Thanks for asking about Scary Karen's parent and toddler group. Things have been going reasonably well the last couple of weeks. Karen has a new friend in the form of a Polish mum whose English is limited to discussing the weather and cricket. Even south of the border this wouldn't normally make for particularly lengthy conversations but Karen is more than happy to take up the slack. The Polish mum sits and listens, her face screwed up in concentration as Karen rabbits away, and I get to eat my chocolate biscuit in peace. If someone has to listen, they might as well be getting free language tuition at the same time, I guess. The other mums seem to have accepted me. Everything is quite relaxed.
I was more tense this week, however. As you know, I was expecting Julia the Super~Mum to show and I wasn't sure how well she'd get on with the other parents. I was meaning to get there right at the start and introduce people but we arrived late. Very late. We all slept in and I had to abandon Marie to Numberjacks while I rushed to get the boys ready for school and nursery. Then, when I did get to her, she refused to eat her breakfast and simply yelled, "I not eat yogurt!" whenever I looked in her direction. This continued even after I'd eaten the yogurt myself, washed up the bowl and shown her the fridge was empty. Next up was trying to get her dressed. She wanted to go to parent and toddler in a nappy and sparkly pink wellies. I suggested she might get cold. "I not eat yogurt," she said defiantly. I realised it was going to be one of those days.
Eventually I managed to persuade her to choose some other clothes. She selected a red and green top, pale blue trousers, rainbow socks, sandals, pink gloves and a santa hat. She looked like the bargain rack at Oxfam but at least she was dressed. I opened the door and tried to leave. She insisted on going in the buggy. I pointed out that parent and toddler was across the road and that she could walk. She insisted on going in the buggy... and taking her little dog with her.
She doesn't have a dog.
I pointed this out as well. "It purple," she said. She doesn't have a dog, real or stuffed, purple or otherwise. I offered her every other toy I could think of. She took them all... then demanded her dog. I had to draw her one in the end. She held the picture proudly in both hands as I wheeled her over the road, two dozen soft toys jammed into the buggy around her. She grinned broadly, nodded to herself and, with a satisfied sigh, said, "I not eat yogurt."
It was barely worth turning up by the time we made it to the Millennium Centre and wheeled our way down the corridor to the hall. Trevor the stocky bouncer was blocking the doorway. "You don't want to go in there," he said. I laughed politely, thinking he was joking, and tried to go in. "No, I'm serious," he said, raising his hand. "You don't want to go in there. She's got Karen and she's..."
Then the singing started.
I'm used to attempts at group singing at parent and toddler. It normally involves one enthusiastic helper belting out some nursery rhymes, a handful of parents mumbling along and a mob of toddlers clubbing each other around the head with tambourines. The overall effect is seldom melodious. No one in their right mind tries anything fancy. The fact that the sound of Row, Row, Row Your Boat was drifting out of the hall in cacophonic three-part harmony suggested that a truly insane person was at work within.
"This is all my fault," I said and pushed past Trevor.
Marie looked at him suspiciously as we went in. "I not eat yogurt," she muttered under her breath.
The scene which greeted us was hard to take in all at once.
The first item to catch my attention was an enormous Twister board drawn out on the back of some old strips of wallpaper. There were many brightly coloured handprints and footprints on the board and surrounding area. It was as if players had been forced to dip their bare hands and feet in paint before taking part. This was not an encouraging start.
The second item was a table laid out with drying papier-mache artworks. These were a far cry from the models of my youth, which tended to involve just slapping sticky newspaper all over an inflated balloon and then drawing a face on it. It appeared that the children had been encouraged to use their creativity in choosing items to encase in a giant spit-wad. There was a handbag, a toy giraffe, three shoes, the tea urn, a scooter and one very surprised looking cat.
The third item was the refreshment trolley. It was piled high with very healthy looking snacks. None of them had been touched.
The final item was an enormous cardboard box which had been placed in the centre of the room. It was decorated to look like a house. A door and windows had been cut in it but these were shut. Gathered round the box was the most miserable group of bedraggled mums and toddlers I have ever seen. They were covered in paint and glue but were being forced to smile and sing. At least one parent was soaking wet and two of the children appeared to have been stuck together. I sensed that no one had received their normal quota of tea or chocolate biscuits.
Julia was standing with her back to me, conducting.
I decided to retreat but in my panic-stricken terror I stepped into a tub of paint, tripped over and landed in a tangle of buggy, soft toys and art supplies. The singing stopped. All eyes turned to me. I picked myself up and tried to wipe away the yellow paint that was dripping from my crotch but my hands were already covered in green. I merely created brown.
"You must be Ed," said the woman who had been conducting. She wasn't Julia. She was an older, greyer, more frightening version of Julia. I realised that I was dealing with Super~Mum's mother. Technically, this might define her as Super~Gran but, believe me, there is nothing 'gran-like' about her. Amidst the chaos she had wreaked, she still stood smart and proud, her expensive clothes and make-up untouched. She is the GrandParent of Doom.
There was a pause as the GPD surveyed me with distaste. Behind her no one dared move apart from Julia's three-year-old, Marcus. He silently flicked up a piece of paper. On it were clumsily scrawled the words, 'save yorselv.'
"Julia is busy teaching the older children calculus so I decided to bring Marcus along myself. I'm Julia's mother, Eleanor," said the GPD. Her words were polite but her tone gave the impression she viewed me as an aberration of nature. There was another pause. All the eyes remained fixed on me but I couldn't think of a reply. One corner of the GPD's mouth curled upward in the glimmer of an evil sneer. "Thank you for the invitation," she said.
The assembled eyes narrowed. Sympathy for me drained away. There was dark muttering in Polish.
The GPD seemed pleased by this response. "Seeing as you're so late, perhaps you and your daughter would care to give us a rendition of She'll be Coming Round the Mountain." She pointed to a central spot in front of the box. I unstrapped Marie and slunk over, already slumped in defeat.
Marie seemed oblivious, however. "I not eat yogurt," she said.
"We'll see about that," said the GPD.
It was a nightmare. Fortunately the singing was soon over but a few minutes later I inexplicably found myself dangling a multi-coloured Marie over the Twister board while trying not to topple over on Tess and her son. Admittedly I was covered in paint already and Marie was keen but how I got there is something of a blur. I think the GPD must employ some kind of Jedi mind control.
"Where's Karen?" I whispered as we all reached for a yellow.
Tess motioned her head towards the centre of the room.
"She put Karen in a box? How did she get Karen in a box?"
"She got us to do it," said Tess.
"YOU put Karen in a box?"
"Don't have a go at me. You've only been here five minutes and you're using your daughter as a paint brush. Think what the crazy witch would have you doing if you'd been here an hour. She thought the way Karen was feeding her baby was indecent and, well, I don't know, it just kind of happened."
"But why did Karen let you...?" My voiced trailed off as I looked about. The devastation in the hall was complete. I would have given good money to have been able to hide from it inside a cardboard box. Worryingly, even a cardboard box with Scary Karen already inside seemed quite attractive. I wondered if the GPD took Visa.
Time dragged on. We painted. We stuck. Eleanor put a straw in some natural yogurt and tricked Marie into drinking it. The girl was almost finished before she realised what it was. She burst into tears. "I not eat yogurt," she whimpered. The GPD snorted contemptuously at us both and then walked off.
"It's time to go but no one's eaten their snacks," she announced shortly afterwards. "Eat them now or take them with you. They are made from my own recipe and extremely nutritious." Then she made her error. "What will your husbands say if you don't feed your children?"
Obviously this annoyed me for various reasons but Karen is single and half of her friends are divorced. Most of the rest manage to raise their children despite their husbands' intervention, not because of it. The temperature in the room plummeted several degrees.
"When I was bringing up my children..." continued the GPD, unaware of her mistake.
"Enough!" The cardboard box burst asunder and a towering figure emerged, her hair dyed stiff and yellow with paint, her body stained blue, a baby still clamped to her vast, undulating chest. Scary Karen was transformed into something terrifying - a Pictish queen ready for war. She looked at the gaggle of toddlers huddled by the buggies. They were messy, tired and desperately in need of caffeine and sugar. She pointed at the GPD. "Kill!" she said.
They didn't need persuading. They surged forward, ready to batter her senseless with pinatas and then paint her orange. Luckily for her, Trevor rushed in and held them back with a table. "I think you'd better leave," he said.
"Well, I've never..." she began but there was a tap on her leg. "What is it?" she said, turning to see who was behind her.
"I not eat yogurt," said Marie with satisfaction and tipped a bowl of the stuff over the GPD's immaculate shoe.
Victory was complete. The GPD grabbed her grandson's hand and marched squelchily away, huffing to herself. Everyone cheered.
I went and collected Lewis from nursery and then came back to help clear up - I needed to earn a little forgiveness. Later, I made Julia a cake and took it round to give her some sympathy. It turns out that her mum lives a couple of streets away and has nothing much else to do except come and help with the kids. This explains a lot. We talked a bit, she cried, the kids ran riot and we ate the cake. I think we'll get on a lot better now.
After that, I had to go to the shops and buy some yogurt. Marie really wanted some.
Hope things aren't as crazy for you. How's Liz doing?
Yours in a woman's world,