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?"
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!"
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?"
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."
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,