I remember being very small, perhaps three or four years old, lying in bed and shouting in my reedy child’s voice “Daaaa-aaaad!” so that he would come say goodnight to me. I couldn’t wait for the latest Interesting Fact.
In my childhood home, the stairs creaked as people walked up from the living room. I always knew if it was him — Mum moved much more lightly, even when she was pregnant with my baby brother.
I was a horribly precocious child, a polysyllabic prodigy. (Mum’s favourite story of me as a pre-schooler is the one in which I flummoxed a fishmonger by defining the word ‘extraordinary’.) I grew up wanting to be a scientist and a writer. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be both — for me they fit together perfectly.
When I wasn’t yet old enough to read, Dad started my bedtime with fiction. He opened The Hobbit and told me of Bilbo’s adventures, wisely skipping over the bit with the ghosts as my over-active imagination would only lead me to nightmares.
Before we got to The Lord of the Rings, I was reading on my own. I devoured anything I could get my hands on: newspapers, Anne of Green Gables, Mum’s copies of New Scientist. I loved that I could go anywhere with words, — they showed me the vast expanses of the known universe and the power of imagination.
Reading was the smallest part of the bedtime ritual. There was also the making of the quilt pasty — not a stripper’s tassel, but a pastry-covered delicacy from my home county — which involved being rolled up in the quilt so that no part of me could be seen other than my head, creating a cocoon I would somehow be free of by the morning (I hadn’t yet worked out that people move around in their sleep). Sometimes there would be a bubble bath beforehand. I always had to leave the bathroom while the bath was running, and Dad would make the bubbles magically appear while I was gone.
Then came the Interesting Fact — my favourite bit, and one that’s stuck with us even though we no longer have a bedtime ritual.
“Tell me an interesting fact!” I would demand, and Dad would always oblige. Sometimes the fact would be about a place he’d been to — he travelled around most of the world as a merchant sea captain before leaving the sea shortly after my brother was born. Sometimes it was about the family history: my grandmother driving in the Monte Carlo rally, my great-grandfather rejecting the field that contained Stonehenge in settlement of a debt, or the practical joke that made Dad fall in love with Mum.
Sometimes there were science facts. “Have you ever tried thinking that the sky is beneath you instead of above?” he asked one night. The next day I did try it, lying on my back in the garden. I got so involved in the idea that I had to clutch the ground to stop myself from falling upwards and bouncing off the puffy summer clouds. That night, Dad explained the law of gravity to me. I can’t remember the explanation itself; what stuck with me was the experiment beforehand. Science in our house was always a creative process as much as an investigative one.
I grew up thinking of one of my passions in terms of the other. Science can be a good mystery novel. (Which protein dunnit?) It can be a love story, about the attraction the sun has for a planet, or a planet for its moons. It can be a fairy tale. (Travelling in the blood circulatory system? Watch out for the Haemo Goblin!) It is the biography of the universe.
I’m a scientist now, able to explain the mystery of the unravelling quilt pasty, the magic of how bath bubbles form, the secret of why I can’t fall into the sky. But I also understand the even more important truth in my bedtime rituals — the love Dad put into those tales of Middle Earth and into crafting true stories for me.
These days I make my own interesting facts, and I store them away against the day that a child of mine will demand to know something true.