A long time ago in a home far, far away, there lived a housedad and his three children, What, Why and Oopsie.
The oldest of the children, What, was tall and academically gifted but his hearing was rather selective. The middle child, Why, was strong and imaginative, although he rarely agreed to anything unless it had been explained to him several times. The youngest, Oopsie, could climb and jump and smile sweetly. The last of these talents came to her rescue often, since she was also able to make a huge mess from even the most limited resources...
The housedad's name was Ed. His hard-working wife lived in the home too but, as this tale begins, she had set off to work hard in an office far, far and a bus trip away. She can be safely put out of mind until the denouement. (It is worth mentioning, however, that she kept a large axe handy in case of trouble with trolls, wolves, wicked witches, dragons and cute, husband-stealing mermaids.)
On the day in question, the faeries who ran the local school were having a team-building session where expensive consultants encouraged them to believe strongly in each other and to give themselves a round of applause every so often just to be on the safe side. As a result, the children had a day off.
Ed was not hugely pleased. It was only breakfast and the children were already arguing. The eldest, What, was demanding to play Scrabble, Why was wanting someone to watch him play computer games and Oopsie wished to go outside and fall head-first in some mud. (She was technically asking to go outside and play catch but, with her track record, it effectively amounted to the same thing.)
Ed did not find any of these options particularly appealing. He began to rail against his lot, denouncing the shockingly small amount of time the school was open. "When I was your age, education was the preserve of gorgons. They never took the day off and there was none of this finishing in the middle of the afternoon either. We were there the whole day. They gave us plenty of homework, too, and they got angry if we didn't do it. They really knew about discipline - they'd turn you to stone as soon as look at you."
Ed paused, waiting for this to sink in but the children weren't listening. They were too busy finishing their toast and staring at the magic box which entertained them with cartoons filled with fart gags. Ed sighed and then muttered, "I don't believe in faeries..."
He was intending to add 'getting training during term-time' but, at that moment, Oopsie spilt her cup of milk and he had to rush to mop it up. In all the fuss, he failed to hear a shrill scream from the direction of the school.
Eventually, Ed managed to persuade the children to finish eating and get dressed. Nevertheless, they refused to stop bickering. In exasperation, he finally said, "We're going out."
"What?" said What.
"Why?" asked Why.
"Oopsie!" said Oopsie, knocking over her replacement cup of milk.
Ed was determined not to be distracted. Despite having no definite destination in mind, he knew that the only way to avoid insanity was to leave the house. But where to go? He couldn't face another tour of the castle dungeons and What was getting a bit old for the softplay at the gingerbread house (plus it wasn't very hygienic). Ed sighed. He was merely looking forward to a quiet flagon of ale once all the kids were asleep...
Wait! That was it!
"We're going on a quest," he said.
"Not again," moaned What.
"We went on one of those last week," whined Why.
"Can I take my trampoline?" squeaked Oopsie, jumping up and down excitedly.
Ignoring the complaining, and resisting various requests to haul large possessions with them, Ed got the children to put their shoes and coats on and they headed out the door and down the path. The sun shone, the birds sang and the long grass rippled in the breeze. It was a glorious day. The children failed to notice and turned their attention to poking a dead pigeon with a stick.
After much cajoling to get a move on, they all reached a narrow, rickety bridge across a stream. Tradition held that the smallest member of the party should cross the bridge first. Despite his nostalgia for the old days of gorgon-run education, however, Ed wasn't much for tradition. He sent his biggest child thumping over the rotting boards.
When What was halfway across, a deep voice rumbled up from below. "Oo's that walking on my bridge?"
"I said, 'WHO is THAT walking on MY BRIDGE?'"
"I said, 'WHO IS THAT...?' Oh, forget it. I'll eat yer on the way back."
What continued to the other side and Ed sent Why over the bridge. Once again, the troll asked its question. "Oo's that walking on my bridge?"
"'Cos I likes to know 'oo I'm dealing with, 'fore I jump out and eat 'em."
"Well, s'only good sense, ain't it?"
"OK, yer making me head hurt now."
"Look just sling yer hook, all right. I'm feeling a diet coming on."
Why went to join What on the far side of the bridge and Ed sent Oopsie across. Having come prepared, he entrusted her with a hammer which he instructed her to carry very carefully.
"Oo's that walking on my bridge?" muttered the troll, more out of habit than any real hope, as Oopsie reached the middle. The girl leant over the handrail to see who was talking and somehow the hammer slipped from her grasp.
She skipped over and then Ed crossed the bridge. There was no challenge from below, only a dull moan.
Soon after that, they passed the school. A small ambulance was parked outside and a couple of gnome paramedics were clapping urgently over a prone figure that was very pink and sparkly. Experiencing a niggling feeling of unexplained guilt, Ed hurried the children along the road.
There were a number of storybook stereotypes whom Ed thought might be able to help them out in their quest and first up was the elderly lady who lived at the end of the street. Everyone called her Granny. Ed knocked on her door.
"Come in!" shouted Granny gruffly before experiencing a series of hacking coughs and then repeating herself in somewhat unconvincing falsetto. "Er, I mean, come in!"
Ed ushered the children into the darkened single room of the cottage. A kettle was warming in the fireplace but the curtains were drawn and Granny was sitting in bed, blowing her snout. Partially hidden by a straggly, grey wig and thick glasses, she had big eyes, big ears and big teeth and was even more hairy than normal.
"Daddy, why is that wolf wearing Granny's pyjamas?" asked Why.
The wolf grinned. "All the better to hear you wi... Hang on, that's not right, you're supposed to ask me about the size of my ears. Play the game, old chap. I spent hours on this disguise."
"What?" asked What who hadn't yet noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Ed rolled his eyes. "Cough up the old lady," he said.
"I don't know what you mean..." said the wolf but then Oopsie tripped over a rug and banged into the wardrobe, knocking the door open.
"Oopsie," she said as Granny tumbled out, bound and gagged, onto the floor.
"Oh..." said the wolf, looking surprisingly sheepish. There was a pause. "Do any of you happen to have relatives who own murderously sharp axes by any chance?"
Everyone, including Granny, nodded.
"I'll show myself out."
"You do that," said Ed, as the wolf climbed from the bed and sidled towards the door. "You've got two minutes to get far, far, far away before I call the police."
"Two minutes! But..."
Ed shrugged. "If you run past the school and over the bridge, you'll be off the road before they get here."
"You're a gent," said the wolf and scarpered.
After that, the family untied Granny, let some diminutive paramedics with sore hands do their work, gave statements, accepted profuse thanks and consumed a large quantity of tea and cakes. Then it was time to move on. Although Granny was extremely grateful, Ed thought she wasn't entirely in a fit state to help with their quest and decided to let her get some rest. As he and his children left the cottage, she stuffed their pockets with chocolate biscuits.
Next up was the not-quite-so-elderly lady with the multiple skin conditions who lived in the forest. Her home was a dark, dilapidated hovel with a broomstick propped up outside the front door. The net curtains twitched as they approached and the door to the smoky interior swung open ahead of them.
The old lady was busy stirring a vast, bubbling cauldron over the firepit. She continued to add unmentionable parts of woodland creatures to it as she waved Ed and his children over to sit at a rugged table.
"What is it you want, dearie?" croaked the crone.
Ed sat down cautiously. He didn't entirely trust her. "We were wondering if you could help us with our quest?"
"Perhaps, perhaps," she cackled. "What quest is that?"
Why interrupted. "Why is her face green?"
"It just is," Ed said hurriedly, trying to kill this line of conversation as quickly as possible. He had a feeling that it would not end happily ever after.
Unfortunately, What didn't take the hint. "What's that on the end of her nose?"
"Why is it a funny shape?" asked Why.
"It's not a funny shape."
"All right, it's an unusual shape," said Ed, attempting a different tactic to get them to be quiet. The crone had stopped stirring and was viewing them through narrowed eyes. "Not a funny shape, as such. You shouldn't describe people's extremities as funny."
"Especially if they're witches," added What helpfully.
The crone had pulled a wand out of the folds of her cloak. She started hobbling towards them. Ed realised that maybe this visit hadn't been such a good idea.
"Yes," he said, "they may not take it well... And, anyway, it's rude calling someone a witch."
What looked confused. "Even if they're a witch?"
Ed nodded, his eyes fixed on the hag as she leant against the side of the table and stretched over to point the wand in his face. He struggled to think of something diplomatic to say. His mind whirred.
Unfortunately, Why got there first.
"Daddy, why does she have a beard?"
The crone leered evilly and gave the wand the slightest twitch.
Just then, Oopsie said, "I'm thirsty," and reached for the jug of water in the middle of the table...
* * *
Ed and the children had to run quite a long distance before they managed to get away from the witch's dying shrieks and it was even further before the delighted, singing munchkins that had suddenly taken a shine to them would leave them alone. By then, they had reached a cavernous hole in the side of a solitary mountain.
"I'm bored," said Why, apparently unphased by their close call. "Can we go home now?"
"One last visit," panted Ed and led them into the cave. A long, wide tunnel reached down into the rock and then opened out into a vast chamber filled with gold and jewels. It was a dazzling sight.
"Don't touch any of the treasure," warned Ed.
"What?" said What, trying on a shiny, golden helmet.
"I said, 'Don't touch any of the treasure.'"
"Oh." What instantly let go of the helmet.
"So take it off and put it back where you found it."
"But you told me not to touch it!"
Ed was becoming exasperated. "You're still touching it."
What shook his helmeted head. "No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"That's not touching," clarified Oopsie, scornfully. "That's wearing."
Ed rolled his eyes. "OK, well, whatever. Just take it off and put it back and don't touch, wear, kick, fondle or slime anything else."
"Why not?" asked Why.
"Because the dragon might eat us."
"What dragon?" asked What.
Ed pointed to the flipping great winged lizard curled round the central pile of treasure. "That big, huge dragon over there with enormous jaws that's thankfully fast asleep or we'd be in..."
"Oopsie!" Ed's youngest child stood next to the clattering remains of a suit of armour. Some of it had fallen back down a well and was still clanging its way into the depths. Somewhere in the heart of the mountain, distant drumbeats began to reverberate.
Oopsie smiled sweetly.
One of the dragon's eyes flicked open. In a sudden panic, What finally decided it was time to take off the helmet. It was stuck. Ed tried to help. He pulled hard as the dragon's other eye opened. Oopsie and Why joined in, tugging on What as Ed pulled the helmet. It wouldn't budge. Smoke puffed out of the dragon's snout and then Ed's fingers slipped, he toppled over backwards and children flew in all directions.
Ed picked himself up from a heap of treasure and dusted himself down. Gold coins trickled from the folds of his clothing in an embarrassing fashion. "Er, got any butter?" he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
"What are you doing here?" the dragon roared.
"We're on a quest."
"Then you shall meet the same fate as all the others who have come here to slay me and steal my hoard," said the dragon, fire welling up in its throat as it motioned its head towards some vaguely-humanoid soot stains on the cavern wall.
"Oh... Oh! No! We're not on that kind of quest," said Ed in alarm. "We're just looking for a way to get to bedtime."
The dragon sucked the fire back in with a surprised hiccup. "That's your quest?"
"Yep, I'm a housedad and it's an in-service day at the school. What else is there to do?"
"Tell me about it," agreed the creature as three young dragons came bouncing out of a side tunnel, knocked over a heap of gold and then set fire to a tapestry. One of them began bouncing on the older dragon's head. "I don't remember getting this much holiday when I was small and the gorgons were in charge..."
Everything went much more smoothly after that. The children and the young dragons played together for a couple of hours and then it was nearly tea-time which, to Ed's mind, was psychologically close enough to bedtime to claim success in their quest and head home. Ed and the dragon swapped email addresses and agreed to meet up for a shot of Halo some evening when they could persuade their wives to look after the kids. Ed promised to return the helmet then.
The journey back was mercifully short but still marked by children complaining of hunger and tiredness. Ed let them eat the chocolate biscuits to keep them quiet. Luckily, they avoided any more dangerous encounters on the way. As they crossed the bridge, there was no challenge from below, only a loud burp.
"What was that?" asked Ed's eldest.
"Nothing," said Ed, kicking a straggly, grey wig over the side with his foot.
When they got inside at last, Ed prepared the children a meal of fresh fruit and vegetables to make up for their lunch of cake. They ate it while watching cartoons full of fart gags. Then it was time for pyjamas and teeth and stories.
In the midst of it all, Ed's wife returned.
"Can I play with your axe, Mummy?" asked Oopsie.
"Not today, dear."
"Welcome home," said Ed and kissed her.
"I brought something for our supper," she said and slapped a VERY large fishtail down on the table. "Did you have a good day?"
"Not bad," said Ed, taking a flagon out of the cupboard. "We went on a quest."
"Really?" said his wife, raising an eyebrow. "Did you complete it?"
Ed grinned. "Yes... Yes we did."
Then it was bedtime...
and they all lived happily ever after.
Yours in a woman's world,