I am attempting to write 60 short stories between September and December (a little project to fill the time now I no longer tour). I am going to keep most of them to myself for the time being. This is briefer than most and just a first draft with all the errors imaginable.
Smarter than the Rest
“He’s only two, but he has a reading age of six or seven”
He had heard it all before, the proud mother who must believe her progeny is superior stock to the snot nosed kids that she sees toddling clumsily in the streets. He would now show her all the books that are really meant to be for seven year olds, and she would work out some excuse why they were not for her boy.
“He’s not really very keen on stories about dragons. I think he probably finds them silly”
All the tales of talking bears and mendacious ducks would be knocked back too.
“I am not entirely sure I want him to get embroiled in anthropomorphism, but maybe we’ll keep one in the basket for now”.
The stories of naughty boys and girls and their frequently gassy adventures are brushed aside.
“I don’t think we want him reading about those sort of children”.
And so it would go on, until she had worked out away of buying a selection of books that were suitable for a two year old but with the belief of her child’s superiority intact.
She was one of many.
Every parent believes their child is not quite as the others. Some of them were relentlessly superior, their stuck up noses as sharp as a pencil caricature. They were the most fun. In their fog of boorishness, they were oblivious to his sarcasm and facetiousness. He could fob off the direst tracts to them buy fabricating a story of how some Nobel prize winning physicist or Booker winner had been reared on this book. He had sold books on the pretext of them famously being part of Einstein’s childhood library. The fact they had not been first published until 1947 or 1963 or whatever didn’t seem to hinder the customer’s gullibility. They were the people that could be sold anything because they believed they knew everything, a situation they had comfortably reached by knowing nothing. They had probably been victims of their own parents desire to destroy their child’s interest in reading by insisting they read Nausea at seven.
She was not as bad as many of them. She usually came on a Wednesday. Many customers did as the boss was out then. The boss would push any old tat. It was “all about the bottom line”.
As he had got to know her, he knew she liked to browse for a while before being disturbed.
He would let her start the conversation. On the first few visits he had been too sharp in his approach. She would drift through the picture books, into the classics, and onto teenage fiction. The visits became longer. It was now nearly an hour before she approached him and asked what sort of people liked a book of a silly verse or an intricate pop up book of planets, asteroids and rocket ships.
She wasn’t a young mother, probably approaching middle age. She’d left having children until she’d satisfied herself with a career he imagined.
She looked tired today.
“Are these books about dinosaur astronauts popular?”
They were alright, but if he was honest with her, and he would be, he thought they were books written by committee. The pictures were charmless and flat, the stories were perfunctory.
“So you wouldn’t recommend them?”
“I think we have better books. I mean, they’re fun, but we have some that are a bit more fun, or at least I think so. They’re just over here.”
He led her to a revolving stand that was heavy with every imaginable talking dinosaur angle and a few mad monsters besides.
“Am I right in remembering your son is three, but he has a reading age of seven or so?”
“I think I may have been taxing him a little bit too much”.
This was a rarity. Most of the customers would rather change shop than admit their child may not quite be what they had thought.
She leafed through the books he proffered. She was distracted.
“Shall I just put together some of my favourites and you could look at them in the reading corner”.
She was staring blindly at a dinosaur in a stetson with a laser gun.
The shop door opened and the electronic chime broke the silence.
“Sorry, I missed what you said”
“I wondered if I should just put together a pile of books in the reading corner and you can go through them in your own time?”
“Thank you, yes”.
She sat on the solid plastic pink chair in the shape of a once popular TV pig.
He chose carefully. Remembering the ones that he had offered her in the past.
She only mentioned one child, but presumed there might have been more, or maybe a stepchild. When she first came in, she bought little novels and Lewis Carroll and Wind in the Willows, but she never bothered with anything like that anymore.
He topped up the pile.
“You do remember that he is a little bit more advanced than the others? he’s more like a six year old than a three year old. You should hear the things he says”.
It was peculiar to him how many parents never brought their children in to choose the books they might like, maybe that would destroy the illusion they could have when they came in insisting their child was Max Planck.
She leafed through the stack, but she was barely looking at them. In the past, she scrutinised the text and pictures.
“Could I look at something for younger children? I am thinking of books for party bags, I don’t want to tax the other children”.
He picked up some pop ups and a series of stories about a clumsy lion and a his Machiavellian mouse friend.
It was getting close to 530.
“We’ll be closing soon, but I don’t mind staying open for a little longer if you need a little more time”
She snapped from her distracted stated into a look of sharp horror.
“Christ, what time is it?”
She gathered up some of the pop ups and one clumsy lion book.
“I’ll pay with card. If these are a bit too babyish, can I bring them back”
They were a little more childish than her last visit, but he hoped that she was beginning to realise that it was better to learn to love reading than to brutishly shape your child’s reading into a thing of achievement over joy.
“That will be fine. Just keep the receipt, but I’ll remember you anyway. That’s £27.94”.
He bagged them as the card machine took its time over dealing with the transaction.
She looked sharp and impatient again. Over the months, she could soften, but then that other mother appeared, that mother that knows every day at the nursery gates there will be another competition. Who will be the first to play Bach?
He was sitting on his bed when she got home. He looked tired and a little grumpy.
“Look what I’ve got you. New books. Lions!”
She put the pop up in front of him, but he was in a mood with her. She opened the pop up with a flourish and the snake leapt at him.
He burst into tears. It was too late for all this.
Silly of her really.
The tears tumbled down into his beard. She should shave him again. She’d taken an eye off these things. She hugged him tightly. He was still so big, so when he flopped, she almost fell off the bed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Silly me. It’s okay”
They had just started to talk about having children when she started to notice him change, and then he noticed too. The little forgetfulnesses grew and the reversing began.
Having taken so long to grow up, the growing down and away was so fast now.
She looked at the shelf of books in his room and realised it was time to donate them to someone else.
He looked at the lion and smiled at her through the tears.