‘Bon Bon,’ says my 4-year-old nephew, holding a plastic retractable dagger with a pirate ship depicted on the handle in one hand, and a red empty plastic saucepan in the other. It’s Sunday evening at my parents’ house and he is full of boiled potatoes and ice cream. He is about to start school next week.
‘Do you remember that time we made soup and we looked under the table?’
I have no idea what he’s talking about, though it’s true he’s made me soup of various kinds over the last couple of years (carrot and lemon, strawberry and apple, potato and orange; educational fruit shapes I make him pretend to cook for me, though he is still hazy on the difference between a lemon and a lime). ‘What were we looking under the table for?’
‘I made soup and we were looking for Tushka.’
‘Tushka?’ Tushka is the name of his elderly (and sadly recently deceased) dog.
‘We were trying to get her to come out from under the table. With soup.’
‘I don’t remember that,’ I admit. ‘But what about it?’
‘Maybe we can make soup and look for her.’
He looks like a hopeful cherub, and shrugs, faux-casually. ‘Maybe, yeah.’
‘But Tushka isn’t here anymore,’ I say, gently. I wonder if he’s got himself confused. There are a lot of animals in our family, after all.
He looks down briefly, as though desperate to make sense of his own thoughts before he can present them to me, like a contestant on a quiz show, thinking against the clock.
‘Shall we do it anyway,’ he manages, finally, ‘and look under the table?’
‘Under the table,’ I repeat, thoughtfully, and direct him to start on the soup. (‘Lemon, strawberry and apple, please.’) We are going to find something-we-don’t-know-what under the table. With soup. We are going to be riffing on a previous game he has almost entirely imagined. But first; he’s got to do it properly.
(‘How do I do it again?’
‘All in the pan,’ I say. ‘Heat it up for a few minutes.’
‘Ok,’ he says, placing plastic fruit in the pan one by one, reciting their names, tongue sticking out in concentration.
‘Now mash it.’
‘OK,’ he says, gently handling the broken toy masher.
‘Give it a stir. Is it good? Taste it.’
He finds a blue spoon and tastes it. ‘Not quite,’ he says. ‘Needs more cooking.’
‘OK. Put the lid on so it boils quicker.’
‘Can’t,’ says Phin. ‘That’s my shield.’
He finds another lid for another pan and uses that one instead.
‘Give it a shake,’ I suggest. ‘Not too much.’ He does, then tastes, then repeats. ‘Pour me some into a teacup and I’ll see if it’s good.’ He does. It is.)
‘Well then shall we find the cat?’ he says. ‘See if she likes it?’
‘The cat?’ He has invented a cat.
(He lets me in on a secret: ‘it’s not a real cat, it’s a pretend one.’)
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well then. We’d better go.’
We trudge into the dining room. ‘First we’ve got to find her,’ he mentions, breezily. ‘I think she’s hiding.’
‘Hmm,’ I say. Is she under the chair?’ He drops to his knees and peers to look. Shakes his head. ‘Is she behind that table leg?’ He obliges; shakes his head.
‘Oh dear,’ he announces, in his stride now: ‘she must be hiding.’
We spend the next twenty minutes looking for an imaginary cat (which is called ‘hunter cat’ because she hunts ‘other’ dogs; the cat is gender-fixed but not, at first, species-fixed) and by the end, I have to say, we were both very worried: she was not under the rug, inside a vase, between the legs of a stone elephant, in either far corner of the kitchen floor, under the kitchen table, by the front door, in a plant pot by the front door, under the rocking chair or inside the baby-sized chewed-up bootie that belongs to the dog (‘she is very small,’ Phin mentions).
We are running out of house.
‘I am very worried,’ he declares, ecstatically happy. ‘She will be very scared and she must have run away. She is the size of this spoon.’ He holds up four plastic teaspoons he’s been carrying around with which to periodically stir the soup (at my direction).
‘But she loves the smell of soup,’ I remind him, ‘so we’re going to lure her out.’
‘Yes!’ he says, rejuvenated. We keep looking. I suggest looking under the rug in the hall but Phin points out very sensibly that she can’t be under there otherwise she would be squashed, and so saves us the bother of checking.
‘Phin,’ I say, ‘I think she must be outside.’
‘In the garden?’ he says, wide-eyed. I nod.
(‘Bon Bon,’ he says, a sudden interjection. ‘You know it’s not a real cat, it’s a pretend one.’
‘Oh yes,’ I say. ‘But even so.’
He nods, pleased.)
‘Maybe she’s run up a tree and is stuck up there.’ He points to a massive tree outside the conservatory. ‘We’ll have to get her down, but I don’t know how, and catch her with this.’
‘With the spoon?’
‘Good plan,’ I say.
He sighs an enormous sigh, worthy of any oscar. ‘I just don’t know how we can get her down from the tree. It’s going to be very difficult.’
‘It is. We’re going to have to really think about this.’
Phin takes this moment to, again, remind me of something, seemingly concerned that I might be confused or too carried away; he is generous in his play, and reality, for him, is abrupt, fleeting and best shared: ‘Bon Bon, it isn’t actually real.’
‘For one thing,’ I say, ‘cats sometimes come down from trees when you shake salmon biscuits.’
He is delighted, and immediately runs to ask his grandma for some salmon biscuits. He comes back dismayed that none have been made available to him, so I tell him to make some (‘mix it in the pan, mash it, microwave it’). He rushes back to ask grandma in the kitchen if she can put the plastic saucepan in the microwave to make salmon biscuits. I hear my mother refusing because it will melt and him explaining that it’s only pretend and her saying that the plastic is not pretend, though, and them agreeing that they will pretend that it has been microwaved. At this point, Phin emerges with a very serious, stressed, determination. He is a manager at a group office, leading a team, open to input but by and large responsible for the fate of the cat. The cat must be brought down.
‘The tree is very high,’ I remind him. ‘We’re going to need a ladder.’
‘Yes, but, I don’t think think a ladder will be big enough.’
‘True,’ I say. ‘unless you make one.’ His eyes light up. ‘Out of rope.’
‘Yes, but’ (and he slaps his hands on his thighs like a pantomime dame whose plans are scuppered), ‘I haven’t got any rope.’
‘Opa might have some rope,’ I say. He rushes out into the garden, where Opa is watering plants, to ask for rope (‘or some very strong string’). He comes back with nothing.
‘What if I throw you up into the tree?’ I say.
He looks very worried.
‘Then you can save the cat.’ I nod, encouragingly.
‘Yes, but what if I land on the wrong branch or fall off?’
‘I’ll throw you onto the right branch.’
‘Yes, but the cat might fall off.’
‘Then the cat will be out of the tree.’
‘Yes, but the cat will be very scared, and when she’s scared she clings onto the tree very tightly and doesn’t let go.’ He demonstrates.
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘That is tricky.’ He stirs the soup. ‘Why don’t we call the fire brigade?’
‘OK but,’ he says, and glances at the clock as though he can read it, ‘I don’t think they will come.’
‘It’s a bit late.’
‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘fire men stop working at 7pm on the dot on Sundays and it’s nearly a quarter to eight. I suppose we could ring the Night Fire Brigade.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think they will come either.’
‘Probably not,’ I agree. ‘Another idea,’ I say, is that we get your daddy to stand on Opa’s shoulders, then you on top…’
‘…. or Sephi.’
‘Or Sephi,’ I agree.
(‘What am I all doing? What doing am I?’ says Sephi, who is two and although only just entering the room already on the verge of tears over not having an important role in proceedings.)
‘Sephi can stand with a spoon at the bottom of the tree and catch the cat if she falls out.’
‘All the women and children can stand by with spoons,’ contributes my brother.
‘We’ve got four spoons,’ nods Phin, sagely.
(‘I can with this!’ adds Sephi, holding the lid/shield.)
It is far past Phin and Sephi’s bedtime. My mother tries to wrap things up by pointing out a previously missed but enormously helpful fact: ‘did you know that the cat has magic wings? She can fly down whenever she wants.’
‘Yes,’ says Phin, discombobulated, ‘But she hates flying.’
‘Also,’ I say, ‘What about a trampoline? You could jump on a trampoline and bounce into the tree.’
‘My friend has a trampoline. In her garden.’
‘Shall I phone Meg and see if we can borrow her trampoline?’ says Phin’s mother. ‘But how would we get it here? I don’t know if it would fit in the car.’
‘Hhm. What else could you bounce on?’ I say.
‘Sometimes I bounce on my bed! We could use that.’
(‘Phin, time to go, where are your shoes?’ says my brother.
‘Yes but she might be there til tomorrow.’
‘We’ll have to come back tomorrow then.’
‘Yes but she might be there until we all die.’)
‘I don’t know if a bed would fit in the car either.’
‘It’s quite big,’ he agrees.
‘She’ll just have to live up there forever,’ says my Mum, looking romantically at the tree.
‘She won’t mind,’ I add.
‘We’ll build her a treehouse up there,’ says my Dad, bearer of no rope.
Phin implores me (‘I think we have to get her down’) then his dad (‘I need a wee wee’). He is taken out and returns five minutes later.
‘Oh, you were ages,’ I say. ‘I’ve done it already.’
‘I built the treehouse.’ He squints to see it outside through the conservatory window. ‘It’s very small, like her.’
‘Yes, but she can’t get into it without falling off the branch in between.’
‘She can – I built it right next to her. Can’t you see it? She loves it.’
‘We’ll have to get her next time I’m here,’ he says, concerned. ‘Don’t forget, Bon Bon.’
‘OK. I won’t.’
‘We have to remember the plan,’ he says, rapidly swept away in a rush of footsteps and goodbyes and shoes and coats being put on the right people correctly.
‘Yes,’ I promise.
He is uncertain. ‘We can’t forget.’
‘I’ll write it all down,’ I say.
He is enormously relieved. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Write it all down.’