Dear Sir or Madam
My sons and I were enticed to your garden centre by the promise of a fun Disney-themed treasure hunt that you had advertised on your website. We were looking forward to rooting out Donald Duck from the composted bark mulch or unearthing Olaf from Frozen in the screened topsoil. Or knowing what I know now about your operation, Mickey Mouse sat behind a desk in the management offices.
I checked on your website to confirm that you were open on Bank Holiday Monday. Your website was very helpful. It had your web address displayed on it. The one I just clicked on to get there. It conveniently linked to the same page, presumably in case visitors have a psychotic episode and forget where they are or what they are doing. It seems you specialise in sending your customers on pointless journeys.
It took 40 minutes to get there. When we arrived at the entrance the signals were mixed. Two large signs saying ‘OPEN’ were fixed to the gates, flanking a large industrial padlock which kept the gates firmly closed. Together with the barbed wire spiralled at the top of the gates, and the metal bollards which guarded the front I figured on balance that the garden centre was indeed closed. It did occur then that you had gone out of business, which would make a lot of sense in retrospect.
I now had to break the news to the boys. Their reaction was instantaneous and catastrophic. A kind of awful harmony of screaming, the little one holding a top-line treble scream while the older one belted out a lower bass scream. I didn’t know how to make it better. In the end I appeased my younger son with an apple, which he stuck in his mouth in a workable impression of a roasted pig from Tudor times. They couldn’t comprehend why the Disney fun had suddenly been taken away from them; in fairness neither could I.
I felt it was best at this point to take them somewhere, anywhere away from the garden centre and do what I always do when my children are unhappy. Buy them shit. Immediately. That meant heading to Woking. You can imagine the scale of my problem that the only presentable solution was Woking.
In truth we sort of drifted towards Woking because my sat-nav had packed in. We were sucked into its one-way system. This appears to have been designed by a drug addict with a Curly-Wurly fixation. The giddying sequence of chicanes and hairpins was too much for my younger son, who promptly served up a fresh helping of apple puree.
I can’t blame you for Woking. But I can blame you for us being there. Please make sure that the information on your website is correct. The waste of petrol has an impact on the environment and more importantly my wallet. It’s also a waste of tears. It’s a waste of an apple. And it’s taking the Mickey. And Pluto and Goofy and Minnie for that matter.
I look forward to hearing from you
One of my biggest fears as a dad is that my sons are going to turn out like me. I was a shit kid: sickly, lazy, introverted and frankly a little bit boring. I’m a slightly less shit adult. One of the legacies I fret about the most is that somehow they are going to inherit the bed-wetting habits of my childhood.
So far the Major has made the transition from nappy to potty to pant with only the vaguest drip. He has adapted magnificently. By contrast I spent most of the 1980s waging a war of piss-soaked terror against my own bed linen, at least in keeping with that era of excess.
My companions throughout this sodden period were five soft toys known collectively as ‘the Chaps’. In retrospect that fact that I chose to take to my bed with the Chaps seems more like a public school romp but of course it was very innocent. We were a squad, a bit like a boy band. Albeit a boy band in which one member habitually urinated over the other five.
My bed-wetting became so serious that my mum took me to the doctor’s surgery to find a suitable cure or at least tie a knot in it. The doctor provided us with a contraption that consisted of an electronic mat wired up to an alarm which sounded when the mat got wet.
For some reason my primary concern on being presented with this machine was who it actually belonged to. My mum tried to explain the basic philosophy of the NHS but as I was unable to grasp this she ended up simply saying that we borrowed it off Margaret Thatcher. I can’t recall the dark places that my tiny mind visited at this point, speculating as to why Margaret Thatcher owned such a device. After all she had had two children and was probably quite stressed with the miner’s strike.
At first I regarded the machine more like a toy. While my contemporaries were playing with Transformers, I busied myself with a piss-alarm. The first night we installed the sheet in place but I was so excited I couldn’t get to sleep. Which would have immediately solved the problem except that eventually curiosity overwhelmed me out of bed to wee on it in the traditional awake and standing-up position.
At this point my mum decided to introduce an incentive scheme: every dry week was rewarded with a Toblerone, every month with a trip to the local toy shop. And in this way eventually my rebellious bladder was brought to heel like an unruly Labrador. As a side-effect I also developed a lifelong love for Swiss confectionery.
I look back and feel strangely nostalgic about it now, but I also remember the sopping shame that came with it all and don’t wish that on my boys. Perhaps I should focus on actual problems instead of hypothetical ones. Parenting is difficult enough. Just think about Margaret Thatcher. She needed a machine.
Things came to a minor head with the Major earlier this week. He was sat on the bathroom toilet as I got home from work and poked my head through the door. He told me to leave and get in the bin. I asked him which bin and he replied the kitchen bin. This was clearly absurd. The kitchen bin is far too small for me to get into. I offered him the choice of one of the three outside bins: garden, recycling or normal. Clearly he plumped for the normal bin, the one with the fetid pool of bin juice at its base and the recent bluebottle infestation.
So I tramped downstairs and opened and shut the front door so that he could hear it. Then I went and hid under the staircase. I listened out as he padded along the landing into our bedroom to look out of the front window at the bin which he now imagined to be containing his father. And as I cowered under the stairs while he frantically pleaded with his mum to retrieve me from the bin I couldn’t help but think that something had gone wrong with my parenting strategy.
There are mitigating circumstances. From the moment that he found his voice the Major has subjected me to a verbal battery of taunts which he has fired at me on a regular basis. If our house had an HR department then I would have lodged a formal complaint in the hope that disciplinary proceedings would be initiated.
Most of abuse happens in the few hours after I’ve returned from the office and before he has fallen asleep, when the air is simmering with a toxic blend of resentment and fatigue. It began with a simple “no, Dadu” repeated like a mantra, but has evolved with the improvements in his vocabulary. In the last week alone the tirades have ranged from the knockabout (“you silly old sod”) to the metaphysical (“Daddy, you’re like a bad dream”). Once I heard him beg his mother not to leave the room so as not to be left alone with me.
We’ve always been able to rationalise the manner in which he singles me out by pointing to the fact that he recognises the paternal neediness in me and mischievously plays on it. But the other day I eavesdropped on a conversation that the Major had with his mum during which he calmly explained that he did not want to play with me, the reasons for which appeared to be that I smelt. I actually smell really nice.
My reaction to the constant bombardment is always powerful amusement. But the lack of cooperation that it is aligned to is dispiriting. The bin charade was a result of weariness and resignation, a culmination. It was not part of a coherent plan, it was my normal ‘seat-of-the-pants’ parenting.
But the ‘bincident’ was also a watershed. Since that evening the Major has adopted a more affable approach. It seems that in effect I have guilt-tripped him into liking me, and I achieved this by filling his little head with dark images of me hunkering down among the soiled nappies and maggots at the bottom of a bin. It’s obviously not how I planned it but for the last few days the Major has embraced me, literally and figuratively. Children. You just never know.