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.

Lovely little Bear

Little C,  still with his milk spots, puckered lips and just a hint of ventouse comes to visit.

One month old, he is my husband’s son’s son.

Are we used to being grandparents yet? Not really. We had been anticipating a pregnancy for two or three years, but still. When I tell people, their expressions remind me that it is unusual.

“You’re 42? Wow. You were a young father,” they say to husband.

“It wasn’t exactly planned,” husband says, encapsulating twenty difficult years of fatherhood first time around.

“Wow, it must be weird to be a Grandad.”

“Not as weird as it is to sleep with one,” I say.

It is weird. I went from geriatric mother to nana in two and a half years.

Husband -or Grandpa as he now is – is a natural with babies. He is employed to wind Little C. I watch him, rubbing little C’s back, the baby’s chin is cupped in husband’s big hands. I feel emotional. Our baby days are over. A jealousy that I’ve never felt before, sneaks up at me, at this baby that is not ours, but his.

Husband wants me to hold him. I’m not sure why. Maybe he is concerned that his son and his girlfriend will have noticed my reticence. This isn’t our first meeting, little C and I.  I have cooed at him in the hospital and I have taken one hundred photos of him at his home. And he has visited us once before, on boxing day, when I dashed for water to heat up his bottle and I have admired his outfits and collected some old outfits of Arnie’s, but I haven’t held him yet.

It is our fourth date – physical contact is long overdue.

I’m no baby whisperer. I prefer babies when they are less fragile, like when they are eleven or something. I don’t know what to do with them when they cry other than to offer them the breast.  And they always cry with me, I think they know I am scared of them.

When she was pregnant, step-son’s girlfriend asked what I would like to be called, and I said, “well, there are two other women in front of me, let them go first.” It looked like politeness but I think really, it was something else. Not an age thing but an unease. I was never really a living breathing ‘step-mother’. Husband and I met when step-son was fifteen. He didn’t live with us and he didn’t need an extra mother. But now, I’m a step-grandma. And I am just emerging from the nappy and milky way of life with my own children, that I don’t think I have the capacity to do all that for someone else’s baby.

I sit carefully on the sofa and arrange myself first – like you do when you are preparing young children for their first hold – and then carefully, reverentially, husband passes me Little C. His Grandson. His blood. I mustn’t drop him. I feel this more strongly even than I did with my own babies. Little C stares at me and I stare back into his dark blue eyes and wonder what he sees.

He is lovely, little C, little fat mittens, waving and scratching out the past and giving us hope for the future.

Our song

Over half-term, husband, kids and I visit the in-laws. I like going there. They are, what my Grandma would say, “Very English people.” Nothing fazes them. Their home feels steady, safe and paid for. They keep chickens too so we get to take fresh eggs home.  This is great because Arnie has decided he will eat egg if it is scrambled with a touch of pepper thus, in one swoop, we have doubled his food repertoire by 100%.

The in-laws ask us if we are doing anything for our upcoming second anniversary and husband and I laugh guiltily because we have both forgotten it. How could I have forgotten it? This time two years ago I was as miserable as sin, fraught with anxiety and arguing with husband-to-be twice daily.

One of the many bones of contention before the wedding, apart from the obvious ones such as: why aren’t you changing your name? How much is this going to cost? and what’s wrong with goulash? – was the issue of ‘our song.’  Husband-to-be and I had met in that most romantic of places – cyber space – so we didn’t do what people normally do, which is, I assume, meet at a party and have a smooch at the end of “Careless Whispers” thereby rendering Careless Whispers ‘their tune’ forever and ever. So we didn’t have an ‘our song’ and in darker moments I wondered if the absence of one meant we weren’t meant to be together.  Although it seemed very artificial only two weeks before the wedding, I decided to find us one. I knew it didn’t have the importance of Obama’s choice of song for his campaign – oh ok, I thought it had equal importance actually.

The trouble was our favourite songs weren’t appropriate. Husband likes ‘Suspicious minds’ and the ‘Mr Brightside’. – (I detect a theme here). I like the songs of the heartbroken: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, or ‘Tainted Love’, although I have a hankering for songs like ‘Joleen’, ‘Valerie’ or ‘Mary’. Not so good when your name is Bill. Or Sandra.

It was as bad and as fraught as choosing the baby names. I would make lists and husband-to-be would knock them off only instead of “too posh,” “not posh enough,” it was “too naff,” “not naff enough.”

We had lots of contenders but nothing stuck. For a time, we were both happy to compromise with ‘Nobody does it better,’ but it seems a bit in your face about shagging. Anyway, as I said to husband at the time AS A JOKE. “What if it’s not true?”

Two days later, when he started talking to me again, he had the suggestion of ‘Only you.’

Looking from a window above

its like a story of love

Can you hear me?

I was keen but not sure about the lyrics. What window? What story?

Not long after that, I re-discovered the best song EVER: Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’.

All I ever wanted

all I ever needed

is here in my arms

I was delighted: I ran into the dining room where husband was once again struggling with the red curry versus goulash. Christ, who has goulash at a wedding?

“Is this not the best love song of all time? The music, the lyrics, the everything about it is great. And it’s about US!”

Husband-to-be looked shifty. “Um…I…yeah, it’s a great song but…you know that girl I used to…”

Ok, not that.

In the end, the wedding went well. We got through it much in the same way we get through our marriage: It is different to how we imagined but hopefully it’s ‘good different’. The red curry was lovely. I felt and still do feel massively fortunate to have such a good man as my life-partner. (Women in my family tend to have a low life expectancy so that’s not too onerous.) And, I got an ‘our song’ too.

Anyway, as we drive home from the in-laws, chuckling at having nearly forgotten the anniversary, our song comes on the radio and it is one of those beautiful moments of synchronicity, a crazy coincidence which suggests there is order in the chaotic universe after all. It is like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Our whole relationship is flashing before my eyes: those first tentative emails, those first terrible dates, the first time we slept together without shagging, the first time I had my haircut and he didn’t notice, having the children, going on holidays, laughing, meeting each others’ eyes across an empty room. Yes, all that. And I realised that the actual song didn’t matter – it’s like a photo and even if the photo is fuzzy and unflattering – it still is a trigger for a thousand memories.

“When I come home…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who comes back home to you

And if I go…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who going over you”

“Darling, it’s our song!” I say, beaming.

“Is it?” says husband. Fortunately, when he sees my face, he does a quick save. “Oh yeah, course it is.  Nice one.”

The joys of supecesharzee

Arnie and I go past the card shops, the second hand shops, and the empty shops of the high street. No one will give a second glance at a kid out of school at two in the afternoon in this part of town. Hand in hand, we go, past the Cash Converters, the pawn brokers, the off license, and the bookies: Odds are fifteen-one that Arnie will need a wee soon as we arrive.

Speech therapy is in a building which also houses the local sexual health clinic. In another life, I have come in here and removed my drawers. I find speech therapy only slightly more humiliating.

It upsets me that Arnie has this struggle with something that comes so easily to me. I don’t like having to take him out of school for this appointment – what message does that send? – and I hate it that it is a group session. Apparently, Arnie is too good for one-to-one but since I can hardly understand him this is scant consolation.  Being in a group makes me feel that we are under scrutiny. Fortunately, this is not a middle class part of London: I went to monkey music with Ray in Clapham once and the lesson was conducted with the seriousness of the Middle East peace negotiations. The two mums and one Grandmother here smile at us in the waiting room and tell the boys (it appears speech problems are more prevalent among boys) to wait nicely.

When I was fighting to get Arnie these sessions, I had this idea in my head that speech therapy would be the panacea, the golden bullet, and he would walk away pronouncing “The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the Plain” perfectly. Now, I know that these classes are just another step on a wong and linding load.

Our poor darling. Arnie’s L’s and W’s are troubled and his Ks sound like Ts and his Ds sound like Fs. Which makes him yelling “kitty duck” in the playground particularly excruciating.

It is our third group session. Arnie and I take our cushions and sit expectantly in the circle. At least I do. Arnie twirls around and picks at the floor. I get the picture of his words from his folder. We are supposed to have practiced our words every day. What can I say? It’s been a busy week.

“What’s this?”

“to.”

“DOGGGG,” I say.

The speech therapist comes over. “Try not to over-emphasise the ‘G’.” she says to me sharply.

Next one.

“Horthy,” he says.

“Umm, adults say horse,” I explain.

“Horthy,” insists Arnie, quite reasonably.

We have to do a group exercise and today its a jigsaw. The children practice their words and then get to do a bit of the puzzle. Arnie ponders as he always does and I think, as I always do, just how much time is wasted with these games?  “Pick a piece,” I say testily. A quarter of the lesson has already gone and he is wavering between the donkey and the farmer. “The corners, Arnie, you should always start at the corners,” I advise and then hearing myself, I think, Jay-sus, I almost wish this was the sexual health clinic. “Can you find a straight edge?”

The speech therapist comes over and says, “This is a really good way to get the children to do their words at home…” and it is as though she suspects she has a doubting Thomas in the midst.

I nod and agree, as though I spend all day playing snakes and ladders with the children. I wonder if she has children herself. Surely, playing with them is the first thing to go when you’re a parent? Do I look like a big fan of Kerplunk? I think I’ll come into my own when the kids are adults.

Arnie gets to chose a toy. He chooses Mr potato head and in the box there are three of them and one is Mr Sweetcorn head. He shoves it in my face. When I say “stop it, Arnie,” but in a pleasant voice because we are in a group, he throws himself round on his cushion.

“Concentrate on your words,” I hiss although in my head, I am composing emails that go like this.

To whom it may concern, (although you don’t seem very concerned) I flagged up Arnie’s problems with his speech 18 months ago. (I love the phrase flagged up) I am most unhappy, nay, disgruntled, with the group therapy sessions

Before I came to this group, I had the idea that everyone else’s child couldn’t speak because of their poor parenting and that my son would be the best behaved boy in the group. Wrong on both counts.

“Arnie, Arnie, concentrate. Try this.”

There is a picture of a ‘goatee’.  ‘Beardy’, Arnie insists and secretely I agree. For every word he pronounces correctly, Mr Potato or Mr Sweetcorn gains a new facial feature.

“Tractor,” says Arnie to the ‘Digger’.

“Don’t know,”  to the ‘Tag’.

“Come on, try,” I say brandishing an ear. Or at least look like you’re trying.

“Sicky?” he says with the weariness of someone three times his age. I think he means ‘ticket.’ I give him the hat and he sticks it in Mr Sweetcorn head’s mouth.

A therapist comes over, “Does he have difficulties with concentration?”

“Not usually,” I say.

“O-kay,” she says cautiously. “We’ll think up some new strategies.”

“If you could…flag some up for me, that would be excellent.”

At the end, as time runs out on the parking meter, there are stickers, new words and instructions. Arnie swings on my arm and asks for a wee.

That evening, I tell Arnie and Mini to go down and say good night to Fa Fa. This is Arnie’s name for Grandad and it seems right somehow. Mini refuses. She still has the hump with Fa fa for taking over her room. Arnie is annoyed at her, and he goes downstairs brightly; keener than ever to do the right thing.  I lean over the bannister and hear him ask his grandad for ‘a Tiss and for a tuddle’ and I think:  I’m sorry darling. I really will try better next time. 

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.