I was outclassed.
There wasn't any point competing. I would have had to have resorted to outlandish promises and blatant bribery. Even then, I think my kids would still rather have spent the afternoon with him.
Settling down on a bench, I merely watched with astonishment and envy, and tried to remember what it was like to be young, motivated and full of energy. Except I've never had that much energy. The guy wasn't entertaining just my kids - he was managing to include the two children he was supposed to be looking after as well. As they all played Chase around a waxwork of a Neanderthal, I closed my eyes, attempted to rest and hoped no attendants would pass by and shout at us for making too much noise in the museum. I definitely didn't have the energy for that.
"Woh! Time-out!" laughed Jake breathlessly as five children bundled through a maze of display cases and grabbed his legs. "You got me! You got me! Well done! Has anyone seen these spear heads yet!?"
Jake grabbed Josquin and lifted him up effortlessly to peer into the case beside them. The other children crowded round. The top of the display was waist-high for an adult and Marie and Ophelia had to stand on tip-toes to see in. Jake pointed to the most interesting items on show, explained how they were made and then acted out hunting a mammoth.
Then, by popular demand, he did it again...
I realised my eyes had re-opened of their own accord. As much as I wanted to blank the scene, I couldn't help paying attention - the guy was full of bounce and he spoke with more enthusiasm than a children's TV presenter. "Let's do the piggy-back race some more!" he exclaimed.
Oh, for goodness sake, let's not... The thought was loud in my head but all that escaped my mouth was a dull groan. I wasn't sure I'd recovered enough from the previous occasion to stand up, let alone sprint to the sabre-toothed tiger and back while carrying a nearly-seven-year-old.
Not that the nearly-seven-year-old in question wanted me to carry him. Lewis grabbed Jake's hand and jumped up and down. "I want to go on you!"
This prompted the other kids into even greater excitement. "No! I do! I do!" they all shouted.
"One at a time!" said Jake, hoisting Lewis onto his back. Seeing I hadn't moved to take up position as a rival mount, he got the rest to race him on foot. It was chaos. Nevertheless, he kept smiling. Only carrying Fraser caused him to slow down. Fraser's so big now, though, I wouldn't have so much as attempted lifting him myself.
There was much running about and then they all veered off to look at some model pyramids and a carving of a jackal. I got to my feet slowly and hobbled after them, my bottom having seized up from sitting on the hard bench. I was grumpy and decrepit.
Meanwhile, Jake was providing more exercise, education and fun for my kids than I'd managed all week.
I really hoped he'd wake up in the morning with muscle ache and a stomach bug. It would only have been fair...
* * *
The children are all out of school by half twelve on a Friday and I'd planned to spend the afternoon playing Snakes and Ladders with Marie, while fruitlessly encouraging the boys to turn off the Wii and go and run around outside. Often in these circumstances, I can sneak away to the toilet after a bit and then mysteriously not return for an hour or so, leaving them to entertain themselves while I surf the internet or have a lie down.
Last week, however, Jake phoned at lunch-time.
I didn't have a clue who he was. I thought he was trying to get me to change gas supplier. Fortunately, just before I hung up, he mentioned about Ophelia being desperate to see Marie and I identified him as Useless Dad's new nanny. He remembered me because I helped interview candidates when Steve and Deborah were first hunting for someone to look after their kids.
Thanks to Christmas, various illnesses and several months of close proximity to my three offspring, my memory was somewhat more hazy. A different nanny had already come and gone. I vaguely recalled Jake had seemed competent and enthusiastic, and that was about it.
He suggested that we have a joint trip to the museum.
Unprepared with excuses, I agreed.
* * *
I'd been all for him at the interview. He has good qualifications, glowing references and a winning smile. He also has a way with children, and kids love him. What's not to like?
Of course, Steve had had his doubts about a male nanny. He'd been worried Deborah might take too much of a shine to Jake (even though he couldn't quite see why she might be reluctant to have a young, attractive female nanny around). That hadn't been my concern, however. It was up to them to work out who they'd get on with; I simply tried to select the candidate I thought would cope best with the children.
It never occurred to me that I'd be the one in competition with him:
From the moment we met up on the front steps of the museum, Jake was a shining beacon of childcare. He showed proper respect to me by asking my opinion on what we should do and checking what rules my kids had to obey, but he was the one with the vigour and initiative. I tagged along behind, herding the stragglers, as he sought out forgotten corridors and mysterious exhibits and led us on an adventure through time and space. The kids followed him and hung on his every word. I pushed Josquin's buggy and kept reminding the others not to get lost. If Jake was Dr Who, I was the useless robot dog.
My feelings of inadequacy grew as the trip progressed until I felt compelled to join in the first session of piggy-backs in order to prove my fatherhood.
It wasn't a good idea. By the time we were in the Egyptian section, picking our way through the obelisks and mummified cats, my compacted spine was still complaining and I was desperate for sugar and caffeine.
Mercifully, the trip was almost over.
Jake set the children to rushing round the room to see how many mythical creatures with mismatched heads and bodies they could find, and then sauntered over to me. "Have to take Ophelia and Josquin home soon," he said. "Meeting some friends at the pub and I need to eat first. We're heading to a party and then probably hitting the clubs. Last time, we ended up back at one of my mate's, playing that Rock Band game."
I blinked, the very thought of so much activity making me exhausted.
"Got anything good planned yourself?"
"Kind of," I said. "A can of beer, some crisps, a couple of episodes of CSI from the TiVo and maybe a little Tomb Raider."
"Quiet night then?"
I snorted. "That's me letting my hair down. Tomorrow I'll stick to one episode and skip the crisps. If I really push the boat out, I might do some work as well."
"Thought you looked after your kids. Didn't know you did other work."
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised he understood childcare to be a proper job. I was impressed with his careful choice of words, all the same. He didn't think I 'just' looked after my kids. I hated him a little less. "I do some IT support at a school but I wasn't meaning that. I'm writing a book about how to survive as a housedad before the children completely Swiss cheese my brain and I forget everything."
"Full of holes. It's a reference to, er... a TV show you're probably too young to remember. Never mind..." I trailed off into silence. I couldn't escape it - I was old and worn out. I felt in need of retirement.
Jake let out a long breath and visibly sagged. "Don't know how you do it."
"Look after three children all day, every day. This time on a Friday, I'm desperate to hand them back. Couldn't cope with Pop-Up Pirate! all weekend too. And I'm getting paid."
"I'm getting paid in some notional sense, if you figure the household as a partnership. My wife brings in income by going out to work; I reduce expenditure by working in the home. The profits sit briefly in our joint account before being spent frivolously on food and kid's shoes."
"Not sure that would get me out of bed to make them breakfast on a Saturday morning."
"Maybe not," I agreed. "I love them, though, even if they do make me tired. That gets us through most things... Besides, Marie comes and whines in my ear until I pour her some Shreddies." Somehow the thought of knitted cardboard sounded good and this made me appreciate how hungry I was. "Fancy a snack?"
Jake shook his head. "Sorry, used up the snack budget for this week already. But you take your lot to the café if you want. Don't mind us."
I chuckled. "What do you have in your backpack?"
Bizarrely, we had very similar bags. Mine was scuffed and ripped with a broken zip and one of the side pockets falling off. His looked shiny and nearly pristine.
"Nappies, wipes, changes of clothes, cream, plastic bags, more wipes and a list of emergency contact numbers."
"Uh-huh. All my kids are old enough to be properly toilet trained, so mine's stuffed full of..."
I opened the bag with a flourish.
"Raincoats?" said Jake hesitantly.
"Oh, I'd forgotten about those," I said as a whole bunch of wet weather gear fell out, along with a cuddly rabbit, a DS, some crayons, a notebook and, inexplicably, a ladle. "All right, it's stuffed half full of..."
I pulled the last of the junk clear and all five children appeared from nowhere.
"Chocolate!" they screeched.
I was suddenly popular.
I gave cartons of juice to Jake for him to put straws in and then handed round the packet of Penguin bars myself. Unfortunately, that was barely achieved before Marie stepped backwards just as Lewis stepped forwards. She tripped over his foot, sprawled flat on the ground and sent her chocolate flying into the spidery darkness beneath a display case. She burst into tears.
"Daddy!" she wailed plaintively.
I pulled her up and she clung to my legs before climbing onto my lap.
"I need a HUG!" she cried.
I cuddled her, sighed and gave her my own chocolate biscuit. She stopped crying but insisted on staying on my lap while she ate. (I guess I'm good for something.)
Then Lewis showered himself in juice and wanted to know why I hadn't brought any spare clothes with us.
"Would you rather have chocolate or dry trousers?" I countered.
Pondering this kept him busy most of the way home. I may be old and tired but I'm not entirely out of tricks yet.
Still, Jake wants us all to get together again soon. I'm not sure I can cope...
Yours in a woman's world,
PS Talking about nannies, as luck would have it, I got an email from a website called Nanny Share this week. They have a database of people wanting to split the hours and costs of a nanny in whatever fashion fits their schedule. You can enter a postcode and find out what arrangements people in that area are looking for. To contact them, or list your own requirements, you have to register, though. (It's currently £20 for a year.)
I'm not needing to try it out myself but it seems like a good idea. It's certainly worth mentioning to anyone you know who's looking for a fraction of a nanny...
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