"You're late," I said, opening the door and letting Mostly Useless Dad, Steve, into the house.
"Sorry," he replied with a big grin on his face, not seeming sorry at all. "Alistair wanted to talk and I couldn't get away."
I didn't have time to ask who Alistair was or why Steve was wearing a suit. He'd told me he needed me to look after his children because he 'had some things to do'. I'd simply assumed a trip to the shops and a little light DIY. I certainly hadn't expected him to be gone so long.
"You only left one nappy," I said as four-year-old Ophelia ran into the hall to hug him and Josquin (who's almost two now) toddled along behind.
He gave them both a somewhat distracted pat on the head. "You have plenty," he said over their clamouring squeals of 'Daddy!'.
"No, we don't. Marie's four! She hasn't worn nappies for a year and a half."
"Really? She's four?"
I pointed to the big, pink poster above the kitchen door. It read, 'Happy 4th Birthday, Marie!'.
"Yes," I said. "No nappies. I had to sit Josquin in the bath for ten minutes while Sarah nipped along the road and borrowed a couple from neighbours."
"Borrowed!? They want them back?"
"Of course they don't want them back. I mean..." I noticed he was smirking. I suddenly realised that, for a change, he wasn't being completely clueless. "Hang on, that was a joke, wasn't it?" He was in an awfully good mood. "Where have you been? Your mobile was off. I... Never mind. We don't have time right now. Tell me on the way."
In return for looking after his kids all morning, he was giving me a lift to Marie's birthday party. Since there weren't enough seats in the car, Sarah had taken our children on the bus. I, meanwhile, was in charge of the stuff: sandwiches, paper plates, little bottles of juice for the kids, plastic cups and cartons of juice for the adults, cake, candles, matches, knife, chocolate buttons, wipes, CD player, CDs, parcel to be passed, cocktail sausages, crisps, more crisps, a vast assortment of tack to put in party bags, party bags, balloons, grapes, chopped carrot, more chocolate, prizes and two handheld games consoles (to keep the boys quiet).
Steve strapped Josquin and Ophelia in while I loaded my two large laundry tubs of party supplies into the boot. The car noticeably sagged as I did so. I ran back to the house to check I hadn't forgotten anything, then locked up and hurried to climb into the passenger seat. I slammed the door and we were away.
We were hugely behind schedule and I was hoping for a screech of tyres and the smell of burning rubber. Sensibly, however, Steve pulled cautiously away from the kerb and headed off slowly, looking for a place to turn round.
Some loud, piercing birdsong erupted from my pocket.
Steve swerved slightly. "What the...?"
"It's my phone, sorry," I apologised. "It has to be loud enough for me to hear over three children and traffic." I had a text message. It was from Scary Karen. She was worried about the Large Hadron Collider again.
"Karen thinks one of her children may have swallowed a miniature black hole," I said, scrolling through the message. "She wants to know whether she should call CERN."
"Er... Is that possible?"
"Not really but I already tried explaining the physics to her the other day when she thought she'd got one trapped in the oven. I think I may have gone a little too technical with my explanation of singularities, gravity wells and event horizons because she still wouldn't go near the kitchen. Her family had to live on Pot Noodles for three days until I told her that half an hour on Gas Mark 3 would make the thing safe."
"Uh-huh," said Steve, laughing nervously, unsure exactly how much to believe.
I suspected his knowledge of physics wasn't large. As a quick test, I asked him the standard question, "If you stood on the moon and let go of a pen, would it float where it was, float off or fall to the moon's surface?"
"What? Er... Float off?" he said, frowning and clearly unsure.
I gave him a second chance. "Then why didn't the Apollo astronauts fly away whenever they tried to walk anywhere?"
"Oh," he said, his confidence returning. "They were wearing heavy boots. Everyone knows that." He grinned at me like I was an idiot for asking him something so obvious.
"Hmmm... Yes..." I said, refraining from screaming at him because I knew he was a lost cause. "Your oven is larger than Karen's. You'll need to put it on for an hour if you ever have any concerns."
Steve nodded seriously. "That's good to know."
I texted Karen back, telling her there was nothing to worry about but that I'd check both her boys out at the party to make sure. Then I remembered what I'd really been meaning to ask Steve.
"So... Where were you on a Saturday morning that required a suit and no children?" This simply wasn't normal housedad behaviour.
"I bumped into an old school friend in town a month ago. Hadn't seen each other for ages and arranged to play golf. We got on rather well. Turns out he runs his own business consultancy firm and they're looking for someone new. He offered me an interview."
I was incredulous. "On a Saturday?"
"He's been busy with clients all week. You know how it is - sometimes the work has to be done and everything else takes a backseat."
"We're in the backseat, Daddy!" called Ophelia from behind us.
"That's not what I meant, dear," said Steve, even though, in some sense, it very much was.
"How did it go?" I asked.
"I don't have anything in writing yet but he's as good as given it to me. He wants me to go back on Wednesday and meet the rest of the team. Can you take Josquin over lunch?"
He was probably expecting some form of congratulation but all I could manage was, "Does Deborah know?" I found it hard to imagine she was thrilled. (Deborah's not a fan of putting the kids in childcare but, with her interior design business doing so well, she's not likely to want to go back to being a housemum, either.)
"Haven't had a chance to tell her," said Steve. "She's away at some conference or other. That's why I needed you to watch the children."
"She knew about the interview, though, right?"
Steve looked shifty.
I held my head in my hands. "You took a job that Deborah didn't even know you'd applied for?"
"Well, as I said, I don't have anything in writing yet but..."
"You're a dead man." I felt like a Jedi Master returning home to find my young padawan using the Force to propel cute puppies into space. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and yell, "Have I taught you nothing?"
He was still driving, though, so I decided against it. I merely sighed deeply. It appears that despite his child-wrangling skills having improved greatly in the year since he was made redundant, he really hasn't come to terms with parenthood. He's still a middle-manager in slightly soiled housedad clothing. Put him back in a suit and nothing's changed.
"So, can you take Josquin on Wednesday?" asked Useless Dad.
"I suppose..." I muttered. "But don't think I'm going to take him fifty hours a week so you can pretend to the wife you're carting him to the zoo every day when you're really sloping off to further your career."
As we pulled up at the party venue, Steve looked faintly disappointed.
We were late. I unloaded the stuff and hurried into the building while Steve followed behind with his kids. Sarah gave me a look as we arrived but I merely shrugged and rolled my eyes and shook my head in the direction of Useless Dad and then set to work helping supervise children. We'd booked the use of a small soft-play for an hour. It was a maelstrom of plastic slides, brightly coloured balls and little girls wearing sparkly clothing.
Marie was unwrapping her presents and stacking them on a table by the door. Various parents at nursery had come up to her over the previous week and asked her what kind of things she liked. On every occasion, she had replied, "Pink things." As a result, the pile of gifts was a eclectic mix of fairy costumes, dolls, craft sets and clothing. It was, however, almost uniformly the colour of candy-floss. Marie was delighted. She squealed with pleasure every time she opened a parcel.
This was quite a contrast from Fraser's fourth birthday party. We had to stop him halfway through his presents because of the constant stream of complaining. "I don't like Power Rangers... What's this? I'm not going to play with that... Oh, it's only a jigsaw... Lewis can have these... This is OK but we've got two already... We can sell that..." Lewis was the same. They've had to open their parcels at home ever since...
Marie's friends were having fun in the soft-play. Several parents had stuck around to help out and chat, which was good - it's always useful to have a few extra pairs of hands available to deal with accidents and toilet runs.
The boys grabbed their computer games from me and disappeared up a corner to play. We didn't let them in the soft-play because they're so big now. They'd have squashed Marie's petite associates or, worse, tried to take charge of them. Fraser attempted that at Lewis' party a couple of years ago and the younger children didn't take kindly to being told what to do, ambushing him in the ball-swamp and then sitting on him. It didn't go well.
The hour passed quickly and with little incident. Scary Karen brought her kids over to me and I looked down their throats and gently prodded their tummies before giving them a clean bill of health. Karen didn't seem convinced, so I took a set of magnets that Marie had been given and waved the things around a bit, looked at my watch carefully and scribbled down some calculations. Then I checked her boys' balance by getting them to stand on one leg and hop. I reassured Karen again after that and she was a lot happier. She gave Marie her present.
It was a pink, sparkly garden gnome princess (complete with pink, sparkly beard).
Marie was genuinely ecstatic.
When our session was up in the soft-play, we got to go through to a side room for food and games. While Sarah oversaw Pass the Parcel, Karen and Steve helped me hurriedly fling plates and refreshments and party blowers onto the tables. Then we had half an hour of relative peace during which exhausted children ignored the sandwiches and concentrated on eating chocolate.
Just as the sugar started to kick in, parents began turning up to collect their offspring. We did the cake and finished off with a quick game of Musical Statues while I and my helpers shoveled debris into bin bags. Marie handed party bags around and we were out the door barely in time for the staff to clean up for the next booking. It was all a mad rush in the end. Somehow we blinked and found ourselves in the car park, thankfully waving goodbye to a horde of tired, crotchety, buzzed children.
We could breathe again.
"Ready to go?" asked Steve.
I bundled the stuff into his car but it was Sarah's turn to get a lift. Marie wanted to go with her and, fortunately, I'd brought a spare booster seat to cope with the situation. A great deal of strapping and buckling ensued. I gently broke the news to the boys that we were going to walk home in order to make sure they got some exercise. They weren't happy. I phased out their whinging, though - Steve was looking pensive.
"You're not going to tell Deborah, are you?" he said.
It took me a moment to remember what he was talking about. A couple of hours of children's party had taken its toll.
I shook my head. "I don't need to. You have a daughter who's nearly five. Deborah will know everything within ten minutes of arriving home. You'd be best getting your version in first."
Fear crossed Steve's face as he considered all the things that Ophelia could both understand and say and thus use to incriminate him. It was a lot of things. Strangely, the possibility of independent and reasoned thought by his kids didn't seem to have occurred to him before. "Oh."
"Children are people, too," I said. Then I got another text. It was Karen wanting to know what noises would precede the world being eaten by a black hole, so she'd hear it coming and have a bit of warning to put on clean underwear.
Trying not to ponder that too carefully (for oh so many reasons), I waved Steve and the others goodbye and set off down the road, dragging the boys behind me.
I was very much looking forward to getting home and having a lie down.
Yours in a woman's world,