There is nothing I like to do more than spend a morning in a soft play centre. Sorry, let me rephrase that slightly. I would rather fry up my own excrement with a stranger’s toe nails and eat it for breakfast rather than spend a morning in a soft play centre. And yet, totting it all up quickly in my head (by which I mean screwing up my face with mental exertion and then reaching for the calculator), I reckon I have probably spent well over seventy hours in the past year in one of these places. Three solid days. Just think what I could have been doing instead? Sleeping springs immediately to mind, but then, when doesn’t it?
But, here we are again, on a slightly damp Friday morning. We have the choice of about three of them all within striking distance of where we live, because we are just lucky like that – but it scarcely matters which McPlay Centre we end up in. A hideous, primary coloured, vinyl-clad landscape, infected with a rash of noisy children. A handful of tables piled high with jackets, bags, half chewed snacks and coffee cups. A floor mosaiced with odd shoes, empty wrappers and numerous other tripping hazards. A fatigue of parents, trying to block out the noise and finish their tea before their offspring returns to the table in tears, or sockless, or with a large red lump on their forehead.
We manage to secure a table, even if it is the one with rickety benches either side that tip up the moment that the weight isn’t absolutely distributed evenly at either end. It’s less like seating and more like the Slatted See Saw of Death. We settle down, having flicked the plastic table cloth free of crumbs (wiping tables is apparently against company policy) and I trap – sorry, seat, my one year old in a high chair so that I can at least have a quick coffee before I have to escort him into the pit of despair that goes by the name of the baby play area.
Ten minutes in, and the noise level is already escalating. Myself and three friends foolishly attempt to have a normal, grown up conversation, but what with the noise, the constant interruption of the waitress asking if we had ordered a round of coffees three minutes after she had dumped our round of drinks on the table, and keeping hot beverages out of the reach of my son’s Mr Tickle-like arms, we soon give up and stare glumly at each other. I look up at the wall as I drain the last gritty dregs of my coffee and stare at a painting of a donkey sporting what can only be described as a gorilla’s arse. With a red ‘x’ daubed over the poo hole and an evil looking crow holding the mutant donkey’s tail between its pointy beak. I am equally fascinated and terrified by this little animal tableau. It’s like a glimpse of a dystopian farmyard future where a genetic experiment on Eeyeore and King Kong goes horrifyingly wrong and only crows and Tom Cruise can save the day. (Tom Cruise obviously plays the gorilla’s arse).
I can put off the moment no longer, so I haul B from his high chair and we enter the pit of despair. I gingerly pick my way between a seething mass of toddlers and babies to find the one remaining patch of free floor on which I can plonk my son, and kneel down beside him. He points to the vinyl horse and I sit him on it, rocking him back and forth, until he points to get off. At which juncture, he points to get on again. I duly oblige, but am barely two lines to a quietly-sung ‘horsey horsey don’t you stop’ when he points to get off again. With a tut, I lift him off. And he points to get on again. He seems inordinately pleased with this game. I, however, am building up quite a sweat heaving my son on and off the horse and am less enamoured with it as a way to spend ten minutes of my life, so after another three dismounts, I pick up the bloody horse, shove it behind me and give him a plastic ball to lick.
It is then that I notice I am being used as a handy aid by passing toddlers. Sweaty hands land unannounced on my shoulder as they unsteadily walk past, fingers grab my sleeve to prevent an awkward topple, feet plant themselves on my calves as if they were convenient stepping stones. At this point, most of my energy and will power is concentrated on not picking them all up by the hair and flinging them in the ball pit. I never thought I was that bothered about the concept of personal space. Turns out I quite like not being trampled on by a succession of red-faced, sweaty, slack-jawed kids. Who knew?
B decides he wants to climb up the upholstered steps to get onto the slide, so we toddle over. Taking up over half the width of the steps is a woman holding a baby, overseeing a toddler stood nearby.
B and I pause at the foot of the steps, waiting for her to gather up her thighs and get out the bloody way.
“Oh, am I in your way?” she asks me, surprised that out of the three hundred and eight children currently crammed into a ten foot square play area, one wants to use the slide.
“A bit, ” I reply.
This was obviously slightly advanced in terms of vocabulary for the Stair Buddha to comprehend, because instead of getting up, like absolutely everyone else in that situation would have done, she continues to sit there. I fear if I say anything else, the moment I open my mouth a great big fist will pop out and whack her straight in the face, so I manoeuvre B around her and up the steps as best I can. So up and down the slide we go, each time struggling to get past the Stair Buddha. Not even the ambient noise of a billion screaming children can drown out the sound of my teething grinding together.
As B and I tack slowly across the pit of despair to reach the stairs again, a mum enters with a baby car seat slung over her arm in which slumbers a baby. She puts said baby down on one side of the passageway and sits down on the other, leaving approximately three inches of vacant thoroughfare for anyone who has the audacity to want to move around. We approach the gap and B, realising that it is going to be somewhat tricky to squeeze through the available space, starts to turn sideways. I step forward to help him.
“Mind my baby!” she yells at me. Mind your baby? Mind your bloody baby? What, you mean the baby that you have left in the middle of the walkway in the most crowded play area humankind has ever seen? Are you and the Stair Buddha in sodding cahoots? Oh no, that’s right. YOU ARE JUST SHARING A BRAIN CELL. I want to swear. I want to swear so loudly that the entire play centre comes to a halt. A word so heinous that mothers sob involuntarily and rush to cover their children’s ears. A profanity so odious that it blisters the wall paint, fat-arsed donkey and all. So what do I do? I tut under my breath in the only way that a British, middle class up-bringing allows and move away.
Once more around the slide and I am beginning to numb from the brain out. A girl with long curly hair and a hideous diamante tee shirt is insisting on screaming so loud that I have to check that my ears aren’t bleeding. We reach the stairs, at the same time as three other toddlers, which given there is only about twenty centimetres of stairs available to us, means they get a princely five centimetres of stair width each. This is not going to end well. One of the bigger toddlers decides that force is his only option, and starts to push his way through the bottleneck.
Stair Buddha suddenly comes to life, reaching out, roughly grabbing the Pusher by the arm and pulling him back with some force. “Don’t push!” she shouts at him. Now, this is a very high risk strategy – and I should know. I have weighed up the pros and cons of intervening with a strategic grab on many occasions with other people’s kids, but you just don’t do it. Because you can never quite be sure that mum is not watching on. And to my utter glee, there she is, Angry Mum, right behind me, witness to the entire thing.
A slanging match ensues and I could only just stop myself from chanting “Fight! Fight!” at the top of my voice to help matters along. I was willing Angry Mum to slap the Stair Buddha, on behalf of her, her son and all those who had spent the last forty minutes squeezing past her and her nasty patterned leggings on the stairs. What this day could really do with, I mused, was a great big punch up in the ball pit. Now that would be worth the ticket price and make this whole shitty morning worthwhile. But alas, no. After some verbal handbags, the next best thing happened. Stair Buddha got up. The world momentarily stopped turning on its axis as she did so, until she walked off, in a huff. In my head, I cheered loudly. At least, I think it was in my head.
And so another trip to the soft play centre comes to an end. I drive home, with the image of a gorilla’s arse with an x-rated poo hole burnt onto my retinas. It seemed, after two hours in that hell hole, somehow highly appropriate.