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?

Hopeless

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.

Broken

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.

Hell

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.

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