A Child's Gallery

Author's note: From a notebook labeled ``Children'' kept for a number of years in several different countries, and only recently refound in a carton stored by the most forebearing of friends in their already book-crammed London flat.

WHEN Wendy, age three, fell into the Thames from the garden bank they'd been playing on, Simon, her cousin, a year and a half older, at once jumped in, too. Grabbing her floating skirt, he managed to splash both of them to a nearby clump of reeds where they could hang on to the brittle stalks until help arrived.

When fulsomely congratulated on his courage and initiative, he seemed surprised.

``But I like her.'' he said. AGROUP of children, running about and shouting to one another, were flying their multicolored kites in a freshening wind. It was on Hampstead Heath; and I'd paused to watch when suddenly one of the bright things, tugging itself loose, took off alone into a vasty sky. Up and up it went, as a dismayed little girl helplessly watched.

On the footpath where I was standing, a small boy had stopped short. He stood there riveted, head thrown back. On a sudden impulse, I said ``It's escaped, hasn't it!''

With a quite startling intensity, he said into the air, ``Oh I wish I could fly!''

And then, ``Me I mean! In my own skin!''

BEFORE dining with their parents, I went up to the familiar nursery to have a word with the children. This of course is Nanny McNeil's domain: where she classically presides over crises, confidences, and all the nuances of a relationship not easily grasped by the uninitiated. Now, from her comfortably shabby sitting-room, she could be heard indulging in her only personal extravagance. A lengthy telephone call from here in Kensington to the Highland village from whence years ago she'd come.

Already in their pajamas, the children were lying flat-out on the floor, sheets of drawing-paper and colored crayons explaining the uncanny silence. The two boys, Benedict and Julian, appeared confident enough. An aircraft. A racehorse. No problems there. Their little sister, the youngest, has always been marked by a rather special reticence, as if only on her own terms prepared to receive overtures from a giant world.

``May I look, Emma?'' Not until she nodded, did I feel permitted to stoop beside her. With a bright pink crayon, she'd drawn row upon row of what appeared to be half-moons, all curved upward in precisely the same way. Baffled, it was some moments before I risked saying, ``I'd love to have you tell me - but only if you'd like to.'' Unexpectedly forthcoming, she said ``They're smiles.''

And then, shyly, ``I don't know how to put the faces around them.''

OVERHEARD from the seat behind, on an early morning bus between a Suffolk village and nearby Cambridge where a highly respected school for younger children had just re-opened after its long summer break:

``But I do like some people. Only not everybody.''

``Then you must simply try harder, is all I can say, because here we all are, however unfortunate the arrangement may seem. Nobody's asking you to love everybody. Just to try to get along with as many as possible.''

``Even Miss Lovelock?''

``Who on earth's Miss Lovelock?''

``Oh, she's dreadful! Dreadful! She bites little children.''

``James! Really!''

``Well, she'd like to,'' he temporized.

``I can't say I blame her. If she's been landed with many others like you.''

A silence. Then, ``All right.''

``All right what?''

In an excessively polite voice, he asked, ``Would you like me to give her a present?''

``Frankly, such an idea hadn't remotely occured to me. Have you something in mind?''

Another silence, while presumably he fished around.

``Perhaps one of your pretty rings,'' he came up with.

``One of my - Certainly not!''

Both evidently were brought to the same standstill.

Then, ``Look here,'' she began again, ``you've given me an idea. We'll just have time, I think, to pop into Mr. Gobody's shop - so how about having him make up one of his pretty rose baskets? It could be sent to your Miss Lovelock, with a card signed by you. Something cheery - like `A happy year ahead for us all.'''

After a pause, he said uncertainly, ``She's a very big lady.''

``So I'd assumed.'' Then, ``Oh, I see.'' as if seriously acknowledging a serious point raised. ``But here's something, James, I think you'll find interesting. All ladies, or at least most of them, whether little or big, for some reason seem flattered if given roses.''

``They do?'' His voice had lifted to match hers.

``Don't ask me why. It's simply something I've privately observed.'' Several moments of silence. Then, ``Now what's the matter?''

Suddenly sounding forlorn, he said, ``If only there weren't millions of things I don't know!''

``Oh darling -'' For the first time her own voice had flown out. ``It is a nuisance, isn't it?''

``How long did it take you to know everything?'' he asked.

``Ha! Try that on your father,'' she said.

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