Just like them

photo by Daan Spijer

Granma told me that everyone has at least one secret. We were sitting in the garden behind her and Grandad’s house. I was visiting them for the weekend.

“What’s your secret?” I asked her.

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be my secret anymore, would it?” she replied.

I had to think about this. I suppose she was right.

Then I asked her, “Have you never told anyone your secret?”

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

“Not even Grandad?”

“No, not even your Grandad?”

“What about Mum and Dad?” I asked her.

“Not even them,” she said.

“Do Mum and Dad have secrets?” I asked.

Granma nodded. “I’m sure they do.”

I started to wonder what secrets Grandad and Granma and Mum and Dad could have that they wouldn’t tell me about. And then I wondered what secret I had. I couldn’t think of one.

I looked at Granma and said, “I don’t think I have a secret.”

She laughed and said, “I’m sure you have one somewhere. If you think really hard, I’m sure you’ll find something you know that you haven’t ever told anyone about.”

While I was thinking hard about this, I heard the back door of the house bang shut. I looked up. Grandad had come out with a large tray. He put it down on the garden table. On it were two cups and a teapot and a milk jug and a sugar bowl and a glass of juice and a plate of biscuits.

“Ooh, my favourite biscuits!” I clapped my hands with excitement. I love the way they are soft and sweet and have bits of chocolate in them and currents and something spicy.”

I took one of the biscuits and bit into it. Mmm. It was beautiful.

“How do you make these, Grandad?” I asked.

He winked at me. “That’s a secret, my dear.”

“Please tell me. Then I can make them at home.”

He tapped the side of his nose with his finger and said, “Then it wouldn’t be my secret recipe anymore, would it?”

“Oh dear,” I sighed. “How can I ever find out people’s secrets?”

“Well,” Grandad said, “you can look at someone very carefully and imagine what it would be like being that person. Then you can imagine what their secret might be.”

“But that wouldn’t be the same as really knowing their secret,” I protested.

“No, it wouldn’t,” Grandad said.

Then Granma said, “But it can be much more exciting, my dear.”

“How?” I asked.

“Well, sometimes you find out what someone’s secret is, and that can be very disappointing.”

“But I think finding out someone’s secret would always be exciting,” I said.

Granma looked at me with her head a bit slanted, the way she does when she gets serious. “Think of it this way. Have you ever expected a certain birthday present and when your birthday comes, the present is not there?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” I said. I didn’t really want to say this, because Mum and Dad had always told me not to expect too much.

“So, it can be the same with secrets,” Granma explained. “You expect someone to have a really wicked secret, but when you find out what their secret is, it’s very ordinary.”

Grandad added, “And you can feel disappointed.”

Grandad poured tea into the two cups and I drank some of my juice and ate another biscuit. Yum!

I asked them, “How do I imagine what it’s like being another person?”

“Well,” Granma said, “you look at them very carefully and…”

I interrupted her. “But Mum and Dad always say I shouldn’t stare at people. It’s rude.”

“Yes,” Grandad said. “It is rude to stare. But you can observe them. You can look at them the same way you look at things around you.”

I nodded. I understood what he meant.

Granma took over. “You observe how a person sits or walks or stands. You see how they hold their head and how their shoulders look. You observe everything about them.”

“I know!” I said suddenly, interrupting Granma. “It would be my secret that I’m looking at them.”

“That’s right,” Granma said.

I felt glad that I could make something secret, because I still didn’t know if I had a real secret.

“What do I do after I have looked at them like that?” I asked.

Granma explained. “What you do next is to try and make your body as much like the other person’s as you can.”

“What do you mean, Granma?” I didn’t understand what she meant.

“Well, for instance, if the person has shoulders hunched forward, you hunch your own shoulders forward. And if they walk straight and tall with a smile on their face, that’s what you do.”

“How does that help?” I asked.

Grandad chuckled. “The more you can pretend to be the other person, the better you can imagine what their secret is.”

“I’m still not sure,” I said.

“Wait until you have an opportunity to try it,” Granma said.

And that’s what I did.

Two days later I was on the bus to school. There was a woman sitting on the seat opposite me. I looked without staring. She had one leg over the other and was leaning forward a bit. She had her hand against her cheek and her elbow on her leg, like she was trying to keep her head up. She was staring at the floor. She was frowning.

Very slowly I started sitting like she was. I crossed my legs and rested my head on my hand and put my elbow down on my leg. I stared at a lolly paper on the floor.

Nothing happened. I mean, I still felt like me. Then I remembered what Granma and Grandad told me. I frowned by screwing my forehead up.

Still nothing happened. And then it did. I started feeling sad. But I still didn’t know what the woman’s secret was. Maybe she had a sore tooth and was going to the dentist. That’s not really a secret, but it was like a secret, because she hadn’t told me.

I sat up straight and I stopped feeling sad. Then the strangest thing happened. The woman sat up straight as well and she smiled at me. I smiled back. I was worried that she might think I was being rude. Luckily the next stop was school, so I stood up and walked to the back of the bus, ready to get off.

When I got home from school, I was very excited about what happened on the bus that morning. I nearly told Mum, but decided I would keep it as my secret.

“Hi dear,” Mum said. “You look happy. Had a nice day?”

“Yes Mum. Any cake left from last night?” I asked.

“Mmm. I can see you’re not going to tell me what you’re so happy about. Yes, there’s some cake. As long as you eat some fruit first.”

I knew there was no arguing about the “fruit first”.

On the weekend I was walking in the park with my little sister. I sat on one of the benches while she played on the swing. On a bench nearby sat an old man.

“What is his secret?” I wondered.

The man was sitting up straight, his left arm resting along the back of the bench. He was watching three magpies looking for food in the grass.

I sat up straight and put my left arm along the back of the bench I was sitting on. I smiled like the man was doing and watched the magpies.

Almost straight away I was feeling happy and started giggling at what the magpies were doing. The one with slightly grey feathers kept following the other two, making loud noises. I guessed it was asking to be fed. Then I guessed that the old man was feeling happy about being able to sit in the park and watch the birds. I also imagined that he was in the park with his grandson and that he was waiting while he played on the swings.

I heard my little sister laughing and I turned around. She was talking with a boy on the swings. I got up and went to give my sister some pushes on the swing.

After a while, the old man came over and started pushing the boy on his swing.

The old man said to me, “Is she your little sister?”

“Yes,” I said. “And I have an older sister, too.”

Then he said, “This is my grandson. They’re about the same age.”

I suddenly felt very excited. I had guessed someone’s secret and I was right. I couldn’t wait to tell Granma and Grandad.

A few days later, at school, I saw a girl from grade two sitting on her own at lunchtime. She was all hunched up. I looked around and saw that everyone was ignoring her. I went and sat down next to her. She didn’t say anything and neither did I. I started sitting like her, hunched up and looking down at the ground. I felt sad.

I got a shock when the girl moved closer to me and put her head against my shoulder. I didn’t move. Then she started crying. I couldn’t think of anything to do, but then I put my arm around her like Mum does with me when I’m sad.

The little girl leaned more against me and kept crying. Then she sniffed and said, “My dog died.”

I knew she was sad, but I couldn’t guess about her dog. I only guessed part of her secret.

I asked her how her dog died and she told me it was sick for a week and then died. I felt like crying too, it was so sad.

At home I was sitting on my bed, thinking about guessing people’s secrets. I looked at all my stuffed animals lined up in front of the mirror. Could they guess my secret?

Then all of a sudden I giggled. I wondered if I could guess my bear’s secret. His name is Urso, which means ‘bear’. Could I find out what it was like being Urso?

I slipped off my bed and sat on the floor with my back against the bed. I looked carefully at Urso. He was leaning back, with his legs out straight in front. His arms hung down by his sides and his head was leaning slightly to the left.

I made my body sit just like he was. It wasn’t quite right. Then I puffed my stomach out and leaned my head like his head was, and I started to feel lonely. I felt like I’d been dropped on the floor and forgotten. I didn’t like that feeling, so I sat up straight. The feeling went away.

I looked at Urso. It was weeks since I’d paid any attention to him. I would feel awful if everyone had ignored me for a week.

Soon it was Easter, and I was at Granma’s and Grandad’s again. We were sitting outside in the garden.

Grandad was sitting on the other side of the table from me, leaning back in his chair, with his hands behind his head and his elbows sticking out. I moved to sit just like him, looking up into the trees.

I heard Granma come out of the house and walk towards us. “Would either of you like a drink?” she said.

Grandad and I both said “Yes please” at the same time. I said it in a deep voice like Grandad has, instead of my normal squeaky voice.

I had forgotten who I was and quickly sat up straight and looked at Grandad and Granma. They were both looking at me and then we all laughed.

“Well, well,” Granma said, when we had stopped laughing. “What have you been up to since we saw you last?”

I said, “That’s a secret.”

We all laughed again.

“And what other secrets have you discovered?” Grandad asked me.

“I found out that Urso, my bear, is lonely.”

“And how did you find that out?” Granma asked.

“I sat just like him, on the floor, with my legs straight out and my head leaning over and making my stomach big and round.”

“And have you found out anything else you didn’t know yet? Any other secrets?” Grandad asked me.

“Well,” I said. I didn’t know how to tell them about Angela, my other sister. She’s two years older than me. I looked at Granma and Grandad and said, “I found out about Angie.” I felt tears come into my eyes.

“I see,” Granma said. “Didn’t you know that already?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No-one ever told me.”

“So,” Granma said, “did you talk to your Mum and Dad about it?”

“I talked to Mum. And to Angie.”

“What did Angela say?” Granma asked.

“She told me that she hurt her back when she was little, before I was born, and that it hurts sometimes and that’s why she sometimes sits crooked. Then she asked me how I knew. I told her I found out by doing the ‘sitting like the other person’ thing and when I did that, I thought something was wrong with my back. It got really sore.”

“How did you know there wasn’t something wrong with your back?” Grandad asked.

“Because when I stopped sitting like Angie, it stopped hurting. When I sat like her again, it hurt again.”

“I see,” Grandad said. “We really started something, didn’t we.”

“What do you mean, Grandad?”

“When we talked to you about finding out about people’s secrets, last time you were here.”

Then Granma said, “Did Angela understand about how you found out?”

“Yes,” I said. “Well, she did when I explained it to her. She was very interested in how to do it.”

We didn’t say anything for a while and then Granma said, “So, drinks anyone?”

“I’d love a cup of tea,” Grandad answered.

Granma looked at me, with her eyebrows up.

“Could I have some orange juice, please?” I asked her.

“Of course you can,” she said.

Granma went back to the house to get the drinks. Grandad and I didn’t talk until she came back and we’d all had something to drink and I had eaten two biscuits.

I said, “Mum said that Angie will be alright when she’s older, but she’s going to have to wear a brace next year, and special shoes, to straighten her back.”

Grandad said, “I’m surprised you didn’t know already.”

“Mum said she didn’t want to worry me. I sometimes wondered why Angie walks the way she does, but I didn’t think about it much,” I said.

I drank some more juice.

“Okay,” Granma said, “and what secrets did you find you have?”

I smiled when I remembered. “When I feel sad or angry, I can change how my body is, and then I can feel different, sometimes.”

“That’s very useful,” Grandad said. “And did you find out any real secrets you have?”

“Yes,” I said, “I found out…” Then I stopped and said, “Oh no! You nearly got me to tell you my real secret and then it wouldn’t be my secret anymore.”

Granma and Grandad both laughed.

Grandad said, “You have learned a lot in the last few weeks.”