Dear Dave

Friday 15 February 2008

Consider the penguins

Dear Dave,

Well, so much for my new found freedom. Just as I was getting used to a couple of hours without children every weekday morning, the February Week holiday has arrived. More than that, it turns out that the name is misleading. It's actually the February Week-and-a-bit holiday.


I was back to steering a trolley and three under-eights round the supermarket today. It wouldn't have been so bad but they've all reached an age where they're eager to help. Between one pushing, one loading and one sitting in the seat and yelling, 'Charge!' we tend to leave a trail of mangled groceries and scattered discount signs in our wake. Most other shoppers get out of our way but we occasionally scoop up random (very surprised-looking) children by mistake. We haven't knocked a granny into a chest freezer lately, though. (They're always so polite and apologetic as they lie there surrounded by frozen peas, feet and Zimmer frame sticking up in the air - it makes me feel bad.)

Oh, that reminds me. I may not have achieved much with my extra time but at least I've managed to defrost our freezer. Yep, that's right, in the three weeks Marie has attended nursery, I've successfully done all the stuff I normally do, gone for coffee once and melted some ice. Big whup. In my most recent plans for world domination, I forgot to figure in time for things, like eating breakfast and routine tidying up, which I used to do while Marie was having her own breakfast. They still need done even though she's not around. I also failed to realise that, most mornings, I used to sit about at parent and toddler, chatting and eating biscuits. It was a time of relative relaxation. Now, if I spend the mornings getting stuff done, I don't have much energy left in the evenings to do extra stuff. Drat. Looks like JK Rowling's lawyers can rest easy for another year or two. It doesn't appear I'll get around to my unofficial eighth Harry Potter novel (in which Harry deals with the trials and tribulations of being a stay at home dad) until Marie starts school. Watch out for Harry Potter and the Nappy of Disaster in early 2012!

As far as the holiday goes, it's been fairly quiet. The kids have had a couple of friends round but, in general, they've been glad of some rest. The boys have been honing their hand-eye-Mario coordination and Marie has glued lots of pink, sparkly bits and bobs to some coloured paper.

The other day, though, we went to the zoo with Steve and his kids. He's been doing a lot better recently. He seems to have come to terms with being a housedad. I'm sure that if a vaguely decent management position came up, he'd have the kids into daycare faster than a toddler-powered trolley into a precarious display of eggs, but he's giving it his best shot for the time being.

He's not entirely adjusted yet, however.

"Here's our timetable," he said once we'd arrived, and he handed me a print out. It was colour-coded to correspond with stickers he'd stuck to the map. "We're two and a half minutes behind already. We should be at the flamingos by now. Let's go."

I wasn't prepared for such unfortunate levels of organisation. "Shouldn't we check to see if any of the kids need the toilet first?" I muttered.

"There's a scheduled rest-break at eleven. Toilet and snacks then. Come on."

He was already striding up the steep hill on which Edinburgh Zoo is placed, with Josquin in the buggy and Ophelia skipping along beside him. I hurried after as best I could. The boys were still feeling queasy from the bus journey and were making a big fuss about holding paper bags just under their chins as they walked. Marie wanted to go to the gift shop and buy a live penguin. I had to drag them all along.

We were having the expedition because Deborah wanted Steve away from their flat for the day so she could get a stack of business calls done. I don't think she quite trusts him to manage out and about for that length of time on his own yet, so she roped me in. Our destination was selected on the basis that there were some hands-on exhibits taking place - spider fondling and snake cuddling, that kind of thing. If I'd known this, I might not have agreed. I hate spiders and snakes.

Helpfully, Steve tried to convince me otherwise.

"They won't hurt you," he said when we reached the door of the building housing all things that slither or scuttle. "Snakes aren't even slimy, you know. Come on, man."

"I have phobias," I said. "I could go in there but it wouldn't be fun."

He laughed. "Confront your fears."

"I go outside all the time. Doesn't stop me feeling a bit agoraphobic on days when the sky is clear and there's a light wind, though."

"Like today?"

"I... er..." I looked up into the cloudless blue and felt a tingle down the back of my neck and a familiar feeling of foreboding. I shivered. "I tell you what," I said, "Fraser's not too keen and Josquin's too young to care. How about I take them to the monkey house and we wait for the rest of you there? It's always nice and cosy."

"It's not very well lit," Steve chuckled. "There might be all kinds of snakes and spiders hiding in the darkness."

I rolled my eyes. "Cheers for that," I said and hurried off to find somewhere that had a low ceiling and was inhabited by creatures with more than no legs but less than eight of them. I was very relieved when I finally wheeled Josquin into the dim, musty, tropical confines of the monkey house. A wide selection of primates were visible playing behind the glass panels which let us see into the indoor sections of their enclosures. Fraser was vaguely interested to see them and even Josquin pointed. It's one of my favourite parts of the zoo.

I'd have been better off going to see the spiders, though.

In his excitement at seeing a macaque eat a grape, Josquin brought forward the scheduled rest-break and created a nappy so disastrous that even Harry Potter would struggle to overcome it. Being out of practice, I made something of a hash of things. I wasn't helped by having to change him on a bench in the gloom while watched by a family of chimpanzees.

As I was bent over my grim task, I heard the sound of something venomous approaching from behind me.

"Now, children," said a cold, female voice, "can anyone tell me where these particular creatures are from?"

This time the tingle of fear wasn't in my neck. I huddled down lower and hoped Fraser was adequately entertained elsewhere. I was fairly sure she'd never met him, so he wouldn't attract her attention on his own, but, if he rushed over and started talking to me loudly... I fixed myself on dealing with the nappy and concentrated on not looking round. On the one hand, I couldn't believe my misfortune in choosing the same day as her to go to the zoo. On the other, I cursed myself for failing to realise that she would never pass up the prospect of educational workshops complete with added arachnids.

I felt the air chill behind me as she passed by and I held my breath. Since I'd already been holding my breath for some time to avoid the smell from Josquin, I came close to passing out. I was terrified that the unduly loud beating of my heart would give me away.

Luckily, at that point, one of her grandchildren broke ranks at the sight of a lemur and ran off for a closer look. She was forced to follow, threatening all kinds of chastisements as she went. I chanced looking up.

Eleanor was disappearing into the murky distance, unfolding her portable naughty step as she went.

I breathed a sigh of relief and finished dealing with Josquin, getting him back in the buggy just in time for Steve's arrival.

The chimpanzees clapped.

"Daddy! Daddy! There were spiders!" shrieked Marie when she saw me. "Big spiders with hair and legs and eyes and they walked around like this!" She did a little dance that quickly began to attract adoring glances from other visitors. I'd suddenly become very conspicuous.

"Let's go and have that snack and you can tell me all about it," I said, ushering everyone towards the door.

Steve began wandering off to look at the monkeys. "It would be more efficient for us to re-arrange the schedule and..."

"It's eleven," I hissed. "Ice cream. Now."

"In February?"

"I..." Ice cream was the only thing I could think of that the kids would find more enticing than staring at monkeys but I didn't have time to go into that just then. "She's coming this way! Move. Move!"

I shoved Steve and the kids outside and hurried them round the corner to the cafe.

"Eleanor was in there," I explained when we were safely settled at a table with the kids busy defrosting frozen milk over their clothes.

"Who?" said Steve.

"I must have told you about her. She's the mum of one of my neighbours and I call her the GrandParent of Doom. We really, really don't want to run into her. Seriously, she's like Darth Vader in tweed and she's got it in for me."

He nodded but he was obviously just humouring me. Having escaped both The Twister Incident and The Parent and Toddler Night Out, he didn't know what she was capable of. I tried to fill him in on the details but we were both a bit distracted cleaning our children. Afterwards, we set off for another look at the monkeys. I was confident she'd have moved on by then, so it was the place she was least likely to be. I began to calm down but I spent the rest of the day glancing over my shoulder and, a couple of times, we had to take a sharp turn when I heard her approaching.

The problem came after lunch, when it was time for the penguin parade. Every day, the penguins get the opportunity to leave their enclosure and go for a short, circular walk on the path round the grassy area outside. If none of them are interested, then it doesn't happen, but there's usually a few. Just about all the visitors in the zoo turn up to watch.

Eleanor was bound to be there.

I'd already promised the kids that we'd go - it was one of the things that had persuaded them to put up with the expedition in the first place. This made avoiding her much more difficult. Of course, there was a chance she wouldn't notice us in the crowds (particularly as she was unlikely to recognise Fraser and Lewis) but I wasn't feeling lucky. We needed disguises. I contemplated plucking a llama and making us all false moustaches. It wasn't much of a plan, though. Fortuitously, as we got to the pool, I saw exactly what I was looking for in the window of a little shop full of penguin merchandise. They had a selection of cheap, waterproof hooded ponchos. These were black and white with orange visors. I quickly kitted out my family.

"It's not raining," complained Fraser as I put one over his head.

"It's to make the penguins feel safe," I countered.

"Why isn't anyone else wearing them?" said Lewis as we took up position by the parade route.

"They must be here to scare the penguins," I said, scanning the area behind us for hostiles. I was looking entirely the wrong way, however, and was taken by surprise when Marie squealed.

"Look! It's Darth Granny!" she cried.

I whipped round, only to discover I was facing my nemesis directly across the narrow path. I suddenly felt very conscious that I was dressed as a penguin. Eleanor fixed me with an icy glare. I pulled all my little penguins in close to me for safety.

"Oh, hi, Eleanor," I said. I wasn't sure how much of the previous conversation she'd heard. I was hopeful she hadn't picked up on the whole Sith Lord reference, though.

"I know her," said Fraser. "Is she the GPD?"

"Good afternoon," said Eleanor stiffly. "What, exactly, is the GPD?"

"GrandParent of Doom, of course," Lewis chimed in helpfully.

Sometimes children are paying more attention than they let on...

"This is Eleanor," I said to Fraser. "She's the gran of Marcus and the others." Eleanor's four young grandchildren waved back politely but they knew something was up and were noticeably edging away from her.

"I suppose this is one of your housedad friends?" said Eleanor, indicating Steve with tight-lipped distaste.

"Er..." I said. It was a tricky question. Technically, Steve is my currently-out-of-paid-employment acquaintance who's filling time by taking care of his kids. Under the circumstances, 'housedad friend' was close enough, however. "Yes?" I ventured.

"Can he not get a job either?"

"Er..." It was another tricky question. I could have defended myself easily enough because I know full well that I have a job already - a job I've chosen, I'm good at and I'm happy with. Steve was more of an issue. Everything I'd normally say in such situations was bound to only make him feel worse. "We came to see the snakes," I said.

"They went 'Hisssssss'!" said Marie, spitting all over Josquin who was in the buggy in front of her. Josquin burst into tears. Steve unstrapped him and picked him up, only to discover that his nappy had leaked copiously. It just added to the whole air of tongue-tied, poncho-wearing incompetence we were generating.

Eleanor was unwilling to hide her contempt. "I pity your poor wives and children."

"Er..." I said again. Then the penguins arrived, flanked by their keepers. The ungainly birds waddled past, squawking. Cameras flashed, children shouted and the crowds pressed in around us. I concentrated on keeping hold of my kids in the crush. When the mayhem was over, Eleanor had gone, her humiliation of us complete.

I was seething. Any number of things I wanted to say to her sprang to mind. Few of them were civil.

Then I took a deep breath and tried to let it go. Realistically, I don't care what she thinks about me. It's not like I'm a big fan of her grandparenting (or even parenting) style.

The encounter had been unpleasant but we'd all survived and it meant the GPD probably wouldn't bother us again for the rest of the day. It was time to relax, take some photos, break out some more snacks and then press on up to the safari area.

By the time I'd helped the kids off with their disguises, I was feeling much better. If I could whistle, I would have whistled.

Then I noticed that Steve wasn't around. I was worried he'd taken Eleanor's words personally and gone off somewhere in a funk. Who knew what he might be up to? I started to look for him but then Fraser and Lewis helped by running off in all directions to search and I had to concentrate on not losing them. This slowed me down. I was just at the point of becoming concerned and phoning Steve's mobile when I eventually found him and his children watching the penguins on the other side of the pool. It turned out he'd been off fumigating Josquin and the buggy. He did look pretty glum, though.

"Sorry about that," I said. "I told you she's not hugely keen on me. Still, could have been worse - at least none of us ended up breast-feeding in a box this time."

He shrugged and grunted.

"Look," I continued, "don't let anything she said get to you. She has very strong opinions about raising children and thinks everyone else should go along with them, no matter how inappropriate it is for their situation. We don't fit in with the way she sees the world and she can't deal with it. She doesn't even want to. Just ignore her."

"But she's right," he said, struggling to keep it together. "This isn't normal. This isn't how it's supposed to be."

"What do you mean?"

"I can't do this. I'm a man. I can't even put a nappy on right."

I shook my head. "I put on that nappy, remember? Maybe I messed up; maybe it was one of those things - I don't know. You dealt with it well, though. You had spare clothes, wipes and nappies and you just got on with it. A woman couldn't have done better and I've seen plenty do worse."

"But I shouldn't be here. She's right. I should be at work, providing for my family."

"What? Because the guys at the golf club say you should?"

He looked a little embarrassed. "How did you know?"

"Because I've met some of them and they're rather opinionated, too, if I recall. They see the world a certain way. If you can't look at things differently, then you're going to go crazy. You need to change your perspective."

Sudden fear gripped him. "You're not going to tell me about God, are you?"

"Er, no," I said, "I can, er, do that if you want but I... I was actually going to tell you about penguins."

This cheered him up and confused him in equal measure. "Pardon?"

"If you want to understand about perspective, you need to know about penguins. See!" I pointed over to where a particularly rotund penguin was clumsily waddling down to the water. "Penguins are funny birds with an awkward walk. They can't even fly. A bird that can't fly - what's the point of that?" At the last minute, the fat penguin slipped and did an enormous belly-flop. "Yep, the way we see them, they're comical and a source of slapstick. I doubt they'd agree, though. They probably think of themselves as ninja fighter-pilots. That one's The Red Baron to his friends."

"But they can't fly," said Steve.

I snorted. "Of course they can. You just need to see life from a penguin point of view. Follow me."

With the children close behind, I led him round and down to the enormous observation window in the side of the penguin pool. Initially, there was little to see but soon the The Red Baron came into sight and dived towards us, then fluidly banked and swooped upwards again, effortlessly gliding away. He was quickly joined by a couple of buddies, the three of them swirling around each other in an unbelievable acrobatic display. They were simply flying through the water.

"Don't be put off because other people can't see or appreciate what you're doing," I said. "You may not have some of the opportunities you want at the moment but you've got others. You can spend time with your children, for a start. Make the most of it."

We stood there for a while and watched the swimming some more. Steve appeared deep in thought. When he didn't say anything for nearly five minutes I started becoming concerned again. Had my analogy crashed his brain? I considered telling him about God after all. Then, finally, he said, "Isn't it the male penguins that look after the young?"

"They certainly take their turn," I replied.

He thought about this a little more, then said, "Glad I don't have to waddle around with an egg on my feet."

"Amen to that," I nodded.

After that, he seemed a great deal happier and fished out his schedule. It was time for us to move on. We headed further up the hill to see the zebras and kangaroos and big cats. Marie pointed excitedly at every sparrow we passed. The boys, however, were beginning to lose it. They took a quick glance at everything and then went back to bickering with each other. They barely grunted at the sight of a tiger.

Then, unexpectedly, they started bouncing around and pointing.

"It's a Raichu!" shrieked Fraser.

"Bless you," I said.

"No! It's a Raichu - the evolved form of Pikachu! Look! Look! That boy's got one."

The four-year-old in question did, indeed, have a small cuddly toy that looked like a deformed version of Pikachu. Fraser insisted on having his photograph taken with it. Luckily, both the boy and his mum were very understanding.

"There's a lion over here," I said when the photo session was done.

The boys just shrugged. "Whatever..."

Marie ignored me entirely and started dancing round some litter. "It's a crisp packet. It's empty! It's not in the bin!"

It was definitely time to go.

We called into the gift shop and bought a plastic penguin and some other assorted tack, then headed home. Steve and his lot had their car with them, so we said our good-byes on the steps. He shook my hand warmly but slightly awkwardly. Marie and Ophelia gave each other an enthusiastic, jumping hug. Josquin gurgled.

We waved them into the distance and then waited for the bus. It started to rain.

Handily, we had shiny, new waterproofs.

(Some things work out well in the end.)

Yours in a woman's world,


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