The weekend. Bliss. Particularly as Her Indoors is outdoors, and far away.
The kids all to myself. Two girls, 12 and ten, since you ask. And rather brilliant they are too, he pronounced, pathetically.
Oh, there’s also a shambling wreck of something masculine who has just finished school, and lies immobile on the sofa for days on end, satiating himself on endless re-runs of Jeremy Kyle. A charming lad, but not one of life’s great doers. He is still, satisfyingly, one quarter of an inch shorter than me. Or so I have successfully – and, whisper it, fraudulently – convinced everyone.
Some blokes of my acquaintance find being in charge of their own offspring daunting. Particularly the tricky girl creatures. In our household, it makes live easier, calmer. Less shouting.
My secret is a particular parenting skill I have honed to perfection over the last 18 years. Seven months and four days. It is to do exactly what I want, but make them think it was all their idea and I am only going along under sufferance. Cunning, eh?
Take last weekend, for example. I love the Gaelic football, and it is in full swing again. Now they don’t show it on telly over here. A perfect excuse, then, for a trip to the local Irish pub, to enjoy a few pints and a couple of matches.
Somehow, I’ve persuaded Ruby and Bella that this is an important cultural event for them to savour, a celebration of their partial Irish roots – with a bag of Tayto crisps and a glass of cola, naturally – to get themselves in the mood for their forthcoming holiday with their cousins.
They love it. Even I can’t quite believe I’ve managed to get away with this one.
To social workers who may be reading this, you will be relieved to know that my parenting skills remain resolutely sharp even in the pub. Just the one glass ofcola, mind! Got to be careful with those teeth!
The young fella in a Mayo shirt sinking a few at the bar last week turned out to be Bella’s class teacher next year. If I had been the barman, I would have been asking him for ID. Teacher? Sixth-former, more like. But we had a good natter, mostly about the priest’s curse which has prevented Mayo winning the All Ireland for 54 years. A fantastic story for another time.
Our chat was all the more enjoyable as it left Bella squirming. As I agreed to another pint, I reflected that even in The Quays in Holloway on a Sunday afternoon, I’m batting for my kids.
We’ll probably manage to squeeze in the Gaelic football again this weekend – it would be rude not to – but I have rather more elaborate plans. And – here’s the trick – my unsuspecting daughters are going to think I’m a great dad who has gone out of his way to give them a good time.
First up is the new Pixar animation: Inside Out. I’m not quite sure what it says about me – and I’d rather not go there – but I love kids’ animations: not the rubbish ones, obviously. Pixar knows how to do these just right.
If there is one achievement I would like to call mine, it would be to have written Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely the most magical film ever made. That scene where the most beautiful car – Gen 11 – comes out of Caractacus Potts’ garage for the first time? It gets me every single time.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be the one big danger this weekend, for I fear I may embarrass myself. I can well up – discreetly, I like to imagine – at virtually anything. Having read the reviews of Inside Out, I am braced for one of the biggest challenges of my parenting career: to leave that cinema with my dignity somehow intact.
Pity me, reader, as I watch with beloved Ruby and Bella either side of me a film about an 11-year-old girl growing up, hormones changing, and undergoing some hard times as puberty begins to close in. Why, she even begins to fight with her dad! She’s called Riley, and the trick of the movie is she has five characters up in her hand, one for each of her emotions: Joy, who’s the boss, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Readers of a certain vintage will recognise this as a homage to The Numskulls, comic book heroes of yesteryear.
Her family moves from idyllic Minnesota to terrifying San Francisco just as she hits this difficult age. She’s got a new school and friends to make, and Joy somehow goes missing, leaving the others in control. She’s angry with her parents, afraid of her new life, and all that golden childish optimism is beginning to evaporate. Oh, wait, I’m beginning to go already…
I said that I imagined my tears at Toy Story 3 or Up or Wreck-It Ralph were silently wept. I’ve just asked Bella whether she ever noticed. She said she can always tell: “You gulp, sniff, open your eyes wide and look down. Dad, don’t you feel me hold your hand tighter then?” Gulp!
Assuming I survive this, we will head tomorrow for the Olympic Stadium in east London and the Anniversary Games. Sport, what can possibly go wrong there? Except, I’m afraid to report, I find athletics strangely emotional. It’s something to with the competitors’ youth and attractiveness, that fit and strong, and determined to be the very best they can be.
I took Ruby and Bella to a Diamond League meeting at Hampden Park just before the Commonwealth Games last year. The girls asked high jumper Jayne Nisbet to pose for a picture after she came fifth out of sixth. She had suffered fearsome injuries, had overcome an eating disorder, no doubt had little enough money, and was never going to be world champion. But she was determined to give it her all at the Commonwealth Games, where she came tenth.
She was lovely with the two girls. A great role model, and one reason why they’ll love the athletics this weekend.
I’ve not always been so emotionally labile: maybe it’s a (late) middle-aged change. I remember reading some Problem Page once with advice to women: Beware the man who weeps, for he weeps for himself. There’s probably something in that, but I can’t help myself.
Now, you must excuse me while I nip to the shop, and stock up for the weekend. Tissues. Man-size, of course.