E Jane Dickson: Staying Afloat

Oh, save us from the horrors of night-time...
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The Independent Online

It's 11.30pm and Vanessa Feltz is putting the case for anal enhancement or some similarly unspeakable procedure on Cosmetic Surgery Live. I'm watching through splayed fingers when Conor blunders in, saggy-limbed with sleep and hurls himself onto my lap.

It's 11.30pm and Vanessa Feltz is putting the case for anal enhancement or some similarly unspeakable procedure on Cosmetic Surgery Live. I'm watching through splayed fingers when Conor blunders in, saggy-limbed with sleep and hurls himself onto my lap.

"Hey, Mister," I say, scrambling for the remote. "What are you doing out of bed at this time?"

"I've got a sore tummy," says Conor. I'm feeling pretty nauseous myself, but I can tell from Conor's tone that his tummy ache is of the psychological variety.

"It's that leaflet," he explains, hot face buried in my neck. "The leaflet about the boy with the clockwork heart - it's making me feel funny in the dark."

It takes some time to establish that we're talking about the programme for a children's opera we went to see at Covent Garden a year or so ago, a refiguring, by Philip Pullman, of the Erlkonig myth in which a boy is exchanged for a clockwork doppelgänger.

Con watched the performance with apparent enthusiasm and indeed sang the hits for weeks afterwards, but the story, it seems, has been working quietly on him. When the programme fell out of Clara's bookcase during a tussle over bedtime stories, it brought the whole thing flooding back.

"Ah, well," I tell him, "the thing about opera is that it never tells the whole story. What really happened," I extemporise wildly, "is that the boy woke up safe in his own bed and realised he'd never been clockwork at all - it was all just a horrid dream." It's not the first time I've had to re-work the classics; after a visit to the Tower of London, we thrashed out a cosy alternative history for the Little Princes, who contrary to orthodox opinion, returned safe and sound to their mum and went on to develop a Tudor version of the skateboard.

"I still don't like the leaflet," says Con, but his fingers are uncurling gradually from my hair. "Fine," I tell him, "bring it here this minute and we'll rip it up."

"That's just it," he wails. "You can't. I threw it behind Clara's radiator and now it's stuck there, being scary, and I have to sleep in the very next room!"

Unwilling to shake Clara from her sleep while I poke behind the radiator with a coat-hanger, I bring Con into bed with me - "just this once" - and promise to deal with the programme in the morning.

Accordingly, after school, we light a ceremonial bonfire in a flower pot on the balcony. "So perish all scaredoms!" intones Con as the arty illustrations crinkle and burn. And just to be on the safe side, he suggests we dispose of the ashes in the canal.

I'm not hugely comfortable with the whole book-burning routine, but it does the trick. Con hops off to bed with his brain wiped clean of terrors. If anyone can think of a similar way to expunge Cosmetic Surgery Live, I'll be awfully glad to hear it.

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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