I met another housedad the other day.
Not one who’s just starting out and will have given up by Easter. Not one who’s sharing childcare duties with his partner. Not one who’s just filling in for a few months while looking for a job. Not one who hands over his kid the moment his partner gets in from work. In short, not some bloke with a child, who happens to have found himself hanging around at home a lot.
An actual housedad. I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think he did either.
Luckily, it was Scary Karen who introduced us so she dived into the awkward silence without even so much as checking there was water at the bottom. “Housedads are sexy. Anyone ever tells you otherwise then send them to me. Don’t take this the wrong way but, just so you know, I find a man who can look after children very attractive. There was a housedad on Jeremy Kyle this morning. His partner said he wasn’t sexy anymore. Had him sleeping on the couch. Bloody cheek! He was chasing after her kids all day and she wasn’t even up for a bit of...’
“Er...” I said but then she was away on a stream of thought that was at once horrifying and strangely fascinating, like a slow-motion train wreck. I stood there, unable to get a word in edgeways, and gradually became mesmerised by her coat buttons. They contained flashing blue lights which seemed to be sending me a message in Morse code.
Despite it being cold and wet and miserable, we were at the swing park after school. Marie is oblivious to the weather and was running about in a short-sleeved polo shirt. I’ve given up telling her to put her coat on. She’s nine - if she wants to freeze then that’s up to her; I’m not going to have a fight over it. Both Karen’s kids were there. Billy is a couple of years or so younger than Marie. He was stalking pigeons with a brick. Malc is in Marie’s class and he was busy throwing a stone straight up in the air and then looking skyward to see where it landed. Despite at least one trip to casualty I’m aware of, this seems to be his favourite pastime at the moment. In comparison, Marie’s refusal to don appropriate clothing on occasion feels like a trifling issue.
At least the thick balaclavas Karen makes her kids wear give Malc’s head some padding. They also contain tracking devices the children don’t know about in case one of them wanders off (or tries to pull a bank heist). She's very keen on her gadgets. Last year she joined one of those make-money-from-home schemes to supplement her shifts at the supermarket and she’s been handing out little catalogues of wonder products to anyone she meets ever since. I get one every month and every month I feel compelled to buy something because... well, because this is Scary Karen we’re talking about.
Unfortunately, there are only so many hassle-free corkscrews and non-slip welcome mats that one man needs (or can give as Christmas presents). I’ve had to branch out into purchasing some of the more unusual items. I have an inflatable dog, a small tub of iron filings and a doorstop with a built-in compass. I even have my own homing balaclava that I keep claiming to have lost but which Karen keeps tracking down for me. Looking at her as she talked, I imagined a strip of high-visibility material with half a zip on either edge and a row of flashing buttons along its length finding itself slotting into the front of my fleece jacket pretty soon. I couldn’t help noticing that Andy, the other housedad, already had one. The buttons on his suddenly turned red and started blinking alternately.
Andy glanced at the tangled knots of my self-tying shoelaces and we exchanged long-suffering nods.
Then there was a thunk and a scream and Karen had to go and give Malc some attention. Her twenty-seven piece first aid and emergency plumbing kit was already in her hand...
Andy and I were left to talk to each other. Turns out that he doesn’t play computer games and I don’t do judo. He likes literary fiction and I like sci-fi. He’s a Scottish Nationalist and I’m English. And so it went on... We have almost nothing in common. Every topic it was like X-Factor vs Strictly, United vs City, Marmite vs, er... Marmite. We gave up in the end and just talked about the kids. It was pleasantly amiable.
“Fancy a cup of tea?” Andy said after a while.
“Sure,” I replied, expecting him to pull out a flask. Instead he took a cup from his pocket with his right hand, held it under his left hand and then made an odd motion with his wrist. Hot, milky tea gushed out of his sleeve and filled the cup. He handed it to me. I stared. “What the...?”
Andy blinked with surprise. “You haven’t got one?” Then he unzipped his coat with a flourish to reveal something very much like a life-jacket underneath. Its tubular compartments rippled with liquid as he spoke. “Hot drink dispensing waistcoat! Keeps me warm and saves me having to go to Starbucks.”
Andy did his coat back up, located another mug and poured himself a cuppa. “Yeah, not all Crazy Karen’s stuff is useless. It's a real pain to clean, though, and I did fill my pocket with coffee while trying to get out my bus fare a couple of times when I wasn’t used to it but it’s great on days like this.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t spot that in the catalogue,” I said, sipping my tea. It tasted slightly unusual in a rubbery kind of way but was gloriously hot and caffeinated nonetheless. “I’m getting one next time... Oh, I call her Scary Karen, by the way.”
“Really? She’s a character for sure but she’s always looking out for people. She wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
I frowned. “You obviously haven’t seen her chase a shoplifter while whirling a toaster above her head on the end of its power cable.”
“Tesco moved her over to security a few weeks back. She almost took out half the small electricals aisle on her first day. They got her to calm down a little after that but thefts have still plummeted. The main problem now is that ordinary customers are walking into the shop with stuff they’ve bought elsewhere and then getting so nervous about trying to leave without paying for it, they’re sneaking it onto the shelves. You never know what you’re going to find lurking amongst the cans of soup - could be anything from crisps to condoms. They found a prosthetic foot in with the frozen peas the other day. I can only wonder at the level of terror she must have instilled to make that seem like a good idea.”
“You’re not kidding - that is scary.”
“Aye, and she’s coming back over here. Act natural. Tell me about your buttons...”
So we stood around chatting a while longer and listened to Karen talk in great detail about her recent hot flushes. Then it started to get dark, and Marie and I didn’t have illuminated coats to keep us safe crossing roads, so I made our excuses and left.
I’ve seen Andy around a few times since. We’ve exchanged greetings, discussed the weather, had a moan about all the dog mess in the park, that kind of thing. I doubt we’ll ever be best mates but it’s nice having someone who I’m certain understands. I have an ally. I don’t have to explain my strange housedad world. I don’t have to justify anything or explain everything. He already knows and knowing he’s there gives me a warm feeling...
...or maybe that’s just my new waistcoat. It doesn’t really matter, I’m pleased either way.
Yours in a woman’s world,