For all my good intentions, work intervenes, and I arrive only five minutes before the scheduled 2pm kick-off. I hurry in disconsolately, sure of being the last and visibly the least prepared, to be tucked away in a corner, an embarrassment to all. However, when I enter the cafeteria a total absence of parents lies everywhere like a fall of snow – I am the only one there, alone with the ghosts of a thousand corn-dog lunches past.
I commandeer a table reassuringly close to the emergency exit, and wait.
Others trail in slowly. By quarter past two there are six of us. My nemesis, Christopher’s fireman dad, is not among them. He is undoubtedly carrying singed yet still photogenic toddlers out of raging infernos even as we speak, and I salute him for it.
Among those who have made it are a nurse, a dentist, a psychiatrist, an insurance salesman who obviously has an impressively tin ear for kindergartner attention spans, a depressed-looking Japanese woman with some flowerpots, and a hotel manager. This last is very keen indeed. She has a hundred bulging give-away goodie bags that her minimum-wage staff probably spent an entire shift packing last night, and a laptop with a slide show. “I love my job” she tells me with a glassy smile. And it’s not like I had walked over to talk to her, either – I was still arranging my stuff several yards away. The psychiatrist next to her gives her a sharp glance and surreptitiously moves elsewhere.
Puffing through the doors at this point comes another hobbyist - an amateur astronomer, judging by his telescope and intricate orrery. He sets up on the table that the shrink has just vacated, between me and Norman Bates’ sister. He has a wart. On his chin. Just off-centre, on the jawline.
He finishes his preparations and wanders over to me. It’s a big wart. We chat about kids and hobbies briefly. There are hairs on the wart. As we talk I keep my eyes rooted to his by sheer force of will. Wart wart warty wart wartly wart wart. The primary school teacher that I once was is jumping up and down in my hindbrain waving all sorts of red flags. I move my stall slightly closer to his so I can overhear.
He is pacing a little, practicing his delivery. He has his opening line all ready. “How would you like to go to outer space without ever leaving your room?” he intones, all broad grin and sweeping arms.
At half past the teachers start bringing the kids in. As there are only seven parents, the groups are bigger than planned – 12 to 24 kids to entertain for ten minutes at a time. I launch into my spiel about hand-colouring, types of paper and watermarks, leather bindings, how the maps show the different shapes of the USA over time, and so on. This is met with general incomprehension, tho’ everyone seemed to like holding the books that were published “when George Washington was President”.
Most of the questions concern my foreign accent and tombstone teeth.
I rate my performance as a solid B-. The dentist is a big hit, with his plastic skull. So is the hotelophile, tho’ only because she has made the schoolboy error of handing out the goodies first, and everyone is too busy rooting through their bags to pay her tedious drivel any attention. Every bag includes a little rubber ball, and already some of them are reaching alarming speeds and altitudes as the kids make their own entertainment.
Over on Planet Astronomy, meanwhile, all is not well. A consistent pattern is emerging. “How would you like to go to outer space without ever leaving your room?” says the astronomer. A forest of hands goes up. He picks a child, who promptly asks “What’s that thing on your chin?” “It’s called a melanoma” he says patiently. “What’s a melonny?” “Why’s it on your chin?” “What does it do?” “Does it do tricks?”. One studious child even asks him to spell “melanoma”. The grin is fading and sweat begins to bead his forehead. The third group, sadly, includes a girl called Melanie, who promptly bursts into tears, so he gives up and calls it a wart. This opens a whole new line of thought among his audience. “Are you a witch?”
At this point my son’s class arrives before me, so I have to give them my full attention. I pull out all the stops, have my son hold up some of the maps to share the glory, and climax with la pièce de la résistance, a five hundred year old hand-coloured map of Venice. So it is some time before I can turn back to my unhappy neighbour. He is sitting wild-eyed by his orrery, shirt visibly drenched in perspiration, as the kids chase their balls under the table or try to poke the wart with their pencils.
He cuts short his fruitless attempt at discourse and goes straight to the demonstration - everyone gets a turn with the telescope. The kids huddle around it, heads together, and after some whispering they abruptly turn and train it on his chin. He visibly toys with the idea of intervention, but instead slumps back into his chair and lets them get on with it. At which point one of the hotel freak’s balls enters stage left, ricochets off his forehead and knocks over his orrery, sending planets and moons skittering across the floor.
And so proceedings draw to their disorderly close.
The kids are led out, except for our own, who have the reward of going home with us. I help the star-gazer gather his scattered satellites. He gives me a wan smile. His little girl is also there, handing over Mars and Pluto. She gives him a big hug and kiss. “You were the best, daddy!” They leave hand in hand.
My son watches them go, then loyally whispers “You were the best, really.” At home, obviously incredulous, my wife asks him what was so good about my presentation. “I got to go home with daddy afterwards.”
A mellony yesterday. No finer form of entertainment exists for the enquiring minds of today’s youngsters.