I hate to sound like an old man, but when I was a young boy we didn’t have much in the way of recreational outings with the grown ups. There were very few toddler groups, no soft plays where you could power-bomb other rugrats onto vinyl wrapped foam elephants and no ‘toddler yoga’ classes where you got to enact some sweet revenge on your offspring for keeping you up all night by folding the moaning little shit up like a pampers clad pretzel.
Nope, the only outing I remember as a kid was being bundled into my grandad’s car, (front passenger seat, no seat belt required) driving into the nearest village and parking up at the pub. You’d then be passed out a packet of crisps and a can of cola, and left to stare out the car window for two to three hours while grandad sat in the bar and got himself well oiled on the cheap drams.
But this wouldn’t bother you, nor would the heat exhaustion of being trapped in a small car in the middle of summer with the windows up as you were getting to be a big boy and sit in the front of the car! Then just before the heat induced hallucinations would start, grandad would roll out of the small hotel bar and collapse into the driver seat, setting off and bouncing the battered Ford Fiesta off of every grass verge and stone dyke on the way home whilst tooting the horn at the local copper who would shake his head and yell after the car to ‘take it easy’, whilst making a mental note that he was owed a pint later for turning a blind eye.
These days however it’s all about ‘activities’. Every day you have to be doing something with your tiny person or you’re a terrible parent, silently judged by ‘High Definition’ eyebrow owning childminders because you missed a day of toddlers group and didn’t take enough organically grown kumquat to share amongst the other children at snack time. And then when you did come along the other parents partition themselves off into little parcels of gossiping hens, scowling at you over the lip of their organically fair traded coffee because you’re letting your kid throw lego bricks at the creepy stuffed clown toy that Mary brought along, which no kid or parent wants to go fucking near for fear of it coming alive and then being dragged into a storm drain by the wide grin owning, pasty faced bastard.
Or having to go on walks around the grounds of country houses because you and the kid seemingly need some ‘fresh air’. It’s minus three outside and I think I lost half the skin on my hand as it froze to the bloody gate to get into the place, but you’re right. This is a fucking magical adventure. Don’t worry, I’ll continue to pretend to be loving the great outdoors whilst desperately fending off this lairy swan prick who’s strutted over to try and break our kids arm and make off with his bag of overpriced carrot sticks.
But all these pale into the background when you’re faced with the most horrifying of activities. The one thing that’s guaranteed to make your skin curl as soon as it’s mentioned. And it’s normally brought up when you’re trying to enjoy your day off by sitting in your Batman lounge pants on the sofa to catch up on some slobbish telly watching. The minute your tired tooshie hits the cushion of that sofa, your wife’s ears prick up at the sound of the chair springs and your knees protesting.
“Hey!” She says in that cheery tone that’s only ever used to make the rest of your day bloody miserable, “Since you’re not working today, why don’t you take the little one to the Soft Play?”
When you don’t answer immediately, your better half comes to find out if you’ve heard what she said to you, only to find you curled up on the sofa hugging your knees whilst rocking gently back and forth.
Oh yes, you heard her alright, but you’re too busy fighting off the flashbacks and nervous sweats from your previous three Soft Play ‘Tours of Duty’, and would she mind awfully pissing off while you fearfully chew off your fingernails and soil yourself instead?
With no regard for the intensity of your PTSD battle, the child is soon wrapped up in ten layers of clothing (because the forecast claimed that the temperature may drop a few degrees below burning at some point today) and with little more a swift pat on your arse as you’re herded out the door she pulls you in for a hug and whispers in your ear, “Don’t hurry back either fatty, Momma’s got 2 litres of vodka here to work her way through in front of ‘Magic Mike XXL’ on Netflix”.
Next thing you know, you’re standing in front of the Russian Gulag industrial unit that houses the soft play with your child furiously vibrating against the plate glass front doors, gazing wide eyed at all the foam and plastic animals inside that he’ll soon get to blow his snotty nose all over.
You pay your entrance fee and sign the disclaimer that absolves them of any blame should your spawn hurt themselves whilst swan diving from the top of their flimsy vinyl wrapped scaffolding, only to turn around and find your kid has already sprinted into the mass of disease coated bodies infesting the multi-coloured framework, and is busy repeatedly headbutting the crotch of a five year old who’s gone and got themselves jammed in the exit of the bendy slide tunnel.
You’ll find a small space at a table, squeezing yourself between two designer nappy bags and a mountain of half sooked Fruit Shoots, and you’ll stare dead eyed into the bottom of your cup of coffee hoping that your child’s voice isn’t in amongst the cacophony of pained screams coming from the torture racks cleverly disguised as climbing frames.
I remember once sitting at one of these tables watching one kid stand and repeatedly smash his face into his mother’s knees until she angrily peeled her face away from her iPhone, dug into her handbag and pulled a sandwich out of a plastic tub, shoving it at the little shit who continued to assault her.
The little lad stopped dead, either through curiosity over his new breaded prize or through the mild concussion he’d given himself, and slowly peeled open the sandwich to see what was hidden inside. He peeled the slice of ham from the simple sandwich and turned to stare at me before ramming the meat into his face. I looked away, (because any father is terrified to look in the direction of a child that’s not their own in case they get their face smashed in by a swiftly swung Prada handbag and then accused of being a bit of a wrong ‘un) but still the little dark eyed monster glared at me the whole time he chewed through his ham, his eyes following me wherever I shifted my gaze just like one of those creepy paintings you see in haunted houses.
As I was about to move seats and sit at the other side of the table to keep my back to him, he walked slowly across to the soft play enclosure, still clutching his two halves of buttered sandwich and still staring right me, then started to smear the buttered side of his bread all over any bit of equipment he could reach.
I looked on horrified as he smeared the face of the foam elephant in butter before moving on to coat the nearby sliding wooden puzzle in the same greasy coating, all the while smiling right at me with a look on his face that would trigger the ‘Serial Killer’ alarm on any psychological test he may take in his future. I stared at his mother, who totally ignored my signalling while she focused intensely on the screen of her overpriced smartphone, and before I could get up to go say something to her, another weary looking dad sitting across from her leaned across the table. “Excuse me, if you pull your face out of your phone for a millisecond, you’ll see your wee shite is rubbing butter all over the bloody place.”
With a look like he’d just smeared a bum-picking finger under her nose, she stood up and stormed across to her son, who was now entertaining himself by rolling up bits of his bread into small balls and bouncing them off the heads of the kids rolling about in the toddler section.
She grabbed his hand and he took off into the air like a Cola and Mentos fuelled rocket, his shoulder socket doing an amazing job of keeping his body in one piece as his mother rampaged toward the exit with him trailing behind her like a screaming kite. As they left with a crash and squeal of Land Rover tyres, you could have heard a pin drop around the tables packed with parents as they witnessed what had just happened. Even the kid covered scaffolding was quiet while they all wondered if it was safe to speak in case they were next to get shot-putted out into the car park.
The silence was quickly broken though, when it was discovered by a five year old girl in a beautiful white dress that whoever had been down the bendy tunnel chute before her had left a streak of bum gravy that ran the entire length of the slide. She of course had only discovered this as she exited the chute faster than intended, and crashed like a poop covered bowling ball into three other kids who were hanging around at the bottom.
We made a hasty exit just as the uproar started, and as I started the car and pulled away I realised that sometimes Soft Play isn’t all that bad..