Hike uphill under bruising skies to the old homestead, thence to escort the young master on his latest first – playgroup. We arrive an hour late and as I’m ushered on through and into the appointed room, a semi-circle of faces turns and all eyes zero in on newbie and son. An instant of hush which even the attendant under-ones seem compelled to observe, and a change in ambience that feels like something I could reach out and touch – it’s not quite of tumbleweed quality but enough even so to suggest I may be intruding, perhaps even breaking the spell.
The moment passes, hatted heads turn back to their poker games, the wildly off-kilter piano jangles anew, the bar resumes service and the old hubbub fills the air once more as the stranger with the papoose heads on into the saloon. There may well be other sets of balls about the place but they’re all hairless and minuscule as yet; it appears I may already have broken the first rule of playgroup – I’m the only man in the room.
Popping Leo on a beanbag at the periphery of the action I catch a wariness in his eye and return it with a wink to mask my own, though he seems to grasp that these are uncharted waters for the both of us. But once he’s de-jacketed and my impulse to flee momentarily mastered, I thrust the pair of us into the fray. The fray in question being a friendly fuss of mums scattered on mats with, it would appear, an appointed (self- or otherwise) ‘spokesmum’ – Alpha mum, if you will.
Beakers of water and half-time oranges are dispensed – a distraction gratefully accepted, though already Leo is deflecting chunks of attention away from his father, for now a beached whale on a beanbag. Alpha mum conducts the briefing and Beta dad offers up all relevant vital stats – Leo’s, not mine. All this in between metronomic outbreaks of industrial strength cooing, throughout which Leo maintains a state of serene detachment, eyes locked all the while on mine.
Sing-a-long bookends the festivities; I’ve now ventured too far not to inflict my atonal drone on the group and I duly jump through burning hoop, serenading my captive son and imploring him to ‘wind his bobbin up’ with all the vocal assurance of a reticent sixth former standing at the back with his mates in assembly. Back to the haven of our sack’o’beans and as I slip Leo back into his hooded mac I sense the admiring gaggle collecting behind me and the murmurous rhubarb resumes as the group files out.
I’m entreated to return before to long – it’s Leo they want, of course, but naturally I promise I’ll do my best. Any unease I brought to this same-sex party has by now thawed, and indeed I’ve enjoyed the company of this brood of mums I’d have even recently assumed brainwashed. Because I’ve been lobotomised myself, of course. Beaten senseless with a love primal and without limit.
Before making tracks I’m assured of the existence of a dads-only group, though there’s a hitch – it doesn’t exist. Attendance is flatlining on a fat zero, and as I do the math and add this figure to the number of fathers on show here, I try not to read too much into this depressing and somehow unsurprising little statistic. Opting instead to grant the benefit of the doubt to my fellows, I assume they are simply too hemmed in by their daily endeavours in gainful employ. All of them.
I nod and hmm diplomatically, railing inwardly all the while at the common sense-defying absurdity of a mums-only or dads-only group – both as pointless as an uncles-only group, and as much use to me as a woollen boat. My quest for the grail of parent/carer-only group continues – what the hey, let’s all bring our lovers, too…
We shall return, as indeed we do the following week when our beginner’s luck runs dry. We fail even to make sing-a-long as Leo has a brief episode that, while technically falling short of a meltdown, is enough to have me beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the outer beanbag perimeter under the watchful eyes and knowing glances of the collective – once again I’m the only dad in the village, and the panic is rising. The charity shop hand-knitted yellow hoodie that has Leo sweet as a jar of lemon curd now seems to be made only of buttons, buttons, buttons – everything is buttons why is the whole thing made of buttons?
But for now we beat a quick circuit around the nearest park, dodging a nimble group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who, espying cute baby, descend on us much like the zombie auld ladies from Father Ted – relentless old dears in long coats and tea-cosy hats intent on fussing over Leo.
Over tea in the cafe a chance encounter with one of the the group and she doesn’t have to work me too hard to get full disclosure, or full enough to glean that I’m fathering solo. ‘I think it’s great, what you’re doing’ she offers. ‘Thanks’, I smile back. ‘Really great’. ‘Ta.’ ‘Really’. ‘Mmm..’ ‘Well done’ ‘Thanks’. ‘Really, well done.’ ‘OH, FUCK OFF’. I tip back the last of the builder’s, saddle up the cub and head for the exit. And then home again, home again, jiggedy-jig, – he to his, and me to mine.
And no, I didn’t really tell her to fuck off…