The worst thing that ever happened at Soft Play

I’m a veteran of soft play. First conscripted in 2003 when Ray was three, I’ve been serving time ever since.  The noise is terrible. The food is invariably crap. That’s if the staff bother to serve you. Mostly, they just take your money and forget your order. Occasionally, a new Soft Play will open with high hopes and big dreams but they always end up the same: a fight on the inflatables, a poo in the ball park, verruccas back home.  Your kids are whining all the time and hating it until ten minutes before the end when they have a massive volte face, decide they love, love, love it and it takes forty minutes to get them out and get on their shoes. And don’t even mention a soft play birthday party, when twenty parents you’ve never met before, dump their kids, and you have to bounce over to every six year old firing plastic missiles out of a tube, “Alfie, are you having chicken or burger? Oh, you’re not Alfie, ok. Who are you?”

A few years ago, when Ray was about six and Arnie was just a scrunched up woodland creature in a car seat, I took them and Grandad to our local soft play experience that is ‘Kiddy’s Kingdom’. Unlike Farmer Franks and Monkey World, this place aspires to be nothing else than what it is: trad soft play. Expensive and crap. Grandad carried Arnie in and parked him under the table and we sent Ray off under orders to have fun. Ray wasn’t too keen that day. I’m not surprised. His co-soft players looked like little terrorists in training. They all had shaved heads and earrings. No one, but no one, was wearing socks. And that was just in the baby area.

I got Grandad a milk shake and the foam gave him a jovial pink moustache. I got some crisps and settled down with a newspaper. Soft Play is not so bad, I decided, when you’ve got someone to share it with, especially someone who gets up every few minutes to check the children still have their limbs intact.

“Where’s Ray?” Grandad kept asking anxiously, peering into the Soft Play gloom.

“Meh, don’t worry,” I said, meaning if you’re that bothered, go and look.  He did go and look, which was great of him, he had a bit of a bounce, then came back. “It’s alright,” he said, “Ray knows how to have a good time.”

Just then, his phone went. He answered and I could hear a woman’s voice. He walked off over to the yellow counter where the teenagers were busily ignoring customers from behind the deep fat fryer. I think, eh, what’s he doing?

He comes back. All cool I ask across the tarpaulin table, “Who was that then?”

“Oh,” he says, a little flustered. “Yvonne.”

“Who’s she.”

“A friend,” he says.

“She’s got a funny voice…” I say, fishing.

“She’s got no teeth,” he says cheerfully.

“Oh!” I am surprised. She didn’t sound old on the phone. “How old is she?”

“Mid thirties.” Bout my age?

“Oh. And she’s your friend?”

He smirked. “Kind of,”

“Wha-at?”

“Oh Ruth,” he said. “Don’t be such a prude. She’s very open minded” he added – Open-minded being something I couldn’t possibly be accused of. 

“She’d have to be!” I hissed. “Eurghhh.”

I don’t know what was more horrifying. The fact that his ‘friend’ was the same age as me, the fact that she had no teeth, the fact that she was, in quotes, open-minded – or the fact that he was telling me this, now, in Soft Play. I didn’t throw up – not that it would have made much difference to the general ambiance – but I wanted to. I was as unsteady as if I were dashing across the inflatables with a kid with a nose bleed under one arm and everyone’s shoes under another.

Then Ray came over crying. A big kid had pushed him over Jelly Mountain. Grandad was furious. “Where is this big kid?” but Ray said “It’s ok, Grandad.” He wanted some of my crisps.  “No,” I said furiously. I was fed up with everyone else having a bloody good time. “We’re going home. Where are your socks?”

So we left Kiddies Kingdom and I never, ever managed to go back.

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I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you

Most weekends, I schlep children around between softplay establishments and football matches. I contact their friends’ parents to accept their invites and take them to where they need to go.  Husband says, “They have a better social life than us,” and so it is with Dad.

Twice a week, HomeCove court hold coffee mornings that Dad must be reminded to attend. These have not been an unqualified success: the last turned out to be a fashion demonstration and Dad left in a huff: “I didn’t want them to think I was a pervert”. The week before was better: a music quiz which his group won. “Only sweets,” he said.  “What did you expect?” Then there is the once a month party. He went last Saturday: “I only danced once,” he said. “I chatted to a deformed lady but she’s very nice.” He’s got a way with words, my Dad.

Yesterday, there was mince pies and carols. I also called to arrange for his lunch at another day care centre on Friday. I have given myself the prestigious title I always wanted at university: Entertainments Officer. There are no hip bands to show around the union, but ‘Pauly B’ will apparently be playing on the keyboards on throughout the afternoon and Dad says he’s so good he can’t understand what he’s doing there.

I take Dad shopping to Aldi and he tells me what else has been going on in his new home:

Last week, he fell out of his bed. He looked for his mobile phone in the darkness – couldn’t find it. The emergency cords were nowhere to be seen. He crawled to his front door, hammered on it, made a hell of a noise. A neighbour he’d never met before, came.  The kind neighbour, for this was two am after all, tried to pick him up, but fell down himself. It’s like some nightmare vision of a dystopian future, isn’t it? Or as Mini would say, there were two old men on the floor “Rolled over”.

Someone, Dad isn’t sure who, called an ambulance. The ambulance people were really nice and set them both upright again.

“Oh dear,” I say, “but why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” Dad says. He pauses at the chilled counter looking for profiteroles. “Why don’t you wear your glasses, Dad?” I ask. “Oh yes,” he says like I’ve invented cheesecake, “Do you think that would help?”

Then he says, a couple of days ago, he got up, he felt a bit chilly and decided to, how do we say, warm his cold morning arse against the storage heater. Bad move. The result was a burnt bottom.

“You should have told me!”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you,” Dad repeats the party-line. And it is this, more than his dilly dallying over the trifles that I find irritating. I wonder what he thinks happens when I am worried.  Is my worry something no person should face? The thing is, I’ve heard it before, or rather not heard it before. Dad had his first heart attack just before I had Ray. No one told me.  We didn’t want to worry you. It makes you feel bad when you find out you have been gaily getting on with things when all is not well.  It makes you feel stupid. We go back to Dad’s flat, I unpack the desserts and the rest of the shopping, then go home.

I am still annoyed. As prestigious entertainment officer, surely I have a right to know?

My sister is in charge of health and cleaning.  Every week, she packs his tablets into the big tablet dispenser so he can take them easily three times a day. She takes her hoover to his flat, hoovers, then takes it back. She washes up. And she listens to Dad. He tells her everything.Why won’t he tell me?

This evening, I am still annoyed. I lie on the sofa, eating mince pies, I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to worry you, I think, hmm. How very patronizing. But then, my sister texts to say she is just applying cream to Dad’s blistered bum and I have a sudden and powerful revelation: there are some advantages.

Heart-breaker

I pick up Arnie from school. He has done eight days in Reception now. He can’t believe school is five days long and the weekend is only two. “It’s not great, is it?” I say, “but that’s life.”

The reception children queue up at the school gate and wait for a parent to claim them. There are four or five kids who look just like Arnie so my arm is in a semi-permanent wave until the right Arnie appears. I’m reminded of what Dad told me about being evacuated. “They lined us up in this hall and we waited for someone to pick us. I was the last to go.”

“What did you do today?” I ask Arnie after he has peed up the nearest tree outside the school. Arnie has not yet acquainted himself with school loos.

“Nothing,” Arnie says. This is disappointing. At least last week, he told me whether he had apple or pear.

We drive to pick up Grandad from my sister’s place. We are going to take him to have a blood test. Arnie is happy because there are Haribos. My car is a Haribo landfill.

“What did you do today?” I ask Grandad when he has negotiated the five metres from front door to car.

“I had a terrible night,” he says, “flailing around like a ship on high seas. I think it was the sleeping pill. Or the statins. It’s getting worse and worse.”

“Did you eat?”

“I had some toast and Ella was here but she’s gone to work and I’ve been trying to call all morning, where were you?”

“Nowhere,”  I say. Grandad looks at me like I look at Arnie. His face says really?

Grandad can’t believe the clinic. He loves a shiny new health centre. “This is fantastic!” he says running his hand along the surfaces. You would think we had touched down at Vegas.  He doesn’t know where to sit. There is too much choice!  Black or red? Arnie too is delighted. He springs into the play section, ‘the germ repository’, as my husband likes to call it and sucks at toys. The only other person in the waiting area smiles and Grandad whispers to me, “Everyone loves Arnie, don’t they?” I hope the lady doesn’t hear. She is just being polite.

The blood nurse calls Dad’s name and I say, “You don’t want us to come in, do you?” but he does, so we go through with Arnie hiding between my legs.  The blood nurse asks Arnie if he wants to help and he nods. He has to say the magic words, “ready, steady, GO!” as the needle goes in. He bellows it as if starting a race and the blood creeps up the tube. I feel woozy but Grandad is fine, he says he’s had worse. Chatting to Dad, the nurse calls his blood ‘claret’.

I try to reassure Arnie. “They did this loads to me when I was pregnant,” but he looks at Grandad’s distended stomach, and I can see he is thinking, Is Grandad pregnant now?

“He’s a heart-breaker,” the nurse says and Grandad agrees, and I hate that phrase – why would I want my boy to upset people? – but I like this blood-nurse and her magic so I ruffle Arnie’s hair uneasily. She has finished but Dad stays in the chair. He’s too busy watching an imaginary roulette ball spin around.

“All I want to know is; how I can get better for the knee op?”

“Well, what have they told you?”

“Nothing.”

I say, “Let’s wait and see the results of this first before we worry about your knee.”

The blood nurse looks at me and I look at her, then Arnie tugs me to go. He wants another sweet. Or perhaps he needs to find another tree. Grandad leads from behind. I think, Heart-breaker.

The end of the world

Arnie is worried about the end of the world. He is changing out of his Batman suit and into his Spiderman pajamas. He has just brushed his teeth. Mini is already in her bed in Arnie’s room although she is not yet asleep. They are sharing because Grandad is sleeping in Mini’s room. Ray is in his room painting models of fighting men from the year 40,000. Granddad is downstairs watching the news.

“The end of the world is not for a long time, is it?” Arnie asks. He holds my hand. I connect the question with finding Grandad prostrate on the floor yesterday. This must be it.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I say briskly.

“But when will it be?”

“Never,” I lie.

Downstairs, I tell husband. I say I thought the kids were enjoying having Grandad here. I wonder if they are worried about him too. They know he has changed. He used to play ball with them in the garden or push the swing. He would draw pictures of cats for Mini and make playdough superheroes for Arnie. He used to read “We’re going on a Bear Hunt.” Perhaps Arnie senses that it might be an end of an era. He is our emotional, intuitive boy. The one on whom our hopes of a great future rest. The one who will take us in when we are old, unlike Mini who will say, “I want my house back,” or Ray, “Sorry mum, too busy with warhammer to feed you…”

It isn’t until sometime later, that husband looks at me and says, “Oh. When Arnie was eating dinner, he spilled a bit and I said, ‘it isn’t the end of the world...do you think it’s that?”

Dinner

Dad won’t eat my lightly smoked salmon wrapped in parma ham, new potatoes and peas. He says, “It’s fine don’t worry about me,” but he sneers at it and prods it. “Just do me a sandwich,” he says. I hear, what is with this twatty middle class food? 

The next morning, I say, “Shall we try to take you home today?” He says, “Oh yes, fine, don’t worry about me.”

“He can’t go home yet.” says my husband. I think, salright for you to say, you don’t have to dish out his drugs, give him food he refuses and wipe around the toilet that he misses so often that sometimes I wonder if its deliberate.

“You really do want more blow jobs,” I say.

“Seriously,” he says. “He’s not well enough.”

I pack Dad in the car with his two plastic bags and no clothes to speak of. When he tries to do the seat belt up, he can’t and he says, “I’m as weak as a baby.” He rolls up his sleeves and says bitterly, “My arms are like kittens.”

I say, “I like kittens,” and he does a half laugh, half snort.

I get the idea he’s not keen to go. I am not totally insensitive. Still Arnie wasn’t overly keen on school this morning, and Mini is always whinging about play school.

He says, “I’m frightened of ending up an old man, watching TV all day in a home.”

I don’t say what I’m frightened of.

I pick up the letters from the door mat. It is disappointing there is nothing from the hospital. I watch him wobble up the stairs. His flat is a disaster-zone. As always, I double-take: Has there been a burglary? Then realise, no, no, unfortunately nothing is missing. There are the books, socks, newspapers, photos, medicine packets, plates, and cups everywhere as usual. There are photos of me with my first husband. I find them embarrassing but if I say anything Dad will say, “Oh, but he is like a son to me.”

There are photos of Dad with Ray when he was a baby, and even more photos of Dad with Arnie and Mini. There are photos of Dad with Mum taken twenty years ago when they came to visit me abroad – the last time I saw her. I can feel her looking at me.

“Shall we go back to mine?” I say and Dad nods. We pick up some clothes and go back home.