Sometimes getting a straight answer out of a child can be like pulling teeth. You kind of expect it when you're asking why their sister is covered in graffiti or where the TV is gone but frequently there's no rhyme or reason to it. I mean, for example, you'd think they'd have a vested interest in giving a clear response to, 'What do you want for dessert?', wouldn't you?
"The same thing I had the day before yesterday," Marie replied at the end of tea last Friday.
I paused in the act of opening the kitchen cupboard. "What was that exactly?" I couldn't recall what I'd eaten for my own lunch, let alone what anyone else had had. Attempting to recollect anything further back was pushing things. Given the murky, child-addled state of my memory these days, I wasn't entirely certain Wednesday had definitely happened. I had to assume something had gone between Tuesday and Thursday but someone could easily have slipped in an extra Monday and I might not have noticed.
As I pondered this, I became aware that Marie was in the middle of a long (yet not very illuminating) explanation. "... so that wasn't it. Well, my favourite thing is chocolate biscuits but we didn't have any of them, so it wasn't that either."
"What was it then? I can't remember."
Marie rolled her eyes at my stupidity. "The same thing I always have if it's a holiday and we don't have any chocolate biscuits."
"Could you tell me what that is?"
"Look, just tell me want you want," I said, beginning to lose it.
I reached into the cupboard and grabbed the first thing I could find that wasn't curry powder. "Have some Smarties then."
Marie pulled a face. "I don't want those. I want cake."
"Then why didn't you say so?" I sighed.
Marie looked indignant. "But I did..."
Yep, getting a straight answer can be hard work. The only time it's easy is when you're desperately hoping to keep them talking, like while trying to distract them from feeling nauseous on a winding car journey or attempting to get them to chat endearingly to grandparents on the phone:
Granny (on speaker): Did you have a nice day today, dear?
Granny: Did you go out anywhere?
Granny: Where did you go?
Marie: The zoo.
Granny: Was it good?
Granny: What did you see?
Granny: Which ones did you like?
Marie: All of them.
Me (encouraging some verbosity): Tell Granny about the flamingos.
Marie: They were pink.
Me: And what funny thing did they do?
Marie: Can't remember.
Granny: That's nice, dear. Can you speak up a bit - there's lots of noise in the background.
Marie: We're in a taxi.
Granny: Where are you going?
Granny: From the zoo?
Granny: Don't you normally get travel sick going home from the zoo in a taxi? It's quite a winding...
Marie: Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarf. (Phone goes dead.)
Taxi cleaning bills aside, though, I suppose it's not as bad as when kids give a straight answer to the wrong question. This is normally reserved for talking loudly to strangers in public places. Sometimes it's deeply embarrassing, usually it's just a touch confusing:
"I'm going to my birthday party," said Marie to the lady sitting in front of us on the bus.
The woman smiled and humoured the little girl, not realising the conversational minefield she was entering. "That's exciting for you."
"Caitlin is going, too." Marie bounced up and down on her seat. "And Lucy and Carlos and Jack and Ophelia and Rani and Yasmin."
"Are they all your friends?"
The woman's smile wavered. "Some of them aren't your friends?"
"No, they're all my friends," said Marie, speaking slightly more slowly for the silly adult. "Igor isn't my friend but he's not coming."
I felt the need to interpret for our hapless travelling companion. "What Marie's trying to say is that everyone she listed is a friend, it's just not an exhaustive list."
"There's Tom and David, too!" confirmed Marie. "And Kuba. And Corduroy."
"Oh, OK." The woman tried to recover by pointing to Marie's pink, sparkly t-shirt and saying, "Your top is very pretty."
"This isn't my top," replied Marie, laughing at the absurdity of the suggestion.
The woman's face crumpled in defeat but she couldn't help asking, "Then whose top is it?"
Luckily, our stop was approaching. I grabbed Marie and made a run for it down the aisle. She called over her shoulder as we went. "It's nobody's top - it's a t-shirt!"
I was surprisingly glad to escape to a soft-play full of cake-fuelled five-year-olds...
Still, it all made me wonder. I've experienced any number of bizarre social interactions since becoming a dad. Many have been beyond my control, and others I've got away with thanks to being surrounded by a protective ring of small, cute children. Perhaps a few have been avoidable, though. If I'd been a little more on the ball, I could maybe have steered the dialogue more smoothly. Sometimes all that's needed is a deep breath and a moment's thought:
When Marie came out of school a couple of weeks ago, she was crying and complaining because she hadn't had enough lunch.
"I didn't have a tub of fruit," she sobbed.
I hugged her guiltily. I was certain I'd prepared one but there was every chance I'd put it in Lewis' lunchbox by accident. (It wouldn't have been the first time.) I told Marie this and apologised.
Marie kept crying. "Lewis didn't have it. Fraser didn't have it either. I checked. I couldn't find it anywhere. It wasn't in my lunchbox."
"That's strange. Never mind; it'll turn up. You can have some food when we get home."
"But I'm hungry now... and thirsty."
"You can have a drink when we get home, too."
"But I'm really thirsty. I found a carton of juice on the floor that looked like mine but I didn't think it was."
I began to get the impression I was missing something. I took a deep breath and thought for a moment.
"Did you drink your juice?"
"No - I couldn't find it. I just found juice that looked like my juice."
"On the floor?"
"Yes. With my sandwich."
My eyes narrowed. "You found your sandwich on the floor along with juice that looked like your juice but that you weren't sure actually was your juice?"
"And my biscuit."
"OK, so what was in your lunchbox when you went to the cloakroom to fetch it at lunch-time?"
"Nothing! It was empty."
The mystery was becoming markedly less mysterious. "I think perhaps your fruit fell out of your lunchbox with the rest of your lunch."
"I didn't see it," said Marie, pouting.
"How about we go and have a look together?"
"OK, but I don't think it will be there..."
We found it within seconds.
Marie rapidly cheered up and sat down on a bench to eat her food. After a minute or two, she gave me a very sweet, contented smile to say thank you.
Sometimes the little things are what make it all worthwhile...
(Although a few of her grapes and a slice of apple would have been nice, too.)
Yours in a woman's world,