“That man is spitting,” Lucy said, thrusting an accusing finger at the television. The fingers of her other hand gripped Chuffles. His fur was crusted with patches of peanut butter, paint, and what looked like toothpaste. Chuffles’ head was off again. Amy and I have rescued and reattached the head God-knows-how-many times, but it always disappears again after a few days, turning up stuffed in the washing basket or under Lucy’s bed. If we ask our daughter how Chuffles has come to be decapitated she just sighs, seemingly embarrassed at our ignorance of the world and its cruelties. We used to wonder if it was significant that she carried the body with her and discarded the head. But we couldn’t turn the thought into a meaningful Google search, so it went no further.
“Spitting,” Lucy repeated. She had just seen a footballer hock a thick spear of mucus onto the turf. Lucy turned and looked at me, demanding to know why the man on the television could do such a thing, apparently without sanction, when she had been marched home from the park last weekend for firing barely half as much saliva over someone’s dog.
Lucy had been reluctant to apologise to the pet’s owner, who I instinctively referred to as ‘the nice lady’. The owner may not have been a nice lady at all – she was certainly not a forgiving lady – but I had hoped that by framing her in this way, I would underline the severity of my daughter’s misdeed. With the same motivation, I suggested Lucy’s saliva might give the dog a terrible illness, one so serious he had to go and live in doggy heaven, joining Mrs Leonard’s terrier, and the bundle of bloodied fur we’d seen under the wheel of a car on the high street. I’m still not sure if these embellishments and unlikely claims were for Lucy’s benefit, or if I was convincing myself of the need to punish her.
“Well,” I said, as my daughter repeated “spitting” once more. “Well… the man on TV is a footballer.” A few months ago this would have been enough to prevent further questions. But Lucy has begun to go after non-sequiturs like a shark after blood. She turned Chuffles’ limp body over in her hands.
“So footballers are allowed to spit?”
“Well… professional footballers. Yes. I mean, sometimes.” I held my breath, hoping this explanation would satisfy her.
But Lucy just looked at me suspiciously. She saw my use of words she didn’t understand as an act of subterfuge, a belief only sometimes justified.
“Professional,” I said, “means it’s their job. They do it for money. You know, like your allowance. But that’s…” At the phrase allowance, her mouth fell open. “Allowance,” she squealed, “allowance for spitting? Really?” Before I could answer she had skipped out of the living room.
The spitting is an ongoing problem. We’ve harvested the wisdom of apps and message boards to try and prevent it. Threats and punishments. Positive reinforcement. Attachment parenting. But still Lucy spits. At home. At school. At her great-grandma’s funeral. “Would you spit on Chuffles?” I’d barked in desperation, as we bundled Lucy through a crowd of shocked mourners and into our car. Sat inside, she looked at Chuffles with an expression of slow wonder. As if to say: “Dad’s right. Why aren’t I spitting on everything?”
When Lucy was younger, parenting was a question of surviving each day. She changed so fast; we just had to make it to nightfall, and next morning there would be a new little girl in her bed. But now her blossoming mind was locking her into the world as a solid, enduring presence. No longer a passing observer, she joined the rest of us – elevated by life’s wonders, dragged down by its petty failures.
I heard something outside, a sound somewhere between a slap and a thud. I crossed to the window and looked into the garden. Lucy was stood a few metres away from the back of the house, a football at her feet. My wife Amy entered the room and joined me at the window. We watched our daughter take a deep breath then swing one leg like a pendulum, holding the rest of her body perfectly still. Her kick sent the ball squirming off to the right. She huffed and scurried off to retrieve it, then set the ball down reverentially in its original spot. When she kicked again the connection was good, and the ball slithered through the grass and bounced squarely off the wall. She smiled, returned the ball to its appointed spot, and kicked once more. Her single-mindedness was touching, and terrifying, and utterly beyond my understanding.
Amy opened the window and called out: “Are you having fun honey?” Lucy grinned. “Daddy said I’m going to be a pronef… a professional footballer.” Amy laid her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “That’s nice honey,” she shouted back, as Lucy trundled after the ball once more. Amy shut the window and turned to me, smiling. “I knew we should give positive reinforcement another try.” She frowned. “Or is this because you watched that thing about childhood obesity?”
Before I could answer, Amy pressed something round and soft into my hand. I looked down at a crudely-formed face, two dead black dots and a thin, flat line. It carried a weary expression, one that was somehow familiar. When I looked up again, Amy was walking towards the front door. “I found that in the fridge. She’d managed to get it up to the top shelf. I think there’s some peanut butter in his ears.” Amy dug around in her bag, searching for car keys. “I’m going to the shops,” she said. “We’re out of toothpaste.”
Craig Burnett lives in London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. His stories have appeared in Noble Gas Quarterly, Flexible Persona, Headland, the Glasgow Review of Books, the Stockholm Review of Literature, SAND Journal and elsewhere. He tweets @cburnettwriter.
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