I try not to be too over-protective as a father, but it’s a hard line to navigate. I want to keep my six year old daughter, Jessica, as safe as possible of course, but I also want her to learn independence. It’s a tricky thing. I have memories of a school friend who developed a crippling fear of the colour yellow just from the sheer number of Post-It stickers his parents would leave around the house for him. I don’t want to be that parent.
Sharp objects and electrical plugs aside though, the area I find most difficult to navigate is introducing the notion of a violent world to her. This is complicated by the fact that I write violent thrillers for a living – a job description that Jessica is fascinated by. She’s always asking me about the stories – what happened and why – but, as Vladimir Putin would surely agree, there’s only so much pixie dust you can sprinkle on a gangland killing. The most frustrating part of it, however, is even though I do my best to keep my writing away from her, the violence of the real world has an irritating habit of introducing itself to her anyhow, and in the most child-friendly of arenas.
Last week for example, I took Jessica to see the Crown Jewels. It started out as a wonderful day. As we waited in the queue, she could barely contain her excitement at the prospect of seeing a real crown that belonged to a real queen – that, plus she’d been eating ice cream all day and had enough sugar in her to launch a satellite. The moment we got into the exhibit, she bounded through the eerily-lit halls, gazing at the crowns, the sceptres, and the diamond-encrusted swords, with a huge grin on her face.
‘They’re beautiful, aren’t they?’ I said.
As she gazed at a solid gold punch bowl, she paused a moment and turned back to me.
‘Daddy?’ she said.
‘What’s hung, drawn and quartered?’
I eyed her uneasily. A tour guide had been discussing Guy Fawkes’ execution as we’d waited outside, but I’d assumed that Jessica had been too caught up in her ice cream to notice.
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ I replied. ‘It’s just, you know, it’s grown up stuff.’
She nodded again.
‘Do they draw them, like in a painting?’ she asked.
‘Yes. Hey, look at those diamonds, they’re amazing, huh?’
She eyed me carefully, a suspicious little smile creeping across her face. ‘Daddy!’
I swear, six-year-olds are the world’s most efficient lie detectors – MI5 should install a soft-play area.
‘It’s what they used to do to criminals,’ I said. ‘A long time ago.’
‘They used to, you know...kill them.’
‘Then draw pictures of them?’
‘Jessie, sweetie, you’ve got a whole room full of crowns to look at.’
‘But I want to know what they did.’
‘When you’re older.’
‘Is it bad?’
And there’s no good answer to that. If I say no, then why aren’t I talking about it – but if I say yes, then she’s never going to let it go, and those three words ‘hung’, ‘drawn’, and ‘quartered’ are going to replace ‘I am Moana!’ as her new mantra. Either way, the technicalities of being disemboweled, beheaded, then dismembered weren’t part of any conversation I was going to have with her. I tried to come up with some middle-ground explanation. You know how we cut up your spaghetti before you eat it? But that sounded even worse. Was I being over-protective in not just telling her? It’s part of history after all, and thankfully long gone – but there’s the imagery of it, and all the questions that would no doubt follow. How do you introduce a blood-stained, medieval executioner into a world whose main driving force is Alvin and the Chipmunks?
No. I wouldn’t tell her.
I crouched down in front of her. ‘They used to ship criminals out to a tiny prison in the middle of the sea,’ I said. ‘No windows, they’d sit in the darkness for the rest of their lives with nothing to eat but pebbles and old newspaper.’
I figured that was nasty enough without going overboard. And she looked kind of sold, but in that vaguely uncertain way, like a customer staring at a used-car dealer.
‘But...but I don’t understand the name,’ she said. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It was the name of the ship that took them out there. The Hung Drawn and Quartered...it had black sails, and an owl that used to scratch the names of the prisoners into the ship’s hull with its claws.’
She eyed me very carefully for a second, then nodded.
Yep. Sold. There you go – when in doubt, use an owl.
And even though the questions then came – where was the prison, and how many people were there – I was much happier explaining these things away than trying to sprinkle sugar on severed heads and entrails. It felt like I’d dodged a small parental bullet, and I was quite happy with myself.
At least until the following day when I returned home to find Jessica reading an outline to one of my novels that I’d left on my desk.
I delicately took the document from her. ‘You shouldn’t read Daddy’s stories without asking. We’ve talked about this.’
She nodded sheepishly. I glanced at the document to see how much she’d read, and could feel her staring at me.
‘Daddy?’ she said. ‘What does it mean to blowtorch someone’s face off?’
I closed my eyes. It was going to take a whole tree full of owls to get me out of this one. You know what, I wouldn’t even try.
‘Daddy’s a little tired,’ I said. ‘We’ll talk about it some other time.’
And with that, I retreated into my standard fall-back position – a glass of wine, a nap, and the hope that her curious mind would find something else to focus on.
But it didn’t. That evening after dinner, she brought it up again.
I eyed her for a moment, then took a deep breath. ‘You know when you burnt your finger on the sparkler?’ I said. ‘It’s like that, but they did it to someone’s face. But it’s just stories, Sweetie. Daddy makes them up. It’s not real.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But...you could make up anything. Why that?’
And there’s no good answer to that either. Luckily, you don’t need answers when you have an iPad. I switched it on, and as Jessica lost herself in the dreaded world Alvin and the Chipmunks, I searched the kitchen for another bottle of Malbec.
The parental adventure continues.