Sunday 12 December 2010

The evening interrogation: Sheep lips and ghost pudding

My daughters and I have instigated a new game. Or, more correctly, they have instigated a new game, and I have to suffer through it. It is called 'questions at bedtime' and it goes something like this: I read them a story, tell them it is time for bed, kiss them goodnight and make for the door. At this point one of them, in an effort to postpone the moment before I turn off the light and leave them to go to sleep, will say: "Daddy, can I just ask you something?"
This initially seems like reasonable request, so I pause, hand on the light switch, and say: "Yes, of course". This is my first and only mistake, but it is grave one. What then follows is a game of wits: they will a string together a series of infuriating questions, many of which will be gibberish, but for reasons that I cannot properly comprehend, I feel somehow honour-bound to try and answer them. The 'game' ends when either am forced to say "I don't know", or I crack up entirely and start shouting "For God's sake, go to sleep!" It is a game that I always lose. The whole process, frankly, is a specialised form of intellectual torture.
Youngest goes first. She always goes first, because she can soften me up with any kind of nonsense question off the top of her head, giving Eldest the opportunity to then pick holes in whatever I say.
"Daddy," she asks, "Why do we have lips?"
A relatively easy opener, I think. This one I can answer. "To help us speak" I say. "So that we can make lots of different shapes with our mouths to make different noises."
Youngest nods at this, satisfied. Eldest, however, has sensed an opportunity."Why do animals have lips, then?" asks Eldest. "If they are for talking?"
"Um..." I say. Great, I think, one question in, and already I'm struggling.
"Because, Daddy, you know animals can't speak..." she reminds me, in the manner of someone gently chiding a simpleton.
"Yes, but they still communicate..." I insist.
She looks at me with contempt, as if I have somehow let her, myself, and the entire family down with my foolishness. "With their lips?" she asks, in a voice that is heavy with cynicism.
"Ye-es," I say, though now with noticeably less conviction as I am beginning to doubt myself.
"Sheep? Sheep do this?" she asks dubiously. "In a field? Outside? Sheep wrinkle their lips at each other, even though they can't talk?"
"Yes," I say, thinking, Ah, no, that really doesn't sound right at all now. "So that they can make different noises" I add.
"But sheep don't make different noises," she points out. "They just go 'baa'.."
"That's true..." confirms Youngest, in her unappointed role as Chief Fact Corroborator.
"Yes, but I think the 'baa' noises sound different to other sheep" I offer.
"Because of their lips?" asks Youngest
"Yes," I say, though at this point I am now about 95% certain that I am wrong, and I can't think of single earthly reason why sheep should have lips in the first place. It's not like they have much to talk about.
"Are you sure?" ask Eldest, but only because she is still relatively young. In a few years time she will just shout: 'That sounds like bullshit!', which is clearly what she actually means.
"Good night, then" I say brightly, deciding that a swift exit is the best policy
"Daddy, wait, wait!" says Youngest. "Why are animals in zoos?"
Again, on the surface, quite a simple question. "So we can go and see them" I explain.
"Do they go home afterwards? When the zoo shuts?"
"No," I say, realising that she possibly thinks that the cheetahs at Whipsnade are there because it's their job to pace up and down in their enclosure all day, and perhaps that they get to clock off at 5pm and drive home to their families. "They actually live in the zoo."
"Even when the people aren't there?"
"Yes, all the time."
She ponders this. "Don't they get bored?" she asks.
Personally, I tend to think that they do. "Yes, probably." I say, nodding, as if I know this for a fact.
"What do they talk about?"
"They can't talk, sweetheart" I say.
"But they've all got lips. Just like sheep..." points out Eldest, who has been listening carefully and has now masterfully located an inconsistency with my previous statements, which she can now exploit mercilessly. Sometimes she is so like her mother. Nonetheless, I feel a touch of paternal pride: if she can keep this up, a glittering career as a barrister clearly awaits her.
"...and anyway: birds don't have lips, but they can still communicate" she adds.
"Birds have beaks, not lips, Daddy" agrees Youngest gravely, as if I really should have considered this before speaking.
I sigh deeply. I really would very much like to go downstairs and eat my dinner now.
"Birds have tongues, though" I say. "And that's all part of how animals communicate. Lips are just one option."
Eldest looks deeply sceptical, as if I have somehow cheated by holding this fact back.
"No, birds have beaks," insists Youngest. "Not tongues."
This could literally go on all night, I think. "They have beaks and tongues. Now go to sleep" I command, turning off the light and stepping out of the door..
"Daddy, daddy, wait, wait!" shouts Youngest. "I want to know something else!"
I pause on the threshold. "One last question" I say.
"If you go out, and Mummy goes out as well, and nobody is here with us..."
"We won't ever do that, sweetheart. Somebody will always stay with you."
"Yes, yes, but if you did...."
"But we won't. Don't worry."
As it turns out, she is not worried. She has more pressing concerns.
"But if you did...and it was lunchtime, would a ghost appear?"
"No," I say emphatically, "There would be no ghost."
"Well, then - who would make our lunch?"
I pinch the bridge of my nose and realise how tired I am. It is late, I haven't eaten yet, and my four-year old daughter wants reassurance that if we were ever abandon her, we would at least have the decency to first arrange some kind of catering ghost who can rustle up a sandwich.
"It is time for bed now", I say firmly.
"What would a ghost make for lunch, anyway?" asks Eldest. I realise that she is directing this question to her sister, and I am now superfluous.
"Ghost pudding" says Youngest with a speed that suggests she has previously given this topic considerable thought.
Eldest muses on this. "No, that wouldn't work" she says. "Because ghost pudding wouldn't really be there, it would be just be made of air."
"No, it would be made of ghost..." insists Youngest.
Eldest shakes her head. "No, it wouldn't. Any anyway, you only get a ghost when something dies. So you would have to make a pudding and then kill it to get a ghost pudding"
I shut the door on them. I think a large drink to go along with dinner is very much in order.

1 comment:

K said...

hilarious, as always! happy holidays!