Dear Dave

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,


Friday 16 October 2009

The hoarding horde

Dear Dave,

The pile was impressive.

It dominated the lounge, a tangled mass of play-things heaped together as if someone had rearranged a toy department using a JCB. Remember the big sculpture of the mountain that Richard Dreyfuss makes in Close Encounters? It was like that... but made of colourful plastic tat and pop-up books.

We stood there, transfixed. Somewhere deep in the middle of the mound, something settled onto the switch of a rubber Homer Simpson equipped with dying batteries. Its electronics warbled hauntingly. "Dee - di - doe - d'oh - daaaa!" Lights flashed. My children gazed up in wide-eyed awe.

Then the Jack-in-the-box on the top of the heap went sproing, dislodged itself and tumbled down in a landslide of bouncy balls and pull-and-go tractors, laughing evilly as it went.

We all leapt out of our skins.

Once the screaming had died down, I realised that Marie had run off and hidden under her bed covers. It took me five minutes to convince her that the scary clown wasn't going to leap out anymore. By that time, the boys had got bored and gone back to playing their computer games. It was another ten minutes after that before they'd found save points and switched off. Then I had to find Marie again...

Eventually we were assembled in the lounge once more and ready for the matter in hand.

"OK," I said, "I've spent the entire day going round the house collecting up all the stuff which you're either too old for or you never play with. In a minute, I'm going to put it in boxes and take it across the road to the Millennium Centre ready for the jumble sale Karen's organising. If there's anything you feel you absolutely have to keep, this is your chance to say so."

"I really love this," said Marie, holding up the Jack-in-the-box.

"A quarter of an hour ago, you thought it was going to eat you."

"I love it now. It's my friend."

"You're a bit old for Jack-in-the-boxes. We got it for Fraser for, like, his first birthday or something. He'd only had it a couple of days before he threw up into it and it still smells a bit funny. The tune doesn't even play properly."

She ignored me and hugged it to her chest. "I really, really want to keep it."

I sighed. "Er..."

"I want to keep this," said Lewis, grabbing a set of Shrek dominoes from the pile and setting off another avalanche of badges, Slinkies and miniature farmyard animals.

"You've had them a year and a half and the shrink-wrap is still on. Besides, we have at least three lots of dominoes that are already open." Since I felt it might confuse the issue, I didn't mention that two of those sets were also on the pile.

"But these are green and glow in the dark!"

I shook my head. "You could say the same for radioactive waste but we're not keeping any of that."

Marie took Lewis' side. "Let's go play dominoes in the dark!"

"It's day time," I pointed out.

"We can play in the bathroom," said Lewis. "It doesn't have any windows."

"Er..." I began but Fraser interrupted.

"I want to keep this."

It was a souvenir snow globe from somewhere we'd never been. The model inside was of the world's most sinister snowman and the liquid had all evaporated over the years to leave only a crusty layer of glitter on the inner surface of the dome. I'd found it in a storage tub, buried beneath a couple of years worth of discarded trinkets. "You want to keep that? Really?"

Fraser nodded. "I like it."

"It's ugly and broken," I snapped. "If you want to keep that, what else are you going to want to keep? We just don't have room in the house for all this stuff that no one ever looks at, let alone plays with. You're all going to have to agree to get rid of something."

Of course, it was never going to be that easy...

"I want to get rid of the Jack-in-the-box then," said Fraser.

"No!" shrieked Marie, clutching it tight.

"It was my birthday present. I can get rid of it if I want."

I felt a migraine coming on and rubbed my forehead. "Er..."

"It's mine now," said Marie. "I am the youngest, you know." She hugged it even tighter and then rescued a tiny kaleidoscope from the scree at her feet. "This is mine, too."

"No, it's not," whined Lewis. "It's mine."

"No! You're wrong! It was in my party bag from my birthday party."

He tried to take it from her. "I got it in a party bag ages ago."

"That was a different one," said Marie, fighting back. "This one's mine."

I cleared my throat nervously. Technically, they were both right. In an environmentally-friendly effort to save money and clear some space, I bulked out the goodie-bags at Marie's recent birthday bash with items from our drawer of novelties. That's the place where I put the contents of Christmas crackers, party bags, lucky dips and Kinder Eggs whenever they're abandoned on the kitchen table for more than a day or two. When I first started filling it, I imagined the drawer as an Aladdin's Cave of entertainment which the kids would investigate on occasion in order to pull out sufficient treasure to spend a few hours gaily solving sliding-block puzzles and fooling around with X-ray specs. They've never gone near it, though. It's become a holding location for stuff that I'd feel too guilty simply binning but that's too small and cheap to be worth handing in at a charity shop.

The drawer is very full, even after jamming in a scoop seventeen times to remove enough yo-yos, key-rings and whistles to palm off on all Marie's friends. Somehow, I doubt the children would find this much of a consolation if they were to discover the truth, however. The trauma of learning they only have a dozen spinning tops to never play with, instead of a score, might be too much for them...

Keen to avoid my dark secret being revealed, I took the kaleidoscope and used it to start a collection of stuff to save. "How about you share that one," I said, "and we can recycle the other one if we find it?"

They reluctantly agreed and we returned to sifting through the clutter. It took us nearly two hours of arguing, bargaining and wrestling to divide it all into two piles - one to go and one to keep. Then we stepped back to examine our handy work, hungry for tea and struggling to see in the gathering twilight.

To my despair, the pile to keep was bigger than the pile we'd started with. Outside, UFOs were circling, preparing to use the sickly glow of Shrek dominoes as a landing beacon. On the pile to go, Homer warbled his last few tones and then expired, surrounded by a handful of shells and a single red sock.

After a few moments of silence, I shook my head and went and rustled up some food. While the kids were eating, I crammed as much junk as possible back into the cupboards and draped a rug over the rest to disguise it as best I could. It didn't quite block the view of the telly from the sofa so the children happily ignored it when they returned and, somewhat predictably, went back to playing with the things they normally play with.

The 'pile' to go took rather less time to deal with. I threw the sock out because it had a hole in it despite no one remembering ever having worn it. Then, when Sarah got home, she insisted on keeping the shells for sentimental reasons.

I was left to put Homer in a box and phone Scary Karen to let her know I wouldn't be needing a particularly large table at the jumble sale...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 12 October 2009

The obvious

Dear Dave,

Sorry your mum tells you that you should get more sleep on every occasion she sees you. It may be true but it's not that helpful. With small kids around, the amount of time you have to yourself is limited. If you want to stay sane, you need to spend some of those meagre hours doing stuff you enjoy, not just snoozing. Of course you could do with more sleep but time to watch films with explosions is important too.

Parents can't help stating the obvious, though. I think I've worked out why:

Lewis was upset the other night because he'd spent three-quarters of an hour fighting a boss in a computer game and then lost, resulting in a frustrating 'GAME OVER' incident. Almost in tears, he came and explained how he'd kept making Mario jump on Bowser's head, only for Kami Koopa to heal the damage whenever it started to build up.

Luckily, I speak Nintendo. "Why didn't you go jump on Kami Koopa's head and knock her out first?" I asked.

Lewis stared at me. Then it was like a light bulb went on inside his brain. "Ooooh!" he said, a smile returning to his face. "I never thought of that." Ten minutes later, Bowser was a little puddle of pixels.

I was glad the problem was fixed but I was rather stunned that the solution hadn't been blindingly obvious. 'Take out the opposition's healer at the earliest opportunity' is such a basic gaming survival strategy, I wouldn't have imagined it needed pointing out, particularly to someone with as much thumb-waggling experience as Lewis. If he hasn't picked that up, what else hasn't he grasped? And I don't just mean in games - what about in real life?

Does he know not to split up and look for the monster, for instance? More than that, is he aware that anyone suggesting doing so is worth staying well away from? They're either so stupid that they're going to go hide in the same cupboard as the monster at any moment or they are the monster. They should clearly be avoided at all costs.

To be on the safe side, I'd probably better warn him not to invite any pallid, cape-wearing blokes with pointy teeth into the house and to be wary of mysterious, magical board games. There are any number of basic tips he might be unaware of. Golly, perhaps he doesn't even know that if he has a problem, if no one else can help, and if he can find them, he can maybe hire the A-Team...

All these things seem obvious but I'm going to have to explicitly state them to him or he's not going to survive for long in the modern world.

Speaking of which, I've had a go at Fraser a few times recently for not looking out for cars while crossing the road. He's fine on his own but as soon as he's with other people, he can get lazy and leave it up to them. On noticing this, I pointed out that now he's nine, it would be wise to take some responsibility for his own safety. He agreed and then immediately forgot, relying on me entirely at the next crossing. I had to threaten him with crazy levels of punishment in order to finally lodge the idea firmly in his head.

Once I'd achieved this, however, his chances of getting across a road in one piece dropped sharply. He decided that rapidly glancing this way and that, as if he was watching a table tennis match from six inches away, was an effective means of spotting approaching vehicles. I can only imagine it blurred his vision and made him feel dizzy - not ideal for dodging traffic. Worse, he spent most of the time looking the wrong way.

I had to explain that it's possible to reliably predict which direction cars are going to be coming from on a given section of road. It's still useful keeping half an eye out for confused drivers heading the wrong way but it's much more important to have at least 1.5 eyes alert for crazy drivers approaching on the correct side of the road. If they're smoking while using a mobile phone, they may be expending as much concentration on not setting fire to their own ear as on looking where they're going.

Fraser seemed remarkably surprised to learn that there's a pattern to traffic flow and that cars don't just randomly leap out from behind corners in an effort to frighten children. His road-sense is improving rapidly.

It turns out there's a reason why parents have a tendency to state the obvious - it's because it's frequently necessary.

Admittedly, most of the time it's deeply irritating but after a while it must become ingrained. Just nod and smile at your mum and remember that it won't be long before your kids are sighing at you as they prepare to go outside in a storm and you keep telling them to put coats on because it's raining.

(They won't listen, by the way. They'll go out in t-shirts, split up to look for monsters and then bring home a vampire for tea. You'll have to hire the A-Team to sort out the mess...)

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Say what you like about the brain-rotting effects of computer games but a few months ago Lewis' reading abilities were nothing to write home about and he had no interest in books. After spending the summer playing adventure games featuring vast amounts of written dialogue exploring Mario's motivations for jumping on Bowser's bonce, he's officially two years ahead of the curve and has started working his way through the Mr Men.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

The parenthood test

Dear Dave,

Sounds like you're signed up for one martial arts class too many. What with parent-and-toddler, GymTots, WaterBabies, KidKrafts and MiniMusic for Daisy, along with school, Fab Footie, Dramarama and Trampoleaping for Sam, you've got a hectic schedule. No wonder you sometimes find yourself halfway along the road with a selection of children and assorted sports kits, only to discover you've forgotten where you're going. I'd drop the Junior Judo if I were you. From what you say, it doesn't seem as if Sam's enjoying it anyway. It will mean the money you paid for the outfit goes to waste but think of all the cash you'll save on snacks, bus fare and renewing the subscription. He can always use the thing as a dressing gown.

Struggle through the next few weeks, though, and life should get easier. It's at this point in the year that the timetable is the most packed - school is back in full swing and every club and activity is up and running for the new academic year. There's always plenty of homework, a wealth of new programmes on the telly, a looming deadline for the wife and usually a spate of birthday parties as well. It's manic.

Technically, the spring is just as busy but despite the miserable weather, things don't seem as bad. The routine is well-oiled and there's the happy prospect of longer days ahead. Getting everyone where they're supposed to be with appropriate equipment and footwear doesn't seem so hard.

I suppose, in its own way, December is even busier but that's down to one-off festive events. These normally involve a steady supply of mulled wine and tasty snacks, which helps take the edge off running round in a mad panic trying to buy Great Aunt Edith a present while accompanied by a bunch of chocolate-filled children who are in transit between the AquaSoccer end-of-term tournament and the AeroboCello Christmas concert.

Nope, the autumn is when everything is craziest. It's very easy to lose track of what's going on, so I wouldn't worry too much about these occasional mental aberrations and parental lapses you've been suffering. That said, I can see why you find them disturbing. Believe me, I know where you're coming from (even if you're not entirely sure yourself). I woke up the other morning and didn't have a clue who I was or where I was meant to be. I was pretty certain I had to be somewhere, though.

I stumbled out of bed, pulled on some clothes, went out onto the landing, tripped on a box containing the complete Mr Men collection and fell down the stairs. Luckily, a huge pile of soft toys cushioned my fall. To my bewilderment, however, the impact set off a cacophony of electronic nursery rhymes, sound effects and big hug requests, and in an effort to escape, I crawled into the lounge and collapsed on the sofa. It was covered in remote controls and tambourines.

I still couldn't remember who I was but I began to suspect I had children...

Eventually it all came back to me and I got the kids up, fed and on the way to their various educational and social engagements. Then I went back to bed for a bit to recover. I suggest that you do the same if ever you get the opportunity - it'll minimise the long-term effects of parenthood.

You see, one day your children will have moved out and life will be simpler again but I'm afraid any neural damage you incur in the meantime is permanent. Get some rest or you'll become confused and disoriented like me. Who knows where you'll end up? You'll take your dry-cleaning for a trampoline lesson and then suddenly wonder where you left the kids.

You should really avoid this scenario if possible. It will all involve far too much explaining to child services.

Of course, it may be too late and your zombiefication may already have begun. You should prepare for the worst. Personally, I could have done with some warning about the houseful of children I was wandering into the other morning. As a consequence, I've considered leaving a note of their names and ages on my bedside table for reference in similar situations in the future. Unfortunately, I'd never remember to update it as they got older and, more than that, if I was really confuddled I might not believe what I was reading without further evidence anyway. ('I have a nine-year-old? What the...? When did that happen? The Millennium hasn't even arrived yet and I'm really looking forward to visiting that Dome. This is all some kind of joke. I just need to climb out of bed and go look in - Ow! LEGO! Ow! My foot! Ow!')

I can't be the only one with this problem, so I've compiled a helpful questionnaire for distribution to households throughout the land. You might want to keep it handy. It will help cut down on injuries and disaster should you ever find yourself roaming the house in a daze trying to remember your name and what you were doing:

Do you have children?
(and if so, how old are they?)

- An easy guide to spotting the tell-tale signs of parenthood

Lost? Tired? Confused? Covered in jam? This pamphlet is for you!

Unsurprisingly, these symptoms can be troubling and lead to high levels of anxiety and distress. Don't worry! There may be a simple explanation - you may be a parent. That's right, everything may be perfectly normal! In fact, it probably is. All you need do to be sure is answer the following questions and then add up your score. This will determine if you are, indeed, a parent and provide a rough approximation of the age of your children, allowing you to equip yourself appropriately:

1. Look at yourself in the mirror. Is the face staring back at you:

A. Full of health and vigour, with a twinkle still firmly in the eye? (1 point)
B. Relatively youthful but with a sickly, grey pallor and a splattering of banana porridge? (2 points)
C. Looking a little worse for wear but it's hard to tell with all the nervous twitching going on? (3 points)
D. Lined and jaded? (4 points)
E. Sagging and yet serene? (5 points)

2. What's on your lounge carpet?

A. I'm not sure, I can't see it for Duplo. (2 points)
B. Marbles. Lots and lots of... Argh! Thump... (3 points)
C. Muddy boot prints and half a pizza. (4 points)
D. Not much apart from a vast assortment of faded stains. (5 points)
E. I don't have a carpet. I have fashionable rugs, a glass-topped coffee table and a selection of fragile carvings of giraffes. (1 point)

3. Check your DVD collection. Does it mainly consist of:

A. The original Star Wars trilogy, The Matrix, Love Actually and The Shawshank Redemption? (1 point)
B. The complete works of Bob the Builder and the Teletubbies? (2 points)
C. Computer-animated movies involving talking animals and cute robots? (3 points)
D. Empty cases which have been left lying open on every available surface within five feet of the TV? The only discs visible appear to have been used as pizza toppings and then trodden on. (4 points)
E. A huge mix of accumulated tat. (5 points)

4. What's in the fridge?

A. A delicious selection of produce from around the world, ready to be whipped up into a nutritious meal. (1 point)
B. Lots of little tubs of slime. (2 points)
C. Vegetables, fresh fruit, twenty pints of milk and some Cheestrings. (3 points)
D. Absolutely nothing - it's been emptied out. Wait a minute... my beer's gone too, and the crisps! (4 points)
E. Cottage cheese and low-cholesterol margarine. (5 points)

5. Examine your TV and the surrounding area. What do you see?

A. An Xbox 360. (1 point)
B. Sticky fingerprints, an Xbox 360 and a sandwich in the DVD player. (2 points)
C. A Wii and an Xbox 360. (3 points)
D. A Wii, vast numbers of empty DVD cases and a void in the dust where an Xbox 360 used to be. A trail of muddy footprints and pizza leads off in the direction of a darkened bedroom. (4 points)
E. There is no TV. Looks like one of the bedrooms has been converted into a cinema, though, complete with projector and mini-bar. It appears the previous contents of the room have been tipped into bin bags and chucked out the window. (5 points)

6. What's in the laundry tub?

A. It's mainly shirts and underwear. (1 point)
B. Almost nothing. That must be why the washing machine is on. There is this funny bucket with a lid on, though. I'll just check what... Gag!... Somebody... Gasp!... call a Hazmat team... Wheeze... (2 points)
C. A hundred thousand pairs of grey school socks. (3 points)
D. I don't know but I think I saw something move in there. (4 points)
E. I can't get to it because someone's mistaken my house for a laundrette and dumped several bin bags full of dirty clothes in the utility room. (5 points)

7. Do the photos on display around the house feature:

A. You and your friends in interesting and varied locations? (1 point)
B. You holding babies? (2 points)
C. Children in school uniform trying to remember how to smile? (3 points)
D. People who look a bit like you (but much younger) and their friends in interesting and varied locations? (4 points)
E. People who look a bit like you (but much younger) holding babies? (5 points)

8. Examine the shoes in the shoe rack. What do you see?

A. What shoe rack? I only have one pair of shoes. Why would I need a shoe rack? (1 point)
B. A vast selection of Crocs, Wellies, sandals, trainers and school shoes spilling off the rack, down the hall and out onto the street. (3 points)
C. Huge, puffy trainers, combat boots, uncomfortably high heels and some flip-flops. (4 points)
D. Several pairs of sensible shoes (mainly female) plus plenty of extra space for when people come to visit at Christmas. (5 points)
E. There are no shoes in the shoe rack. They're all in the tumble-dryer. (2 points)

9. How many bedrooms does your house contain?

A. None. I have a futon. (-3 points)
B. One. (1 point)
C. Two, and one of them has a cot in it. (2 points)
D. Two, and one of them has bunk beds. (3 points)
E. Three. One with a cot AND one with bunk beds. (3 points)
F. Four. Oh, this isn't good - two of them smell really bad and another is covered with posters of Zac Efron. (4 points)
G. Five. Worryingly, they all have bunk beds. (Stop counting and run)
H. One. But I do have my own cinema, gym, jacuzzi and study... (5 points)

Well done. You've completed the questionnaire. Now add up the score and discover if you have children:

6-20 points. You have young children. You are suffering from a mixture of sleep deprivation, exposure to biological waste and a caffeine overdose. Go have a lie down after you've made sure the kids are all properly fed, cleaned, clothed and caged. (This may take some time...)

21-30 points. You have children. They've driven you slightly mad but they're probably entertaining themselves happily by destroying the house. Find them and make them do their homework.

31-43 points. You have older children. They'll be in their rooms or helping the police with their enquiries. You're blacking out because you don't want to know which. Teenagers are self-cleaning, however, and can look after themselves for short periods, so it's OK to leave the house and go buy some more food. (Remove the fluff from the pizza if you need something to keep you going. You almost certainly paid for it, after all!)

44+ points. You have children... but they've left home. Result! You don't have to remember where they are. Go put your feet up while playing computer games in your underpants.

If you scored less than 6 or found the questions impossible to answer, you probably don't have children. You have a hang-over. Go put your feet up while playing computer games in your underpants. (Make sure they're clean underpants - it'll minimise the embarrassment should you discover that you do in fact have children, you're simply in someone else's house.)

Whatever your situation, we hope you found this information useful and that it will help you cope with the next few minutes, hours and decades! Good luck!

Compiler's disclaimer:

Of course, it should be noted that when I hired a pest control guy to deal with my rodent issues a couple of years ago, he failed to find many droppings, spot any visible damage or detect any suspicious odours. As a consequence, he thought I was paranoid and exaggerating the extent of the problem.

I wasn't. The mice were everywhere - they were merely clever enough to clean up after themselves.

Similarly, just because there aren't any signs of children immediately apparent in your home, that doesn't mean they aren't there. They may be hiding behind the sofa, desperately whispering to each other in an attempt to devise a plausible excuse for the honey in the tumble-dryer (mixed in with the shoes). It's always worth double-checking.
That should sort out some of your confusion but try to take it easy when you can anyway. You don't... Oh, is that the time? Fraser has a Street Dance & Hip Hop taster session. (He's not thrilled but it's free.) I'd better go. All the best...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 2 October 2009

These biscuits taste kind of strange...

Dear Dave,

Useless Dad was through the door before I had a chance to stop him. "Just passing. Thought we'd call in and see how you were doing."

This was a lie. I knew full well he'd come to eat my biscuits and probably tap me for some free childcare. Unfortunately, I had a slice of toast sticking out of my mouth, the door handle in one hand and a small plastic fishing rod in the other. I was powerless. Holding his two-year-old like a battering ram, Steve shoved past me and came into the house. I just stood there in my pyjamas and stared at him.

"Is the kettle on?" he asked. "I got in eighteen holes this morning but it was perishing out there. Didn't have time for a coffee when I went home to collect... erm..." He peered down to check which of his children he was holding. "...Josquin."

I closed the door and began to chew rapidly - Josquin was already on the ground and beginning to climb up the stairs. Shaking my head, I made frantic grunting noises, gurgled crumbs and waved the brightly-coloured fishing rod at him.

Useless Dad took off his coat. "It's fine," he said, noticing my concern. "He's much more used to steps now. He doesn't fall on his head half as often."

I shook my own head and the rod even harder. "NNNnnnn. Nnn. Nn-nn!" I said urgently through a mouth full of toast.

"Is that toy stuck to your hand?" Steve asked.

"Nnn?" I replied, taken by surprise. He was right, though. I'd been fixing the handle, carefully holding the pieces together while the super-glue dried. In my distress, I'd made a disastrous alteration to my grip.

Steve reached over. "Would you like some help?"

"Nnnn?!" I was too slow again. He grabbed hold of me. "Nn-nn! Nn, nn, nn, nn..."

Unfortunately, he wasn't going to take 'nn' for an answer.

"NN!" I squealed as he removed the toy (and several layers of skin) from my hand.

"Nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I'm always doing it myself."

Using extreme strength of will, I ignored him and concentrated on grabbing Josquin and herding him into the kitchen.

Steve followed us through. "I expect he was on his way to the lounge to find some toys."

I nodded and swallowed. "It's just..." I stopped for a second to catch my breath. "It's just that the lounge is kind of full of goblins at the moment."

"Uh-huh." Steve had already stopped listening and was sifting through the digestives in the biscuit tin, looking for one with chocolate on it. Then a thought struck him. He peered around the room suspiciously. "Where are your children?"

"At school."

It was his turn to nearly choke. "What? All of them?"

"Yeah," I said, examining my wound to check it wasn't bleeding. "The Primary 1 class moved on to full days last week."

Steve checked under the table. "So where's Marie?"

"At school." This didn't seem to make him any less perplexed, so I added, "With the rest of the Primary 1 class."

"Marie's in Primary 1 already?"

"Er... Yes." He clearly hadn't been paying attention for several years, so I thought I'd better refresh his memory. "Lewis is in Primary 3 and Fraser's in Primary 5."

"Are you sure?"


"They're all at school?"


He raised his eyebrows, shrugged and then looked confused. "So what do you do all day?"

I resisted the urge to slap him but this was mainly due to the fact my hand was already sore rather than any reserves of inner calm. Thankfully, I was distracted at that point by Josquin discovering the controls of the oven. "Why don't we go find the toy cooker?" I said, prising him off the real thing.

"I thought there was a problem with the lounge," said Steve, making himself a coffee.

"There is. I've got stuff out. Give me a minute to clear some space."

Steve nodded but I was barely halfway up the stairs before I heard the others following behind me. "I come play!" squeaked Josquin.

I raced up the last few steps and hurried into the lounge. The carpet was covered with the sprawling floorplan of a dungeon, laid out from inter-locked sections of squared card. Little plastic heroes and monsters were poised ready for a scrap in one of the corridors. Scattered around them were piles of dice, cards and rulebooks. Everything was exactly where I'd left it a few minutes beforehand, safe in the knowledge that it would be hours until any children came home to interfere, deface or destroy. I hadn't counted on visitors.

Josquin entered the room, jiggled up and down in excitement and then stomped forwards like Godzilla on the set of The Lord of the Rings, saliva dribbling out the side of his mouth.

"Woh!" I put myself between him and the game. "Hold it right there. These are my toys. You can play over there." I steered him towards the tired-looking toy kitchen by the window and the associated pile of ageing artificial vegetables. He immediately burst into tears and threw himself at the floor in a huff.

Unable to believe my luck, I abandoned him completely and took the opportunity to gather up my Warhammer collection and put it safely away.

"Did the boys leave that out?" asked Steve, sitting down on the sofa with his coffee and the biscuit tin.

"Nope. I was taking advantage of having a couple of hours of free time and the house to myself, to recapture some of my lost youth."

"Playing a board game against yourself?"

"I was a very geeky youth. Pass me that orc, will you?"

Steve chuckled as he picked up the inch-high figure at his feet and handed it to me. "I'm sure it must be nice having time to lie around in your pyjamas."

"It is," I said, finally getting all the pieces back in the box. Then I cleared the coffee table, moving the selection of the kids' toys which I'd been fixing and putting them out of Josquin's reach, along with my laptop which was busily converting a story tape to MP3. I also glanced at the clock to check how long it was before I had to rescue the loaf from the breadmaker. That reminded me I'd been so busy with chores earlier that I'd forgotten to have breakfast. "Get to the golf course much these days?" I asked.

"Only a couple of times a week," he said sadly. "Unless you count entertaining clients."

"Shame..." I said with the least amount of sincerity I thought I could get away with. I sat down on the armchair, skirting round Josquin as I went. He still had his face buried in the carpet and was whining and sobbing in a generally unpleasant fashion. I've had my own children display this sort of behaviour on more than enough occasions, however, to dissuade me from passing judgement on Steve's parenting skills. Sometimes kids throw a wobbly for no good reason and there's nothing to be done but to leave them to it until they get bored and cheer up. "How's the management consultancy going?"

Steve's face lit up with scary, bureaucratic zeal at the mention of the subject. "Very well. Very well indeed. It's heartening how eager organisations are to analyse their fundamental values and procedures in the face of tough market conditions and re-invent themselves in a more efficient and cost-effective form. Often companies already know which difficult decisions need to be made; all I have to do is encourage and facilitate the change. It's extremely satisfying."

"Uh-huh," I murmured and tried not to imagine the havoc he was single-handedly causing to the economy.

"Yes, it's merely a case of putting in place a transparent decision making structure and establishing a clear system of responsibilities and incentives. Let me show you."

Steve rattled the biscuit tin and whistled. Josquin stopped crying instantly, got up and scurried over. Steve held a custard cream in front of the boy's wide eyes and said, "Are you going to be good?"

Josquin nodded, grabbed the biscuit and then proceeded to eat it in such a fashion that more of it got smeared over the furniture than went down his throat. Nonetheless, the strop was over and he set about occupying himself by quietly and methodically emptying my DVD racks.

"Works every time," said Steve smugly.

I frowned. "What about when he has a tantrum because he's not allowed another biscuit?"

"Oh, yes, even then."

The urge to pass judgement became harder to resist.

"I think I'll go make myself a coffee," I said.

Steve looked at his own in mild embarrassment. "Oh, sorry, I assumed you had some already. You should have mentioned it."

"Don't worry about it." Truth be told, I was glad of an excuse to get out of the room and find somewhere to privately bang my head against a wall. I took my time. When I returned, Josquin had moved on to clearing the bookshelf and the air was tinged by a whiff of swamp.

I sat down and sipped my drink. Then, in as off-hand a manner as I could manage, I asked, "Is Josquin out of nappies yet?"

"I wouldn't know. Deborah's been handling that."

"Might be worth finding out."

"I suppose so. I'll look into it." Rather than getting up, however, he reached for the biscuits.

"I meant now."

"What? Oh... Right, yes, I see what you mean."

Steve rattled the big, round tin to attract Josquin's attention and then called him over. A quick check down the back of his son's trousers revealed substantially less absorbent material there than either of them was entirely used to.

"Do you need the toilet?" Steve asked, suddenly nervous.


"Then let's go downstairs and..."

Josquin screwed up his fists and face in preparation for another tantrum. "I need toilet NOW!"


"Pee! Pee!"

A brief interlude of chaos ensued.

* * *

"Well, there we are," said Useless Dad a few minutes later as he settled back on the sofa. "No harm done."

I wasn't completely convinced but at least we'd managed to save the carpet. "Pity you brought Ophelia's dance kit rather than the changing bag," I said, opening a window.

Josquin wandered over in a pink leotard and gossamer skirt. "Want biscuit!"

"That's maybe not such a good idea," said Steve, pulling a face.

"You think?" I moved a toy garage into the middle of the room. Josquin began yanking levers and pressing buttons, temporarily pacified. "Where's Deborah? I thought she was looking after the children these days."

"I have the day the off and so I offered to take Josquin for a few hours. It will give Deborah a chance to go to the gym, and such like, while Ophelia's at school."

My eyes narrowed. I suspected this wasn't the whole story. "Is it her birthday or something?"

"No, no."

"Then why...?"

Steve leaned forward conspiratorially. "She's becoming broody. Now she's going to parent-and-toddler again, she keeps cuddling babies. She's constantly talking about them - about their adorable giggles and cute little hands." He shivered. "I thought time to herself might do her some good - stop her getting ideas, if you understand what I mean."

I did, but knowing Deborah, I suspected it was a ruse. As like as not, she was simply trying to scare him into easing her childcare burden so she could invest more hours and energy in her interior design business. "You could hire a new nanny," I suggested, in an effort to help her out. "It went OK with What's-his-name until he disappeared off to start teacher training, didn't it?"

"Yes but the expense! Do you realise how much nannies cost?"

"It would be cheaper than another child, particularly if you're wanting them all to go to private school. How much is it a year at that place you send Ophelia to?"

Useless Dad blanched.

"Exactly," I said.

Steve considered his options a little. "Now I think about it, perhaps Deborah could do with some regular assistance." He stood up. "I might drop by the agency and see if they have anyone available for interview. I've a few people I need to see in town anyway. Would you mind watching Josquin for an hour or two?"

I rolled my eyes. "OK," I said, more for Deborah's sake than his. "Just make sure you're back by half two. Oh, and you can buy me a new biscuit tin while you're there."

"Seems reasonable."

We all headed downstairs and I set Josquin to doing some drawing in the kitchen. It wasn't as comfy as the lounge but there was the benefit of laminate floor and plastic covers on the seats.

"I shouldn't be long," said Steve, putting on his coat and heading out of the door.

Strangely, I didn't entirely believe him...

Yours in a woman's world,