There are many things that are thrust upon an unsuspecting Dad over the years. Most of them revolve around the emptying your pockets of money at school events, or driving your children to their friend’s houses for sleepovers; only to return half an hour later with all the things they have forgotten to take.
The most embarrassing moments tend to be set in the noise filled environment of birthday parties. Gone are the days when Dads would escape to the pub during the festivities only to return when they had been sufficiently numbed against the smell of jelly and the sound of Agadoo; it seems that jam sponge is excellent at dealing with the hunger that develops after a few pints of best.
My personal low point was at the 9th birthday of daughter number three. My wife had spent a small fortune on face paints after seeing happy children walking around as butterflies and lions at a village fete. She ignored my pleading for helium filled balloons saying that party was for the children not for big kids; what is more fun than speaking in a high pitch voice and singing like Barry Gibb.
Most of the morning was filled with sandwich making knowing full well that they would be dumped in to a bin liner with the paper plates at the end of the evening. It never ceases to amaze me that we fill several large tables with party food and all kids want to eat is crispy snacks that seem to made out of polystyrene covered in unnatural colouring.
In order to ensure that we took revenge on the parents who had inflicted us with their children we prepared party bags full of noise making objects and hyperactivity inducing chocolate flavoured sweets. After all it would seem churlish to keep all the misery to ourselves.
After spending an eternity getting the three bulb disco lights to work in time with the music, my dear lady had convinced me that I was suitably creative enough to be in charge of all things face and paint related and, since it involved sitting down, I agreed to take part.
Daughter number two, who at the time was eleven, wanted to have Manchester United colours with the words ‘I love Hibby’ emblazoned on her face in tribute to an eleven year old boy called Matthew Hibbert; it seems he was worth the effort so I obliged but was determined to ask more questions about his character later on.
Some time after completing what seemed like several hundred faces I was talked into allowing daughter number three to reciprocate by colouring my, by now, tired face. Not being in the mood to be an animal I chose to have a single coloured background with the word FATHER on my forehead as an expression of my position in the family. What could go wrong?
My precious daughter did a good job and, resisting the encouragement of her elder sister to add an R, spelt the word correctly; although she ran out of paint half way through so that the word changed from green to red.
We have encouraged our girls to have a good work ethic by having either a part time job or signing up for some voluntary work. Our two eldest daughters both had paper-rounds and discovered the joys of carrying packets, heavy laden with Saturday supplements, to people with little time to read them.
For the most part they were successful in their new found working lives; however, there were a number of days when dad had to come to the rescue. A torrential downpour or a more than light dusting of snow meant I was woken, far too early than the law allows for on a weekend morning, to drive a daughter around the locality so that she could earn half of what it cost me in petrol. What made matters worse was that the paper-round that includes our house was already taken by someone else’s offspring meaning that we had to travel to another part of town to begin the mornings work.
Most of these times were bearable because the paper-round didn’t take long to complete and, being Saturday, I could drop on to the sofa on my return and slumber for a few hours. There came a day, however, when I knew the whole thing had gone too far. One dark autumn morning daughter number one woke feeling the effects of a rather nasty sore throat. It was obvious that she would be unable to fulfil her duty but, because we lived a little way from the newsagents, the papers had already been delivered to our door for further distribution. Partly because I wasn’t fully awake and partly because my daughter wanted to collect all of her wage for the week I agreed to do the paper-round. On this particular day our car was being repaired so the only other form of transport I had was my daughters 3/4 sized bike. I know! I know! Any right thinking, self respecting man would have flat refused and told the newsagent to collect the bundle. Well I didn’t; I got dressed and jumped on the undersized two-wheeler.
I was comforted by the fact that it was still dark and that I was wearing bobble hat suitable designed for fathers with a need to be incognito. After fighting my way through a seemingly endless numbers of garden gates that didn’t work, and extracting my fingers from letter boxes that must have been designed by sadists, I headed towards my last few deliveries. Every householder should be forced to try putting a Saturday edition of a national newspaper through their own letter box, after holding their hand in the freezer compartment of their fridge for twenty minutes, so that they understand the plight of paperboys and girls, and postal workers.
I finally realised that all of my self respect had vanished when I arrived at a road junction to be met by two other dads looking equally embarrassed. One of them seemed to have the edge as he was doing the work from the relative comfort of his car, but it was obvious from the bright yellow glare of his satchel that he too had lost the argument. The other one was on his ten-gear mountain bike looking for all the world like he was doing a spot of exercise. Although he tried he could not hide the extra weight he carried in his unsociably orange bag.
I knew what was going through their minds as we passed each other with the faintest of nods; firstly, they were thankful that they had spotted someone who looked even more ridiculous than them, namely me. Secondly, they pleaded through tired eyes that we should never speak of this incident again. The fact that I am writing this now constitutes a breaking of trust between male parents that will probably see me barred from snooker halls, pubs and curry houses the length and breadth of Britain.
I returned home with my manhood affected; both emotionally and physically given the bike’s uncomfortable seat. I sat down with my toast and morning drink to find that OUR newspaper hadn’t been delivered because another local child had rung in sick and their dad had had enough courage to stay in bed.
Have you noticed how footballers promise to give 110% commitment to their next, most important, game? Surely if you have the capacity to give an extra 10% then your original 'one hundred' is miscalculated. I am not sure what prompted this need for inflation in measurements but it seems to be catching. I asked daughter number two how good a movie was that she had just finished watching. Enthused with positivism she said that she would give it eleven out of ten. She confused matters further by remarking that it would have been given a twelve but the ending was poor. So what is happening to our communal method of rating? It seems that ten out of ten is no longer adequate in conveying a positive message. So it is with our food; long the bastion of confusion with its 'no added sugar' easily mistaken for 'sugar free'. We now have a full range of information available on the packaging of most produce on our supermarket shelves. I am comforted to know that I can take my whole week’s salt allowance in one bite of burger and that lemon sorbet can be included in my five fruit and veg requirement. Not all of these changes are as simple to understand as in the days of yore (by which I mean the sixties and seventies, where my mind has painted a picture of an idyllic existence). Back then you knew the type of milk you were buying by the colour of the top: Gold being the choicest on offer to wash down your Saturday afternoon wagon wheel. With Silver top and Red Top, came the Red/Silver of semi-skimmed and the white-water of Blue/Silver skimmed. In those days the choice was not made on the basis of health but on how well it tasted on your cornflakes or how little it curdled in your tea. There was one other variety on offer that I believe to be straight from the cows of Hades; namely Sterilised, known simply as 'Stera'. This was offered to meet the dairy needs of families without fridges and had a taste that grannies and old aunts loved. I remember as a small child returning home from a school friend’s house having tasted their home made Vimto milkshake. Determined to replicate this delicacy I pulled the slender bottle of evil from the end cupboard and mixed the appropriate amounts in a Tupperware jug. The milk and cordial were not for joining and I was left with a liquid that looked like it had been drunk once already. It seems that Stera had a special quality of only being able to mix with hot water and tea leaves. I have been a confirmed pasteurised drinker ever since but I confess that I have tried to lay off the Gold top in recent years hoping that my already clotted arteries might eventually work them selves clear. I have heard it said that the old milk 'coloured top' system is used by some females as a scoring system for rating potential male companions; Gold Top being the best men available, whilst Blue/Silver represents someone who looks like the real thing but has no substance. I am not sure what a Stera man would look like. I asked my wife how she would rate me using dairy products and she said I would be freshly produced cheddar because eventually she hoped I would mature. Not sure she gets the idea on this one. I still think the 'marks out of ten' system is the easiest to understand and should be used in all areas. Food could therefore be labelled as 3 out of 10 for health and 9 out of 10 in terms of taste. Footballers could be encouraged to reinterpret their 'over the moon-ness' as ten out of ten, and my wife could console me with a ten for cooking to make up for the three I would get for remembering really important things. The good news is that my wife has just confirmed that she sees me as a Gold Top in ‘most’ areas; it’s a good job that she is not lactose intolerant.
I have an American friend who is trying to come to terms with living in the UK, with all its quaintness and charm. After a number of years of connecting with local families he can now cope with the differences in language and the speed, and spelling, of our ‘humor’. There is one thing, however, that bemuses him and turns him into a nervous wreck, mumbling under his breath whilst checking the internet for flights back home. Car Parks! He just cannot understand why there is so little room between each space. 'How do you park in them?' he will often ask and to be honest I don’t have a complete answer.
I suppose, in truth, lack of space is something we get used to from birth. We are an island nation and, as such, are practically standing shoulder to shoulder, or should that be bumper to bumper. Anyway! He does have a point, after trying to decide who to vote for in the ‘X Factor’ parking is probably one of the most stressful pastimes that we have.
You drive in to the already heaving area outside the supermarket and immediately switch into fighter pilot mode, eyes scanning each lane for either a space or any sign of movement that might indicate someone has had enough and is about to go. More experienced parkers recognise the true signs and look for brake or reversing lights to switch on, or perhaps that short puff of carbon monoxide telling you a car engine has just been ignited. If all this fails you have only two options left.
Firstly, you can pick a lane and sit, holding your ground whilst fending off other would be shoppers, giving them a stern 'I am about to park next, thank you very much' expression. Marking out your territory you position yourself about half way down the section and put your indicator on so as to encourage other drivers to ‘just keep on moving’.
Secondly, you could spy a shopper coming out of the supermarket, heavy laden with bags, and follow them around the car park until they arrive at their vehicle. Then you park across their vehicle so others are made aware of your intentions. This method does have the danger of making you look like a would-be stalker so don’t be surprised if security arrive and start speaking loudly into their radios.
Experience will show you that it is very rarely fruitful to follow a solo guy on his way out of the shop. He will be most likely popping back to the car to either put some bags in the boot or escaping to take a crafty moment to listen to the football on the radio whilst his wife is trying on shrunken jeans in the changing rooms. Either way you will follow him to certain disappointment as he mimes to you 'I AM NOT GOING YET' whilst waving his arms in an attempt at helping his communications.
Parking is also a problem because my wife is always severely disappointed in my choice of space. After driving round for what seems like an eternity she declares 'You just missed one', a comment that is designed to make me stop and try to reverse into shopping trolleys. When we eventually find a space she is joined in her disquiet by our daughters asking why I couldn’t find one nearer to the shops.
My favorite parking episode, however, concerns the day that, to my amazement, we arrived early to a large shopping complex to find the car park practically empty. Not being accustomed to finding ourselves in this position we reverted to type and drove around a couple of times before I decided on a suitable place to rest our vehicle. My wife couldn’t resist a final word as she said 'You passed a better place just over there.'
My America friend assures me that although car parks are different across the pond, wives are exactly the same.
I approach most of my days off with a mixture of joy and apprehension. Joy at the thought of not having to rise at 6am. Apprehension at the thought of my wife mentioning 'THE LIST'. Immediately all husbands/male partners will come out in a cold sweat and want to lift the newspaper to cover their eyes so as not to catch the gaze of their beloved spouse. My 'List' includes a variety of jobs that need doing around the house. Now you need to understand how my good lady works when it comes to such requirements. She doesn’t actually say that I have to do them; she just raises the issue in passing and leaves the subject hanging in the ether. 'The porch light isn’t working' or 'The garage is getting cluttered'. Faced with such statements of fact I have the option to nod in agreement and do nothing about it; in theory at least. In practice the very fact that the words have been spoken is enough to place the burden firmly on my shoulders. My track record is not good when it comes to dealing with the list. I might well respond by visiting the garage and, after switching the radio on, move boxes around in an attempt to 'tidy' the space. In truth I spend more time getting the radio tuned into the correct station and examining the contents of my special box of oddments. All men have them and they are always a source of joy. They are the male equivalent of the large jar of buttons that that my mother kept in her sowing cupboard. This all seems a world a way now and a couple of things strike me as nostalgically amusing. First the idea of having a whole cupboard dedicated to ‘sowing’ and secondly, the thought of actually saving buttons. I can’t imagine that either of these too oddities would be part of modern life. I suppose that the main difference between my mother’s collection jar and my own over filled container is one of purpose. She actually did get round to using them from time to time. My assortment of nonsense just sits and calls to me every time I enter the garage. The container reveals much about the random way in which I choose to save things; it probably reveals quite a lot about the state of my mind too. It contains several magnets saved from fridge door toys. One piece of chalk formally part of a puncture repair outfit. A rubber foot from the bottom of a TV. One rechargeable battery: the charger being broken and discarded many moons ago. A plastic peg for securing a guitar string. One rubber ball from a computer mouse. One wing nut from an old magazine rack. Three replacement Christmas tree bulbs: kept even though we bought a fibre optic type four years ago. Two counters form an old game of Cludo. All of these are housed together with a collection of drawing pins, washers and paperclips. I keep the special box in the garage because periodically my wife has a ‘whizzing’ session and I have to dive in to save important objects before they are lost to the green, corporate world of recycling. The porch light was mentioned nearly ten months ago so I really do need to take the time to fix it. The problem is that it is completely enclosed and the wood around the fixing plate seems a little suspect. I am concerned that if I remove it I will be left with further work to add to the list, involving screws, nails, glue, varnish and other representations of real work. In reality it takes me seven and a half minute to fix; of which four were getting the step ladders off the wall and positioning them safely below the light fitting (I also had time for a sip of coke and a bite of my mid morning toast). 'How come it was so easy but took you the best part of a year to fix it' asks my wife, not unreasonably. 'It needed a coat of looking over first' I said and scurried off to play with my collection of magnets.