What shall I tell you tonight, little sweeting? I’ve told you tales of other worlds, tales of monsters, magic, heroes, hardships and happiness. I’ve told you scary stories (and Mummy was upset about that, wasn’t she?) and funny stories. I’ve watched you drift into sleep during lullabies and poems. And what, I’m wondering, shall I tell you tonight?
“Story Daddy!” You say, smiling up at me from half-closed drowsy eyes. “Story time!”
I nod and smile, but inside I’m panicking. I’ve read all your storybooks to you, and I suppose I could read one again, but you prefer my stories to the ones in the books, and I mustn’t disappoint my darling daughter.
“Story time indeed, little one. What sort of story do you want to hear?”
You frown a little. This isn’t what usually happens at story time, and for a minute I’m worried you won’t accept this deviation from the ritual. But then you smile again. You’ve decided, and, my darling, what a clever decision it is.
“Policeman.” You say, and then again with finality. “I want a policeman story, Daddy!”
“A policeman story. Yes, that’s just the right story to tell tonight, Georgia. This story is called…. ‘How Daddy Solved The Mystery Of The Missing Car Keys’.”
You giggle, and wriggle with excitement, burrowing yourself deeper into the bed, pulling the duvet up around your chin. Looking down at you, my heart sings with joy and love, and my worry about adapting a detective story to fit an audience of one four-year-old girl vanishes. I’m in that place where inspiration waits, and stories are all around me, ripe and waiting to be picked. I’m Daddy, the Great Detective, and I’m going to tell you of my most amazing case to date. For you, I’ll make it the best story ever.
“One day,” I say, sitting down on the edge of your bed and looking down at you, “one sunny day, very early in the morning, Daddy was eating breakfast. Do you know what Daddy had for breakfast?”
You shake your head mutely.
“Did he have…” I ask. “Did he have… toast?”
You shake your head again.
“No, he didn’t.” I agree. “Did he have… cereal?”
“No?” You whisper.
“No, he didn’t. Did he have… crumpets?”
“No, he didn’t. Did he have… porridge?”
“No!” You shout, smiling. I chuckle, and quiet you down, all too aware that I’m supposed to be sending you to sleep, not getting you excited.
“No,” I say again. “He didn’t. He didn’t have toast, and he didn’t have cereal, and he didn’t have crumpets, and he didn’t have porridge. But what did he have? Can you guess?”
You think for a moment, then firmly tell me, “’Apefruit.”
“That’s right!” I say, and you beam up at me. “He had grapefruit. And what else did he have?”
“That’s right! He had grapefruit and he had sausages. What else did he have?”
“That’s right! He had grapefruit and he had sausages and he had yoghurt.” (And then he spent the rest of the morning throwing up, if that’s what he ate for breakfast.)
“But while Daddy was eating breakfast, Mummy said to him: ‘I’ve lost my car keys! Where can they be? Can you help me find them?’” (Obviously I’ve cleaned up the language. Mummy’s got a foul mouth in the mornings, especially so if something’s gone wrong.) “So Daddy thought and he thought. He wondered where those car keys were. Do you know where they were?”
You shake your head.
“No, and neither did Daddy. So he got up and looked for some clues. He saw Mummy’s coat hanging on the peg by the front door. ‘Maybe they’re in your coat pockets.’ He said to Mummy, and he looked in Mummy’s coat. Do you think he found the car keys?”
You yawn and look up at me, but you don’t answer.
“No, he didn’t.” I continue. “The car keys weren’t in Mummy’ coat pockets. There was a lipstick, and there was a mobile phone,” (with a text message from Dan, I couldn’t help but notice, and your mother won’t tell me who this Dan is. ‘Just a friend’, apparently.) “But there were no car keys. So Daddy looked for more clues. He saw the money-bowl on the kitchen table. ‘Maybe they’re in the money-bowl,’ he said to Mummy, and he looked inside it. Do you think he found the car keys?”
You shake your head, sleepily.
“No, he didn’t. The car keys weren’t in the money-bowl. There were one-penny coins, and there were two-penny coins, but there were no car keys. So Daddy looked for more clues. He saw the sideboard in the hall. ‘Maybe they’re on the sideboard.’ He said to Mummy, and he looked on it. Do you think he found them?”
Another slow shake of the head. Your eyes are looking very heavy now, so I speak more softly.
“No, he didn’t. The car keys weren’t on the sideboard. There was a letter from the bank, and there was a letter for Mummy,” (A handwritten envelope, posted locally, that Mummy hasn’t mentioned to me.) “But there were no car keys. So Daddy looked for more clues. He went upstairs, and he noticed Mummy’s bedside table. ‘Maybe they’re on the bedside table.’ He said to Mummy, and he looked on it. Do you think he found the car keys?”
A shake of the head so slight I might have imagined it. Your eyes are closed now, but the way you’re breathing tells me you’re still awake.
“No, he didn’t. The car keys weren’t on Mummy’s bedside table. There was a hairbrush, and there was a bracelet, and there was a bottle of perfume, but there were no car keys. So Daddy looked for more clues. He noticed the toy box in Georgia’s bedroom. ‘Maybe they’re in the toy box.’ He said to Mummy, and he looked in it. Do you think he found the car keys?”
No response at all this time, and I drop my voice to a near-whisper.
“No, he didn’t. The car keys weren’t in the toy box. There was a stuffed monkey, and a Barbie doll, and there was Daddy’s Nintendo DS, but there were no car keys.” (No, and there were no DS save games either, which I later discovered had vanished from the DS, with only a small, sticky thumbprint on the screen to hint at their fate: that deadly combination of innocent curiosity and unerring instinct for accidental havoc that you’ve got in spades. But never mind – I can replay the games, eventually.) “So Daddy looked for more clues. He went downstairs and he noticed Mummy’s handbag in the living room. ‘Maybe they’re in your handbag.’ He said to Mummy, and Mummy looked in her handbag.” (Snatched it out of my hands, actually. Really didn’t want me looking in there.) “Do you think she found the car keys?”
You’re definitely asleep by this time, but I can’t stop telling a story this close to the end, so I continue in a whisper.
“No, she didn’t. There were lots of things in Mummy’s handbag, but there were no car keys. But just then, Daddy noticed a very big clue. In Mummy’s trouser pockets, there was a lump. ‘Maybe they’re in your trouser pockets.’ He said to Mummy, and they were!
“And that’s how Daddy solved the Mystery of The Missing Car Keys. The end!”
I fall silent, and just look at you for a long time. I could watch you sleep for hours, my little pretty one, but I’d better not. I have to go downstairs and talk to Mummy.
Daddy has another mystery to solve.