I was procrastinating.
"OK," I said, checking through the backpack on the kitchen table one more time. "Change of clothes for Marie, packet of wipes, packet of biscuits, box of plasters, raincoats, beaker of water, pen, notebook, sick bag, tissues..." Was I forgetting something?
My teenage nephew Ned helpfully gave some suggestions. "...Sword that glows when goblins are about, mithril armour and bottle of starlight?"
"Yeah, yeah, very funny," I said, trying not to lose my concentration.
"'S'like you think you're heading into Mordor or something."
"I knew what you meant. We had The Lord of the Rings in my day, too. Even if the film was a cartoon, went all trippy when a fight broke out and ended halfway through the story."
"Never mind," I muttered. "Let's just say it was a disappointment. At least I was able to read the book."
"I can read," Ned said indignantly.
"So you claim."
"Whatever," he said, not rising to it. "It's a lot of stuff."
"This is the stuff I normally take with me when I go round someone's house with Marie," I said, zipping up the backpack and moving it to the side. "This..." I reached under the table and brought out a hold-all. "...is what I take when I'm expecting trouble. Let's see - rubber gloves, change of clothes for myself, cleaning fluid, cuddly toy, extra pack of biscuits, wellies, soft cushion, emergency contact numbers, thermal blanket, cotton-wool, Kendal Mint Cake, compass..."
"You're only going round her house," said Ned.
"This is Scary Karen we're talking about. It's best to be prepared."
"You haven't met her," I interrupted. "You don't know what she's like."
I needed to make him understand. "You know that video on YouTube of the crazy woman dressed as Wonder Woman hunting down anti-social teenagers with a pair of carving forks?"
His eyes widened. "You're having me on. That's not really her."
"No, it's not," I said. "Karen's not that old or restrained. That's her mum."
"Wuh?" He looked nervous. "Does her mum live round here?"
"Luckily for you, no."
"Uh-huh." He handed me a small bundle from the table. "Don't forget your bandages."
"Cheers." I packed them in the hold-all. "Right. I think that's everything. Are you sure you can handle this?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Fraser and Lewis are playing computer games. They'll almost certainly still be playing the same games when I get back. They may not even notice I'm gone. If there's a problem, I'll only be a couple of streets away. I can be back in five minutes."
Ned shrugged. "OK."
I wasn't hugely reassured. "The correct response is, 'That's good to know but don't worry, we'll be fine.'"
"Oh, OK," he said.
I waited a second for him to say back to me what I needed to hear but he didn't. I began to question the wisdom of leaving him in charge of the boys for a couple of hours. He was old enough and probably capable and the boys don't need much looking after but, well... Was that going to be convincing testimony if I had to explain in court why I'd come home to find two fire-engines, a SWAT team, mountain rescue and Super Nanny circled round the house?
I stuck my head into the lounge. Fraser and Lewis didn't look up from the screen.
"OK, boys, I'm going out with Marie. Ned's in charge. No fighting, no playing with matches and no falling down the stairs. If there's trouble, my mobile number is in the phone."
"What's a mobile?" asked Lewis
"I don't know how to work the phone," said Fraser. He gave the impression that the very thought of doing so filled him with distaste.
I was running late and getting flustered because I didn't want to keep Scary Karen waiting. Nonetheless, being able to use the phone is an important life skill that an eight-year-old should really know, even if the things are ten times more complicated than when I was eight. (Do you remember when 'dialling' actually involved a dial?) I taught Fraser the basics of telephone operation.
I may regret this in a few years.
I left the boys to it and went to find Marie. She was still sitting on the toilet, singing, as she had been the whole time. I got her to get off and wash her hands. While she was doing that, I made one last check that I had everything with me.
"Have you got my mobile number?" I asked Ned.
"Think so," he said.
"OK," I said and pressed a couple of buttons on my handset.
Moments later, Ned's phone rang. "Yeah?" he said, answering it.
"'Think so' isn't good enough," I snapped. The statement went in one ear and was prevented from going straight out the other as, by the power of modern telecommunications, it collided with itself coming in the other direction. "Now you've definitely got my number." I hung up, gathered my things and dragged Marie out the door. "See you later."
"Yeah, see you," he said.
We were on our way.
Normally it wouldn't take us long to travel a couple of streets but Marie was having one of those days. We got to the end of the drive and she needed the toilet. We went back. She did her thing. We left again. She wanted to go to the swing park. We argued. She tripped over and scraped her knee. I cleaned her up with the water and cotton-wool and applied a plaster. We went a hundred yards. She walked into a wheelie bin...
By the time we reached the door of Scary Karen's building, Marie looked like Mr Bump with long hair and a foul temper. I took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer. We were half an hour late.
There was a pause, the intercom crackled and the lock clacked open to let us in. We proceeded into the stairwell. Karen lives in a complex of flats built in the seventies. It's not swish but the place is sturdily built, functional and well-maintained. It will probably out-last the swathe of developments of two and three bedroom 'luxury' apartments that have sprung up around it. The walls were white and there were heavy-duty brown carpet tiles on the floor. There was a slight air of leisure centre about the decor.
Apart from the gnomes.
Spaced a few feet apart, garden gnomes stood to attention on either side of the corridor. Some had fishing rods, others were gardening, one appeared to be doing his tax return. For about a minute, it was the most garden gnomes I had ever seen.
Even Marie was stunned into silence by the sight of them.
We went up the stairs to the third floor. There were more gnomes all the way and they got closer together as we went until we reached Karen's door and found it flanked by a score of the little blighters. I wasn't surprised to see that the landing further along was devoid of miniature ceramic men with pointy beards. It was entirely gnome-free. I sighed and knocked on Karen's door.
It swung open but no one was there. From the gloom, there was a muffled shout that sounded like an invitation to enter. A strange aroma reminiscent of raspberries and bleach wafted out to greet us. I hesitated.
Then I noticed that Marie had picked up one of the gnomes and was shaking it to see if the bell on the end of its brightly coloured hat made any noise. I was quite glad it didn't. She reluctantly let me take it from her so I could put it back safely. "Time to play with Malcolm," I said, trying to coax her over the threshold. "Won't it be nice to see him? You haven't seen any of your nursery friends for a while."
"I don't like him," said Marie. "He's not my friend."
"Everyone's friends at nursery," I said, hoping to use her institutional indoctrination to my advantage.
She's too much of an independent thinker for that, however. "This isn't nursery," she said.
"True." I tried a different tack. "There'll be doughnuts."
"OK..." she said and led the way inside. "But I won't play with him," she added over her shoulder, just to make sure I knew where we stood.
I shook my head, followed her in and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Slowly, the hallway came into focus and I found a hundred pairs of eyes staring back at me. The minute was up. The record for the most garden gnomes I had ever seen had been supremely broken.
"Look!" said Marie, pointing. "Little men with beards."
"Yes. They're gnomes," I said. Either Karen collected them, made them or had severely messed up on an internet order from B&Q, putting in her credit card number rather than the desired quantity. I had visions of a pile of gnomes out the back that reached to the moon. I wondered if it was time to leave already.
The door thudded closed behind me.
I jumped. Karen had come out of the kitchen and shut it. "Do you like them?" she asked. "The gnomes..." she clarified, when I looked bewildered.
"Very... impressive," I squeaked. Marie clung to my leg.
"William's having a nap. Malcolm's in the front room with Trevor. You go on through. Want a cuppa?"
"Coffee," I said. "If that's OK?"
"Right you are," she said and disappeared back into the kitchen. She seemed to be in a good mood and to be unconcerned we were late. I breathed slightly more freely and prised myself out of Marie's grasp.
We went through to the front room. It had plenty of high shelves. A few had photos on. Most were loaded with gnomes.
Karen's three-year-old, Malcolm, was on the floor, playing with a heap of Action Man gear. Marie ignored him and went over to investigate a toy garage.
"Hello there. How you keeping?" asked Karen's burly boy-friend, Trevor, getting up from his seat.
It was a while since I'd seen him but he hadn't changed much. This maybe had something to do with the fact he's totally bald and covered in tattoos - there really aren't many options for a make-over. He was growing a beard, though. It was already fairly long but he'd trimmed it in a peculiarly pointy fashion.
Trevor is quite stout. A pictured popped into my head of him in a brightly coloured hat with a bell on the end. Suddenly scared, I went to shake his hand but only caused him to fumble the fishing rod he was holding.
"I'm fine," I said, squeaking once again. "Yourself?"
"Not so bad," he said, picking up the rod and stowing it back in a cardboard box behind the sofa. "Unpacking."
"You've moved in?"
"Mmmm," he said.
I realised I was going to have to make most of the conversational running but I wasn't really feeling up to it. "You and Karen getting along well then?"
"Like a house on fire."
"Excellent." I was genuinely pleased for them. "How's everything else?"
It was like being back home talking to Ned. We sat in silence for a bit and then Karen arrived with the drinks and the box of doughnuts she owed me. She talked for all three of us. I learnt about a conspiracy to control our thoughts using toothpaste, the minke whale's breeding habits, her varicose vein (yes, that one), the engraved carving forks she'd had made for her mum, the cleaning power of raspberries and the pictures she'd sent to Prince Charles before she'd met Trevor. I also learnt the names of all the gnomes...
Finally, she was done. She cleared up the snacks and took them through to the kitchen. The moment she was gone, Malcolm stomped over to Marie and grabbed a car from her hand.
"Oi! Give that back!" said Trevor.
Malcolm threw himself to the floor and started to scream.
Trevor stared at him, totally dumbfounded. "Er..." He was clearly deeply unsettled by the turn of events. "I'll go get Karen," he said, getting up hurriedly.
"Don't worry," I said, waving him to sit down again. "Ignore him and he'll give up soon enough." I thought back over my experiences with my own children and decided to qualify the assertion. "Probably. Sometimes it can take twenty minutes... or an hour... or, er, two..." I trailed off.
Trevor looked very tense.
"Is everything really going OK?" I asked.
"Karen's a fine woman," he said. "A very fine woman." He drifted away for a moment, lost in thoughts I didn't dare contemplate myself in case I had to beat them off with a stick. "She's good to me. We have a laugh. It's... It's not her. It's the kids. I can't handle them."
This was worrying. If Trevor was longing to be part of a couple rather than a family, life was going to get miserable for him and Karen pretty quickly. "Oh," I said, unsure what else to say. I must have backed it up with a horrified expression, though, because Trevor went on hastily.
"Don't get me wrong - I like 'em. They're fun and all. It's that I can't make them do what I say. Karen goes out and they're all over the shop, hollering and making a mess. I can't make them happy." He leant forward and whispered, looking shiftily from side to side to make sure Karen hadn't sneaked back into the room. "They even move the gnomes..."
I tried to appear suitably concerned about the possible consequences of shuffled garden ornaments but I was secretly relieved. Trevor was merely feeling under-trained and overwhelmed. That was fixable. "Don't be afraid of upsetting them," I said.
"All I seem to do is upset them." To back Trevor up, Malcolm re-doubled his screaming.
"Nope," I said. "They're kicking up a fuss to test you out. They won't be upset until you stop giving them what they want. Unfortunately, unless you stop giving them what they want, they'll keep making a fuss. That's fine for an occasional afternoon like you've had to deal with up until now but you can't live that way. It's not good for anyone."
Trevor was confused.
"Look at it like this," I said. "I've left my nephew keeping an eye on my boys. He's babysitting - it's his job to keep them quiet and amused for a couple of hours. I've left everything from Pokémon DVDs to sweets at his disposal. When I get back, they will love him and want to spend the rest of the day with him playing computer games. They won't be too pleased when I tell them I'm taking them to the park. They will complain. One or other of them may cry."
"Even though they're your kids?" asked Trevor, surprised.
"Pretty much because they're my kids. I'm their dad. Yeah, there are times when I have to keep them quiet or amused but it's my job to make sure they get plenty of fresh air and exercise, that they eat healthy food, they do what they're told, they're polite, they know right from wrong, their hair is brushed, they have a grasp of road safety, they wash their hands and they're not up past bedtime. That's bound to lead to conflict of some form approximately every other minute."
The knowledge that conflict in itself wasn't failure cheered Trevor up and worried him in equal measure. "I still don't know what to do with them," he said.
I shrugged. "Why should you? You haven't had practice. Do your best. Things will get messy sometimes but you can't make a family without... er... breaking gnomes. Anyway, Karen thinks you can handle the children."
"Why do you say that?"
"If she didn't," I said, "she'd have been back through here as soon as the screaming started."
"Hadn't thought of it like that," said Trevor, the glimmer of hope in his eyes. To underline my point, Malcolm had got bored and gone back to playing with his Action Man.
Peace restored, I reached for the last doughnut. Technically it was Marie's but she hadn't shown any interest and I'd used up a lot of nervous energy that needed replaced. The icing and sprinkles were calling to me. As I lifted the sugary goodness towards my lips, however, I glanced up and nearly choked.
The gnomes were watching me.
Some of them had axes.
My addled brain simply wasn't up to the resulting visions. "Marie!" I called. "Do you want another doughnut?"
She ran over and took it from me. "Thanks! Can I have some more milk?"
"No problem." I took her cup through to the kitchen.
Karen was washing up. "Is Malcolm all right?"
"Oh, he just threw a wobbly when Trevor told him off for snatching. No disaster."
Karen was concerned. "And Trevor coped with that, did he?"
"Fine," I said, trying to sound convincing. "Can Marie have some more milk?"
She pointed me in the direction of the fridge. "He's been finding it difficult, the poor lamb," said Karen. "It's hard work becoming a dad just like that. Maybe I could send him round to yours for tips."
"Er, maybe," I said. Ned seems to be spending a large part of the summer at my house and Mostly Useless Dad and his kids are still regular visitors. I could barely imagine the bulk quantities of biscuits I would need to buy if Trevor and children started showing up as well. I attempted to shift responsibility elsewhere. "It's reassurance you appreciate the effort he's putting in that he needs more than anything else."
"You think so?"
"It's certainly a consideration," I said and hunted around in the fridge for some milk.
It was next to a gnome.
I began to calculate how soon I could run home without appearing rude. I reckoned I had another half an hour. I carried Marie's milk back through and played with the children. Trevor joined in. We made a tent using the thermal blanket and the kids took it in turns to sit on the soft cushion while the other one wore wellies and wrapped the cuddly toy in bandages. I ate some Kendal Mint Cake to keep my strength up.
"Can we go now?" said Marie after a while.
It was a good excuse to leave. We packed our stuff, said our good-byes and went out the door. Karen gave me a hug and a gnome riding on a snail. I'm not sure which was more scary. In my altered mental state, I may have made some rash promise to have them all round to tea sometime. I can't remember. We hurried past the ceramic sentries and out into the sunshine.
We'd survived. We practically skipped home.
When we arrived, everything was mysteriously quiet. Marie settled down to spend a quarter of an hour washing her hands and I went up to the lounge. The boys hadn't moved. Ned was sitting playing my PSP.
"Everything OK?" I asked.
There was no reply.
"I'll make lunch then," I said.
There was still no acknowledgement of my existence.
"Boiled cabbage for everyone. Is that OK?"
"Very, very, very, very, very, very, very funny, Daddy," said Lewis, without taking his eye off the screen.
"Uh? What was that?" said Fraser, pausing his game. "Uh? Uh?"
"I'm going to make lunch and then we're going to the park."
"Awww. Do we have to?" said Fraser.
"I want to stay here with Ned," said Lewis.
"I do too," said Fraser, close to tears
I shook my head. "Ned's coming as well."
"Wuh?" said Ned,
"I'm not leaving you here on your own for an hour - you'll watch an 18 video while drinking my beer and calling a premium rate number in Australia. You can come with us or go home."
There was much wailing from the three of them but I ignored it and was halfway to the kitchen before they had a chance to really get going. I knew they wouldn't be upset for long and I wasn't prepared to argue with them - they needed some fresh air and exercise. Besides, it was time for lunch.
Well, almost. First, I had to find a suitable location for my new gnome...
Yours in a woman's world,