We'd reached the last nanny of the day.
I sat with Steve and Deborah at one side of their kitchen table and Potential Nanny Number 6 sat at the opposite side, giving a standard list of answers to our standard list of questions. It was beginning to feel like we were going through the motions and I'd lost track of which applicant was which. Had Potential Nanny 3 been the one with the draconian views on discipline or had that been PN4? I checked my notes. It had been PN2. PN3 had believed that discipline was an out-moded concept of a defunct patriarchal worldview. This made her the candidate most likely to be eaten by small children, and put her quite low on my list of choices. Still higher than PN2, admittedly, but not by much.
I sighed. It wasn't going well. Why on earth had I agreed to help Useless Dad and his wife select someone to look after their kids while they were at work?
As if in answer, Deborah deftly cut another slice of cake and slid it over to me without taking her eyes off PN6. I wolfed it down thankfully, the extra calories restoring my energy and renewing my resolve. We were almost at the end of the interview. I took the longest blink I thought I could get away with, breathed deeply and tried to stay awake. There was only Steve's bonus round left to go.
"If you were a squirrel with a paperclip," asked Steve, "what would you do?"
This wasn't on the online list we'd found of standard questions to ask potential nannies. Deborah and I had allowed it, however, on the basis that any successful candidate was going to have to deal with Steve on occasion. They needed to be able to cope.
"Trade it with a magpie for an acorn?" PN6 said hesitantly.
"Only one acorn?" queried Steve. "You don't sound very certain."
PN6 recovered quickly. "I'd have to check the current exchange rates."
"Hmmm..." said Steve, nodding, and looked over his notes. "Your CV is very strong. Decent academic record, a wide range of experience and glowing references. It couldn't be better." He paused. "Which really does beg the question of why on earth you want to look after other people's children all day for this kind of money?"
This was off script but it was an interesting point. Deborah and I let the question stand.
PN6 thought for a moment. "Kids are fun."
The three of us in the room who were parents all looked unconvinced.
PN6 hurried to add some qualification. "Mostly. Looking after them can be dull and repetitive sometimes, I guess, but, you know, I get to go home at night and turn up with fresh enthusiasm for Snap in the morning. I'm not going to be a nanny forever or anything - I'm thinking of applying to be a primary teacher next year - but I'm enjoying it for now. It's great making an impact on kids' lives and watching them mature."
There was a brief interlude as Steve, Deborah and I scribbled this down and ticked a whole load of boxes on the sheets in front of us. Sure, it was a hodge-podge of approved responses from the same website we'd used to get the questions but at least it showed some application. Besides, being able to answer awkward inquiries on-the-fly is an important childcare skill in itself.
"Thank you very much," said Deborah. "That's the end of the interview unless you have anything further you want to ask us."
PN6 had a few queries about hours and duties but they were wrapped up quickly.
"Thanks again," said Deborah. "We'll be in touch."
She managed to hold her smile until the front door was closed and then she came and collapsed, exhausted, in her seat. It was my turn to offer some cake. She took it gratefully. She knew as well as I did that we had a long discussion ahead of us.
On paper, it really wasn't hard. We should have been able to make a selection in a couple minutes. From personality to childcare philosophy, PN6 was the obvious choice.
There was only one small problem...
Steve was never going to hire him.
* * *
"What about PN2?" said Deborah, slightly desperately. We'd been talking round in circles for half an hour and not even approached a decision. The cake was gone. We were all jittery from too much coffee.
"You mean 'Scary Poppins'?" I said. "She'd have your kids cleaning chimneys or working down a mine. If you hire her, I'm never coming round to visit again. She was unpleasant and creepy. I wouldn't be surprised if her house is made of gingerbread."
"Well, who are we going to hire then?" snapped Deborah, exasperation getting the better of her.
"I liked PN1," said Steve wistfully.
"Yes. Rather too much," said Deborah. Potential Nanny Number 1 was young, vivacious, cute and, er... bouncy. I couldn't help noticing that Deborah had violently scribbled out all her notes on PN1 and replaced them with a single word in red biro: STRUMPET. This was somewhat unfair but I didn't fancy my chances of talking Deborah round. PN1 wasn't getting hired.
"How about PN4?" I said.
"Too old," said Steve.
"She wasn't that old," I countered.
"She got out of breath climbing the stairs to the flat," said Deborah. "I don't think she's up to the physical demands of two small children."
"Maybe," I sighed.
"I still say PN3 would be ideal," said Steve.
"In some alternative universe where children always do what they're told and don't have teeth," I said, rolling my eyes. "She was on another planet and had no experience. Your kids would have her tied up, lightly basted and in the oven on Gas Mark 5 by the end of the first morning."
They didn't deny it. Time passed. We all sat silently pondering the options and stared at the empty plate where the cake had been.
"PN5?" I suggested eventually.
"The pregnant one?" asked Steve, rifling through his notes.
"But she was pregnant!"
Steve was dismissive. "If we hire her, we'll have to do this all over again in four months time."
"Chances are that we'll have to do this again in a few months anyway," I said, trying to contain my anger. Having had to live through the consequences of decisions made by various clueless male managers (including Steve himself) when Sarah was pregnant, I'm quite touchy on the subject. "Any of the others could hand in their two weeks notice and be off at any time. A pregnant woman is extremely unlikely to quit unless she really has to. Besides, you can't not hire her simply because she's pregnant - that's illegal."
"She had a squint. Can we not hire her because of that?"
"No," I said and counted to ten under my breath.
Disappointingly, Deborah took Steve's side. "I didn't feel she really fitted in with our family."
"She so did. And your kids loved her. You're finding excuses to discriminate."
"They loved PN6 as well," said Deborah calmly, even though I was losing it.
Steve stiffened. "You were exceptionally keen on him yourself. Making those eyes. I didn't trust him at all. What kind of man looks after children?"
I blinked. "Er, hello? Housedad sitting right here. Heck, you haven't started your new job yet - you're still technically a housedad."
"I didn't choose..."
Fortunately, Deborah intervened at that point before things got out of hand. "Time for a break while I go check on the children."
* * *
Ten minutes gave us all a chance to clear our heads.
"OK," I said, tossing my notes aside as we sat back down at the table. "You're looking for someone who isn't too old, too young, too inexperienced, too evil, too male, too cute or too pregnant. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest you're not looking for anyone too ethnically diverse, alternatively oriented or spiritually disparate, either."
Steve looked shifty and Deborah smiled knowingly. They kind of muttered in agreement.
"Right, well, you're stuffed," I said, shrugging. "You're simply going to have to go for someone competent who your kids like, which makes it PN5 or PN6. Personally, I'd go for PN6, but the decision is really up to you guys."
Deborah raised an eyebrow. "That was blunt."
"Well, you did ask for my help," I said. "All we've done so far is find reasons to exclude people. You need to start thinking of reasons why the remaining candidates are worth including in your family."
"OK, PN6, then," said Steve and started putting his pen away.
"Why?" asked Deborah sharply.
"Because you want to hire him," said Steve, obviously surprised the discussion wasn't over.
"And you don't?"
"I'd rather hire Five, to be perfectly honest, even if she is going to double in size and then leave us in the lurch."
Deborah frowned at him. "So why did you say Six?"
"Because... erm..." His mouth flapped as he tried to phrase some suitable excuse... but he was too slow.
"There's some sport coming on the television, isn't there?" said Deborah, her lips pursed. "You just want to get this over with."
Steve was confused. "You want to hire Six. What's the difficulty here?"
"I need to know why you want to."
"I don't want to."
"I know," said Deborah with patience born of dealing with small children. "But why might you want to?"
"Er..." said Steve, entirely out of his depth.
"That's what Ed wants us to talk about," said Deborah.
"Are you sure? Ed, what...? Oh..."
I'd already sneaked off. I left them to it and went through to watch the football on their big telly while pretending to keep an eye on their children. Around about half-time, they phoned PN5 to give her the job.
The selection process was over and Steve and Deborah had a couple of weeks breathing space before their new employee started and they had to make the decision work. Steve offered me a glass of wine to celebrate but I had to decline since it was time to go home and rescue Sarah from childcare duties. Deborah did line my pockets with cakes before I left, however - I wasn't going to say no to that.
I'm sure their newly-promoted Actual Nanny Number 1 will be fine and, if not, at least they made the choice together in their own mysterious fashion. Still, as I walked home in the chilly twilight, I was heartily thankful that I have the opportunity to look after my own children.
It's almost as good as having a coat stuffed full of warm blueberry muffins...
Yours in a woman's world,