Grown-ups. You always see them talking about things behind your back, or saying that you CAN’T wear your undies on the outside like Superman, even though it is essential to your game, or talking about the stock market to you when you would rather it was behind your back, or… well, the faults in grown-ups are too many to count. And yet… why is it that no matter how much you swear that YOU will be different when you grow up, people never are different? Why is it that parents are so boring? Well, that is exactly what Elsie Pepper would find out one fateful day.
On the day before that day, she had been sent to bed early because she had taken the last cookie out of the jar. Why did grown-ups have to ruin everything? She had explained to them that she was doing exactly what they had told her to do, which was run off and play. She was playing a game: it was astronauts, and the cookie was her fuel. But did they listen, like any decent kid would have done? NO. Of course not.
Elsie was huffing about this in her bed, she noticed that it was getting very cold. Brrr, she shivered and pulled her doona up to her chin. I know, she thought. I can play humpback whales! She started making whale-y noises under her covers. But the game just wasn’t working for her. Then along came a thought. What if she had a REAL whale? Now how would she go about doing that? Her mind preoccupied with thoughts of whales, she slowly drifted off to sleep.
Whales were all very well, but Elsie knew that she would not be getting one. Still, she decided to ask if she could go to the aquarium, figuring that Mum and Dad couldn’t refuse to take her.
Mum was of a mystery age, but Elsie knew that she was positively ANCIENT. All grown-ups were. She was an “accountant”, but Elsie didn’t really know what it was, on account of the terrible explanation Mum had given her.
“Mum, what’s a ‘countant?” she had asked once, when she was younger. Mum had smiled at her.
“What makes you take such an interest in my work, sweetie?” Elsie had repeated her question. This is another thing about grown-ups: instead of giving straightforward answers to questions, they come out with questions of their own.
“It’s someone who adds numbers and manages tax,” said Mum.
Elsie pulled a face. She hadn’t known what tax was then, but adding numbers is just horrible. (She knows what tax is now. It’s paying money to buy nothing. She doesn’t get why it is such a big hit. Neither do I.)
Dad, on the other hand, was a much more interesting thing. He wrote picture books, like The Bunny That Went Hop, or The Gnu That Went Moo (that was Elsie’s favourite). He was also of an ancient age. Elsie knew this because his hair was all grey. Dad said he dyed it that colour, but Elsie doesn’t believe him.
Today, Mum was sitting at the computer tapping away at numbers. “Can you take me to the aquarium?” asked Elsie, then remembered her manners: “Pleeeeease?” (This was another grown-up thing. Manners! Who even needs them?)
“Sorry honey, I’ve really got to get this client’s job done. I’m already running overtime.” Mum ruffled Elsie’s hair. “How about you have some crisps to cheer you up?”
Elsie scowled. Crisps were no substitute for the aquarium. They always got ice cream at the aquarium. Ice cream was way better than crisps. But still, crisps were yummy, so she grudgingly said. “I guess.”
“Where are your manners, young lady?” asked Mum.
“At the aquarium,” said Elsie.
“Fine,” said Mum. “Go ask your father about the aquarium.” And she turned back to her computer screen.
Elsie found Dad in bed sleeping. She jumped on him to wake him up. He was very bouncy, just like a trampoline.
“OOOOOWEEEEE!” he yelled. “STOP BOUNCING ON ME!!” But Elsie went on bouncing, panting through her jumps, “Will… you… take me… to… the… aquarium?”
Dad took no notice. “GET OFF!” he hollered. “THAT HURTS!”
Suddenly, Mum was on the scene. Elsie quickly stopped jumping on Dad and looked at her with a solemn expression on her face.
“Right!” said Mum. “That’s it! You are going to your room this instant.”
“No,” said Elsie.
“Elsie May Pepper, go to your room before I kick you halfway to Timbuktu. I’ll count to ten.”
Elsie went, kicking the floor as she did.
It was so unfair. Didn’t grown-ups know what it was like to be a kid? Didn’t they know that Elsie was just trying to keep her father awake? Anyway, what kind of person naps in the daytime? Elsie found it boring enough lying in bed at night, let alone when she was allowed to be up doing fun stuff. But not fun stuff at the aquarium, she remembered, and sighed.
Elsie, sitting on her bed, could hear her Mum clickety-clacking on the keyboard, and her Dad’s occasional snores. Why were they sitting there working when they could be vacationing in the Bahamas or exploring the Himalayas with all the money they had? Why were they just wasting their lives with silly things like sleeping and sums when they could be eating ice cream at the aquarium. Elsie made a quick vow there and then to never waste her time sleeping or doing sums when she grew up.
Right now however, she was not grown up. She was sitting on her bed, wishing she was. Sadly, wishes don’t come true. She browsed her shelves, looking for something to play with. She saw it. A brand new puzzle that she had bought from the shops with her own pocket money just yesterday. It would be the perfect puzzle to play with right now, whilst she was feeling so bored and angry.
There was no picture on the box showing what the puzzle would look like once it was done, but Elsie was sure she could do it. She was a master puzzler.
As she sat there idly putting pieces into place, she began to think about all the things she would do when she was grown up. She would ride her white pony every day, have sweets for dinner, never go to work, drink milkshakes every day instead of water, play all the best games, climb all the best trees, have a chocolate fountain in her room, never go to bed, and NEVER, EVER be sent to her room ever again.
She looked at her puzzle and realised that it was all wrong. She had been putting in the pieces upside down. Darn, she thought, and punched the box. Now I’ll have to start all over again. Then she looked at the box again, noticing some more writing.
“Time Puzzle 1976.” Elsie read the box aloud, wondering what it meant.
Maybe that’s what the brand is called, thought Elsie. She had learned about brands when she much younger, and was wondering what the little colourful pictures with words were on the side of her iPad whilst she was watching videos. Her Dad said they were called “ads” and they helped things called “brands” (which were big groups of inventors) to sell their “product”, which was the thing they had invented. It still didn’t make that much sense to Elsie. Grown-ups aren’t very good at explaining things.
She turned her attention back to the puzzle, slotting the pieces in very particularly, not letting any thoughts about grown-ups or brands creep into her mind and distract her from the important task of putting together the puzzle. “One piece here, two pieces there,” she sang as she worked, and contemplated a career as a professional puzzler. But she decided she’d rather be eating ice cream at the aquarium, and besides, she had vowed not to work. Anyway, Elsie wasn’t sure if there were such thing as a professional puzzler.
The puzzle was really starting to take shape now. Elsie could see that it was a scene of some old-fashioned school children in the playground. They looked like they were having fun. Elsie wished she could join them. But no. Here she was, stuck in her room, all because of her annoying parents. Parents were the most annoying thing of all annoying things, Elsie thought. They stopped you from doing what you wanted, like going to the aquarium, and eating ice cream.
But they couldn’t stop her from doing her puzzle that she had bought with her own money, thought Elsie. What reason would they have to do that? And with that thought, she put in the last piece.
Elsie stood back to admire her work, feeling proud that she had finished it. Look at it, she thought. What a masterpiece. Suddenly, she felt the ground shake beneath her feet. She looked up, but nothing off her shelves was broken. Phew, she thought. That was a close call. They sometimes had earthquakes in her city, but they were usually just tremors like that one just then. Nothing dangerous or anything. Still, things could be broken.
Suddenly, the tremor started again. She saw the puzzle moving dangerously close to her, and suddenly everything began to whirl. Elsie spun around and around in circles as the puzzle sucked her in. There was a whirl of colour, and a whooshing sound. Then all was quiet and still.
Elsie looked up to see that she was sitting in the puzzle. She had almost expected this: it happened all the time in the stories Dad read to her. Still, it had never happened to her before, so it was interesting. It was exciting. It was an adventure.
Down in the playground, children were laughing, and running, and jumping. “Well?” said a voice next to Elsie’s ear. “Go and join them!” Elsie jumped in surprise, startled. She looked around and saw a flying puzzle piece hovering over her left shoulder. “Who are you?” she asked it. “I’m a flying Puzz L Guide. I help people who use the Time Puzzle.”
“The Time Puzzle?” Elsie asked, intrigued.
“The Time Puzzle,” said Puzz L. “It transports you to a different time. I help you get back home and guide you around while you’re here. By the way, is there any chance you want to go home right now?”
“No,” said Elsie. “Why would I? I only just got here.”
“Just hoping,” said the puzzle piece with a shrug. “I want to go back to bed. I’m not really a morning person.”
“It’s not the morning,” said Elsie. “It’s four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Not in Puzz L Land,” said Puzz L. “It’s 6am there.”
Elsie doesn’t waste time arguing with Puzz L about time, but instead races down towards the playground. “Wait up,” squeaks Puzz L, trailing behind.
As she nears the yard, she sees a group of kids around her age all sitting together… and she gasps. Because sitting together under that tree, laughing and playing and having fun, were her parents. Perfect miniature versions of Mum and Dad, the accountant and picture book author.
One of the kids beckoned for Elsie to come over. She had kind brown eyes and a pretty dimpled face.
“Come sit with us,” she called over the hubbub of the playground. Elsie took a seat next to the girl.
“What’s your name?” asked a short, stocky boy with ginger hair.
“Elsie,” said Elsie.
“I’m Marya,” said the girl with kind eyes. “He’s Elton, with the red hair, and she’s Karen, with the almond eyes. And sitting next to her is Kulas.”
Those are Elsie’s parent’s names. It’s definitely them.
Elton continues with the conversation they were having before. “I call to order this meeting of the Good Grown-up Society, in which we discuss how to be properly good grown-ups.”
“Hear, hear!” chimed in the others.
“Does anyone have any suggestions?” asked Elton, who seemed to be in charge.
“I do,” said Karen. She carried up a long list with her as she went to stand in front of the group. “Number One: NO LISTS!!!” She threw the list into the air and laughed. “No rules, lots of sweets, no work and NO LESSONS!”
“YEAH!” cheered everyone else. Elsie was stunned. This was her Mum. Her Mum’s rules were lots of lists, lots of rules, no sweets, lots of work and above all lots of lessons! It was hard to believe that she had once been this carefree girl with such good intentions about adulthood.
“Look,” whispered Puzz L. “You’re Dad’s up next.”
“Can I just say,” Kulas began, “That I do not like grown-ups. They’re always telling us off for silly reasons: especially parents. So I have decided that when I become a parent, I will let my kid do whatever they want. I’ll let them have ice cream for breakfast if they want it. They deserve the freedom that grown-ups have. Why should kids not be allowed that same freedom. Bring on parenting!” He bowed and walked back to his seat to wild applause from the four seated.
Elsie said her goodbyes to the other four kids and walked off to another, quieter part of the playground. She turned to Puzz L.
“Wow!” she said. “I never thought you’d show me that.”
“I know!” said Puzz L. “I’m as surprised as you are! You don’t get ice cream for breakfast… do you?”
“No,” said Elsie. “In fact, I don’t even get ice cream for dessert.”
“What a bunch of liars,” said Puzz L.
“I know, right,” said Elsie. “But liars with good intentions. I wonder where it all went wrong.”
“Would you like me to show you?” asked Puzz L. “It might take a while: things went wrong in a lot of different places.”
“Yes, please!” said Elsie, remembering her manners without realising. “Take me!” And suddenly the world started shaking, and spinning.
When the final sounds of whooshing faded away, Elsie found herself and Puzz L in a room filled with rows upon rows of beds. They had bedside tables that were sparsely decorated with photos and books. Almost every book was a textbook. She recognised Mum’s name on one of the covers: Karen Reid-Webster.
“Where are we?” Elsie asked.
“We’re in a dorm,” said Puzz L.
“What’s a dorm?” asked Elsie, annoyed at Puzz L for not seeing that she didn’t know what a “dorm” was.
“It’s a place where lots of people sleep when they go off to a really big, hard school called University.”
“University. University is really stressful, and it’s one of the things that made your Mum and Dad change their minds about parenting.”
“How about we take a look…”
They went out into the corridor, and found themselves facing a door marked “Exam Room”.
“What are ‘exams’?” asked Elsie.
“They’re very hard tests you have to take that basically determine your entire life.”
“Oh.” Elsie fell silent for a couple of seconds, then continued. “Why did this change Mum and Dad’s minds?”
“You’ll see,” said Puzz L, smiling as much is possible for a puzzle piece.
Elsie opened the door and they went in. There were a bunch of people sitting at desks, sweating in concentration as their tongues stuck out of their mouths. They were all murmuring numbers to themselves. And… one of them was Mum!
Elsie gasped. She peeked over at Mum’s test paper. The questions were all really hard Maths. She could barely add twenty-one and twenty-four!
“Can they see us?” she whispered to Puzz L.
“No,” he whispered back. “I made sure of it.”
Elsie nodded. Now she knew how hard the exams were… wow, that would have made Mum much more serious and grown-up-y. Besides, she’s moved somewhere away from her parents, so now she has to take care of herself properly, so she’s learning about health and all the other boring things you do to survive in the grown-up world.
Puzz L whispered to her, “I just want to show you one more thing here before we go.”
“OK,” whispered Elsie back. And they crept out of the room.
When they got back into the corridor, Elsie asked, “What did you want to show me?”
“This,” said Puzz L. He walks into a huge room filled with people. At the front, a man was talking about prime integers and how they relate to tax refunds.
Everyone in the room was taking notes, constantly jotting down little things.
“In a University,” said Puzz L, “you don’t get taught by a teacher and told what activities to do. You have to come to these talks, called lectures, which tell you things. Then you need to learn stuff on your own so you can pass those big, hard exams. So you need to teach yourself to teach yourself. Do you get it?”
Elsie wasn’t sure if she got it, but she nodded anyway.
“Good,” said Puzz L. “Now, shall we move on?”
“Sure,” said Elsie. And the world started spinning again.
Elsie found herself standing in a world of whirling colour and content. “Where are we?” she asked Puzz L, shielding her eyes from the blinding lights.
“We’re inside a computer,” said Puzz L.
“A computer?” repeated Elsie.
“A computer. And what’s about to happen to us is just a short snippet of what happened to your Mum and Dad when your Mum was pregnant. Somehow her computer found out about it, and this is what happened to her.”
The flood of lights dims and suddenly Elsie’s attention is drawn to a single video.
“Do you want a healthy child?” asks the presenter. “Well, early bedtimes are the best thing you can do for your child.”
Another ad shows up. “Sugar rots your child’s teeth. Call 933 today to get a special diet plan for your child and don’t forget to go to Sparkle Dentist.”
Then another: “Five veggies and two fruits!”
And another: “Lite and easy gives you healthy meals for your child.”
And even more! “Give your child a head start at Brindabell Primary.” “Lay down proper rules to give your child a head start.” “Introduce your child to the joys of healthy living through this new app.”
“Whoa,” said Elsie. “That’s enough! I can’t believe this happened to Mum and Dad! No wonder they cracked.”
“I know,” said Puzz L. “But there’s more.”
“No!” said Elsie.
“Yes,” said Puzz L. “Shall we go?”
And the world shook and spun.
This time they were sitting in a room filled with Mum, Dad and their various friends, all giving advice on parenting at the same time.
“Remember, healthy habits for life!”
“An education is the most important thing for your child to have!”
“Don’t forget regular checkups!”
“You will need to live more tidily from now on, set an example.”
“Remember, not to much screen time!”
“Oh my gosh,” said Elsie. “I had no idea about this! Talk about peer pressure!” (Peer pressure is where your friends try to make you do something you might not want to do. They had learned this in safety lessons at school.)
“I know,” said Puzz L. “Could you stand up to this much pressure?”
“I don’t know,” said Elsie. “Would you be able to?”
“No way!” said Puzz L. “You must be joking! No one could survive this.”
Elsie nodded, thinking about it.
“Now,” said Puzz L. “I think it’s time to go home.”
And for the very last time that day, the world started whirling.
Elsie and Puzz L arrived back home in almost no time at all. Her parents were calling through the door: “Let us in, Elsie!”
When Elsie opened the door, they both gave her big hugs. “We love you,” they said, “even when you’ve been naughty.”
Elsie was pleased to hear this but she still thought it was unfair that she had been given consequences. “Mum,” she said, “why did you change your mind so much about parenting since when you were a kid?”
“I didn’t,” said Mum. Liar, thought Elsie.
“Why did you, Dad?”
“Well you see, darling, grown-ups go through this thing called “Grown-up School” where you learn to be responsible and not have fun. It’s a very important part of growing up.”
“Like University?” asked Elsie.
“Exactly like University,” said her Dad. “In fact, it is so like University that I think it might even be called that.”
“Do you learn to drink tea and coffee at Grown-up School?” asked Elsie. “And wine and beer?”
Her parents laughed. “Now, let’s not get into that, sweetie,” said Dad, and they left.
Elsie flopped on the bed and reviewed the day’s activities. They were very interesting and made a good movie in her head. She decided to write them down. “Puzzl Tim” she wrote. She wasn’t sure if it was spelled right, but never mind.
The next morning at school, she told everyone all about what had happened to her. “Wow,” they said. “I wonder if our parents were like that. Can we see?”
She nodded. “Just come around to my place after school!” And so her entire school was invited to her house.
A troop of children went out of the school gates that morning and walked to Elsie’s house, all going in the same direction.
When they got to the door, Elsie knocked and Mum came to open it.
“What are all these kids doing here?” she asked Elsie in surprise.
“They came to see my new puzzle!” said Elsie. Mum’s mouth stayed wide open in shock.
“Let’s go, gang!” called Elsie and all the children raced inside, cheering and yelling, trampling poor Mum.
“Wait!” Mum called. “You’re not allowed!” But Elsie couldn’t hear her.
Elsie and her friends raided the fridge and pantry and were soon feasting on crisps and cake and ice cream. It was going to be the best afternoon ever!
They ran upstairs to see the puzzle, but just as they got to the door, they saw Mum and Dad blocking it. Elsie smiled at them.
“Hello Mum, hello Dad!” said Elsie. They stared angrily back at her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“You are in deep, deep trouble, young lady!” Mum said. Dad echoed her.
“Deep, deep trouble!”
“Do any of your parents know where you are?” Mum asked the rest of Elsie’s friends. They shook their heads.
“Well you are NOT allowed to be in my house, so scram!” Dad said.
The children scrammed. They were scared by Mum and Dad’s yelling.
“And you, my girl,” they said to Elsie, “will go to your room IMMEDIATELY!!!”
She went to her room. She could hardly believe that she was in trouble AGAIN!
When she got into her room, she saw Puzz L waiting for her.
“Cheer up!” he said. “Try doing the puzzle again to make yourself feel better.”
Elsie took his advice because who knew, there might be some sort of a magical candyland in the puzzle this time. But there wasn’t. As her fingers put the puzzle pieces into place, Elsie noticed that it was two children being yelled at by a very angry man… he seemed to be their school’s principal. Only he didn’t seem to be very friendly at the time of the picture. And the children… they were Mum and Dad!
“Lets go,” Elsie said to Puzz L. And so they went.
“How dare you put glue on your teacher’s chair, forcing him to walk around with a chair attached to his pants for the entire day! I’m expecting a written apology!”
“Actually,” said Mum, “I have the rulebook here and there is absolutely NO rule about glue on chairs.”
“I DON’T CARE!” screamed the principal. “You are in SO MUCH TROUBLE!”
“Wow,” she said to Puzz L. “I never imagined Mum and Dad getting in trouble. This makes it much better that I’m in trouble. I wonder if you still get into trouble as an grown-up.”
“Would you like to see?” said Puzz L.
“Oh, yes, yes, YES!!!!”
“Well, let’s go!” And with that, they were gone.
They were standing in Mum’s work. She went here every day that Elsie was at school and did difficult sums. Mum was there too, standing in front of her Boss and looking scared.
“What’s wrong with her?” asked Elsie.
“You’ll see,” replied Puzz L.
Her boss was a bit like the headmaster: red and angry. Elsie thought he looked a bit like a tomato that was about to explode.
“What were you thinking, Karen?” he splutters (that means yell with a lot of spit).
“I’m sorry, Mr Cartwright.”
“YOU SHOULD BE! I SHOULD HAVE YOU FIRED ON THE SPOT!”
“Oh, no, please don’t Mr Cartwright!”
“Please don’t? PLEASE DON’T! DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU DID, WOMAN? YOU LOST OUR BEST CLIENT! NOT ONE OF OUR BEST: OUR BEST!!!!”
“Yes Mr Cartwright, I’m sorry Mr Cartwright, I’ll try to do better Mr Cartwright.”
Elsie and Puzz L moved away from the spluttering boss and poor Mum.
“Poor Mum,” said Elsie. “Why isn’t she answering back to him like she did to the principal?”
“Her Boss could fire her, which is where she isn’t allowed to do her job any more. If she’s not allowed to do her job, then she can’t get any money to buy food and clothing and presents with.”
“Oh,” said Elsie. “So that’s just another way grown-ups change.”
“Just another way,” said Puzz L. “Shall we go home?”
“Sure,” said Elsie. And they swirled and whirled all the way home.
This time when they got home, Elsie was in big trouble. But she explained that she didn’t know about the rule of no friends home unless organized and things went about the normal way.
The next day, she was sitting on her bed reviewing the previous day’s events in her mind, when she had a shocking thought.
“Oh no!” she said. “What if I grow up all sensible and grown-up-y!”
Suddenly, Puzz L was there at her side. “Would you like to see yourself all grown up?” he asked her.
“Oh yes,” said Elsie. “I don’t just want to: I need to.”
And the world whirled yet again.
When they could see again, they were standing in a kitchen with Elsie as a Mum scolding her children.
“James Pepper!” she said to her youngest. “Put that cookie down and have an apple instead.”
“Anna! Time for school! Have a nice day sweetie!”
“Toby! Into the shower at once! You’re filthy!”
“No,” said Toby.
Elsie Mum picked him up and dumped him in the tub, then ran the water. She went out of the bathroom and locked the door behind her. Then she came out to see James munching on a cookie.
“Right!” she said to him. “Go to your room now. WITHOUT THE COOKIE!”
Anna was complaining about school.
“Too bad,” Elsie said to her. “You’ve got to go.” She trundled Anna off.
“Mum,” asked Poppy, “can I go to the aquarium?”
“Sorry darling,” said Elsie. “I have to do some important stuff for the bank.” She was now the manager of a bank.
“How about you have some crisps to cheer you up?”
Elsie giggled. She knew what would come next. But if that would all happen to her when she was an grown-up… then what could she do to stop it happening?
As soon as she and Puzz L got back home, they wrote a list.
Our List Of How To Be A Good Grown-up
- Always eat ice cream for breakfast
- Eat at least one packet of crisps every day
- If you have kids, let them do WHATEVER they want
- Go to bed late
- Don’t bother with work: go on holiday instead!
- Never, ever follow rules
- Never, ever create rules
- DO NOT act at all sensible
- Play lots of games
- Under no circumstances give in to peer pressure
- BE YOUR OWN PERSON!!!! WHO CARES WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK!
And you will see that if you follow this list, you really can be a first-class grown-up.