Several of us are at a soft play centre with the kids. Actually, those last three words are somewhat superfluous – of course we are with the bloody kids. There is no way on god’s earth that you would step foot in one of those atrocious play spaces if you didn’t really, really need to entertain the kids and wear them out sufficiently so that they might fall asleep without too much fuss later on. These places are hell incarnate.
The one we are in is pretty much like all the others that I have had the misfortune to spend an afternoon in. It is a brightly lit landscape of primary-coloured plastic; an unending vista of wipe clean surfaces. Which is ironic, seeing as they are barely ever wiped. The chairs are bolted to the floor just so that there is plenty of room for the kids to drop food stuff as it makes its speedy way from table to mouth – food that is then trodden firmly into the carpet. Looking at the floor, the carpet is some way off the date of its annual hoover. Never mind, E’s socks will attract most of the squashed raisins, soggy biscuit pieces and melted chocolate crumbs leaving the lovely faded green carpet tiles almost pristine.
The play areas are marked off with floor-to-ceiling netting, giving them a rather appropriate likeness to large cages. The assortment of vinyl covered shapes held within glisten with the body fluids of every child who has ever clambered, dragged, licked and snotted their way over them. Baggy socks barely clinging to small feet can be seen waggling through portholes, flashes of bare limbs spotted crawling speedily through claustrophobic tunnels. The sound of sweaty flesh screeching against the plastic slide is an almost constant accompaniment to the over-exuberant screams and shouts that make me involuntarily wince. This is what passes as entertainment for a three year old. I would rather eat faeces. Mind you, given the germs that must have set up civilisation on most of the surfaces in this place, that too is not completely off the agenda.
The beverages on offer are…quite unique. It doesn’t actually matter if you order tea or coffee – by the time you have poured in a carton of white fluid masquerading as milk (but not before you have sworn at the unopenable foil lid that eventually surrenders its fight with a final defiant gesture of spitting a great flob of whiteness onto your jumper) and stirred with a plastic stick of dubious hygiene, they both taste the same – bloody awful. I have witnessed plates of food coming out of the kitchen at this place, and I use both the terms ‘food’ and ‘kitchen’ advisedly. Never have I seen so much beige on a single plate – chips, sausages, chicken shapes – it was like it had been assembled on the principles of a show home colour palette. Freezer to plate in about 3.30 minutes… I tried hard not to gag.
We have not had the most auspicious of starts to our fun-packed afternoon. E fell asleep in the car on the way here, guaranteeing that he is in the foulest of moods when I have to wake him up to go inside. I can’t really blame him as I am equally as grumpy if I am awoken from a slumber, but I personally don’t feel the need to scream until my face goes puce. Wrestling with a toddler in the car park is not my favourite way to spend ten minutes, but I finally manage to extricate him from the tentacles of the car seat harness and carry him inside.
Half an hour later, E is still refusing to leave my lap or retract his protruding bottom lip and I am coming to the conclusion that I may well have paid four pounds to sit with E at a plastic table and watch him eat a box of raisins whilst all the kids around him are clearly having a whale of a time. And on one occasion, a wail of a time, mainly caused by a not wholly unamusing scenario of two kids climbing up opposite sides of a large foam cylinder and cracking heads together as they arrive at the summit simultaneously.
Finally, with a combination of cajoling, levering his bum off my lap and the dissolving of the final atoms of his sulk, E goes off with his friends to play. Ah, the unadulterated joy of a grown up conversation without interruptions that usually involve the whereabouts of his toy car or what I have for his snack. We actually achieve that utter rarity: the completion of a single conversation. Pre-children, I used to take for granted telling or listening to a story from beginning to end. Shit, we even had time to pass comment or ask for clarification. Now, with kids in the vicinity, we are lucky to get passed ‘bloody hell, I had a nightmare yesterday…’ before a toilet break, an urgent nose wipe or a burning question involving the origins of raisins sends the conversation lurching into an irrevocable emergency stop.
Some time later, we became aware of a plaintive crying and we scan the play area. They say that a mother can recognise the cry of her offspring from three miles away during a blizzard with ear muffs on – or something like that – but my mummy gene must be a tad defective, as I can never tell if it is E who is crying unless I know for sure he is the only child in the room. High up on the top floor, an area reserved for fives and overs (didn’t he bloody read the notice?) I see him. He is standing, clasping the netting, evidently freaked out by finding himself the equivalent of three floors up. Obviously that long climb up the stairs didn’t prove enough of a clue. I walk over to him, straining my neck to see him, urging him to come down the way he came.
“Mummy, help. I’m stuck.”
Oh fuckity bollocks. I kick off my shoes with a sigh and start to navigate my way up to get him. The stairs turn out to be a hilariously entertaining zig zag, doubling back on themselves every few metres. I am starting to sweat slightly now, as I twist and turn slowly up toward my son. Is it my imagination or is it getting narrower? I start to call E to try and get him to come and find me, but he is not budging. More fuckity bollocks.
Soon after, as I make a spine-crunching turn near the top of the stairs, I realise I am stuck. Whether it is my child-rearing hips, my prodigious arse or some other part of my anatomy that is somewhat larger than a five year olds’, I am not sure. The only thing I am most certain of at this juncture is that I am not going any further and have an overwhelming desire to retreat which is handy, as that is the only direction I can go. Oh, and I am most definitely sure that my bum does look big in this.
I recommence my cajoling of E, who stares at me flapping about on the stairs with a certain curiousness.
“Come here,” I whisper urgently. “I am stuck.” The irony of this statement does not escape me, but I am too busy gritting my teeth and trying not to shout to acknowledge it with anything other than a quiet grunt.
For a moment, I think E smiles. He lets go of the netting and I beckon him to me, willing him to just get a bloody move on. If I hang round here much longer, there will be a backlog of small children behind me and soon a partial dismantlement of the play equipment involving the fire brigade may become the only remaining option open to us.
Suddenly, E hears his name being called behind him, and spotting a friend, he gleefully runs away to play, his vertigo and fear miraculously gone. I lay my sweaty forehead on a vinyl step for a moment until I realise it smells quite unpleasant, and make my tortuous way back down to my shoes. As I say, these places are hell incarnate. And they bloody stink of smelly socks.