His sister is going away for the weekend and he’s volunteered to babysit her sweet little two-year-old Lola – what can go wrong? Well, apart from a toilet incident, the lost buggy, mental exhaustion…, writes EOIN BUTLER
There is a pigeon flapping in the rafters at Heuston Station. Below him, an endless procession of students tramp through the airy terminus, slinging their dirty laundry west for the weekend. My sister is seated at a tiny stainless steel table at the edge of the bustling concourse.
On her knee, my two-year-old niece, Lola, is slobbering over a bagel.In a few minutes, my sister will be boarding the 5.05pm train for Tralee. But first she has some last-minute instructions for me. “If she throws a tantrum,” my sister says. “Be firm with her, but listen to what she says.” I nod. “If you take her to the playground, bring the portable potty.” That’s a bit of a curveball. (Aren’t all potties portable?) But I nod, knowingly, all the same.
“There is a can of beer for you in the fridge if you want it,” my sister continues. “But don’t drink any more than that. You might have to drive to the hospital in an emergency.” I smile at my little niece. We’ll have to postpone that cocktail party so, I tell her. “Don’t joke,” my sister snaps. “This is serious.” She hugs the child, begs her to be good for her uncle, and then vanishes into the evening rush hour.
My sister and Lola’s father separated before my niece was born. He is an adoring parent, but he lives in Seattle. So, for the most part, my sister is raising their daughter alone. I live around the corner and babysit a couple of times a week. But although I don’t fully appreciate it yet, I really haven’t the faintest idea what the job of a single mother entails.
In her apartment, my sister has stuck a list of useful phone numbers to the fridge door: GP (surgery), GP (home), hospital, VHI, caretaker, property management, aunt, neighbour, candlestick maker . . . and so on.
Lola only eats healthy food and I don’t really know how to make those sorts of things. So I give her a banana and a glass of water for dinner. She seems happy with that. Then we colour with her markers and play hide-and-seek.
Eventually, it’s time for bed. Lola’s books all seem to feature woodland animals briefly separated from, but quickly reunited with, their mothers. Since Lola’s mammy will be whooping it up at a gay wedding in Killarney until Sunday, I sing The Beatles’ Good Night to her instead.
Then I turn out the light.
It’s only 9.30pm, but I am absolutely exhausted. On the television, Ryan Tubridy and Bob Geldof are discussing the world food crisis. Sorry lads, not tonight. ITV4 is showing Notting Hill, a turgid romantic comedy that was predictable the first time I saw it. I watch it right through to the end.
“Bagels!” screams the voice. “I want bagels!” I wake up with a shudder. It’s 6.25am. “Baageels!” Lola screams. I peel myself out of the bed. I butter a slice of toast and plonk her down in front of the cartoons.
That gets me about half an hour respite. Then it starts again. Good God, what is this child’s obsession with bagels? I didn’t even know what they were until I was about 28. She seems to consider them one of her basic human rights.
“You know, if we weren’t related,” I tell her, “we probably wouldn’t be friends.”
When you’re young, free and single, Dublin is a city of open doors. With a temperamental toddler, and a buggy the size of a tractor trailer in tow, things aren’t nearly as simple. I need a breakfast venue that is child friendly, with ample parking, that sells newspapers, strong coffee and – yes – bagels and is open before 8am. There’s only one thing for it. Yes, we’re going back to Heuston.
I don’t know a lot about children, but one thing I have learned is that you can sell them on just about any idea, provided you hype it up sufficiently in advance. (“What say we go to Uncle Eoin’s house after breakfast! To collect his mobile-phone charger! Yes!’) That’s why, the whole morning long, I keep talking up a storm about my friends Cormac and Mia.
They live in Clontarf! They have a child about Lola’s age! We drive up to meet them and spend several hours swinging and sliding and running around nearby St Anne’s Park. In the car on the way home, Lola is cranky. My plan seems to be working. The child is worn out.
Within a couple of hours, she’ll be asleep and my babysitting marathon will be as good as over. It’s not until we get home that my little bubble of self-satisfaction is burst. The boot is empty. I’ve just left Lola’s buggy, changing bag and portable potty (yes, it exists) on the footpath in the car park at St Anne’s.
Oh God. I turn the car around and race back to retrieve it. Thankfully, everything is still present and correct. I pack everything into the boot and set off for home again. But soon, another crisis is looming. Lola needs to go to the toilet. We’re inching our way through heavy traffic in Drumcondra, when she makes the announcement. Hold on a grá, I implore.
We’re almost home. It isn’t just the child whose energy levels are seriously waning. I suddenly realise that my own are too. I pull up in the underground car park for a second time, and lift the child out of her car seat. But it’s too late. She’s already wet through.
I carry her up to the bathroom, remove her wet tights and shoes and place her on the baby toilet seat. Then I rush back into the kitchen to see if my sister left any notes about how to handle a situation like this. “I’m finished,” Lola yells from the bathroom. “Just a second,” I reply. Can I fix this with wet wipes, I wonder? Or does she need a bath.
“I’m finished,” Lola yells again. “In a second pet,” I repeat. Just then I hear the sliding of plastic and a frightened gasp. I race back into the bathroom. The baby seat has become dislodged and Lola has fallen into the toilet. I scoop the child up into my arms and clasp her to my chest, rocking her from side to side. This might just be the rottenest feeling in the world. A little girl is crying and it’s all my fault.
That night, before I turn in, I intend to read a couple of chapters of Greg Baxter’s The Apartment. Instead, I watch an old episode of Friends.
Joey only has enough money to buy one encyclopaedia and, subsequently, keeps trying to start conversations with the others about topics beginning with the letter V. My entire perspective on entertainment is changing.
There are eight heavy fire doors between my sister’s apartment and the front door of her building. I notice this because Lola insists on being carried through them, despite the fact that I’m already pushing her buggy with my other hand.
It’s 9am. We’ve been up about three hours now.
This morning, she woke me up by climbing on to my bed and singing the Barney theme song to me. (“I love you, you love me . . .”) It was a nice moment. Not as nice as, say, an extra 15 minutes asleep might have been. But nice nonetheless. Anyway, Lola has decided that a trip to the zoo is in order this morning, and I’m punch-drunk enough to go along with that. My sister is back in Dublin at 3pm. So for me, today is all about taking the ball out to the corner flag and running down the clock.
Unfortunately, the zoo is considerably bigger than I remember it being.
And as Lola is still small, I have to lift her up constantly to see all of the animals. She’s asking a lot of questions and I lack the presence of mind even to make up the answers. In the South American House, Lola and some children next to her gasp at the antics of a monkey who comes right up to the window to say hello.
The father of the other children and I exchange bemused smiles. It’s only a second later that I realise he’s Nicky Byrne from Westlife. The man has two children with him here and he looks as fresh as a daisy. I may not be a fan of his music, but he has gone up in my estimation this day. Give me another day babysitting and I’ll probably be downloading his greatest hits.
We get home around lunchtime. My sister’s apartment is a mess. It occurs to me that I haven’t cleaned a dish, or washed a sheet, let alone replied to an email or text message, read a newspaper or magazine, met anyone socially, or done any of the things my sister does to maintain a normal life.
Before I leave that afternoon, I notice a couple of recent Christmas presents I bought her in pristine condition on her bookshelf. Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, 441 pages. Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, 600 pages. This year, I think I’ll get her something a little more practical. Like a weekend break and a babysitting IOU.