I was facing a thunderous face and an Oscar-winning cascade of tears.
Al wanted to take Knuckles the spiny anteater to playgroup, and this was not in his Mum’s game plan.
Already, nestling in his diminutive Thomas the Tank Engine knapsack, was Shammy the well-worn meerkat. We’re supposed to be weaning Al off the Cuddly Set, not creating a soft entourage to flank the four-year old toddler into playgroup like bodyguards round a president.
Anyway, Knuckles didn’t have the requisite Reservoir Dogs shades. The whole thing was all out of whack.
We were surrounded by other childrens’ lovely parents who clearly sympathised with this performance. I grimaced. I’d have to play this carefully with such an appreciative audience.
I tried the tough I Am Going To Count to Three strategy, but three came and went: and no dice.
If in doubt, a wise woman I once knew said, use food. Preferably picnics.
Taking a hairpin bend in the conversation, I muttered: “Now: I need to know what to buy for our picnic.What shall we put in your roll?”
Decrease in RADA audition stance. A small voice volunteered “Cheese.”
“Hmmmm,” I delivered this as a learned surgeon might address a symposium of doctors in the theatre. “Do you think we might need sausages?”
And the thunder vanished, as though it had never been there, and Big Al exclaimed with beatific, exuberant joy: “Yes! Sausages!”
“Riiiight,” I mused, as once Socrates might have done on a fine point of philosophy. “And what shall we have for pudding?” (pulling figurative rabbit out of hat) “I think I have some chocolate fingers….”
Never, in the history of small boys forsaking beloved toys in cars and going to playgroup, has anyone tripped into school quite as happily and, yes – triumphantly – as the little blonde boy who stepped over the educational threshold this morning.
I had a hectic morning visiting a school and talking to a headmaster. I was in my best glad rags, and on something approaching my best behaviour, and my stomach was in a half nelson the whole time.
Still, I came away with enough time to change into bag lady clothes and assemble a picnic fit for a very small emperor.
Collecting Al is a joy, but one must be very good at American football.
For my nephew generally runs across the hall and launches his small compact rugby player’s frame in the general direction of me. I am a clumsy soul. I don’t catch hurtling four-year olds adroitly.
I feel as if I should have shoulder pads and a helmet. And when he lands it is all I can do to stop bawling “touch down!”
We picked up his knapsack in a state of high optimism and headed for the car where a slightly wary dog was waiting. He would join us on a jaunt round the forest, and might just benefit from a cocktail sausage or two. Four-year olds do tend to drop things.
Radiant sunshine lit the forest and the three of us selected a picnic table. Out came the rolls.
Rule number one: when faced with a ravenous four-year old, don’t give them a whole roll.
Al enthusiastically stuffed bite after bite into his mouth. Clearly mastication was for wimps and the little boy was out to optimise the space in this small cavity. It could take a lot of punishment, I had to admit: but was he really attempting to stuff an entire cheese roll at one go?
“Whoa, whoa there, Al. You need to finish your mouthful before you take another one….”
We settled on a routine. I’d make a human barrier between Al and the food, because he was lightning quick on the draw, and sausages and chocolate fingers could disappear in there at a speed faster than the eye can perceive. Thwarted, he’d finish his mouthful. I’d say: “Is there anything left in there, Al?” and be treated to a graphic demonstration that his mouth was very empty indeed. And then, like a traffic policeman, I waved the next chocolate finger/grape/sausage/crisp in.
We both found the routine suited us admirably.
And so did the dog: the pace facilitated several food drops which justified his chosen location, just beneath Al under the table.
Knuckles the spiny anteater was proffered a square meal: a roll; a grape; a sausage; a chocolate finger.
The sun had come out, the playground was bustling, the forest beckoned; and all was well with the world.