August 1852 (Hannibal is coming up to 11 months old.)
“Dah! Daaah!” exclaims Hannibal, a wide grin dimpling his face.
Sarah whirls round and scurries over from the stove.
“He said Dada!” she exults. “I told you! I told you he was saying it!” She squats down in front of our son and points at my face. “Dada! This is Dada! Dada!” she prompts. “He did say Dada! You heard him didn’t you, Nathanial?”
“Er…” Nathanial, breakfasting with us, takes a long pull at his mug of tea to avoid answering.
“I hate to disappoint you, Light of my Life,” I smile, “But IF he said Dada, I think he was talking to his foot.”
As if to confirm this Hannibal takes a firm grip on a – if the conjunction of opposites is not a tautology – small big toe. “Dahhhh!!” he explains, showing Sarah a pink and wrinkled sole. “DAAHH!” I tickle it and am rewarded with a delighted chuckle.
“This is Dada!” Sarah perseveres. “Your Dada! Dada! Don’t look away Alex! Tchah!”
“I was only reaching for another biscuit,” I protest.
“Well don’t! Keep your full face turned to him.” A return to the encouraging voice, “Dada! Dada!”
“You reckon the profile might have him disputing my paternity, huh?” Nevertheless, I smile – full face – at Hannibal. “Dada!” I prompt. “Dada!”
“Darrrrr! Frrrrr! Farhhhhh!” A meaning look at me. I tickle the foot again. We – Hannibal and I – both laugh.
“That’s right! Father! Father!” interprets Sarah.
I glance over and catch Nathanial rolling his eyes. “He’s definitely thinking about giving us his first word,” I explain. “Definitely!”
“Uh huh?” says Nathanial. “Sure, and do you reckon the little fella might wait, while we get the last of your early corn harvested?”
I give a sheepish grin and rise from the table. “Let’s go then.” We both collect our hats. Sarah lifts Hannibal, follows us to the door to wave.
“Hannibal say ‘Bye bye’,” she prompts.
“DAHHHH!” he orders. “NAH!” He struggles in Sarah’s arms. We both understand that tone. Sarah stands Hannibal upright on the floor. Gripping his mother’s hands firmly, our son takes a wobbly step or two – tiptoe, feet turned outward – after me. I halt to watch. We have spent the last six or seven days applauding these early steps. I clap encouragingly.
“Wonderful, son! Wonderful!” A beam suggests he agrees.
“Say, ‘bye bye’,” Sarah tries. “Bye bye, Dada! Bye bye!”
I switch the clapping to waving. “Bye bye, Hannibal! Bye bye!” I call.
“Gharrrgghhhh! MmmAAA!” he explains.
“Bye, bye! Bye, bye!” I catch Nathanial’s eye. I try to wipe a little of the besotted – sappiness – off my face.
Nathanial throws me an understanding smile, as we stride towards the fields.
“Sure an’ I reckon you an’ Sarah might be in the right of it. Young Hannibal HAS got something to say!” He shakes his head, “What I’m thinking is…” he gives me a quizzical look, “…with another Heyes yakkin’ ten to the dozen – when will I be getting a word in?”
Supper is over. Hannibal plays happily with a stuffed toy Sarah made. A casual observer might mistake this for a five-legged giraffe with oddly placed wings. Officially – and I have this direct from the fount of all wisdom – the toy is an elephant. Hannibal likes to repeatedly loop the five legs – or four legs and trunk – together until he has something resembling a Gordian knot. Then, he unravels it. Both stages require applause.
Sarah is writing to her mother. “…I’ve told her all about his first steps, Alex…”
“…And how much he’s grown…”
“…And told her he looks more and more like you every day!”
I grin. “…He’ll be girl bait! Pure girl bait!” I throw Sarah a teasing look. “It’s the dimples,” I explain. “…One smile and …”
“Go on then,” she challenges, “…Show me!”
I give her ‘the smile’. She folds her arms, purses up her lips. A sceptical sniff. “Again!”
I try and hold ‘the smile’… start to laugh.
“Mmm…” she muses. “I have to admit – the dimples do have an effect…” She bounces out of her chair and comes to sit in my lap. “…I think they might just need…kissing.” A sunburnt nose nuzzles my cheeks and the promised dimple kissing is delivered.
“That’s a couple done…” I smile, “…What about the other two?”
“Bah! Ner! Nah nah…” objects Hannibal, offended that no one is watching him. “DAH!” Hoisting himself upright against the table leg, he holds up a twisted bundle of grubby cloth.
“What a tangle!” exclaims Sarah, admiringly. “What a clever boy you’ll be to get that undone!”
He lets go of the table. Standing ‘solo’ was mastered weeks back, though, sitting back down again without a thump took a while longer. Two little hands reach up. “Leeefff, Schpt! Mah.”
Obediently, Sarah slides off my knee and picks him up. “Hannibal sit with Mama,” she smiles, “With – Mama!” Hopefully, she repeats, “Mama, Mama!”
We had a perfectly clear, ‘Mama’, out of Hannibal over supper. It made my heart melt – so heaven knows what it did for Sarah. Unfortunately, though perfectly enunciated, it was undoubtedly addressed to the teapot. After discussion, we decided, in all conscience we could not count it as his first word.
She returns to her seat. Hannibal settles in her lap. “Dah?” he enquires, palm slapping down on the paper.
“Letter to Grandmother,” responds Sarah. “Letter. Letter.”
“Jarrr!” he agrees. An inquisitive grasp moves sideways. I scoop the ink out of reach. “Humph! Ba ba!” he grumps.
“I’m sure he’s going to start talking. SURE,” says Sarah. She turns our son to face her. “And,” she smiles, brightly, “…if you’re a clever boy and say ‘Mama’ …”
“…Or ‘Dada’…” I clarify.
“…If you say ‘Mama’, ‘Dada’…then…” extra clear voice, “…MAMA can put it in her letter. MAMA can write it down.” Hannibal tugs at Sarah’s collar.
“You’ve remembered it’s tomorrow I’m driving over to the Fort,” I say, “…to pick up feed? I’ll be setting out good and early. If you want that letter mailed, Light of my Life – you need to finish it.”
Sarah looks from me to the still open letter. “I’d love to tell mother his first proper word, Alex. He’s SO close.”
“Grrghtt. Ba ba, Mah,” chips in Hannibal, decisively. We both furrow our brows. Nope. It clearly made complete sense to him, but … nope. That was not a word.
“Just saying,” I repeat. “If it misses being mailed tomorrow – it’ll be a few weeks before I go again.”
Sarah bites her lip. Possibly she is weighing her options. “I’ll wait until morning anyhow,” she says. “You never know!”
I pour myself another mug of tea. Reach for the paper.
“I thought you were going to finish those bookshelves?” protests my wife.
“Just five minutes,” I promise.
Hannibal sits close, watching me work. I keep sharp tools out of reach. Mostly. He is SO quick! I catch him with a small chisel and whip it away, casting a rapid and guilty look over at Sarah.
She is, once more, absorbed in her letter and has not seen.
“Nahhhh!” Hannibal protests. “BAHHH!” Then, a more frustrated, “Dah Dah DAH!!!” I abandon carpentry and help him stand. “Guh Dah!” he thanks me, solemnly. His eyes are on Sarah. So, putty in his tiny hands, I walk him over. Looking up, she beams at the serious steps supported by two podgy arms clinging tight to my fingers. She glances at the clock.
“Time for bed, Hannibal,” He is borne away to the bedroom.
I return to my tools. The decorative shelf edging – sketched out by Sarah – is not easy. The tiny point of the smallest chisel slips, runs deep under my thumbnail.
“@**@!!” I yelp, sucking a globule of blood. “@**@!! @**@!! @**@!!!”
I swivel round. Sarah is no longer in the bedroom. She is right behind me. Hannibal, now in his nightshirt regards his purple-faced, wincing father – fascinated.
“Language!” I am reproved.
“Never mind @**@ing language! I’m in @**@ing agony here! Why do YOU have to make every @**@ing job so @**@ing difficult?!! Huh??!!”
“WELL!” I snap, still smarting. A beat.
Sarah hoists Hannibal more firmly onto her hip, so she can reach for my injured hand. My thumb is ‘kissed better’.
“Plain edges will be fine,” she says, soothingly.
“Bit late now I’ve started,” I grumble. “I just wish you’d stop complicating every single …” Another ‘make it better’ kiss. Another beat. Although I plead severe provocation from an inanimate object, I realise I am being a pain in the butt. “Sorry,” I offer. “You can smack me, if you like.”
“Later – if you’re lucky,” Sarah smiles. “Now, Hannibal…” she turns to our son, “Are you going to kiss Dada and say – ‘Night night’?”
I drink my morning tea. My eyes go to the letter, still unsealed. Sarah’s pen is set out – ready and waiting. Just in case.
“The wagon’s all hitched up,” I hint.
“Say…’Morning Mama. Morning Dada'” prompts Sarah, flashing a ‘wait’ frown at me, before returning her encouraging smile to Hannibal. “Mama!” A tea towel is held aloft and peeped over. “Here’s …Mama! Mama!” Another hiding. “Where’s Mama? Hidey…hidey…” Towel down. “Boh! Here’s Mama!”
“Boh! Boh!” squeals Hannibal, happily. He likes that game.
“So, once I’ve had breakfast…” this is another hint from me. A hungry one. “…I’ll be off.”
“Hannibal, darling…” pleads Sarah, “…talk for Mama. Say something for Mama.”
“Gstarrr! Pffffftttt!” he offers. This latter sound is clearly deeply satisfying. He repeats it. “Pfffftttt!”
Sarah wipes his spittle off her chin and sighs. Her shoulders droop. Hannibal reaches for the long-suffering, stuffed elephant.
“Sarah…” I say, tentatively, sniffing “…is something scorching?”
She darts to the stove.
“@**@!” she exclaims. Hannibal’s eyes come up. Sarah clamps a hand over her errant mouth. A half-guilty, half ‘that was YOUR fault’ glance is shot at me. Scraping sounds, as the worst burnt bits are removed. “Charcoal’s good for the stomach,” my wife remarks, not for the first time, setting a plate before me.
Hannibal returns, busily, to leg knotting duty when…
The seams of the much pulled and pummelled pachyderm give up the ghost. Wadding spills onto the floor.
“@**@!” Hannibal exclaims, loud and clear. He looks over at me, points at the tear. A small face expresses perfect disgruntlement. “@**@!” And, in case we missed it, “@**@!”
Raising an eyebrow, I push the still open letter and pen towards Sarah.