The village hall resembles a petri dish of chaotic little viruses, violently individual yet humming in cooperative frenzied cohesion. Whoever thought the idea of putting two dozen five-year-olds together in a room full of cake was a worthy one needs a serious reprimand.
I stand alone as usual hoping no-one wants to talk yet aware of my awkward isolation. The mums won’t talk to me, the fathers divided into school-mate cliques or uncomfortable outsiders like myself, hovering around the periphery, waiting for fatherly duties while neurotically watching the clock.
Occasionally wandering aimlessly, I attempt to give reason for my movement. Pairing two wellies here, moving a runaway fire engine there. Witnessing a small coat tumble from a chair ten yards to my left, I decide it is time for one of my meaningless missions and set off purposefully across the pandemonium to correct the fallen garment crisis.
As I set off, I feel my foot connect with something flexible paired with the troubling sound of scattering plastic. Looking down I see the ruin my misplaced size ten has caused; Lego scattered all around, the synthetic carnage centred around a small child, looking considerably distraught.
I recognise the little lad as Callum, the son of the Goddess Callum’s Mum, the shimmering blonde deity who coordinates the after school cake sales. Of all the parents in this intellectually restricted arena, I seem to have inadvertently razed the plastic structure of the blessed son of Callum’s mum. Callum wails, no gentle whimper but a full-on howl. I kneel down and quickly sweep together the blocks randomly distributed by my reckless foot, apologising to the little chap as sincerely as I can, desperately wanting him to shut the hell up.
‘It’s ok, we can fix it. What were you making?’
The distraught child looks up at me as if awaiting a final and fatal attack, his lip wobbling, the cries softening.
‘Was it a car?’
Always being a specialist in misjudged child-directed comments, this particular one forces Callum to find his voice again, a wail louder than war. I’m distinctly aware of a couple of other parents taking an interest in proceedings, my chest recognising my calamitous sensitivity to public humiliation.
‘What was it?’ I try to repeat calmly as I squat down next to him, the cartilage brashly crumbling in my knee as I do.
Callum looks up at me again and screams through his agony.
A princess with wheels.
‘Well, let’s try and start building her up again’
Collecting the wheels, I push them towards Callum’s hand, resisting the temptation to physically calm the lad and break the school commandment – thou shall never touch another’s child – but this only succeeds in increasing the intensity of his screams. I risk social expulsion and lay a hand on his shoulder. He neither notices or cares so I quickly retract it. No need to go overboard.
As the child carries on screaming, a well-heeled foot becomes apparent to my right. I shift my gaze surreptitiously from shoe past a no-doubt expensive but subtle knee length dress up to the enquiring eyes of the Cake Stall organiser and mother of the distressed one.
My knee creaks as I get myself bipedal again and face her eye-to-eye. I’d never realised how tall she was before.
‘I’m Andy, I’m Samuel’s dad.’
‘Yes I know, you won the dads race in the summer’
I’m amazed that she remembers my victory. Lizzie bollocked me for taking that too seriously. What was I meant to do? The little long haired boy’s dad had bought his running spikes. A victory lap was perhaps a little excessive but the adrenalin was mainly responsible for that.
I try not to puff my chest out too much.
‘Ah yeah, I’d forgotten about that’
Well that’s fooling no-one. I decide to switch tact.
‘Sorry, I just knocked Callum’s Lego over. He was building a princess on wheels weren’t you?’
I glance down at the child who has ceased crying and has put on his angry face. I hear him mumble something about ‘Stupid’.
His mother smiles at him and, stopping to give me one last look of contempt, he collects all of the pieces back together and starts to rebuild his wheeled monarch in waiting.
‘Don’t worry, he’s a bit sensitive today, I think he might be coming down with something’
‘Aren’t we all?’
I internally cringe at this nonsensical comment but it seems to result in a giggle from her, a genuine giggle I hope rather than a sympathetic one.
‘Is Lizzie here?’
‘No, she’s at home, I said I’d bring Sam here today’
I try and make the answer as to not focus too much on the ‘excellent father’ factor but give it enough weighting to hopefully make an impact.
‘I’m just going to get a cup of tea; do you want me to get you one?’
‘Yeah, that would be great. White, one sugar please’
‘Ok, I’ll be back in a minute’
And with that, she spins on her heels and effortlessly picks her way through the chaos of the hall.
I stand alone again, Callum happily remaking his cybernetic princess at my feet and I reflect on the conversation – she noticed I won the dads race. I feel proud, immature and slightly pathetic admittedly, but pride is scarce commodity so I embrace it.
While I stand revelling in my new found fame within the attractive mums sector, I notice something potentially troublesome out of the corner of my eye.
Terrence’s dad, or Milos, I can’t remember which exactly; the punchy one with the blonde hair who his parents describe as having ADHD while everyone else thinks he’s just a little shit. He looks at me and is laughing, and not just laughing; chest puffing guffaws. His elbow dug deep into the gut of his pal, the father of the little prick who tried to dismember Samuel out on the pitch the other day, who stands next to him in equal measures of amusement. I smile back nervously, my mind desperately trying to work out the source of their hilarity. I think of checking my flies but the movement would be impossible to conceal and would no doubt add to their merriment. Little Shit’s dad suddenly points at me and then to his cheek. Dismemberment’s dad seems to be having a seizure so I turn my back on them to reflect. I bring my hand to my cheek, nervous about what I might find there. As far as I can tell my left cheek is clear. This is good, but last time I checked I had two cheeks, so I try the right one and instantly find something there, something sticky and unpleasant, some form of alien matter stuck to the skin. I pull it off and look down at my fingers. Egg. A large lump of congealed egg matts my fingers together. I quickly wipe my cheek with the side of my hand, revealing even more of the damn stuff. I can’t help but take a quick look at the amused pair of dads and see that they’ve been watching my discovery with yet further levels of hilarity. The fact that they noticed this unwanted addition to my face from all of twenty feet away indicates the ludicrous size of the unwanted ovular matter.
Callum’s mum hadn’t mentioned this while we were chatting. She must have been standing there trying to ignore the flirtatious man with the boulder of dried egg on his face. This is not an agreeable development. This is never going to be forgotten, not by the pair of twats, not by Callum’s mum, certainly not by me, maybe we need to move away. The pride of the father’s day race has scuttled away, safely disassociating itself from me.
I look around to see where the pre-school goddess has disappeared to and catch a glimpse of her shoulder as she disappears into the kitchen with Autistic Peter’s dad. Was she laughing? I’m sure she was laughing. Damn it. Damn it all. Maybe she wasn’t laughing at me. Maybe she didn’t notice the egg after all. Damn it man, of course she noticed the fucking egg, it covered thirty percent of your head. Embarrassment gives way to anger, anger towards who or what I’m not sure; the laughing dads, my inability to get a sandwich in my mouth, Lizzie for making me come to this stupid party in the first place, the bastard hen that laid the egg, they’re all the mix.
I bet they’re in there now using my yokey predicament as flirty precursory sex chat. Bastards.
I decide that’s enough. I look across the village hall and see my son.
‘Samuel, come on we’re going’
Sam comes running over to make his protests known but time is of the essence. I grab him and we quickly make our exit. As I rapidly push his arms through his coat, I take one final look down at Callum, his new princess structure taking shape. He looks at me with that grumpy face again and I smile and bring my foot firmly through the newly rebuilt princess.
He stares at me, but before the tears come, we’re out of there.
Rapidly exiting to the car park, Sam in tow, I hear the screams pour out of the closing door behind us.
I carry on walking, staring straight ahead.
‘You’ve got egg on your chin.’