Dear Dave

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,


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