The first time it happens, I’m sitting with Tadpole and The Boy in my favourite Chinese snack bar, tucking into pork and herb ravioli while rain hammers down on the pavement outside.
‘Ouch,’ I say, rubbing a raised bump on my arm which I’ve just knocked against the table. ‘Goodness knows what I’ve done to myself this time, but it really hurts! Look, j’ai un bosse, là…’
Tadpole’s face cycles through several possible reactions – confusion, perplexity, amazement – before finally settling on amusement. ‘Un bosse, mummy?’ she says teasingly, shooting a sidelong glance at The Boy, who is smirking into his Shanghai noodles. ‘But don’t you know? Un bosse doesn’t exist! A lump is called une bosse, in French.’
‘Okay, I’ve got une bosse then,’ I say, defensively, my cheeks smarting. It’s not as though I’ve never made a gender blunder in front of Tadpole before. But it’s the first time she’s noticed, or at least the first time she’s decided to call me out on it, pressing home her native speaker’s advantage. ‘You know, I didn’t even start learning French until I was eleven-years-old,’ I explain. ‘So it’s normal for me to make mistakes sometimes. I wasn’t lucky enough to learn two languages when I was small, like you. And the thing I find most difficult is choosing un ou une or le or la because they don’t even exist in English.’
Tadpole falls silent, her face deadly serious as she processes this new information. She may be fortunate enough to know, instinctively, which combination of words sounds right or wrong, but I doubt she’s ever stopped to wonder why English nouns don’t behave in the same way. In fact, one of her most common blunders, just now, is to refer to a chair as a she or a pencil as a he.
‘I see what you mean, mummy,’ she says, finally, turning to face me and putting a hand on my arm – right on my bosse – causing me to gasp. ‘Don’t worry,’ she adds in a reassuring voice, ‘I’m going to teach you how to say right ALL the words.’ She lets go of my arm and opens both of hers wide to illustrate just how many words we have to get through. ‘How about we start with table,’ she says, clearly enjoying herself, now. ‘Do you think it’s un table or une table..?’
On a Saturday morning a couple of weeks later, Tadpole and I are sitting on the sofa in our respective nightwear: ‘ello Kitty pyjamas – she refuses to pronounce the ‘Hello’ in ‘Hello Kitty’ with an aspirant ‘h’ – and a black silk negligé. She’s just finished reading me a story in English, which she now sets aside in favour of a French story anthology. The deal we struck when she came to interrupt me – mid Gum Thief – was that she would read me one story in English, then one in French. She chooses the shortest one, which is about a naïvely drawn blue teddy bear called Pénélope, who is trying to remember the words to a well-known children’s song. I’m not familiar with it, as this particular story book is reserved for French babysitters and occasionally The Boy, if he gets home from work before storytime.
‘Pénélope chante à tue-tête…’ reads Tadpole.
Before she can launch into the song, I interrupt. ‘What does tue-tête mean?’ I ask her, with a puzzled frown. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that before…’
‘Really?’ says Tadpole, as though she can barely believe her ears. I nod, bashfully, half-wishing I’d held my peace. ‘Tue-tête means Pénélope is singing as LOUD as she can,’ she explains in a decidedly schoolmistressy voice, cranking up her internal volume dial to better illustrate her point and eliciting a groan from The Boy, who is sleeping in the bedroom, a few metres away.
‘Right, I see,’ I say, nodding. ‘In English we’d say she was singing at the top of her voice.’
The next time Tadpole uses a word I’m unfamiliar with, I keep stumm, slinking off to my desk at the first opportunity to leaf quietly through my Collins Robert dictionary.
It’s one thing admitting I’m not absolutely infallible. But the word ‘boss’, in this household, is a feminine noun. An adult feminine noun, to be precise. And while I’m quite happy to let Tadpole savour the sweet feeling of superiority from time to time, I don’t think I want the balance of power shifting too far in her direction.