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Not bounded by a business suit

MATTHEW! Matthew! Put that bear down and do your teeth, we haven't all day! Chlo"e, have you got your hat?'' I have seen my wife off at Johannesburg airport only the evening before, and already my role as substitute for a few days is testing me.

After I have brushed Matthew's teeth for him, tucked in his shirt, and located Chlo"e's hat in the toy drawer under the bed (one of life's mysteries -- it wasn't there last night), we are ready.

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I never thought anyone could get into a car so slowly. Matthew clambers in first, in the manner of a mountaineer tackling a graded climb, and decides to sit in the seat nearest the door. The other one now has to scramble over him and treads heavily on his knee. A fight seems imminent, but threats from the superpower enforce a truce.

Dropping off Chlo"e at primary school is no trouble. I open her door, we have a quick hug, and she trots off with her suitcase, straight-backed, short hair shining.

Matthew is in another world when we arrive at his nursery school. All of a sudden everything is new and unfamiliar and wonderful. He has never seen a pigeon before, and that dog trotting down the grassy verge is surely a stranger to the neighborhood.

The slender bare branches of the young trees that line the road reduce Matthew to silent admiration. And he has not yet even unfastened his seat belt. Rescue arrives in the shape of a small friend in another car, and Matthew scrambles eagerly out the door, forgetting his suitcase and his jersey.

We say goodbye, which takes a long time, as he is at a stage when I have to repeat what he says to me exactly. If it's ``See you later, Dad,'' the reply has to be ``See you later, Matthew.'' My thoughts being on the cycle of the washing machine at home, I fluff my lines twice.

Back at the house I plan the chores, and by half past 9 I am finished. This is ridiculous. I go out to the shops for a new fluorescent tube for the kitchen, fit it, tidy some cupboards that are too high for my wife, feel immensely efficient. Somehow it is nearly midday and I go back to the nursery school and collect Matthew. He is cheerful and has a large smudge on his leg. He is glad to see me and tells me all about the big chow dog that belongs to his teacher, but I am concentrating on the traffic and have to make the usual programmed parental noises that indicate close attention.

We arrive at Chlo"e's school a little early and wait for a few minutes before she emerges from her music workshop, looking pink and relieved that we are there.

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When we get home I make some sandwiches, which disappear at speed. My next plan is for the children to rest in their bunks, but somehow I find myself reading them a story, the three of us curled up on the double bed.

As we accompany Christopher Robin and his friends on an ``expotition'' to find the North Pole, I glance at my audience. Chlo"e lies still, missing nothing. Matthew's brown eyes are wide open and attentive, caught up in the narrative. They are there in spirit, part of the single file of assorted creatures pushing through the bracken, not really knowing where they are headed, but confident that Christopher Robin will, as always, lead them to where something memorable and nice will happen.

When the story finishes, the children clamor to go to the park, so off we go. It is a very small park, probably not more than two acres, unfenced, informal, quiet, with a few small trees, some swings, a slide, a long green rocking horse, and a couple of weathered benches. The houses on each side slumber behind their walls in the still-warm winter sun.

I sit cross-legged on the short, tawny grass in my old cords and think about nothing in particular as the children rock themselves on the horse. It squeaks soothingly. We have the place to ourselves. Sometime later a neighborhood dog idles its way across the grass and sits down nearby. It smiles apologetically and I smile back. It dozes with its muzzle between its paws for a few minutes with one eye open, then shuts it.

After about an hour the children have tried everything twice and we are ready to leave. We say goodbye to the dog and it jogs back across the park and disappears up the next road.

On Sunday, a courageous bachelor friend has invited us to lunch, wisely choosing an informal family restaurant. He is shortchanged as far as stimulating conversation goes, but at least my nervous vigilance averts disasters at the table and smooths over the shameful manners that children unfailingly produce in public.

My kind friend is one of several to offer hospitality and what they imagine to be relief to a beleaguered parent. But this week I am, in fact, rather enjoying myself. Our unaccustomed situation leads the three of us to do more together than we would normally. We roam the bookshelves and spend time reading, crammed three to an armchair.

Being children of Africa, our two enjoy especially Kipling's ``Elephant's Child,'' with its setting by the ``great, grey, green, greasy Limpopo River,'' and the Central African folk tales retold by Geraldine Elliott. The vernacular names of the animals are familiar, being in the dialect of my childhood. Our reading sessions together are fun, and I reflect gratefully on the effortless choice my wife and I made several years ago of not having a television.

My week is over, and here I am at the airport again waiting for the plane to land. I have just dropped the children off at school, and after I have collected B. and taken her home, I shall return to the office with its hustle and vastly different perspectives. How has it been, these last six days of my life? Well, we played, we read, we laughed, occasionally we shouted, or at least, I did. It was a good experience. The world is not bounded by a business suit.

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