INDISCRIMINATE DEVOTION: Our bedtime story

I first saw the heart-stopping War Horse in London six years ago. I came home bursting with the news of this amazing show with its mind-boggling puppets. I also brought home Michael Morpurgo’s book to read to the children. This December, I was delighted to finally be able to take my children to see the production at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town. I was so happy that they were as swept away as I – and thousands and thousands of others – were by this profound production.

It reminded me of this column I wrote for Parent24 when I was reading the book to the children. My daughter has gone on to read several more Michael Morpurgo books, despite this scratchy start. michael morpurgo collection

Our bedtime story

When my husband 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.

My youngest child’s interest in our current story – Michael Morpurgo’s 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 she’s perplexed: “Why is someone brushing someone else? Oh, it’s the horse!”

My nine-year old sighs dramatically for the 50th time since we started the book, because his sister 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”.

My son is engrossed, wide-eyed. My daughter is keen, but some of it’s a bit confusing and she gets restless from all the questions burning her up and which she knows her brother will get irritated by. Yet, 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 as dry as the dust bunnies under the bed.

“Stay and cuddle?” asks my son. 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.

“Mom?”

“No talking. Sleep.”

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

“What?”

“A penguin rolling into the sea.”

I find this inordinately funny and my son and I rock the bed with mirth. My daughter 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 – 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.

My son 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.

My daughter moves once, to turn her back to me, quickly and efficiently falling asleep.

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 my son 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.

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