Glad to hear you had a good Christmas and that your mum is finally giving you some sympathy rather than treating you like a slacker who callously sends his wife out to earn a living in the cruel world while he stays home and eats biscuits.
It's probably thanks to the large age gap between you and your brother. Your mum never had to deal with two children under four at the same time herself, so you've gained a stack of ranking points relative to her in the All-Time Parental League Table. (You did know scores were being kept, didn't you?)
Obviously, you haven't had to put up with being in charge of yourself as a teenager, so you'll have to handle any number of rows, dubiously pierced girlfriends and a couple of police cautions before you catch up with your mum entirely but at least you're on more equal terms now. You've been a housedad long enough that she knows it's not some passing notion you're going to jack in when things get tough. She'll also know, from her own experience of parenthood, that things must be pretty tough already. She still may not understand why you're living your life in this crazy, mixed up way but she can appreciate the effort you're putting into raising her grandchildren.
That effort is especially noticeable at Christmas. I remember a time before kids when Sarah and I went to stay with my folks for the holidays. I would sit around drinking beer, eating mince pies and watching the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special. Then I would doze off while reading the paper. I have vague memories that my mum might have had to do a certain amount of cooking at various points but I was fairly oblivious. It was a blissful break from work.
This is somewhat in contrast to a couple of years ago when we had Sarah's family round to ours for Christmas. The children were one, three and five. I had to lay on the full turkey spectacular in adult, toddler and baby formats while co-ordinating nappy changes, naps and tantrums. I needed a lie down for most of Boxing Day to recover. Except, of course, I didn't get one because it's not like the children went anywhere. It was a fun Christmas but not much of a rest.
Things were a bit more relaxed this year, though. For a start, we went to my sister-in-law's to eat but it also helps that the kids are older and more able to entertain themselves now. It's going to be a long time, however, before I, once again, get to spend Christmas eating and drinking and then doze off while watching ancient repeats of Only Fools and Horses. Judging by the state of the various grandparents attending, though, my wait will not be forever.
Anyway, Christmas morning, we unwrapped some of the presents, dressed Marie up in a Santa outfit, went to church and then headed off to Catriona's.
We were greeted at the door by her husband, Chris. "Good to see you. Looking gorgeous as always, Sarah; sometimes I wonder if I married the wrong sister. Oh, and Ed, you're just in time - Catriona's needing some help in the kitchen and the kids are no use - you know what teenagers are like. Hope you brought your own pinny!"
"Nope, brought yours," I said and, on cue, Marie danced over with a small, squishy parcel.
"I'm Santa!" she said, grinning. "Merry Christmas!"
Chris looked confused, both for being given an apron and at Marie's attire. "I thought you didn't do Santa," he said.
"We don't pretend there's a real Santa but pretending all the pretend Santas don't exist would be crazy." I called Marie over. "Are you really Santa?"
"No," she said, giggling at my stupidity. "I'm me!" Then she pulled another grin, did a little twirl and danced off into the lounge to an adoring fan club of aging relatives.
"She's having fun and we're not having to lie. Everybody's happy," I said. "Hopefully it will stop us having to explain that we don't do Santa so much as well."
"How do you mean?" said Chris.
I motioned him over to the lounge doorway so that we could observe. Marie had bounced over to Great Aunt Edith. "What did Santa bring you?" said Edith. Normally this would have led to Marie looking blank and Edith repeating the question over and over, until someone mentioned our unwillingness to join the Santa conspiracy, and then Edith looking blank and the someone repeating the statement over and over, and... You get the picture.
The costume helped get round this. "I'm Santa!" said Marie.
"Yes, and you look lovely, dear," said Edith, "but what presents did you get for Christmas?"
And thus confusion was avoided. Well, the Santa confusion was avoided, anyway...
"I got Rabitty-Rabbit!"
"You got a rabbit?" said Edith, struggling to hear and getting the wrong end of the stick. "That will be hard work to look after."
"A cuddly rabbit. I cuddle her."
"Oh, a new cuddly toy?"
"No!" said Marie, shaking her head. "She's not new. She's my rabbit."
"But you got her for Christmas?"
"No! Mummy and Daddy took her out of my bed and wrapped her up in a present and I opened up the present and I said, 'Rabbity-Rabbit!'"
Edith's eyes narrowed. "Your mummy and daddy took a toy you already had out of your bed and gave it to you for Christmas?"
"Yes, and for my birthday, too."
"They gave you a toy you already had for your birthday as well?"
"Yes, and her name was Rabbity-Rabbit!"
Edith's voice quivered with genteel indignation. "They gave you the same toy you already had for your Christmas and your birthday?"
"Yes! I cuddle her. She's Rabbity-Rabbit." Marie smiled sweetly and twirled off. "I dance now."
Edith scanned the room and then fixed me with a steely glare. I hurried over to explain that Marie had asked for her rabbit to be wrapped up and that, yes, she'd got other presents as well and, no, they weren't all recycled. Chris couldn't help laughing, however. "Looks like you're out of the will," he called after me.
I think I'll stick to bad-mouthing Santa next year. I'll look less of a Scrooge that way.
Not long after that, Chris was very keen to point out that he'd managed to secure for his daughter the very last Nintendo Wii console in Britain, thanks to calling in a favour. He'd only had to pay twice the normal asking price.
He then proceeded to play Wii Tennis on their vast plasma TV in a hugely aggressive manner without strapping the wiimote to his wrist. Luckily, Fraser told him off and then soundly trounced him with a few quick flicks of his hand.
I've never been more proud.
Chris didn't get much support from his own family either. Lisa was too busy texting to pay attention and Ned just smirked. "Don't worry, dad," he said, without looking up from his PSP. "He's had practice. Uncle Ed's had one for ages."
The wind taken out of his sails, Chris stomped off to carve the turkey.
I shouldn't have felt superior, however. Despite receiving the latest (translation: most expensive) Pokemon and Mario games for Christmas, the boys have spent much of the last week playing Sonic Adventure which I picked up second-hand as a stocking-filler. So, essentially, they've been using the must-have present of 2007 to play a game from 1999. I could just about cope with this until they unlocked a version of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and started playing that and it was suddenly 1991 on our telly. Next year, I think they'll be the ones getting recycled presents. I'll just go hunting in the loft - they can have a Walkman, my old Atari and some Fighting Fantasy books.
Actually, better not. I might find something really scary buried underneath. You know, like Mr Blobby or John Major...
Lunch was vast and then we stumbled through to watch the Queen in HD and very wide screen. It was a little perturbing in a number of ways. The persistent thought I had, however, was that the huge face plastered on the wall in front of us made it feel like we were conducting diplomatic negotiations over the viewscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise. I kept expecting an analysis from Mr Data and for Counsellor Troi to sense that Her Majesty was holding something back.
I'm guessing Prince Philip's up to something suspicious in the Neutral Zone.
After that, some of the guests went for a walk, the kids played and I helped clear up until I was told to get some rest while I could and I was sent back to a lounge full of snoring septuagenarians. I plonked myself down on one of the sofas and then realised Ned was there too. He'd been ordered to stay out of his room and mingle but he was still gazing intently at his PSP.
"Playing anything good?" I ventured.
"The new one or the old one?"
"New one," he mumbled.
"Oh, I haven't played that. The old one was quite good, though."
"Yeah. This one's the same."
I nodded. "I'd heard that. Got anything else?"
There was a pause.
The pause continued.
I eventually realised that, although Ned seemed willing to talk in principle, I was going to have to do most of the work.
"What are they?"
He rattled off a few titles. I'd played about half of them and that was enough for me keep the conversation going. It felt good having some firm point of contact. There are probably some TV shows we both watch but he'd have been bound to mention something I'd never heard of pretty quickly. As for music, the only CDs I've bought in years are The Best of Don McLean, an anthology of Celtic melodies and a Dido album. I suspect that may put me in the realm of 'uncool'.
After a while, there was another long pause. I'd run out of things to say. It wasn't awkward, though - we'd had a little male bonding and we were done. I settled back in the sofa and reached for a magazine to see what was on TV.
"Sorry about dad," said Ned, unexpectedly.
I sat up again. Ned didn't seem to be referring to anything in particular. It was more of a general apology. "No problem," I said. "He's not the first person I've met who totally couldn't cope with the idea of a housedad and... Actually, no, now I come to think about it, he was the first person I met who totally couldn't cope with the idea of a housedad... but, er, he wasn't the last. There are lots of things I don't have much self-confidence about - being a housedad isn't one of them. I can cope with your dad." I shrugged. "Besides, I'm not the one he's thinking of sending to boarding school."
"Ah..." I'd kind of got the information fourth-hand via Catriona, my mother-in-law and Sarah. I'd assumed it wasn't a secret. I hastily back-tracked. "I take it he hasn't run that one past you yet, then? Something about toughening you up. It was probably just an idea. I doubt he really meant it."
"Doesn't matter. I'm not going." It wasn't said with defiance. It wasn't determined and said through gritted teeth. As a statement, it barely even deigned to be dismissive. With a minimal shake of his head, Ned consigned the whole concept to the mental garbage disposal unit that teenagers reserve for parental lunacy. He didn't even look up from his PSP.
There was another pause.
I still couldn't think of anything to say but I didn't feel I could leave it there. I looked around the room for inspiration.
"Does that take SD memory cards?" I said, pointing to Chris' snazzy camera that he'd left lying around.
"Yeah, think so."
I popped the memory card out and stuck it in the Wii. Then I showed Ned how to use the photo-editing software. We'd just finished adding a Mexican moustache, Elton specs and fairy dust to a picture of his dad when the man himself walked in.
Chris wasn't too impressed. "Shouldn't you be in the kitchen?" he said to me but didn't cover it with laughter the way he normally does. I erased the changes and hurried off to find something useful to do.
Maybe I over-stepped the mark. I'm not going to be too thrilled if, when Fraser and Lewis are older, random relatives start taking their side. Of course, when my boys are teenagers, I expect to be an incredibly enlightened parent who is always understanding and open, dispensing gems of wisdom to aid my offspring though life's tribulations. I will always be right and they will know this. There will be no argument and no side for the extended family to take. The world will be at peace. A rainbow will permanently end in our back garden. It will rain cute, fluffy bunnies.
Teenage strife in my household? Never!
Well, maybe a little, when Marie has some dubious piercings and then gets arrested on a date with your Sam...
This is all bound to come back and bite me sooner or later. Hopefully later, though.
The rest of the day passed pleasantly. Chris was quickly back to his jovial self (outwardly, at least). I had a couple of mince pies and a drink or two and the kids mostly found their own entertainment. Eventually, as the evening wore on, Marie started getting crotchety. I scooped my little three-year-old up and gave her a cuddle. "I think it's time to go home," I said.
She cheered up. "Can I go to bed when we get home?" she asked excitedly.
"That sounds like a good idea," I replied.
She produced an enormous smile. "Thank you!" she said and gave me a big hug.
With luck, she'll stay that easily pleased for a good few years yet.
Yours in a woman's world,