Dear Dave

Wednesday 30 January 2008


Dear Dave,

There's a theory that the manner of a child's birth forever affects their personalities. A traumatic birth creates an anxious little person; a relaxed birth leads to an easy-going child.

For my own part, I have a different theory. Having witnessed three children make their grand entrance into the world in their own inimitable styles, I can't help thinking that a child's personality affects the manner of their birth. Easy-going children relax and enjoy the ride; anxious children dither and get stuck; awkward children stick out their arms and legs and dare you to come in and get them...

Bearing this in mind, Rob shouldn't have too hard a time of it. Kate gave birth to a nine pound baby boy on Saturday and, by all accounts, things went as smoothly as you could really expect given the basic logistics of getting an object that large through a hole that small. It's somehow fitting, however, that the contractions started for real in the games section of HMV. Rob saw it as a good excuse to avoid losing the Guitar Hero III battle they were having on a demo-pod. Through gritted teeth, Kate pretty much told him to go eat his own whammy bar, and then riffed him into the ground.

They were probably lucky that Squirtle didn't come out holding a Game Boy.

Yep, he's still called Squirtle. They haven't quite decided on a name yet. It's on their to-do list, apparently.

I went to visit on the second evening they were in hospital. The ward had four beds in it. A selection of tired-looking mums and dads were showing their new offspring to enthusiastic relatives. It was a chaos of flowers, balloons and teddy bears. It was also far too hot. Fortunately, I'd come prepared and had slipped into Bermuda shorts and my Mr Incredible t-shirt on arrival. Kate was off having a shower and Rob was left holding the baby in a slightly tense kind of way.

"Who chose that outfit?" I asked.

"It was some of the guys from work."

Squirtle was wearing a brown towelling robe, a white cloak and green hat with large, pointy ears. "Know you well, they do," I said.

"Yeah, maybe," he said, gently rocking his little baby Yoda. "They weren't totally sure, so they got a couple of others too. There's a Darth Vader one for days when Squirtle's feeling evil and a Princess Leia one for days when I am."

"You can't dress the poor kid up as Princess Leia."

"It's not as if he's going to know," said Rob, "and you should see the hat. It's superb. Have a look in the bag. There. See!"

He pointed to bag overflowing with cottonwool, nappies and babygros and I had a rummage around inside. After quite a search, I pulled out a dark brown skull-cap with snake-like coils of fabric on the earflaps. I stared at it. "That is quite something," I managed eventually, ready to beat it with a bedpan if it started to move. "Still, you might want to save it in case the next one's a girl."

"Give us a chance."

"Well, now you've got the costume... And you really can't put it on Squirtle. Someone will take a photo and he'll never live it down."

Rob looked slightly crestfallen. "Like you're a fashion guru."

"Hey, at least I'm not melting," I said and pulled straight some of the creases in my Incredi-shirt. "Are you any closer with a name yet?"

"Traditionally, all the men in Kate's family are called Robert but that's confusing enough as it is. Kate's kinda keen on Ben but neither of us is that convinced. I had Frodo shot down in flames earlier. I don't know. We'll think of something - we've got a few weeks."

"Three, actually. Less than three now, in fact. If we were in England, you'd have longer. What are the other babies called?"

Rob nodded his head in the direction of the other families in the room. "Jack, Jack and Lewis. The next ward is Lewis, Jack, Sophie and Jack. I'm thinking, not Jack."


"You want to cuddle him?" he said, offering Squirtle to me.

I held up my hands to ward off the snotty little Jedi. "Not really. Been there, done that. Besides, let sleeping babies lie."

"If only," Rob sighed. "The minute I put him down, he wakes up and starts screaming."

"The ones that keep screaming even when you're holding them are worse."

Rob nodded but gave the impression that that wasn't really what he needed to hear. He was looking tired already.

"How are you doing?" I asked gently.

He couldn't speak for a moment. Emotions wrestled with each other across his face. Then he sort of shrugged and said, "I'm a dad." There was a mix of fear, joy, astonishment, pride and confusion in his voice.

"I know what you mean," I said. I remember very clearly that's how I felt when I first held Fraser. Heck, I still feel like that if I think about it. "If you ever need help or advice..." The words trailed off. The rest didn't need said and, besides, we might have ended up hugging or something...

"Thanks," said Rob and then, after a slightly awkward pause, he added, "He does need his nappy changed, if you're interested."

"Forget that," I said. "It'll be full of slimy tar. Dealing with that stuff is a rite of passage for new parents. I wouldn't want to deprive you."

"Some help you are."

He was about to start thinking about opening the changing bag when Kate returned. She looked clean and refreshed. Rob handed Squirtle over. Squirtle woke up and was immediately a little bit sick on her. She didn't look too thrilled. Then she gave the kid a sniff and realised she'd been duped as well. At that moment, Rob's parents arrived.

I decided it was a good time to make my farewells.

Wish I'd remembered to change out of my shorts before leaving the building...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 25 January 2008

Looking back

Dear Dave,

Well, here it is - my one hundredth letter to you. Yeah, a few of them were quite short and several were the unhinged ramblings of a man who hadn't had enough sleep but it's still a milestone in our friendship, I feel. If this were an American sitcom there'd be two possible ways we could mark the occasion:
  1. The expensive option: I could draft in a celebrity to guest star.
  2. The cheapskate option: We could sit on a sofa and reminisce via flashbacks while everyone laughs at how our hair used to look.
Guess which one you're getting...

At least, I would reminisce if I could actually remember anything much from before last Saturday. One of the things about parenthood is that you quickly end up living in the here and now. The kids' bedtime looms so large in the future that beyond it is a mystery. Repetition and lack of sleep make the past a woolly fog in which events swirl without context or chronology. Some occasions stand out clearly but I have lost whole months and years in that temporal soup. If you ever find out what happened to 2003, let me know...

I am aware, however, that a few things have changed for me since I started writing to you. For instance, the baby department at John Lewis now feels like a forgotten world. I was there yesterday, looking round for a suitable present for Rob and Kate and Squirtle. (Turns out they had a false alarm on Tuesday. Still, any day now...) As I stared at all the shelves and shelves of gadgets and gizmos, it was like opening a drawer at home and finding flared trousers, a vinyl LP and a ZX Spectrum. Although the stuff brought back fond memories, I was heartily relieved I didn't need it any more. Marie still uses a cup with a spout, the buggy continues to cling to life and carseats will be with us for a few years yet but almost everything else is behind us. There's no more faffing with sterilisers, nappies, folding toilet seats, musical mobiles or high chairs. A year ago, we were getting there but now we're very definitely past the baby stage.

My sympathies to you and Liz as you prepare for all the fun of breast pumps and frozen milk when she heads back to work. It's good to be able to feed my kids any old thing that's lying around rather than spending my time stopping them from feeding it to themselves.

Unexpectedly, as I hunted about amongst the baby stuff, I noticed that technology has already moved on from 'my day'. Double-decker buggies are now much more common and someone has finally made rubbery ice-cube trays specifically designed for freezing portions of home-made baby food. The foldable baby bath didn't look very convincing, though. The foldable potty would have collapsed under the weight of any of my remarkably large children.

I'm much more cynical about these things than I was back when I was a fresh-faced prospective parent. I've bought my fair share of baby gizmos that didn't work, from a baby-listener that kept losing signal to a portable bottle-warmer that used an exothermic chemical reaction to turn cold milk into almost tepid milk in the length of time it took for a baby to give up and fall asleep. I've had non-spill cups that leaked everywhere and others that my kids couldn't get liquid out of even when they were trying. Neither of these were ideal. I was particularly fond of the plastic bib with a lip at the bottom that caught half-chewed food in one handy place as it fell - all the better for Fraser to swivel the bib round and tip the contents in his ear...

It's probably for the best that I don't have to go back to parent and toddler. Before long, I would have been the grumpy old man in the corner. 'When I was looking after babies, we didn't have any of this new-fangled video-on-demand nonsense. We had to make do with CBeebies, no matter what was on. I lived through the great Tweenies Bank Holiday Funday of 2004. You youg'uns wouldn't understand, but I was there. I still have the mental scars. You hear me? I still have the scars!'

As the flashbacks started to build, I decided to choose something quickly. I got them the same clip-on pram/carseat toy arch I get everyone and beat a hasty retreat.

Yep, things have changed. Not least, the kids are growing up. Lewis is at school now but it feels like he's been there forever. I can't really remember what it was like when he was still at nursery. Fraser has been at school forever but I guess it's his reading ability that has really come on recently. Of course, it's Marie who's changed the most in the last year. She's sleeping properly, eating properly, generally using the toilet and has become quite a talker. A year ago, she could say things like, 'I like pink!' and 'I go kitchen.' Now she can say things like, 'We're having a party in the lounge, so we need to be tied up!' She can also grin mischievously and say, 'Babies aren't nice... for eating,' before laughing in a scary fashion.

These conversational gambits do have a tendency to worry and confuse visitors but I only have myself to blame:

Sarah: What do fairies make?

Marie: Cakes!

Me: Yep. From teeth.

Marie: OK.

Ho, well, she'll grow out of it soon. It's a while since she believed everything I told her and it won't be long before she starts arguing with absolutely anything I say. Sigh. Enjoy having a really little one while you can. Daisy will be stomping around whining before you know it.

I suppose if it ever gets to me, though, and I long for the simple days of caring for a baby who only complains about basic, physical needs, I can borrow one of the slimy little critters from Rob. Then I can hand it back, go home and sleep without being disturbed.


It's been a long year but things are on the up. All the best for the next one. Thanks for the letters, advice and encouragement.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS The extra peace and quiet I've had recently has given me a chance to check out DadLabs more closely. They do humorous videos about dad stuff. Worth a look.

Wednesday 23 January 2008


Dear Dave,

Thanks for the congratulations. I'm still somewhat confused by the whole situation, though. It's kind of hard to explain. I tried to explain it to Rob yesterday but, between his new phone, the curtains and the... No, hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll just tell you what happened:

Rob looked around suspiciously. "When you suggested meeting up for coffee, I was thinking Starbucks or Waterstone's. I would have settled for the Debenhams cafeteria or even that dodgy place at the end of your road that does all-day breakfasts. This is... What is this place?"

"It's very cheap," I said, pointing to a chalk board with the prices on. "I thought you were broke."

"Well, you know, wedding and baby and stuff, but doesn't mean I can't drink proper coffee." Rob squinted. "Flip, that is cheap!"

"Exactly. Now quit complaining."

We were in a little community centre housed in a converted Anglican church. It was still all stone pillars, stained-glass and gravestones set into the floor, but the pews had been removed to make way for a cafe, a gift shop and a lounge area where some elderly people were sitting dozing in a selection of tired old armchairs. At the far end, the altar was still intact and the area around it had been left as a chapel. The cafe was empty apart from a couple of mums who were sitting at a table with hot drinks and cake, while their small children played with some battered toys from a tub in the corner.

Rob had the day off work to get organised for the imminent arrival of his first child but, with only a week to go, he was still in denial and more than happy to meet up with me rather than buy nappies. It was ten o'clock in the morning. I had two children at school and one at nursery. I had no children with me. It was strange. I felt liberated and oddly exposed. I was able to leave the house on my own but, on the other hand, I had no young children with me to explain my disheveled appearance, the bags under my eyes, my permanent manic grin nor why I kept inadvertently humming Old MacDonald.

"Would you stop that?" said Rob.

"Was I doing it again?"


"Sorry. It's in my head. Particularly the verse about subsidies. You know, 'With a ching-ching here, and a ching-ching there. Here ching, there a ching, everywhere a...'"

Rob looked at me sadly. "You've finally lost it."

"I'm not sure you're wrong." I sighed and tried to shake the nonsense out of my head. "What are you having?"

"A cup of tea and a doughnut." He looked at the price list again. "Actually, make that two doughnuts and a scone. These prices are just mad."

"Yeah, that sign over there says this place costs £1200 a week to run but I don't know whether we're supporting them, or they're subsidising us. Maybe if you eat enough doughnuts, it'll cost them £1400 this week."

"I'll give it a go."

We went up to the counter and ordered. I had a black coffee and a scone. The man found a mug and immediately put some milk in it. "Ah, you said black, didn't you?" he muttered. I nodded. He found another mug, held it ready to pour water into and then hesitated. "It was tea, wasn't it?"


"Oh, right, right." He put a spoonful of instant coffee in the mug and then filled it until it overflowed and he had to mop it up with a tissue. He put the mug on a saucer and then had a similar level of success with Rob's tea. He put the doughnuts on a plate and told us the scones would be brought to our table once they had jam on. We picked our way through the sleeping old people and found a table that, according to the inscriptions on the floor, was situated above a particularly large concentration of dead people.

"I think I know why this place is so cheap," said Rob.

"Well, when you're buying, we can go to Starbucks, Mr Two-Incomes-And-Not-Quite-Any-Kids-Yet."

"I do have an iPhone to support."


He whipped it out and took a photo of me looking incredulous. Then he uploaded the picture to Facebook.

"Honestly, you have more money than... than... Oh, I don't know..." I grabbed it from him for a quick play. "Than is probably good for you."

"Cool, though, isn't it?"

I shrugged. "Yeah, well, I doubt this will survive being tumble-dried as well as my brick-like one did."

"I'm not going to let the kid near it."

"Not even if it turns out to be the only thing that stops him or her crying?" I asked.

"No," said Rob definitely.

"Yeah," I said, trying to make my derision clear, "whatever..."

At that point, the manager arrived with one scone and informed us that our order had been mis-read but assured us that the other was on its way. Her large and conspicuous name badge was on upside down.

After she'd left, Rob gave me a look. "Don't be too hard on them," I said, handing back his phone, "I'm assuming they're all volunteers."

"Next time - Starbucks," he mumbled through a mouthful of doughnut.

I changed the subject. "You got the bag packed yet?"


"Kate's bag for the hospital."

"It's on my list," he said.

I couldn't believe it. "Please tell me you're joking."

"What?" Rob said, defensively. "I've been busy. Some of us have work to go to, you know. The weekends are taken up with buying things like cots and buggies and cottonwool, and I've been spending evenings eBaying my stuff after you told your wife to tell Kate to tell me to get on with it."

"You still need to get the bag packed. If you have to do it at the last minute, who knows what you'll end up throwing in. You'll get to the hospital with your Game Boy, two Star Wars action figures and a packet of biscuits but without the TENS machine. It won't go well."

"I..." He stopped as a text message arrived for him. "It's probably Kate. I saw a set of four matching bridesmaid dresses in a charity shop this morning - only a tenner each. I sent her a photo." He showed it to me. The dresses had a muted, floral pattern and an excess of pink ribbon.

"My sister used to have curtains like that twenty years ago," I said. "I always wondered what happened to them."

"Wearing curtains didn't do the girl in Enchanted any harm..." He read Kate's message. "Oh."

"Let me guess," I said. "She wasn't thrilled?"

He pulled a face. "That's an understatement."

The other scone arrived and we tucked in. "How are you doing now Marie's at nursery?" Rob asked. "I bet you don't know what to do with yourself."

I resisted the urge to slap him. "Everybody keeps saying that but it's only a couple of hours a day and I've got plenty of things to do."

He chuckled, as if humoring me. "Still," he said, "you must be enjoying the chance to put your feet up."

"That's another thing people keep saying. It's driving me mad. If you ask if I miss the children really, and then argue when I say, 'No,' I'm afraid I will have to kill you with..." I grabbed the first item which came to hand. "...this!"

"Don't be stupid," said Rob, chuckling some more. "You can't kill someone with a sachet of sugar."

"Want to bet?" I said, waving the sachet at him menacingly. "It's amazing what can be achieved with seemingly limited resources. Remember the time I saved your career with a packet of Polos?"

He rolled his eyes. "How can I forget? I had to hide the flipping things from a Dell service technician only the other week."

"They're still there?" I flicked the sachet at him in irritation. "That was supposed to be a temporary fix. I told you to get it sorted. Haven't you managed to replace one pack of mints in eight years?"

"It's not just the one pack now."


He looked sheepish. "It's possible I might have got drunk one night with the hardware support guys and told them about it. They actually thought it was a pretty clever solution I'd come up with and they liked it so much..."

"You came up with? I... No, hang on, I don't think I want to know where this is going. I still have a pension with LBO. My future financial security depends on the IT equipment not dying in a super-heated eruption of breath-freshening caramel."

"Yeah, well," he said, "the hardware guys liked the solution so much..."

"I'm not listening! I'm not listening!"

"...they've gone and used it all over. Every time we get a new server we have to send a trainee to the newsagents to buy some mints. The last guy was useless. He came back with Extra Strong rather than Polos."

I took my fingers out of my ears and stopped humming. "How was that going to work?"

"Exactly!" said Rob. "Too big, too thick and no hole. Never going happen."

We both clicked our tongues and shook our heads. There was silence for a few moments as, in mutual despair, we contemplated the incompetence involved.

"Seriously," said Rob eventually. "How's it going?"

I stared into my coffee. "It's all a bit weird. I had lots of plans as to how I was going to celebrate when Marie started properly but I haven't really done any of them. I guess this is it." I gave a quick sweep of my hand to take in everything from the dubious coffee to the comatose octogenarians. "Not exactly wild, is it? I just got thrown on Friday and I haven't quite recovered. I was expecting to have to hang around in the building in case the girl had a strop. I even took along a pen and some paper to write to Dave while I waited. I wasn't prepared when they said that, since she'd settled so well on Thursday, I could just leave her. They took my number and I got to wander off."

"Except I had to go back to the house," I said, taking off my glasses and rubbing my eyes. "I couldn't remember my mobile number off-hand so I gave the nursery my home number. I spent a couple of hours sitting in the kitchen, feeling confused and slightly ill."

Rob smirked. "See! You do miss them really."

"Right, that's it!" I grabbed a handful of sachets and made to lunge.

"Woh!" He threw up his hands to ward me off. "Sorry! Sorry! Calm down. You were the one who spent the whole walk here going on about how exposed you felt without them."

I slumped back down. "I suppose I hadn't thought about it that way. Maybe you're right. Maybe I do miss them a little. But it's certainly not like I get to the middle of the morning and hanker after a long, complicated explanation of the life-cycle of the monsters living in my child's elbow."

Rob raised his eyebrows.

"Don't ask," I said. "If you want the full story, I'll send Lewis round to explain."

"He's the one that spent two hours telling me about Wario World, isn't he? I'll pass, thanks."

"Good call - I'm glad of the break myself. It's just... I don't know." I drank some of my coffee and tried to think how to explain. "Have you ever lost your ID badge from work?"

Rob nodded. "Yeah, dropped it in a shredder once."

I raised my eyebrows.

"Don't ask," he said. "If you want the full story, I'll send Gerald from Corporate Regulations round to explain."

It was my turn to pass. "Anyway, as I was saying, not having the kids about is like having lost my work ID badge. It makes me feel the need to explain who I am, what I'm doing and why I don't have my ID."

"Yeah, know what you mean," said Rob. "Must be odd not being able to wave them in the right direction and have doors open for you automatically, either."

"That's maybe taking the analogy a little far..." I said.

"Maybe." He leant back and munched on his scone. "So did you do anything exciting on your first day of freedom then?"

"I killed an Action Man in a freak death-slide accident."

"Er..." Before he managed any further questioning, his phone went again. He checked the message.

All the colour drained from his face.

"You OK?" I said.

"I've got to get home." There was panic in his voice.

"Is everything all right, though?"

He opened and closed his mouth a few times before saying, "I've got to get that bag packed."

"Yep," I said, standing to leave. "You'd better go."

"Uh-huh." He didn't move. He continued to stare wide-eyed at his phone.

"Do you want me to call a taxi?" I offered.

"No... No... I'll flag one. I, er... Do you want some Mars Mission Lego?"

"Excuse me?"

"I haven't got round to eBaying it yet," he said, sounding far away. "I haven't sorted through my books, either. Or painted the spare room. Or bought any nappies. Or completed Tomb Raider Anniversary. I can't do them all this afternoon."

Having recently convinced myself that I really wouldn't like some space Lego, even though, in some sense, I really would, this put me in a quandary. Suddenly, there I was, being offered some for free. Being free is always a big plus. Also, Rob has the deluxe set. I was tempted.

Still, really, really...

Ach, I don't need any and I didn't want to take advantage of Rob in his deranged state. Besides, I felt he could do with a happy thought to hold onto.

I made a difficult decision.

"You should probably save the Lego for Squirtle," I said. "He or she might want to play with it eventually. It'll be a few years but I'm sure you can find some storage space somewhere."

"Oh... Oh, yeah. That's a thought. Yeah, we could play with it together. I..." He wasn't entirely in his right mind.

I hauled him out of his seat. "I tell you what, let's go flag that taxi together." I dragged him across the room. He stumbled along in a daze, a doughnut in one hand and a half-eaten scone in the other. Once we were outside, I bundled him into a taxi, wished him luck and sent him on his way.

I made sure to remind him where he lived first.

Hopefully, he'll be OK and didn't try to pay with the doughnut. I haven't heard any news yet; I'll let you know when I do.

Regards to Liz and the kids.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Marie's at nursery just now and I'm still feeling quite strange.

Friday 18 January 2008

What I really wanted them to get for Christmas

Dear Dave,

Well, we've been back a couple of weeks now and I've had time to evaluate the kids' Christmas presents. All in all, they haven't done too badly this year. The unexpected drumkit from Chris and Catriona has been successfully smuggled to a charity shop without the children noticing but, apart from that, the gifts have generally been appropriate and reasonably appreciated. Now we just need to work out where to store all the loot amongst all their other stuff.

The boys got a huge construction set consisting of scores of wooden wheels and poles and joints. It's quite nice but comes in a tin drum the size of Wales. On seeing it for the first time, I gave a little sigh, unsure where on Earth we were going to keep it and fairly certain that none of the kids would show the slightest bit of interest. We've had Duplo and K'Nex for ages - stacks and stacks of it that they've hardly touched. It's filling up shelves that could be better used to house their boardgames and the army of cuddly toys. This new set is very like K'Nex. I expected them to ignore it.

To my surprise, however, they've had great fun building rockets and robots and towers almost every day. Maybe it's the novelty of it being wood rather than plastic... or maybe it's just that the drum got left out in the middle of the lounge because we couldn't think where else to put it. Who knows? Whatever the reason, they've got quite into it. Perhaps there's hope they'll like Lego yet. To my mind, having a legitimate excuse to play with Lego again is one of the reasons for having children.

I had a Lego moon base when I was a kid that I played with all the time. I designed all kinds of lunar vehicles and buildings myself with the help of cannibalised parts from other sets. If I saw one in a charity shop, I'd buy it instantly, even if it had teeth marks all over it like my one did. (My dog was frequently hungry and permanently stupid). The Mars Mission sets call to me whenever I wander through a toy department. I drag children along with me, hoping they'll attempt to pester me into buying some, like they do with every other shiny bit of plastic in the store. Doesn't happen, though. The girl wants to play with the pink, sparkly trikes and the boys want to know when we're going to the computer game section.


I guess it's for the best, though. It probably wouldn't be as much fun as I imagine, just as finally getting my hands on a copy of Hungry Hippos turned out to be far noisier and less exciting than I was expecting. The children would get me to do all the work putting together the Lego and then they'd merely muck about with the moving parts for a bit before leaving it all to lie around the floor waiting to be stood on. Unless they were prepared for a bit of construction and make-believe themselves, there wouldn't be much point to it.

Disappointingly, the children haven't taken a second look at Playmobil stuff either. I had the mobile hospital set of that when I was Lewis' age. It was superb. As for Action Man, I had a tank but I was desperate for the submarine and the death-slide. I tried to make my own death-slide tower out of cardboard but over-specced the project and never completed it. With hindsight, I could have just tied one end of a length of string to the latch of an upstairs window and the other end to the back gate, cuffed Action Man with a bag-tie and sent him screaming across the garden to splat into the woodwork. (He could take it. His normal experience on exiting an upstairs window was having his parachute fail to open and then plummeting head-first onto the patio.)

One of the boys got an Action Man a while back that I would quite happily have bought all kinds of gadgets for but it's long since been left lying in a twisted heap at the bottom of drawer, abandoned to spend a hundred thousand years biodegrading in his injection moulded underwear.

It's all quite distressing. As I said, maybe the kids will get into Lego now. I can't see it ever happening in a big way, though. Marie might conceivably want Playmobil stuff soon, if I suggest it often enough, but the submarine isn't going to happen unless there's a lilac version which comes with fairies. (The Barbie covert infiltration and assassination range!) I feel I'm missing out on one of the perks of parenthood i.e. the chance to buy all the toys I wanted when I was a kid but didn't get.

In reality, it's all a little silly. Do I really want to play with Lego? These days, if I want to create, I can make something more lasting and more useful. Shelves, anyone? If I want to imagine, I can write. If I want to play, there are plenty of computer games.

What I really want is to be seven and play with Lego. I'd like the freedom to just run around with a Lego space ship without people staring at me. I'd like to be able to create and imagine without feeling the responsibility to produce something useful; to be able to relax without feeling pressure to recharge before the end of my scheduled downtime.

That's not going to happen, unfortunately. Not even if I buy the totally enormous space station thing. I should probably stop hankering after it and start directing the kids towards stuff that I would actually find fun in the here and now.

The boys already play computer games, so that's a beginning. Our taste and ability occasionally overlap. One day we'll be able to play co-operative Halo. In the meantime, I need to start getting them interested in games involving little plastic figures and dice with an improbable number of sides.

Is there a Pokemon version of Risk?

Yes, a readily available supply of strategy game opponents - that really would be good and might be achievable. I should go poke around in the loft and see what games I've got lying about that I can get my little minions playing.

Being an adult is actually pretty good sometimes.

Still, there's one thing I can fairly easily do for the part of me that will forever long to be seven again. I'm off to find that Action Man, a bag tie and a very long bit of string...

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 16 January 2008

Almost there

Dear Dave,

Have I told you that Marie is starting nursery soon? I think it might be that I've mentioned it in passing. You know, in an off-hand kind of way. It's not like it's a major event or anything but it's just possible I might have alluded to it once or twice. I doubt it was more than a sentence or two. I certainly haven't gone on about it.

What? What's that you say?


Every other letter for weeks?


Ho, well, get over it, I'm not going to stop now. She starts tomorrow. Excuse me while I pirouette serenely around the kitchen on tip-toes, showering myself with flowers to the tune of The Blue Danube Waltz:

Yah da da da DAH, da-da, da-da. Yah da da da DAH, da-da, da-da

and then cut abruptly to an energetic interpretation of The Time Warp:

It's just a jump to the left...

only to finish with an overblown rendition of The Final Countdown complete with air-guitar, a straggly mop stuck to my head and fireworks:

Cue big-haired, leather-clad, Swedish men erupting from the cupboards in a blaze of pyrotechnics. It's the final countdown! DUH-duh, duh, DUH! DUH-duh, duh, duh, duh!

DUH-duh! Duh, duh, DUH-duh! Duh, duh, du-du, du-du, duh-duh duuuh...

Actually, no, I think I wandered off into The Flintstones there, but who cares? My youngest child starts nursery tomorrow! I'm not fussed if my kitchen ends up full of European rock stars or Fred and Barney - all that matters is that I'm going to get regular time to myself without children.

Yep, the fabled two or so hours a day, on week days, during term time, when all the kids are well, are almost here. That's over ten hours a week, thirty-five weeks a year, during which I might simultaneously have both the time and energy to achieve something. The very thought consumes my mind. I can barely think of anything else.

Then again, maybe Fred would bring Wilma...


Er... Where was I? Oh, yeah, free time once Marie starts nursery. I'll have some. That's going to be pretty odd.

In the past, I've just laughed at those who've said that I won't know what to do with myself. I have a hundred things I want to get done:
  • Clean the house. Obviously I make the house look clean on a regular basis already but there are certain out-of-sight areas, like top shelves and at the back of the TV cabinet, that are so dusty you'd think a vampire had crawled in and died.
  • Visit all the poky, little shops in the area in which there isn't room to swing a screaming toddler. For years, I've only dared venture into supermarkets and department stores, unwilling to risk navigating a buggy through cramped aisles of breakable goods. Even then, it's seldom been pleasant. One time, when Fraser was small, I took a wrong turn into the crystal department of John Lewis and he immediately decided the only way to travel was with his legs stuck out to either side as far as he could stretch. Navigating my way to the exit became a nerve-wracking test of skill and concentration, akin to those games where you've got to move a metal ring along a wiggly wire without making contact and setting off the very expensive smashing noise. Since then, colourful little stores selling knick-knacks have seemed out of the question.

    I want to go and browse pointless trinkets again. I also want to go into one of the four Polish delicatessens that have recently opened within a few minutes walk of my house and see if anything looks tasty. Hopefully quite a lot will, because, before long, a third of the shops round here are going to be Polish delicatessens and I won't be able to buy food anywhere else. (The other two-thirds of the shops are already internet cafes and barbers. The neighbourhood is obviously now full of Polish people who want to get their haircut and then blog about it.)
  • Fix some of the things around the house that have been broken so long that I no longer even notice that they're broken. Like, erm...
  • Go round the house looking for broken things. See above.
  • Meet friends for coffee... and talk about something other than children and things around the house which need fixed.
  • Play some of those computer games I've been meaning to play but haven't. These are mostly PC games I picked up a while ago, only to discover my computer at the time wasn't powerful enough. Doubtless they still won't work for some reason but I'd like to give it a try.
  • Zombie-proof the house. If they climb on the wheelie-bin, they'll be in the bedroom window before we know it. I need to sort out a spring-loaded booby trap that will catapult them into next door's garden. The neighbours may not be too pleased when it starts raining zombies on their crazy paving but I assume that will be the least of my worries...
  • Have a proper mid-life crisis. I had a little one soon after Marie was born but I never felt I really had the time to get into it properly. I was too busy changing nappies to buy a motorbike; I was too tired to do anything else because I wasn't getting enough
  • Sleep.
  • Write a novel. I've got a great idea for a haunting Celtic fantasy set in fifth century Scotland, stuffed full of myths and heroes, and played out against the backdrop of the growing conflict between Druidism, the old gods and Christianity. It's totally awesome.

    Alternatively, I could just cobble together all these letters I've written to you and see if anyone's interested. Got to be worth a shot...
  • Buy clothes. Much less awesome but it has to be done. It's years since I bought any clothing other than underwear. The trick, as ever, will be going to the shops and coming back with trousers rather than a PlayStation 3. Gah, who put GAME next to John Lewis? It's just too tempting. Pretty soon, I'm going to have to fashion myself a new coat out of DVD boxes.
  • The list goes on...
And that's just off the top of my head. I'm beginning to understand what those people who said I won't know what to do with myself were talking about. There's so much I want to get done and only a couple of hours each day to do it. The problem is where to start. I don't want to waste any of that precious time and I may find myself paralysed with indecision. How best to maximise my productivity and enjoyment? The planning itself could take weeks.

I'm having to keep a lid on my own expectations. Even tackling one a day, I'm not going to achieve all of the above list in the first week. In fact, I'll be lucky if I manage to do more than lie on the sofa groaning for the first week. The second week, I might manage to lie on the sofa groaning while eating crisps. For the third week, I'm looking at a little light TV, less groaning and maybe some pretzels.

There's no point working myself up to anything more - the week after that, the kids are off school. To be honest, even this schedule might be pushing it. Although Marie starts tomorrow, she's being broken-in slowly. Tomorrow is really only a chance to look around; Friday she'll get to stay a bit longer but I won't be allowed to leave the building in case she has a titanic tantrum. (As if...) Depending how she copes, it could be a few days before I get to leave her at nursery all morning.

The pretzels might have to wait until nearly March.

Let's face it, if I get half the things on my list done before the summer then I'll be doing extremely well. If I get three done, that'll still be pretty impressive. Failing that, even just getting my regular cleaning, grocery shopping and a few chores done so I can pay more attention to the kids the rest of the time will be a result.

Drat. Now I think about it, maybe my life isn't going to change that much. Still, at least I should have enough time to dream about that mythical day, nineteen months from now, when Marie starts school. I ought to go get a calendar and start crossing off the days now!

No, hang on. I'll wait a week and buy one in a colourful little store which sells knick-knacks. Then I'll eat something Polish and get my haircut while everyone stares at my jacket made of DVD boxes.

You never know, I might even blog about the whole thing...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 11 January 2008

Letting the train take the strain

Dear Dave,

You're thinking of going on holiday where?

With two small children!?!!

Well, rather you than me - that's a lot of traveling. Then again, other parents are frequently impressed over my family's expeditions to Norfolk. It's about three and a half hours to Peterborough, another hour and a half to Norwich and then a further twenty-five minutes to Baskerville Station which is conveniently located in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, in most directions, there's nothing but grass and cows for miles. It's a little disconcerting. In the other direction, there are some scattered dwellings but this is small comfort, since most of the inhabitants have names like Seth and Ahab and own shotguns. If we're lucky, we arrive at twilight, just as the mist is rolling in over the marshes and the baying of a hound echoes eerily in the distance.

Not good.

It's always a relief when my parents do actually turn up to collect us. Of course, this requires two cars these days but at least my folks have enough carseats of the appropriate kind now so that we don't have to take any with us. Anything which reduces the amount of stuff we have to carry around stations and over foot-bridges is a blessing. It also makes it easier to run from irate locals who've mistaken us for coypu.

We travel by train because it's cheaper than flying, doesn't take much longer door-to-door and allows the kids to move about. It's far less stress than driving. The only problem is dealing with the luggage - there's seldom enough space to stow things. That's partly to do with the design of the trains and partly to do with the amount of stuff we need to take. Last summer, when we went on holiday, we took two rucksacks, a suitcase, three carseats, a changing bag, three backpacks, a carrier bag and a large camera case. Getting that lot and three children on and off a train in a hurry is no picnic. It will improve in a few years, when the kids are bigger and I have my own team of little sherpas. For now, though, getting everything and everyone safely stowed is the major stress of any journey.

At least, it is once we're on our way. Before that, comes purchasing tickets.

Working out the best deal for a train journey is Deep Magic that I leave to Sarah. All the different companies have different offers and restrictions so it all depends where you're going and when, and whether you know the arcane incantations to obtain the unadvertised cheap day supersaver advance only-every-other-Wednesday-in-May bargain return. It's madness.

Since Sam and Daisy are under five, they don't need tickets, but you'll probably want to buy at least one of them a ticket anyway in order to save money. (Told you it was madness). That way, you can use a Family Railcard. With a railcard, you get a third off the tickets for you and Liz and sixty percent off the cost of the kids' tickets (which are half the adult price to start with). You have to pay a small amount for the railcard but it lasts a year and it'll pay for itself easily on a single long journey. Also, if you buy tickets for the kids, you'll be able to reserve them a seat. Admittedly, seat reservations frequently don't work but it's worth a shot trying to book space round a table. Watch they don't try and put you in the quiet coach, though. (Been there, done that. I switched all my gadgets to silent mode but I'm yet to find that button on my children...)

On our last trip, the boys mainly played Nintendo and the girl stared out the window. This was fantastic. In the past, though, we've used a number of methods to keep the kids busy:
  • Reading stories. Works OK but involves effort and carrying books around.
  • Simple toys. A purse with a zip and a small pile of loose change keeps Marie quiet for hours.
  • Games. Snap, Pairs and Top Trumps are preferable. Anything involving dice always ends in hunting around for lost ones in sticky recesses under the seats. (You might want to pack a torch).
  • Drawing. At last! A use for all those little sets of crayons they're forever giving us in restaurants.
  • Running up and down the aisle screaming. It keeps them entertained but, after a while, they start wanting to join in...
  • Food. A meal always makes a long journey go more pleasantly. Well, usually:
I keep a mental Top Ten of disasters involving my children leaking bodily waste. Deciding on a chart position gives me something to take my mind off the smell while cleaning up. I have individual charts for each type of waste and an all-formats Super Chart of those unforgettable 'OK... What do I do now?' moments. I've worn snot, imbibed dribble, scrubbed poo off walls and poured pee out of a child's shoes but guess which chart is loaded with public transport incidents?

Remember - always keep a change of clothes handy for the kids. On at least one occasion, I needed a change of clothes for me, too. When Fraser was a toddler, he was grizzly during a train journey and so I took him into the vestibule at the end of the carriage and sat on one of those fold-down seats by the door while I held him in my arms and tried to rock him to sleep.

He threw up spectacularly into both our laps.

Sarah was out of line of sight, so I couldn't signal for help. There was no one else around to go and get her. Standing up would have meant the pool of milky foulness escaping everywhere. I had to limbo to the toilet with a one-year-old clasped to my chest and then mop up with paper towels. Sarah was somewhat surprised when, a few minutes later, I plonked a naked child on the table in front of her and then raced off to rummage in our suitcase for non-toxic trousers.

On another occasion, Marie was sitting in the buggy by the door with our cases and carseats piled up around her, ready for us to hastily disembark. Without warning, she spewed her entire lunch all over the floor and our luggage. We stood there, staring in horror. Then the train pulled into the station.

We hastily disembarked.

Then, of course, we had to mop the carseats as best we could and find a taxi...

Which handily brings me to the most important travel advice I can give: wherever you're going and whatever you're planning, always pack plenty of wipes and plastic bags. Oh, and don't look funny at anyone called Seth who's carrying a shotgun. Remember that and you'll be fine.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS You might want to apply for the kids' passports now. They've relaxed the standards for photos a bit but it's still liable to take a few attempts to get something suitable. Leave yourself plenty of time.

Monday 7 January 2008

Happy New Year

Dear Dave,

Well, I guess that's the holidays over. I don't feel particularly rested, however. It's my own fault really - I shouldn't have stayed up late playing games and watching movies. In particular, Sarah and I really shouldn't have got sucked in by Love Actually on digital the other night. I don't think it even started until midnight and, what with all the adverts, it didn't finish until some ridiculous time in the morning.

And it's not like we hadn't seen it before.


Still, we were staying at my parents' house, meaning we knew there'd be help with the kids at breakfast time, so we just vegged out and watched it. It was kind of nostalgic watching a programme as it was broadcast rather than getting the TiVo to watch it for us, totally failing to watch it ourselves and then deleting it a month later to make room on the hard-drive. The ad breaks even gave us time to fetch more beer and munchies. The daft thing is that my parents have the film on DVD. The box was visible on the shelf behind the TV. We could have been sensible and watched the second half the next evening. Failing that, with only the tiniest amount of effort, we could have put the disc in, avoided the adverts and got to bed half an hour earlier. For some reason, though, that wouldn't have been as much fun. It was nice to not have to be sensible.

It probably does say something about the whole parenthood experience, however, when living life on the edge is staying up past your bedtime to watch the end of a romantic comedy.

I used to go to bed around eleven and get up at eight. After years of late-night nappy changes, broken sleep and whining children, I'm now at the stage of going to bed after one despite having to get up at half-past seven. I'm no longer forced to stay up because of the kids but I'm used to it and it means I get some peace and quiet to relax after the chores are done.

As I've said before, getting enough time to myself and enough sleep, given the limited supply of free time I have available, is a delicate balancing act - too little of either and craziness beckons. I've teetered towards lunacy in both directions over the years and, right now, I'm probably trying to squeeze too many hours out of the day. I dozed off in the middle of reading Marie a Bob the Builder story the other afternoon.

My New Year's resolution should be to get more sleep. It doesn't need to be much more - being actually in bed by one should be enough. I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, though. I tend to work on the theory that if something needs doing, then it should just be done. If I haven't got round to it already, then starting in the dead of winter and the middle of holiday chaos doesn't seem like a good move. To do so is simply asking for failure and guilt. Still, I suppose there are a few things that I need to have worked on by the summer:

I should probably get some more exercise, now that I'm not pushing a buggy around much. I should also be more pro-active in organising stuff for Marie to do rather than waiting for her to suggest one of our usual activities - there are things, like baking, which I used to do regularly with the boys that I hardly ever do with my girl. Partly it's down to having to fit clubs and school runs into the day but it's also partly because I'm running out of energy. Hopefully, once she's at nursery in the morning, I'll feel more invigorated for cardboard forts and pasta jewellery in the afternoon.

Maybe I'll be up for listening to Lewis more of the time, too. I suppose I should listen to him all the time but that's aiming too high. He's been talking incessantly for about four years now and, honestly, donkeys run away at the sight of him in a desperate panic to retain their hind legs. In the swing park recently, a mum asked him how old he was. He answered and then kept the conversation going by telling her about Super Mario Sunshine. She looked relieved after about twenty minutes when he started talking about 'the last level'. What she didn't realise was that he meant the last level in World One.

He was still talking an hour later.

I'll try listening more but it's not high on my list of priorities. Phasing him out on a regular basis is something of a self-preservation technique. Top of the list, however, is to not be baited by Fraser. Somehow, he's very good at pushing all my buttons. Even the simplest conversation can turn into an argument.

"What time is it?" he asks.

"Seven o'clock," I say.

"I thought it was six o'clock," he replies.

In an ideal world, I would like some confirmation that he's taken in the actual time. To me, all that's important is that the facts are straight. My instinct is to say, "Well, it's not six o'clock. It's seven o'clock," and to expect him to agree.

There is no chance of this happening. He will merely explain why he thought it was six o'clock. This, of course, will make me feel compelled to point out the flaws in his reasoning and, let's face it, there will be flaws, for the simple reason that IT IS, IN FACT, SEVEN O'CLOCK.

This will not deter him. He will continue to explain why he thought it was six o'clock.

To him, the discussion is no longer about the actual time. He doesn't want me to agree that it is six o'clock - he just wants me to agree that he thought it was six o'clock and that thinking it was six o'clock was a reasonable thing for him to have thought. Essentially, by this point, we're arguing about different things. I need to take a step back so that, when he says, "I thought it was six o'clock," I can affirm him and move on.

My response should run along the lines of, "OK." Deep breath. "Why's that?" Listen. "Fair enough." Change subject.

I must learn not to say, "But it's really seven o'clock." He knows that. He just doesn't know that I need to know that he knows that. I shouldn't expect him to. He'll have to learn to put up with the sound of me gritting my teeth for a while, though. I'm going to find it hard to establish my zen.

So: exercise, interact with Marie, listen to Lewis and not argue in circles with Fraser. It's not so much a list of resolutions, more the 'Requires Attention' section of my performance appraisal. I'll do my best, but I'm not making any promises.

Maybe I should get started by going to bed. A little more sleep would probably help...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS It's always possible that I may be pressured into making a resolution anyway in the next few days. If everyone else at parent and toddler lists theirs and then looks at me expectantly, I'll probably crumble. I'm already labelled as the anti-Santa; I don't need to be the guy who objects to New Year as well. Previous years, I've gone prepared with responses like, 'I'm going to eat more yogurt,' or, 'I'm aiming to suffer fools a little bit more gladly.' Nothing too strenuous but enough to make it sound like I'm joining in.

This year, if pressed, I'm resolving to make a self-fulfilling resolution.

Oh, hang on... Done.