabbed some clothes off the floor. He ran out the door wearing black jeans and a crumpled black shirt displaying one of his favorite UNIX jokes.
In his rush, he didn’t pull the shirt down fully and his white belly bobbled as he flew out the front door. He drove toward Brian and Amber’s house, cursing again as he was held up by a traffic light, although he did use the temporary pause to reach down and put his shoes on.
He pulled up in front of Brian’s house with a lurch and a screech of tires. He jumped out of the car, ran across the lawn and knocked on the front door, struggling to bring his breathing under control.
Brian opened the door, a frown on his face.
“I’m here,” gasped Johnny.
Brian led him through the house and into the kitchen. Amber, short, petite and with a shock of curly brown hair, stood by the bench, a handbag over one shoulder and a piece of paper in her other hand. The television displayed a cartoon show in the corner of the family room. Zoe, a two year old with ringlets fashioned into pigtails, stood less than a meter in front of the wide screen, watching it intently.
Amber held the piece of paper out to Johnny. “I’ve written a few notes for you,” she said.
Johnny took the sheet of paper which consisted of paragraphs of information typed in a small font.
“It’s double-sided,” Amber observed.
Johnny turned it over, his eyes opening wide. “Do I need a degree to look after her?” he asked.
“It’s not complicated,” replied Amber. “I’ve simply typed some details of what food she should and shouldn’t eat, how to comfort her, some suggested activities, the routine for putting her down for a sleep – she’s particular about that – and her favorite toys.”
Johnny turned the sheet over and read a line at random. “Do not let her play with textas. Where are the textas?” he asked.
Amber snatched the sheet off him. “Goodness, I forgot to write that down.” She took a pen out of her handbag and scribbled a few words. She scanned the sheet again. “I wonder what else I missed.”
Brian suppressed his smile and spoke up. “Come on, Amber. We’ve got to get going. We’re late as it is and Christine will be wondering where we are.”
Amber thrust the paper back into Johnny’s hand. “Alright. But don’t forget to call me if you’re not sure about anything.” A panicked expression crossed her face. “Although I don’t think I’ve written the number down.”
“That’s OK – I’ve got it in my phone,” Johnny said.
Brian took Amber’s hand. “Let’s go, dear.” He looked at Johnny. “But do call me if you’re unsure of anything.”
Amber kissed Zoe on the forehead. “We’re going out now, Zoe. You be a good girl for Uncle Johnny. See you soon.”
Zoe’s eyes never left the television screen.
Brian and Amber left the room, accompanied by Johnny. “I think things will be alright,” Johnny said. “I’ll call you if anything goes wrong, although if she sleeps most of the time there shouldn’t be a problem.”
He waved to the departing car, and with a deep breath, re-entered the house. He walked into the family room, where Zoe continued watching the television. “Hello, Zoe,” he said in what he thought was a cheerful and friendly voice.
She continued to stare at the screen.
Johnny licked his lips, grimacing. “I don’t think I brushed my teeth,” he said to himself. “A cup of coffee might clear up this yucky taste in my mouth.”
He addressed Zoe again. “Uncle Johnny is just going to make a nice cup of coffee and then he’ll come back and talk to you.” Zoe continued to ignore him, so Johnny put Amber’s list on the floor and re-entered the kitchen.
He filled the kettle with water, turned it on and rummaged in the cupboards for a cup and some coffee. As he stood, waiting for the kettle to boil, Zoe appeared at the door.
“Boo,” she said.
Johnny laughed. “Boo? Boo to you too.”
Zoe pointed towards the family room. “Boo,” she repeated.
Johnny frowned. “What are you trying to say, little one?” he asked. “And why have you taken your pants and nappy off?”
A look of horror crossed Johnny’s face. “You haven’t. . .” He ran toward her. Zoe retreated into the family room, followed by Johnny. A strong smell assaulted him as he entered the room.
Zoe pointed at Amber’s list. “Boo,” she repeated with a hint of pride in her voice.
“Oh, no,” groaned Johnny.
A large, stinking poo sat proudly on top of Amber’s list of instructions. “For a little kid, you sure do a big poo,” he said, holding his nose. “And a smelly one.” He tried to look at the list, but recoiled in horror as the smell invaded his nostrils. “What the hell do I do now? I didn’t notice anything about this in Amber’s list, and I sure can’t read it now.”
He stood still for a minute, unsure what to do next. He took hold of Amber’s note by the corners and picked it up carefully, taking care not to let the steaming deposit fall out. Holding it gingerly in front of him, he walked slowly through the house toward the toilet. Dropping the whole mess into the bowl, he jumped back in disgust as the water splashed toward him.
He shuddered and then flushed the toilet, sending Zoe’s poo and Amber’s list off to the city sewer system.
Johnny’s next task was no more attractive than the first. He wiped Zoe’s bottom, struggled with the nappy and put her shorts back on. Washing his hands, he returned to the kettle, more desperate than ever for a cup of coffee.
Zoe ran around the kitchen almost continually, stopping only occasionally to ask Johnny if he liked her pink fingernails, butterfly hair clip, frilly top, and toenails which were also pink. However, on each occasion she resumed her running before Johnny had a chance to respond.
Johnny spooned coffee and sugar into his cup, poured the boiling water in and then added another spoon of sugar as an afterthought. He stirred vigorously, all the while racking his brain in an attempt to remember the details from Amber’s list of instructions.
“Play outside?” asked Zoe.
“Alright,” replied Johnny. He picked up his coffee and followed the skipping two year old through the family room and into the backyard. Zoe ran across the grass and stood by the side of a large trampoline, surrounded by a safety net.
She lifted her arms. “Up?”
Johnny picked Zoe up and slid her through the opening in the net, zipping it closed after her. Zoe began jumping immediately, crisscrossing the mat in a series of random maneuvers. Johnny took his coffee across to the deck and sat on a chair. He sipped deeply, sighed and slid down in the chair, half closing his eyes.
“Look at me,” commanded Zoe. “Look at me.”
Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his tiny niece. “Nice jumping,” he mumbled.
Zoe stopped. “Spider. Get spider.” She pointed vigorously at a spot on the mat.
Johnny jumped to his feet and ran across the lawn. Could it be a funnel web or redback spider? “Don’t touch, Zoe!” he screamed. Opening the zipper, he leant into the trampoline for a closer look. Zoe kept pointing.
“Spider,” she repeated.
Johnny frowned. He touched a small black ant. “Is this what you mean?”
“Spider,” agreed Zoe. “Don’t touch.”
Johnny flicked the ant off the mat. “All gone,” he announced. He turned to walk back to his coffee.
“Johnny, up,” requested Zoe.
Johnny turned around. “Pardon?”
Zoe beckoned him. “Johnny, up,” she repeated.
Johnny looked at his rapidly cooling coffee and sighed. With a resigned shrug he climbed onto the trampoline and sat on the edge.
“Bounce,” requested Zoe.
Johnny, still in his seated position, pushed himself up and down with his hands. Zoe giggled. Johnny bounced harder, bringing about a fresh burst of laughter. He held Zoe’s hand to help her balance.
Johnny grinned. “You like this?”
Zoe nodded. Her eyes shone and her mouth was open in a wide smile, revealing a row of small, white, even teeth. She giggled continually as Johnny bounced up and down.
The sun beat down, attracted by Johnny’s black shirt and pants. Johnny’s breathing grew heavy and sweat trickled down his forehead. He let go of Zoe’s hand and wiped his sweaty brow. “Do you want a rest?”
Zoe continued to jump, shaking her head from side to side. No longer holding Johnny’s hand, her jumps lost synchronization with Johnny’s bounces. She overbalanced and fell forward, her chin striking Johnny’s knee. Her laughter turned immediately to a scream.
Johnny picked her up and looked at her face. Tears poured from her eyes and a trickle of blood oozed slowly out of her lip. “Does your mouth hurt?” he asked.
Johnny drew her forward and gave her an awkward cuddle. “It’s okay. Don’t cry.”
His words seemed to have no effect. Johnny stood back and took another look. Zoe’s lip was puffy and fat. He wiped the blood off her chin and the tears off her face with his shirt.
“Would you like some ice cream?” he asked.
Zoe stopped crying instantly. “Yes, please,” she replied in an enthusiastic tone. She disentangled herself from Johnny and slid over to the edge of the trampoline. “Down.”
Johnny helped her down and led her into the kitchen. He opened the freezer and peered in, but could not see any ice cream.
“I’m sorry, Zoe, but there’s no ice cream.”
Zoe stamped her foot. “Ice cream. Ice cream.”
Johnny scratched his head. “How about we go to the shop and get some,” he offered.
He led Zoe outside to the car, but when he put her in, he realized he had no car seat for her. He shook his head in disbelief. “This is a shambles,” he said to himself. He took Zoe back inside.
Zoe stomped her feet. “Ice cream. Ice cream!”
Johnny had a thought. He went into the garage to check Brian’s car. Walking through the door, he noticed Zoe’s pram. He clicked his fingers. “Come on, Zoe. We’ll walk to the shop,” he said. “Would you like to go in the pram?”
“Yes please,” replied Zoe. “I like pram.”
Johnny hoisted her into the seat. He struggled with the safety harness, giving Zoe a high five when he finally managed to clip her in. Pushing the pram through the garage door, he squinted in the bright sunlight, strolling slowly so as not to get too hot. As they turned the corner onto the highway, Zoe spoke.
Johnny stopped the pram. “I beg your pardon?”
“Flower, please,” repeated Zoe, pointing at a lavender bush in the garden next to the footpath.
“Do you want one of those flowers?” asked Johnny.
Johnny plucked a lavender flower and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” said Zoe, smelling the flower deeply.
“Well I must say you have good manners,” Johnny said.
He continued pushing the pram, lulled into a somnambulant state by the buzzing bees in the bright red bottlebrush trees. A galah burst from the bushes with a raucous cry. Johnny jumped.
Zoe clapped her hands. “Bird,” she cried.
When they arrived at the shop, Johnny bought a small ice cream in a cup. He handed it to Zoe, along with a little plastic spoon. “You’ve been a good girl on the walk,” he said. “I hope you like this.”
He took a detour on the way home. Zoe seemed occupied with the ice-cream, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with her when he arrived at Brian’s place, so a longer walk seemed like a good idea. He strolled through the warm mid-afternoon sun, trying to ignore the sweat he could feel coming up under his black outfit. Despite the mild discomfort he was surprised to find himself starting to enjoy the feel of the sun and wind on his pale skin.
“Finished,” chirped Zoe, interrupting his thoughts.
She turned to Johnny holding out the container and spoon with ice cream coated fingers.
Johnny looked at her in horror. Her face, from the tip of her chin to the top of her nose, was streaked with ice cream. Her frilly pink shirt was stained with chocolate splodges – too numerous to count. He stopped the pram and stepped to the front for a closer look. Zoe’s shorts, legs and shoes were covered with ice cream and even the seat of the pram had been reduced to a sticky mess. He took the cup from Zoe, wincing as he felt the sticky substance invade his own clean fingers.
“We better get you home,” he said. Bringing his detour to an end, he stepped out in a brisk stride, keen to clean the mess off Zoe and the pram before it dried. He crossed the street, breaking into a jog as a car approached.
“Wahoo,” giggled Zoe.
“You liked that?” asked Johnny, smiling despite himself.
“Fast is fun.”
“Hold on then,” replied Johnny, resuming his trot. He jogged for about two hundred meters, slowing to a walk as his breathing became more labored.
“Again, again,” pleaded Zoe.
Johnny tried to suck as much oxygen as possible into his struggling lungs. “I don’t know if I can run anymore,” he gasped.
“All right. I’ll try again,” Johnny agreed.
He broke into a trot, much to the delight of Zoe, who clapped her hands in approval. Johnny wheezed and puffed. Turning the corner into Brian’s street, he groaned when he saw the steep hill he had to climb to reach the house. He slowed to a walk for the second time.
“Fast, again,” commanded Zoe.
“We’re nearly home,” said Johnny, pointing to the house. “I can’t run anymore.”
“We have to go inside and get clean,” said Johnny. “Then I’ll think about what to do next.”
He took Zoe into the kitchen and found some paper towels to wipe her with. Moistening it under the tap, he wiped Zoe’s face and hands clean. The stain on her top remained stubbornly brown, resisting his scrubbing. He thought about returning to the garage to wipe the pram down, but his wobbly legs disagreed. Staggering to the kitchen table, he fell onto the chair with a loud sigh and began massaging his legs, wincing with each stroke.
“What you doing?” asked Zoe.
“Uncle Johnny has sore legs,” he replied. “Too much running.”
“I like running,” replied Zoe, taking off around the table. She ran a number of laps, first clockwise and then the other way. Johnny grew dizzy watching her, so he stared at the ceiling, still trying to calm his breathing and relax his legs.
“Good idea,” agreed Johnny. He filled a glass for himself and a plastic cup for Zoe. He threw his head back, guzzling the contents of the glass in one long swallow. He quickly refilled the glass and repeated the process, before wiping the cool liquid off his chin with the back of his hand.
He looked down at Zoe. She was tracing shapes on the tiles. When he took a closer look, he realized she was drawing in water. With a start, he realized her face, shirt and shorts were also wet.
“Zoe, what did you do?” he shouted.
Johnny dragged himself off the chair, grabbed a cloth and wiped the floor.
“Change shirt please,” requested Zoe.
“Show me where they go,” replied Johnny.
Zoe skipped down the hall at full speed. Johnny shuffled slowly behind her. Zoe’s bedroom was painted pink, with butterfly decals on the walls and a matching bed cover. She opened the door of her wardrobe, and pulled the second drawer open vigor.
She handed Johnny a dress. “Pink tutu please.”
Johnny stripped off her stained, sodden shirt and grey shorts, and helped her slip into the dress. It was a sleeveless garment, with a picture of a ballerina on the front and it flowed into a frilly tutu from the waste.
Zoe spun around. “I’m a ballerina,” she said with a proud smile.
“What do I do now?” Johnny asked himself.
“Shrek,” replied Zoe.
She raced out of her room, down the hallway and into the family room. She pulled a DVD out of the drawer and handed it to Johnny. “Shrek,” she repeated.
Johnny loaded the DVD and turned on the television. Zoe resumed her position directly in front of the television, her eyes focused on the screen. Johnny dropped to the floor. His eyes closed a few minutes later.
Zoe woke him some time later. Shrek was watching Princess Fiona beat up Robin Hood and the Merry Men, but Zoe was no longer in front of the television. “Build house,” she said, dragging a basket of Lego across the floor.
With a resigned sigh Johnny sat up. “You want me to build you a house?”
Johnny rummaged through the basket. He found a large base plate and placed it onto the floor. Scrabbling through the basket, he dug out a number of different pieces and began building. His house was built over two levels and included internal and external stairs, a number of windows, a pitched roof with eaves and a carport. He was putting the finishing touches to the fence when Brian’s voice interrupted him.
“That’s a fancy house.”
“Daddy, you’re back. Hello, Mummy.”
“Hi, darling,” replied Amber. “You’re wearing your pretty tutu. How did you go with Uncle Johnny?”
“Build house,” replied Zoe.
“How long has she been up for?” asked Amber. “Did she have a good sleep?”
Johnny scratched his chin. “Ahh, it was only a short sleep today,” he replied after a moment’s thought. “And I had to change her clothes because she spilt her drink on them.”
“That’s funny. She doesn’t usually spill anything out of the straw cup.”
“I gave her a normal drinking cup, and I might have filled it a bit too high,” admitted Johnny. “She wanted a cup like mine.”
“I’m glad you had a good time and Uncle Johnny made you a lovely house,” said Amber. “I guess there wasn’t time for much else?”
“You could say that,” agreed Johnny. “How did you go with Christine?”
“She was a lot happier when we left than when we arrived,” said Brian. “I think she enjoyed sitting and talking with Amber and the house looks a whole lot better now, although there’s still lots to do.” He wiped his forehead. “It was hot in the sun. I was a bit jealous of you, relaxing here in the comfort of the house while Zoe slept. Still, it was for a good cause.”
“I better go now,” said Johnny. “I guess you need to get dinner ready or something.”
“Are you right to do this again next week?” asked Brian.
Johnny looked around the room. Zoe played quietly with the Lego house, moving characters up and down the stairs and cars in and out of the carport while Amber dabbed at a damp spot on the floor with a cloth. Brian looked at Johnny with a pleading expression on his face.
“Uh, sure,” replied Johnny after a moment’s hesitation.