I'm still alive. I made it through an hour and a half of the new toddler group and got out with only a few minor dribble stains and a small bruise. Which isn't bad going considering. Here's what happened:
Scary Karen had asked me to bring along a donation of toys so I packed up a load of things I've been desperate to get rid of for ages. These included a very noisy Thomas the Tank Engine which whistles tunes, a motorised pig which sings Old MacDonald and a pair of electronic maracas. I foolishly forgot to take the batteries out of anything, though.
Then I headed across the road to the Millennium Centre, through reception and down the corridor to the side hall. I was somewhat surprised to find a bouncer at the door. He was a squat, bald-headed guy who had bulging muscles everywhere, even places I'm pretty sure I don't have any muscles at all. A wealth of tattoos rippled over his bare arms.
He looked at me suspiciously. "You here for the toddlers?" he grunted.
I had a momentary vision of myself driving off with a cattle-truck full of under-fives. I almost mentioned it but then I noticed the assault rifle inked onto his bicep. It was labelled 'Betsy'. I decided to play things safe. "Er, yes," I said and waved my bag of toys and small child at him. "This is my little girl."
"I like pink!" shouted Marie to back me up.
The bouncer looked at me even more suspiciously. I could almost see the cogs turning in his brain - it was a parent and toddler group, I had brought a toddler, I was a parent, he couldn't justifiably turn me away... but I had showed up to the party one X chromosome short. The cogs spun for a while. I detected a faint smell of burning rubber.
"I go play now," said Marie and walked through the door.
The man's brain re-booted. "'Spose you'd better go in," he said. I smiled and thanked him and went in.
Some mats had been put out in the middle of the room and sprinkled with toys and children. A dozen or so chairs were placed round the edges. Four women had pulled their chairs close together and were having a heated discussion. They looked at me suspiciously as I entered. I smiled at them and followed Marie. She made a bee-line for a toy ironing board and iron. She picked up a baby doll, cuddled it and then proceeded to spend several minutes systematically removing the creases from its face before stuffing it in the trunk of a ride-a-long car. (No more CSI for her).
The women obviously knew each other and were having an argument about who had the worst scar. (Don't ever go there...) I tried not to listen, which was easy since every child in the room except mine appeared to have a whistling Thomas that they were beating to death with electronic maracas. No one else had thought to remove the batteries either. I stared into space and muttered encouraging things when Marie took the baby out of the car and replaced it with the singing pig.
Eventually Karen entered the room with a refreshment trolley and all the adults drifted towards it and the promise of chocolate-covered sugary goodness. Karen gestured at me and said, "This is Ed." Instantly the eyes of the four women widened in a mixture of recognition and awe. Karen introduced them to me as well but I instantly forgot their names. Let's call them Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. (I've been reading Meg and Mog a lot recently). The bouncer's name was Trevor. He glared at me through narrowed slits.
"You're the housedad," said Jess.
"Karen has told us all about you," said Bess. Tess nodded in a the way that suggested this might have been a lengthy process.
"Really?" I said. I couldn't entirely remember ever having had much chance to tell Karen anything about myself.
"Yes," said Tess firmly.
Cress started speaking very rapidly. "You have three children, aged 6, 4 and 2. You look after them all day, deal with them at night and then get up the next day and do it all over again, even when they're sick, or you're sick, or you're all sick. You clean the house, you change the nappies, you wipe up the mess. You take them out in the fresh air, you do their homework with them and you feed them at least five portions of fruit and veg every day. You..."
I interrupted as she took a breath. "Don't you do all those things for your kids?"
"Yeah," said Jess. "But you're a man."
"Do you do the cooking as well?" said Bess, jumping up and down a little.
"Kind of," I said. "I don't have much time. These days I tend to just move food from the freezer to the oven rather than cooking, as such."
"That's more than any of our men ever manage," said Tess irritably but then softened. "Want a chocolate digestive?"
Things settled down after that. Karen's friends weren't that scary after all. It turned out their community service was just for getting out of control in a protest around Faslane. Trevor, however, made me nervous. He lurked around the trolley. He didn't have any children of his own with him. He continued to glare at me. He looked like he should have worked at Faslane, possibly as a missile.
He only stopped glaring when Karen came and sat next me for her normal chat. She wapped out her baby's elevenses and Trevor's brain went into spasm again. He didn't know where to look and then pretended to read the notices on the wall. I forgot about him for a while as I became mesmerised by Karen's account of her attempt to return an item at Ann Summers and I prayed for the world to end.
However, when the lights went out and I was finally able to grab Marie and head for the exit, Trevor sidled over to me. He wasn't very good at it. "You and Karen," he muttered shiftily.
The cogs in my own brain suddenly clicked into place, then slipped out of gear and whirred away helplessly. Shock, surprise, understanding, fear and incredulity battled for control of my eyebrows. "Karen is merely a... er... friend," I stammered. "I have absolutely no desire to... er, have any, er, desire. Erm, is that the time? I have to collect my son from nursery. Nice to meet you."
I got the bruise clunking my shin as I ran away. It's still sore.
Yours in a woman's world,
PS Next week's an arts and crafts session. All this but with added glue... I can't wait.