Have you had your nursery sports day yet? If not, I should fill you in on what they're like, seeing as this is your first year and everything. Ours was yesterday and involved all the parents heading along to the local park and watching their offspring run backwards and forwards for a couple of hours. It made a nice change from having to run backwards and forwards myself while being watched by my offspring which is the way life seems to work most of the time.
Fortunately, conditions were ideal - it was reasonably warm but not sunny enough to turn all the children into lobsters. I handed Marie over to Miss Nolan and went to sit down on the grass. Two hours struck me as rather a while to have three-year-olds running about. Despite it being the fourth or fifth nursery sports that I'd attended, I couldn't remember what filled the time. I had a nagging suspicion that I'd forgotten something.
The kids were divided into three teams, arranged into lines and made to wear bibs in their team colour.
You cannot imagine how long this took.
Small children wandered about, stood in the wrong place, forgot their own names, tangled themselves up in brightly coloured, elasticated cloth and then fell over. The teachers patiently put them right but it was a lengthy process before they were finally able to start. The first race entailed the child at the front of their team line throwing a beanbag into a bucket, running to a cone, running back again, picking up the beanbag and handing it to the next child. They were all given the instructions, told to try hard and then they were off!
That's to say, all three lead children looked blankly at their beanbags and had to be told the instructions again. Then they took a few attempts to hit the target and had to be gently guided towards the correct cone (i.e. the one straight in front of them in their team colour) before running back and failing to give the beanbag to the next team member. Of course, even once the following three had their beanbags, they still needed the instructions given to them again...
It was slow going but then who knows what they'd have been like if they hadn't practised every morning for the past fortnight? I realised that it was a good book that I'd forgotten to bring.
Any form of actual competition was out the window. The teams weren't racing against each other so much as facing the challenge together. I recall that this felt odd at the first nursery sports I went to. The sports days of my youth had cheering parents, thunderous clapping and ribbons for a podium finish. Then again, they weren't much fun for those who couldn't run very well. It's better the modern way where the kids all get a shot, they don't get compared with others and they're encouraged merely for taking part. They're more likely to see sport as enjoyable when they're older. (Just as long as they aren't encouraged to think they're excellent athletes simply because they didn't get lost dawdling twenty feet to a cone and back. To become good, they're going to need to put some effort in. Telling them they're good already is liable to lead to disappointment and poor motivation.)
Nonetheless, I find nursery sports strangely quiet. I got to shout, 'Come on, Marie. You can do it!' every ten minutes or so when it was her turn, and then I was able to lie down for a nap in between. The other parents mostly stood around chatting.
Sadly, Scary Karen hadn't been sent the memo.
My dozing was constantly disturbed by her yelling at her son and the rest of the red team to get a move on and crush the opposition. Most of them entirely ignored her, however, and continued to wander about in a dream. A couple stopped to stare as she jumped around waving her pom-poms. It didn't make much difference - no one was keeping score and, besides, the yellow team had blatantly edged ten feet forward, ensuring they always finished first.
I gave up on sleeping altogether when Marie noticed my eyes were closed and started shouting, "Wake up, Daddy!" to pass the time as she waited her turn.
We had the beanbag and spoon race, the twenty metre dash, the sack race and the ten metre hurdle. (Yep, there was only one hurdle but, to compensate, it was nearly five inches high!) They concluded with the hat and scarf race. This was identical to the twenty metre dash except it required competitors to stop halfway through the outward leg and don winter clothing. Despite being disturbed that the accessories didn't coordinate, Marie made sure to put them on very carefully and adjust them to her satisfaction before continuing. She wasn't fast but she looked adorable.
It should be an Olympic sport.
Eventually everyone had taken part and it was time for juice and crisps (but only for the children. Next year: Book and snacks.)
"That was great," said Karen, walking over to me. "Did you see the speed of Malcolm with his sack?"
"He was definitely the fastest," I replied. I decided against mentioning that the other kids had had the sack over their feet rather than their head. I've been acquainted with Karen long enough now to know it's not worth pursuing these things. Arguing seldom makes the conversation any shorter but greatly reduces the chance of survival. I relaxed, went to my happy place and waited for her to fill me in on the details of her life.
Within seconds, I was learning about her recurring nightmare of being trapped in a packet of Quavers. This then led to an extensive monologue on her most recent shopping expedition to buy underwear.
It was like being back at parent and toddler again. Mostly. Something was missing. Well, I suppose plenty of things were missing - the cups of tea, chocolate biscuits and comfy seats, for starters. There was more to it than that, though.
It took me several minutes to realise that I didn't need to be averting my eyes. She wasn't breast-feeding in her normal scary fashion. I chanced looking in her direction. She wasn't breast-feeding at all.
"Where's William?" I asked, wondering what she'd done with her two-year-old.
"I left him with Trevor," she said. "It'll be good for them. They don't get much time together on their own and, now that Trevor's moving in, he's going to be like their dad. They need to get used to seeing him all the time and not just when they walk in on him and me in the middle of..."
"And Trevor's OK with that?" I said, surprised.
"You think he shouldn't be?"
"Er..." Trevor's not hugely comfortable around children. He's built like a truck, has been in the army and can open cans with his teeth but kids make him nervous. I couldn't imagine that having changed in the few months since I'd last seen him. I didn't want to upset Karen, however. "Sudden parenthood might be a shock, that's all," I said.
"He's fine with it. He's been having lots of practice. You should come round and see. Yeah, it's almost the holidays - you could bring Marie round to play with Malcolm when nursery's off for the summer."
I've never been to Karen's house. It's not that I don't like her - over time, I've learnt to appreciate her openness, enthusiasm and disregard for nonsense. If I ever buy a big telly, I'm going to take her along and get her to haggle for me. I will get a bargain. There's no denying she is useful to have around and can be lovely at times. That said, she's still scary. I don't particularly want to enter her lair. "The boys will be off school too," I said, attempting to make my excuses. I wished I had a bag of cheesy potato snacks with me to frighten her off.
"Don't worry about them. Trevor can show them his shrapnel collection."
I was saved by Miss Nolan announcing the parent's race.
I hurried over to take my place on the start line and did my best to limber up while checking out the competition. As ever, there were one or two who'd taken it rather seriously and turned up in tracksuits and running shoes. They were bound to win. Most of the other parents looked as out of shape as me, though. I set my sights on a laid-back finish in the middle pack. I've learnt from experience that winning isn't worth the risk of pulling every muscle in my body nor of falling over and being trampled by a horde of mums.
On the other hand, there's not much I won't do for free cakes...
"Bag of doughnuts says I beat you, Ed," shouted Scary Karen from further along the line.
I knew all the dads present could probably out-pace me but I fancied my chances against Karen. I'm a foot taller than her - her determination would keep her going longer than me in an endurance event but I figured I could accelerate past her over the hundred yards to where two of the nursery staff were holding out a rope to mark the finish. "You're on!" I yelled back.
More parents jostled in to join us, Miss Nolan blew a whistle and we stormed off. The grass was quite long and the ground was uneven and I stumbled immediately. Mums pressed in around me. Some of them were carrying toddlers. I couldn't get up speed without barging through them and I was reluctant to do that.
Karen had no such qualms. She charged forward, the panicked throng parting before her.
She had a considerable lead before I had clear space to sprint but I was confident I could still beat her. I dashed forward, quickly gaining ground... Then, out of nowhere, a small child ran across the grass in front of me. I couldn't stop in time. I had to swerve to avoid a collision and my foot caught another divot. I tumbled and sprawled onto the ground. I was trampled by a horde of mums. By the time I picked myself up, I was dead last.
It was Chariots of Fire all over again.
I set off in chase.
Karen looked over her shoulder as the finish neared and slowed down when she saw how far behind I was. She was certain she'd won but I didn't give up. I was convinced I could still beat her.
What she didn't know was that they were going to move the line.
Every year it happens. Just as the parents in tracksuits approach, the two teachers holding the rope leg it another hundred yards across the park.
Sure enough, when Karen turned her eyes forwards again, the finish was rapidly receding from her. She re-doubled her efforts but I was swiftly making up the distance. It was going to be close. Time slowed. My feet hung in the air forever and every rasped breath took an age. The wind swept back our hair, our sweat glistened in the sunshine and the music of Vangelis swelled in our ears. An eternity passed in seconds...
...and then we were there.
I dived forward, straining for the finish. Karen made a desperate lunge at the same moment. My nose and her chest crossed the line together.
It was a photo finish but we didn't have a camera (perhaps luckily).
Once I was certain I wasn't dying, I made to offer a tie but she very magnanimously conceded defeat. "Do you want icing on the doughnuts?" she said.
"Definitely," I wheezed.
"Great. You can have them when you come round and visit and you can share them with the rest of us." Then she presented me with a date and time and very little option to say no. If I'd refused, I'd have been there arguing the rest of the day. "Glad that's all sorted," she said. "Trevor likes icing too," she added wistfully. "He..."
I interrupted her hastily. "We should go get the kids," I said, still gasping for breath. "Good race. See you later." I staggered off to collect Marie. I let her know about the plan to visit Malcolm. She was very excited at the prospect of a new house to explore, especially one with doughnuts. She sang a little song to herself as we walked home. She'd had a good time.
I, meanwhile, woke up this morning to discover that I've pulled every muscle in my body. Even raising my eyebrows is sore.
Those doughnuts had better be fantastic...
Yours in a woman's world,