Sometimes my big girl doesn't want me to read to her at bedtime. She wants what she calls an "imagination story". She's into literary sequels: Further Adventures of Mary Poppins, more doggy escapades at the Dalmation Plantation, that sort of thing.
I never know where we're going. I'm normally so sleep-addled I rely heavily on the input of my three-year-old commissioning editor. Forget the principles of narrative structure - sometimes I'm three inconsequential cul-de-sacs in before I've even thought up an inciting incident. She doesn't mind so long as there are plenty of orphaned furry animals in need of emergency healthcare from a passing squadron of vet-fairies.
But the freedom to ad lib, smiling down on the small, avid face of my firstborn brings out something terrible in me: an itch, a tick, a compulsion. I know it’s ghastly but I just can’t leave it alone. The imagination story brings out my deep-seated urge to hector. I know that the morality tale is about as appetising as a bran sandwich but here's the thing: she doesn't listen to me all day long. This child feigns deafness like a short, marmite-smeared Daniel Day Lewis. And yet, eager to draw out the bedtime hour until just before dawn, she's agog. She's finally listening and I've got a lot to say.
My girl endures stories in which I unsubtly harangue her to: tidy up more; count her blessings, show more gratitude to her exhausted parents - that sort of thing. She knows the drill:
Mummy: So what did you think about the selfish kitten?
Ally: (with attempted sincerity) He was mean. He should be kind. He should share the cat-toys more.
Mummy: Yes darling. Well done. You can have another story.
Unfortunately for Ally my didactic spirit has now flowed forth beyond the confines of our home. Maybe I've spent a little too long mourning the passing of dear old Tony Benn this week. Here is a truncated synopsis of last night's story:
After Cinderella qualified as a specialist wildlife vet she had a long and fulfilling career at the otter sanctuary but eventually she and the prince decided to start a family. They had triplets and, although it's never easy having even one child (and best left until you have the maturity, support structures and financial wherewithal to cope) they did better than most because they lived in a palace and they had lots of servants on the minimum wage to do all the cooking and shopping and cleaning and they had three nannies on hand to take a baby each whenever Cinderella wanted a bit of me time. (That’s right darling, Mummy and Daddy can't afford servants or nannies, can we? That's why we'd like it if you and Stella watched a bit more television sometimes.)
As the triplets grew up they wanted for nothing. They never had to tidy their bedrooms because the servants did everything for them and they never had to share their toys because they had at least three of everything. And they had all the most luxurious toys and every treat they could ever imagine because they were so rich. But, by the time they were about four, Cinderella was getting worried about them. They never said please or thank you, they treated the servants like dogs and, if they didn't get what they wanted as soon as they yelled for it, they threw themselves into the floor and screamed and kicked and sobbed.
Cinderella and the prince had a long chat and realised that their extravagant lifestyle and unearned privilege was spoiling the children. They abdicated their royal titles, established a food bank in their old palace to feed all the poor families in the kingdom and decided to live on Cinderella’s perfectly respectable salary. They moved to a nice '60s semi and Cinderella gave the ex-prince all her best housework tips from when she was exploited by her stepmother. So he stayed happily at home looking after the household while Cinderella went out saving otters. The ex-prince started a course run by Jobcentre Plus to find out what sort of part-time job he could aim for and what training he'd need to do to be able to secure it on merit – but in the end he never completed the course because, much as he enjoyed his life at home with the kids, he found it impossible to get anything done. The children gradually became nicer and more respectful of one-another and in the evenings the whole family shared ideas about how to build a fairer society.
Ally was enraptured. To paraphrase Stewart Lee: “Was it entertaining? No. But I agreed the hell out of it”.