January 2, 2013 by Colin Kelly
We entered just as ‘Gangnam Style’ started blasting through the speakers and children of all ages rushed towards a member of staff in a panda costume who led them in the dance. Imagine the dry land equivalent of the wave machine and you’re half way there.
My wife had been before and knew the drill. Before I’d got my bearings she’d sat down at one of what must have been about 50 or 60 tables in the middle of the place and was explaining I could take my shoes off and enter the ‘toddlers area’ with 10 month old Michael.
Michael ignored the other boys and girls, shunned the pedal cars, trucks and wendy house and made straight (with me holding his hands while he tottered along) for an abacus in a quiet corner. He sat there puzzling it out for 10 minutes, long enough for me to experience that strange mix of worry and pride that I’m getting used to as a Dad.
After a while I glanced back towards the table to see what Emma was up to. She was eating a toastie and drinking a coffee while staring intently at her iPhone. Whatever it was, it looked very important and I knew she couldn’t be disturbed for quite some time. Now the music had softened slightly I was able to take in more of my surroundings and noticed lots of women sitting at tables with a similar expression on their faces. Some of them were staring at women’s magazines with an intensity I hadn’t seen before.
Beside me, in the toddler zone, were other Dads wearing standard issue hooded tops and jeans. One or two had better haircuts than me but all had that same ‘it’s my turn today’ look in their eyes. At least I think they did. It’s hard to look in someone else’s eyes without coming across as a bit strange when you’re both bent double walking a child round a padded cage.
In an effort to preserve the cartilage in my spine I picked Michael up and took him for a walk round the place, telling him it was a preview of the areas he’d be able to explore when he was older. Above us, about a dozen kids were involved in a frantic, entirely lawless game of football. They were penned in by mesh and seemed to have joined forces to see if anyone could kick the ball hard enough to destroy their captivity. The cage next to them involved a similar approach to the game of tennis. No-one seemed to be keeping score.
To my left, a dimly lit trampoline area where a couple of mums who’d chosen to sit nearby seemed to be trying to keep the limbs of more than 20 kids on at least half a dozen trampolines from knocking each other senseless.
In the hour or so we were in there I’m not sure I heard a single child actually speak with words. But their eyes and the vowel sounds emanating from their mouths said it all. If you’ve ever been at a darts match or seen the action from The Lakeside on TV, that’s the sort of atmosphere I was confronted with.
Michael was in his element and guided me back towards the toddler area where this time he shunned the abacus and tried to climb the mesh, Spider-man style. Again, I felt that strange mix of pride and worry.
A girl I’d never seen before who must have been about 5 years old came rushing up and shouted in my face, ‘There’s a man dressed up as a Panda!,’ before dashing off.
Michael is still being breastfed and it was at this point he looked me deep in the eyes and made the very advanced noise that I know for sure is him trying to say, ‘I’d like some milk now please, return me to mummy.’
It baffles me that only I am able to interpret these sounds but I knew there was little point arguing with him. Reluctantly, I prised his hands from the mesh he was still clinging on to, hoisted him up and smartly walked out of the toddler zone the way I would had the fire alarm gone off. If I’d taken a jacket or bag in there with me I’d have left it behind.
My wife was still dealing with her highly important iPhone issues but had somehow found time for another coffee. She seemed a bit surprised to see us and, true to form, Michael refused to re-create his sound in front of her.
Part of me was worried Emma might be annoyed I’d interrupted her but instead she smiled, said I’d done very well and we should come back again next week.
She looked younger than she has for months.