Southerly by David Haywood


The Joys of Unclehood

My grandfather, an anarchist from Glasgow, had mellowed considerably by the time I started school. He seldom accused policemen of being class traitors any more, and had even -- after 45 years behind the wheel -- taken the plunge and applied for a driver's licence.

It was only in the matter of diet that his anarchist tendencies went unrestrained. During our after-school visits, he would happily allow his grandchildren to fill up on golden syrup, raw jelly-crystals, and spoonfuls of condensed milk. Sometimes he would even pay us to consume chocolate against a stop-watch.

The fact that none of us have developed diabetes is a minor miracle. My sister and I had some degree of restraint, but my brother would put away sweets like a child possessed by sugar-demons. "The wee lad's got hollow legs," my grandfather would say proudly.

In the aftermath of a sucrose binge at my grandfather's house, none of us children were particularly interested in the carefully-balanced meal that awaited us at home. In fact, to the great concern of my parents, my brother would often go for weeks without anything nutritious passing his lips.

Nowadays my brother is an adult with children of his own -- and it's interesting to see how differently they've been raised. The last time Jennifer and I visited Auckland, my six-year-old niece, Cuba, asked if she could spend the day with us.

When we called to collect her, she was waiting at the front gate in a pale neatly-ironed frock. In one hand, she held a parcel containing an apple and banana. "Those are for snacks," explained my brother. "Just feed her some vegetables at lunchtime -- she's very fond of carrots and broccoli, and healthy food like that."

Cuba gazed up at me with large limpid eyes. "Vegetables are good for us," she said meekly.

Our first stop, at Cuba's request, was Cornwall Park. "Watch me roll down the hill," commanded Cuba. She scampered up the hillside until she was tiny dot against the sky. It took several minutes to tumble back down to where we waited. Upon arrival, her frock could no longer be described as neatly ironed. In fact, it had collected so many grass and mud-stains that it now resembled camouflage cloth.

"Won't your father mind that your dress is dirty?" I asked anxiously.

"Him?" said Cuba incredulously. "He likes doing laundry."

She went up the hillside for a repeat performance. After her descent, she wiped the mud from her hands and knees onto her skirt. "Now I want to climb some trees," she said. She selected a lethally-tall oak and disappeared into its branches.

A few minutes later we sighted her in the foliage at the top of the tree. "Are you being careful, Cuba?" called Jennifer.

"Do your parents let you climb such tall trees?" I asked.

"They don't care," Cuba shouted back.

We were relieved when she returned safely to earth. "You must have used lots of energy climbing that tree," said Jennifer. "I bet you're ready for some fruit from your bag now."

"No," replied Cuba. "I think I'll wait in case we have cake or ice-cream."

"But don't you prefer healthy fruit and vegetables?" I asked.

"Vegetables, hah!" said Cuba scornfully. She launched herself into a series of deft handstands.

The activities in Cornwall Park set the scene for the day. Intellectual speaking, Cuba was one step ahead of us. She was so adept at anticipating our sensible grown-up suggestions -- and so forceful in dismissing them -- that it felt embarrassing to insist.

By afternoon, we had ridden the horses on Jennifer's brother's farm, eaten cake (once), ice-creams (twice), and played at being pirates (numerous times). Actually, mostly I played at being the victim of piracy.

Cuba: You stand over there, and then I'll stab you, and now you've got to fall over dead.

Me: [cleverly extemporizing] Oh, the pain!

Cuba: Don't talk, you're dead!

Me: [silence].

Cuba: Okay, now you're feeling better -- but then Jennifer comes and chops off your head.

On our drive back home, I sensed that Cuba had a hidden agenda. "Oh, we're driving past a McDonalds," she said innocently. A little further on, she added: "Oh look, there's another McDonald's."

After a few minutes, she announced her wishes more forcefully: "I'm thirsty and I need a drink." She paused in brief contemplation. "The sort they sell at McDonald's."

Our last vestiges of self-worth as adults prevented us from wilting before these hints. We stopped at a take-away food shop that wasn't McDonald's. Cuba requested a cup of lemonade in a size called 'super-mega-jumbo', which looked to be about two litres.

"No, that's too much for you, I think," said Jennifer.

I was briefly visited by the ghost of my Grandfather. "If I buy it," I said, "I'll bet you five dollars you can't drink it all."

Five minutes later, and five dollars poorer, I carried Cuba from the takeaways. Approximately ten per cent of her body mass was now lemonade. "I'm sloshing," said Cuba weakly.

I put her on the footpath in the recovery position. Jennifer and I listened to her stomach. A sound -- as of a million barrels of petroleum swilling around an oil tanker -- met our ears. "Do you think someone could kill themselves from drinking too much lemonade?" I wondered.

"Maybe a child," said Jennifer uncertainly.

For the rest of the drive home, Cuba lay silently on the back seat of the car. At Titirangi township, we stopped to throw away Cuba's bag of healthy fruit -- which, by now, had taken on the quality of incriminating evidence. Cuba started showing signs of life as we approached my brother's house.

My brother was in the front garden. "What on earth's happened to your frock?" he asked Cuba.

We didn't linger. As we walked back to the car, voices from inside my brother's house drifted to our ears.

My brother: Your dinner's on the table, Cuba.

Cuba: Um, I'm not really feeling very hungry...

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