Kids, Cuddles & Caffeine Extract

Useless Dad

Dear Dave,

I met a Useless Dad yesterday.

You can usually tell them by the air of bafflement surrounding them but there are often other giveaway signs:

– They think three minutes is a long time for a baby to have been crying.

– They are convinced that their partner has magical baby-whispering powers and so looking after children is easier for her.

– They try and read the paper at parent and toddler and have plans to work from home later.

– The baby strapped to their front is upside down and kicking them in the face.

I don’t mean novice dads here; I mean perfectly capable men who see having a family as an infestation of little people that the wife deals with. It’s not that they don’t like kids, it’s that they’re not entirely aware of them. The other week, I was talking to a mum with two children at parent and toddler (not Scary Karen’s one, the one with the great biscuits but hard seats). Her eldest was three years old but she’d only left her husband in charge on his own for a couple of hours ever. “When I came back,” she said, “the baby hadn’t been changed or fed and my daughter had drawn all over herself with felt-tips. I’m never leaving him alone with them again.”

“So you’re going to do all the work while he sits around drinking beer?” I replied. “Are you sure that wasn’t his plan all along?”

Realisation dawned. “I never thought of that,” she said.

“Maybe you should give him a bit of training.”

She pursed her lips as if contemplating the possibilities. “Maybe I should,” she said in the manner of an evil genius holding a cute bunny and a pair of electrodes, and smiled to herself.

I slipped away to find a chocolate digestive, knowing my work there was done.

Anyway, I was at the same parent and toddler yesterday and saw a guy looking uncomfortable and I went over to chat with him. He was perched on the edge of his chair, holding a six-month-old as if the kid was about to explode. Every so often, he peered nervously across at the drawing table; the rest of the time he looked around shiftily, trying not to make eye-contact with anyone breast-feeding.

“Hi there,” I said. “Have you been here before?”

“No. My wife told me to take the morning off work while she goes for a massage.”

“Wow,” I said, not quite sure where my sympathy lay.

“That’s the second time since Easter she’s just gone off and dumped the kids on me.”

“Wow...” I repeated, suspecting my sympathy had sloped off to the gym for a good rub down. “That’s, like, nearly once a week.”

“I know. She never did this before. Then she was talking to this guy she met somewhere and decided I should ‘take more of an active role’. She said the guy looks after his kids all the time, so I should be able to manage it now and then. Calls himself a homedad or something. Can you imagine?”

“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” I said. The baby was starting to seem familiar and I noticed that a three-year-old girl at the drawing table was busy on a kaleidoscope of felt-tip butterflies that already stretched most of the way up her arm.

“Do you know how to stop this baby crying?” said Useless Dad. “He’s been doing it for five minutes and I can’t get him to be quiet. He’s never like this for Deborah. It’s probably the smell. Something smells terrible in here.”

I nodded. “Yeah, kind of like an unchanged nappy.”

I heard the refreshments being set out and I made to slip away but then I noticed the pleading look on the baby’s face. It was the look of a small child who has been screaming to no avail for a while and is in desperate need of a translator (or a t-shirt with the slogan ‘I’m sitting in poo, you idiot!’).

I sat back down. “You might want to check your son,” I said to Useless Dad.

“What?”

“His nappy.” The man looked blank. “You know, you might want to check it.”

“Oh! Right...” He investigated with slightly less care than was wise and then swore. “Where did that come from?” I stayed quiet, hoping it was a rhetorical question, and he continued, “It was only an hour ago that Deborah changed him. What am I going to do now?”

This appeared not to be a rhetorical question. I glanced over to check on Marie. She was dressed up as Bob the Builder and was happily playing with a stuffed toy of Postman Pat, trying hard to saw him in half. I sighed. I could have done with an emergency to be called away to. “Do you want me to talk you through it?” I said reluctantly.

And I really had to. He opened the changing bag like he had no idea what was inside and things went downhill after that. He got there in the end but I had to resist the urge to intervene on several occasions.

“I take it you’ve changed a few nappies then,” said Useless Dad when we were done.

“One or two,” I said and decided to come clean. “My wife goes out to work and I stay home and look after the kids.”

“Oh, really?” he said, not quite getting it. “I’d rather have a rest at the weekend than babysit. Deborah’s thinking of doing something a few hours a week but I’m trying to talk her out of it. It’s not like we need the money and, honestly, she’s much better with the kids than I am. Doesn’t really seem worth it.”

“No, my wife works full-time,” I said but it was like he couldn’t hear me and then he had to rush home. He had some work he wanted to get done. He packed up his stuff and strapped on his baby-carrier.

“That’s upside down,” I said.

“I know,” he said nasally, his son’s foot wedged up his right nostril. Then he grabbed Butterfly Girl and dragged her out the door. I shook my head and made my way towards the refreshments.

Marie was still putting her tools to good use as I went past. “I hammer Postman Pat to table,” she said.

“Good girl,” I replied and hurried to get my tea before the mugs ran out.

The whole experience was quite an eye-opener. Mums give me a huge amount of credit for being a stay at home dad but I only do as much as they do. If they’re dealing with partners anything like Useless Dad, I’m doing a darn sight less. Sarah is more than willing to help look after the kids when she’s not at work and it sounds like your Liz is the same. They may not know exactly where the pastry cutters are kept or which day the bins go out but they can be trusted to look after the kids for entire days at a time. They don’t grudge it either.

We should probably appreciate them more. I’ll keep reminding you, if you keep reminding me. Deal?

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

In memory of the changing unit

Dear Dave,

The changing unit has gone.

No, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to be more impressed than that. I’ll write it again. The changing unit has gone. I hope you clapped politely that time. (Count yourself lucky – if you were American, I would have to insist on you punching the air while making a loud whooping sound.)

A chapter has ended. I’ve been changing nappies on that unit almost every day for seven years. That’s a lot of nappies. Three children for two and a half years each. Assuming an average of six nappies a day per child, that’s over 16,000 nappies. That’s a lot of nappies. OK, I didn’t change all of them, but I changed a good load of them. At least 12,000, I’d say. That’s still a lot of nappies.

Thinking back, it seems like only yesterday I first placed Fraser on that changing unit and gingerly investigated the small swamp he had wrapped round his nether-regions. So many memories! How about the time I was in the middle of dealing with him and heard a tinkling noise six feet away on the other side of the room but spent several seconds wondering like an idiot what it might be? Or the time he peed in his own ear (and he cried when I laughed)? Or the time Lewis spewed forth copious liquid evil from his backside that went everywhere (and he laughed when I cried)?

Ah, happy days...

You’ve probably blanked many of the messiest moments of your own experience from your mind but, with a baby on the way, they’re all going to come back to you pretty soon. I remember, in the early months of being a new parent, talking a great deal about the contents of nappies. Fraser would produce and then Sarah and I (and any lucky visitors) would gather round and peer closely, trying to discern his health from the splatter. It was like reading tea leaves. (‘Ah, yes, I see much tribulation in your future, young man. You will meet a tall, dark stranger. Then you will poo on him.’)

Second time around, things are much more routine. You know what to expect.

The first week is the worst. For some reason, babies come supplied full of tar which they exude through their bottoms for several days. What’s with that? Then comes fudge sauce, followed by chicken tikka masala. It eventually settles down to something fairly normal on a good day and end-of-term stew on a bad one.

End-of-term stew is the final meal made by hard-up students before going home for the holidays. Every flatmate clears out their cupboard and bungs the remaining contents into one big pot. Typical ingredients include peas, corn, Shredded Wheat, a hairclip, four crushed breadsticks, half a sausage, twenty-three pence in loose change and some raisins. Grated seaweed is added for that extra special aroma and then the whole lot is boiled up in thick gravy. Strangely, the results are less than appetising and the students sneak round to my house and dispose of the slimy mess down the back of a nappy. This is why my children have often been seen waddling around with surprised looks on their faces just before Christmas and Easter.

Well, that’s all behind me now. There will still be accidents to be dealt with and I daresay I’ll be wiping Marie’s bottom for another couple of years but, hopefully, my days of wrestling a stinky toddler are over. There’ll be no more need for nursery rhymes to stop them wailing and kicking. (It used to be I could get the kids to calm down by singing to them. Now the only thing which works is promising to stop singing.) We’re moving on...

A friend and his mate came round today to take the changing unit away. It has a good home to go to but I found myself oddly sad to see it leave. They lifted it up, revealing dents worn in the carpet, and a tear welled in my eye. It had served me faithfully and seen me through many unfortunate crises. As they carried it out the door, I patted it good-bye and watched it taken from my life forever.

Then I went and washed my hands.

Twice.

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

Imagination

Dear Dave,

Thanks for the sympathy over the lack of sleep. Things have been OK the last couple of days but Marie’s kicking up much more of a fuss at bedtime than she used to. I can only assume having me at her beck and call all night gave her a taste for power. Speaking of which, she was wanting me to vote for her in the Scottish elections. She’s decided she’s in the Pink Party. This is kind of like the Green Party but, rather than pushing for a greener planet, the Pink Party’s goal is much, well... pinker. I fancy if they ever came to power, then the whole world would resemble the girls’ aisle of Toys’R’Us (except maybe with a bit more glitter, if that’s possible...)

She’s only two-and-a-half and she’s inventing political parties! You were asking for more examples of how every child is different and I have to say that if there is one thing which varies wildly between my children it’s their level of imagination.

Oddly, this is best exemplified by their attitude towards LEGO.

Everyone knows the entire point of having children is to be able to buy cool toys while looking like an ace dad rather than a hopeless loser geek. (Or is that just me?) I’ve been biding my time for what seems like an age now, waiting to purchase an enormous programmable robot, but it’s beginning to look like none of my kids could actually care less about LEGO. All for differing reasons, of course, but all due to the bounds of their imaginations:

To Fraser, a pile of bricks is just a pile of bricks. He’s also a tad lazy, so if he wanted a castle, he’d want it ready assembled and to come with plenty of interesting levers and stuff. If he got it, he’d play with it for five minutes, check how it all worked and then go off and play a computer game. He doesn’t have the imagination to make up stories about some bricks. It’s not anything to him – it’s just LEGO. Prospective careers: Engineer, Traffic Warden, Middle Manager.

To Lewis, a pile of bricks is a pile of bricks but he can be persuaded to stick a few together and make-believe they’re a castle or a pyramid. This is all well and good, but he has slightly too much imagination to see the point of LEGO. He can make a car from three small bricks and a wheel. The tiniest semblance of reality will do – he doesn’t need a big tub full of weird and wacky specialist parts. (Drat.) Prospective careers: Architect, Journalist, Estate Agent.

To Marie, a pile of bricks could be anything from a selection of apples to a washing-machine. The problem is, if you can stretch reality that far, who needs bricks? (Apart from to weigh down your pockets to stop you floating away.) Prospective careers: Advertising Creative, Public Relations Officer, Space Cadet.

We knew Lewis had a strong imagination from an early age. When he was two, he was constantly making us all imaginary cups of tea (without the aid of plastic cups or anything). One day, Fraser got fed up with the silly make-believe nonsense, however, and decided to play Lewis at his own game. Fraser held out his imaginary cup at arm’s length and slowly tipped the imaginary contents over the floor. Lewis burst into tears. He was distraught at all the work he’d have to do cleaning up the mess...

That’s a slightly scary amount of imagination. Marie has surpassed him, though. Sarah asked Marie’s opinion on a couple of pairs of trousers she was trying on in a shop the other day. On seeing the first pair, Marie shook her head. “They snakes eating your legs. You not wear them.” On viewing the second, she said, “No, they have a chicken in them.” On the way home in the buggy, she suddenly commented, “The wind turn me into a cat... I not go miaow.”

When Marie’s a little older, I can see her and Fraser having big arguments while staring at the sky:

Marie: It’s a dragon.
Fraser: It’s a cloud.
Marie: It looks like a dragon.
Fraser: But it’s a cloud.
Marie: What about that one? It’s a deep fat fryer!
Fraser: It’s a cloud.
Marie: That one’s a spaceship. With aliens. And lobsters.
Fraser: That’s a cloud, too.
Marie: Look! A pirate made of sausages!
Fraser: IT’S... A... CLOUD!
Marie: He’s playing hop-scotch.
Fraser (finally giving in): Oh all right, and that one’s a sheep.
Marie: No, that’s a cloud.

I may have to intervene in order to avoid bloodshed...

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

Games night

Dear Dave,

I don’t get out much. That’s partly because it’s an effort finding a babysitter and partly because, by the time the kids are in bed, I’m too tired to leave the house. Then again, it’s not like I went out much before we had kids. I’ve always preferred to settle down in front of the TV anyway. Having kids is merely a handy excuse to surround the TV with gadgets.

This being the case, my social life is somewhat limited but, every so often, a couple of friends, Mike and Rob, come round to play computer games and we blast each other to pieces while failing to talk about anything very significant. Mike’s the minister at our church. He’s around fifty and has two kids but they’ve left home. Rob works in the IT department at LBO. I did some of his training and he now has my old job, meaning I feel both sorry for him and somewhat responsible. He’s not quite thirty yet.

Sarah has been having to work late again so I decided to organise one of these bloke’s nights for the other evening while she was out. Rob arrived just after the children were in bed and made straight for the beer. I asked him how his week was going and he launched into the details of a technical problem he was having trouble with. Vaguely familiar acronyms and jargon spewed forth from his mouth for several minutes. I nodded and smiled. It was like listening to Fraser witter on about Pok√©mon but I cared slightly less. I drank my own beer and then suggested to Rob that he replace the flux capacitor and then reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. He wasn’t amused.

Mike arrived. I asked him how his week was going. He shook his head. “Three funerals and a finance meeting,” he said gruffly. “Let’s shoot things.”

I handed him a beer and ushered them both up to the lounge. “Watch out over there,” I said, pointing to a discoloured section of carpet. “There’s a damp patch.” Rob began edging nervously round it. I rolled my eyes. “Don’t worry – it’s not radioactive or anything.” He didn’t seem reassured but found his way to a seat and we launched into a game on the PlayStation. (We can’t play the Wii anymore because Mike’s been banned for breaking light fittings on two separate occasions. He kept taking it all a tad too seriously.)

Everything went as normal for some time: we discussed the weather and football, we drank beer, we moaned about the news and, every so often, someone got shot. After a while, however, there was a lull and Rob took his chance to change the subject in an unexpected direction.

“So what’s being a housedad like?” he asked.

For the past seven years, Rob has been doing his best to ignore the fact that I’m a full-time parent. It’s like I’m on an indefinite holiday and he’s always hopeful I’ll be back at work on Monday. The closest he’d previously come to expressing interest was to say, without a hint of irony, ‘It must be nice to sit at home all day eating biscuits.’

I looked at him in astonishment.

Showing greater presence of mind, Mike took advantage of the distraction and fragged me at close range with a shotgun before asking, “Blue line, then?”

“Er, yeah,” said Rob, turning to him in surprise. “How did you...?”

Mike shot him in the head with a missile-launcher. “Professional hunch,” he said. “Are you still playing, Ed?”

“What?” I’d re-spawned and was standing around waiting for ballistic death to come find me. Strangely, I was no longer looking through my character’s eyes but I could see him from a third-person perspective and he was getting larger.

Then I realised I was looking at Mike’s corner of the screen.

It was my turn to eat an explosion. “Would you stop that?” I said.

“You can’t talk and shoot at the same time?”

“Not when a friend is sharing about how his life has changed forever.”

“What?” said Rob. “What do you mean my life has...?” I shoved an enormous gun between his shoulder-blades and pulled the trigger. “Hey!”

“So...” Mike let the pause linger as Rob’s character re-appeared close at hand. Sensing what was coming, I charged over to get in range. Nonchalantly, Mike said, “Are you going to get married then?”

Rob stammered. “Er...” Mike and I both let rip at what seemed like the same moment and a hail of bullets turned Rob into sushi. To my consternation, Mike was credited with the kill.

“That’s not fair,” I grumbled, banging the controller against my head in frustration. “And neither’s that,” I added as he shot me as well. “I’m annoyed now. I’m going to hunt you down and batter you to death with that assault rifle.”

“I want to see you try... What were you saying, Rob?”

“Er...” said Rob. “I hadn’t really thought about getting married. I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”

“What do you mean?” said Mike.

“It’s kind of a commitment.”

I snorted. “You’ve bought a house together, you live together, you sleep together, you’re going to have a baby together. You’ve merged your CD collections! Exactly how much more of a commitment do you think getting married would be?”

“There’s a little more to being married than that,” said Rob defensively.

“I don’t know...” I said and went postal with a flamethrower. “There’s a public declaration that you’re going to make things last but there’s actually quite a lot less denial.”

“How do I know it’s going to last?” said Rob, turning crispy.

“If the two of you decide that it’s going to last and always work to achieve that, then there’s a good chance that it will last,” said Mike.

“It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?” I added. “Let’s face it, you’re married already, apart from the legal safe-guards in case it doesn’t last. What have you got to lose?”

“I don’t want to rush into anything,” said Rob, running round a corner into proximity with a proximity mine I’d left lying around. He swore. He blew up.

I laughed for at least two good reasons. “At the point you two got a mortgage together, you were still playing games with a wired controller – that’s several years and an entire console generation ago! Think how long that’s been. Glaciers get together and laugh at how slowly you move.”

“Well,” he muttered, “there’s the expense...”

“I’ll waive my fee,” said Mike.

“Sarah still has her dress,” I said. “Wouldn’t take much to make it fit Kate.”

Mike nodded. “And the Millennium Centre is cheap to hire.”

“I’ll do the catering,” I said. “I’ve had plenty of practice with birthday parties. Cocktail sausages and Hula Hoops for everyone. Fraser and Lewis can get a production line of cheese sandwiches going. Marie can help decorate the cake. You don’t mind bright pink icing peppered with chocolate buttons and fingerprints do you?” Rob scowled at me. “What? It’d be a talking point.”

Mike calmly sniped us both. “I think what Ed’s trying to say is that the celebration doesn’t have to be expensive and shouldn’t stand in the way of the getting married part.”

“Maybe... You still haven’t answered my question, Ed. What’s it like being a housedad?”

I thought for a moment. Mike took the opportunity to smack me about with a brick. “Well,” I said, re-spawning faraway, “the hours are long, the holidays are rubbish, the pay’s a joke and there’s heavy exposure to toxic biological waste. On the plus side, there’s plenty of fresh air and exercise, a steady supply of hugs, relatively little stress, strong job satisfaction and an army of amusing minions. You also get to play Hungry Hippos and call it work.”

Rob perked up. “Really?”

“Yep,” I grinned. “And Mario Kart.”

He glanced sideways at me. “Really!?”

“Yep.”

He looked suddenly suspicious. “Is that why you’re grinning?”

“No, I’m grinning ‘cos I’ve stuck an explosive mine to your crotch and you haven’t noticed.”

He had just about enough time to say, “No way!” before his corner of the screen erupted.

I feigned a wince. “That’s got to smart.”

Time ran out and the game ended. Mike had won by an absolute mile but at least I’d beaten Rob by a point. I did a little victory dance. Unfortunately, I stepped in the wet patch and had to go change my socks.

Rob cheered up a bit at that...

We had some more beer and the conversation returned to normal. It was a good evening. I don’t think Rob knows what he’s got himself into yet, though. I might let him look through some of these emails, if that’s OK with you?

Hope you’re well and staying sane. Marie’s convinced that you live in this computer. Have you got any photos of you and the family I can show her?

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

Marie update

Dear Dave,

Just a quick note to give you an update on Marie:

The potty training is going pretty well now. We haven’t had any major disasters in a while. Her sleeping’s back to normal too, apart from the need to ‘argue’ with Lewis every night before nodding off. They lie there counting loudly at each other until one of them needs the toilet.

As for her imagination:

Sarah asked her the other day what little girls grow up to be. She was hoping for the answer, ‘Ladies’. Quick as a flash, Marie answered, ‘Cats’. Intrigued by this on-going feline fascination, Sarah asked her what little boys grow up to be. Marie thought about it for a few seconds and then, with great satisfaction, answered, ‘Lemons’.

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

Worlds collide

Dear Dave,

I’m a dead man.

Sarah is going to kill me. I’m surprised she hasn’t left work early and come home to do it already. Maybe she’s stopped off at B&Q to buy some bladed garden equipment... Or a nail-gun... Seriously, once I’ve finished writing this I’m throwing a change of underwear and all the gadgets I can carry into a suitcase and heading for Bolivia. She’ll never find me there.

And, to think, the day started so promisingly... I was at parent and toddler and everything was going fine. Then I ended up next to Useless Dad at biscuit time again. Scary Karen was sitting across from us and I waved but she was too busy telling Stefania the details of her colonoscopy to notice.

Useless Dad looked up from his newspaper. “Your wife sent you here again as well?” His baby son was lying at his feet, a rattle having rolled just out of reach. I picked it up and gave it back. The baby smiled and giggled in a transparent attempt to get himself adopted. I could see his three-year-old sister in the distance, filling her shoes with Play-Doh.

I acted dumb. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Deborah threatened to pour away my whisky collection if I didn’t take the kids out of the house.”

“Really?” I said. I’d met his wife a few times. She’d seemed calm and confident. I was suddenly concerned that having to do pretty much all the child-raising herself had caused her to lose it.

“Yes. This is getting totally out of hand. I’m going to have no end of work to make up. I might only be able to play golf twice this week.”

“Really...” She wasn’t losing anything. She was taking back what was hers.

Then my day took a rapid downturn.

“My God, what is that woman doing?” said Useless Dad rather loudly. I glanced across to see Karen wapping out one of her enormous bosoms in order to feed her baby.

“Er, that’s Sca... er, Karen,” I said in a low voice. “She’s giving her baby some milk.”

No one else seemed to have heard him. I think we would have gotten away with it if Karen’s toddler hadn’t wandered over to her right then, looking peckish.

“Is that even legal?” squealed Useless Dad as the other undulating meal was wrestled into view and shoved into the waiting boy’s mouth.

The conversation around us died. Other parents glared at us. And when I say other parents, I of course mean mums. We were the only men in the room and we were staring goggle-eyed at a breast-feeding woman. Useless Dad was even pointing. This was not the sensitive, enlightened image of fatherhood I have worked hard to cultivate over the years. I reached over and lowered his outstretched finger.

Karen was looking at us with a visage normally reserved for Norse gods who are about to do some smiting. I edged as far away from Useless Dad as I could without falling off my seat. Grinning nervously, I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. “Shouldn’t you be leaving? Aren’t you going to try working from home?”

He shook his head. “My laptop is still having the vomit removed after last week.”

“Oh.” I grinned harder and gave Karen a friendly wave. Her countenance only darkened further. Little lightning bolts sparked around her. Everyone was now watching us closely, waiting to see whether we would run or die. Some of them were clearly looking forward to a good smiting.

It was every parent for themselves.

I surreptitiously waved the remaining half of my biscuit at Marie and then gestured extravagantly towards Useless Dad. “New guy, everyone.” I couldn’t remember his name but it wouldn’t have made an impact anyway. I told them what they needed to know. “This is Deborah’s husband.”

Eyes widened, realisation dawned and understanding swept the hall. Those mums in the know turned to those next to them and began recounting their favourite tales of Useless Dad. Only a handful continued to regard me with suspicion.

Marie ran over and grabbed my half-eaten chocolate digestive. “Thanks. I eat biscuit.”

“Good girl. I love you,” I whispered so that only she could hear.

“I love you, Daddy!” she shouted back and gave me a big hug.

After that, I was safe. I had an endearing guardian angel sitting on my lap (or a human shield dressed entirely in garish pink, depending on how you want to look at it). There were audible ‘Aaawws!’ from around the room. The storm passed. Karen finally returned my wave and went back to talking to her Polish friend.

I didn’t want to push my luck, however. “We should go now,” I said.

“Where to?”

“Er... home?”

“Deborah told me not to come back until lunch-time.”

“Why not?”

“She wouldn’t say but she’d looked out a leotard, a box of chocolates, the soundtrack to Pretty Woman, two cans of paint and some dust covers.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” I would have suggested a trip to the swing park but it was raining. I didn’t fancy his chances of surviving a trip to the shops, the library was closed and I didn’t want his kids loitering in a damp bus shelter for over an hour. “Er... Want to come round to ours for a bit?”

“Can I check my email?”

“I guess.”

“Great. Let’s go,” he said, suddenly very keen.

“The girls should get on well.”

“What? Oh, yeah... Yeah... How fast is your broadband, did you say?”

We wrapped up our various offspring, emptied out their footwear and headed back to the house. Marie led her new friend off to destroy some toys together, Useless Dad logged on and I unearthed an old baby-seat for his sleeping son.

After I’d provided half an hour of free childcare, Useless Dad came through and said, “Your internet connection has stopped working.”

“It does that sometimes,” I said, kicking the cable I’d just yanked from the router out of sight. “It might be down for a while. Cup of coffee?”

Grudgingly, he followed me through to the kitchen and was somewhat thrown by the confusion of colour. I’ve put off redecorating by covering all the available wall space with the kids’ artwork. He raised his eyebrows at our Nintendo-themed calendar. He perhaps realised that an infestation of children only becomes harder to ignore as they get older.

“What is it you do again?” he asked.

“I look after the children.”

“When you’re not looking after the children?”

There are many tempting things to say in this kind of situation, such as, ‘I’m not telling you my secret identity’, ‘Sleep’ or ‘Shh! When they can’t see me, they think I don’t exist’. All are true but usually take more explaining than is really worthwhile. “No, that is my job,” I said.

“Oh...” said Useless Dad. “What does your wife do then?”

“She’s a marketing analyst.”

“Where?”

“LBO.” He looked confused and didn’t respond. To fill in the awkward silence, I asked, “What is it you do?”

“I’m head of marketing at LBO.”

“Oh...” I suddenly recalled Useless Dad’s name. It was Steve. Sarah’s manager is also called Steve. He’s quite useless as well. For there to be two useless managers called Steve in LBO’s relatively small marketing department was really quite a coincidence. I mean what were the odds of...

My eye developed a spontaneous twitch. I inhaled sharply, as if someone had stood on my toe. I stifled a whimper. On the list of people not to invite into your home, the wife’s evil, misguided boss is pretty near the top, slightly above Dracula and Jabba the Hutt.

“What was your wife’s name again?”

“Er...” I decided to lie and said the first name that popped into my head. “Brian?”

I remembered the two reasons why I normally don’t lie: a) It’s bad and wrong. b) I’m rubbish at it.

“Pardon? Your wife’s name is Brian?”

“Erm, it’s a pet name I use sometimes. You know, like ‘dear’ or ‘hen’ or, erm...” I glanced around the room for inspiration. It was not my day. “Er, or ‘Donkey Kong’... Erm, actually her name’s Sarah. You probably know her.”

He gave the impression of having to think about it but eventually he managed to put all his ducks in a row. He looked over the room with new eyes. Narrowed eyes.

“So Sarah has children then?”

“Yes,” I said, biting my tongue. Useless Dad/Manager made the presentation on two of the three occasions Sarah went on maternity leave. On the third occasion, he simply forgot and phoned up after a couple of days to see where she’d got to.

“How many?” he asked.

“Three.”

“Three!?” He said it like we were some kind of subversive breeders intent on taking over the world. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty much certain,” I said. I took some deep breaths and sat on my hands to stop myself slapping him.

He pumped me for all kinds of further information to do with such things as the kids’ ages, schools, holidays and health. I might have thought he was showing an interest but I was fairly sure he didn’t know some of the answers for his own children. It was also possible he was trying to gain some understanding of our situation in order to help Sarah maintain her work-life balance. I suspect, though, he has more sinister plans...

I tried not to say anything career damaging and stated several times that I’m the one responsible for looking after the children even when they’re ill. (Not that I imagine it registered.) Then, at last, it was lunch-time and he hurried off to dump his children with his wife and then go and play squash. I’ve been chain-eating chocolate bars ever since. Sarah’s not going to be happy. I don’t know whether to phone her and warn her or wait to see if Steve mentions it to her. Or maybe I should just text – that might be safer. Or maybe it’s too late already, and she’s in the power tool section of B&Q...

Is Bolivia nice this time of year?

Yours in a woman’s world,

Ed.

(To find out what happens next, read the book! Kids, Cuddles & Caffeine by Edmund Farrow.)