Dear Dave

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Educating Useless Dad

Dear Dave,

Everything continues to be entertaining here. The house is still full of air-blowers, I've had a stomach bug, Sarah's off on a course for three days, school finishes for the holidays on Friday and the overflow fitting for the bath fell off yesterday for no apparent reason. Hope things are going more smoothly for you.

Thanks for asking how it went with Sarah's manager, Steve, the other week. As you'll recall, his wife, Deborah, had organised for me to go with him and our combined horde of marauding children to invade the local soft-play and pillage the place. Somehow during the chaos I was supposed to nurture his latent fatherhood skills and make him less of a Useless Dad.

Well, I'm not sure I entirely succeeded. He's certainly not the man he was but it's possible he may just be a different kind of useless...

Anyway, I arrived at their flat on the Saturday morning with my happy band of midget barbarians and, to no one's surprise, Steve wasn't quite ready. The boys raced off to hunt Deborah's cat; Marie clung to me at the sight of Steve - she'd seen his childcare abilities at first-hand and wasn't wanting to be his next victim. No one was going to shove a bottle of milk in her ear while reading the business pages.

Useless Dad's first mistake on this occasion was in his attire - he was dressed in a suit. He'd obviously gone for a more casual look by not wearing a tie but it really wasn't suitable for clambering around inside giant plastic piping.

Since he'd needed to look smart for some kind of business networking breakfast, I guess, technically, the suit wasn't actually his first mistake. His first mistake was not leaving himself three times as long as he'd expected to get his children ready to go. His second mistake was temporarily misplacing his children altogether. His third mistake was that between them they had a leaky nappy and some Play-Doh. His fourth mistake was not restocking the changing bag. So, on reflection, thinking Deborah and I would let him out of the house again without changing was probably his fifth mistake. It was the first I was fully aware of, however. (The changing bag fiasco took us nearly two hours to discover. The Play-Doh has subsequently turned up in a pair of slippers, their DVD player and the cat. Half of it remains missing...).

Still, who wears a suit to the soft-play?

Someone who needs plenty of pockets...

"Have you got your PDA with you?" I asked nonchalantly.

"Of course," he replied.

"You might want to leave it here," I said. "You wouldn't want to lose it in the ball-swamp."

"In? I thought we just got to sit and watch."

"And by 'sit and watch' you mean 'occasionally glance up from reading the paper', don't you?" said Deborah.

He looked nervous. "Er..."

I coughed. It was a strange, throaty cough which came out sounding a bit like, "Frisk him!"

Deborah patted Steve down. The quick search revealed the PDA, his mobile phone, a magazine entitled Middle-Management Now!, a pad of Post-its, a Nintendo DS complete with golf game, a pack of cigarettes, a pre-paid voucher for The Telegraph and a half-eaten custard cream. She confiscated the lot.

"Hey! Let me keep the phone," he pleaded. "I need it for... Er... Oh! What if you need to contact me?"

"I'll phone Ed," she said.

"How come he gets to keep his phone?"

"Because no one's going to phone him." She looked at me. "No offense."

"None taken - it's the truth. Anyone phones me and all they get is small children in the background shouting, 'Who is it? Who is it? Can I talk to them?' No one even tries anymore."

"OK, OK." Steve put his phone away.

"While you're at it," I said, "you should change your clothes into something more suitable for crawling in confined spaces with sweaty children. You probably want to go for old and stained."


"I never know exactly why but the kids usually find a reason before the day's out. Look here - Marie wiped her mouth on me when I picked her up." I pointed to a orange smear near the shoulder of my t-shirt. "And here's where Fraser stood on me while we were playing football..." I indicated a black stain on my side. "That was after Lewis guddled in some mud and shoved me over." I showed him brown handprints on my back and grass stains on my knees.

"What's that red one on your front?"

There was splatter across most of the lower half of my t-shirt that I hadn't noticed. "I don't know." I gave it a couple of licks. "Oh, blackcurrant. That could have happened any time."

At that moment, their three-year-old daughter, Ophelia, went past wheeling baby Josquin in a highchair.

"What's that?" said Steve, pointing at the floor behind them.

I peered closely. "Looks to me like a trail of gravitational droplets," I said. "Directionality suggests the perpetrators came this way from the kitchen."

Steve went to investigate. The ensuing swearing made me suspect that he'd managed to step directly in the primary crime scene.

It was almost another half-hour before we finally managed to leave. My boys were bouncing off the walls by then but, fortunately, they didn't break anything expensive. Once we got going, we made brisk pace the few streets to the soft-play. The four ambulatory children tore off their shoes and plunged straight into the vast, three-storey structure of nets, pipes, platforms and slides. Their ululating battle-cry was rendered unintelligible by the screams of those already present. Toddlers poured out the exits like fleas from a sinking rat. Fraser clambered to the very top and did a little dance. Victory was ours.

I left Steve to sort out Josquin and play with him in an area reserved for smaller children and I went into the main network in order to make sure the girls didn't get into any trouble and the boys didn't cause any. There was no way Steve and I could really sit and talk while still giving the entire horde adequate supervision. My hope was that being abandoned with his son would encourage some bonding and that I could talk to him later over coffee.

I got stuck into chasing children around the brightly coloured wonderland. I don't remember soft-play existing when we were kids so I like to make up for it now. I know from experience, however, not to go sliding down any plastic tubes - I always end up trying to brake with my elbows and friction burns are never pleasant.

After awhile, I went and checked on Steve. He was sitting dejectedly rocking Josquin on a small see-saw. They both looked like they'd rather be doing something else. I offered to swap with him and he shrugged and slouched off to watch the other children. I set to work lifting Josquin onto slides, tickling him and throwing ball-swamp balls around for his amusement. He cheered up a bit.

Sometime later, Marie and Ophelia wandered over and started building towers of squishy shapes while giggling at each other. It took me a minute to realise that Steve hadn't followed them. I couldn't see him anywhere.

"Where's your dad?" I asked Ophelia.

She shrugged and waved a finger about as if indicating he was on the same side of the planet as the rest of the soft-play.

"OK," I said, picking up Josquin and heading off to search. "You girls stay here. I'll be back soon."

Fraser and Lewis were easy enough to find - they were racing each other up and around in circuits of the main structure. They would have been a lot faster at it if they hadn't stopped every five feet to claim the other was cheating in some way. I asked them where Steve was. They looked at me blankly. I continued on.

I eventually found him in a corner of the ball-swamp. Things had not gone well for him. He had obviously sat down on the edge of a large, doughnut-shaped squishy shape and then somehow slipped (or been pushed!) backwards into the hole. His muscles atrophied from years of doing nothing but drafting pointless memos, he had been unable to break free, his wriggling only causing him to sink deeper into the swamp. He was folded in half, his limbs sticking straight up, his bottom sticking straight down, and the doughnut stuck tight around him. He was trapped.

Scavengers had already arrived. An eight-year-old was trying to prise the watch off Useless Dad's wrist while a three-year-old had liberated his left sock and was using it as a hand-puppet. A particularly portly four-year-old was eying him in the way Wile E. Coyote looks at Road Runner. A speck of drool had formed at the corner of the kid's mouth.

If I'd arrived much later I'd have found nothing but bones jacked up on bricks.

I rolled my eyes and rescued him.

"I was just having a rest," he muttered.

"Aye, well, you'd be safer smearing yourself with jam and going to sleep on an ant hill. Keep moving about a bit or the little blighters will get you. I'll send the girls back and you can chase them or something."

I left him to it and took Josquin back to the lower slopes. Marie and Ophelia seemed delighted by the suggestion they go and make Ophelia's daddy run around. They rushed off, giggling to each other. What I wasn't expecting was for Marie to come back a few minutes later in a huff because Ophelia's daddy was hogging the slide.

He'd got really into it. Not so much the interacting with kids part but the sliding head-first screaming into a vast vat of plastic balls part. There wasn't much I could do about it, though - I was left taking care of the baby. It was then I discovered the stock issue with the changing bag. I had to fashion a makeshift nappy the best I could out of a muslin cloth, some cottonwool and two plasters. Then, as an added precaution, I sat Josquin down on an absorbent-looking copy of Middle-Management Now! that Steve had snuck into the bag. (That, at least, seemed somehow appropriate).

Our time was up soon after. Steve wanted one more shot but I dragged him off the clamber nets and we hurried home to find nappies. He spent the whole journey arguing with Fraser over which part of the soft-play was the most fun.

I didn't fancy recounting the tale of my limited success to Deborah and so we parted ways at their door. The nightmare isn't over, however. I got a text message from her a few days later, impressed with Steve's enthusiasm about the whole experience and informing me that I'm going back with him in a couple of weeks. This time he's going to bring some of his friends!

Apparently, he's even thinking of hiring the place for a team-building day.

Sarah is going to hate me.

Yours in a woman's world,


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