Our bedtime story

When No. 1 goes away on business, the kids and I choose a book to read together. It’s one of those weird family rituals that springs up organically and happily ensnares you. “Oh look, I am duty bound to reading to my children every night whenever their father is away on business.” And by afternoon we’re already planning which must-dos we can dispense with in order to go to bed earlier and read.

No.3’s interest in this Michael Morpurgo story, War Horse, is intermittent. She really wants to get it, but at six she’s struggling with the narrator, who, it turns out, is also the hero of the story: Joey, the horse. Someone grooms Joey, brushing him from head to foot and No.3 is perplexed: “Why is someone brushing someone else? Oh, it’s the horse!” And No.2 sighs dramatically for the 50th time since we started the book, because No.3 needs constant clarification. We’re all being educated: trench warfare, World War 1, army lingo (“What’s a Jerry?”) and a whole regiment of new words like “outflank” and “cavalry”. Even I have learnt two new words: “bivouac” and “reveille”.

No.2 is engrossed, wide-eyed. No. 3 is willing, but restless. The end of each chapter is met with a “nooo!” by both, and I - under very little duress indeed - continue until way past 8 o’clock. I say I’ll read another chapter if they promise, if they ‘promisepromisepromise’ to go right to sleep afterwards. They promise passionately.

Finally we must put the book down, only because my mouth is dry as the dust bunnies under the bed.

“Stay and cuddle?” asks No.2. I lie with my head half up the wall, the down duvet mountainous over the three of us, a head on each of my shoulders.


“No talking. Sleep.”

“Just one joke. What goes black white black white black white black white BLUE?”


“A penguin rolling into the sea.”

I find this inordinately funny and No.2 and I rock the bed with mirth. No.3 is beaming up at the ceiling. Getting her hero brother to laugh at a joke is the lottery.

“Ssshhh. Sleep now.” I’m thinking of the work I must still do. We cuddle. Someone’s stomach grumbles and the kids begin to giggle quietly. I muster all my strength not to join in because everything’s funny when you’re not allowed to laugh.

They settle. The stomach grumbles again. They giggle. Then I’m laughing too. Quietly, but with their arms wrapped around my stomach they can feel it. So we just have a big explosion and finally, really, start settling.

No.2 is a perpetual motion machine, even lifting his eyebrows up and down, up and down, which I can feel because my hand is rested on his head and his scalp is moving. So are his toes, his knees, each individual finger, his eyeballs. This is how he is: he thinks, therefore he moves. He lies in bed, therefore he thinks. Just like his dad.
No.3 moves once, to turn her back to me, quickly and efficiently falling asleep. Just like her mom.

I struggle to keep my eyes open. This is not a battle I have ever won. I wake suddenly from a dream that’s made me laugh to find that No.2 has finally succumbed. It feels like the deepest part of the night. It is only 9pm. The duvet releases me reluctantly.

I won’t work after all because I am so bed-ready now.

I can’t wait for Chapter 10 tomorrow night.

*My family members are numbered in the order in which they appeared in my life.

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