Monday 12 December 2011

The art of tomfoolery

Grace is sitting at the dinner table with a scarf wrapped around her head. In front of her is a plate of my finest fish pie, untouched.

Opposite her and down at my side, Betty sits ramrod straight, holding herself tensely in anticipation. Her face, barely peeping over the tabletop, shines with merriment;  a tiny giggle, a bubble of glee, escapes from the back of her throat.

My girls are playing.

With a sudden flourish, Grace whips the material away from her face, revealing crazy eyebrows, crossed eyes and lolling tongue. On seeing this Betty gives a great shout -- delighted affirmation --  and collapses drunkenly against her seat, so overwhelmed by laughter that she can barely catch her breath.

At this point I intervene to ask if they will both please eat their food now, before it goes cold. Grace complies. Betty straightens up and reaches for her fork, but her eyes never leave Grace's face. With a stagey sigh, Grace flicks a strand of hair away from her shoulder and eats, but her eyes slide away with a deliberate skittishness that prompts another joyous gurgle from Betty, still watching eagerly for her next move.

Grace spears a piece of broccoli and goggles comically at it. It is all it takes for Betty to explode again into gales that leave her so weak she sags against me, hiccuping, afterwards.

"Come on now, enough," I say, a bit more firmly, and start spooning food into Betty, who is still prone and snickering softly beside me. Grace protests: "What? I didn't do anything!" but then breaks into a wide smile.

In the brief stillness, we all get on with the business of eating. Candles flicker on the table, the fire crackles in the sitting room behind us. Our reflections are ghostly dim in the subdued light, in the kitchen windows, splattered with rain from the storm outside. Across from me my husband catches my eye and smiles as he lifts his glass to drink.

My girls are playing and it brings me such pleasure that I hardly care, really, how much they eat, or whether they finish the meal at all. Hostilities have ceased. Grace has discovered that she can make Betty laugh. She has discovered how to watch her, to read her mood and coax those lovely noises of baby joy from her. Betty has discovered a clown, a tumbling jester behind her sister's often stern countenance. Suddenly the possibilities for revels seem limitless.

Once Betty's hiccups have abated, we move on to cake. Grace tells me a story as she eats, sketching out a scene between two of her latest imaginary characters. But as she talks, she draws everyone in: twinkling at Betty and her stepfather beside her, drawing gestures in the air and turning to us all to see what we think. She is holding court but she is entirely aware of all of us and taking her cues from our reactions. She smiles at Betty and sees her excitement as the little girl grins up at her, icing smeared across her chin. She smiles at me, and sees my enjoyment of her story warring with concern that she finish her meal.

As soon as they have cleared their plates and I have acknowledged their request to get down, Betty slips off her chair and trots -- pat, pat, pat in her slippers -- around to Grace's side.

"C'mon CeeCee," she says, and holds out her hand. Grace takes it and together they scurry into the sitting room. Just as they disappear from view I catch Grace executing a perfect pantomine pratfall onto the sofa, collapsing with an "Urgh!" that provokes an explosive guffaw from Betty.

So little, and yet so, so much. It is nothing. It is everything.

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