It was Fraser's tenth birthday at the weekend. The Big One Zero. It hardly seems possible. He's gone from a gangly, stinky baby with very loud burps to a gangly proto-teenager with unruly hair in the blink of an eye.
It doesn't feel that long ago he was struggling to figure out how to smile. Now he can use the internet, perform long multiplication in his head and answer back sarcastically when I tell him to do stuff. Some things never change, though - the stink is different but the burps are still the same.
To mark the occasion, he invited some friends bowling and then we went to Pizza Hut. It all went relatively uneventfully for an outing involving half a dozen ten-year-old boys. We made sure, however, to return the guests to their respective parents as quickly as possible once they were full of free refills of Tango and as much ice-cream and sprinkles as they could eat. This seemed only wise.
Seeing as Sarah and I were also celebrating an entire decade of parenthood, Rob and Kate came round to visit once we were home. It doubled as a chance to show off the new kitchen (despite the fact it's STILL not quite finished yet).
They have two children themselves now, if you recall. Then again, you probably don't. Heck, if you're anything like me, you probably forget how many kids you have yourself half the time. My brain was Swiss-cheesed by parenthood years ago. Trying to keep track of everyone else's offspring is beyond me.
I suppose that wasn't always the case. At the start, every fresh arrival we heard about was exciting. When we had Fraser, we didn't know many other people with kids so it was great to finally have confederates with whom we could share our experiences. Suddenly, my in-depth knowledge of washable nappies made me a hit at parties. (Admittedly, these were the kind of parties where they serve fairy cakes and orange squash rather than beer and pretzels but when you have young children, you take what you can get.)
After a while, though, the scattered arrival of wailing bundles in cute little hats turned into a steady stream. They ceased being so exciting and became more of a way to offload some of the surplus tiny clothes and baby equipment we had clogging up our cupboards. Eventually, a torrent of siblings coupled with my own lack of sleep made remembering the names of the bundles difficult. These days, I'm lucky if I recollect which of my old acquaintances have kids, let alone how many and what they're called.
I'm vaguely aware of the many hours I spent coaching Rob through the panic and uncertainty of becoming a father in the weeks before his eldest was born but that seems a world away. Luke's two now and my own life has moved on. Babies are long ago. My knowledge of washable nappies is outdated and obsolete. To be honest, I forgot Rob had another child on the way until I got the text message saying she'd arrived.
Well, actually, the message was mainly Rob asking me to record the new episode of Stargate for him but I got the idea. Everything went smoothly and they even managed to decide on a name. Kate was keen on Rose, Martha and Donna. Rob was wanting Leia at first and held out for Buffy for a while. In the end, they settled on Willow.
Saturday was my first real chance to get a look at her. With five children between us, meeting up is something of a logistical issue. My lot have a packed social timetable. Rob and Kate, meanwhile, are still struggling to get out of the house with two. They turned up late and loaded with enough luggage to mount a polar expedition. Rob had to take three trips to bring in all the carry cots, changing bags, coats, blankets and toys.
There were ten frantic minutes of everyone talking at once, followed by a very dubious rendition of Happy Birthday as I brought out a cake with a surprising amount of fire on top. I served it up and handed out drinks but I hadn't had a chance to eat a piece before my kids scattered to the far reaches of the house in order to escape the small children. Shortly afterwards, Sarah and Kate disappeared to the lounge for a natter while they watched Luke play. Rob and I were left in the kitchen to try and settle Willow.
"This is nice," said Rob, rocking her gently in his arms.
"Thanks," I replied before I realised he wasn't talking about the new cupboards - he was examining the little cardboard iPod holder I've tacked to the noticeboard above the sink so I can watch repeats of Top Gear while doing the washing up.
"Want a shot?" he said, offering me his gurgling bundle. "Go on. You know you do."
"Oh, all right. She is kind of adorable." I took her and started pulling faces until she giggled.
Rob grinned. "It's not too late for you to have another one yourself."
"Hah! She's not that adorable. Plus, I get to hand her back to you as soon as she starts getting soggy."
"There is that but don't tell me you're not getting nostalgic."
I shrugged. "On the one hand, it's a shame not having a small, cute one around but, on the other... I'm not sure I could hack it, physically or mentally. I need more sleep than I used to, I have to be careful with my back and I've started heckling Bob the Builder. Besides, I think I've finally eradicated all the remaining milk stains coating the house from when the other three were small."
"Including the one behind the bookcase in the lounge?"
I stopped pulling faces and turned my attention to Rob. He looked like he had a confession coming on. I raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I want to know but..."
"Remember that one time you got me to babysit when Lewis was small?"
"Yeah, we hadn't even reached the cinema before you called us back. You had two bottles of milk, a Teletubbies video and a cuddly rabbit to keep him quiet and you managed to blow through them all in twenty minutes. And you woke Fraser up."
"You were going to see Lost in Translation. I did you a favour."
"I suppose but what's that got to..." A long-buried memory surfaced. "Hang on, I thought that bookcase had moved a couple of inches to the right but I assumed it was just the fevered imaginings of my sleep-deprived brain. I... Oh... How much milk are we talking?"
He raised his hands defensively. "It's OK. I gave the wallpaper a wipe and a quick spray with some carpet cleaner before I hid the evidence."
"I couldn't find the anti-bac."
"Don't worry about it," said Rob, sitting down and helping himself to his third piece of cake. "Wouldn't be surprised if Luke pees all over your lounge carpet in a minute. That'll cover over any lingering odour."
"Cheers," I sighed and sat down opposite.
"Any time. Still, can't believe you have a ten-year-old. Even Marie's got big. Doesn't seem long since she kept trying to eat my PS2 controller and now she's challenging me to a game of New Super Mario Brothers."
"She'll beat you as well. You'd better watch out - she's merciless with a blue shell."
"Figures." He cut me a slice of cake, too, and handed it over. "What about Dave? You still writing to him with helpful advice?"
I snorted. "He knows more about parenting small children than I do now. I've forgotten half of it. My letters have turned into quick updates on funny things the kids have said. I should maybe just learn to use Twitter and be done with it."
"Might want to get the hang of Facebook first. Kate's beginning to get suspicious you haven't confirmed her friend request."
"Oh, yeah, sorry, I forgot."
"And you never reply to my comments on your Wall."
"I have a Wall?"
"Very funny." He cut himself yet another piece of cake. "What? I'm barely getting any sleep. Have to keep myself going somehow."
"Want a coffee?"
"In a minute. Once I've started on your chocolate bars."
I grinned. "I remember those days." There was a pause in the conversation as I nibbled at my cake and he devoured his.
"It is kind of like old times seeing you holding a baby," he said as he mopped up the crumbs. "Sure you don't want another one?"
As if on cue, Willow burped explosively, smiled, waved her arms about and giggled. She really was adorable.
"See! You've still got the touch."
"Well..." I began again, "it's..."
Then she was copiously sick all down my front and onto what was left of my cake.
I handed her back.
Yours in a woman's world,