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?"
"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.
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