Have you noticed that when someone relates a traumatic event, they begin with how normal everything seemed: the crazed gunman was always a nice, quiet guy. Train crashes and earthquakes always occur without warning on an otherwise unremarkable day. For some reason, juxtaposition is needed to accentuate just how surprising the event was, and just how world-shattering the effects.
Well now I understand why, because that is how this story starts.
It was a pleasantly autumnal Saturday. I took my three-year-old to the shops to buy some lunch and, after some intense negotiation by her, chocolate milk. As we returned to the car a little old lady, with all the speed and precision of her kind, parked next to us. I waited for her to exit her car and we exchanged smiles.
Then it happened.
“For f**** sake.”
Everybody froze. My little girl smiled, that proud sort of smile young children use when they believe they have been especially clever or grown up. I had no idea what to say so, naturally, I said exactly the wrong thing.
“What did you say?”
This time, she shouted. “FOR F*** SAKE!”
I bundled her into the car. By the time I had the courage to look up again the little old lady had disappeared. “Where did you learn that word?” I asked.
“Mummy said it.”
Yes, her mother. It was exactly what she would say, albeit muttered under her breath. So would I, for that matter. Sometimes a situation requires a safety valve. But how do you explain that to a three year old?
Simple. You just drop mummy right in it.
“That is a very bad thing to say, honey. Mummy shouldn’t say it either.”
“That’s right. And when you hear her say that again, you tell her so, Okay?”
She nodded, beaming. “NAUGHTY mummy!”
But I could tell the damage was done. Not only did she now know there were such things as Bad Words, she also knew one of the worst ones. On the drive home she was whispering it, delighting in the sound of it, and I had to reconcile myself with the fact that my little girl, who now stood as high as my hip and could count to ten in three languages, was of course going to pick up on anything mummy and daddy uttered, especially when it was uttered in anger.
When we got to the front door my wife was waiting for us. Our little girl and I both spoke at once.
Me: “We need to talk.”
Daughter: “NAUGHTY mummy!”
Wife: “What the …?”
We have managed to train her away from that word, I hope. She is now having fun with the more phonetically pleasing FOR PITY’S SAKE! Which bursts off the tongue with more vigour and has the bonus of being accompanied by a fleck of spittle if done right.
And we made a commitment to never, ever swear in front of our daughter again.
Of course, that lasted all of three effing days.