Personally, I don't really fancy going to a school reunion - well done for surviving yours. It's bad enough having to deal with odd reactions about being a housedad from strangers. Coping with them from a string of old enemies and acquaintances would be tiresome. Then again, I went to a school that was only for boys - unlike you, I wouldn't get to meet up with a load of women who found me hugely more attractive than they did when I was seventeen. It would all be blokes going, 'You do what?', 'Rather you than me', 'You enjoy that then?', 'What else do you do?', 'I wouldn't mind staying home all day and sending the wife out to work', 'Did you lose your job?', 'Does your wife earn lots?', 'I couldn't stick it myself' and 'What are you going to do once the kids are at school?'.
It would be worth pretending to be an accountant just for a little peace and quiet.
As you mention, though, it's the people who are envious that are hardest to talk to. The people who say, 'I wish I could spend more time with my children but I can't afford it.'
I'm never sure how to answer. I know people who are desperate to spend more time with their kids but simply can't for all kinds of reasons, some of them financial, such as a large mortgage or child support payments, others practical, such as a career which involves lots of travel or a partner who isn't well. Changing their lives would be serious upheaval; it would involve risk and real sacrifice. These people deserve sympathy. Conversely, there are people I talk to who claim to want to spend more time with their kids but, in reality, don't want to give up their fortnight in the Bahamas every year. A few basic sums and they'd see that with a little belt-tightening (combined with diminished childcare costs, reduced commuting and increased tax credits), more time with their kids would be perfectly possible. Nevertheless, both partners continue to work full-time and complain about how stressful it all is. These people deserve less sympathy.
I had one of those conversations the other day:
"I wouldn't mind being a housedad myself," said Derek.
"Uh-huh," I grunted.
"Yeah," he continued. "My daughter's eighteen months and I barely see her during the week."
I was distracted. "Mmmm?"
"It was so great getting to spend some quality time with her when we went to the Bahamas this year but it's not the same as being around her all day. I'm missing out on watching her grow up."
I was becoming very distracted. "Ungh!?"
"The childminder got to see her first steps and hear her first words. If we could afford to... Are you all right?"
"Not... so... good... I think I'm going to fa - Arghhh!"
I finally lost my grip on the rock-face and fell straight down, plummeting feet-first into the raging torrent below.
Everything went grey and wet and cold. I flailed about. The direction of up became debatable and finding something other than water to breathe suddenly became a consuming issue. There was shouting, muffled but frantic. My life flashed before my eyes.
It was a very short experience. This was initially quite gratifying, since it seemed to suggest that I'm not as old as I often feel. Then I remembered that having children has addled my brain so completely that I can never recall anything much from before a week past Thursday. I got thirty-four years edited into an instant of highlights and then a several second montage of school-runs and CSI from the last ten days. It was followed by a brief recap of a long journey in a minibus full of blokes called Rick, getting mildly drunk in a chalet with (possibly) twice as many blokes called Rick and then losing badly at go-karting to Rob, Derek and some blokes in helmets. Even in my befuddled state, I hazarded a guess that these blokes were called Rick.
"Are you OK?" said Rick, fishing me out by my wetsuit.
"Uh?" I said but then put my feet down and discovered the water was actually only about waist-deep. "Oh... Yeah. I'm fine." My glasses were strapped on with elastic. I did my best to wipe them dry with wet fingers but I wasn't very successful. Squinting, I pulled myself back onto the rock and began inching my way along the side of the narrow ravine with the others.
"It was your idea to go gorge walking in Wales," Rob shouted from further behind, my muttered cursing obviously audible above the rushing of the river.
"No, it wasn't," I snapped. "I wanted to go for a drink and then eat some chips. You were the one who insisted on making a weekend of it."
"Got to make the most of it," he said. "It's not like I'll ever get another stag do."
"You'd better believe it," I said, my voice straining. "I'm not doing this again. More than that, if you walk out on Kate, then you won't get a second chance. Her mum will track you down and flower-arrange you to death and then come after me for encouraging the pair of you to get together in the first place."
"Don't worry," he said, "I'll stick with her for your sake. Now, will you get a move on? I've had about enough of this. We're all freezing back here." A couple of Ricks echoed agreement. "Can't wait to get to the chalet."
"OK. OK," I said, picking up my pace as we scrambled along the bank, sometimes climbing, sometimes walking. I was tired and cold and keen to get back too, even if I would have to share the shower with a whole load of blokes called Rick.
It was Saturday afternoon and Rob's stag weekend had started the day before. Sarah had taken some holiday to look after the children and they waved me off with plenty of instructions to be careful. Marie gave me a cuddly rabbit to keep me company on the adventure.
I met the others at the minibus hire place. It was me, Rob and his friends from work, whom I didn't know very well. Most of them had had a drink already and I was the only one with experience of driving a minibus. I reluctantly took the wheel. I haven't driven much of anything in ten years. Launching into central Edinburgh was 'entertaining'. There were some screams, both from inside and outside the vehicle, but it mostly came back to me in between my passengers asking me what I do and whether I enjoy it. In turn, I asked them what the road signs meant and which way to go round roundabouts. They thought I was joking until we reached a double roundabout at the bypass and even they weren't certain. Fortunately, the minibus was built like a tank and other traffic got out of our way on the occasions when I had to change lane in a hurry.
We headed off down the motorway to a secluded corner of Wales, making only a minor detour to stock up on beer, crisps and Cornflakes. We arrived at the chalet and the others set to work on the beer. I had a couple of cans and then went to bed, the road stretching out ahead of me whenever I closed my eyes.
I woke in the morning to find a Rick passed out in the bed next to me and a sheep in the kitchen, munching on a washing-up bowl full of Cornflakes. I let it out, cleaned up and served everyone crisps for breakfast. They moaned and groaned. I chivvied them along and out the door. It was scarily reminiscent of my normal mornings but we had go-karting to get to rather than school.
Not that I was that keen myself, you understand, but as Rob's best man, I'd had to put a fair amount of effort into organising it and it was all paid for, so we were flipping well going to go. (Which reminds me, one of the Ricks still owes me money. If only I'd learnt to tell them apart...)
I'm not a speed freak. I have no grasp of racing lines or braking zones or even when the best time is to put my foot down coming out of a curve. My main aim at the go-karting was to try not to get lapped by absolutely everyone else... well, not twice, anyway.
You'd think I'd have picked something up from playing computer games but my usual technique in them is to accelerate insanely towards the first curve, skid into it sideways, take out half the competition in one fell swoop and bounce off them round the corner. I then zig-zag along the course at supersonic speeds, ricocheting off the advertising hoardings on either side of the track for most of the rest of the race.
This doesn't work so great in real life.
Dropping banana skins behind me on the apex of the bends isn't very effective either.
I pottered round the track and tried to stay out of the way as everyone else yelled abuse at each other and took it all very seriously. Then we had chips and went on our gorge walking expedition. I was extremely tired by the time we were finished but I insisted we stop at a supermarket and buy some proper food. I counted out five portions of fruit and vegetables for each of us.
Somehow I ended up cooking it all with help from Rob and Derek. We were the only ones with children and we were beginning to wilt. We were glad of some peace in the kitchen before joining the Ricks for beer and curry in front of The Eurovision Song Contest.
My alcohol consumption pattern has changed considerably since I became a housedad. I used to have two or three pints on a Friday night and a glass of wine now and then. Now I have a small can of beer almost every evening but I can't cope with much more in one go. A little reward at the end of the day is what I'm looking for. Binging just makes me feel unwell.
I wasn't that much older than the others but I felt like a dad surrounded by teenagers. It turned out I had twice as many years of marriage behind me as all of them put together. I had a couple of beers and went to bed.
I was woken in the morning by a sheep licking my face, demanding its bowl of Cornflakes.
I needed three mugs of coffee before I was prepared for paintballing. I dragged the others into the minibus, gave them a slice of toast each and headed off. Most of them fell asleep again, their breakfast still clutched in their hand or clamped in their teeth. One Rick slumped sideways against the window, his toast acting as a pillow.
We reached the field of battle and staggered into the sunlight. We were not an imposing sight. We were bedraggled, barely able to walk and one of us had a slice of toast stuck to his ear. Fortunately, our opposition consisted of a motley band of teenagers and a group similar to our own. In fact, the other stag party looked in a worse state than us - they possibly hadn't slept at all, two of them were handcuffed together and one of them had trouser pockets full of baked beans.
We got our guns and equipment and hoped for the best. I still had a ring-shaped bruise in a sensitive location from my previous paintballing trip, so I was particularly nervous. It went fine, though. The play area was only a hundred metres across, so each game was very short and we didn't spend hours skulking through undergrowth or running through woods. There were fences, sheds, walkways and barrels littered about to hide behind in order to stop the whole thing turning into an instant paintbath but each match seldom lasted more than five minutes. Even so, my legs began to complain from the strain of having to crouch behind low cover. I opted for sprinting suicidally at the opposition, shooting anyone that got in my path, getting shot myself and then going for a sit down before the next game.
I was one of our more effective team members. The Ricks' reactions were not at peak performance. They mostly shot each other.
Afterwards, we wiped ourselves down and went and bought some sandwiches and a couple of crates of bottled water. I wasn't feeling too bad and the others started coming round. We drove to our final activity - whitewater rafting...
"The boat only takes six people," said Rob, peering anxiously at the small dinghy that was pulled up next to a shed by the side of a surprisingly fast flowing and angry looking river.
"Your point?" I said. The Ricks and Derek were already eagerly pulling wetsuits on again.
"There are eight of us."
"You think I'm going in there?" I said. "I'm tired, I'm aching and I've got to drive us all home in a couple of hours. Besides, I have a young family - I don't think they'd appreciate me risking my life in a dubious dinghy crewed by your hapless, hung over mates. There's no way that thing isn't going to capsize. Can you be bothered bobbing along for a couple of miles, trying to get the thing the right way up again while they all blame each other for tipping it upside down?"
"See what you mean..." said Rob, sagging. "I haven't had a decent night's kip since Luke was born. I'm knackered. Shall we wave them off and go sit in the minibus?"
"Yep. Then we can drive down to the finish and take bets on which one of them washes up first. It'll be like Pooh Sticks but with IT contractors rather than twigs. My money's on Rick."
"The loud, annoying one who thinks he's funny and keeps referring to me facetiously as 'mum'."
"That doesn't narrow it down," said Rob.
"Once again: your point?" I said, rather more forcibly than I'd intended.
"Fair enough. You are tired, aren't you? Thanks for organising this, though. It's been fun."
"Yeah, that's OK. Glad you enjoyed it and I hope you and Kate have many happy years together."
There was a pause. "That's just 'cos you really don't want to have to do this again, isn't it?"
"Not entirely but... yeah. Come on. Let's go."
We got to doze in the minibus for half an hour before the first Rick floated into sight, closely followed by the rest of the group and the upturned dinghy. The cold and wet had revitalised them. There was plenty of jocular recrimination. After they'd dried themselves off, we began the journey home with singing and laughter.
The weather was turning horrible and I had to drive some of the way along a twisting mountain road in the fog. At least, we were fairly sure it was mountain road - there was a wall of rock to one side of us and a low barrier and a drop to the other. The mist made it impossible to tell how high or low the hillside reached. None of us could remember the stretch of road from the outward journey and Rob had lost the map.
We were discussing whether we were lost, when a cow fell on us.
It came from nowhere, bounced off the bonnet of the minibus with a plaintive moo and then hurtled over the barrier and out of sight. It looked quite startled. I probably looked quite startled as well. I slammed on the brakes and we came to a halt. Rob and I looked at each other, each checking the other had seen the flying bovine too.
"Should we go back?" he said.
"And do what?" I replied. "Stop on a narrow road in the fog and lean over a precipice to see if we can see beefburger?"
"You think we should phone someone?"
I shrugged, put the minibus back into first and gingerly moved off. "We don't know where we are, we're on a stag weekend and we'd be reporting a sky-diving heifer. You can give it a go if you like but I don't think they're going to believe you." Nothing juddered or thunked. The steering seemed to be fine. We'd got off remarkably lightly.
"There's a cow-shaped dent on the bonnet," said Rob. "The rental people aren't going to be happy."
I nodded. "We should report the accident at the next town we come to, to cover ourselves. Not much we can do just now."
The singing in the back of the minibus had stopped and it was deathly quiet apart from the noise of the engine. Everyone was shocked by how close we'd come to unforeseen total disaster. My life had flashed before my eyes again but I'd been concentrating too hard on the road to notice. Besides, I'd only added a paintballing trip and Eurovision since the last time I'd watched it - I had the basic gist. The experience did remind me of a conversation I hadn't finished, however.
"Derek!" I yelled over my shoulder.
"Yeah?" he said from a couple of rows back.
"If you really want to look after your kid more," I said, "you should do something about it."
He mumbled a reply but I didn't catch it and I left it at that. Sometimes people simply need to be reminded that they're able to make choices...
The singing started back up eventually and the rest of the journey went smoothly.
The children were in bed by the time I stumbled in the front door. I kissed Lewis and Marie in their sleep and snuggled Marie's rabbit into the bed beside her. Fraser was still awake reading. I gave him a hug. "You smell horrible, Daddy," he said, pulling a face.
It was good to be home.
Yours in a woman's world,