herald

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Secrets And Home Truths

John Hearne finds there’s no hiding the truth as intimate family matters are laid bare at school and he’s interrogated by his six-year-old

Ah springtime! The happy twittering of little birdies as they smash headlong into the living room window and fall dead on to the footpath outside.

I don't know why the little birdies have chosen our living room window as their means of shuffling off this mortal coil, but they have. Over the past two weeks, six little birdies have offed themselves in this way.

Thinking that the children would be upset by all this death, we kept it from them for as long as possible. Each morning, I'd have a quick check outside and toss any fresh corpses into the ditch. But then we were having breakfast on Tuesday and another, I don't know, ostrich or something, came swooping down out of the sky to brain himself on the patio door, then fall lifeless to the ground. Far from being appalled, the children were intrigued. Death! Something just died!

This was drama, this would make it straight to the top of 'Our News' in school. This is a relief, because 'Our News' can be a dangerous thing. It is essentially a 9.30am forum in which junior and senior infants get to share intimate family secrets with the entire parish. Like the other day on the way back from school in the car, I had the following conversation with my six- year-old:

"What's a desnip?" she asks.

"A desnip? I don't know, why?"

"Because," she says, "Tanya's daddy is getting one."

It was only later on, when repeating the story to my wife, I realised that desnip was 'the snip'.

Good man, Tanya's daddy, I thought. Cutting the leak off at the source. I ran into the same man at school the following afternoon and it was all I could do to keep references to cutting, hacking, severing, cleaving and scissors out of the conversation. This sounds easy until you try it. God knows what kind of half-truths and, well, full-truths have been carried from this house and repeated in the school. Thinking back on recent meetings with my daughter's teacher, I'm pretty sure I recall a fair few knowing smiles ...

Keeping secrets with children around is, of course , notoriously difficult. Although I suppose it does depend on the child. My four-year-old son lives in a fantasy world most of the time -- the other day he was rooting about in the toy box. When I asked him what he was doing, he said: "Looking for my other eye." The point is, we could be drug smuggling one day and plotting assassinations the next and he would be completely oblivious. My six-year-old daughter, however, can sniff a secret from a mile away.

"What were you talking about?" she demands, head cocked to one side, hands on hips.

"Grown-up talk," we chorus, and she narrows her eyes. You often get the impression that if she had the wherewithal, she wouldn't be above waterboarding.

"What were you two talking about? And while we're at it, how does Santy get down the chimney? Talk goddammit!!"

Now that she's learning to spell, that particular subterfuge is closed to us, though given the fact that my wife is crap at spelling, it's probably a good thing: "You're going to give them a bat? A bat!" I said the other day, after she had spelled out something across the dinner table.

"I already said no to a puppy; there's no way we're getting ... oh, a bath." Cue howls of protest from the children. Like most Irish parents, we sometimes lapse into pigin-Irish, but again, the older they get, the less effective this becomes.

And like most men, I'm good at keeping secrets because I forget them the second I've been told. At this stage of my life, most of the secrets knocking around have to do with pregnancy -- people who are or aren't or should be or shouldn't be and so on. It gets so confusing that I've totally lost track of what's going on in the lives of my wife's friends. I ran into one of them on the street recently. Convinced I'd been told that she was in the club, I said: "I believe congratulations are in order."

"For what?" she said, bemused.

This triggered a panic attack. Is there a worse insult to a woman than to congratulate her for being pregnant when she isn't? So I hit her playfully in the shoulder and said, "you know, for being an all-round great gal!"

Then I ran away to cringe in private.

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