The minute we sat at the dining table, six-year-old Charlie and I started having fun. The truth is, I love sitting with kids at dinner tables. They are so much more enjoyable than the adults.
Within a few minutes, we had discussed the lobsters that live on the ceiling, and sometimes lose their grips and fall on the heads of the diners, and we talked about how the dwarf fireman comes in with a high power hose to wash the lobsters away, and the little-known fact that the hotel we were eating in every night put out trampolines for the lobsters to exercise on, and cleared them away in the morning before the diners came to eat. And we talked about the bizarre nature of monsters.
I carry a notebook around with me most of the time, and Charlie and I started drawing monsters. He started first with a velociraptor, which was an okay kind of a monster, with big teeth and big eyes, and a pointy tale. But I wanted to show him one of the ways his imagination might work, and how he could get to make up the rules – so we drew monsters with all sorts of extra bits: one with wheels on the ends of his 6 legs so that if he got too scary, when he fell asleep we could push him off a cliff. Another with a fierce looking hook for one hand, and a rather civilised salad server for the other, a snake for a leg, and a hedgehog for the other leg that made him go “owww!” when he walked. Another that rushed at you shouting “I will eat me!” and then did exactly that when it attacked you, so that there was nothing left, except yourself, blinking at how a monster could turn into nothing in such short time. Soon Charlie was howling with laughter and started adding bizarrenesses of his own to his monsters. A roller-skate monster with the weirdest face and a leg growing out of its back was the starting point. He was alight, and I was loving it.
When it came to ordering our food, I decided that we were going to get along famously, so when he ordered sausage and mashed potato, I did the same. This made us little conspirators at the end of the table, while the grown-ups talked about all the things that grown-ups talk about at their end of the table. Our mood was so much better then theirs, I thought, and we laughed even more, and had to quieten down a little because we were getting a bit raucous.
Then the food came, and the thing happened that I remembered had happened to me when I was a boy. When Charlie started eating the sausage, a change came over him. His eyes puffed up, he pulled a face and looked longingly down the table at the burger and chips someone else had ordered. “I should have ordered the burger,” he said, sadly, and his throat tightened as a lump formed in it, that was made of all the grizzles and struggles he’d had with food he didn’t like at other dinner tables on other days.
Oh, I remembered all that from when I was a kid. Not liking the taste of a partcicular food, and being told to eat it, I had turned the food into an instrument of torture with which I had made dinner times a living hell – not only for me but for my parents, too. I saw Charlie pick up the sausage and start trying to pull out the bits of herb that he took exception to, and realised that if I didn’t act quickly, we might have a bit of local difficulty. I smiled at him and gave him a wink.
“What do you think of it?” he asked me.
I prodded a piece of sausage on to the end of a fork and put it in my mouth, chewing theatrically. “Scrummy, yummy, scrummy,” I said. It was the first moment at which our rapport had been dented, and I saw him internalising a struggle. I imagined it as follows: Everything I had said up to that point had been reliable and fun, now he was a little sad that he was on his own. I jumped in quickly as he put his head on his hand and looked at the bowl of sausage and mash as if he were gazing down a mineshaft at an afterlife of eternal damnation and proddings with tridents. And I said, really quickly:
“Remember when you had really good times and laughed?”
He looked up at me. “When? I can’t think of any…”
“What about when monsters have salad servers for hands and lobsters live on the ceiling?”
He brightened up and smiled at me.
“That’s amazing, isn’t it? The fun of it. And then there were all the times you’ve played and had a really good time. And when you put that piece of sausage in your mouth, you’ll remember them. I don’t know if you know it, but if you taste a food you thought you didn’t like 11 times, your body starts liking the taste. It’s like magic. And when that sausage goes in your mouth, you’ll remember sunshine, and play and laughter, and all the fun you’ve ever had will explode across your mouth, and it will be amazing!”
He had gone quite quiet as he thought about what I had just told him. He tried the sausage again, with a little bit of uncertainty. He didn’t like it so much, but he was fascinated by the future pace of 11 tastes and the possibility that things might change. It just needed one more element to shift it all the way. And it was further down the table: a little pot of ketchup. I grabbed it. “Dip it in there, first!”
He dipped with some pleasure, and when he put the sausage in his mouth I pulled a funny face and said crazy things, and he laughed as loud as he could. Then he ate some more, and every time he did, I told him what a great guy he was, and gave him a big “well done” in a light and friendly way.
Later on, his mum asked him to eat the mashed potato, and I could see that it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, but just that he was full of sausage. I had paced him, and had left my mashed potato, too. And so, we just needed to do one more thing to make sure that he had eaten enough food to get him through to the evening meal:
“On your marks, get set… go!”
Yes, we had a mashed potato race, as the invisible trampolining lobsters and the roller-skate monsters and the self-devouring beasts looked on, shouting for one of us, or the other, to win.
And Charlie was obviously very good at mashed potato snaffling, because, when I looked at his empty bowl, it was clear he had beaten me. Hands down. And all around us, staring from the little nooks and crannies of the ceiling, and beneath tables, and from behind chairs, the monsters and lobsters were cheering!