Dear Dave

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Housedad Interrogation

Dear Dave,

Today's letter isn't here. It's over at trying to act nonchalant and blend in.

If you want to know what really makes me afraid, you should head over there now...

Yours in a woman's world,


Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas crackers

Dear Dave,

The decorations are up, the mince pies are warmed, carols are playing and the weather outside is truly horrible. I guess it must be Christmas.

Remember I mentioned in my last letter that after all these years, the kids might not have any tricks left up their sleeves? Turns out I was right.

Well... about the sleeves anyway:

Christmas seems to have got here in a panicked rush of cards and wrapping but I've managed to find time to watch some films with the boys in the last few weeks. It's only been after Marie has gone to bed on nights when Sarah's busy but we've managed to squeeze in the entire Star Wars saga. We've settled down on the sofa, the boys in their pyjamas and snuggled under blankets, and we've done some male bonding while people with glowy swords leapt around before our eyes. Fortunately, the prequels aren't as bad as I remember. (Then again, I remember them being pretty bad.) Episode 3 is remarkably dark and scary, though. Glad I watched the original trilogy with boys first, a couple of years ago.

Last night, we sat down to watch the end of Return of the Jedi - a little ewok treat before the chaos of Christmas really set in. I had some reheated mulled wine from our Christmas party last weekend, the room was dark apart from the tree lights around the TV (don't ask) and we were all nice and cosy as I switched on the DVD player.

"Would you like a cracker?" said Fraser, offering me a handful of little, round snacks with a hint of chive.

"Yeah, thanks..." I said, taking one. "Er..." I stopped in the process of moving it towards my mouth as every alarm bell inside my head went off at once. (Not to mention several on my tongue, a strange prickling in my thumbs and an itchiness in my toes that made them want to curl up reflexively.) I hesitated. "Where did you get these exactly?"

"They were underneath the sofa cushion," he replied, his mouth full.


"They fell down there during the party, while I was jumping on Lewis."

I blinked. "And you didn't think to take them out again?"

"Er... No."

"So, they've been there all week?"

"Yeah." He clearly wished he'd kept the knowledge of his secret stash to himself.

"Are there any more?"

Fraser nodded reluctantly and I ordered everyone off the sofa again while I switched on the lights and then went hunting around in the fluff and loose change. There were a couple of dozen of the things. My toes curled involuntarily.

Sarah overheard this exchange from another room and called out to me as I went to find a bin and wash my hands. "Never mind, dear. At least it's not snot."

I wasn't too impressed at the time but I suppose she's right. This is the time of year for counting blessings, after all...

Have a great Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday, 21 December 2009

Guest post by Chris Loprete

Dear Dave,

Well, that's another year almost over - another year of parental peril, another year of housedad adventures and another year of unsolicited parenting advice from me. Only Christmas and Hogmanay to go and we're safely into 2010. Phew!

Wonder what I'll write to you about next year, though? I must have covered almost everything by now. Our kids can't have many more tricks up their sleeves, can they?

Er... Don't answer that.

Anyway, thought you might be interested in this by Chris Loprete over at The Daddy's Den. He's a comedy writer for TV, not a stay-at-home parent, but it seems like he's picked up on the housedad experience a little:

Thanks. I got it.

Why is it that when women see a father alone with a baby, they immediately assume we don’t know what the hell we’re doing?

Now I don’t want to generalise here. I’m not talking about single women. In fact the single women tend to gravitate towards the daddies at the park or in other public places. Chicks LOOOOVE guys with babies. Babies and dogs. They say, “I want that.” Now of course we men are kidding ourselves because ‘that' is not specifically us, but rather a stable man who’s a good father, and the fantasy is fun. Anyway I’m probably already in trouble with my editor who happens to be my wife, so I’ll go on. No, I’m talking about the annoying mother who wants to give all kinds of unsolicited advice on how to raise your child. And rightly so. OBVIOUSLY I MUST need this unsolicited advice because my child’s mother is nowhere in sight. I therefore MUST be doing something wrong. And then, I imagine this “guardian angel” will go along her merry way and later at the dinner table tell her family how she saved a child’s life today.

Take this little encounter for example. It was a summer Saturday afternoon about two years ago. I was in my townhouse downstairs and my wife was upstairs with our infant son. I was watching a baseball game and cleaning. The cleaning part is not important to the story but I specifically remember doing it and I always like to remind my wife/blog editor that it does happen on rare occurrences. Anyway I could hear my son crying upstairs pretty loudly. He was probably getting his diaper changed - which to him has always been the baby equivalent to a root canal. There was a knock at the door. When I answered it I saw a woman who was walking her dog in front of our door. She asked, “Do you have a baby?”

“Why yes,” I said, waiting for the inevitable compliment. Something along the lines of, "I see you walking him. You have a lovely family," or, "Well, he’s obviously going to grow up to be a very good looking man." Why else would she take the time out of her dog walking to knock on our door?

This is why: She looked at me and said, “He’s crying upstairs.”

I paused to make sure I had heard her right. Then I said, “Yeah, my wife’s upstairs with him.”

She replied, “Oh, I heard the game on pretty loudly so I wasn’t sure you if could hear him.”

Yyyeeeeahhh. Handled, honey, but thanks. I’m sure the children of our housing complex are a lot safer with you roaming the sidewalks knocking on doors. Hey, hero, I think I hear a baby coughing a couple of houses down. Do you want to call child services or should I?

Or how ‘bout the woman on the beach later on that same summer? I was walking on the beach, my son safely strapped into the front loader on my chest. I felt good. First of all the Baby Bjorn completely covered my huge gut so I wasn’t nearly as self conscious as usual. And secondly, it was a beautiful day and I was walking with my new son at the place I’m always the happiest: the beach. So when I saw a woman walking toward me and eyeing both of us, I started to feel even better. I was sure she could sense the good energy coming off of me and, like I said, the baby was covering up my huge white shirtless girth, so I thought, 'Hey, I think she’s checking me out.'

So when she passed by and asked, “Does he have sunscreen on?” I was a bit nonplussed. First of all, I had practically bathed him in SPF 560 or whatever the strongest baby sun goop is nowadays. This kid could have crawled across the surface of the sun and come away with nothing but a nice base.

So I told her, “Uh…. yeah… plenty.”

She replied, “Oh. Cause his legs look a little red,” and passed by me never breaking her stride.

I immediately turned and shouted after her, “Yeah? Well they call his chubby legs and butt baby fat. They call yours cellulite!” ZING! That got her. Of course I didn’t actually say that but ooooh I wish I had.

And these brilliant pieces of parenting wisdom are not confined to just me when I’m alone. My wife has had to endure some slings and arrows of her own. It’s like divide and conquer. Once my wife and I are divided, they love to conquer. I don’t ever want to hear a sentence that starts with, “Y’know what WE do…” I don’t even like hearing it from our parents, but that I understand and tolerate because “parental interference” is in the grandparent’s code book. It’s a God given right. To tell you the truth as my wife and I get ready for baby #2, we’ve learned to tolerate buttinskys a little more. In fact I’m amazed how laid back we are about having another child and we’re only 3 months out. I guess we think of ourselves as old pros now. In fact it probably won’t be long before we’re handing out some advice of our own to other parents who obviously don’t have a clue what they’re doing. I’m sure they’ll thank us for it.

Daddy's Den logo.
Pass out helpful pointers to anyone who's within earshot? Who'd do something like that?


Ho, well. Thanks for reading for another year. Maybe in 2010 I'll let you in on my top tips for cleaning light switches safely or the three most important things to remember when pretending to listen to your kids while you're secretly playing Peggle on your iPod.

Then again, who knows what the New Year will bring? All the best.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS If you like Chris' stuff, you should also check out his paternity leave experience and his scary Star Wars incident.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Physics for parents

Dear Dave,

When I first told people I was going to be a dad, many of them said that my world would change. I nodded and smiled. Of course it would change - that was obvious! I simply didn't appreciate, however, how the very fabric of space and time would be ripped and folded around me by the arrival of a small child. With hindsight, I might have been a little more cautious. I certainly would have gone to the cinema more often while I had the chance.

Perhaps if the people I spoke to had had some hard evidence, I might have listened...

That's the problem, though. Up until now, warnings about parenthood have always been riddled with anecdotes and hearsay. In an effort to rectify the situation, and after much experimentation, I've produced the following empirical data to prove that becoming a parent does indeed alter the very laws of physics in a severely world-changing fashion in the surrounding vicinity:

Graphs showing how the laws of physics are changed by being a parent.

So remember, next time you meet a prospective dad who's oblivious to what the future holds, show him this. He still may not believe you but, down the line, at least he'll know what's happened when time starts running in circles and the contents of his fridge keep disappearing down a wormhole into another dimension...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 11 December 2009

Keeping warm (even at church)

Dear Dave,

Small children are like insulation.

Not that I'm suggesting you try lining the loft with them. Well, probably not anyway. (They'd complain too much to make it worth it.) Then again, I do know from experience that strapping one to your front will make you very warm, very quickly. They also have a tendency to lie around in awkward places such as doorways - despite being irritating and potentially dangerous, this does have its advantages in terms of draft exclusion.

I'm really talking about the way they offer shielding from public embarrassment. If you have small children with you, you can get away with almost anything. Wearing a pink, woolly hat and using a Power Puff Girls umbrella? Check. Discussing the contents of nappies with complete strangers? Check. Singing 137 out-of-tune verses of The Wheels on the Bus on the bus? Check. Skipping down the street? Check. Leaving a puddle of pee in the middle of a shop? Check.

Honestly, the world is your oyster. Should anyone challenge you, all that's necessary is to look sheepish and wave a small child in their face. They'll shake their head with a mixture of understanding and pity and then let you on your way. It's like having a reusable Get out of The Ladies Toilets Jail Free card.

Make the most of it while you can. My kids are older now and not quite as cute as they used to be. Marie can still smile sweetly to extricate us from the worst disasters but people are starting to catch on. Lewis and Fraser, meanwhile, have gone from protective assets to social liabilities. They look old enough to have developed some concept of tact but they've really only got to the point where they're loud and understandable when they say something inappropriate. You know, like, 'This is boring,' during the minute's silence at church on Remembrance Sunday.

Yep, gone are the days when all we had to put a brave face on during the service was Lewis' gurgly breast-feeding or a hasty retreat to the changing facilities after one of Fraser's explosive bowel movements. Now we have to persuade the kids to leave the detailed discussion of Hindu festivals they've been studying at school until later.

This was particularly important the other day, when we were helping our minister, Mike, lead the worship. Despite plenty of rehearsals, there really was no telling what the three of them might say or do.

When it came down to it, however, the boys curled up on a pew and pretended to be invisible so we wouldn't force them to get up in front of everyone and do anything. This was slightly disappointing but markedly better than them getting to the front and launching into the alternative version of Jingle Bells. (The one involving Batman's poor personal hygiene that we sang when we were at primary school.) I reassured them that they didn't have to take part if they didn't want to and left them in the duck-and-cover position. Sarah took the chance to coach Marie on her prayer one last time. I went to make some frantic final preparations for my childrens' talk.

When Mike came to check on me later, I was still in the gents with a foot pump.

"Five minutes until the organist launches into the first song, whether we're there or not. If no one's keeping an eye on her, it'll be something from Evita. We need to go. You ready?"

"Almost. I think there's only one more." I jammed my beach ball further into sink. "Pass me some of that tape."

Mike looked at me with professional concern. "Should I ask?"

"Probably best not to," I said, craning my head round, looking for a tell-tale trail of bubbles in the water.

Mike's pretty good with the kids but many other people I've heard give a childrens' talk haven't been so great. Normal practice seems to be to concentrate on a visual aid, such as a ration book, ThighMaster, Rubik's Cube or rotary telephone. Most of the talk is spent explaining about this object the kids have never seen before, then the last minute or so is taken up by drawing an analogy as to how the thing is exactly like God.

I've always been a little suspect of this approach but having children of my own has only made me more wary. It's much better to tell kids straight rather than dressing it up with metaphors and finger puppets. Keep it short and simple. They may not agree with you but at least they'll have taken in what you were trying to say. Leave the finger puppetry for the adults - it'll keep them focused while you tell them something they've heard a dozen times before but using an analogy that will hopefully finally make them understand it.

That's all very well in theory, of course. Unfortunately, having the courage to break with tradition is something else entirely. Not to mention that, what with the kids being ill, I'd left things to the last moment. My goal for my talk had shifted away from entertaining enlightenment and was heading more in the direction of survival.

I took comfort in the fact that I'd at least chosen a visual aid that the children could recognise.

"Yes!" I spotted the leak, grabbed a towel, wiped the ball dry and applied the tape. Then I set to work with the foot pump.

Mike shook his head. "Just look me in the eye and promise you're going to do better than the student we had over the summer."

"What? The one with the arc welder?"

"That's him."

"Oh, yeah, I certainly hope so." I finished inflating and we hurried out into the corridor. "I'll definitely leave fewer scorch marks on the choir."

Mike appeared less than reassured. "So how is a leaky beach ball like...?"

"I told you not to ask."

"Fine," he said. "I'll ask something else. Have you taken the time to figure out where you're going with your life yet?"

"You're asking me that now?"

"Are you ever less pre-occupied?"

"Well, I'm normally less nervous."

"Which isn't the same."

"No, but..."

And then we were through the door and into the church. The organist scowled and the intro to Don't Cry for Me Argentina morphed awkwardly into the first verse of Once in Royal David's City. There was nothing left to do but get on with the service...

In the end, things went reasonably well. Lewis kept quiet, Fraser decided he would read one of the readings after all and people laughed in the right places when Sarah and I did a sketch about Mary and Joseph. Marie's prayer was a hit. It included saying thank you for the usual suspects, such as friends, family, the rain which helps the flowers grow and all the animals. For some reason, slugs and snails got a special mention, though, and bedtime toys. Everyone was so delighted by this, it helped me get away with a slightly incoherent talk about beach balls.

Mike has already signed us up to help out again in the new year. I'm just hoping I still have some insulation left by then...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday, 7 December 2009

Faith vs obedience

Dear Dave,

Sometimes I don't know why I bother speaking.

Fraser was upset yesterday because he'd fallen over and bruised his back. I was concerned with checking he was all right but he was more interested in blaming Lewis. He'd been leaning on Lewis and Lewis had moved out of the way without warning.

I tried to explain to Fraser that really he had to take most of the responsibility for the accident. Leaning on someone as an annoying joke is almost certain to make them shake free, and he should have guessed what was going to happen.

He wasn't having any of it, though.

He just wasn't willing to grasp that other people's actions can be inevitable consequences of what he's done himself. He went into a huff and was grumpy for hours afterwards.

Marie, meanwhile, has recently been erupting in a toddler-style tantrum whenever anything doesn't go entirely her way. She shouted and screamed because one of the boys got to unlock the front door rather than her. She went into meltdown because the socks she wanted weren't washed. She writhed around on the ground because there wasn't time to plait her ponytail...

Every day brings a fresh fight over nothing. It's bizarre.

Why do I even bother speaking?

Then again, perhaps I'm simply saying the wrong things:

Last night, Lewis was telling me and Sarah about the latest computer game he's been playing. We sat and listened while we ate our tea but I had to stop him halfway through. "Are you sore?" I asked.

He looked confused but continued to clutch his trousers. "No."

"Do you need the toilet?"


"Why do you keep fiddling with your willie then?"

He shrugged. "I just like playing with it."

This was pretty hard to argue with and I didn't want to get into the details with a seven-year-old. "Right. Erm... Well, best not to do it when other people are around, OK?"

"Why not?"

"Er... It's a bit like wandering about with no clothes on - no one else wants to see you."


I had visions of this line of interrogation dragging on for a very long time. "Just trust me," I sighed.

"OK," he said with a grin and raced off to return to his game.

There was no arguing, whining, shouting or questioning. Sarah and I looked at each other.

She spoke first. "Maybe we should try saying that more often."

I could only agree.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Advent calendars

Dear Dave,

Gah! It's almost Christmas again already. I'm not sure where the time has vanished to this year. It's disappearance has been all the more galling, however, because I don't have the excuse of sleepless nights and clingy small children. I've had more time available to me than at any point in the last decade and yet I'm still confused the summer has already been and gone. What happened to the long days of sunshine? The strawberries and tennis? The sweet smell of newly-mown grass? The happy sound of children locked outside the back door and forced to play in the fresh air while I have a rest?

Ho well. There's always mince pies and mulled wine to look forward to, I suppose...

I've started work on what to include in our Christmas letter this year and we've decorated the lounge in a confusion of tinsel but I'm not entirely prepared for the deluge of carols, cards and calories that's on its way. The kids, on the other hand, have already begun on the festivities. Thanks to their advent calendars, they're getting a daily dose of chocolate at breakfast.

It's maybe a sign of the end of civilisation that they see this as only natural.

When I was their age, I remember being excited at the prospect of opening a tiny cardboard door each morning of December to find out whether there was a little picture of a robin or a snowman behind it. This simple surprise brought a little colour to my life in between cleaning chimneys and playing with my single toy (a loaf of stale Hovis). That said, I was immensely jealous of a friend who had an advent calendar with chocolate in it. The pictures were on the front of the doors, which was a little odd, and the compartments didn't entirely line up with the openings, so getting the treats out was a battle but, nonetheless, it was an object of wonder, surrounded by warmth and light in my hazy recollections. Truly, it was amazing...

These days, it's tricky finding an advent calendar without chocolate in it. You probably have to go to a Christian bookshop. I'm also pretty certain that's the only way to avoid something that isn't merchandising for Ben 10 or Barbie. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if a plain card one is more expensive than a chocolate one. The things are scarily cheap. We've got a fabric calendar with numbered pockets to put sweets in. Filling it up cost more than it would have done to buy a job lot of three pre-filled calendars from the local supermarket.

That's not taking into account the fact that the packaged ones have extra doors. When I was young, advent calendars stopped on the 24th. Admittedly, this seemed miserly even then - it might be traditional but it felt a day early to my six-year-old mind. Not to mention that there was never any mystery over what the final picture was going to be. (Double-sized nativity scene? Boring...) Nowadays, advent calendars often keep on going right up to New Year. I'm beginning to long for nativity scenes rather than Scooby-Doo in a Santa hat.

Bah, humbug. Something isn't right. Mutter. Grumble. The kids of today don't know they're born. Etc. Etc.

Hmm... I think I need to go have some chocolate for breakfast...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Once again, this was finally going to be the week. The week where I had all the kids at school every day and nothing to distract me - no holidays, illnesses, school trips, visiting relatives, cleaning or anything else.

Unfortunately, I walked them along the road this morning only to discover the heating was broken and school was cancelled. I was back home playing Mouse Trap by five past nine.

Definitely need that chocolate now...

Friday, 27 November 2009

When computer games go bad

Dear Dave,

The kids are all finally back at school. Hurrah! That only took a week. Doubtless one of them will come down with something else in a couple of days but, in the meantime, it makes a nice change not having anyone in the house lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply. Being stuck inside for so long as been a little much on occasion. At last there's no more bickering over whose turn it is to play the Wii and I can open a window and do something about the smell of stale children in the lounge.


Anyway, it's been a long week full of grumpiness, illness and TV involving annoying puppets. My patience is running low. I've also had to witness the kids play quite a number of computer games. Some of them have been good and some of them have been bad but the children have been too under the weather to care.

I haven't.

It's set me to pondering where bad games come from. Obviously, at a basic level, making a bad computer game is incredibly easy. You hire the cheapest team you can find, set them to work on an interactive version of an upcoming animated family movie and then insist they have it finished by a fortnight on Thursday. This technique never fails. That said, it's also a bit like creating a TV movie about three blokes digging a hole. The chances of it being anything but awful are so slim, no one will go near it. They might give it a quick shot if they're lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply on a weekday afternoon, but they'll soon switch over to something else.

Far worse are games that are good enough to want to finish but that contain easily fixed issues which cause the player to swear in frustration on a regular basis. Where do these games come from? It's stupefying. I so frequently play games with major flaws that could have been corrected with minimal effort, I can only assume that designers introduce the problems on purpose. Perhaps it's a clever trick to give them some straightforward improvements for the sequel.

In case you ever get the urge to design a bad computer game yourself, here's a list of stuff to include:

  • A final boss that's ten times harder than the rest of the game - Game too short? You could add extra levels, different game modes and some additional side challenges. Or you could just triple the length of the final enemy's life bar and force the player to do the last half hour of the game over and over again until they finally get lucky and kill the thing...

    ...only to discover it's not really dead and they have to fight it again. In the dark. Armed with only a carrot.

    Hey, if they get totally stuck, they can always go watch the ending on YouTube.

  • The whole game again... but backwards! - Not content with merely making the final boss too hard? Make the player traipse back through the entire game to find it.

  • And then forwards again - Even better, leave the boss at the end but put a door in the way. Make the player have to traipse back to find the key.

    Players will really love the extra value for money they're receiving. They may even like the idea so much that the next time they go to the cinema, they'll insist on watching the middle of the film three times before they get to see the last ten minutes.

  • An unhelpful save system - This is perhaps the simplest way to make a great game almost unplayable for normal people. Just don't put save points in the middle of long levels. That way, if there's a power cut or they have to stop (because a child is vomiting, for instance), it's right back to the start. To really rub it in, include mid-level checkpoints but no way to save them.

    For an extra element of surprise, make save points twenty minutes apart, except for a few that have an hour in between them. This will regularly catch out players attempting to sneak in a quick section before bed.

  • Excessive darkness - Make the game full of shadows and coal mines so players spend the whole time leaning forward and squinting at the screen to locate all the important small, black objects they need to find...

  • Excessive brightness - ...but then throw in the occasional jaunt to the surface of the sun so they're spending more time fighting with the brightness menu on their TV than playing.

  • Fiddly motion control - Why let players press a button to open a door when you can force them to reach out with the controller, turn it and pull it back? That's far more immersive. Particularly since it's uncomfortable when sitting down and doesn't work half the time.

    Making a quick shake in one direction perform a reload while also having a quick shake in a very similar direction perform a 180 degree turn is always good for a laugh.

    This is option is currently restricted to Wii but it's coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2010. Start coding now!

  • Meaningless difficulty selection - Designing something that's too easy or too hard is a slightly lazy way of creating a bad game. Add a touch of style by making it the player's fault. Let them choose a difficulty level from at least five options but without giving them any clue as to what difference the choice makes. Only allow them to choose before the game starts and don't let them change their mind without starting a new game. They're bound to get halfway through and wish they'd made a different choice.

    Of course, you could make the game do exactly the same thing whichever option they choose. But that would be evil...

  • A complicated, but dull, back story - So, you have a bald space marine who has to run through endless corridors fighting horrific creatures? That's kind of generic. Better make your game stand out by having it all to do with a war between the Volban and Arg'jan over the future of Hascan supplies left behind by the GRR/kan, as retold by fffffffFxxx units scattered throughout Losdan by the advance Saswan team consisting of the marine's ex-wife and best friends. Add some incomprehensible flashbacks and a touch of betrayal.


  • No plot recap - For best results, briefly mention several vital plot details at about half an hour into the game. Don't refer to them again for the next fifteen levels until they turn the whole story on its head. At this point, assume the player recalls the information perfectly. So what if it's been six weeks since they played that bit? They should have been paying attention.

    Bonus points if the info is in the original game but the big reveal isn't until the sequel...

  • A dodgy translation - Nothing makes a hackneyed plot and complicated back story more enjoyable than a stack of non sequiturs and some garbled grammar (apart from maybe plenty of atrocious voice acting and characters who spakest in pretendye Medieval parlance, forsoothe!).

    Watch out, though. Mess up and poor translation can become a bonus feature. I was playing a game the other day in which I kept having to open lots of 'difficult chests'. These were impressive and gaudy but, strangely, they all opened really easily. I only figured out what was going on when I was opening one of the plain, ordinary, 'simple chests' that were also lying around. I laughed quite hard.

  • Lots of alarms - If someone is breaking out of a prison or breaking into an alien stronghold or just plain breaking stuff almost anywhere, they should expect that some alarms are going to go off eventually. It's even a good indicator that they've been detected and it's time to run away. Alarms are great... in moderation.

    When a fire alarm goes off in real life, it should keep blaring until the fire brigade arrives or the building burns down. It's only sensible. In a game, however, ten seconds is plenty long enough to blast out a noise which is designed to be grating. This being the case, you should consider having the thing wail for at least fifteen minutes.

    For added irritation, make the section after the alarms go off really difficult so the player has to repeat it many times. Also throw in plenty of dialogue and verbal instructions so they can't turn the sound down.
And there we have it. A few suggestions to get you going. How they normally get past QA is a mystery, though. Many of these issues could be fixed in an afternoon. Maybe they're such a fundamental part of gaming culture that everyone simply puts up with them. No one thinks, 'Hey, it doesn't have to be this way...'


Hmmm... Maybe this sort of thing doesn't just happen with games. Perhaps I should go ask the kids what I do all the time that really drives them up the wall. You never know, I might be able to improve their customer experience without much effort.

First, however, I think I'll go test the batteries in the smoke alarms...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday, 23 November 2009

Always have a back-up plan

Dear Dave,

Last week was the week.

The week when I didn't have any school holidays to contend with. When my calendar was free of tradesmen and essential errands. When I didn't have parents staying, cleaning to do or school trips to help out on. Barring a quick visit to Iceland to pile a trolley with food and arrange a home delivery, last week was the first week in nine years when I was totally free to concentrate on getting some writing done and plan for the inevitable future in which I'm no longer a housedad.

With fear and trepidation, I sat down just after nine o'clock on Monday morning and began to type. Time was spread out before me, rich and fertile and filled with seemingly infinite possibility. At last! A chance to think and create, an opportunity to -

Whirr. Click.

At five past nine, my screen went suddenly blank.

It would be nice to say that this was due to some sort of epiphany on my part - that I realised I should really have a lie down and then go for a coffee somewhere in celebration of my freedom. There would be something almost inspiring about me switching the computer off and walking away to enjoy a well-deserved rest from all my housedad labour. It would be a simple lesson to all the crazy, over-stretched people out there run-ragged by the goading of self-imposed expectation. Just relax, take a deep breath, think about what you're doing, go eat a muffin...

Unfortunately, the reality was that the hard drive in my laptop died.

As you can probably imagine, this wasn't very relaxing. By the time I'd figured out the problem, replaced the drive, re-installed everything, recovered as much data as I could and sobbed into my coffee, it was Wednesday. On Thursday, Fraser woke up with symptoms which, when described to other parents in the playground, had them backing away, making little signs of warding and muttering about swine flu.

Then Sarah got it. Then I got it. Now Marie has it.

It's Monday again and Fraser is still off school. Lewis appeared slightly disappointed to be the only one fit and healthy and able to go. He cheered up, however, when I pointed out the alternative was to stay home with his brother and sister and listen to them grump and whine all day about not feeling very well. In fact, I suggested a swap - I offered to go to school for him if he stayed behind to look after the others.

He was out the door like a shot.

Ho well. Maybe I'll get some writing done next week. You never know, perhaps I'll even have a lie down or go for coffee instead.

(Assuming Lewis hasn't come down with this by then, of course...)

Yours in a woman's world,



To all the American Daves and non-Daves out there,

Ally at is looking to talk to housedads about their experiences in order to write an upbeat article about involved fathers. You can contact her via the site. (Her email address was one of the things which I didn't manage to save!) It's a nationwide directory of local businesses run by self-employed parents, so it's worth checking out.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The cost of parenthood

Dear Dave,

That sounds expensive. The cinema tickets alone must have cost over twenty quid and then there was the popcorn and drinks. Figure in the trip to Pizza Hut, the bus fare and the balloons and it must all add up to more than you want to think about. That's before you even take into consideration the essential supplies you'll have picked up seeing as you were in town anyway - I don't know about you, but if I go to the shopping centre, I always seem to come back with several packs of wipes, a handful of toothbrushes and at least one pack of school socks. The total cost of a Saturday out of the house can be eye-watering.

And you probably had to leave the film at the best bit to change Daisy's nappy...

There are cheaper alternatives, certainly, such as going to the museum or for a walk in the rain, but my kids tend to complain if I try them too often. Also, if I'm not careful, they can end up costing more than I was expecting. Museums have over-priced cafés carefully placed to ensnare passing parents who really need cake after having spent half an hour extracting their offspring from the gift shop with only a bare minimum of souvenir pencil sharpeners and shiny stones highly-educational geological samples.

Walks in the rain always require snacks and extra laundry. Sometimes they require air-sea rescue.

Of course, you expect having children to be expensive, and there's an initial big hit to confirm things. The list of stuff to buy is almost endless. Expenditure does quieten down for a bit after that, though. Babies don't eat much. They don't need their own laptop. They don't care where they go on holiday. Day-to-day outlay on a toddler can be small (if you're looking after them yourself, that is... and blatantly ignore the lost income you could potentially be earning doing something else).

A second child is also relatively cheap. The cot is in place. There are clothes. It doesn't matter too much if not all the babygros are the right colour. Let's face it, most of them probably won't last an hour before needing soaked in a bucket anyway.

By Number 3, there's no longer a requirement to buy the best - any old tat will do. Sure, a few bits and bobs of equipment will need replaced and it's worth being picky about things like the height of buggy handles but worn bibs and battered toys are fine. It's all quite manageable.

Then they need shoes. Six weeks later they need more shoes. They start eating real food. They notice adverts. They grab stuff off store shelves. They begin to consume...

Before you know it, they're demanding to be dressed in a fashion that doesn't give the impression they've just been shot backwards from a cannon through the bargain rack at Oxfam.

Then they need MORE shoes - flashing ones with little toy cars hidden in the sole...

It's a costly slope which ends in university tuition fees and debtors' prison. It can be remarkably hard to notice the descent, though. When my parents came to stay the other week, I got them to buy a couple of loaves of bread while they were out for a walk one morning. I didn't think much about it but my mum was somewhat surprised that we were down to barely more than crusts by the next day. I shrugged it off. The kids are getting bigger and there were extra people in the house - bread was going to disappear quickly.

I may have been a bit complacent. Yesterday, I went to the shop at the end of the street with the kids. When we left the shop, I had an entire loaf of bread. By the time we got home, I had this:

The pathetic remains of a sliced loaf.

That's right. They ate half a loaf of bread on the way back from the shop. It was only a ten minute walk and quite a lot of that was down to stopping to get more bread out of the bag. Marie had three slices and she doesn't even like bread. (It apparently tasted better in the rain.)

We had lunch and then had to go to the shop to buy some bread. While we were there, I bought wipes, toothbrushes and socks, just to save another trip later and avoid wear and tear on their shoes.

Excuse me while I go eBay one of my kidneys...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday, 13 November 2009

Transferable skills

Dear Dave,

Useless Dad didn't waste time. "Do you have a suit?" he asked as soon as I opened the door.

"Er... Yes." I'd only just got the kids off to school and I was looking forward to settling down with a cup of coffee to check my email before getting on with chores. Having Steve turn up in a panic certainly hadn't been part of my plan for the morning.

"A smart suit?"

"It's not full of holes, if that's what you mean, and it's so old it's probably back in fashion."

"That will have to do," he said with a touch of desperation. "Do you want a job for the day? I can't find anyone else. You're not still tied up fixing computers at that private school are you?"

"No. The headmaster got a management consultancy firm like yours in over the summer to cut costs. They told him I'd got enough machines working already and I wasn't needed any more."

Steve nodded in quiet appreciation. "Sound business practice, of course." Then he remembered to be sympathetic. "But... er, unfortunate for you, I imagine."

"Not really. I could do with the break. Besides, with no regular maintenance and constant abuse by hundreds of teenage boys, their whole network will be coughing up diodes by February. They'll have to hire me back, on twice as many hours." I shrugged. "I suspect I won't be available unless they up my pay."

"Ah, I see..."

I doubted he did but I decided not to press the matter. "So what's this job then?"

"My colleague, Geoff, was called away to an unscheduled meeting with an important client and an early tee time. Unfortunately, we're due to be visiting a different client in half an hour. They're expecting two of us. I need someone to stand in."

"You want me to be a management consultant?"


I raised an eyebrow. "And the only qualification I need is a smart suit?"

"I'll do the smiling and talking. You take notes and look serious."

"I guess I can do that," I muttered, rubbing my forehead. I had a nasty feeling I was about to agree to something I was going to regret. "I presume you're going to pay me."

Steve blinked, as if this was a possibility he hadn't considered. "Well, I suppose we could..."

I sighed. "I'll go get changed."

* * *

The biggest part of the job seemed to be carrying things. I had a laptop, a briefcase, an armful of glossy brochures, a clipboard and, against my better judgement, Steve's overcoat. I struggled out of the lift on the top floor of the office building and stumbled after Steve as he strode off to shake hands with anyone he could find who looked important.

We were working for RSFI, a relatively small financial institution, in the centre of town. They're not that large but they've been around forever and their offices are an old-fashioned mess of wood-panelled corridors and thick carpet. The whole place was claustrophobic and overly warm. I felt uncomfortable in any number of different ways.

We were shown into a plush conference room complete with chandeliers and a polished mahogany table laid out with tea, coffee and posh chocolate biscuits. There were even doilies and silver teaspoons.

Steve had got ahead of me as I lumbered along trying not to drop anything and he was already chatting away to three middle-aged men in extremely smart suits. They looked very important indeed. Before I could put the stuff down, he signalled me over without pausing in his introductory spiel.

"...and then we'll take a look at the numbers and break it down into bottom-line savings. I'll be giving you an overview of some possibilities for increased productivity and suggesting areas for further investigation."

The men murmured in approval and then one of them said, "Everything's set up for the training and analysis session downstairs."

"Good," said Steve, nodding and smiling, despite clearly being confused by this remark. "Very good."

"It's due to start at ten," said the man, turning to me. "With the speed the lift has been going recently, I imagine you'll want to head down there straight away. Wouldn't want to be late. Time is money, after all." The man chortled as if this statement was somehow amusing and the two other men chortled along with him. He held out his hand. I tried my best to shake it but ended up giving him a brochure instead.

While I joined in the polite laughter, Steve pulled his appointment book from his jacket pocket and hurriedly scanned it. He jabbed a finger at a scribbled entry and his toadying grin became momentarily less fulsome. He went slightly grey. "Ah..." he murmured.

"Ah?" I queried.

"I... Er... Why didn't you mention that RSFI had booked some training this morning, Ed?"

There were so many truthful (yet inappropriate) answers to that question that I found myself momentarily at a loss for words. "Well..." I began.

"Let me take some of that stuff," said Steve hurriedly, grabbing his coat and the rest of the brochures, "so you can get down there and really BUILD A TEAM, then get them to BRAIN-STORM about improving EFFICIENCY." Just in case I hadn't quite picked up on the words he'd said twice as loud as the others, he beamed at me theatrically and attempted a wink.

I paused to consider my options and actually saw the sweat break out on his brow.

"How about I stay here and discuss organisation and preparedness with senior management over coffee while you lead the workshop?" I handed him the laptop.

It was Steve's turn to pause but then he chuckled and slapped me on the back. "Good one," he said. "You almost had me there." He chuckled some more and returned his attention to the three men, motioning at me in mock exasperation. They joined in the chuckling.

While I was still processing all the creepy merriment, Steve gave me back the laptop. "You'll be needing this. It's got the presentation on, after all." He took the briefcase, opened it and pulled out a document folder. "Don't forget the workshop notes."

* * *

The meeting room was unpleasant. Although there were windows, they were below street level, looking out onto three feet of patio and then a stone wall. Grey light and traffic noise filtered down from above, mixed with the steady patter of rain. Tables and chairs were scattered about in something approximating rows that faced a wall with a long stretch of whiteboard. I found a switch and sent ceiling panels flickering loudly into life, harshly illuminating the stark decor and threadbare carpet tiles.

About twenty people were sitting waiting for me. Over half were lounging around looking bored in a slightly unkempt fashion while joking with each other and idly attempting to get reception on their iPhones. The rest were desperately catching up on paperwork. The two groups were neatly (and somewhat pointedly) divided on opposite sides of the room. The first consisted entirely of men, the other was mostly women.

I introduced myself and then made a show of hooking up the laptop to the projector as I tried to work out what on Earth I was going to do for the rest of the morning. Needless to say, I wasn't hugely thrilled with the situation Steve had landed me in. Truth be told, however, I was more annoyed with myself than with him. I should have seen it coming.

Taking a deep breath, I attempted to calm my nerves. I didn't have a great deal to lose. I was never going to see these people again and it wasn't as if I could get sacked. Worst case scenario, I had a couple of hours of embarrassment ahead of me.

I booted up PowerPoint.

How bad could it be?

* * *

Very bad.

The slides were unintelligible. A few were written in words I didn't understand, the rest were incomplete notes. I skimmed through them as best I could, trying to sound confident as I spouted gobbledigook. It didn't work. The eyes of my audience rapidly glazed over. A few surreptitiously returned to their forms and iPhones.

At last something came up which looked familiar. The letters:


were written down the side of a page. Relief welled up inside me. I knew this! It was an acronym to help recall the essential criteria for setting objectives. All objectives should be... er... Something, Momething, Achievable and, er... Oh, drat...

I decided to throw it open to the floor. "Does anyone know the most important attributes of successful objectives?"

"They should be achievable," said a bald guy with a bushy beard, looking up from his phone.

"And they shouldn't change the moment you've achieved them," chipped in one of his colleagues, who was much younger and wearing a hideous green tie with a purple shirt.

The first guy snorted. "That counts as not being achievable."

"No, it doesn't."

"If you can't tick it off as an achieved objective even if you've achieved it, then surely it's unachievable by definition."

Green-tie-man became rather animated. "The objective has still been achieved even if the list of objectives has changed. You're confusing your local and global objectives."

"Well," said beardy bloke, rolling his eyes, "if you hadn't defined them with the same name..."

"I didn't do any such thing. I..."

I coughed loudly until they stopped arguing. "I take it you guys work in IT?"

They and their friends nodded. The younger one looked a bit sheepish.

"Great," I said. "How about you Google 'SMART objectives' on your phones?"

There was much shaking of beards. "Can't get a signal."

"OK. Objectives..." I was forced to improvise. "They shouldn't be STUPID. Moving on..."

* * *

The presentation was supposed to take an hour but I ran out of things to say in ten minutes. I attempted to buy some time to look over the workshop material by suggesting everyone go and get themselves a coffee.

Nobody moved.

"If you're paying for it," said green-tie-man, clearly emboldened by his previous contribution.


He clarified. "We have to pay for it and it's awful."

"That's scandalous. I..." My voice trailed off as I realised that there was nothing in the workshop folder but a used envelope. I flipped it over in panic. On the back were scrawled three questions:
  • What works?

  • What doesn't work?

  • How could things be done better?
I turned the envelope over again and then checked inside.

It was empty. I had three questions to last me until lunch-time and there was no coffee.

"Right," I said, doing my best to look professional and cheery. "You'll need to split up into small groups. Time for a discussion."

* * *

"This is getting a little heated. Perhaps it's time to step back a minute and..."

No one listened to me. Green-tie-man was toe-to-toe with one of the women from the other group (who I'd learnt were all involved with administration and human resources). "I put in my expenses claim six weeks ago," he snarled as his comrades whistled and jeered in support. "I still don't have the money!"

The admin lady was older, taller, better dressed and more fragrant. She looked over her glasses at him. "It's not my fault that unusual items have to be signed off by two heads of department."

"A light bulb is not an unusual item."

"It is when you buy it yourself," snapped the woman, cheered on by her colleagues. "Instead of requesting one from maintenance."

"My office doesn't have windows - I need a daylight bulb. I had one before."

She threw her arms up in the air. "I know that but I don't have authority to authorise repeat procurements." They were almost shouting at each other.

"You should have chased it up."

"It's not my job to badger your boss." She started pointing her finger around for emphasis.

He retaliated with another accusing digit. "It is your job to get expenses paid promptly."

The confrontation was heading towards a scuffle even before one of the other admin staff piped up with, "If your team ever got round to installing the new accounts software, it would do the chasing up automatically."

Beardy bloke leapt to his feet. "So that's what this is about!"

Suddenly it was a free-for-all. Everyone was pointing and shouting.

"We've installed it twice already."

"You didn't get it right."

"We did exactly what you said you wanted."


"ENOUGH!" I glared at them in a manner that comes naturally after spending several months working in a school full of teenage boys who don't respect electronic equipment. "Sit down and be quiet."

I waited until they were all seated again and then spoke firmly but quietly. "We clearly have a real problem here and something has to be done." I paused to let this sink in, giving them all a chance to reflect on their behaviour. A few averted their gaze in shame as I looked them in the eye.

Then I pulled a face and wretched, pointing to the cup in my hand. "I went to the vending machine. This coffee is atrocious. Seriously, people, we have to do something about this. I want solutions and I want them now. OK... Go..."

* * *

As a team building exercise, launching a daring raid on the executive canteen turned out be pretty effective. The admin staff used the system to distract, obfuscate and requisition. The techies hacked into the security cameras and did most of the actual creeping around. Within half an hour, we had some cafetieres, a couple of teapots, a supply of Earl Grey, assorted china crockery and a selection of chocolate biscuits. Thanks to wild over-enthusiasm, we also had a catering-sized box of condiment sachets, a laser printer, two armchairs, a roast chicken and three potted shrubs. More than that, sensing free food, a dozen extra people from Customer Relations had shown up to join us.

Everyone was mingling nicely.

"Are you sure we're going to get away with this?" asked green-tie-man with his mouth full. "What happens if management finds out?"

"It's OK," I said. "I'll let them know about it when I report back and I'll tell them I made you do it as part of the course. It's my problem, not yours."

The admin lady he'd been fighting with earlier sipped her tea and smiled. "Do you do this all the time?"

"Er..." I decided to come clean. "I'm just filling in for today."

"Oh..." The jovial mood in the room evaporated. Everyone looked worried. They'd all assumed my confidence came from getting away with similar things before and they hadn't yet grasped the bullet-proof nature of my position.

"Look at this as an opportunity," I reassured them. "If you have something you want the executives to hear, I don't mind saying it to them. Doesn't bother me if they don't like it. I'm gone by this afternoon anyway."

This calmed them all a little but then green-tie-man blew it. "What do you normally do?" he asked.

"I'm actually a housedad."

Admin lady's brow furrowed. "So you don't know anything about cooperation and productivity?"

"I wouldn't say that. What are the problems you have to deal with most often?"

"My manager doesn't listen. He ignores me and then does the opposite of what I say."

I nodded. "Does he talk gibberish and think he knows everything?"


"Funnily enough," I said, offering her another biscuit, "I might just have a few tips to help you get by..."

* * *

"How did it go?" asked Steve when I returned to the conference room. His startled look gave the impression he'd forgotten about me. He'd been deep in conversation with the same three men from earlier.

"Very well."

"Excellent would you like a cup of coffee and a..." He turned in his seat and reached for the plate of biscuits but it wasn't there. "Oh. That's strange."

"I'm fine. Here's my report." I slid my clipboard across the table to the man in the smartest suit.

The man chuckled. "Have you found us plenty of cost-cutting measures."

"I certainly have. I can save you thousands of pounds a year."

"Good. Good."

"Yes, all you need to do is replace the vending machines with better quality ones, make them free and hire two more people to work in Human Resources."

Steve choked on his drink. He flapped a bit in agitation but he was too busy dealing with the hot coffee coming out his nose to interrupt me.

"In return for the refreshments, the IT staff have agreed to spend less time dejectedly surfing the internet and more time making everyone else's lives easier. With extra people, admin staff will have the chance to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems. They'll also get to queries faster, reducing lost productivity throughout the company resulting from follow-up queries and general grumpiness. In addition, both teams are going to try harder to explain what they mean to each other, in an effort to minimise effort wasted due to misunderstandings."

The three men looked at each. They weren't chuckling anymore.

"Oh, and I need you to sign off on this." I slid another sheet of paper over. "It's a retrospective request form for a chicken..."

* * *

"You're speaking to me again then?" I said before covering the mouth-piece to shout upstairs. "Hey, children! I'm on the phone. Less thumping!" The thundering of rampaging elephants coming from Fraser's bedroom lessened to a minor degree.

Steve cut to the chase. "How's your golf?"

"Couldn't hit the broadside of a barn I was standing in. Why?"

"After consulting the workforce, the board at RSFI have decided to go with your recommendations," he said, pleased but baffled. "The Head of Personnel was wondering about talking through implementation with you over eighteen holes."

I contemplated this and wandered back into the kitchen to stir the kids' pasta. "Are you going to pay me?"

"To play golf?"

"To politely state the obvious while losing badly in the cold."

There was the distinct sound of reluctant swallowing at the other end of the line. "I suppose we could..."

"Great," I said. "Count me in." Then I covered the mouth-piece again and yelled, "Tea-time!"

Steve just managed to arrange the details and hang up before I was surrounded by my lovely herd of rampaging elephants. I served them their tea and listened to them all talk at once. Then Fraser switched on the telly and they ate their food quietly while watching Newsround. Our kitchen seemed even warmer and cosier than ever, and I gave each of them a hug.

They all complained but I didn't care.

Yours in a woman's world,


Thursday, 12 November 2009

Edge of the Otherworld

Dear Dave,

I should be lying around enjoying the peace and quiet, revelling in the fact I've lived through the pre-school years and finally got all three of my kids out of the house on a regular basis.


Nine years of limited sleep and constantly running around like a headless chicken have acclimatised me to being busy. Half an hour of sitting about during the day, and I get this urge to be productive. Writing to you fills up plenty of time but, well, it's clearly not enough. I logged onto the internet recently and this:

just kind of happened.

If you're looking for some thoughts, reflections and humour involving much more spirituality and far fewer embellished anecdotes about children, then check it out.

Yours on the Edge,


Monday, 9 November 2009

Home alone

Dear Dave,

Thursdays can be hectic. Marie has a friend round from school for an hour or so and then there's a mad scramble to do homework and eat tea before she and Lewis have to be along the road at church for Anchor Boys and Rainbows. Once they're delivered and I've got home again with Fraser, there's only a twenty minute gap until I have to take him in the other direction to Boys' Brigade. Then I've got a pretty brisk walk to get back in time to collect the first two and head home to prepare food for Sarah's arrival from work so we've had opportunity to wolf something down before Fraser has to be picked up again and Marie needs seen to bed.

It's all a mad rush.

Last week, as I was fighting my way down the street to church with three children who were squabbling with each other over whether we were going to be late or not, a thought occurred to me:

Why had I brought Fraser?

It was dark and raining and I was only going to be gone a quarter of an hour. All I was doing was dropping off Marie and Lewis and coming straight back. Was it really necessary to drag their nine-year-old brother out of the house in the name of safety and supervision? If I'd left him at home, there was a good chance he wouldn't have moved from the sofa. As it was, I was making him cross roads in the wet and gloom. How exactly was that safer and more responsible? I trust him not to play with matches or knives. He knows not to put magnets near memory cards. There wasn't time to organise a wild party.

In fact, I could only think of two plausible disaster scenarios. One involved him suddenly deciding he needed the toilet and then falling down the stairs in his hurry to get there. The other involved me getting hit by a car while crossing a road in the wet and gloom, thus leaving him to his own devices for longer than expected.

Since he's careless and falls down the stairs approximately once a year, the first possibility was a legitimate concern. Then again, he was wide awake, not distracted by siblings and could focus his attention on the task in hand without having to waste any on ignoring me. I calculated the actual risk as on a par with brushing his teeth unattended. Who knows what he does with that toothbrush before putting it in his mouth? And I probably don't want to find out what he does while it's in there. Wrestling with his brother? Arguing with his sister? Gargling the Harry Potter theme tune? All three at once? That's got to be a choking hazard... Nonetheless, I let him face minty-fresh catastrophe twice a day. Lying on the sofa while I'm away for a few minutes really can't be much worse than that.

But what if it had turned out to be more than a few minutes? What if I'd woken up six weeks later in hospital? How would he have coped?

Truth be told, he might not have noticed. He knows where the biscuits and spare toilet roll are kept. He can get himself a drink of water. He's able to change the batteries in a Wii remote. I suspect he'd have been fine until Sarah got home. He'd definitely have been a lot more comfortable than Lewis and Marie as they lurked outside the church halls in the drizzle, forlornly waiting for me to fetch them...

All in all, bringing Fraser with me seemed to be extra effort for no real gain. It was just one more source of stress in a tight schedule. I decided to take the plunge and leave him behind this coming Thursday.

The next day, another thought occurred to me:

Why wait till Thursday?

Lewis had a party to go to at a friend's house round the corner. Even dragging Marie along, I could drop him off AND nip to the shops for some bread before Fraser's bladder realised I was gone and began contemplating launching him down the stairs. There really was no reason to take Fraser along.

He was delighted with this plan, almost looking up from his computer game in enthusiasm. I, meanwhile, marvelled at the convenience of only having two children to get ready to go and to shove out the door. With a parting warning not to brush his teeth, I left Fraser on his own.

It was both liberating and nerve-racking. Getting along the road was easier but I kept expecting to be quizzed at any moment by the Parent Police, demanding to know where my other child was. Is nine an appropriate age to let children look after themselves? If so, then for how long?

As we were going up the tenement stairs to the party, Lewis noticed something was different. "Where's Fraser?" he asked in genuine confusion.

"Home alone," I replied and immediately wished I hadn't. I had visions of Fraser taking on intruders in a hideously messy combination of slapstick and nail-guns. Worse, I felt the desire to buy Christmas lights. I tried to laugh it off. "He's probably sprinkling the stairs with marbles as we speak," I chuckled unconvincingly, "and electrifying the handle of the front door."

As it turned out, however, Fraser was once again safer at home than with me. Having dropped Lewis off, I was so busy making sure Marie was being careful in the dimly-lit stairwell that I stumbled on the steps myself. Twice. I was more than a little thankful to eventually make it back to ground level in one piece. Fraser, meanwhile, barely stirred while I was gone and risked nothing more than mild eye strain.

It was maybe a healthy experiment for us both. He got some peace; I got to work on overcoming my over-protective paranoia. Sometimes he needs to get out of the house for fresh air and exercise but I'll try leaving him behind more often. It'll be good for everyone.

I should make the most of it, though. I'll have another dilemma in a couple of years. What am I going to do when Lewis is nine? He's a good kid. I can't see I'll have any problem with leaving him home alone then. In fact, alone seems to work quite well with Fraser.

It's leaving them home together that I'll be scared of.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Herding short Vikings

Dear Dave,

Getting twenty-three seven-year-old school children onto the top deck of a bus is... an interesting experience. Oddly, the kids who've been wandering off and causing trouble all the way along the street are fine at this point - it's the ones who've been dutifully following instructions since leaving the classroom who cause the issues. They insist on holding hands even while going up the stairs and then refuse to sit next to an adult they don't know despite there being nowhere else to go.

It's a conflict of programming worthy of Asimov.

They stand on the top step and argue about stranger danger while clenched in the vice-like grip of a heavier 'friend' who's been distracted by his own nose and has forgotten to hold on to the handrail. Meanwhile, another twenty kids are all lined up behind, ready to go down like nine-pins as soon as the driver has checked all the tickets and the bus lurches off along the road...

So, Dave, you may be having a few issues with Sam's teacher this year but, honestly, you should fob Daisy off on the in-laws and volunteer to help on a school trip. You'll find it a real eye-opener, I can tell you. If you feel Miss Green is giving Sam too much of the wrong kind of work and that she isn't entirely engaging with his educational needs, you ought to try a visit to the museum with his entire class. By the end, you'll have a new appreciation for Miss Green's ability merely to stay sane on an on-going basis. Forget the excessive colouring in - it's a miracle she gives you (and 20+ other parents) six hours of childcare a day and hasn't yet locked herself in the supply cupboard to have a mental breakdown and then play quietly with the finger-puppets.

Heck, if worst comes to worst, you can always teach Sam to read yourself. I doubt it'll come to that, though. Even if it does, having somewhere cheap and away from home for him to go to and be socialised with other kids while learning about papier-mâché is still something to be thankful for.

Of course, if you did manage to off-load Daisy on unsuspecting relatives for a few hours, I can see why you might want to lie around having a rest rather than accompanying a horde of children across town to learn about Vikings. Maybe I should just tell you what happened to me when I went with Lewis' class, his teacher and Kerry's mum (the solitary other parent helper). I certainly needed to lie around having a rest afterwards.

As I said, the bus journey had its moments. The walk at the other end wasn't so bad. A couple of kids picked a fight while crossing the road, most had forgotten where we were going and one was a little cold because he'd tried to put his coat on over his enormous backpack. He'd got into the sleeves up to his elbows but the rest of the coat was hanging round his waste as he wandered along with his upper arms pinned to his side and his forearms sticking out in front of him. When I offered to rescue him from this absent-minded escapology experiment, however, he didn't seem fussed. I left him to it and concentrated on keeping a watchful eye out for cars, kidnappers and open manhole covers.

When we finally reached the museum and the children had been given stern warnings by Mrs Rogers not to get too boisterous, we were greeted by a couple of guides dressed in animal skins and wearing helmets with horns on. Well, I say 'greet', they actually leapt out at us waving plastic axes and roaring. Half the children jumped out of their skin, the other half didn't really notice. Then we were all forced to wear horned hats too, and sit down ready for a talk.

The talk began with a long explanation of why real Vikings never wore horned hats. Sadly, that didn't mean we got to take our hats off. Instead, Erik the Goat-Slayer and Sven Bottom-Thunderer as the guides called themselves, gave us a quick and lively rundown on the standard Viking topics: the names of the days of the week, longboats, runes, Valhalla and lots of roaring. Essentially, it was everything I remembered learning about Vikings when I was seven. Next term I predict a project on Romans featuring gladiators, togas, eating dormice, Hadrian's Wall and catapults.

Once the kids had been suitably wound up with roaring and period-appropriate fart gags, we had a hands-on session with Viking artifacts. We were divided up and I got to tell my group of six boys about the items they were handling as I hastily skim read the info from a help sheet. Since the objects included knives, shears, needles, drinking horns and various other sharpened bits of dead animal, this activity turned out to be more life-threatening than I'd initially envisaged. Nonetheless, we all survived with only minor injuries.

After the kids had done some drawing and then been turned upside down and shaken a bit to empty their pockets of any lingering Viking weaponry, we went to eat our packed lunches.

First, though, I got to supervise a dozen boys going to the toilet (in groups of two and three, thankfully). A couple of them couldn't reach the taps and at least one got mesmerised by the running water halfway through washing his hands and had to be reminded to stop. One thought the best way to check if a stall was free was to peer underneath the door. (Because, although sitting next to an unfamiliar granny on the bus is clearly to be avoided, placing the side of one's face on the floor of a public lavatory is apparently perfectly OK...)

After lunch, we did a quick tour of the Viking exhibits but they didn't hold the kids' attention long. It wasn't time to head home, however, and seeing as we were at the museum already, we went to look at some robots. We got to press buttons, waggle levers and play with touchscreens. This was more on my level. The kids ran riot but I could cope. It was a contrast to when I went to the modern art gallery with the Primary 5s. On that occasion, my own bewilderment made it harder to keep the children in line. I really couldn't explain why someone had painted three orange squares and hung them on a wall. I muttered something about the explanation being as important as the actual art but I'm not sure I was hugely convincing. As for the stairwell lined with the names of all the people the artist had ever met, laid out like a war memorial, in some ways it was thought provoking, in others it seemed like nice work if you could get it...

(I'm from rural Norfolk. If it's not a landscape involving cows, I'm not interested.)

Once the Primary 3s had had a while to play with the exhibits, their excited chatter began to turn to whiny bickering. Mrs Rogers gave me and Kerry's mum a look and we knew instantly to start rounding everyone up to go. The kids were approaching a level of tiredness where they were liable to descend into complete meltdown. If we didn't get them on a bus soon, we might not be able to do it at all without the aid of cattle prods and the Territorial Army. We were suddenly on a time limit.

Within three minutes we had them lined up with their coats (mostly) on. After a couple of head counts we were away.

We still barely made it.

Getting them on the bus was manageable, getting them off the bus again was challenging but getting along the street to school was almost unending. I had to keep saying, 'Keep up!' and 'Pay attention!' to every child in turn. Like ageing lettuce, they were all past their sell-by date and looking extremely tired. Those in the group with anti-social tendencies were picking fights over nothing and the space cadets were stopping in their tracks at the sight of anything bright or shiny, including, somewhat unfortunately, the sky. Every step became a battle.

When we finally reached the school gate, I was mightily relieved. There was forty-five minutes before I had to be back to collect Marie and I hurried home for a strong coffee and a chocolate biscuit, glad I wasn't Mrs Rogers. She had another hour to keep the Primary 3s amused.


They may have long holidays and excellent pensions but teachers deserve sympathy and understanding all the same...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Having now been on a trip with each of my children, I can verify that every age group presents its own difficulties to those in charge. When given instructions, Primary 5s argue, Primary 3s don't listen and Primary 1s sing and do a little dance.

I think I'll be getting all my kids' teachers bottles of wine for Christmas.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Communication issues

Dear Dave,

Sometimes getting a straight answer out of a child can be like pulling teeth. You kind of expect it when you're asking why their sister is covered in graffiti or where the TV is gone but frequently there's no rhyme or reason to it. I mean, for example, you'd think they'd have a vested interest in giving a clear response to, 'What do you want for dessert?', wouldn't you?

And yet...

"The same thing I had the day before yesterday," Marie replied at the end of tea last Friday.

I paused in the act of opening the kitchen cupboard. "What was that exactly?" I couldn't recall what I'd eaten for my own lunch, let alone what anyone else had had. Attempting to recollect anything further back was pushing things. Given the murky, child-addled state of my memory these days, I wasn't entirely certain Wednesday had definitely happened. I had to assume something had gone between Tuesday and Thursday but someone could easily have slipped in an extra Monday and I might not have noticed.

As I pondered this, I became aware that Marie was in the middle of a long (yet not very illuminating) explanation. "... so that wasn't it. Well, my favourite thing is chocolate biscuits but we didn't have any of them, so it wasn't that either."

"What was it then? I can't remember."

Marie rolled her eyes at my stupidity. "The same thing I always have if it's a holiday and we don't have any chocolate biscuits."

"Could you tell me what that is?"

"No. Guess!"

"Look, just tell me want you want," I said, beginning to lose it.


I reached into the cupboard and grabbed the first thing I could find that wasn't curry powder. "Have some Smarties then."

Marie pulled a face. "I don't want those. I want cake."

"Then why didn't you say so?" I sighed.

Marie looked indignant. "But I did..."

Yep, getting a straight answer can be hard work. The only time it's easy is when you're desperately hoping to keep them talking, like while trying to distract them from feeling nauseous on a winding car journey or attempting to get them to chat endearingly to grandparents on the phone:

Granny (on speaker): Did you have a nice day today, dear?
Marie: Yes.
Granny: Did you go out anywhere?
Marie: Yes.
Granny: Where did you go?
Marie: The zoo.
Granny: Was it good?
Marie: Yes.
Granny: What did you see?
Marie: Animals.
Granny: Which ones did you like?
Marie: All of them.
Me (encouraging some verbosity): Tell Granny about the flamingos.
Marie: They were pink.
Me: And what funny thing did they do?
Marie: Can't remember.
Granny: That's nice, dear. Can you speak up a bit - there's lots of noise in the background.
Marie: We're in a taxi.
Granny: Where are you going?
Marie: Home.
Granny: From the zoo?
Marie: Yes.
Granny: Don't you normally get travel sick going home from the zoo in a taxi? It's quite a winding...
Marie: Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarf. (Phone goes dead.)


Taxi cleaning bills aside, though, I suppose it's not as bad as when kids give a straight answer to the wrong question. This is normally reserved for talking loudly to strangers in public places. Sometimes it's deeply embarrassing, usually it's just a touch confusing:

"I'm going to my birthday party," said Marie to the lady sitting in front of us on the bus.

The woman smiled and humoured the little girl, not realising the conversational minefield she was entering. "That's exciting for you."

"Caitlin is going, too." Marie bounced up and down on her seat. "And Lucy and Carlos and Jack and Ophelia and Rani and Yasmin."

"Are they all your friends?"


The woman's smile wavered. "Some of them aren't your friends?"

"No, they're all my friends," said Marie, speaking slightly more slowly for the silly adult. "Igor isn't my friend but he's not coming."


I felt the need to interpret for our hapless travelling companion. "What Marie's trying to say is that everyone she listed is a friend, it's just not an exhaustive list."

"There's Tom and David, too!" confirmed Marie. "And Kuba. And Corduroy."


"She's new."

"Oh, OK." The woman tried to recover by pointing to Marie's pink, sparkly t-shirt and saying, "Your top is very pretty."

"This isn't my top," replied Marie, laughing at the absurdity of the suggestion.

The woman's face crumpled in defeat but she couldn't help asking, "Then whose top is it?"

Luckily, our stop was approaching. I grabbed Marie and made a run for it down the aisle. She called over her shoulder as we went. "It's nobody's top - it's a t-shirt!"

I was surprisingly glad to escape to a soft-play full of cake-fuelled five-year-olds...

Still, it all made me wonder. I've experienced any number of bizarre social interactions since becoming a dad. Many have been beyond my control, and others I've got away with thanks to being surrounded by a protective ring of small, cute children. Perhaps a few have been avoidable, though. If I'd been a little more on the ball, I could maybe have steered the dialogue more smoothly. Sometimes all that's needed is a deep breath and a moment's thought:

When Marie came out of school a couple of weeks ago, she was crying and complaining because she hadn't had enough lunch.

"I didn't have a tub of fruit," she sobbed.

I hugged her guiltily. I was certain I'd prepared one but there was every chance I'd put it in Lewis' lunchbox by accident. (It wouldn't have been the first time.) I told Marie this and apologised.

Marie kept crying. "Lewis didn't have it. Fraser didn't have it either. I checked. I couldn't find it anywhere. It wasn't in my lunchbox."

"That's strange. Never mind; it'll turn up. You can have some food when we get home."

"But I'm hungry now... and thirsty."

"You can have a drink when we get home, too."

"But I'm really thirsty. I found a carton of juice on the floor that looked like mine but I didn't think it was."

I began to get the impression I was missing something. I took a deep breath and thought for a moment.

"Did you drink your juice?"

"No - I couldn't find it. I just found juice that looked like my juice."

"On the floor?"

"Yes. With my sandwich."

My eyes narrowed. "You found your sandwich on the floor along with juice that looked like your juice but that you weren't sure actually was your juice?"

"And my biscuit."

"OK, so what was in your lunchbox when you went to the cloakroom to fetch it at lunch-time?"

"Nothing! It was empty."

The mystery was becoming markedly less mysterious. "I think perhaps your fruit fell out of your lunchbox with the rest of your lunch."

"I didn't see it," said Marie, pouting.

"How about we go and have a look together?"

"OK, but I don't think it will be there..."

We found it within seconds.

Marie rapidly cheered up and sat down on a bench to eat her food. After a minute or two, she gave me a very sweet, contented smile to say thank you.

Sometimes the little things are what make it all worthwhile...

(Although a few of her grapes and a slice of apple would have been nice, too.)

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday, 26 October 2009

The bear insanities

Dear Dave,

Ed is unable to write today. He's suffering from fatigue induced from too many exciting outings accompanied by children and cuddly toys. I'll be sharing my thoughts with you instead. My name is Ted.

Fred the Ted.

I'm visiting Marie from school. Each of the Primary 1 children is taking a turn to have me home for the weekend so I can write about it in my diary and then share my experiences with the rest of the class. As you may have guessed, I'm a bear. I'm about eight inches high, brown and fluffy. I normally wear shorts and a sombrero that's very easy to lose.

I'm not the first cuddly toy that has visited Ed's house. Every year he had a child in nursery, a different plush play-thing came to stay. I'm following in the footsteps of Pam the Lamb, Pat the Cat, Lucky the Ducky, Hurtle the Turtle, Dog the Frog, Frog the Dog and (the somewhat unfortunate) Floodle the Poodle. Since the nursery is just down the corridor from the Primary 1 classroom, I've ended up in the same storage cupboard with them on occasion. During the long summer months, we sat around playing poker, sniffing felt-tip pens and trying to find a way round the website filter on the school's computers. On occasion, as we brewed moonshine in a forgotten corner of the art room, they filled me in on what to expect from some of the families I was likely to stay with this year.

When I was handed to Marie ten days ago at the beginning of the school holidays for an extra long visit, I was heartily relieved. Some of the places I've been have had such bad reviews, I've had to cross my paws and hope to come back in one piece without a coating of jam and cat hair. In contrast, my friends have all been quick to jump in with positive comments about Ed's house whenever it's come up in conversation. (Except poor Floodle, of course - he won't be jumping anywhere anymore, God rest his stuffing. I told him stoking a barbecue with lighter fluid is a bad move when you're ninety percent polyester...)

Ed had thought he was done with little visitors once his children left nursery. He wasn't too thrilled to discover the introduction of the scheme in Primary 1, particularly as it's not just me. After Christmas, he'll be able to look forward to Lana the Iguana coming to stay. (Which will be a real barrel of laughs, I can tell you. 'Lana' is actually a rather camp chameleon called Brian who's more than a little bit bitter about the whole need for a rhyming name thing. Don't give him any moonshine after midnight whatever you do - he'll be singing Celine Dione songs into your shoulder until way, waaaay past bedtime.)

Ed wouldn't mind the visits if it weren't for the diaries. They always seem to have got out of hand by the time they reach his house. Take my own experience this year as an example:

Everything started nice and relaxed with a couple of quiet weekends spent with Tom and Carla. Then, the next week, Lucy's family just happened to have some horse riding planned and took me along. When Charlotte read about that, she insisted her parents come up with something equally impressive for me to do. We all went to the museum and to the cinema and she stuck the tickets in the diary. William's family had to include pictures of our trip to the farm in order to keep up. Then they took me to the soft-play just to make sure.

Ever since, my life has been a non-stop whirl of parties, special events and hastily arranged outings. Jack's dad put the video of me eating lunch on a roller coaster up on YouTube.

Ed is feeling pressure to compete.

He's taking some consolation from the fact that not all of my experiences have been entirely good ones. Malcolm's scary mum, Karen, dressed me up as a gnome and posted me to her cousin in Lapland. The pictures of me with Santa look great but I'm not sure they were worth a two-way trip in a Jiffy bag while wearing a hat with a bell on the end.

That wasn't as bad as when Carlos took me to the zoo and fed me to a gorilla, though. As the photos of Caitlin's trip to Centre Parcs show, the ordeal was enough to mysteriously change my colour, size and shape by the following weekend...

Of course, Ed knows better than to get caught up in the craziness of trying to out-do other parents. He simply can't be bothered. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of reading my diary to Marie on the first night of my visit. Having been reminded of all the fun things her friends got to do when I came to stay, her expectations have been raised. She's suggesting a quick trip to Disneyland.

We haven't got quite that far yet but it might not be long.

Now Marie's five, she's started at one of those uniformed organisations where girls get to wear matching sweatshirts and bake biscuits. As a special treat for joining, the leaders gave her Claire the Bear to bring home, complete with her own diary. Ed tried his best to look pleased but didn't really manage. He's been somewhat distracted since, organising expeditions while simultaneously trying to keep me and Claire apart in case we attempt to breed.

Two diaries to fill and an entire week without school (combined with the threat of baby bears) has weakened his resolve. Any moment now, he could go crazy, give way to the peer pressure and book an outlandish excursion simply to have something to write about. We could all be on a plane to Bermuda tomorrow if I play my Pooh sticks right. (Heck, I don't mind spending the trip in a Jiffy bag if I get to share...) All I need to do is find some way to push him over the edge and I'll be off to the sun.

Once I've sent this, I think I'll hide some fridge magnets in his laptop...

Yours (in memory of Floodle),


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Jumble sale

Dear Dave,

The jumble sale was in full swing. Dozens of people were milling past the stalls laid out round the edges of the Millennium Centre's main hall and dozens more were sitting at the tables in the middle, sampling the tea and scones. Everywhere was noise and bustle in a world of bric-a-brac, cakes and craft items. Thankfully the fire-breather had had to cancel, though. Kids were being entertained by the local community police officer and his racially-diverse, drug-free, stranger-fearing sock puppets instead. It wasn't quite the same but at least there were fewer health-and-safety issues.

Mike was there, wearing his dog-collar and representing the church. "How did you persuade the children to part with all that?" he said, pointing to the vast collection of toys, books, tapes and clothing on the trestle in front of me.

"In the end, I told them they wouldn't get any Christmas presents unless they had a clear out of their stuff."

"A combination of threats and bribery? Hmmm, I'll have to start trying that on the church elders."

"I take it they're still not up for buying an overhead projector?"

He grimaced. "They want to hold on to the money for a rainy day."

"To be fair, the church roof does leak a little so I can see where they're coming from."

"Once the roof is fixed, the steeple will start falling down. Then the heating will break. After that the wiring will need replaced. By the time that's approved, the roof will be leaking again." He shook his head in exasperation. "There's always rain. Sometimes we need to concentrate on where the boat is going not just on stopping it from sinking."

"I'm with you," I said, shrugging. "If the elders are anything like my kids, though, don't rely too hard on coercion. Fraser figured that computer games don't take up a lot of space so he wouldn't have to get rid of much to make room, and Lewis claimed he didn't want any Christmas presents anyway. Marie transferred ownership of all her possessions to her favourite doll and then started thinking of things to go on her list for Santa. I had to work rather hard to convince them they were in serious danger of missing out. There's probably a sermon in that."

"There's a sermon in almost everything."

"I suppose..." I realised the morning was half over and I hadn't sold very much. I picked up the first thing which came to hand. "Want to buy a xylophone?"


"Hey, grandchild on the way. You should stock up on toys and Teletubbies videos now. Speaking of which..." I reached towards the collection of tapes at the end of the stall but Mike waved his hand to stop me.

"Not a chance."

"How about...?"

"No." He was polite but firm.

I gave up. "Some use you are. You'd better help me round to the charity shop later with whatever's left over, that's all I can say."

"That can be arranged." He paused long enough to put me off my guard and then added, "How's life?"

I wasn't fooled by his offhand manner. He was checking up on me again. "You mean, 'how's life now that Marie's at school?'"

"I mean, 'how's life?'. If Marie being at school is on your mind, then..." He let the words trail off and waited for me to respond. As always, I found myself telling him what he wanted to know. I think it must be some special sage-like interrogation technique they teach at minister school.

"I'm still adjusting," I said. "It doesn't really feel like it's happened yet. I've helped out on a couple of school trips and the kids have had some days off sick and now they're on holiday for a week. So far, my extra freedom hasn't amounted to much - I've had a few hours of rest and done some cleaning. Maybe in a month or so things will have settled down and I'll have time to devote to the huge list of projects I thought I might be able to get round to once Marie started full-time."

"Sounds like bailing when you should be steering. Want to become a church elder?"

I snorted. "Yeah, funny."

"Serious question actually."

"Oh, er..." I was taken aback and, while he had me staggered, he pressed home the advantage.

"Think about it. First things first, anyway: There's a family service coming up next month - I'd like it if you and Sarah and the kids could help lead it. Read the readings, make up a prayer, look young. That'll do to begin with."

"So let me get this straight," I said, my brow furrowing as I tried to gather my wits, "you're warning me not to hastily commit myself to whatever comes along while simultaneously giving me other things to do?"

"You don't have to do them."

I rubbed my forehead as I felt another migraine coming on. "Is this some kind of test?"

"Not intentionally."

"What does that mean?"

Mike grinned. "It means I could do with some help and ministers can be just as human and illogical as everyone else."

"Oh, right. There's definitely a sermon in that."

"Very true."

At that moment, I was distracted by the boys running over.

"Can we have another go on the tombola?" asked Fraser.

"Yes," chipped in Lewis. "We've won three prizes already!"

I perused the winnings they were waving around. They had two tins of mushy peas and a colouring set, all of which I'd handed in to the tombola in the first place. The peas had been in the hamper which Marie won in the nursery Christmas raffle. I'd been very much hoping to never see them again.

"What prizes are left?" I asked.

"Soap!" said Lewis, hopping from one foot to the other.

"There's an elephant statue as well," said Fraser, "and a book about fairies."

I wasn't convinced. "Do you really want an elephant statue or a book about fairies?"

"No, but Marie might. It's only a pound for five tickets."

Lewis hopped even harder. "And the soap's green!"

"Well, that makes all the difference..." Personally, I didn't feel the brief excitement of unfolding a handful of tickets was worth the financial outlay if the best loot on offer was unusually-coloured hygiene products. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity to vainly attempt to teach them the value of money. "You're welcome to have a go but I'm not giving you the cash. You'll have to pay with your own."

They were delighted and immediately went off to blow an entire week's pocket money on a quick thrill and the chance of soap.

I maybe need to work on my fiscal prudence lessons.

Scary Karen shouted over from where she was helping serve the refreshments. "Tell Trevor we need more hot water."

Trevor was only a few feet away from her, standing on a step-ladder to re-attach some bunting to one of the ceiling beams. "He's just there," I shouted back, thinking she hadn't seen him.

"Well, tell him we need more hot water."

"But..." I began to argue, then withered under the full force of one of her glares. She was busy and stressed and I didn't want to take the brunt of it. "Er... OK."

I walked over to the foot of the ladder and spoke to her boyfriend. "Karen says she needs more hot water for the teas."

He took out the tack he'd been holding between his lips. "Tell her I'll get to it in a minute."

"I, er..." I said, beginning to explain that Karen was almost next to him, but then I realised he already knew that. With horror, it dawned on me that they were having a quarrel and that somehow I'd become part of it. I turned to Karen. "Trevor says he'll get to it in a minute."

"Tell him to hurry up. We're almost out."

I turned back to Trevor, becoming acutely aware for the first time in a while that he's short, squat, made of bricks and has tattoos of automatic weapons. "Karen says they're almost out."

"And that he's to get a flaming move on," added Karen sharply.

"She'd also like me to stress that it's quite urgent."

Trevor grunted as he stretched up and hammered in tacks with his bare knuckles. "Tell her I'll be done when I'm done. If that's not good enough, she'll have to get it herself."

"Er..." I really didn't fancy telling that to Scary Karen.

Luckily, she didn't wait for me to relay the message. "Tell him to get down off that flaming ladder and get into the kitchen before I get you to give him a piece of my mind."

I began backing away. "How about I just go and get the water and..."

"Right," said Trevor, the step-ladder wobbling with irritation, "tell her to tell you to let me get on with the job she already told some other person to tell me to do."

Karen slammed down a cup in rage. "That does it, nobody tells you to talk to me like that. Tell him I don't want to talk to you anymore and I don't want you to tell me what he tells you to tell me about that. He'll just have to find someone else to tell. I'm going to get the hot water myself." She stormed off.

Everyone in the surrounding area had gone quiet and it was a few moments before the clink of tea spoons and the murmur of chatter returned. I took a couple of deep breaths and checked I still had all my limbs. "She's not in the best of moods today," I muttered to myself.

"Tell me about it," said a voice above my head through a mouthful of tacks...

I went back to my stall. Sarah and Marie were there. Marie had a butterfly painted on her face and Sarah had a bag of books and clothing.

"What was that about?" she asked.

"I have no idea and, right now, I don't dare ask. Did you find anything interesting?"

"This and that. It's mainly for the kids. Marie had a go at guessing the name of the teddy bear."

I looked over to the table where Karen's friend Tess was being dwarfed by a virtually life-size cuddly polar bear. People were guessing the thing's name for fifty pence a shot. At the end of the day, the person closest to the correct answer would get to carry home half a ton of Arctic-themed stuffing.

"I hope Marie chose something unlikely. We'd need to build an extension just for the bear."

"Yap-Wap. I think we're safe."


The boys returned with some green soap and a book about fairies. Lewis was pretty pleased with the soap and was happily wittering away about where best to put it on display in his room. Fraser, meanwhile, seemed disappointed he hadn't won anything better. I suggested he put the book on the stall and try to sell it.

He did...

...and Marie immediately insisted on buying it. Then we all went for a cup of tea and a scone.

There's maybe a sermon in that too.

Yours in a woman's world,