“Once upon a time there was...” I began.
“A mean old witch,” Sophia interjected. It was going to be one of those bedtime stories, the audience dictating the course of the action and the author reduced to fan service.
“Are you sure? Mean old witches can be very scary.”
“I'm six now, I'm big and brave.”
“So you are.” And so she was. Six, I mean, I still had to share my bed when she had bad dreams or during thunderstorms. “And this witch lived in a spooky old house.”
“Was it made of gingerbread?”
“Don't be silly, who'd build a house out of gingerbread?” She looked a little crestfallen so I went on. “It was made out of a huge hollowed out sponge cake.”
“With jam and cream?”
“That's right, she had problems keeping the local cats away.”
“Did she have a broomstick?”
“Yes, she did, but she only used it for sweeping.” I considered it good parenting not to rely on tropes and clichés, the world would never be predictable. “She had a jet-pack for flying about.” This was met with great approval, the week before she had expressed an interest in becoming an astronaut and meeting aliens.
“Whoosh!” Herbert, her teddy, flew about a bit. “Where did she fly to?”
“She flew off into the big, dark forest, to look for things to make a potion out of.”
“Was it a potion like Granny's?” The doctor had put my mother on some noxious concoction for her latest ailment, Sophia had been fascinated by it so I had warned her it was only for Granny and anyone else who drank it would be turning into a toad.
“It was, she needed it to cure her horrible witch breath.” I breathed my horrible garlic breathe over her and she shrank into the covers. I love garlic, but there would be no kiss goodnight.
“What did she need to make the potion?”
“Oh, toadstools and tree bark and the eyes of a little girl!” I loomed over her and wriggled my fingers menacingly, she gave a little shriek and a nervous giggle. Downstairs my wife would be having that essential second glass of wine, so I would escape the accusation that I was filling Sophia's mind with horrible stuff.
“Did she find them?”
“Well, toadstools and tree bark are easy to find in big, dark forests, but little girls stay away from such places.” This received a frown, quite rightly, I supposed, thinking it over. “”But there was this one little girl who loved going into the big, dark forest.”
“What was her name?”
“That's a silly name.”
“It wasn't her real name, but that's what everyone called her because when she ate she would nibble on her food until it was all gone, even the vegetables.” I suck at names, but my job has made me great at excuses.
“What was she doing in the forest?”
“Talking to squirrels.”
“Squirrels can't talk,” she told me with all the authority of a six year old.
“I didn't say they were talking back, but they were listening. She was telling them about all the things she had been learning at school and the squirrels were listening because squirrels don't go to school.” Squirrels had been a firm favourite story ingredient since one took up residence in the back garden. “Suddenly all the squirrels ran away because the mean old witch arrived.” I gave a witchly cackle and Sophia giggled.
“On her jet-pack.”
“On her jet-pack,” I agreed. “But the little girl didn't run away.”
“Because she was six and not afraid of mean old witches,” Sophia explained.
“Because she was six and not afraid of mean old witches,” and was possibly a little too trusting around strangers in this modern age. “The witch said 'Hello, little girl, I've come to take your eyes for my potion'.” The witch had a high-pitched voice that made her sound like a man pretending to be a woman, unconvincingly.
“And she said 'No, you can't have my eyes, I need them to see with!'”
“Quite right, what else would you say if someone asked you for your eyes?” Nothing using words a six year old should know. “And so the witch said 'But I need them for my potion so I can cure my horrible witch breath'.”
“And she said 'No, you can't have them, smelly witch, I will shoot you with my laser gun!'” This was new, probably the product of playing with her older male cousins the previous weekend. “Pew, pew, pew!”
“'No, no, don't shoot me with your laser gun! I'm just a harmless old woman!'” With a man's voice, maybe she had been a heavy smoker in her youth.
“And then she shot the witch into little bits and took her jet-pack so she could fly home.”
“So, she did, but not before she gave the squirrels jet-pack rides.”
“So it is, sleep tight.” I leaned over her.
“No smelly garlic kisses!”
Well, maybe mean old witches are slightly scary, but I think we can all see who the real monster was in this story. I certainly know who keeps me awake at night.