This week I experienced the worst day of my life. It was raining, Mrs Canavan and I were off work, and our daughter Mary was cranky.
She (that’s Mary!) had spent breakfast hurling her cornflakes around the kitchen, breaking off every so often to throw, with a surprisingly strong arm and a good aim, her plastic water beaker at the cat.
(I’m getting slightly concerned that she’s a bit sadistic – I’m envisaging a large scrum of reporters outside our front door in 16 years’ time and front page newspaper headlines like, ‘Teenage girl kills seven in crazed gun spree at local park – experts say there were clues in her childhood behaviour after dad admits she once concussed the cat with a direct hit from her drinking vessel).
Faced with a long day ahead and absolutely nothing to do to fill it – other than give first aid to the cat – Mrs Canavan suggested going to a soft play centre.
Half asleep and thus not thinking straight, and also completely unaware of what a soft play centre is, I muttered an unenthusiastic agreement and off we went.
After driving for a while with the radio turned up very loud to try and drown out Mary’s incessant wailing, I asked Mrs Canavan what a soft play centre is.
‘Oh it’s like a giant indoor playground for children,’ she replied nonchalantly.
I remember feeling slightly concerned, but then thought, ‘well surely it can’t be too bad?’
I was wrong.
Mrs Canavan directed me to a large, scruffy industrial park away from the Fylde coast where, in a unit right at the far end that looked as though it had been bomb-damaged during the Second World War and they hadn’t quite got round to carrying out the repairs, there was a faded sign which read, ‘LAND OF FUN’.
I strongly suggest to the owners that, based on my experience in there, the moniker ‘LAND OF SORROW’ may be more apt.
As we walked in I realised I had made a grave mistake.
At a conservative estimate, it contained around 20,000 children of varying shapes and sizes, hurling themselves around a vast variety of play equipment, from bouncy castles to slides to ball pools to an assault course.
The sound of pre-pubescent screaming filled the air and there was dance music with a thudding, repetitive beat being played over a tannoy.
In short, it was very much how I imagine it will be if I die and go to hell.
The only thing missing was Satan sat in the corner cackling and smoking a fag.
‘Take your shoes off please,’ barked a voice, breaking my thoughts. It wasn’t so much a request as an order. I looked to my left and saw a portly unsmiling girl, about 18-years-old.
“I beg your pardon,” I replied.
‘Shoes. Off,’ she said, as if irked she’d been made to repeat herself.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, not because I hadn’t heard her but because I was staggered at her rudeness.
She leant forward and looked me directly in the eye, as if speaking to someone with a mental age of two-and-a-half, and said very slowly and not without threatening undertones, ‘take your shoes off or you can’t go in’.
I can’t be 100% sure but I thought I saw a swastika under her jacket.
‘Just do it,’ hissed Mrs Canavan, who pointed out that this girl worked in a soft play centre all day and hence was entitled to be in a foul mood – a point difficult to argue against.
Ignoring the delights on offer at the café – ‘Vegtable Soup £2.95, Sweet and Sower Chicken £3.99’ (scribbled in astonishingly wonky handwriting in chalk by someone who’d clearly flunked their English GCSE) – we found one of the few empty remaining floor spaces, dumped our bags and then, weaving between large groups of unruly and feral children, headed towards the play area.
We went to the section for those under the age of two, which was, mercifully, a little quieter.
I plopped Mary down on a large sponge cushion. She briefly stopped crying, glanced around to survey the scene, then began screaming again.
I understood where she was coming from.
‘Go down the slide with her,’ said Mrs Canavan, pointing to an inflatable object nearby.
“Are you insane,” I said. “I’m 42.”
‘But if you don’t interact with her, she might grow up to detest you,’ said Mrs C, which was a tad dramatic but enough to shame me into, moments later, clambering up some ladders and with Mary perched unsteadily on my knee, sit at the top of the slide.
I looked around to check there was no one around I knew, then said, in an effort at enthusiasm, ‘ooo, here we go Mary, hold on tight’.
We set off down the slide – however, either it wasn’t very slippy or I had the wrong style of trousers on because we got stuck halfway down and then, with a concerned-looking Mary in my lap, I had to scramble awkwardly down while onlookers laughed and pointed at the odd man who doesn’t know how a slide works.
I surveyed the scene. The other dads, I noted, were split into two types.
They were either as miserable as sin and obviously wondering how their lives had got to such an awful state that they were spending Sunday mornings in a place like this, or incredibly overly-enthusiastic.
Indeed one middle-aged man – wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Life Is Meant To Be Lived’ was hurling himself into a ball pool with such gusto that the small girl he was with was too scared to go anywhere near him.
‘Come on Teagon,’ he kept shouting. Teagon quite wisely kept her distance as her father leapt headfirst into the pool for the seventh time, giggling as if he were having the time of his life. (I daresay he’s the type of man who wears wacky cartoon ties and socks at work).
Much to my consternation, we stayed at the play centre for a full hour before, in slightly hysterical tones, I announced to Mrs Canavan that I could take no more and flounced out to the car, pausing to grab my shoes from the Hitler Youth girl at the door.
‘Well, that was nice,’ wasn’t it, announced Mrs Canavan with no irony whatsoever on the journey home.
‘Nice’ is one way of putting it.
I can safely say the next time Mrs C suggests this as a day out, I will be busy.