Jim looked out of the window. In the garden the children were playing, Elise and Misbet were discussing something, and Little-jim and the Van Tosten child that only seemed to have a surname were doing something involving running in and out of the tree-house. He dipped another dirty plate in the soapy water in the sink and wondered if he should go out and check on them. He scrubbed the plate, vaguely curious as to how Mrs. Van Tosten could make such a mess with just a cup of tea, some loose dentures, and a malted-milk biscuit and decided that he'd just open the window a little and listen in.
He pushed the window slightly ajar as stealthily as he could when none of the children were looking his way, selected another dish from the pile, and listened while he scrubbed.
"It's a motto," said Misbet. "My mummy has lots of mottoes, and she lets me use them if I ask her nicely and she doesn't have one of her headaches."
"My mummy gets headaches too, after Daddy hits her," said Elise. Jim's jaw dropped open in shock; the only time he hit his wife was during sex and she pretty much insisted on that. And she gave as good as she got; he was still surprised that they'd managed to conceive Little-jim after the beating he'd taken that night.
"My mummy hits my daddy if he touches her mottoes," said Misbet. "But only with an open hand, she says. Never with a fist."
"What an open hand?" Elise looked puzzled.
"I don't know," said Misbet. "I think it might be one of her ornaments, I saw her hitting him with one of them once."
"My daddy only ever hits mummy with cushions," said Elise. "They do it when they think there's no-one watching, but I hide behind the couch and they never find me." Jim relaxed a little; Elise was talking about play-fighting. He thought he should probably talk to her about this a little later on though, and explain that he and mummy weren't hitting each other, just in case she mentioned it to anyone at school.
"Oh that's no fun," said Misbet. "I go to the hospital all the time with Daddy, and the nurses there give me things for being a brave little girl."
"You're so lucky," said Elise, a little wistfully. "I've never seen a hospital."
Just then Little-jim came flying out of the tree-house stark naked and pushed between the two girls, who squealed, then ran off round the garden. Moments later the Van Tosten boy, also naked, ran after him, and the girls squealed again.
What the hell? thought Jim, but again he decided not to go and pursue them. The garden had high fences and lots of trees and the boys had been wearing clothes when they went into the tree-house, so they'd probably go back and put them on again. Possibly when they got cold. It was good practice for university anyway. He decided not to consider that that was still a good ten years away.
"Oh, they stepped on your motto!" said Elise, looking down. Jim stood on tiptoe and craned his neck and saw that there was a strip of paper trampled on the ground at Misbet's feet. "Here!" She bent down and picked it up. "You can still read it, see: Do not dwell on things that do not deserve to be dwelled upon!"
Jim smiled, and realised that he'd finished all the plates, so he started on the cups. He could definitely agree with that motto.
"What does it mean?" asked Elise, her pretty face scrunched up like a pretzel as she tried to understand it.
"It means you should try to live on things that aren't for living on," said Misbet confidently, and Jim's smiled stretched further across his face.
"Well, ironing boards," said Misbet. "Mummy hates it when Daddy puts me up on the ironing board."
Elise thought about this, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth. "Ye-es," she said at last, "where would you do the ironing if you lived on the ironing board?"
"Exactly," said Misbet, with just a momentary hesitation. "Or the sink, you couldn't live in the sink."
"You could live in the bath though," said Elise. "But you'd get wrinkly and look old all the time."
Little-jim and Van Tosten came running back again, and Jim noted with some surprise that they wear both fully clothed again, and that he didn't recognise any of the clothes. They raced into the tree-house, which he'd built at ground-level to avoid having any of the children fall out of the tree.
"Daddy lives in the dog-house a lot," said Misbet. "I don't know where that is though."
"That's a pub," said Elise, confidently. "My mummy and daddy go there on weekends, only they tell the babysitter they're going to a restaurant."
Jim dropped the last cup and it bounced on the floor, luckily not breaking. How the hell had Elise picked up about the sex-club they called the doghouse? He thought quickly and decided it was time to bring the children in for something to eat and drink and change the subject. Just then Little-jim and Van Tosten tore out of the tree-house stark naked again, and he realised that he'd better find out where they were getting all the extra clothes from as well.