I'm a dead man.
Sarah is going to kill me. I'm surprised she hasn't left work early and come home to do it already. Maybe she's just stopped off at B&Q to buy some bladed garden equipment... Or a nailgun... Seriously, once I've finished writing this I'm throwing a change of underwear and all the gadgets I can carry into a suitcase and heading for Bolivia. She'll never find me there.
The day started well. I was at parent and toddler and everything was going fine but then I ended up sitting next to Useless Dad at biscuit time again. Scary Karen was sitting across from us and I waved but she was too busy telling Stefania the details of her colonoscopy to notice.
Useless Dad looked up from his newspaper. "Your wife sent you here again as well?" His baby son was lying at his feet, a rattle having rolled just out of reach. I picked it up and gave it back. The baby smiled and giggled in a transparent attempt to get himself adopted. I could see his three-year-old sister in the distance filling her shoes with Play-Doh.
I played dumb. "Yeah, you could say that."
"Deborah threatened to pour away my whisky collection if I didn't take the kids out of the house."
"Really?" I said. I'd met his wife a few times. She'd seemed calm and confident. I was suddenly concerned that having to do pretty much all the child-raising herself had caused her to lose it.
"Yes. This is getting totally out of hand. I'm going to have no end of work to make up. I might only be able to play golf twice this week."
"Really..." She wasn't losing anything. She was taking back what was hers.
Then my day took a rapid down-turn.
"My God, what is that woman doing?" said Useless Dad rather loudly. I glanced across to see Karen wapping out one of her enormous bosoms in order to feed her baby.
"Er, that's Sca... er, Karen," I said in a low voice. "She's just giving the baby some milk."
No one else seemed to have heard him. I think we would have gotten away with it if Karen's toddler hadn't wandered over to her just then looking peckish.
"Is that even legal?" squealed Useless Dad as the other undulating meal was wrestled into view and shoved into the waiting boy's mouth.
The conversation around us died. Other parents glared at us. And when I say other parents, I of course mean mums. We were the only men in the room and we were staring goggle-eyed at a breast-feeding woman. Useless Dad was even pointing. This was not the sensitive, enlightened image of fatherhood I have worked hard to cultivate over the years. I reached over and lowered his outstretched finger.
Karen was looking at us with a visage normally reserved for Norse gods who are about to do some smiting. I edged as far away from Useless Dad as I could without falling off my seat. Grinning nervously, I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. "Shouldn't you be leaving? Aren't you going to try working from home this week?"
He shook his head. "My laptop is still having the vomit removed after last week."
"Oh." I grinned harder and gave Karen a friendly wave. Her countenance only darkened further. Little lightning bolts sparked around her. Everyone was now watching us closely, waiting to see whether we would run or die. Some of them were obviously looking forward to a good smiting.
It was every parent for themselves.
I surreptitiously waved the remaining half of my biscuit at Marie and then gestured extravagantly towards Useless Dad. "New guy, everyone." I still couldn't remember his name but it wouldn't have made an impact anyway. I told them what they needed to know. "This is Deborah's husband."
Eyes widened, realisation dawned and understanding swept the hall. Those mums in the know turned to those next to them and began recounting their favourite tales of Useless Dad. Only a few continued to eye me with suspicion.
Marie ran over and grabbed my half-eaten chocolate digestive. "Thanks. I eat biscuit."
"Good, girl. I love you," I whispered so that only she could hear.
"I love you, daddy!" She shouted back and gave me a big hug.
After that, I was safe. I had an endearing guardian angel sitting on my lap (or a human shield dressed entirely in garish pink, depending on how you want to look at it). There were audible, "Aaawws!" from around the room. The storm passed. Karen finally returned my wave and went back to talking to her Polish friend.
I didn't want to push my luck, however. "We should probably go now," I said.
"Deborah told me not to come back until lunchtime."
"She wouldn't say but she'd looked out a leotard, a box of chocolates, the soundtrack to Pretty Woman, two cans of paint and some dust covers."
"That doesn't sound good." I would have suggested a trip to the swing-park but it was raining. I didn't fancy his chances of surviving a trip to the shops, the library was closed and I didn't want his kids loitering in a damp bus shelter for over an hour. "Er... Want to come round to ours for a bit?"
"Can I check my email?"
"Great. Let's go," he said, suddenly very keen.
"The girls should get on well."
"What? Oh, yeah... Yeah... How fast is your broadband, did you say?"
We wrapped up our various offspring, emptied out their footwear and headed back to our house. Marie led her new friend off to destroy some toys together, Useless Dad logged on and I looked out an old baby-seat for his sleeping son.
After I'd provided half an hour of free childcare, Useless Dad came through and said, "Your internet connection has stopped working."
"It does that sometimes," I said, kicking the cable I'd just yanked from the wireless router out of sight. "It might be down for a while. Cup of coffee?"
Grudgingly, he followed me through to the kitchen and was somewhat thrown by the confusion of colour. I've put off redecorating by covering all the available wallspace with the kids' artwork. He raised his eyebrows at our Nintendo-themed calendar. He perhaps realised that an infestation of children only becomes harder to ignore as they get older.
"What is it you do again?" he asked.
"I look after the children."
"When you're not looking after the children."
There are many tempting things to say in this kind of situation, such as, 'I'm not telling you my secret identity', 'Sleep' or 'Shh! When they can't see me, they think I don't exist'. All are true but usually take more explaining than is really worthwhile. "No, that is my job," I said.
"Oh..." said Useless Dad. "What does your wife do then?"
"She's a marketing analyst."
"LBO." He looked confused and didn't respond. To fill in the awkward silence, I asked, "What is it you do?"
"I'm head of marketing at LBO."
"Oh..." I suddenly recalled Useless Dad's name. It was Steve. Sarah's manager is also called Steve. He's quite useless as well. For there to be two useless managers called Steve in LBO's relatively small marketing department was really quite a coincidence. I mean what are the chances of...
My eye developed a spontaneous twitch. I inhaled sharply as if someone had stood on my toe. I stifled a whimper. On the list of people not to invite into your home, the wife's evil, misguided boss is pretty near the top, just above Dracula and Jabba the Hutt.
"What was your wife's name again?"
"Er..." I decided to lie and said the first name that popped into my head. "Brian?"
I remembered the two reasons why I normally don't lie: a) It's bad and wrong. b) I'm rubbish at it.
"Pardon? Your wife's name is Brian?"
"Erm, it's a pet name I use sometimes. You know, like 'dear' or 'hen' or, erm..." I glanced around the room for inspiration. It was not my day. "Er, or 'Donkey Kong'... Erm, actually her name's Sarah. You probably know her."
He gave the impression of having to think about it but eventually he managed to put all his ducks in a row. He looked around the room with new eyes. Narrowed eyes.
"So Sarah has children then?"
"Yes," I said, biting my tongue. Useless Dad/Manager had made the presentation on two of the three occasions she had gone on maternity leave. On the third occasion he had simply forgotten and phoned up after a couple of days to see where she'd got to.
"How many?" he asked.
"Three!?" He said it like we were some kind of subversive breeders intent on taking over the world. "Are you sure?"
"Pretty much certain," I said. I took some deep breaths and sat on my hands to stop myself slapping him.
He pumped me for all kinds of further information to do with such things as the kids' ages, schools, holidays and health. I might have thought he was just showing an interest but I was fairly sure he didn't know some of the answers for his own children. It was also possible he was trying to gain some understanding of our situation in order to help Sarah maintain her work-life balance. I suspect, though, he has more sinister plans...
I tried not to say anything career damaging and stated several times that I'm the one responsible for looking after the children even when they're ill. I'm not sure what registered, though. Then, at last, it was lunchtime and he hurried off to dump his children with his wife and then go and play squash. I've been chain-eating chocolate bars ever since. Sarah's not going to be happy. I don't know whether to phone her and warn her or wait to see if Steve mentions it to her. Or maybe I should just text - that might be safer. Or...
Is Bolivia nice this time of year?
Yours in a woman's world,