Dear Dave

Wednesday 31 October 2007

Catching up

Dear Dave,

You're right, I haven't really told you what happened in the end about all the repairs from the flood damage. I was waiting until the tradesmen were finished. They've been almost finished for a month now, however.

All they have to do is make the towel rail in the bathroom work again, except they've had to 'order a part over the internet from a foreign gas supplier'. I should really phone them and chase it up but, after months of chaos, it's nice not having tradesmen in the house. Also, although it's getting pretty chilly stepping out of the shower in the morning, I'm nervous of what else they might break in trying to fix the problem. There's something to be said for quitting while you're not too far behind.

Our insurers cheered us up the other day, however. Seemingly unaware that we're already their customers, they sent us some junk mail encouraging us to sign up with them. Their big selling point was that their call-centre staff are polite, professional and always phone back when they say they will.

How we laughed...

At least the decorating is done and, after much effort, most of our furniture and stuff is back where it should be. My safe place is reinstated, the replacement Xbox 360 is set up and I managed to trade-in my temporary one for pretty much what I paid for it. Result. Thanks to all the sorting out, I haven't had much time to actually spend in the safe place, but it's good to know it's there.

On another happy note, the mice have mysteriously gone away. No more have leapt at me out of household appliances. One day they were high-diving down the stairs and hiding amongst shoes, the next day they had vanished. There was that dopey one I caught a week later but, since then, I haven't spotted any evidence of them. Not a sign. Maybe they were coming in from next door and the repairs there blocked up the access hole. Or maybe, as soon as I'd closed down the toaster buffet, they simply had no reason to come to our house.

The second explanation begs the question of how often they'd been snacking in the crumb tray before I caught one in the act.

Excuse me a moment whilst I go scrub the worktops with bleach one last time...

Anyway, we bought a new toaster and we're going through twice as much sliced bread as normal thanks to the novelty value of being able to slightly char it again. I keep a lid on the toaster when we're not using it, though.

Marie went with Sarah on the shopping trip to buy the toaster and was very excited when they got back. "We bought a toaster!" she shrieked, showing me the box. "This one didn't have mice in." She seemed to believe that the other ones in the shop came with the mice presupplied. I didn't correct her. After all, I'm now a man who keeps a lid on his toaster and views open toasters with paranoid suspicion. Who am I to judge what's crazy?

Speaking of paranoia, I did find a mouse dropping in the middle of the lounge carpet a couple of days ago. I assume it came out from under the TV cabinet when I was faffing with wires to try and fix our wireless router (oh, the irony) but it did cause me to panic at the prospect that there had been some fresh scouting by the rodents. Our stricter than normal hygiene rules will remain for a while longer yet. I suspect they will continue to be ignored, though:

Marie and I were sitting upstairs in the lounge the other evening and she suddenly went, 'A crumb!" and picked something off her sleeve. It had been a little while since tea and I didn't get a good look at whatever it was so I was going to tell her not to eat it. But, of course, I was too late. She popped it in her mouth and smiled happily. I shrugged. What can you do? I was going to give her a lecture but then I looked down and noticed a crumb on my own shirt. Without thinking, I picked it up, popped it in my mouth and smiled happily. I think it was toast but I didn't really take a good look at it. You know, it had been a while since tea, and I was feeling a little hungry, and it was probably toast and...

I decided to hold off on the lecture. I felt I'd lost the moral high ground.

There's only so much conflict that I can take, anyway. Earlier in the day she'd asked to watch some Winnie the Pooh. Now, we have Bob the Builder, Tweenies, Teletubbies, Bagpuss, most of Pixar's ouput, Tom & Jerry, Numberjacks, Scooby-Doo, Fimbles, Thomas the Tank-Engine, Barney, Shrek, the adventures of various Disney princesses, Mr Men and goodness knows what else but we don't have any Winnie the Pooh.

"We don't have any Winnie the Pooh," I said. "What do you want to watch instead."

"I want watch Winnie the Pooh instead," she said excitedly.

"We don't have any. You can't watch something we haven't got. You'll have to watch something else. How about Tweenies? Do you want to watch Tweenies?"

She pulled a face. "No! I don't want watch Tweenies."

"How about Bob?" I suggested. "Would you like to watch Bob the Builder?"

"No. I not like that."

"OK. How about...?" I made various suggestions. She refused all of them. Things went on like this for some time.

"How about Little Mermaid?" I asked finally, approaching the end of my tether.

"No," she said emphatically

I gave up. "OK. Tell me what you want to watch then."

"I want to watch..." She paused, knowing I might not take kindly to her asking for Winnie the Pooh again. Then she had an idea. "I want watch something we don't have."

I wasn't fooled. This was obviously just a way of informing me she wanted the bear of very little brain without actually saying the name. "How's that going to work?" I snapped. "Tell me something that we have that you want to watch."

It was too late.

"I want watch something we don't have," she said again but she now seemed quite taken by the concept. At that point, I knew that even if I suddenly found some Winnie the Pooh, it would no longer suffice. I was sure that the moment I produced 'something that we didn't have', it would become something else - it would become 'something we hadn't had until recently'. That wasn't going to cut it. She had her heart set on a logical impossibility. She wanted to not have her cake and eat it.

So, of course, she got nothing. She got to sit and glumly stare at a blank screen for an hour, every so often whining miserably, "I want something we don't have."

It wasn't much fun for anyone but eventually she said, "I want Party Rings now. They make me happy." I gave her the biscuits and, sure enough, she was happy again.

If only that worked on adults...

Hang on, maybe it does work. Things aren't so bad now but there's no harm in doing a little experimentation in preparation for the next time the house falls apart. Excuse me while I head over to the biscuit tin to conduct some research...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 26 October 2007

On its last wheels

Dear Dave,

The buggy is dying.

This isn't good - I need it to last at least another six months. Marie could conceivably walk everywhere already but it's slow going at times. I don't want to be dawdling about in the rain and sleet and cold. After the winter, she'll better able to maintain a reasonable speed and it won't matter as much anyway. The buggy can be put out to pasture then.

I'm kind of looking forward to it. It will be nice to have more space in the hall again and to be able to get on buses easily but there will be a sense of loss as well. Where am I going to put my shopping? I'll have to go get groceries twice as often or start taking a rucksack with me to Tesco.

Actually, I should buy the kids rucksacks and take them with me to Tesco.

I guess that problem's solved but I'll still miss the buggy. It's seen many, many miles of active service as a toddler-carrier and also doubled as a containment unit for unruly children, a bed on wheels and a handy shield to park between myself and people I'm intimidated by. It's a great place for stowing wipes, clean clothes, rainwear and snacks. When I venture forth without it, I feel exposed and under-equipped.

We've had a number of wheeled transport devices over the years: a pram, three single buggies, a double buggy and a buggy board. (That's not taking into account bikes, trikes, scooters, office chairs and storage tubs, but these are more for fun than serious means of getting from A to B. That said, Fraser is convinced that spinning round really fast on an office chair is a good way to travel backwards in time. I'm sceptical. In practice, he seems only able to get as far back as a time before he felt entirely well.)

Each device has had its uses but it's the single buggies which have taken the real punishment. The first got slightly mangled by a car boot and the frame broke when I tried to bend it back. The second got twisted out of shape by over-use of the buggy board when transporting heavy boys. There was no longer any way to get all four wheels to touch the ground at the same time and it had to be retired. Our third buggy, though, has survived the buggy board, leaking nappies, cobbled streets, rutted fields, steps, snow, constant use and being regularly loaded with a child and a fridgeful of shopping.

True, most of these things immediately invalidated the warranty but, then again, the instructions claimed that so did going up and down kerbs. The warranty was effectively out the window the moment we crossed the entrance to a little carpark that's just along the road. Bearing that in mind, we've felt free to pile the underseat storage with six pint containers of milk, loop a shopping bag over each handle and then try to use speed bumps as launch ramps with a buggy board and toddler on the back.

It's still going. I suppose it hasn't had to put up with some of the things I've seen other people do. I've seen adults sitting in buggies, older children hitching a ride by hanging off the back and at least one buggy being used to transport a TV. Our buggy hasn't been abused quite that badly but it is seeming a little past it - its wheels are pitted and worn, it struggles to turn, its raincover is in tatters. One of the back wheels is even in danger of coming off. One day, I'm going to take a sharp turn in the electronics department of John Lewis, the wheel's going to get left behind and Marie and I are going to spin off into a display of giant tellies. As we crawl to safety, the buggy will explode, showering us in breadstick crumbs and remote controls. It will be a sad end to a faithful servant (and some expensive TVs). I should really dispose of it before then.

I just can't do it quite yet.

It's like a dog - an old, tired dog that only has three legs and smells bad, admittedly, but it seems callous not to give it a proper send off. I wanted to catapult it, flaming, off the top of Edinburgh Castle and watch it blow up at the culmination of the Hogmanay fireworks but the council weren't up for that. So now I'm considering something akin to a viking longboat ceremony. I'm going to pile it high with old baby clothes, set it alight, float it gently out to sea and watch it drift serenely off into the night. If I can get a couple of hundred other people to join in, that could be quite beautiful.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. There's life in the old dog yet. I'm going to give it a wash, spray its wheels with WD40, tighten any loose screws, tickle it behind the ears and then let it gambol around out the back door for a little while.

Then I'm going to load it up with six bags of books to take to the charity shop, perch Marie on top, jump on the mudguards and try to beat my downhill time to the bottom of the street.

If I use enough oil, I might even be able to leave a trail of fire behind me...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 24 October 2007

Parent and toddler night out

Dear Dave,

Glad to hear you're well and you're finding your feet with the new routine. It's great news that Daisy is sleeping better.

Thanks for asking how things went the other evening. Apart from minor bruising to my face, I survived. It was a peculiar night, though. I suppose you want the full story. All right then. I'll start in the middle...

* * *

"This isn't what I signed up for," said Trevor, the silver tinsel of his Deely boppers reflecting off the dome of his bald head.

I could barely make out what he was saying over the blaring of Chesney Hawkes. "I know what you mean," I said, surveying the dance floor which was mostly full of slightly tipsy women who were old enough to remember a time before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister but were wearing outfits they'd bought when she was still in power. "I think I'm going blind..." Then I caught sight of Scary Karen gyrating as she screamed out the lyrics to One and Only and I added, "...but not fast enough." I had another big gulp of my beer.

* * *

To be honest, the parent and toddler night out had never held much promise for me but I hadn't expected it to go downhill so badly.

When I arrived at the local Chinese, there were plenty of mums already seated at a long table. They were still waiting on Karen and a few other, though. I squeezed up a darkened corner with Trevor, the group's stocky bouncer. We ordered drinks and I just hoped for the time to pass quickly.

Then Eleanor arrived.

The temperature around the table dropped so rapidly that it started to snow on the prawn crackers. The only time most of us had met Eleanor previously, she'd forced us to sing in harmony and to paint with our children. (As you'll remember, by 'with', I don't mean 'alongside', I mean 'using'.) I call her the GrandParent of Doom.

"Good evening, ladies. I'm afraid Julia can't make it this evening - her babysitter called off. Seeing as a seat has been booked for her, and I have attended one of your delightful nursery gatherings in the past, I thought I might join you."

There was much muttering around the table. If her daughter couldn't find a sitter, why hadn't the GPD gone to look after the kids rather than turning up at the restaurant to make us all miserable?

Also, why did she have two large bags with her?

"Quiet please," said the GPD, shushing us. "As these events are so rare, I brought some items to make the evening especially memorable." She reached into one of the bags and brought out a pair of the Deely boppers which she placed regally on her head and then she reached into the other bag and brought out t-shirts.

* * *

Did I mention the t-shirts before?

As we sat at the bar of the seedy club with the mature clientele, Trevor and I were wearing white t-shirts that the GPD had obviously prepared well in advance for our humiliation. If they'd had 'Young, free and single' written on them, I could probably have lived with the irony. 'Worn-out, tied-down & reproduced', however, was not so much to my liking.

I was desperate to get home and put the offending garment at the back of the wardrobe beside my other emergency t-shirts. These were all 'amusing' gifts from in-laws. One says 'My other toddler is well-behaved' and a second has 'Don't follow me... my children bite'. The third was actually useful for crossing roads when the kids were small and I wasn't getting much sleep. It's emblazoned with 'Honk if I've got my eyes closed.'

* * *

Eleanor went round the table handing out the t-shirts and came to our corner last. It was an extra dark corner by then because I'd snuffed out all the candles I could reach in the forlorn hope she wouldn't see us.

Well, it was worth a try.

She handed me my t-shirt stiffly. "I see that, after a hard day encouraging other men's wives to abandon their ideals, you've abandoned your own wife while you cavort with... Trevor!"

I blinked. I'd been ready to rebut the put down, to tell her to stop forcing her ideals on her daughter and to inform her that Sarah was quite pleased to have me out of the house for once. Trevor really isn't my type, though. I was momentarily thrown by the accusation.

She'd forgotten all about me. "I hadn't realised you'd be here, Trevor. How delightful to meet again. I'm sorry we didn't get much opportunity to chat last time. Now let me see..." She hunted around in her bag of t-shirts before handing him one the size of a small tent. "I brought a couple of extremely large ones in case Karen has a sister." Then she sat down beside him, put her chin on her clasped hands and batted her eyelids.

* * *

The club seemed to be having some kind of an eighties night. It made me think of school discos and, oddly, Wotsits. A worrying thought struck me. "What time is it?" I asked. My watch had had an unfortunate Play-Doh related accident the day before.

Trevor checked his. "Twenty-five past ten."

"We need to go. We need to go now."

He heard the panic in my voice and, for the second time that evening, I saw fear in his eyes. "Why?"

I searched frantically in my pocket for my cloakroom stub. "We have to be out of here before half-past ten. We can't be here when..."

But it was too late. Wham! had faded and The Weather Girls were already beginning to crank up.

Trevor was oblivious. "What happens at half ten?"

"That's when it's supposed to start raining men," I gibbered, "and, if you hadn't noticed, male precipitation is a bit thin on the ground this evening." I swept my arm to take in the expanse of the room. There were almost no other unattached blokes there. On the other hand, there were quite a few lonely girls who'd left their umbrellas at home. Nearly all of them were looking at us. I reckoned we had until the chorus to escape. "Run for your..."

I turned round and nearly fell over Eleanor.

* * *

The GPD continued to sweet-talk Trevor as we ordered our food. He sat nervously, his mouth slightly open, unable to make his voice work.

Trevor is at least ten years older than me but Eleanor is at least ten years older than him. It had obviously never crossed his mind to think of her in that way before. And, judging by the look on his face, now he'd had the thought, he was terrified by it. Karen might be scary but the GPD is actually frightening.

Karen still hadn't showed up and the rest of us were unwilling to fight.

We put our t-shirts and Deely boppers on.

* * *

Eleanor slowed me up long enough for Karen's friend Tess to grab hold of my arm and yank me bodily onto the dance floor. I suddenly found myself strutting my not-so-funky stuff. Fortunately, it was quite dark. Unfortunately, that just made my t-shirt glow even brighter purple. We'd walked like an Egyptian and fought for our right to party before I had a fresh chance to escape. Even then, the exit was blocked by Cress and Jess, who looked like they wanted to get in on the action, too

Could have been worse, though. At least I wasn't having to dance with Eleanor.

* * *

By the time Karen turned up for the meal, it was too late. The GPD was all smiles for Trevor but the rest of us had been lambasted about everything from the names of our children to our choice of footwear. We were afraid to speak and shiny tinsel rustled every time we moved our heads. Karen did fight back but the only seat left for her was right at the other end of the table. That end had livened up by the time desserts were served but my end was reduced to listening to the fun Karen's end was having.

Everyone had plenty to drink.

Of course, Trevor had been hoping to make his move on Karen but there was no chance of that. She was too far away and the GPD wouldn't leave him alone. I shot him the occasional sympathetic glance but he was too shell-shocked to really notice. It was a relief when the bill arrived. I thought it was over.

"Let's go to a club," said Tess. "I know a good place that's not far away."

There was plenty of merry agreement.

But then, no one had been expecting Eleanor to come along.

* * *

"Mind if I cut in?" I shimmied between Trevor and Eleanor and then spun him off across the room.

"Hey! None of that!" He tried to bat me away.

I ducked. He'd dragged me along to the club for support. I hadn't wanted to go. I'd wanted to head home to my Xbox. I was going to do my best for him, whether he liked it or not. "Would you really rather dance with her?" I said, pointedly.


"Anyway," I shouted over the music, taking advantage of his confusion, "I'm off to climb out the window of the gents any minute. You won't fit, so you're going to have to come up with another plan. I suggest you make your move on Karen. It's the only way to get the GPD to leave you alone."


"The GP... Oh, never mind. Who do you think? I had a word with the DJ. The next song should be suitable."

"I..." He was still confused.

"No need to thank me. Just collect my coat on the way out." I pressed my cloakroom ticket into his hand. "I'll get it from you at parent and toddler."

"But what if..."

I remembered that he responds well to being ordered about. "Show some backbone, man. Tell her how you feel. Let her see your passion."

"If you really think..."

"I do. Now, I'll leave you to it. If we dance together any longer at this time of night, then club etiquette seems to suggest that I've got to snog you. I don't think either of us want that, although I'm sure it would be another way to put Eleanor off."

This, at least, he wasn't confused about. "I'd rather tell Karen."

"You'll have to do more than that," I yelled. "You're going to have to show her your moves. Good luck."

We'd discoed our way towards the toilets. As the song ended, I struck my best Travolta pose, spun round with a flourish and disappeared through the door. I was already halfway out into the night air by the time Dancing Queen got going.

I paused, my feet balanced on a urinal. I couldn't quite bring myself to leave. I slipped back inside and crept over to the door. I opened it just a crack to see what was happening.

For an instant, I thought the dance floor was empty. But no! Trevor and Karen were in the centre, tripping the light fantastic. Their t-shirts luminesced blindingly and they were bathed in multi-coloured swirls from a dozen disco balls. It was a sight to behold. Everyone else had got out of the way to avoid being injured.

I stood mesmerised until the song finished and, to my delight, they went with club etiquette. There were cheers from the other parent and toddler members around the room. I smiled. My work there was done.

Then I noticed that not quite everyone was cheering.

Eleanor was livid and her eyes were sweeping the room, hunting for something.


She knew. She knew I'd talked him into it.

Her eyes came to a stop, fixed on the gents. I was sure she couldn't see me. The door was only open the tiniest fraction. She couldn't possibly... And I was in the gents, anyway. She wouldn't...

She began to march over.

She was coming for me.

It wasn't the softest landing as I hit the cobbles of the alley but my face broke my fall and I was up and running within moments. I dashed off down the street, the heads of passersby turning to watch me, but I didn't look back.

I was almost home before I remembered to take off my Deely boppers.

* * *

I got my coat back today. Trevor and Karen were all smiles. I'll let you know how it works out for them.

I'm not looking forward to my next meeting with Eleanor, though. Could be messy.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 19 October 2007

Keeping them in the dark

Dear Dave,

What do you do when you don't want Sam to know what you're talking about?

It's difficult for Sarah and myself to hold a conversation without a child in the vicinity and, now they're all old enough to understand what we're saying, this is becoming more of an issue. Admittedly, it seems they don't normally listen to a word I say but it's impossible to be sure. Fraser had speech difficulties when he was small and we thought it might have something to do with his hearing but then I ran some tests where I went out of his line-of-sight and whispered the word 'biscuit'. I was trying to find out how far away I had to be before he failed to come running, looking for a custard cream. I tried the other side of the room, I tried down the hall and I tried up the stairs but none of them was far enough. Then I went outside, muttered the magic word and got trampled by a mob composed of every kid in the neighbourhood.

I gave up. Children can listen perfectly well when it suits them. The question is how to avoid them gaining powerful information when it doesn't suit me. I don't necessarily want my kids knowing the details of our finances or what I need from the chemist.

I'm aware that some households spell words but I'm just no good at that. I can't do it. It was bad enough when Fraser was learning to read and he'd suddenly ask me something like, "What does 'p-h-o-t-o' spell?". He usually had to repeat himself a couple of times before my brain could picture the word and read it. It was just hopeless. Trying to have an adult discussion would be painful (and make me look like a total idiot). Before long, Fraser's going to be far better at it than me, anyway.

Similarly, I can't lip read to save my life, so mouthing words is useless. ('I'm sorry? What was that? You want some elephant juice!?') Charades attracts too much attention and has limitations. (Have you tried miming 'levitation', for instance?) Using a foreign language is out because I don't know any. Well, not really. All that I can remember of my GCSE German is, 'Mein Schnurrbart brennt,' and 'Ich bin ein Kuhlschrank.' Neither of these phrases is much use. I can think of few situations where I might need to secretly inform Sarah that my moustache was burning or that I was, in fact, a fridge.

Nope, we're left with two choices - being obscure or using very long words.

Again, obscurity loses me pretty quickly. For instance, if Sarah were to say, "Remember that thing we were talking about yesterday where the man might need to bring transport?" I'd just look blank. She'd need to give me quite a few hints before I understood. Even then, I wouldn't be entirely sure.

I'd need to check, just to be certain. "Oh, right! Do you mean the big skip we've ordered for all the kids' old toys?"

Kind of defeats the purpose, really.

That only leaves convoluted verbal exchanges using lexicographic ingenuity and artful confabulation. It's eminently possible to partake of some protracted deliberation with one's spouse by employing a succession of expanded utterances engineered to confound and discombobulate the juvenile contingent of one's household.

Well, it's working for now, anyway. There's a chance it may backfire, though.

We may effect a phenomenal increase in their linguistic capabilities that causes their vocabularies to outstrip those of their contemporaries and renders them incapable of conversing in anything other than a convoluted, antiquated and nigh-on incomprehensible fashion.

This is unlikely to help them make friends.

Maybe we should just accept the inevitable and move on to text messaging at the dinner table. Goodness knows, it won't be long before the kids start doing it so we don't know what schemes they're hatching...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Sarah bought a set of thirteen jelly moulds the other day. There's one for each letter of 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY'. I'm wondering what else I could spell in wobbly letters. All I can come up with is 'TIP A BAD HARPY DAY' or 'B HAPPY, BATH A HAIRY HIPPY'. Obviously, either of these would form a talking point as the centre-piece of the buffet at the next family gathering but I'm sure there must be something better. Any suggestions? (Keep it clean. Also, using any of the moulds more than twice seems like too much effort).

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Wooing Scary Karen

Dear Dave,

Your last letter was pretty short but it was good to know you're still alive. I take it that Daisy is being hard work at moment. Don't worry. It won't be long before you figure out how to leave the house in between feeds, nappy changes, Sam's mealtimes, sleeps and your own intravenous injections of coffee. If you start running low on food in the meantime, there's always home delivery. At least, with Liz on maternity, you have extra help and you don't have to faff with sterilisers and bottles. Sleep in shifts, if you have to.

How many people have asked if you're planning any more yet, by the way?

We're doing OK. To begin with, Steve didn't come round here as much as I expected. I guess losing his job took a couple of weeks to sink in. That or Deborah decided to go easy on him for a few days. Now, though, it's half-term (or October Week as they call it in the local lingo) and, with no nursery for Ophelia, he's been encouraged to take the kids out and about so Deborah can get some work done. It being October Week, there's no parent and toddler, swimming lessons or other regular activities. 'Take the kids out and about' essentially means go round to Ed's house and eat all his biscuits.

Of course, I'm no longer obliged to make him less of a Useless Dad. He isn't my wife's boss any more and so my deal with Deborah has expired. I don't need her help to keep his useless management abilities under control. Still, I feel a bit sorry for him and, also, Ophelia gets on really well with Marie, so I don't mind him turning up too much. It's just that every day is going a little far.

Yesterday I tried getting out of the house before he arrived but the bell went while we were still putting our coats on.

"We're just off," I said, as soon as I'd opened the door. I used the buggy and a couple of children to block his way in.

He looked crest-fallen. "Where are you going?"

"We're off to meet Sc... er, Karen." I've had to stop calling Scary Karen by that name around the house. Marie started repeating it. This made me afraid.

"Which one's she?"

"Erm..." How was I supposed to describe Karen? "She's a slightly older mum with two children, Malcolm and William. She's quite large. Got disqualified from the paintballing. Remember?"

Steve's eyes widened. "Oh! The scary woman with the enormous..."

"Yep, that's the one. She's got something organised in the park."

"But it looks like it's going to rain."

I shrugged. "I'm suspecting it's going to absolutely chuck it down but I said I'd go. It's a case of get wet or suffer Karen's wrath."

"I see what you mean," he said, trying to get inside. "How long are you going to be? I'll put the kettle on, ready for when you get back."

"Nice try," I said, ushering my children out of the house and locking the door firmly behind me. Steve's shoulders slumped despite the fact he was already bent nearly double over a buggy that was way too low for him. It just added to his general air of despondency. He hadn't shaved and his smart suits had been replaced by casualware which was already becoming ripped and crusty after only a few days of involved parenting. I took pity on him. "If you want to come with us, you can."

It was his turn to shrug. He didn't have many options. We walked round to the park.

There was quite a crowd. I didn't know half the mums there and many of the ones I did know had brought along older children that I'd previously only been vaguely aware of. Super~Mum, Julia, had her four with her and they were busily erecting a large shelter from poles and plastic sheeting. Considering her eldest is only eight, it was a pretty impressive sight. I was surprised, though, that the GrandParent of Doom wasn't standing over them sternly, holding a stopwatch and a whistle.

"Is your mother about?" I asked Julia, nervously. The GPD and I have some unpleasant history.

"She's busy cleaning my house."

"That's handy," I said, relieved.

She shook her head. "Not really. I had to tidy up specially before she came round."

"Ah. She hasn't lightened up much then?"

"No. She's been even worse since I told her that I'm thinking of sending the children to school."

"In your situation, I can't imagine I'd ever be thinking of much else." Julia currently home-schools her children.

She nodded and looked very tired. "I'm not sure I can keep going with teaching all four of them. She's offered to help more but, well..." She trailed off for a moment at the thought of yet more 'help' from her mum, then she shuddered and recovered. "I suppose she's just upset she won't see so much of them. She's taken a bit of a huff and didn't want to come out today."

"Ho, well, probably for the best," I said, holding out my hand to catch the first drops of a light shower. "I can't imagine she copes well with rain."

Julia looked quizzical.

"I'm shrinking! I'm shrinking!" I squealed, contorting myself into my best Wicked Witch of the West impression.

"I don't know what you mean," Julia said in mock outrage as she stifled a laugh. The rain started to fall harder. "I'd better help the kids."

"Right with you."

We were quickly joined by several other adults and the tent was up in no time. We all squashed in like toddlers round someone else's toy and waited for the shower to pass. Marie and Ophelia started running around trying to drink the rain and a few of the other kids copied. Some of the older children started a game of football. Fraser and Lewis stood and complained about the dampness and the lack of computer games until I told them that, if they got really wet, we might go home sooner. This encouraged them towards the kick-about. I stood shivering under the awning and dreamed of being back home with my Xbox. Then I suddenly realised that I was crushed up against Karen.

"So? Are you coming on the night out?" she asked.

"Wha-? I... Wha-?" I replied, my tongue making random noises as my brain struggled to take in the horror. "Night out?" I finally managed.

"We're having a parent and toddler night out. Didn't anyone tell you? It's at the Chinese round the corner. We went there for Tess' divorce party but that's OK, they'll have forgotten us by now. We had a lovely meal. I had the duck but I was paying for it for days afterwards. That was the time I had to go to the hospital for... (I zoned out for several minutes at that point) ...Jess told me to put him down but I'd just got the hang of the chopsticks and... (More happy thoughts seemed in order) ...that's the last time I'm taking the bus to Glasgow, I'm telling you. Unless I really have a chimpanzee with me. Bloody cheek! Next time... (Yep. Kids still happy and playing. Everything fine with the world) ... Great. So we'll see you there about eight?... (More dreaming. I... What?)"

I was brought back from my happy place with a shock. I'd obviously nodded and smiled at a very unfortunate moment. It was too late to back out. "Is Trevor coming?" I said in a panic.

"Oh, I hadn't thought to ask him. He's not really a parent but he is always helping out. Do you think I should?"

"Yes, yes," I said. Trevor is a hulking ex-soldier who's almost as scary as Karen but I was desperate for any kind of male backup. I didn't want to be the only man around when a dozen mums got their first chance in months to let their hair down. "How about you, Steve? Are you...?" I turned around but he'd disappeared. He's obviously not completely daft.

"Oi, out the way." A three-year-old shoved me aside and stuck his head up Karen's shirt looking for elevenses. It seemed like a good opportunity to go join in the football. At least I was pretty sure it was her three-year-old this time but still...

Lewis and Fraser were struggling. The makeshift pitch was becoming swampy and their natural aversion to getting messy was competing with their overwhelming desire to go home. They were happy enough to kick the ball themselves but kept running away from it when it got kicked towards them, in case it got them muddy. I joined their team for a bit to help get them going. Once they were properly dirty, they got quite into it.

I slipped away to check on Marie. She was with Julia's kids. I was pleased to discover that they were doing my job for me, teaching her the names of various plants in the shrubbery around the edges of the park, and I left them to it. I only found out later that it was the Latin names, they were teaching. Now I've got to tell her to watch out for the Urtica dioica whenever she's heading for a patch of nettles. Handy.

As predicted, it was beginning to chuck it down. Steve had already gone. I went back to the tent to collect up my stuff. I passed Karen and Trevor just as a mum raced over and pointed to the other side of the park. A man was taking his dog for a walk. A very foolish man.

Karen instantly rummaged around in her handbag and pulled out a whistle, a plastic bag, an official letter from the council confirming that no dogs are allowed in the park and a chunky, rubber-coated device that, for a moment, I thought was a torch. Then she pounded off towards the man, tooting loudly.

"That was a taser," I said to Trevor once she was out of earshot.

He nodded. "Ach, the bloke's got it coming. It's the little old ladies she catches smoking in bus stops that I feel sorry for."

"She...? No, I don't want to know. How are you doing?"

"Can't complain. Karen's just invited me out for a Chinese."

"Er..." I said. Trevor has a thing for Karen. This is part of what makes him so scary (along with the fact he could crush me like a bug using only his eyebrow). "You do know all her mates are going to be there? And me?"

"Oh, yeah," he muttered, "but I don't want to rush things. She's a very attractive woman, that Karen. Gives me the chance to use some of my charm with no kids about. Yeah, tell my joke, show her a few tattoos and my shrapnel scar, arm-wrestle if she's up for it..."

I wasn't sure what to say. We both stood in the rain and watched Karen off in the distance chasing a rottweiler.

"I should go help her," said Trevor but didn't move.

"I think she's got it covered," I said and then had an idea. "If you really want to impress her, though, you could go check on her children. Make sure they're OK and keep them entertained."

"How do I do that, then?"

I shrugged. "You could try showing them your tattoos."

"What about the scar?"

"Depends where it is." He bent over and let me see behind his ear. "Yep, that'll be fine," I said, without looking too closely.

"You really think..." He seemed surprisingly nervous about the whole suggestion.

I rolled my eyes and pulled childcare rank. "You've seen active service in three different countries. Are you telling me you can't handle two small children for five minutes?"


"Then hop to it, man."

"Right, yes." I was mildly disappointed that he didn't salute and call me 'sir' but at least he went off and followed orders.

"See you at the night out," I called after him and then gathered up my own children and headed home.

We were soaked and, as we opened our gate, I was looking forward to a hot cup of tea, some dry socks and a little peace and quiet. Unfortunately, Steve and his children were huddled by the door under an improvised shelter constructed from our recycling bins. "You took your time," he said. I was about to tell him where to go but he held up a large paper bag and said, "The cakes have gone a bit soggy."

At least he's learning something, I guess.

I let everyone in and turned on the heating. We all ended up under blankets watching The Little Mermaid. Maybe that will discourage him from coming round today.

Nope. There goes the doorbell again...

I'd better go. All the best with getting some sleep.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 12 October 2007

Raising townies

Dear Dave,

I come from a very long line of farmers. There's an absolute stack of them (probably literally) buried in the same churchyard in Norfolk. Half of them even have the same name as me. This is a bit freaky when randomly glancing at gravestones, to be honest, but it means that agriculture and husbandry should flow powerfully within my veins.

As if.

I'm slightly agoraphobic, I can't keep the worms in our worm-bin alive and I look at pot-plants and they die. Truth be told, farming was never really my career of choice. It's very fortunate that I'm the second son so I got to run away to the city.

Growing up on a farm, however, I did feel somewhat inadequate as a child because I really didn't know very much about the countryside. I struggled to tell a thrush from a starling or a birch from an oak. It didn't help that the Swallows and Amazons adventure books I was given to read presented this as some kind of moral failure. It turns out, though, that my kids make me look like a born naturalist. Witness the conversation I had with Lewis recently:

"Daddy? What kind of bird is that?" he asked, as we sat in the park.

I glanced where he was pointing. "It's a raven," I said.

"No, it's not." He seemed to think I was pulling his leg. "It's a blackbird."

"Technically, you're right, it is a black bird, but it's not a blackbird."

"Why not?"

"It's a raven."

"No," he said, realising I wasn't joking but now certain I was just plain stupid. "It's a bird and it's black."

"Yeah, but that doesn't make it a blackbird," I said. "Ravens are birds that are black."

"Then what are blackbirds?"

"They're... er... different birds that are black."

"Like that one?" he said, pointing again.

I sighed. "No, that's another raven."

"But why isn't it a blackbird?"

Normal logic wasn't working for me, so I decided to stretch the boundaries. "It's not a raven for the same reason you're not a zebra."

Oddly, this appeared to satisfy him. "Oh, OK," he said and went back to wittering endlessly about Wario. I just shook my head in despair.

I acknowledge that, in my childhood, I didn't know much about the countryside but I like to think I had more of a clue than that. At least I knew where milk came from. (The big vat in the shed across the cattle yard). Scarily, though, this chat was an improvement on the one I had last year with both the boys:

"What is bacon made from?" I asked them.

"Don't be silly," said Lewis, "it's not made of anything." Fraser nodded.

"It's meat. It comes from an animal," I said. This was obviously news to them but I ploughed on anyway. "What kind of animal do you think it comes from?

They shrugged.

"Pigs," I said. "Bacon comes from pigs. How about ham?"

"Cows?" said Fraser, uncertainly.

"Good guess but ham comes from pigs too. Beef comes from cows." Things weren't going as well as I'd hoped. I decided to give them an easy one. "How about chicken? What kind of creature does chicken come from?"

They both looked entirely blank.

"Think about it..." I said.

They continued to look blank. There was a slight sound of whirring cogs and the whiff of burning rubber. Still blank. The answer was apparently beyond them.

"Chicken comes from chickens," I said, giving up.

I wasn't entirely expecting them to argue. "Don't be silly," said Lewis. "You can't eat chickens. They're covered in feathers."

Quite what the other passengers on the train were thinking by then, I can only imagine, but, at that point, I had to admit to myself that my children are townies. They'll grow up to hang around on street corners complaining there is nothing to do. They won't appreciate how lucky they are to be able to go to the shops, or the cinema, or a friend's house, without a forty minute car journey. They'll believe foxes are cuddly and bread grows on trees. I can see it now.

Half of me wants run out and buy a book so I can teach them to tell a chaffinch from a rhododendron. That way I could overcome some of my childhood angst through them. Happily, however, the other half of me just can't be bothered. It's probably for the best.

Now I wonder where they think apples come from (other than the supermarket, obviously). Maybe I should go and experiment some more...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Just as my children are destined never to be farmers, I had to warn Fraser to never become a soldier the other day. I was examining his hair for lice as he had a bath (there are some going round school) and he just would not move to the side of the tub when I told him. He kept moving to the end. Then, later, when I wanted him to move to the end, he moved to the side. I kept explaining what I meant. I kept pointing. He slid himself all over the place and then had a lie down, all the time justifying how he was following my instructions really.

"Whatever you do, don't join the army," I said, irritably, my back getting sore from all the bending over. "They'll shoot you."


"They'll tell you to do something but you'll do something entirely different and then argue with them. You get shot in the army for doing that."

He wasn't convinced. "What? If you ever don't do what you're told?"

"Well, OK, it depends exactly what you do and I don't know they actually shoot people on their own side any more but they used to. Whatever they do now is probably still pretty bad. Certainly, if they tell you to go and fight someone and you don't, then you'll be in big trouble."

He looked horrified. "But the person might be a good person."

"Uh-huh. This is what I'm saying Fraser, this is what I'm saying..."

Wednesday 10 October 2007

When years turn into decades

Dear Dave,

OK, Sony are getting really desperate to sell me a PlayStation 3 now. They know I'm absolutely their target demographic and they're trying their hardest. A price cut on my birthday, though? That's below the belt. Pretty soon they're going to start ringing me up at three in the morning to find out why I haven't bought one yet. Unfortunately for them, after three children, I've already been driven mad. A little bit of sleep deprivation isn't going to make me mistake GAME for the trouser department of John Lewis next time I head to the shops. (Well, not again, anyway). Still, a price cut... on my birthday... Can't say I'm not tempted.

Yep, the birthday season remains upon us. Marie had hers, then Sarah and now it's my turn. (Thanks for the parcel of pig entrails and the CD of train noises, by the way. I'm sending you some out-of-date yogurt and a dead squirrel for Christmas).

Ed wearing the birthday hat.
Nobody escapes the birthday hat...

I have reached another milestone. I have indisputably moved from my early-thirties to my mid-thirties. I have also, it seems, reached an age where mere years are no longer long enough to efficiently mark the passage of time - I'm beginning to work in chunks of decade.

I guess it's a logical progression. When each of the kids was born, I spent the first day counting their age in hours. Then, for the next fortnight, I counted their age in days and, after that, it was weeks and even half weeks until they were two or three months. Months turned into years around about the time they reached two but they were seldom just two, they were two-and-a-quarter or two-and-a-half or 'nearly three'. I still do this kind of thing with Fraser's age sometimes and he's nearly seven-and-a-half. (See what I mean). I imagine it will peter out once they're nine or ten. Then it will be simple, whole-numbers of years for evermore as far as I'm concerned. No more faffing about. In later life, Marie will introduce her fiance and the first thing out of my mouth will probably be something like, 'She's thirty-seven. We thought she was never going to move out.'

It's just payback, really. I've lost track of the occasions on which my children have told random strangers in a lift or on the bus how old I am. I'm looking forward to following Fraser around on a Saturday night when he's a teenager and telling all the bar staff exactly how old he is while I sup happily on my own beer.

Yep, there will come a time when I find the kids' ages nice and simple but I suspect that's when they will start to get a bit cagey about the whole thing. From my own experience, just because my parents have been happy to blurt out my age to all and sundry for years, doesn't mean I always have. There was a brief period in adolescence where I tried to pretend I was older than I was and then, after a relatively brief period of youthful maturity, I passed twenty-seven or twenty-eight and things began to get vague. I wasn't twenty-nine, I was 'in my late-twenties'. I'm guessing that, once I'm much past forty, things will start moving in decades. It's only when I'm up to around ninety-six and going for a high score that I'll start telling people my age again. ("I'll be a hundred and eight this October. It's all down to fresh air, hard work and marmalade. 'Course the key thing is where to put the marmalade but I'm not telling you my secret, laddie.")

Oh, what the heck, I'll come clean. I'm thirty-four.

I haven't had an urge to buy a motorbike yet. Three years ago, I did purchase a whole stack of games with little plastic figures on eBay, though. It was down to a desire to regain my lost teenage years by rediscovering the hobby which helped lose them in the first place. I only managed to paint a couple of ratmen, however, before Marie's insatiable desire to stay awake became apparent and my amount of free time plummeted. One day...

This time, obviously, the thing to buy myself to keep the gaping void of middle-age at bay is a PlayStation 3 but, also obviously, I still don't need one and they're still too expensive. Even the price cut won't work. My local independent games retailer actually had an equally good deal in the window a couple of weeks ago. I very nearly bought one. Sure, I can play all the games I want to play on my Xbox 360 but a PS3 was tempting as a Blu-Ray player (you know, just in case our old telly mysteriously breaks and we have to get a sparkling new HD one) and there are bound to be some decent PS3-exclusive games soon.

As I said, I almost bought one but then I went into town and looked in the big retailers. I ended up in the basement of HMV. There was plenty of shelfspace for the 360 and all the Wiis were sold out again but the PS3 was shunted to the back, next to where the room had been divided off with opaque plastic sheeting, presumably to allow some remodelling to be done. There was a vast PS3 display stuck up the corner, complete with HD telly and comfy seats but no one was paying the blindest bit of notice apart from two men in suits who were eyeing the situation with exasperation. They looked important and I quickly recognised them from one of my previous letters. Pretending to browse magazines, I listened in on their conversation.
Sony Europe Exec: The free games and extra controller don't seem to be working.

Sony Marketing Bod (watching a tumbleweed roll past): The games are getting pretty cheap second-hand now and maybe we shouldn't have let on we've got new controllers with added rumble coming out after Christmas.

Exec: Pah! Who cares about rumble anyway? That's so last-generation.

Bod: Yeah, but only until after Christmas. Then it's the next big thing again.

Exec: It is?

Bod: That's what you said last week.

Exec: Right, yes, of course. I've been saying all kinds of things
lately; I'm beginning to lose track. Have I changed my mind on the importance of backwards compatibility yet?

Bod: No... I... Er, what do you mean 'yet'?

Exec: What? Did I say that out loud? Oh, sorry. I was busy thinking we should make the console more affordable.

Bod: A second price cut in just over six months? That's insane. We'll annoy our loyal customers who bought one at the initial price and make everyone else think we're desperate and... (He trails off as an HMV employee emerges through the plastic sheeting, accompanied by a few flurries of snow. There is a brief glimpse beyond. No building work is visible but the icy expanse of Narnia stretches away into the distance, trees and hills covered in more snow. Except they aren't hills. They're huge piles of PS3s. Mr Tumnus' hooves poke out from under the nearest one).

Exec: It's not a price cut and neither was the previous price cut. If you remember, we merely added value to the package by including extra content and, as you've already made clear, the worth of that extra content has been slowly decreasing over time. This has, in effect, meant the price of the console itself has been steadily rising for the last few months. How many other consoles can claim that? Even the Wii hasn't got more expensive and look how popular that is. I think the time has come, however, to reverse the trend, throw down the gauntlet to our competitors and make a minor adjustment to the RRP.

Bod (recovering as the plastic falls back into place): What level of 'adjustment' were you thinking?

Exec: £125.

Bod: What!? After six months! The early adopters will lynch us. And it's not even economically viable anyway.

Exec: We'll bring in a new model that's cheaper to produce.

Bod: How's it suddenly going to be cheaper to produce?

Exec: We'll leave bits out. We could start with the glove compartment and a couple of the coin holders.

Bod: You mean the multi-card reader bay and the USB slots.

Exec: Ah, same difference, it's not like anyone is using them. How about a third of the hard-drive and backwards compatibility as well? The ability to play PS2 games isn't so important now there'll be sixty-five games out for the PS3 by Christmas.

Bod (looking at his feet): Yeah, but one of those is Pirates of the Caribbean and another is Untold Legends.

Exec: The important thing here is choice, not quality.

Bod (his voice rising as he suddenly realises that the floor is made of PS3s): OK, OK, so we sell this 40GB model for £300. What about the current 60GB model?

Exec: Let's say £350 with a couple of games.

Bod: Only £50 more for two games and extra features? That means the new model will look both over-priced and under-equipped. Meanwhile, the price cut will look confused and panicked rather than dramatic and attractive.

Exec: But don't you see? It's not a price cut. If we cease production of the 60GB model, it's a specification downgrade coupled with a stock clearance. There's nothing desperate or confused about it. The product is £125 cheaper and the price hasn't been cut at all.

Bod: I, er... I'm not sure... That's not offering quality or choice. I... Hang on. You just changed your mind on the importance of backwards compatibility.

Exec: Took you a moment to notice, didn't it?

Bod: Very smooth. This might work. Still doesn't have rumble, though. (They start to leave).

Exec: That's such last-generation technology.

Bod: Until after Christmas.

Exec: Yes, yes, of course, after Christmas... but we'll have the 120GB Freeview model with built-in camera and etch-a-sketch to worry about then.

Bod: What?

Exec: Oh, don't worry. (He puts his arm around the other man's shoulders as they disappear behind the curtain). I've been assured that that one will definitely be able to make toast...
After that, I gazed at the display a little longer but I wasn't exactly reassured about spending all my pocket money for the year on what's still very much an extravagance. Fortunately, this meant my resolve was already reinforced when the official announcement came out. I will just have to come to terms with my encroaching decrepitude without retail therapy. I will continue to resist.

What to do to celebrate my birthday, though? A meal? Some cake? Or a session juggling hammers next to the telly?

Hmm... Maybe I should give my credit card to the children to look after for the rest of the day...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 5 October 2007

Moving on

Dear Dave,

How's the family? Is Liz recovered? Is Daisy feeding OK? How are you coping with a newborn around the house again?

My memories of babies are becoming increasingly hazy. I have vague recollections of poor sleep, of struggling to find time for a shower and of excessive numbers of nappies. I do, however, quite clearly remember having to wipe Marie's poo off the walls in the middle of the night but I don't think that was actually a very common occurrence. You know, not like being spectacularly vomited on by Lewis - that happened all the time.

There was a lot of sitting up through the night watching repeats of Top Gear, plenty of colds, a fair amount of pureed carrot and a great deal of laundry. There were also snuggles, smiles, tickles and dancing. Ah, those were the days... The days when merely pulling a funny face brought laughter and appreciation and it didn't take hours of Pokemon card manipulation to evoke a sullen grunt of thanks.

Before you ask, I don't want to come and babysit for the weekend to help recall what it's really like. I've done my time. Good luck with yours.

That said, it is strange not having an under-three in the house any more. Marie's birthday was last week and we can finally leave toys that are labelled 'Not suitable for children under 36 months' lying around. Or, to be more precise, we can leave them lying around without feeling guilty. We've been up to our necks in marbles and Power Rangers for a while now.

Marie in a birthday cake hat.
Nobody escapes the birthday hat...

Yeah, it's odd, we don't have any children who could even remotely be called babies. An era has passed (barring sanity-shattering accidents, of course). Marie only stopped wearing nappies in April but they already seem like a distant memory. Things are moving on. In some ways it's sad but it's actually quite exciting (and a lot less tiring). I have a little girl now!

On her birthday, I received a glimpse of what I'm in for. She was given a Disney Fairies treasure box at her party and all her little girl friends gathered round the glittering pinkness of it to gaze in awe. Then, after the party, she came home and made this picture:

A fluffy, pink picture.

I don't know whether to stick it to the wall or to hit it with a big stick before it starts to assimilate me.

It's not all going to be pink fluffiness, of course. She started having tantrums at fifteen months but they stopped around last Christmas and we thought we were done. Yeah, right. They're back and now she can argue as well as cry. Yesterday, she came inside after having been playing with dirt, declared that she didn't like soap and kicked up a huge fuss. Later, she sat down for tea and whinged that she didn't like food. True enough, she barely ate anything but then she wouldn't leave the table for me to clear up. I asked her nicely to move, I threatened her with being hoovered and I suggested toys she might want to find. She wasn't having any of it.

"Just go away and play, Marie," I eventually snapped.

"I not like going away and play," she whined and then burst into tears. "I stay here," she wailed.

I picked her up and gave her a big hug. "It's OK, dear," I reassured her. "You don't have to play and have fun, if you don't want to."

"Thanks," she said, wiping her tears. "I don't like fun."

Today, she didn't like milk. If she decides tomorrow that she doesn't like biscuits then I know I'm really in trouble.

What next? Barbie? My Little Pony? A pink, fluffy motorbike? Who knows? The housedad adventure continues...

All the best with getting some sleep.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 3 October 2007

Mice, yaks, tradesmen and a shovel

Dear Dave,

If there's one thing I hate about this job, then it's dealing with tradesmen. Honestly, I'd rather clean up vomit.

Erm, not that I'm making a direct comparison here. You know, like they both smell bad and leave a mess on your carpet. All I mean is that both things are on my list of normal duties and, if you arranged the list by ordered of preference, then dealing with tradesmen is at the bottom. Thus, there are any number of things I'd rather do, from making packed-lunches to standing outside school in the rain to watching the same episode of the Tweenies over and over again until their irritating voices buzz constantly inside my head and I feel the urge to take a large magnet to their animatronics while rubbing chewing gum into their fur. Heck, I'd probably even rather buy clothes than deal with tradesmen.

Considering I only have one pair of shoes and I still regularly wear a shirt I bought when I was at secondary school, that's saying something.

The problem is, I'm just no good at it. I can't seem to get them to turn up on the day they've promised, persuade them to do the work exactly as I want or inspire them to ever entirely finish the job to my satisfaction. Any tradesman I've found who I have managed to bend to my will has gone bust before I need their services again. (That or been replaced by their Porsche driving offspring who do a job that's not quite as good for twice as much money). Coordinating repairs to the flood damage from next door has gone particularly badly because it's my insurers who are paying for the work to be done so I have absolutely no hold over the company doing the work at all. If I have a complaint, I phone the insurers. After three days of trying, I get through to the person in charge of my case. He emails the plumbers. The plumbers don't reply. My radiators remain upside down. I have to go murder some Tweenies to vent my frustration and then I phone the insurers again. The cycle continues...

Things are finally progressing, however, albeit slowly. The other morning, a decorator was busily re-painting a ceiling on the top floor (the damage was on the ground floor of our three storey house) while refusing to touch up the skirting board on the first flight of stairs (mere inches from where a big patch of plaster had had to be replaced). Meanwhile, a plumber was happily removing parts of the central heating (again) but wasn't really committing to a definite timeframe for putting them back. He was also fairly reticent on whether they'd be the right way up.

Hey, at least something was happening, which made a change.

The doorbell rang in the midst of the chaos. It was Steve, Sarah's manager, and I was taken by surprise. We hadn't arranged to meet up and get the kids together. He didn't even have his kids with him. He was dressed for work but, obviously, he wasn't at work. He was neither being Useless Dad nor Clueless Manager and, thus, he was dangerously out of context. I stood and gaped at him.

"Is this a good time?" he said.

"Erm..." I had two tradesmen in the house, Marie was having a strop and I had a live mouse in my hands. I couldn't help feeling that this was stretching the definition of 'a good time.' As if to emphasise the point, there was a clang behind me, the sound of liquid escaping under pressure and muttered swearing. There was an almost desperate, pleading look in Steve's eyes, however. "Erm..." I repeated.

"Good God, what's that?" said Steve, suddenly noticing what I was carrying.

"It's a mouse." It was crouched under a glass bowl which I was pressing down on a thin sheet of cardboard. "I caught it."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Well, when I catch spiders like this, I normally chuck them out the window. They're less squishy, though. Want to take it home for your cat?"

"Not really."

"Thought not. That leaves three options: let it go to die a lingering death from the poison it's almost certainly eaten, leave it under the bowl and watch it die a lingering death from the poison it's almost certainly eaten, or hit it over the head with a shovel."

"The first two don't sound that good."

"Shovel it is, then." I stepped out on the driveway, put my impromptu trap down and fetched a heavy digging implement. "Right, you lift the bowl and I'll whack it."

"That's a very big shovel for a very small mouse," said Steve, not entirely sure.

"It's the only shovel I have," I replied, losing it slightly. "They don't sell them in sets like they do with knives - you know, big shovel for allotments, medium shovel for flowerbeds, little shovel for window boxes and miniature shovel for mouse whacking. I have one shovel for all eventualities. What do you want me to do? Brain it with a teaspoon?"

"This isn't a very good time, is it?"

"No, it's not. Now lift the bowl so I can put Mickey out of his misery."

"All right." He very gingerly lifted the bowl. The mouse didn't move. "Are you sure it isn't dead alr..." He jumped back as I swung the shovel down with a thunk. "OK, it's really dead now."

I peered at it closely. "Yep, it's definitely not going to re-route its internal circuitry to its secondary power source and relentlessly hunt us down through a metal-pressing factory."

Steve looked at me blankly.

"Er, never mind," I said. I scooped the mouse into a plastic bag and binned it. Ridding the house of at least one rodent had eased some of my frustration. I felt able to deal with tradesmen once more. It had even been something of a bonding experience with Steve. "Sorry I was a bit short with you just now - it's been a difficult week. Want to come in for a coffee?"

"If you're sure...?"

"It'll be fine. Just try not to trip over the remains of the heating."

I led him through to the kitchen. The boys were at school but Marie was face down on the floor, screaming, because I'd mixed her yogurt in with her Rice Crispies for her. I'd then tried to make things better by offering to eat the Crispies myself and get her fresh ingredients but no - she wanted the same Crispies and yogurt, not similar ones. She wanted me to miraculously unmix them, solely in order for her to mix them herself. Strangely, I'd refused. She'd been crying for an hour. I guess she's just reached that stage... I motioned for Steve to ignore her and take a seat at the table. I washed my hands two or three times and then made refreshments.

"Now, what can I do for you?" I said to Steve, plonking his coffee down in front of him.

He looked uncertainly at Marie. "Is she all right?"

"She'll get over it." I picked up her bowl and offered it to Steve. "Would you like some Rice Crispies and yogurt?"

"No!" Marie screamed. "They mine! They mine! He not eat them!"

"Well, you'd better eat them quickly then, Marie, before he does."

"OK!" She leapt up from the floor and hurried to her seat in a panic, brushing her hair out of her face as she went. She snatched her bowl from my hand and hugged it close. "My Crispies... Mine."

I put on her favourite Scooby Doo episode with the sound down low and turned back to Steve. "Yeah, so what can I do for you?"

"Scott's been re-assigned," he said, dejectedly.

I was taken by surprise again. Being Steve's manager, Scott was pretty senior and so there weren't many opportunities for lateral movement in the org chart. Also, having met him a couple of times, I couldn't imagine which division of LBO would actually want him. "Where have they re-assigned him to? Pensions? Life Assurance?"

"Ulan Bator."

"Oohh..." I sucked in air between my teeth. "Do they play rugby in Mongolia? He can't be happy."

"They called him in, late yesterday, and told him to pack his suitcase. Didn't give him a chance to appeal. They said that, after careful consideration, he was the best man to explore new business opportunities in an expanding financial market that required hard-nosed negotiation and the ability to wrestle a yak. They didn't even give him time to tell anyone. He's on the plane already and I only found out because his replacement wants to see me."

My worst fears were calmed. For an awful few seconds, I thought he was going to say that he'd been promoted to fill Scott's parking space. No wonder he was upset - being Scott's favourite sycophantic minion had all but assured Steve's immunity to the job cuts and restructuring. "Who's his replacement then?"

"Morag Chandler. She's an awful woman. She's not even from the Communications Division. She's from IT! She got called in at the last minute a couple of weeks ago to arbitrate at one of the redundancy consultations, argued with everything Scott said and suddenly thinks she can do better. I'd heard she'd gone to the board to complain but I can't believe they even listened to her. It was only by chance she was at the meeting and now she's in charge. I don't understand it."

"Mmmm, yeah," I said, chewing my lip. I was slightly miffed that he didn't remember that it was my wife's redundancy consultation that Morag had attended. He seemed to have forgotten that he'd put her job forward for the chop and that, thanks to him, her career still hung in the balance. I resisted pointing out my lack of sympathy, however, since it might have accidentally emerged that I was more than a little responsible for Morag entering his life. "Any idea what she wants to talk to you about? I mean, presumably she just wants you to get her up to speed on everything that's happening in your department."

"Most of my network access has stopped working and my company credit card just got refused."


"What am I going to do?"

"I, erm..." Something about the situation began to trouble me. "Does Deborah know?"

"No, I haven't told anyone yet. I don't know what to do."

My suspicion was confirmed. Somewhere between helping him change a nappy and inviting him round to play Wii Sports, I'd been promoted to close friend. I was possibly his only friend outside of work and of the network of business contacts he had attained playing golf and squash. If he lost his job, those other friends might disappear and there was no way that Deborah was going to let him mooch around their flat. I might become his only friend, full stop, and he was bound to turn up at my house every day to do his mooching, probably with his kids along so I could 'help' take care of them.

After a couple of years of wishing a 'career readjustment' on him, I unexpectedly found myself not so sure. I knew it would be pleasant for Sarah to get a manager with more of a clue and that that would have trickle-down pleasantness effects for me but...

I sighed. Maybe I was jumping too far ahead. Maybe he wasn't going to lose his job. Maybe...

I offered him a consoling chocolate digestive. For the first time, I took in how abnormally crumpled and defeated he appeared. In his mind, there was no maybe. He had the look of a doomed man and, suddenly, I couldn't help thinking that he'd stolen it from me. I knew I was going to have to start buying biscuits in double quantities.

"It's not so bad," I said. "I hear Deborah's interior design work is really getting going again."

He shook his head. "There's plenty of interest but she doesn't have the time."

"But if she didn't have to look after the children..."

"Once you've taken into account the cost of childcare, she wouldn't make enough for us to live on. Do you know how much nurseries cost?"

"Well, erm, if you did happen to, er, not be working, you could look after Ophelia and Josquin."

"Me? But..." Fear crossed his face. "All the time?"


"But wouldn't they need fed and..." He seemed to ponder what else children might require but came up blank. "...things."

"Yep, they'd definitely need fed and, erm, 'things', but you could do that."

"I don't have the..." He indicated his chest. "...things."

"Ophelia's nearly four. Those things are no longer a feeding requirement. Fresh fruit, cheese sandwiches and sausages should keep her going, though. You could probably manage that."

"Every day?"

"You might want to vary the menu on occasion but I'm sure you could manage every day, yes. You can make cheese sandwiches, right?"

He was staring into space. "Deborah normally makes my sandwiches."

I decided to lay off on my housedad evangelism. He didn't appear ready to consider the future carefully. He just needed a little reassurance. "I tell you what - go into work and chat to Morag and find out what the score really is. Maybe there's been a misunderstanding or there's some kind of challenging new opportunity waiting to develop your career that she hasn't told you about. You never know. If the worst comes to the worst, though, you can polish up your CV and start phoning round your contacts. There's a long way to go yet."

He didn't seem to hear me. "Maybe..." he muttered and then looked at his watch. "Is that the time? I've got to get to work to see Morag. Maybe I can convince her to let me help Scott in Ulan Bator. I could learn to wrestle yaks."

"Sure you can," I said and handed him his coat. "It's getting the yak into the spandex that's the tricky part."

He definitely wasn't listening. "Yes," he said, slightly vacantly. "Yes, there's a long way to go yet..." I showed him to the door.

"Are you going to be all right?" I asked, somewhat concerned. He really wasn't all there.

"Mmmm? Yes, I'll be fine. Everything's going to be fine."

"OK. Well, take care. Bye."

He'd already wandered off down the drive in a daze. I watched him along the street for a while, just to make sure he didn't walk into a lamp post or anything, and then I went back to the kitchen.

Marie had cheered up. "I eat all my Crispies. I have dessert now!"

"You don't get dessert at breakfast," I said.

"Awwww," she whined. "I want chocolate biscuit." She pointed at the open packet on the table. "You eat nine."

"I had more like three."

"You eat nine!" She folded her arms and hung her head stubbornly. Another tantrum seemed on the cards.

"Whatever," I said. She had a fair comment in there somewhere and teaching her to count using chocolate biscuits wasn't a route I wanted to follow. I relented. "Would you like one?"

"Yes!" She snatched it from me and grinned. "Thanks!"

I had another myself and we settled down to watch some Scooby Doo. The plumber broke a couple more things and left. The decorator went off to buy a paper and sit in his van doing sudoku while he worked up an appetite for lunch. I was past caring.

Half an hour later, I discovered Steve had left his briefcase behind. On checking, however, I found that it contained nothing but a couple of pens and his sandwiches. Either that was all he normally had in his briefcase or he had left home with it out of habit despite knowing his fate. Both options were slightly depressing.

While I was cheering myself up by eating the sandwiches, Sarah phoned. Steve had been made redundant. On the plus side (or, from Sarah's perspective, on the other plus side) she'd been promoted to take his place. (Technically, of course, this meant Steve was being summarily fired rather being made redundant but they'd offered him a settlement to go quietly). A pay rise, added benefits and the freedom to do the job properly - Sarah was ecstatic. I wasn't quite as enthusiastic as she'd expected so I had to explain about Steve's visit. She did her best to understand but, to be honest, her heart wasn't in it. Can't say I blame her - his management had made her life a misery on occasion.

We agreed to meet up for lunch to talk it over and celebrate.

As I gathered up coats and tried to get my head back on straight, I noticed that the painter had touched up the woodwork in the end. Oddly, this felt like the best news I'd had all day. My spirits immediately lifted. In some small way, I'd got a tradesman to do what I wanted. Even if Steve did start turning up every morning, at least the house was nearly fixed. I could cope.

I put Marie's shoes on her and we set off along the street. Sarah's promotion finally sank in - more money, more holiday and a happy wife. That had to be good. There were all kinds of possibilities...

Pretty soon, I was so busy dreaming of big tellies, I walked into a lamp post.

Yours in a woman's world,