Thursday 28 June 2007

Farmed Out

I have been dreading it since my daughter’s nursery teacher casually invited me on the outing to the farm park. “We don’t get many men” she told me. I could believe that, judging by the crisp-suited fathers I see prodding their children through classroom doors then sprinting in relief for the tube. “Yes that’ll be fine” I said, airily waving at an imaginary diary, every page of which stretched blank into the future.

So I rise ludicrously early and take my daughter and her packed lunch to nursery. In the rush-hour bus I am squeezed speechless, as we hurtle through the streets like an out-of-control carousel. Like everywhere else in London it is full of men in suits, mums, pushchairs, children in uniforms, builders, people with bags.

I drift down into the tube station with my daughter, ancient urges suddenly propelling me towards the Metro dispenser; a strange parody of the two years ago me. There’s pushing and rushing all around us. Everyone seems desperate in some way. To get to somewhere or from somewhere. Or away from something. The tube workers bristle with the tension of rush-hour problems.

At nursery there is an assortment of mothers perfectly prepared for a shopping trip to the West End, in heels, sunglasses, casual, but unmistakably designer, clothes. I say hello in my pretend relaxed way. I’m ok at this stuff after two years. The two years ago me would have shrieked inwardly, and maybe outwardly, and felt like running away. My daughter is a great help in this. She comes and chats to me when I am running short of amiable claptrap. It helps tremendously.

When it is time to board the coach I say hello to the male driver. Engrossed in his copy of the Sun, he doesn’t pick up on my cry for help and carries on fiddling with his sunglasses. I realize I’m on my own. I end up sitting next to a French boy who looks at me as only a Frenchman can, when he discovers I am neither French nor his mother. I want to scream at him “LOOK AT ME! I AM SUFFERING FOR ALL MEN! I. AM. YOU!” Instead I busy myself looking at roads and waving at my daughter when she gets bored with her neighbour.

At the farm park the mums totter around, desperately looking for somewhere to spend their money. A £3.99 fluffy cat in the farm gift shop proves popular. It allows them at least to get out their purses and take off their sunglasses. Outside they stand around in groups, chatting like they’re in a bar, only breaking off their conversations to catch a falling body. They look at me with distaste. One of them is complaining loudly that she can’t get coffee served to her at the goat enclosure. I chat to the more eccentric mums. The Japanese expat, the arty mum picking her way through the sheep turds in her designer wedges. This keeps me going between frantic shuttling from toilet to playground. Toilet to picnic area. Toilet to sheep pens.

Frankly, it’s six hours of hell. But then at last we’re back on the coach heading home. I’ve been to the toilet countless times, I have sheep turds smeared all over my trousers. The only thing I have eaten all day is a quarter of my daughter’s ham sandwich and I have two four year olds kicking me in the small of my back through the seat.

My daughter is asleep by this time. But suddenly one of the designer women talks to me! I lean forward to listen. “Oh dear” she says, gesturing at the figure dozing next to me. I raise my eyebrows. “She isn’t going to sleep later. Her mother won’t be happy.” I smile and look out of the window, seeing nothing. Everything is a blur. I think for a moment I am going to cry.

Friday 22 June 2007

Friday's Child

My daughter is downstairs in the bath. I can hear her giggling as my wife plays with her. The laughter floats up like birdsong. Bang, thump, giggle. Now she’s out of the bath and she’s talking, although I can’t quite hear what she’s saying.

My wife got home late from work and was getting ready to give her a bath, when she said “I want daddy to give me a bath, I love him more than you”. I felt uncomfortable; my wife a little heartbroken. This all started a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure if it means the balance has shifted too far, or if it’s a natural reaction to the at-home parent. But it is a difficult problem to solve. How can you advise who to love?

It all goes silent. Suddenly the day of swimming, nursery, TV, shopping, collapses in on top of her and she is a crumpled heap on the floor with her thumb in her mouth and a towel round her, wanting to be cradled and cooed to, like a baby. I can imagine my wife holding her and kissing her damp forehead through the comma curls.

Now they’re next door in her bedroom. There’s laughing again and my wife is joking with her and my daughter says “You’re pulling my leg”, which is a useful phrase to know in our house. My wife tries to persuade her to go downstairs and brush her teeth. More giggling. She gives up and tickles her instead.



Eventually they go back down to the bathroom and she brushes her teeth. Then it’s my turn to read stories. She sniffles a little. Earlier she said to me, sniffling, “Daddy, one of my noses (sic) can’t sniff. Look!” I peered forward thinking she was going to sniff in, but instead she blew out through her nose, covering my face in a fine spray of snot.

Now she is in bed, eyes closed, circled by soft toys like a portrait in oil. She usually asks for more milk at this point, but since she is usually asleep by the time I come back, I no longer come back. Tonight she says. “You don’t normally bring the milk, do you daddy?” I grin guiltily and wonder when she started noticing.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

In the Night Garden

In the Night Garden is my latest fascination. Igglepiggle? Ninky Nonk? Makka Pakka? It’s disturbingly close to madness. But as soon as the music starts I am entranced. I think I like it even more than my daughter does and glance anxiously at my watch when it gets to six o’clock. That recurring, hypnotic tune. The haunting counterpoint of musical boxes, lullabies and nursery rhymes. The other-worldliness. I have absolutely no idea what is going on and I do drift away in the middle, but I fear missing the magical end-titles. I want to go to bed then myself and fly away into a childhood dreamland. Its makers say it is a "magical picture book place that exists between waking and sleeping". It’s that alright. I don’t think there’s anything that more successfully conveys what it is to be a child.

My daughter waves her hands, conducting the opening theme and we have conversations like:

“Look, Makka Pakka!”

“No, it’s Igglepiggle!”

“That’s the Pinky Ponk!”

“It’s the Ninky Nonk!”

“No it’s the Pinky Ponk.!”


“I like this bit.”

“No, daddy, this is my favourite programme. If you want to watch something, you have to watch a grown up programme.”

“Can’t it can be both our favourites?”

“No daddy. Oh! It’s finishing already. It’s so short!”

My daughter is slap-bang in the middle pages of the magical picture book. She is still open and trusting and lacking in artifice. She assumes everyone’s motivation is pure. I was telling her about how they put the road back after roadworks. “You mean so everyone can go on the pavement again and have a nice walk?” she replied. Everything works out for the best in her world.

She whispers confidentially to me about absolutely nothing. “Daddy I love Coco Pops Mega Munchers”. Other times she tickles my ear with an indecipherable “Whissoowissoowiss….”

She says “Oh God!” and then puts her hand to her mouth in shocked yet smiling embarrassment.

She breaks her food in half unasked and gives me a piece for myself.

It’s a lovely world and if alarming strangeness like In the Night Garden can help me enter it for a few minutes, then I am grateful.

Monday 18 June 2007

Secrets and Lies

Two days before Father’s Day, my daughter handed me the card she had made for me at nursery.

“Shhh! It’s a secret.” She said, putting her finger to her lips. “I can’t tell anyone about it.”


“And I can’t tell you about it.”


“And you can’t tell anyone about it. Not even yourself.”

What is a lie if not the big brother of the secret? My daughter is just as poor at both. I ask her if she has eaten all her fruit at nursery. “Er, no daddy.” She says.

“What did you do with it?”

“I threw it in the bin” she admits, a little shamefaced.

I grin and tousle her hair, feeling the lack of a fib is far more important than the actual deed.

I can see the temptation to lie emerging though. Three and a half years without one is a long time. More than I’ve managed. This morning when I saw the buttery toast my wife had made for her sitting on the plate-with-piggies-on-it, I asked “Did you lick off all the jam?” She hesitated and then confirmed that was the case; but I could have sworn I’d seen her first blush. Or perhaps it was just the strawberry.

Friday 15 June 2007


After school my daughter and I stop off at the park. We sit in the shadow of the Albert Memorial sucking Fabs and chatting. I learn an awful lot over lollipops. Today she tells me how PC Turtle came to visit her nursery.

“What did he do?” I asked, unsure if she was telling me about a book or something real.

“He talked to us about strangers.”

“What did he say?”

“You don’t talk to them.”

“Very good. Anything else?”

“If you tell somebody, they’ll run away.”

At first I wonder if this is all a bit too much at three and a half. But then I realise we’ve already had the same conversation. I don’t really think she understands what a stranger is though, if she did she wouldn’t speak to anyone at all.

On the way back home she falls asleep, with her legs daintily crossed and her hand under her chin. We gently squeak to a halt (the silent Prius parking means the manoeuvre is all clanking and swishing). I carefully lift her out of her seat. Perhaps a little too carefully. After I’ve gone a few steps she raises her head suddenly and sings loudly

“I like to move it, move it….”

“What?” I ask, open-mouthed.

“It’s from Madagascar ,daddy.”

We bought the DVD a few months ago and haven’t watched it since then. Don’t ask me why or how it came into her mind at that moment.

“IS it?” I laugh. She laughs. We both laugh.

After lunch it’s my turn. I close my eyes, sitting on the sofa, while children’s programmes play. Music threads its way through my consciousness as I drift in and out of sleep. Nothing I can quite put my finger on, but flashes of youth, summer, the days before marriage and children.

Daylight crashes back in, accompanied by a hard jab in my leg

“Wake up daddy.”

“What?” I yawn.

“I don’t want you to be asleep.”


“We need to watch together.”

I watch, as an insane-looking presenter fashions a snowflake out of talcum powder and a doily.

“Now, concentrate daddy” advises my daughter.

Wednesday 13 June 2007

Bunny Redux

We’re on our way to Bunny World for the start of the summer season. Gilbert O’Sullivan is playing in the car, just like he always does. He’s reliable like that.

It's over now
you've had your fun

It seems it’s not just me. Or maybe I’ve been listening to him too much (some would say any O’Sullivan is too much). Is it the move? Is it age? Will I be like this forever now? Or just while my daughter is growing up? Is this what being a parent is?

..that much easier to be gone

One way to mask all this is to sit in an office doing something you don’t care about but which occupies most of your time. Not me, I’m off to Bunny World.

We arrive, my daughter drooping in her seat like a thirsty flower. I wake her up and she totters towards the turnstile with her thumb in her mouth and her hand in mine. We buy our tickets and bag of feed (one bag only allowed today, as the animals ‘might not be hungry’). We move through to the play area outside and the mums everywhere. I had forgotten the mums everywhere. They cluster. They chat. They laugh. I like mums as much as the next stay at home dad. But it’s always a shock. They watch me, I think. Well you would. A hairy guy with a girl in a bunny mask. It’s amazing to think I used to sit in an office pretending to be interested in computer screens and telephones. While the mums were all at Bunny World. I had no idea.

A few weeks ago at the Cotswold Farm Park there was a maze with questions and answers, one of which sent you down a dead end, the other onto the next question. I got half of them wrong, sending us careering down cul-de-sacs and having to squeeze back past annoyed parents and children. I feel like that nowadays. I’m a little lost. But it’s ok. It’s better than the charts and meetings and suits and all the stuff I could never work out the meaning of. I know now. There isn’t one.

My daughter runs to the swings, feet flapping and arms whirring. “Chase me daddy, chase me…”

Monday 11 June 2007

Normal Service

It’s Monday and my daughter is in a bad mood. My wife was up early and did the pink-cup-with-cats-on-it and the chocolate-cereal-in-a-bowl. I arrive downstairs and say hello and then fetch the pink-brush-with-fairies-on-it. I brush my daughter’s hair as gently as I can.



“Don’t you think her white dress looks lovely?” says my wife from the other side of the room.

“Yes”, I say “Very pretty”.

“No, don’t talk about me” says my daughter grumpily, ramming her finger up her nose.

“Why not?” asks my wife, smiling gently.

“Now you’re laughing at me” she says.

My wife is about to say something. I say “No we’re not”, and stroke my daughter's hair, since I’m sitting closer.

We both watch her silently. It reminds me of the other times she has shown signs of growing up; adult traits appearing suddenly like shoots. I think you have to nurture these. It is easy to miss them as life rumbles past. If you trample on them each re-growth is more difficult. One moment you’re changing a nappy, the next they’re buying you a drink. It all happens more quickly than you’re prepared for.

I’m in a bad mood too, I realize, as I make my way through London traffic like a wave through mud. Pedestrians try to throw themselves under my wheels, roads are mysteriously closed off, inside other vehicles faces are clenched and set. I lose my temper with a minicab which veers into my lane and a schoolboy who is walking along the middle of the road, hooting grumpily and at length. In the end I drop my daughter off at nursery and my wife at the tube station.

Later I am at home, typing and listening to the radio. The Daily Service is on. It’s somehow become my favourite programme. I don’t really listen much to the spoken parts, I have to admit; but the music speaks calmly and poignantly. I may choose to ignore the message but I can’t resist the beauty of the telling.

Friday 8 June 2007


The day is as still and limpid as a summer holiday; the skyline framed in azure like a painting. Time has slowed down, as it does in the sun, but for us time is running out fast. I set out for Portobello Road in the sunshine, thinking about how short our time here might be. I walk the familiar stretch of pavement, and emerge from shade into sunlight, next to the postbox with flaking paint, its royal crest ringed by black marker-pen tag. Beside my shadow, plant shapes tint the paving stones. I feel the heat on my skin.

A little further on, among tall trees, stands the imposing church, an abandoned street-cleaner’s cart outside. Branches sway in the breeze, mocking its immobility. The bells chime midday as an elderly couple pass by, pushing a shopping-cart effortfully. I move on, past the window of Mario’s shoe repair shop, through which he leers, like a murderous chimney-sweep. Opposite, a couple sit at a table outside the bar, drinking from pint glasses; smiling and talking, just out of earshot. I want to hear what they are saying, to get a shot of youth and certainty. If only for a few strides. On the corner of Portobello Road a black man with greying curls is playing a single steel drum with a removed yet faintly good-natured look. Yesterday… the metal resonates across the street.

Around the corner a man is sitting on a fold-up chair on the pavement in the shadow of a coffee shop, face turned towards the sky. People look as if they’re not quite prepared for the heat and are in hats, coats, t-shirts. Another man sits with his trousers hitched up, facing the road in an aggressive pose. The warmth has quietened the stall-holders, with only the fruit and veg man shouting and cursing as usual. He’s even angrier in the heat.

I’m not half the man I used to be… the drummer drums.

The market twists up and away. I used to push my daughter down this road from her first nursery. I would point out the big brown teapot hanging above the antiques shop. My daughter would marvel. I would laugh. I had already forgotten that. Soon we will forget other things about our lives here.

Oh, I believe in yesterday... beats the metal drum behind me.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Job Satisfaction

I am contacted (deluged with emails) by a firm with an overly self-conscious website and a name involving the letter e that makes it sound like a crack-den run by internet entrepreneurs. They want to come round and assist in the great pretence that we live in a grand residence with modern fittings and a back yard that is in fact an urban garden. “All our photos are retouched” they proudly boast. Their powers of deception even extend to the elements. “We can 'improve' the weather considerably” they gush. “WE. ARE. ALL-POWERFUL!” I expect Beelzebub to turn up on our doorstep but instead it is a young Spanish woman, who engagingly makes fun of our run-down surroundings. I like people like her. She cares enough to do a good job but is relaxed enough not to take it seriously. Is that an appropriate comment for the internet crack-heads’ ‘client satisfaction survey’ I wonder.

Apart from the photographer it is otherwise a return to corporate life. Agents call me, I call back. I end up listening to a recorded agent telling me how successful and professional the firm is; skills which obviously don’t extend to anyone answering their own telephone. “Hello. Sorryshe’sonthephone. CanItakeamessage?” I imagine a room full of manic youngsters in suits, waving their arms around, telephones clamped to both ears. That’s probably what they want me to think. They’re probably standing round the water-cooler talking about their weekends.

While the photographer is fish-eyeing and digitally-enhancing, the first viewing arrives. They trip over the photographer’s bag and look askance at the enormous pile of crap placed out of view of her camera. Making their excuses they sprint out as soon as is possible. It’s like running a small business, selling a house nowadays. I haven’t got round to filling in my money-laundering form yet. Later another agent comes round to “familarise” herself with something. Me? The house? The crap? I hadn’t been able to hear on the phone against the baying in the background. She asks me if I’m renting the house. “No, I’m just hairy” I reply. I tell her my daughter is having a nap upstairs and she backs away, visibly shocked. I can see in her eyes that she is already considering this job a challenge too far.

Monday 4 June 2007


The doorbell rings somewhere above me, on the first floor (it’s a design fault). Outside, between the pub and the wheelie-bin stands a smartly-dressed estate agent, with the look of someone who has come to claim a prize, or is here to sell me something I don’t yet realize I don’t want.

I take him around the house, or rather up and down the house. It’s a sunny day and it looks nice; everything looks nice on a day like today. We tramp up the staircase, exchanging pleasantries, inasmuch as a smartly-dressed businessman and a hairy childcarer can trade their thoughts. We soon find ourselves standing in uncomfortable proximity at the top of the house.

“This is the room with the damp” I say, not adding that it was the room in which I rocked my daughter to sleep through her first dark winter. We move downstairs. “There’s a crack in this wall some people might notice” I point out, not mentioning the Boxing Day we once spent here giggling through games of charades with family and friends, during our only ever London Christmas.

I end up apologetically pointing out deficiencies all around the house. It’s lucky he’s not here on a viewing. At the end of our small journey together he sits me down. Suddenly he looks as if he’s going to give me bad news about a relative. I grip the table.

Instead he gives me a valuation which seems faintly ridiculous and I release my hold on the corner. I had been wavering over selling but this helps with the decision. Let someone younger than us enjoy the house and its charms. I’m sure they will come to love the damp patches, peeling wallpaper, cracking paint and dirty carpets as much as we do. More likely they will rip out our life and insert a shiny new one of their own.

He leaves me with all sorts of promises and an information pack. I decide to sit my daughter down in turn and talk her through moving. She sits silently for a moment then says quietly “I don’t want to leave my toys…” I tell her we can take them with us. She looks unconvinced. “But how do we carry them?” I tell her about the big lorry. “But we can’t take the toaster or the clock can we?” I tell her we can. “But who’s going to water the plants?” They come with us too, I say. I explain that it’s only big things that are left behind. “But what about the stairs?” she asks. “How will we go up if we don’t take the stairs with us?”

That’s not the least of our problems, it turns out. We also won’t know the way to various people’s houses if we move somewhere else. We will have a new address to remember. There are other complications. I enjoy her growing appreciation of the concept and talking her through it all find myself more and more convinced about what we are doing. I feel almost as if we have moved to our new life already.