It was the Christmas party at Scary Karen's parent and toddler group today. I turned up early with Marie to help decorate. There were some streamers in the hall already and a decent sized tree complete with baubles and lights and, if I were running things, that would have been enough. Karen, however, adheres to the 'more is better' philosophy of holiday decor which holds that you simply can't have too much gaudy tack stuck to the walls when the festive season comes round. In her case, it doesn't even have to be relevant tack. She emptied out the Millennium Centre's store cupboard and we hung up everything we could find. Pretty soon, amongst the tinsel and stockings, the Easter Bunny stood atop a pile of grinning pumpkins. It had flashing red eyes and was wearing a Santa hat.
I set up the spinning disco lights. Trevor, the bouncer, inflated huge numbers of balloons with a single breath each. Karen's friend Bess put on some suitable musical accompaniment. It appeared to be the CD that all the shops have had on loop since mid-November. I suddenly felt the urge to buy lots of junk in a mad panic and did my best to phase out the jaunty melodies. I didn't do too badly until Slade came on and Marie started running round the room shouting, "It's Christmas!" at everybody.
She knew it to be true because Noddy Holder had told her so.
"Well, sort of," I said, when she got to me. "It's a Christmas party. It isn't actually Christmas until next week."
She considered this for a moment and then ran round the room again shouting, "It sort of Christmas! But not really!" at everybody. Then she came back to me and said, "Can I have a mince pie? Pleeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaase..." She made her eyes wide and pouted mournfully. She gave the impression she hadn't been fed in a week. I knew, however, that only half an hour previously, she'd taken one small bite of toast for breakfast and then declared herself finished.
"No," I said.
"Oh," said Marie. Her lower lip quivered and tears welled up. "But I'm huuun-greeee..."
"You should have eaten your breakfast then."
She started to sob. "You made me sad, daddy," she wailed and buried her face in her hands.
"Tough." I went back to wiring up the lights. The other adults nearby looked at me like I'd just told Tinkerbell to her face that fairies don't exist. I ignored them (and Marie) and, before long, the room was bathed in multicoloured swirls. Marie lay face down on the floor for a bit and then gave up. "I have mince pie later?" she said hopefully.
"OK," I replied.
She grinned, wiped her eyes and ran off to dance. I barely had time to grab a cup of coffee before she ran back and gleefully exclaimed, "It later now! I have mince pie?"
"Nice try," I said, sitting down amongst a group of mums.
"Awwwwww..." She tipped her head to the side, tucked in her upper lip and tried to drown me in eyes that were deep, pleading wells of sorrow.
"Not just now."
"You made me sad again, daddy," she said and threw herself back to the ground. The mums gave the impression that I'd just given Bambi the bad news in a rather callous fashion.
I ignored the looks (and Marie). "You all ready for Christmas?" I asked.
This brought on various tales of shopping woe and festive mayhem that distracted everyone. Marie got up and went back to dancing. The conversation eventually turned to advent calendars.
"Yeah, we got the kids a chocolate-filled one each last year," I said. "They kept forgetting to open them and we ended up with a stock-pile of little edible Scooby-Doos that lasted well into January. They've got one between them this year and we're still three days behind. The only one who's organised is Lewis. He's on the bottom bunk and has taken to suspending an additional stuffed animal from the slats above him every day in the run-up to Christmas. It's less of an advent calendar, more of an advent toy lynching."
"Christmas sounds like fun in your house," said Jess.
"Shouldn't be too bad really. We're off to Sarah's sister's for the actual day. Her husband will make a few snide comments about my place being in the kitchen but, apart from that, it'll be fine. How about you?"
It transpired that they would all be experiencing a mixture of custody wrangles, bickering with relatives and Brain Training. The first two were quickly glossed over in favour of comparing which family members they were getting a Nintendo DS for Christmas. It ranged from kids to grannies. This moved on to some discussion of how much the 'discs' cost and how the bit with the rocket when you do well is ace. I just sat there, somewhat perplexed. By rights, I should have had a great deal to say on the topic but, after years of not having anyone to talk to about computer games at parent and toddler, I was dumbfounded to suddenly be surrounded by women promoting a game as both entertainment and mental exercise. It was as stupefying as my mum suddenly admitting she was thinking of becoming a Jedi and asking me where she could get hold of one of those 'lightswords'. I just sat and looked surprised, wishing I'd bought shares in Nintendo a few years ago.
Marie broke me out of my trance by shouting in my ear. "Is it later yet?"
She didn't even blink. "And now?" she said, smiling endearingly.
Pause. "And now?" She did the cutest little dance you've ever seen and, still smiling sweeter than a Sugar Puff dipped in saccharine, she asked, "Can I have a mince pie, nooooooooooooooooooooow...?"
"In ten minutes," I said. She threw herself down and cried into the floor again.
The mums looked at me like I'd just flushed the Andrex puppy down a toilet.
"Oh, look," I said, directing their attention elsewhere. "Santa!"
I don't normally imagine Santa with tattoos. Or bald, for that matter. Still, the red suit and fake, white beard gave the impression that Trevor was at least attempting to pretend to be Santa. He didn't look too happy about it, though. I can only assume that Scary Karen had used her feminine wiles to talk him into it. She'd slipped on a slinky, fur-trimmed, scarlet outfit complete with Santa hat. It was surprisingly fetching in a scary kind of way. It also seemed liable to burst at the seams at any moment in an even scarier kind of way. I had visions of an explosion and nothing being left but the hat.
I quickly focused myself on Trevor. He really wasn't looking too good. I imagine he'd be totally up for catching bullets with his teeth but he's quite nervous with kids. Still, all he had to do was sit on a chair, pull the gifts out of a sack, read the labels and call over the children to take them. How hard could it be?
It was unfortunate that the first three gifts he pulled out were for Mateusz, Enkhjin and Joao. Karen had to bend over to help him make out the names. Each time, I tensed myself in preparation for the velvet and ermine shrapnel, and then sighed in relief when the catastrophe never came.
After that, it was Marie's turn.
I picked her up off the floor and gave her a little shove. She trotted over to Trevor, who held out the parcel to her at arms length. He was oblivious to the creaking bodice-work beside him and seemed worried that it was Marie that might explode.
He may have had a point.
She looked at the parcel briefly, obviously torn over whether to take it. She glanced at the sack to see if there was anything more promising in there. She peered suspiciously at Trevor's fluffy beard. Then she made the eyes and pulled the face. "I reaaaa-leeeeeee want a mince piiiiiiie..."
"Er, I don't have mince pies," said Trevor. "Just this." He shook the parcel and grimaced slightly.
She threw herself at the floor and started to cry again.
I rushed over, grabbed her and the parcel, and then whisked her out of the way. "Santa doesn't have any mince pies!" she wailed.
"It's OK," I reassured her. "That's not really Santa and Santa's not really real anyway."
It's possible I may have said this a little too loudly.
Every adult in the room looked at me like I'd just stood on Tinkerbell while wearing fluffy slippers made from Bambi and the Andrex puppy. Luckily, every child in the room remained transfixed by the sack of presents.
"Would you like a mince pie?" I asked Marie hurriedly.
"Yes, please!" she said and we beat a retreat to the refreshment trolley. The whole thing was a close call... but I think we got away with it. The gift-giving resumed and everyone relaxed again. Soon, toddlers were dancing once more and I was being offered something warm and spicy in a mug. Jess had mulled some of her homemade wine specially.
I've never had green mulled wine before. I looked at it nervously.
"It's the spinach," Cress whispered.
I shrugged and tried some. It actually tasted kind of all right - not disagreeable as such but you wouldn't ask for it specially. I guess a lot of Christmas is like that. I had a second helping for no other reason than it was there. I guess a lot of Christmas is like that, too. It seemed to make Jess happy, though.
Marie opened her parcel. It was a set of pretend medical supplies containing a stethoscope, a rectal thermometer, a pair of scissors, a hammer and... a spoon. All the essentials of a home surgery kit, apparently. She was delighted and set about listening to my knees as she took their temperature.
The time slipped away and then, all of a sudden, it was half-past eleven. We had places to be but I was reluctant to get our coats. The Millennium Centre is going to be closed at the start of January so Karen's toddler group won't be on again until after Marie has started nursery. Today was our last one. It was odd looking around at the familiar faces and toys, knowing that, barring sanity-threatening accidents, I'd never be back. I lingered, finding it hard to leave, not knowing quite how to say good-bye.
Then I realised that Scary Karen had found some mistletoe.
I wished everyone a merry Christmas and headed out the door.
It was time to go.
Yours in a woman's world,