There are many things I dislike about being a father. Being puked on is one. Having a constant fear that something awful will happen to my kids is another. But there is one thing which trumps all others.
I hate being a dad because it means that I occasionally have to go to soft play centres.
Soft play centres are the worst places on the face of this earth – including the middle of Baghdad and Josef Fritzl’s basement – and I know I’m not alone in believing this. First of all, there are children everywhere. I mean, everywhere. You can barely move without inadvertently kneeing a child in the forehead, or knocking a toddler flat on his face.
And they’re screaming. Always, always screaming. You know how, if one gerbil in a cage gets scared, the others get scared and they all run around until they eventually keel over and die? That’s what soft play centres are like, but the kids are gerbils, and it’s you who wants to die.
There’s always one child who I call the ‘Nazi kid': often with a skinhead, this little scumbag legs it around the soft play area with no regard for any other child, knocking them flying as he runs through the dangling foam cylinders and over the net bridges – which, by the way, are like razors on the soles of your feet.
And there are crying children, some of them bleeding, but because they’re kids they’re too stupid to learn from their mistakes and so once again they toddle into the play area, wiping tears and snot from their cheeks, only to get a thrashing elbow in the face from a sweaty Nazi kid.
Now and again your own child will bravely battle through the maze of grubby foam and random ball pool balls to reach the top of the area, three storeys high. Which is where they almost certainly get stuck, or injure themselves, and start crying for you. And this is when one of the most amazing phenomena of parenting occurs: it’s when Normal Dad who’s enjoying a few moments with a cappuccino turns into Royal Marine Dad, capable of diving forward rolls and incredible feats of strength in an effort to reach his child.
“STAY THERE, DADDY’S COMING!” you shout, knowing full well that your child won’t go anywhere, probably because his chubby foot is caught in a net. And you run. My goodness, you run. You dive through holes, clamber up ropes, spin through foam rollers, grappling your way three storeys high in a matter of seconds.
And on your way, you scythe children down, left right and centre, yelling “OUT OF MY WAY!” and muttering a quiet “Sorry” when you spear tackle an unfortunate child into an adjacent ball pond. Have you ever seen the film ‘300’? There are these incredible fight scenes, super slow-motion things which I think are a great reflection of you, Royal Marine Dad, as you piledrive your way through the soft play area to your child. A bit like this, just with less blood.
You Spartan, you. War is hell. And so are soft play centres.