Steve hasn't been coping well with redundancy.
He had been coming round here most days to mope and mournfully steal all my biscuits but then, last week, he stopped. I didn't hear from him at all. My initial relief faded to concern as I thought back over the past two or three months. He'd gone from smartly dressed, bright-eyed businessman to exhausted, dishevelled housedad without me really noticing. The talk of CVs, contacts and interviews had faded. He no longer laboured under the recurring delusion that he was doing his wife, Deborah, a favour by 'taking the kids for a few hours' - looking after the children had become his job.
Under other circumstances, I'd have been delighted with another housedad in the area but (a) this is Steve we're talking about and (b) I don't think it's something he would ever have chosen.
Sarah and I decided that I would be a housedad. We planned for it. We looked forward to it. We made it happen. Steve just wasn't prepared for it. Rather than having embraced being a housedad, he still thought of himself as a businessman - a businessman who couldn't get a job. I'm dishevelled because I don't care; he'd become dishevelled because he'd given up.
When he didn't show at parent and toddler yesterday, I thought I'd better pop round to his flat and check he was OK. Marie was delighted at the idea. She'd missed playing with Steve's daughter, Ophelia.
Steve didn't look good when he answered the door. His eyes were bloodshot and his movements were slow and accompanied by little groans. He stared at me blankly. For a moment, I thought my worst fears had come true, and I scanned the stairwell for available weapons. I'd blundered into a zombie outbreak.
Marie didn't seem too fussed. "I'm Marie," she said. "I'm three. Can I play now?" She didn't wait for an answer but ran past him, the bobble on her pink fluffy hat bouncing up and down merrily. There was a great deal of mutual squealing as she ran into their sitting room and found Ophelia.
"Right," said Steve but didn't move out of the way to let me in. He hadn't shaved for a few days, his hair was wild and he was wearing his dressing gown. It had a selection of milky stains down the front. I relaxed a little - he looked a bit too shabby to be a zombie.
"I can come back and get her later, if you like," I suggested.
"Marie. My daughter. You can let me in or I can come back and get her later."
That seemed to be the closest to an invitation I was going to get, so I plastered over the social awkwardness with a grin and followed after her.
The sitting room was not as I remembered it. The ceiling was still high and the stairs to the mezzanine level were providing a great deal of excitement for the girls but nothing else was entirely as it should have been. Cushions were strewn everywhere, the bay window had paint handprints all over it, brightly coloured toys festooned the furniture, half-eaten bowls of cereal booby-trapped the floor and what appeared to be a sausage was sticking out of the video player. This was not good. Josquin, Steve's nearly-one-year-old son, was imprisoned in a playpen in the centre of the room, rattling a beaker against the bars.
"I'd let him out," said Steve, reflecting his own guilt off me, "but I'd need to tidy up."
I nodded. "Maybe a little. Tell you what, I'll take the bowls through to the kitchen. You sort yourself out a bit and then let him play in the cushions. Girls! You get off those stairs - there are plenty of toys to play with. Josquin!" He started in surprise at the attention. "You giggle. I'll be back in a minute. Drink your milk." He duly giggled and took a long swig from the beaker. I hoped it was reasonably fresh. "Tea?" I asked Steve.
"Thanks," he said and then, as if in explanation, he added, "Deborah's away for the week, overseeing a project."
"Uh-huh," I said, failing miserably to look surprised. I quickly gathered up the bowls and headed through to boil the kettle.
I needed a coffee. Which, I guess, is synonymous with saying that I was awake, since I always need a coffee, but, on this occasion, I really, really needed a coffee. Scary Karen had cornered me at parent and toddler and regaled me with accounts of her trip to the doctor and of her latest date with Trevor. Both these stories were long, dull and filled with vastly inappropriate detail. What's more, I'd been unable to escape long enough to grab supplies from the refreshment trolley. I desperately needed some caffeine and biscuits.
I put the kettle on and began to hunt around. There were a couple of mugs on the drainer that only needed a quick rinse, I found a clean teaspoon in the drawer and the teabags had all been inexpertly stapled to the noticeboard in a flower pattern. I carefully removed a couple. I couldn't locate the coffee, though. I rifled through the cupboards near the kettle, scanned the work surfaces, peered at the shelves and checked on the table but I couldn't see it anywhere. The dirty crockery, abandoned food and Weebles covering everything didn't help.
I searched further afield. There were some biscuits in the bread bin (plain digestives, unfortunately, but better than nothing) and the cupboard under the sink had the expected cleaning supplies in it. Unlike everywhere else, that cupboard looked neat and untouched. Rolling my eyes, I checked the cupboard on the wall above.
A cat exploded from it.
Oddly, it was painted pink and lightly sprinkled with glitter.
The cat screamed, I screamed, it bounded off my head, the teaspoon flew up in the air and the creature streaked off out the door in search of a new hiding place.
I paused to take a few deep breaths and let my sudden adrenaline high fade slightly. No one else in the flat seemed remotely concerned by the clattering and screaming. I took a few more breaths and considered examining the cupboard more closely but, on reflection, I decided it would be wiser just to close the door and move along. If the coffee was in there, I didn't want it.
My search became more cautious after that. It took me some time before I found the jar of Gold Blend in the fridge. The water was long since boiled and I made the drinks. I take my coffee black but Steve has his tea with milk and sugar. This was a problem - I couldn't find a supply of either. In the end, I had to just go with a dollop of yogurt and then rub two stale doughnuts together over the top of the mug. It was the best I could do...
Steve was sitting in the lounge where I'd left him. Josquin was still in the playpen. The girls had vanished. I took Josquin out of the playpen and let him crawl around.
"What's up?" I said, offering Steve a biscuit. The state of the flat went beyond incompetence. I was genuinely worried about his mental health.
He reached into his dressing gown pocket, drew out a crumpled letter and handed it to me. "I thought the interview went really well," he mumbled, staring at the wall. "I really did. They're a respected company with an excellent product. The benefits were good and I felt I connected with the management team. They liked my ideas. We could have moved forward together."
He'd been turned down for another job. It sounded like he'd got quite a long way through the process with this one, though. They'd even gone to the bother of getting references - the rejection letter mentioned some issues with one of them.
"What...?" I began but Steve cut me off.
He reached into his other pocket and drew out a second piece of paper. "I phoned them, hoping I could make them reconsider, and they faxed me this. It's what Scott wrote about me."
The mention of Steve's arrogant and vindictive old boss instantly made my hackles rise. I'd wiped his existence from my mind the moment he'd been transferred to Mongolia. It had been a very happy day. (Obviously, I didn't mention this, since it had been a much less happy day for Steve, what with him being Scott's head crony and getting immediately fired by Scott's replacement). I skimmed the recommendation, hoping that it wouldn't bring back too many memories, but I had to stop half way through and go back over it more carefully. I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. It was scathing.
Seriously, Attack of the Clones had better reviews.
"Wow," I said, finally. "Turns out that it wasn't just me he didn't like."
"I don't understand it. I always supported him. I carried out his plans. I did what he said. It's not my fault he ended up in Ulan Bator. Why did he write that?"
"I dunno. Maybe he's convinced himself that it is your fault, or he was frustrated and couldn't find a goat to kick. Hey, maybe he thinks he's got a chance of a job with these guys and thought this might impress them."
"If they'd employed me, I could have put in a good word for him. How does this help?"
"Well, er..." The honest answer was that, if they'd hired Steve, they might have realised what a clueless manager he was and been none too impressed with the guy who'd provided them with a glowing recommendation. Judging by Steve's fragile state, I wasn't sure he was ready for quite that much truth. I stalled. "Who knows what he was thinking?"
Steve shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's almost certainly too late for this job but I need someone else to provide a reference. Maybe if Sarah wrote me one, I could convince them to take me on." His voice was pleading. "You could phone her right now and ask..."
"Yeah, I could..." I suppose I should have seen it coming. As Steve's former chief underling, Sarah was an obvious candidate. I didn't fancy floating the idea by her, though. She didn't need the stress and I didn't need a stressed wife. Having a stressed wife makes me stressed. Me being stressed, makes Sarah stressed. The thought of her getting stressed because I was stressed about her being stressed, made me stressed.
Which was stressful.
I tried to think. There was a way out. All I had to do was not phone her. If I took the stress of dealing with Steve myself, she wouldn't need to get stressed. Sure, I'd be stressed, but I might be able to internalise and ignore it before I spoke to her again. That would prevent her from getting stressed about it. If not, at least I'd removed one layer of complexity from the problem. Rather than being stressed about her being stressed about me being stressed about her being stressed, I would only have to be stressed about her getting stressed about me getting stressed.
I started to run it by myself one more time but then suddenly realised that no one had said anything for a couple of minutes.
Steve was still staring expectantly. There was nothing for it but to tell him the truth. I felt like I was about to shoot the Andrex puppy.
"There's no point Sarah writing another reference," I said. "It would be the same. Kinder and with less swearing but, fundamentally, the same. Productivity has at least trebled since you left."
"You're not a very good manager."
"Oh..." The silence stretched on for a while again. It was broken only by an enormous eruption in Josquin's nappy.
Shoulders slumped, Steve picked his son up and carried him to the changing unit out in the hall. I followed, in case help was needed.
To my surprise, it wasn't. Steve had been practicing. He gave the mobile above the unit a spin to distract Josquin's attention, made lots of soothing noises, whipped off the dirty clothes and nappy, wiped everything clean, contained a surprise second delivery without incident, wiped everything clean again, fastened a fresh nappy, slipped on clean clothes, put the kid in the playpen, tidied and disinfected. Then he washed his hands thoroughly. He could have done it in his sleep and, if my own experience of small children is anything to go by, he probably had. It was a masterclass in nappy changing. I almost clapped.
Steve went back to sitting dejectedly in the lounge. I checked on the girls. They were hiding happily under a duvet so I left them to it.
"Maybe you should try something different," I said when I returned to my seat.
"Like what? I don't have any skills."
I pretended to consider this for a few seconds as all my mental energy went into not saying, "That never stopped you before." I just managed contain myself but the thought was so loud that everyone in the building suddenly got a headache. A pigeon flying past the window was temporarily stunned and dropped out of the sky. A moment later, a car alarm went off on the street below.
I did my best to ignore it. "Six months ago," I said, "you couldn't change a nappy. I had to talk you through it. Just now, you carried out one of the smoothest nappy changes ever seen, without any help, and without even thinking about it very much. That's a skill right there."
"I can't put it on my CV," said Steve, rubbing his forehead, as if in pain.
"Depends what you're wanting to do. Deborah's business is doing well and she's really enjoying it but she'd rather the kids didn't spend all day in nursery. If you got another nine to five job that would leave her with some difficult decisions. You might want to..."
"Stay in the house and look after the children?" he interrupted.
"You don't have to stay in the whole time. Actually, I'd advise against it. But, yeah, look after the children."
"I couldn't do that."
I tried to reassure him. "Sure you can. A little more training and..."
"No, I mean, what will everyone at the golf club say?"
I shrugged. "All kinds of ignorant things, probably. Tell them you're taking time to consider your options and explore new avenues, or something. Tell them you're prioritising your family. I don't know. Does it matter?"
"Oh." I guess I've forgotten what it's like to be socially embarrassed about being a housedad.
"What if they found out that I had to get Deborah to pay my membership fees?"
"Tell them it's part of your benefits and compensation package," I said.
"How do you mean?" he said, sounding more interested.
I remembered to speak his language. "Think of yourself as a team player. You're empowering Deborah to complete the task and supplying her with back-office support. Without your cog, the family machine would fall apart. As such, you're entitled to a share of the profits." It seemed to be working, so I pressed on. "Re-analyse your goals, step back from the plate and, er, take a fresh look in the mirror."
He shook his head. "Maybe you're right but..." He motioned around himself at the bombsite that was the room. "Where do I start?"
He looked sceptical.
"Anywhere. Come on. Whatever you decide to do eventually, you need to concentrate on the job in hand until Deborah gets back. This week, you're a housedad, whether you like it or not. Now, you go and get dressed, and me and the girls will get started with tidying up in here. I'll do the washing up; you feed the kids and put some laundry on. Then I'll entertain them while you give the kitchen and bathrooms a quick wipe around."
Spurred on by my feigned enthusiasm, Steve perked up a little and went to have a shower. I extricated the girls from the bed linen and set them to clearing up. I wouldn't let Marie help at home - there's far too much chance of spills or breakage - but the opportunity to give her some training with other people's valuables was too good to miss. She quite enjoyed herself. Once Steve had dressed, he explored the cupboard full of cleaning stuff and the next couple of hours passed quickly.
There was one moment of concern after lunch. I was sitting in the lounge with the girls when Steve screamed and I nearly jumped out of my skin. The girls went on with their colouring as if nothing had happened. Marie merely looked up briefly from her scribbled, pink masterpiece. "He found cat," she said cheerfully.
We had to leave soon after that to go and collect the boys from school. Steve was seeming a bit happier by then and the flat was in a hugely better state. I was still reluctant to leave him to fend for himself for the rest of the week, though. As we stood there in the doorway, my eye started to twitch. We'd said our goodbyes but I was stuck there. I felt an involuntary urge to...
"Why don't you bring the kids round tomorrow? We could have coffee." It was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
Of course, Steve readily accepted and I made a mental note to buy more biscuits on the way home. I couldn't believe I'd actually invited him round. I'd had more than enough of him moping in my kitchen over the previous weeks. As we headed down the stairs and out of sight, I valiantly restrained my desire to kick myself.
My efforts were undone shortly after that, however, as Marie's voice echoed shrilly up the stairwell. "You're silly. Don't hit the wall with your head."
Hopefully Steve didn't hear that.
Yours in a woman's world,