Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Christmas story

A sentimental Christmas story for 2000AD fans.

“Have they gone?”
“That’s an affirmative, good buddy!”
“If you say it’s too damn quiet I’ll shoot you myself.”

The creak of a drawer in Tharg’s ancient, intergalactic wooden desk is suddenly deafening in the empty office. The tiny occupants freeze, then chuckle and shake their heads at their own foolishness. More creaking and the drawer is open. Heads appear over the edge of the battered, cheap desk drawer. They’re free. They’re back. Exciting news, readers.

It’s Christmas Eve.

Out of the drawer they pour in their dozens, their hundreds, their thousands. At first they are silent, disoriented among the abandoned desks, peering around in the gloom of an office briefly left empty by droids permitted to visit their factory batches for this one special time of year. Here is torn tinsel; there, a gaily-decorated drum of toxic waste with a page of art poking out of its sludge. It’s Tharg’s Nerve Centre, it’s midnight, and for the forgotten multitude it’s time to party.

A cheer goes up from the growing crowd, many of them humanoid and many not. Blasters, blazoogas and glowing gauntlets are fired at the ceiling in celebration and, amid falling white flakes of plaster, a dark-haired schoolboy and his pretty cousin start to make a snowman. Strange, buzzing creatures zip between people’s legs and try to suck at their bodies, but are swatted away with a good-natured laugh. Somewhere, a bear-man and his small friend break out enormous barrels of Mac-Mac.

A unspoken awareness ripples through the crowd, and the dancing begins, with music blasting out of the sound system of a parked-up alien spaceship. The floor is filled with whirling figures: mutants and monsters, robots, cyborgs, clones and shapes so grotesque a mere glance at them triggers nausea. Soldiers tear aside their gasmasks to reveal pallid grins, long hidden. The scents of sweat, decaying flesh and mothballs mingle as the crowds pogo in unison.

It’s a long night, and a short one. The dancing goes on forever and the music never stops. Couples peel off to find quiet corners, while near the ceiling the vampires watch, their eyes gleaming. The drunks get drunker, and one family of outlaws, filled with bitterness by their lost chance of escape, get a bit too mean and have to be put to bed. Then the party’s winding down and the slow dances have started.

Outside, the light begins to grow. As usual, the fat man in the red suit didn’t bother to put in an appearance; too many people here are on the other list. Realising their time is up, the long-lost heroes and villains exchange sad glances, handshakes, shirts and a little gunfire then trudge back towards the desk. In small groups and battle units, they help each other to climb up the legs. A large, bald man in yellow dungarees pauses briefly to defecate in Tharg’s coffee cup before he and his brother head to bed. It’s all over again. It was a good run while it lasted.

Another long, sad screech and the drawer is closed. There is silence in the Nerve Centre, where the new alcoholic, radioactive litter will go unnoticed among the rest. Nothing stirs. Except...

Moonlight is glimpsed as a fire exit, chained shut except for a few inches of leeway, opens slowly. A single set of footsteps patters off into the night and a contented sigh is heard.
“Just out,” she whispers to herself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Soft Play Centre Horror

It seemed like such an innocent activity.

Left alone with the children for a day, I found myself wrangling a bored toddler as we sat outside his sister's ballet class. Suddenly I realised we weren't far from a soft play centre, and I made a decision: I would be a good dad and take them for some extra fun while Mummy had her day at the shops. What a fool I was. What a mad, naive fool. I now look back on that moment with bitter regret.

The soft play centre may seem like a torture chamber for parents, but - admittedly - it's a marvellous place for children. I often wish such places had been around when I was a child. They would have been so much fun to explore. We children of the 1970s were so inventive in ways of breaking limbs that even "soft" play would be no match for us. Then we could see an ambulance.

Anyway, our arrival involved merely routine humiliations, as my daughter - understandably excited - disappeared repeatedly and her little brother tried to break in through a glass door before I could even pay. Trying not to lose my patience too loudly, and making full use of the half-roar, half stage whisper that only parents can do so well, I managed to get the little reprobrates safely inside.

The nightmare did not pause, but that was not unexpected. After exhausting my entire supply of nappies for Child Two and panicking three times following the loss from view of Child One, each sprog was deposited in the appropriate safe area and left to play. Wrapping a belt around my upper arm, I settled into my happy routine of injecting strong coffee directly into my veins, then spreading baked goods all over my own face. Aaaaaand... relax.

But how could I have known the horror that awaited me? How could I have known, gentle reader? How?


As the sugar and caffeine rush abated a little, and my vision began to clear, I decided that my efforts to be a positive parent should continue. I would play with the children. Quickly, I located Max, my two-year-old son, in the under-threes' play area. There, he had fixated upon an attractive young woman and, as is his wont, was using a combination of cute smiles and hypnotic powers to make her his hopeless slave. I carried him off, leaving his shattered victim with a dreamy, puzzled smile. Many are Max's women. Many.

Off we went to the big children's area, for some supervised climbing fun with Dad. On the way, we checked on Max's big sister, Rose, who had acquired some vassals of her own. Using her uncanny ability to trap the unwary with a stream of nonsensical chatter, she had co-opted some nervous adults. I shook my head in pity as their eyes darted from side to side, hoping for a chance to break into the conversation and escape. I knew all too well that their hopes were in vain. Prisoners they would remain, until Rose tired of them and cast them aside.

In the main play area, Max and I started to explore. We climbed up things and rolled over things; we jumped up and down and shoved our way through. Designed of course for children, soft play areas have many narrow places and many that require crawling. The challenges did not find us wanting. We took all it had to throw at us and cried out manfully for more.

Soon, however, we began to penetrate the uncharted interior of the play centre. It grew darker and quieter around us as we crawled further from the safety of toasted sandwiches and baby changing areas. Strange sounds and stranger smells assailed us as the soft play became harder-edged. The child-friendly primary colours were slowly replaced with midnight blues and sinister blacks. We could only guess uneasily at the purpose of this alarming corridor. Then we emerged, blinking, into the light.


The room was rectangular, high-ceilinged, and lit harshly with a single bare bulb. Once, its floor had been decorated gaily with bright colours, but constant misuse had eroded its cheeriness to a muddy brown. At one end stood a small set of goalposts and a broken basketball hoop. In the centre, regarding us stonily, was a group of little boys.

Dreadful was their demeanour and terrifying was their appearance. I have no hesitation in admitting, dear reader, that I felt my heart leap and the prickles run up my spine and neck. Ahead of me, Max gulped and soiled himself, but our lack of nappies was the least of my concerns. I could only pray that I would live to scrape the chicken korma-style poo from Max's buttocks once more.

Each of the boys wore filthy, torn rags upon which a number of syndicated television characters were still visible. I found myself hoping that several were replicas of vintage T-shirts, or hand-me-downs, but I knew with an intense certainty that shredded shirts displaying "Bagpu", "ysses 31" and "Wotcha, I'm Crunch!" had been new when their wearer had put them on.

Toying with a small bone entwined in his long hair, the tallest of the boys approached us. He said nothing; his intentions were truly unspeakable. His unkempt followers, murmuring gently, followed as one, gathering around their leader. One wore broken, twisted glasses. Another wore an eyepatch. It did not look like part of a pirate costume.

Suddenly, as one, the boys smiled a smile that will stay with me forever. Max, until this point warily silent, began to howl. They boys smiled wider, each exposing many, many tiny milk teeth. Every tooth had been sharpened to a point. All the better to eat you with, my dear.


I have no clear memory of our escape. I can but assume that I gathered my son in my arms and crawled like the very hounds of hell were after me. I do remember the darkened tunnel and the terrible chittering behind me. I remember my terror and Max's cries. I remember the smell, and the calm realisation that those trousers would probably need to go in to soak later. My heels and ankles were scratched and bloody as I staggered, weeping uncontrollably, back into the light.

As I came to my senses, I looked around the crowds of families enjoying the soft play centre. In its happy chaos, the sight of a grown man crying and covered in a child's poo was not unusual, and went completely unnoticed. Only Rose realised we were there and, casually releasing the adults in her thrall, wandered over and asked if we could go to McDonalds. I decided it was the least we deserved.

So heed my warning, reader. If you have bred, if you have created a small version of yourself with a little bit of someone else added, take my counsel before you visit a soft play centre. Stay in the populated areas. Stay on the path. Do not stray too far from the light.

Here be little monsters.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The abandoned parent

My boots have new laces. To find out why, read on. Oooh, the tension!

There are few feelings in life quite like the emptiness felt by a parent suddenly left alone.

Children really do consume your life. My children have devoured mine for five years, making sure they chew every mouthful carefully and often dribbling bits of my previous existence all over the floor. For so long, my every waking moment at home has involved tripping over small children, being interrupted nine times per minute and having toys shoved in my face with a hearty "DAAAH!"

Now, however, my life has changed. No longer am I the only parent around. Mummy is home and, boy, is it different.

The glass that's half-empty

Yesterday I found myself alone. It's been happening all week, since my wife gave up work, but usually only for a few minutes and I was able to fill it with some small, long-neglected task. Yesterday was different - it was my first complete afternoon by myself. I had nothing much to do, so I went out to do it.

Once the initial euphoria of being alone wore off, I began to feel faintly puzzled. Five years ago, or even 10, an empty afternoon would have been easily filled with fun, culture, socialising or - best of all - alcohol. On some level, I could remember being that person but, on another, I couldn't remember how that person acted.

I found myself wandering around in a daze. After a thrilling moment in which I bought shoelaces, discussing them at some length with the bemused man behind the counter, I went to the library, to browse through the talking books. Then I realised something: I am old and boring.

When did this happen to me? How did this happen? Have my children - those appalling, slime-coated homunculi who shriek and spray their hideous scent everywhere - removed everything that was me? Did they sneak into my bedroom one night, when all right-thinking people were asleep, and insert some metal tool into my ear so they could remove my personality? I fear they did. If you think that's far-fetched, then you haven't shared a house with children. They're always up to something.

Stop carping, and carpe diem

The solution is clear: it's time to get a life. It's a truism of parenthood that children change your life forever, but nobody warns you that they change it by hitting it with a hammer and dragging it along behind a car. It's damaged but it can be repaired. As a parent, it is up to you to repair it.

Very soon, I won't be the only person feeling bereft and abandoned by their children. Here in Scotland, the school holidays end in just over a week, and the rest of the UK is only a few weeks behind. One morning, parents across the country will be sitting with blank looks on their faces, clutching mysteriously-unspilled coffee and unmolested biscuits - and wondering what to do with themselves.

Well, here's what to do. Once you get the initial celebrations out of the way, and cackle like the Wicked Witch of the West while buying all the shoelaces you could ever eat, set some goals. Lose that weight. Paint that fence. Read that book or watch that film. Get it done. If you don't do it now, when will you?

Just remember - the little nightmare will be home soon enough, clutching indecipherable homework and ranting about your carbon footprint because teacher said you were a bad person.

Our blissful hell isn't quite over yet.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The sleep of the just

Let's have a go at writing a blog post without sarcasm in it. Have some faith. I can do it.

As this is posted, I am mere hours from the end of the most difficult, yet enjoyable, time of my life. Today is my wife Shazia's last day at work.

You're my wife now.

For five years (except Shaz's last maternity leave), I've worked at night and looked after the children on my own during the day, but that ends today. We have finally admitted defeat and, with an offer of redundancy accepted, the children will have their mum at home during the day.

The decision was made for a variety of reasons, chief among them being we'll never have this time again. Rose is about to start school and Max is nearly two, so it's a magical time to be around them. With the option available, it was hard for Shaz to say no.

If we're honest, fuel prices played a big part in the decision, too. We did the arithmetic and realised Shaz was working full time for not very much money, because the commuting costs were crazy. Also, there is our own relationship to consider. We were starting to forget what it was like to spend time together.

Of course, sooner or later Shaz will need to find work again. In fact, if an opportunity was to come along now we would grab it. But there's no hurry.

Be careful what you wish for

As for me, it's a strange feeling. This may sound insane to any normal person, but I'm going to find it difficult to adjust to a full night's sleep again. It's amazing how much can be achieved in a 19-hour day and amazing how much time we waste sleeping. I suspect I will be a little frustrated about it for a while.

We'll also have to readjust to being around one another. I'm so used to being the only parent around the house, and having all the responsibility, that even at weekends I find myself taking over, automatically. I have to let go and learn to be patient.

It's been a tough five years. One moment I keep remembering is when I was feeding Rose, then just a baby, in her high chair. I was very tired, and suddenly I was overcome with a huge desire to go to sleep. I started fantasising about lying down on the kitchen floor and closing my eyes, and I knew - with absolute certainty - that I would fall into a deep sleep immediately. I sort of shook myself and put the thought aside, but that moment, more than any other, is my reminder of the challenge involved in balancing full-time childcare and a full-time job.

At the same time, I'm aware that I've been given an incredible opportunity. Few fathers can spend so much time with their children, or have so much fun with them. We've done so many things and had so many laughs. Nobody knows these beautiful children better than I do.

Of course, lots of people do what I do. Every parent has a difficult task, and every parent does their best to get through it. We've all been exhausted, covered in unspeakable substances and at the end of our tether. It's part of the job.

So, as I prepare for a new stage of my life with my family, and wonder if I will be any less grumpy and difficult when I get enough sleep, I offer a little advice. It's the best childcare advice I've ever heard, and I dish it out all the time. I won't say who provided it, but he was right.

Just get on with it. That's it: just get on with it. Shut your whiny face and be a dad, or a mum, or a grandparent or any other sort of carer. A child is relying on you. Get it done.

Hey, I did it! Absolute sincerity all the way. I even used the word "relationship". I promise to be especially snide next time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Balloons: a rant

Children love balloons. It's a wonderful feeling for a parent to see their little faces light up at the mere sight of the brightly-coloured, bobbing amusement. On a superficial level, balloons are marvellous things: cheap, easy to hold and they charm children so.

Then the hatred sets in.

I hate balloons. They're my most hated thing, ever. That includes noisy toys that have no off-switch and only shut up when you get a screwdriver and take out the batteries. It also includes the Zingzillas, and my bile towards those prancing mutants is a matter of record. It even includes Brussels sprouts which, as any right-thinking person will tell you, are the Devil's testicles.

I hate nothing on this Earth more than I hate balloons.

Up, up and away

Part of it is the guilt. Children are so very delighted by balloons, and a small child will wave those little arms so enthusiastically at the prospect of grabbing one. But that's when the problems start.

Don't get too close to a child who's burbling with excitement and flapping around with a newly-acquired balloon. It is definitely going to hit you in the face, again and again. It doesn't help that fast food restaurants - yes, you will end up in one sooner or later; resistance is futile - often tie the damned things to the high chairs. Just getting a tot strapped in safely will lead to at least 10 whacks in the mouth.

The balloon will then be the sole focus of attention throughout the meal, party or public event. Efforts to persuade the child to co-operate with pretty much anything sensible will be ignored, because the balloon must be worshipped. Occasionally, it will be used to attack a nearby adult. Often, it will escape from little fingers, ironically leading to a mad dash to rescue it from the ceiling. It may even burst suddenly, inspiring myocardial infarctions and tears in equal measure. Balloons are evil.

Free as a bird

Now the stress levels are properly high, there arrives the most dangerous moment in any balloon's life cycle: the transfer to the car.

If you are at a party or a restaurant, there is a good chance the balloon is helium-filled. There is also a good chance that, for safety, it is attached only loosely to the string it is bobbing at the end of. This is a fatal combination.

The balloon is definitely going to try to escape. It is going to slip off the string or out of slippery fingers, or it is simply going to encounter something fatally sharp. As someone whose daughter lost a balloon at the top of an extinct volcano - amid cruel laughter from passers-by - I can confirm there's nothing like the sight of its escaping shape to induce heartbreak in a small child. Only the sight of a burst balloon in the gutter can compete for sheer pathos.

Even if you can get the balloon into the car - while being hit in the face even more, and trying to keep it inside the car and on the string as you strap the child in - the pain doesn't end there. The balloon will bob around the inside of the car and try its hardest to get into your line of vision and cause a terrible, terrible tragedy. A huge, intimidating shape in the rear-view mirror is the least you can expect.

Back down to Earth

Once the balloon is back in the house - again, a process fraught with danger - that should be mission accomplished, right? Nope. That's just the start of the once-loved balloon's descent into decrepitude.

As the thing starts to deflate, it will bob around the floor. It will trip you, confuse you and generally get in the way for a surprisingly-long time. As I type, I can see four balloons. They are orange, green, pink and white and in various states of deflation. They are also in the way constantly.

That doesn't matter to children. They will happily throw the things around the room, shouting, "Yay!" in sheer pleasure. They tend to pick their moments carefully, particularly targeting any adult passing with a hot drink and/or sharp implement. Then it's time to get the defibrillator out again.

Wake up, Champ! Wake up!

This story has a sad end. So many of them do. Little Andy grows out of his toys, Old Yeller dies and Bambi's mum turns out to be delicious when pan-fried. Balloons are no exception. Sooner or later, every child must say goodbye.

Sometimes it is a quick end. There are tears, of course, but they only last until the appearance of something with sugar in it. Sometimes it is a slow, sad decline as the balloon gets smaller and smaller and eventually is found in the bin by an indignant brat. Sometimes it is mysterious and unexpected, and a parent may look a little shifty. Just shut up and eat your cookie, child.

Then the stress and hatred can abate a little, at least until the next time a balloon is acquired. Then, depressingly, the battle against the evil of balloons is renewed. Will it ever end? Not until icicles adorn Surtur's fiery realm.

Well, no - let's not be hasty. The good news is the world's supply of helium is running out. That's understandably sad for people who need an MRI scan, but for a dad who's only had five hours' sleep and has to wade through four balloons on the way to the precious, precious caffeine, it's a cause for celebration. Let's have a big party.

Just don't bring balloons.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Children are rubbish, but we can rebuild them

It is a source of constant astonishment to me that children are so badly designed.

Yes, I know all that stuff about cells splitting and fish crawling out of oceans and weird hairy things evolving in trees but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the way children are apparently designed to be at maximum risk of terrible injury - or of driving a parent into a state of mental collapse - at any given moment. I know they're a miracle, but would it be really selfish for me to suggest they could be a little more miraculous?

Yes. Yes it would. But I'm going to do it anyway. Here is how children can be improved. Scientists, please take note. I shall expect you round my house immediately with some scalpels and impressive-looking glass jars.

Haud yer wheesht, or I'll haud it for ye

Let's start with the obvious one: making a child shut up.

There are a number of ways to cope with the chatter of a small child. A patient person (i.e. a non-parent who is trying to impress someone) will hunker down to a child's level and actually feign interest in whatever the little monster is saying, then pretend they are neither disappointed nor disgusted by it.

A more sensible person (i.e. anyone who has spent more than an hour alone with a child and is now eyeing their own hairline suspiciously in the mirror) will tune a child out. This is surprisingly easy, but is not a permanent solution - because eventually the child's voice will filter through or they will attract your attention with a wooden toy to the temple. Worse still is the later discovery - usually in the company of appalled adults - that some general, non-committal noise you made has been taken as a cast-iron promise that it's permissible to carry some steak knives up a tree while eating an entire chocolate cake. Made of poison.

No, the only solution is to stop the noise at source. Yelling will do the trick but you might be blamed for the emotional trauma later. See also fitting a gag and/or muzzle. It would be better to invent a working mute button. Science, I demand that you find the answer. Er... that's all I've got. Let's move on.

Verily, prevention is better than cure, sirrah

Just this week, I watched three tiny children comparing knee scabs while waiting for the start of their swimming lesson. Each was entirely relaxed about the injuries involved because, of course, children are convinced they are indestructible. Nearby, several parents watched in silent terror. Surely there is a better way?

Oh yes: armour. It's often said that we can't wrap our children in cotton wool, but why the hell not? Has anybody tried it? I say we should.

What we need is some sort of padded armour that grows with them, like a tortoise's shell. I would also be willing to use some powerful adhesive - preferably one that isn't soluble in water or bubble bath - to attach some sort of padding to knees, elbows, posterior and head. Whatever lets me get a cup of tea in peace.

Failing that, there are dusty suits of armour filling museums and stately homes all over the country, and doing nothing more useful than amusing tourists for a few seconds. I say they would be put to better use protecting our children from themselves. We could even get them sponsored. I'd happily paint a logo on the back of both of mine. Get in touch, Apple, if you're up for it.

You'll never make it stick

Here's another thing: children don't half get in a mess. I mean a proper mess. We all remember being grubby children but back then we were the scrubbees, not the people doing the scrubbing. Trust me: sometimes you worry that you're going to hurt them. All the while, the child is screaming and dribbling unspeakable substances and thrashing around and getting in an even worse mess. It's probably the circle of life or something.

But this nightmare need not continue. If only some inventor was to create a way of ensuring children don't get dirty. Yes, I'm talking about a Teflon coating.

According to my extensive research that was in no way limited to a quick Google, such a coating tends to be applied to things like metal and would very possibly hurt a human being during the application process, but I'm sure the world's geniuses can find a way round that.

Then we can have ever-fragrant children, and our days of scraping dried-up poo from the backside of a child who ran away and hid at the worst possible moment will be over. Also, jam salvaged from their faces would, in theory, be reusable. That's a win at both ends.

The Island of Doctor Morose

So let's recap. We have a silent, steel-clad child who can withstand temperatures of more than 300 degrees celsius - like a miniature Robocop - and a parent who is ignoring the child utterly and eating all the biscuits.

It is perhaps possible that some sections of society might consider this amoral, and even accuse the parent of playing God. Well, to most parents "God" isn't so much a deity as a wail that goes up sometime around 4am when you've just been woken for the ninth time.

Also, if the creator or evolutionary process or whatever combination of those you happen to believe in had done the job properly in the first place we wouldn't be having this discussion, would we? Children would slide, all metallic and heat-proof, down the birth canal and immediately start earning money so their fathers could retire and go and sit in the shed.

Now, if I can only think of a way to fix teenagers...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My friendly neighbourhood Spider-boy

My son is 15 months old and he loves to climb.

He's only just realised that he can, and it's simply because his legs have reached the optimum length for couch ascent. His preference tends to be the dangerous north face, without crampons or ropes, which would be safe enough if he didn't bounce around giggling the entire time.

Of course, after the ascent comes the descent. His preferred method of reaching base camp - otherwise known as the pile of hard and potentially-hazardous toys he carefully gathered before starting his climb - is to wriggle off the couch, head-first. This usually results in me having a great view of a small posterior and a pair of legs kicking like frog hopped up on espresso, as his body disappears vertically towards the wooden floor.

Yes, my son loves to climb - and he seems to do it just to terrify me. I have a firmly-held view that children only learn to move around just so they can contribute to their parents' chances of having a cardiac arrest.

There isn't any other stair quite like it

The staircase tends to be a child's first foray into the world of extreme sports. It is, of course, done without fanfare. Ideally, a parent should be unaware that the child is even thinking of climbing until said child is fully at risk. Then it's funnier for the little shrieking baboon.

The moment of revelation for a parent tends to be carefully chosen. Usually, something awkward - perhaps even precious and fragile - is being carried at the instant the parent becomes aware of their toddler crawling grimly up the stairs, somehow looking vulnerable and smug at the same time. The sound of screaming is better when punctuated by the sound of crashing and breaking.

Many people fit complex wooden contraptions to their staircases, to stop their child from climbing. These tend to result in a slight alteration in their cliffhanger tales, usually with added guilt for the parent who left the gate open. Also, the little demons will eventually learn to open the stairgate, and this is kept as a lovely surprise for Mum or Dad.

The best solution: live in a bungalow. Or arrange for a builder to remove the stairs. You can always get a rope ladder.

Escape to Victory

We watch our children very carefully, don't we? We never let them out of our sight. We are responsible, caring individuals who can be trusted to keep them safe.

Wait a minute - where did the little nightmare go now? I only turned my back for a minute!

They love to escape. To a small child, an open door is the same as a carefully-dug tunnel running 200 yards under the barbed wire. Mum and Dad are the Goons and they're asleep in the watchtower.

There is no solution to this problem. No one can glare directly at children 24 hours a day, although often we feel we are. Sooner or later, the spotlight will be turned off and Big X's little brother will start crawling for the perimeter. All we can do is hope we can catch him before he reaches the train to Switzerland.

Then we put him in the cooler - and he starts planning his next escape.

Stop hitting that baseball off the wall!