Dear Dave

Friday, 29 January 2010

At the school gate

Dear Dave,

Have a good one. You're long overdue a night out. It can't have been easy the last year or two, dealing with Daisy's poor sleep. Thank goodness she's finally settled down and Sam's over the bout of stroppiness he was having before Christmas. Life should get easier every day from here. Another few months and nappies will be behind you; another year and Daisy will be at nursery. After that, it's only a hop, skip and jump to Sam doing chores and Daisy being at school. At some point they might even be able to say 'please' and 'thank you' without being prompted. Hey, mine can all catch their own vomit in a bowl these days, which is a major step forward, I'm sure you'll agree.

Yep, you've done much of the heavy lifting of childcare already. The amount of man-handling you'll have to do will steadily decrease as the weeks go by and you'll be able to sit down and conserve your strength for threats, bribery and shouting. This will be tiring in its own way but nothing compared to the broken sleep and physical exertion of the early days. Get out and celebrate! It's great you've managed to stay in contact with some of your old mates and that they're understanding of your situation. With luck, you might even think of something to talk to them about other than children. Have a good one.

Personally, I'm short on practice of leaving the house at night. Working up the energy to go see Avatar is almost beyond me. As a kid, I dreamed of living within walking distance of a cinema but now I actually do, I can't summon up the motivation to go. It's cold and wet out there. I'd rather curl up in front of the TV.

The downside is that I've ended up sharing a social life with my children, gleaning adult conversation from talking to the parents of their friends. This situation started during the years of eating biscuits at toddler group, continued via countless chats outside the nursery door and now persists through the half hour I spend loitering in the playground each day.

These convenient friendships are fragile, however. I've mentioned before how easy it is to lose acquaintances made at parent and toddler - I'd speak to people every week for months and then they'd simply disappear. At school, it's even stranger than that. Now Fraser's older, his class comes out of school on the other side of the building. I still have to lurk where I've always lurked, waiting for Lewis and Marie, but most of the parents of Fraser's classmates have moved round to the other door. People I spoke to every day for four years, I suddenly hardly see.

Then there are those parents whose children were very friendly with Fraser in Primary 1 but have since drifted off into other social groups (usually because they're icky girls). I've been to these peoples' houses, drunk their coffee and had long chats taking an interest in their lives. Now we just smile unconvincingly at each other in passing as we hurry round to opposite ends of the school. Another few months and their kids will walk home by themselves. The parents will become nothing more than familiar-looking faces at open days and school shows. It's weird.

Of course, Marie starting school has introduced me to a whole new load of people and the parents of Lewis' friends are still hanging around. For the time being, I have plenty of people to talk to in the playground while trying to stave off hypothermia on a snowy Wednesday afternoon. Some I regard as proper friends.

I just wonder what happens when they move round the corner to the other door...

As it is, there are occasionally days when schedules and illnesses combine to leave me standing about without my normal clique. If enough kids are off sick, being collected by their gran or heading to After School Club, then I have to hunt around for company. Of the remaining parents, some don't speak English very well and some of the mums are wary of being spoken to by a strange man. Others I've simply never clicked with, unable to strike up a conversation which goes beyond the weather. Oh, and then there are the dads who have the day off and aren't thrilled to be spending it standing around a playground in subzero temperatures. Talking to them seldom goes well. They tend to view me as a lunatic when they find out I do it every day.

Last time I was stuck for someone to speak to, I was surprisingly glad to spot Trevor hunched by the school gate, looking uncomfortably out of place as he gazed at his own boots. We don't have much in common and having a chat with him can be hard going but we've helped each other through a couple of difficult situations in the past so there's enough mutual respect to bridge any awkward silences.

"Hi, there. How are you?" I said, adjusting my scarf against the chill wind.

Trevor stood there in a khaki t-shirt, seemingly oblivious to the cold. "Can't complain."

There was an awkward silence.

We had at least a couple of minutes until the bell went for the Primary 1s to come out and probably another five for them to actually appear. I tried again. "Is Karen working?"


I was about to launch into an extensive further series of Yes/No questions, beginning with 'Is she at the shops?' and ending with 'Is she taking another rollerblading class now her instructor's out of traction?'. Then I remembered that I am not my children. "What's she up to then?" I asked.

Trevor shrugged. "Didn't tell me. Said it was my turn to collect Malcolm." His tone told me there was a whole lot more he was keeping to himself. Given the scale of conflict I witnessed between the two of them in public recently, I feared what might have occurred behind closed doors. Rolling pins and machetes were not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. (And that was assuming Trevor had chosen not to defend himself.)

"You guys doing OK?" I said nervously.

"Can't complain," he repeated.

I nodded. If I lived with Scary Karen, I'd be too frightened to complain, too. Nonetheless, Trevor has served in a number of war zones. He's never told me exactly what he did there but he's such a big block of solid muscles they may simply have used him as armour-plating. Certainly, if the bomb ever drops, it's him I'm going to duck behind for cover. This being the case, I thought he might dare to venture something slightly more informative if I pressed him. "Well, if you ever need to talk about..."

"She wants more kids."

This was significantly less pressing than I'd been expecting. "What?" I said (with a touch of deja vu).

"She wants more kids - now William's started at nursery and all."

"He has?" I couldn't quite believe it. Then I did the maths and realised that it's three years since I first met Karen and her two boys.

"Yeah. She's thinking she's going to have to stop with the... er... you know..."

"Dressing him up as Diana Ross?"

"Not that."

"Tying him to railings while she goes and gets a haircut?"

"Yeah, but, er, no. I, er..." He made some suggestive gestures near his chest.

"Oh! Breast-feeding!" I said rather too loudly, like I'd just won at Charades, and doubtless giving some nearby mums even more reason to be wary of me.

"Yeah. That."

"Oh, right."

There was more awkward silence, punctuated by the school bell.

"Isn't she a little old for...?"

Trevor winced and glanced over his shoulder. "Keep it down - someone might hear. You don't want Karen finding out. She might go for you next time." He pulled up his t-shirt and pointed to one of his iron-hard pectorals. Despite all the hair, an area of fresh scars was clearly visible. There was a pattern too them. I made out bushy eyebrows, a bulbous nose and a hideous grin. I stared, hardly noticing that every other parent in the vicinity had begun cautiously backing away from us.

"She threw a gnome at you, didn't she?"

"One of her favourites."

Karen's collection of garden gnomes is almost legendary. The live web cam feed of the dozens in her front hall now gets several thousand hits a day. You might wonder why, but watch it long enough and you'll swear the little blighters are moving. Conspiracy theorists can't get enough.

I baulked at the thought of the level of rage that would be required to bring her to harm one her darlings. "Oh, goodness."

Trevor nodded. "She thinks she still has what it takes and she won't hear otherwise. Says she misses having little ones around. Not to mention, she reckons I'm doing such a good job with Malkey and Will, she thinks I could do with some of my own... Not that I don't think of them as my own." He looked over his shoulder again. "I didn't say that. That's how she put it. 'Some of my own,' she said. They were her words."

I was focused on one word in particular. "Some?"

"There's a history of triplets in her family."

"Oh..." Our gazes met and the brief moment of wide-eyed terror we shared conveyed as much as several hours of discussion. There was no need to say anything else on that particular topic. We stood there for a while and I bobbed up and down in an effort to keep warm. The Primary 1s still didn't appear. Time dragged on.

Eventually, I couldn't help opening my mouth. "So you don't want more kids?" I said.

"I don't know that now's a good time."

"When is a good time to have your life turned upside down?"

"I 'spose," said Trevor, rubbing his chin, but he didn't seem convinced.

Finally, the school door opened and children started running out. Marie skipped over in her luminous pink coat and gave me a hug, inadvertently whacking me in a private area with her lunchbox.

"You never know," I squeaked, "the next one might be a girl."

Trevor looked at my grinning limpet with pigtails and sparkly shoes. He went pale.

Then I was dragged off to play What's the Time, Mr Wolf? and before I managed to escape, he was gone. In his place was a different set of acquaintances, already arriving for the second bell and the release of the next batch of children. I smiled unconvincingly at the ones passing by on their way round the corner, then I went to rummage about in the remains of Marie's lunch to see if she had any food leftover. I managed to bag half a tub of chopped apple. I sat quietly eating it on a bench until Lewis appeared.

I guess I could have found someone different to talk to but, well, I'd had quite enough adult conversation for one day. I just wanted to get home to the TV...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Have a great time! (Maybe you could go see Avatar for me?)

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