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,