At the Sharp End: You can't bury bad news for ever

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The famous fly conversation took place on a day when I was in too grim a mood to lie to a two-year-old, and it gave me such a pang.

The famous fly conversation took place on a day when I was in too grim a mood to lie to a two-year-old, and it gave me such a pang.

Slap, slap, slapslap, BANG.

"The fly is stopped, Mama."

"Well, sort of."

"The fly is finished."

"The fly is dead, sweetie."

"The fly is all-gone."

"'Dead', darling. That's what we call 'dead'. The fly is dead, now. Finished. Stopped. All gone."

"Oh. The fly is 'dead'."

"Exactly. Good girl!"

"The fly is dead."


"The fly is dead."

"That's enough now."

"Dead. Dead. Dead."


The words are always there, we just hate saying them.

"Don't touch the fly, it is... dirty."

That'll do.

This was a child so precious we couldn't teach her the word for "cut" or "blood" - didn't even realise we had left them out, until some cheery friend bleated, quite loudly, "Don't touch the knife, it will CUT you, there will be BLOOD", and we had to clutch at each other vaguely, in front of her fridge. Such nervy nellies, no wonder the child went hysterical every time she saw a tube of Savlon - the blood, she could handle. The blood, after a while, she could even enjoy, and discussed, at length, the idea of swallowing such stuff so that it would "go back in". What do you say?

"Well... sort of. Yes."

Besides, there was always the fantastic Winnie the Pooh plaster to look forward to, the original badge of pride.

The fly, on the other hand, was beyond bandaging. I don't think she forgot that moment, or that piece of conversation, or the terrifying fact that her mother could make things "finish". There was, besides, something about my tone. And I remembered it too, when she came back from the nursery aged three with the observation that, "The coffin brings you up to heaven." She tries these statements out, sometimes, especially when she suspects that they are not strictly true. But some of the kids had just been to a funeral and the whole place was agog. Rumours were flying. People died. Even when they weren't 100 years old. They went away and never came back. They went up to heaven. They loved you a lot, up there.

"Where's heaven?" she said.

A double excruciation, because whatever it is I believe in (don't ask, I'm not sure I know), it certainly doesn't include heaven. Still I gave her the full all-the-sweets-you-can-eat, fluffy-vending-machine-in-the-sky story. "Some people believe," I said, which I thought fair enough. I left out God. There were no beards involved. But it seems that the local religious culture is not only overwhelming at times like these, but also overwhelmingly useful. Because every day there was a new unanswerable question, or some mangled story of germs and angels, until I realised I couldn't fob her off any more.

I tell you something: the truth hurts. I could hardly bring myself to say that the coffin goes into the ground. I had massive difficulty breaking the news that, yes, the person's actual body is in the coffin when the coffin goes into the actual ground. And it was as much as I could do to keep my voice level, as I told her that the person's body that was in the coffin that was in the ground was dead. Finished. All gone.

She didn't really believe me - which helped quite a lot. Besides, she had already figured the answer out, she had heard it on the nursery grapevine.

"What is your soul?" she said.

"Well," I said, mumble mumble mumble, sudden flash of inspiration, "a soul is the part of a person you see, when you look into their eyes."

Finally, in the whole mess of it, getting one thing right.

Think pink

Pink, says the baby. Pink! He is learning colours. He only has one. Pink! he says. Pink! And, because he has an older sister, he is usually right.

"Yes! Pink!"

Everything is, indeed, pink.

Why don't boys have a colour? And what does this do to them at this vital stage in their development? I suspect that boys don't need a colour because they have a willy. If nursery politics are anything to go by, then waving it around at potty training is pretty essential stuff. Girls decide to be girls in a fit of pique, perhaps. There is something very competitive about Pink! There is something difficult and anxious and socially vital about Pink! Learning to be a girl takes application, the enthusiasm comes later. For the first while we wear Pink! not because we like it, but because wearing any other colour makes us cry, in a way that we ourselves do not understand. So much for the pleasure of colour. So much, indeed, for the pleasure of being a girl. Squawks, wails, frustration. Why is the world so stupid? Why do they not understand that she HAS to be a girl. She just HAS to be. Whatever a girl is, whatever a girl might be.

But of course, a girl is someone who wears PINK!

Flush with success

In our house, now, everyone tells everyone when they are going to the toilet. Except the baby. The baby doesn't tell anyone, he just goes behind the sofa and plays with the buttons on the stereo for a while. He doesn't make a fuss. Though who would have thought he would make so much music?

The rest of us announce all our movements, all the time. "I am just going to the toilet," says child number one to her parents, and we say, "Oh good girl! That's a great girl!", like she's about to do something exceptionally clever. "I'm just going to the toilet," says their father to me, meaning, "You're on your own, buster." "I'm just going to the toilet," I say, meaning it is time for the children to run screaming up the stairs after me, crying, rattling the handle, banging the door, like I have sloped off to die in there. And perhaps I have.

Anne Enright's 'Making Babies' is published by Jonathan Cape, £10.99