Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

La Nausée

It’s getting harder to shield Busytot -- or Busyboy as I should now call him in honour of his advancing age and his penchant for grown-up existential dilemmas -- from the news. We wake up to the radio in our house, and the report from London had barely penetrated my consciousness when the boy, who often sneaks into the big bed in the wee hours, sat bolt upright and said “Somebody ripped the top off a double-decker bus! That’s bad!”

I listened harder and then translated for him that the subway in London was broken down, but that he needn’t worry. He was still hooked on that bus, though. “Ripped off the top of a double-decker bus! That's so bad! Policemen should catch those guys and put them in JAIL.”

(I don’t know where he picked up the concept of jail. Perhaps a race memory? He is descended from a long line of Irish policemen, after all). (Stop press: his father has cleared this up for me: seems he gets it from an unexpurgated copy of the book that gave this blog its name. Whenever Sergeant Murphy -- uh-huh, the Irish policeman -- catches that wicked recidivist Bananas Gorilla in the act of robbing a fruit-stand, he whisks him straight off to jail.)

What Busyboy doesn’t know -- and I won’t be the one to tell him -- is that these particular guys can’t be caught and put in jail, because they blew themselves up on the job.

Boys next door. A Blitz from within. One of the presumed suicide bombers worked with kids and had a fourteen-month-old child of his own. I can’t join the dots here. How do you kiss your baby and wife goodbye, then annihilate a train full of other people’s kids, other people’s parents? That is fucked up. The mind revolts.

In the months since I’ve considered him in print, Busyboy has been waging his own psychological struggle against existential nausea, that mundane, queasy horror at the thought of one’s own imponderable finitude. Was it only in March that he sat weeping into his bowl of jelly, asking in a trembling voice if we were all going to die? Will you die? Will Daddy die? Will I die? Even Huckle? Even the postie? And policemen? Will they all die? Why?

It was rough going for a while there. Once the thought was in his head, it required anguished consideration several times a day, and the questions were relentless and largely unanswerable. Things reached a surreal height the day he clutched my arm and wailed, “I don’t want to die and I REALLY DON’T want people to put my things in a museum!”

That one took some unraveling. I thought for a moment he was working on a radical critique of the field of anthropology, but it turned out that a visit to Mark Twain’s house had made a very strong impression. And true, as we’d trooped through the rooms, admiring the toy cow, the bed with the angels on the four posts, the child-sized tin bath, our guide had enumerated the various members of the family who had, one after the other, not to put too fine a point on it, D-I-E-D. And now their things were indeed in a museum for our viewing pleasure. Creepy, when you think about it.

Another marker was the conversation between Busyboy and a small friend of the Anglican persuasion. “When you die, you go up into the sky,” ventured Mac in a sweet and holy voice, and it sounded rather nice when he put it like that. “No you don’t,” said Busyboy definitively, bashing a sandcastle into shape with a plastic shovel, “You go into the GROUND.” End of discussion.

Except it wasn’t quite the end of the matter -- he went on to explain that once you’re in the ground, people can dig up your bones, just like a dinosaur, and put you back together and... yes, put you in a museum. Where they'll charge you a dollar and a half just to see 'em.

How do you talk to a three and a half year old soul about death? I found that there were various stages of explanation, not unlike the Kubler-Ross model. I started with Denial (Of Course You’re Not Going to Die), which didn’t seem to convince anyone. Then we pretty quickly skated through Prevarication (Well, Not for a Very Very Long Time), to Opportunism (You Know, They Say It Might be Staved Off if you Eat Lots of Veges and Get Lots of Exercise and especially Sleep) and wound up with the Dorothy Parker approach (Might as Well Live, eh?).

But he seemed to work it through on his own timetable, and the child brain has its own clever sequence for assimilating the unassimilable. Now, surely as a rainy spring has unfolded into a blazingly hot summer, Busyboy has moved on to the highly satisfying stage of Turning the Tables (aka Not if I Kill You First).

See, there are kids at daycare with older siblings. Every day, like a Fox News broadcast, one or other will interrupt the playground with breaking news, passing on the secret knowledge of the elders about an arcane, rumoured, quasi-celestial object, and Busyboy in turn comes home bubbling over with half-arsed data and full-bore desire. Bubblegum, for example, is the food of the gods, completely delicious, only for big boys, and full of bubbles. Then there are Super Heroes, who get their powers from -– bet you didn’t know this -- eating lots and lots of soup. That’s why they’re souper, thanks for asking.

The hottest item of all is a gang of characters known as – and I quote – Injured Turtles. Sounds like they had a run-in with the other new characters in Busyboy’s lexicon, the Power Rangers. But it transpires that the rangers and the turtles are all on the same side: they all shoot and kill bad guys and rescue good guys.

Bleeding-heart softie that I am, I attempted to lobby for more imaginative policies towards evildoers. This earned me a roll of the eyes and the kindly explanation, “They only kill BAD guys, so it’s OK.”

The moral certainty is kind of refreshing, even if I now have an inkling of how it feels to be a hippie whose child goes and joins the Marines. But then I remember that at around the same age I was given a cowgirl outfit for Christmas (a hat, a fringed vinyl skirt, and a matching bolero trimmed with rickrack, all concocted by Mum). It came with a wooden gun made by the policeman grandfather mentioned earlier, out of wood, steel pipe -- I believe it was double-barrelled -- and an actual working door bolt. My brother got a matching cowboy set and an identical shooter, and we spent many happy hours killing bad guys in the bush and up the creek.

Busyboy doesn’t have any guns -- there is a limit -- but he did score an Injured Turtle at a garage sale the other weekend, whose major activity seems to be leaping on bad guys from a great height while shouting “In! Jah! Turtle!”

So here I am, keeping the bad, bad world and its bad, bad news at bay while nurturing a certain level of creative, directed violence in the home. Support for this selectively bloodthirsty approach comes from a couple of books I’ve been reading lately. Firstly, Tessa Duder’s endlessly quotable Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life, in which Mahy makes a sustained pitch for the “drama of who gets to eat who.” This, from a Listener interview in 1987:

Many of the first stories we tell to children are still basically concerned with “who gets to eat who in life”... While we could certainly evolve a totally different literature, it wouldn’t alter the fact that these predatory relationships do exist in nature and that children are sooner or later going to have to come to terms with the fact that their cat is going to eat a baby bird.

(Or, if you grew up on a farm, that one day your dinner-table enquiry about the whereabouts of the pet lamb will be answered with “Pass the mint sauce.”)

Then there’s the eminent Joan Aiken, who argues in her appealingly cranky book The Way to Write for Children that excessively tidy stories with happy endings that tie up in a knot are a moral rip-off. Fairy Tales for Dummies, as it were:

There is a current fashion for suggesting that everything is very easy, if it is properly explained. ... I can hardly state strongly enough what a mistake I think this is, to tell children that they will find a solution to every problem they are likely to encounter.

[Instead] it is the writer’s duty to demonstrate to children that the world is not a simple place. Far from it. The world is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle. We too are a riddle. We don’t know where we come from or where we are going, we are surrounded by layers of meaning that we can only dimly apprehend, however much we try to learn.

And how much more enjoyable it is for children -- how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties -- to be told this, than to be told that the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place, with everything mapped out and accounted for by computer, with no unexplored regions left; that somewhere, neatly waiting, each person has an identity, like a parcel left at the post-office to be collected; that a naughty bear who doesn’t like playing with other bears has only to be invited to a party, and he will soon change his ways.

I tested this the other day, by trying out the story of Little Red Riding Hood on Busyboy, who had never heard it before. It's very much a story about who gets to eat whom. First, I gave him a version with a sanitized ending: the wolf was just desperately hungry: he apologizes sincerely for his misbehaviour, and Red and family oblige him to regurgitate Granny and then invite him to share a nice dinner.

This didn’t satisfy at all.

So I told him there were alternative endings, and ran a few past him. The classic one, in which the huntsman, who is sometimes also the father, appears in the nick of time to kill the wolf -- who is then gutted, filled with stones, sewn up again and thrown down the well. The feminist one where Little Red is the avenging heroine, armed with a sharp implement and a quick reaction time. Some in which the granny is recovered whole, albeit slick with wolf-spit, and some in which she has already been digested beyond repair. All of them ended badly for the wolf.

His favourite? “The ones where the wolf gets KILLED!” Surprise.

I know this is not the end of the story; there will be countless retellings, and a wider range of tales, and both the stories and the questions about them will become increasingly sophisticated (can a wolf swallow an old lady whole? why would people hurl a dead wolf into their only water source? what kind of parent sends a child on an errand through wolf-infested forests anyway?).

For the moment, though, the preference is strongly for justice that is swift, simple, and satisfying. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, and the innocents make it safely to the other side of the woods, every time.

If only.