Friday, 16 April 2010

In loco parentis

Admit it, you’ve done it too. While enjoying the warm, comfortable glow of drink and good company, you casually make a commitment you’d think bloody hard about if sober and alone. Which you are, 24 hours later, when reminded of what you said yesterday and the full implications settle around you like damp fog.

Here’s the story. Our oldest friends, whom we'll call Chris and Rachel to protect the very guilty indeed, were to meet Mrs QO and I in darkest Worcestershire at the home of mutual friends John and Claire, who were going away for a weekend to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Our challenge was to look after their two children – Jess, four, and Alec who’s two. Doubtless all you parents out there are wondering why on earth this should be noteworthy, but from our perspective as childless 40-somethings, the prospect was distinctly challenging.

Mrs QO and I decided years ago that parenthood was not for us. Chris and Rachel were, I think, quite relieved when it became apparent it was not going to be for them either. Neither in my work nor my social life are children a factor. They occupy a similar position in my mind to violent criminals – I’m aware they’re out there, but I meet them seldom and indeed try not to have any contact with them without the backup of experienced people trained in restraint techniques. And I had, in appallingly carefree manner, agreed to spend a whole weekend in charge of two of these strange creatures. It was going to be four adults to two children – we were heavily outnumbered. How would we cope? Yes, we’d all met the kids before – often enough to have earned our honorary titles of ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’ – but always with the parents there. This time, we were on our own.

As Operation Bratwatch drew nearer, Chris and I swapped gloomy e-mails about the ordeal. We drew strength from the fact that our wives are both gifted with the kind of ‘can-do’ practicality that laughs at most problems short of a VCR that needs programming. We were fairly sure that we could rely on them to deal with what seemed the thorniest of all the problems – that of what we’ll delicately call ‘bathroom issues’. It was clear to us that when it came to dealing with an allegedly potty-trained four year old girl, and a two year old boy still in nappies, we men were so far out of our depth that salvage crews would soon be sending down lights and cameras to make History Channel documentaries. “Definitely a job for someone with ovaries,” we concluded.

Come the weekend itself, the dear wife and I packed carefully, each in charge of one area of essential resources. She had acquired most of the free world’s supply of coloured paper and a pack of multi-coloured felt-tip pens. I had a case of beer and two bottles of whisky. (Chris was going to bring the wine. And more beer.) I also had two packets of cigars, a fully-charged flashlight, some distress maroons and an amply-stocked first aid kit. Sorted.

We had what the economists call ‘a soft landing’, since by the time we arrived on the Friday evening, the child-minder had carried out all our duties in admirable fashion and the little ones were fed, cleansed, storied and asleep in bed. The child-minder was a slim, blonde thirty-something with a fetching smile. I was tempted to ask her to stay the weekend for all sorts of reasons, but it seemed she had to get back to her own brood (and I have great respect for Mrs QO's backhand) and so we were left on our own to peruse the six or seven closely-written sheets of notes that John and Claire had left, dealing in great detail with the various plans and routines that we had to adhere to. I glanced over the list of emergency phone numbers: psychotherapist, exorcist, The Samaritans… okay, we were covered. I must admit that if I had spent longer studying this document, I might have been more aware of the crucial importance of the correct coloured towels come bath-time, but I was challenged enough by the prospect of breakfast being required between 7 and 7.30. On a Saturday morning? "Dear God," I croaked weakly.

We tiptoed round the silent house for a while, familiarising ourselves with the position of the baby monitors and the drinks cabinet, according to our individual priorities. We had time for a quick supper before Chris and Rachel arrived. We showed them the baby monitors and drinks cabinet, and I’m sure they were impressed by our competent grasp on the situation. I know I was. In fact, so easy did the whole thing seem at that stage, that it didn’t appear unreasonable to relax over a glass of whisky. To discuss the next day’s schedule over another glass of whisky. To decide, over a glass of whisky, who would go shopping for essentials like food and more whisky. By one in the morning, however, the great weight of responsibility was beginning to tell and we decided to turn in.

The fun started before six a.m. Rachel, being an early riser in any case, reacted admirably quickly to the sounds of children who were awake and waiting less than patiently for some attention. Uncle Chris was, I fear, still weighed down by the responsibility of the previous evening’s whisky, and my wife doesn’t do mornings over well, which left me to go and assist Rachel. After taking as much time as possible over shaving, I joined the fray.

I don’t propose to detail everything that happened over the next two days. Much of it would be familiar to many of you, and in any event, my memory is a little blurry in places. Here, instead, are some unsorted episodes and lessons learned from that strange time.

If they seem a little chaotic and disordered, I assure you that’s entirely appropriate.

My childhood recollection is that adults were a strange, probably alien species whose habits, motivations and methods were manipulative, obscure and arbitrary. I am now convinced that I had this the wrong way round.

Just because a child doesn’t answer sometimes doesn’t mean they haven’t heard. They might be busy with something you don’t understand, silly. And remember that everything is noted down and may be used in evidence against you later.

I quickly learned not to engage Jess in debate. Despite her age, she could put her small pink finger unerringly on any flaw in my argument when it came, for instance, to why we should all stay at table until everybody had finished eating. Possibly if I’d trained as a financial adviser I could have matched her for low cunning, but as it was I left her to Mrs QO who – with the same womanly armament as Jess plus years of experience – proved a more worthy adversary. I admired the cut and thrust, especially when Jess remarked to Mrs QO that "if you didn’t keep answering me back, you’d have finished by now." Mrs QO smiled serenely and said, "Jess, as usual, your logic is impeccable," which earned her at least a breathing space before the next frontal assault.

I found Alec much easier to deal with. Maybe it’s that male bonding thing. Maybe, since I smoke the same brand of cigar as his father, I smelt right. (Cue damnatory chorus from wives, mothers and aunties.) But we got along pretty well, and before the end of the weekend he was "my main man" which seemed to please both of us. And I must admit that we had a lot of fun with the train set, even if the two uncles took disturbing pleasure in building a track layout that would inevitably lead to collisions – but you could argue that seems natural for those used to British public transport. Alec took to the notion with great relish, at any rate.

Not that it was all plain sailing, even with him – at one point I asked Mrs QO if she had her travelling sewing kit, as I felt an urgent need for a vasectomy. And the dear boy threw an ubertantrum after bath time on Saturday night, for reasons still not clear to me, during which he bit me. I adopted the same technique I use for putting drops into a cat’s ear – wrap securely in a towel and hold on grimly until the storm has passed. My offer of a story was abusively and tearfully rejected, and my role instead was to keep Jess more or less in bed (“okay, bouncing counts, but please be careful”) until Rachel had calmed Alec down and got him into bed. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be his friend the next morning, but, bless him, when we next met at some unearthly hour of Sunday morning, he grinned at me hugely and held out his arms for a cuddle. All the previous evening’s frustration was washed away and we had a whole bright new day to play in.

Always investigate items in children’s hands. Jess played happily for a while with a small black thing which she said was “mine, and you can’t play with it.” Whatever keeps you quiet, I thought, and left her to it. Only later did we discover it was the remote control of the garage door, which must have been up and down like a yo-yo all afternoon, doubtless to the bemusement of the neighbours.

Offering a ‘baby’ knife and fork to a grown lady of four is a mortal insult, and a very bad start if you’re hoping for a peaceful mealtime.

Shrek is a great film. It will keep adults entranced for ages, allowing children a blessed opportunity to get on with something restful, like painting the cat.

And so the weekend passed. If not a time of constant peace and harmony, it was at least ‘a slice’, as they say, and I think there was as much laughter and contented play as tears and stifled swearing. The Uncles did manage to slip away to the garage for a discreet beer and smoke from time to time (“just checking the door is closed, dear,”) and the Aunties did Aunty stuff too. When John and Claire returned home on Sunday afternoon, the four temporary substitutes declared with one quavering voice that we’d never, in all our years of friendship, been so glad to see them. The children, too, swarmed all over them and watching the joy and love of the re-united family group, I was almost tempted not to be recovering from minor surgery in the near future. Shortly thereafter, however, I was called upon to play piggy-back with Jess (despite my protest that I did not have the Necessary Dorsal Muscles) and the feeling passed. But it was a near thing. I still don’t long for children, but I must admit it’s quite nice to be an Uncle.

I’m still not doing the nappy thing, though.

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