“Daddy, when they get old, where is it the animals in the circus go to retire?”
That was it, no doubt about it: the question of the day.
Since Jules had discovered he could ask them, he never stopped. Like “What does dying mean?” and “Why the stars shine?”… Faced with this situation, my wife, Catherine, would attempt to bring our son back to more down-to-earth considerations.
“You should say ‘Why do the stars shine?’ darling.”
To which Jules, unfazed, retorted, “Yes, but why?”
Jules couldn't care less about grammar, syntax, all those nuances which structure language. What he wanted was answers. And this evening’s question promised to be difficult.
“You don’t say ‘where is it,' but ‘where do the animals go,' Jules…”
“Yes, but where, Daddy?”
I shot a look of distress towards Catherine, but she had already turned away.
I was left alone facing the question to which I did not have an answer. At the same time, I understood little Jules. ‘The fearsome Bengal tigers' promised over the loudspeaker by the show presenters had nothing of the tiger left in them except the name. They were poor, scraggy beasts, completely worn out from years spent in a cage. Everything in that rotten show smelled of decline, of things slowly dying. Patched up clowns, a doddery ringmaster in his seventies, a limping trapeze artist. If Jules had asked me about them, I would easily have been able to reply, “They will end up in a caravan, near a railway line, drinking their regrets away.”
But tonight, my boy is interested in the animals and their tragic destiny.
I’m thinking, I’m thinking…
“Well, when animals get old, the people in the circus call an old man who comes to fetch the old animals. He has a big truck that’s really comfortable inside, with beds for all the animals.”
Catherine sighs. She doesn’t like me stuffing Jules’s head with imaginary nonsense.
“The giraffe’s bed must be really big, then?”
“That’s the biggest of them all!”
And I explain the bunkbeds for giraffes, chimpanzees, elephants…
“They put them on the bottom bunk because it’s safer like that.”
“I s’pose it is,” says Jules, who grasps the whole notion of careful load distribution.
“Oh yes, if they were on the top, it would be terribly dangerous. Besides, once…”
I pause for effect, in the middle of my sentence. I wait for Jules to take the bait.
“What, Daddy?! What happened?”
Got him! My kid begging for the next bit with an imploring look in his eyes.
“Once, the old man put an elephant in the top bunk!”
Eyes wide, Jules waits, guessing at what the catastrophe could be. So I have to invent one for him.
“It was at the beginning, of course, he didn’t know his job like he does now.”
“Tell me, Daddy, tell me what happened!”
“It was night-time. The old man noticed that his truck was swerving when he went around corners, but he didn’t think about the elephant. He just thought that the trailer must be a bit more heavily loaded than usual.”
“And something happened, did it?”
“A disaster! They were going through a village when the truck tipped over on a bend. It slid along on its side and stopped. But in the accident, the back doors flew open and all the animals ran away!”
“Wow!” says Jules.
“The next day, in the village, you can imagine the chaos! The postman, not looking at what he was doing, thinking he was getting on his scooter, climbed onto a camel who was sleeping just outside the post office!”
“Was it because the post office is yellow like a camel, that he made a mistake?”
“That’s right, Jules! So the postman did his round riding a camel.”
“And that’s not all! Apparently, in the old folk's home, the old men and ladies spent their day with old tigers on their knees.”
“Wow! Weren’t they afraid?”
“Not at all, they were petting them!”
“I’d really like to pet a tiger…” says Jules, a note of regret in his voice.
And I continue to embellish the day of madness: on the church steeple, a golden eagle replaced the weathercock; at the little village pond, the man they called Hopeless Harry experienced the best fishing of his entire life when he spent two hours struggling with an enormous Nile crocodile; he was cheered on in his efforts by a group of fascinated penguins. And Jules continued to punctuate my tale with “Oh wow!” He found the bit about the chimpanzee wearing the priest’s robes, and leading Sunday worship in his own special way, particularly amusing.
Jules was in seventh heaven.
Catherine said nothing.
And I just smiled.
Jules’s eyes are still puffy with sleep. All three of us are having breakfast.
“Daddy, I’ve been thinking, and your story about the truck, it’s a lie.”
My little Jules comes straight out with it, in between mouthfuls of buttery pancakes.
He's not expecting any reply. He's reached this conclusion all by himself and this morning, he has the strength of certain knowledge: his father is a liar.
Catherine, sitting opposite Jules, next to me, her coffee midway between the table and her lips, freezes.
“You must not imply that your father is a liar, Jules.”
Jules’s eyes rested on his mother. The picture of moral rectitude, and with a voice full of hope, he asked her, “Is that story really real, Mommy?”
“Er… you don’t say ‘really real,' darling.”
Catherine and her safety net. Above all she doesn't want to lie to our son; that is quite simply inconceivable. I am preparing to intervene when, after a long silence, she begins to speak again.
“Yes, it’s really real. And seeing as you want to know everything, I once slept in a giraffe’s bed!”
I am flabbergasted. At 10:23 on a Sunday morning, Catherine told our five-year-old son about the crazy night she spent in a giraffe’s bed.
“You should have seen the chimpanzees, Jules! They were so inquisitive. They sat next to me, sniffed me, looked in my hair and played with me."
“What? You played, Mommy?”
Jules is bursting with curiosity; he wants to know everything. In his little head, doubt gives way to enthusiasm. He is full of images and dreams. And Catherine is giving him food for his imagination: she played leap-frog with the chimpanzees; then, to liven things up, a bear with an accordion played the tunes he had learned for his performance, accompanied by a virtuoso tap-dancing elephant; sea lions applauded as they marveled at the impromptu show!
Jules and I can’t help laughing when Catherine starts clapping her hands, puckering up her mouth and making the characteristic ‘honk-honk’ sounds of the sea lion. Turns out, Catherine can put on a show all by herself. Jules is crying with laughter, begging his mother to stop, or he’s going to wet himself.
I wish this Sunday morning could last forever.
I would love Catherine to spin a ball on the tip of her nose.
But she smiles at us and signals for us to come close to her.
Jules and I go and snuggle in her arms.
She does another ‘honk-honk’ and says, “In sea lion language, that means, ‘I love you’.”
Translated by Wendy Cross