Steve Canavan on learning about birds and the bees
I sat down on Sunday to watch one of those David Attenborough wildlife documentaries. Re-reading that sentence, the words ‘sat down’ are unnecessary. I mean, I could have watched it stood up, but it was on for an hour and it would have been weird to stand in the centre of the lounge, all formal, like a soldier on sentry duty, while the rest of the family was on the settee.
That said, my father used to be famous for this. He always claimed he detested television – he had a thing about anything invented post-1925 (I’ll never forget the look of disgust on his face when he first set eyes on a microwave) – but would spend an inordinate amount of time stood in the hallway, peering into the lounge through a slightly ajar door at whatever was on the box.
“Michael,” my mum would shout when she spotted him lurking – which was odd as he was called Brian – “why don’t you just come in and watch it with the rest of us?”
My dad would look alarmed, like a small boy caught stealing a Black Jack from a Woolworths pick ’n’ mix, claim he’d just been walking past, then shuffle off to the kitchen to get a pack of cards and spend the rest of the night playing patience and making scallops.
On this latter point, I’ve never ever met anyone who has had scallops the way we did – by which I mean a leftover cooked jacket potato, sliced into about five pieces, and then fried in cardiac arrest-inducing amounts of butter. They were incredibly unhealthy – one portion quadrupled your cholesterol level – but beautiful, especially when drenched in tomato sauce on a sandwich. I still recall the disappointment when, in my early 20s, I ordered scallops in a restaurant and was utterly disgusted to receive on my plate some rubbery seafood.
Anyway, I digress…
Attenborough’s wildlife show came on the TV and it so happened that Mary, my two-year-old, was on my knee. Now I don’t know whether you’ve ever watched a programme like this with a child who asks a lot of questions, but let me tell you right now it’s tricky.
The documentary began with a pack of wolves chasing some red deer.
“What are they doing?” said Mary.
My daughter is at an age where she is, as yet, untainted by the everyday misery the rest of us have to endure. She doesn’t know about anything bad, including death. Indeed it is six weeks since the cat died and she still thinks he’s gone for a walk.
“Is Percy home yet?” she’ll inquire most nights.
“No,” I’ll reply, “he’s still walking.”
I’m not sure at what point she’ll cotton on – I’m hoping she won’t still be asking about him in her early 30s – but I’m going to keep it going while I can.
By the same token, I didn’t want her to know that the wolves on TV were chasing the red deer with the aim of ripping off their heads and then gobbling them down whole. I mean Mary has about 30 cuddly animal toys she plays with daily. It might taint the game slightly if she learns they all want to butcher each other.
As the telly showed a close-up of a wolf about to pounce, I said, nervously, “erm, they’re playing tig”.
At that exact moment the wolf leapt on his prey, clamped its sharp teeth round the deer’s neck, and blood spurted everywhere.
“What happened?” asked Mary.
“They’re… [lengthy pause while trying to think of something] …cuddling,” I stuttered.
The next scene featured two spiders. Initially this was good. Mary began to sing Incey Wincey and all was well.
Then Attenborough said, “note how the male tries to get the female’s attention. He has one chance to mate. If the female feels threatened she will eat him. He takes the risk” – at which point the male hopped on the other one’s back and began gyrating with a faraway look on his face.
“What’s he doing?” said Mary.
I considered the question and briefly thought about explaining the concept of sexual intercourse in relation to survival of species but, after consideration, thought I’d leave this to Mrs Canavan.
“He’s tired so he’s decided to sit down,” I said.
“Why is he sat on the other spider?” Mary asked.
I’d never realised how annoying her questions were.
“Because she’s comfy,” I replied.
“There. He’s impregnated her,” said Attenborough.
“What does impregnated mean?” said Mary.
I had only one get out. “Do you want some chocolate?”
“Yes,” cried Mary, as I knew she would – and so it was that when Mrs Canavan came in 10 minutes later, Mary was, at 7.30pm at night, scoffing a large bag of chocolate buttons.
“What the hell is she eating chocolate for at this time?” screamed an irate Mrs Canavan.
“Because she wanted to know why two spiders were having sex,” I said.
“What?” said Mrs C.
“Exactly,” I said.
It made me feel renewed sympathy for my father and the night he knocked on my bedroom door as I was going to sleep.
“Erm, Steven,” he said, nervously, flushed face and wringing his hands like Uriah Heep. “Your mother’s asked me to have a word about [pause – then he said this last word in a whisper] sex.”
“I’m OK actually dad,” I replied. I was 14 and didn’t know anything about sex, but I wanted to get to sleep as I was playing football with my friends in the morning.
“Oh,” he said, a little unsure how to proceed but also relieved, no doubt, to have been spared having to go into a full explanation. “Well, if you ever want to know anything, just ask.”
“Ok dad. Good night,” I replied – then he left.
It was the closest I ever got to discussing sex with my parents. They should have just put Attenborough on instead and saved themselves the bother.