Isn’t it just the worst thing when you make someone else’s child cry? The feeling of guilt is almost overwhelming. Here’s this little child, this human being, lovingly nurtured by their parents. Look at them, all angelic. Their mother and father love them more than anything. And you’ve just made them feel so sad that they’ve actually started crying. You monster.
I remember once play-fighting with my nephew, who must have been about seven or eight at the time. I got a little over-excited and jabbed him with a bright blue plastic golf club, right in the ribs. That kid went down like a sack of spuds, and cried his eyes out for about half an hour. I apologised, of course, and made half-hearted excuses for my somewhat savage actions, but I still felt the anger in the eyes of his parents burn into my scalp as I hung my head, repentant but also a little bit chuffed that I’d definitely won the fight.
It’s a fine line to tread when in the company of someone else’s children between playing Funny Uncle Ben who pulls faces and makes silly noises to That Guy Who Takes A Joke Too Far And Upsets Me.
Case in point: the other day I was eating lunch with my niece, who is about six years old. She said she was going to squish ham in my face, so I pretended to scoop some mayonnaise out of the jar and smear her hair with it. She laughed, I laughed, she blew a raspberry, I contemplated farting for comedy effect and quickly decided against it.
It was time for a bit of cake, and a few slices – neatly arranged on a plate – were placed in the middle of the table. At this point I’m having a discussion with my four year-old nephew about superheros and comic book characters. I say my favourite is Iron Man, and he says his is Optimus Prime. We talk about who would win in a fight, but eventually agree to disagree because things are getting a little tense. (‘But Optimus Prime defeated MEGATRON!’ he yells, his face all furious, and I don’t really have an answer to match that.)
My niece decides which piece of cake she wants and points at it, waiting politely to be asked before lifting it onto her plate. Another chance for a few giggles, I think, and point to her slice of cake.
‘I want that piece!’ I bellow, and wait expectantly for the laughs and threats of cake-smushing in my face. Instead, she looks at me, her wide eyes becoming glassy.
‘But…that’s my piece…’ she says softly, her voice all fragile. Instantly, revolving red lights go off in my head along with klaxons and voices through megaphones.
YOU HAVE CROSSED THE LINE, they say. ABORT, ABORT. Sirens sound, alarm bells ring, etc. Time for evasive action.
‘Okay,’ I smile. ‘That can be your piece.’ Her expression softens, and she starts to smile. I breathe a sigh of relief: landmine sidestepped.
‘But I’ll have ALL the OTHER slices!’ I exclaim, greedily. She giggles, and laughter never sounded so good.