It could have gone worse.
It could have gone a whole lot better but it could have gone worse...
I should have known something was up when they all arrived wearing raincoats. The way this summer has been going, that wouldn't normally be odd but the sun was shining and the four of them were wrapped up like a quartet of Inspector Gadget clones. I was distracted by the chaos of all our children colliding in a maelstrom of tantrums, greetings and wittering, however. I didn't take much notice.
As I said in my last letter, I was meeting Steve (Useless Dad) and his friends at the soft-play. They pretty much all turned up at the same time. Todd was an earnest American about my age with scarily perfect teeth and hair. Darren was bright-eyed, fresh-faced and said, 'Yes!' a lot. Scott was a burly man in his mid-forties who gave the impression of being a rugby player. I quickly twigged that Scott was Steve's manager. This, of course, made him the boss of my wife's boss. Never good. I felt butterflies in my stomach - the kind of evil, misshapen butterflies that three-year-olds draw.
I picked Marie up and carried her around as a human shield.
We had about ten children between us, ranging in age from Scott's eldest daughter, who was around nine, down to Steve's youngest, Josquin, who's under a year. All the kids that could walk kicked off their shoes and charged into the enormous, multi-coloured hamster run. Steve handed me Josquin for a moment, as if to take off his coat, and then charged in after them. The other dads followed. I was left, quite literally, holding the baby.
I stared after them, not quite believing how easily I'd been duped. I hefted Josquin over my shoulder and set off to give Steve a piece of my mind. At that point, however, he and his friends actually took off their coats. I stopped. I blinked. I turned around and took Josquin back to the area for very small children. I walked slowly, whistling nonchalantly to myself. Facility attendants dressed in red t-shirts ran past me in the other direction. Behind me there were thuds and screams, interspersed with tinny, futuristic sound-effects. It was as if a couple of Space Invaders cabinets had turned up and started a fight.
Steve and friends were playing Laser Tag.
I knew they couldn't get away with it for long - lights flashed all over their plastic guns and body-armour, and the air was thick with trash-talk and zapping. I didn't want any council employees shouting at me, however, so I sat down and wished the ground would open up and swallow me. I promptly toppled over backwards into a ball swamp and disappeared from view.
I think if I hadn't had my arms sticking out holding a rather surprised-looking baby, I might have gone unnoticed. To be honest, I was as surprised as him. I lay there and held Josquin clear of the balls, his face an arm's length from my own, and we stared at each other. Somewhere above us and to one side, out of the corner of my eye, I could see four men being led away by guards in red t-shirts. One of the men was letting out long, low bloops and bleeps like you imagine Frogger would make as he limped forlornly into the path of a truck after you stood on him.
One of the guards stopped by the edge of the ball swamp and looked around while mumbling into a walkie-talkie. I made quiet shushing noises to Josquin. He grinned at me and giggled. I made the shushing noises more urgently. He grinned some more. I grinned back. We grinned at each other. He was quiet and I dared to breathe.
Then a glistening bead of dribble appeared on his lower lip.
My eyes widened. Josquin's mouth was directly above mine but the soft-play guard was still there and I didn't dare move. There was nothing I could do. The bead turned into a drop. It grew bigger. It began to bulge. The guard continued to loiter. The huge, quivering globule of saliva hung downwards, glistening in the light. Still the man would not go away. I tried to hold on for another few seconds. I tried not to think of the warm, sticky ooze that was precariously balanced only inches away from me. I tried to ignore the urge to leap up and run. I tried to think of a happy place. I tried... I...
The guy just about swallowed his walkie-talkie as I erupted, shrieking, in a shower of plastic balls right beside him.
Ho, well. At least I didn't get banned from the soft-play altogether like the others. I just got a verbal warning and three points on my leisure card. It did mean, however, that I was left to look after an entire riot of small children while Steve and friends sat in the cafe and drank coffees.
I'm not sure a 'riot' is entirely the correct term but I've decided this whole collective noun thing is merely a way for retired colonels and English teachers to feel superior. I've started inventing my own. Forget a murder of crows or a pod of whales, how about a slapstick of toddlers or a brood of teenagers? Or maybe an irritation of Tweenies or a prospective-freezerful of Teletubbies? I await your own suggestions... Thinking of such things kept me sane as the rest of the hour passed.
When time was up, I took the sweaty horde for chocolaty snacks and sat down for my own coffee.
"So what do you do?" asked Darren before I'd even caught my breath.
"Steve said you're one of Deborah's colleagues," said Todd.
"Like she does any work these days, sitting at home watching Neighbours," said Scott.
I didn't know where to start. Should I point out how much work being a stay at home parent entails? Should I mention Deborah's ambitions to return to her career? Would talking up both sound contradictory? Should I just tell them my own situation and brazen it out?
I wasn't sure and Steve was desperately trying to signal at me without the others noticing. He looked like the cool kid caught in close proximity to a geek, a thick rulebook, some character sheets and a large pile of twenty-sided dice.
Using my normal line of defense, I decided to make a joke of it. "I'm Executive Vice President of a domestic services partnership," I said and fished out of my pocket some of the business cards I keep for these occasions. "My portfolio includes surveillance, sanitation, education and catering."
"That sounds interesting," said Darren.
Todd nodded. "Do you have share options?"
"He means he's a househusband," said Scott, somewhat contemptuously of both me and them.
"Housedad," I corrected.
Todd looked puzzled. Darren let out a long, "Ohhhh!" and then continued with, "Does your wife earn a lot then?"
"No, not really," said Steve. "She's on..."
I coughed loudly. He looked guilty and shut up but I suspected he would tell them all later anyway.
"Still," said Darren, "must be cushy staying home while she goes out to work."
"What do you do all day?" said Todd.
"Wipe bottoms I expect," said Scott. "We can't sit around here finding out. We need to drop the little terrors home and continue the meeting back at the office."
I choked on my coffee. "You're counting this as work?"
Scott looked down at me. "Aren't you?" he said.
"I, well, erm..." I'd walked into a trap.
Steve didn't exactly back me up. "We got plenty of planning done while you were in there having fun," he said.
Are you sure you don't want to come up and give him a good talking to?
Actually... I know exactly who to get to do it. It'll take a week or three to organise but it might work.
Anyway, the four of them collected up their offspring and headed off to their impressive cars before I could think of anything much coherent to say. I was livid.
They did, however, invite me to go paintballing with them soon. I couldn't really say no. I did ask if I could bring some friends of my own, though. They weren't fussed. 'The more, the merrier,' apparently.
Of course, they may not be so sure about that once they've been hunted down and decorated by Scary Karen and her mates...
Yours in a woman's world,