When Tanya and I first got together, Max and Osher were six and seven. In the heady days of our first few months as a couple, it never really dawned on me the gravity of what lay ahead for me.
I knew I loved Tanya, she was an old friend, things moved quickly and the boys were there. Tanya was more than capable, without me, in looking after all their needs. Yet to be a true family, I needed to make my mark, so I organised for me to take the boys up to London for a treat.
As I sit here today, fourteen years later, I laugh at the incredible naivety of the mammoth challenge I had set myself all those years before. Full of optimism, though how it came about and the actual preparation details, I cannot remember. I have no doubt I set off thinking that I was some kind of super hero special uncle who will over indulge the kids all day and hand them back to mum at the end. She will then scold me for throwing out their routine, and buying too many sweets (a quick easy shut up if things do not go to plan) but secretly overjoyed that everyone is alive.
The journey from Oxford was straight forward enough, jump into my then sports car, (ohh how quickly that went), park up in West London and jump on a bus, then a tube, tick, tick ‘are you enjoying this boys!’….etc, to the London Dungeons. Now, I am sure Max will not mind me bringing this up again, like at his 18th, but back then Max was of a more delicate nature.
If I was to say we had to be careful in the scary bits of High School Musical, I don’t think I am exaggerating…That aside, maybe The London Dungeons was not the best choice. But we queued, then we needed wees, then we were hungry etc, then we needed sweets then we bought the tickets – wow that was a shock, then we went in.
The first part consisted of a long corridor, in the dark, which led into the first room. There in the dark our guide started to talk. There in that space Max lost the plot and HAD to get out. As I worked out that I had no idea how to get out, squirming with embarrassment, failing any attempt at consoling Max, mentally doing the arithmetic, (£35 a minute we were in there etc), to my relief we were ushered out of a special ‘this happens all the time exit’, we were back out on the street. Trip over before it had started.
Another occasion we had spent the weekend with my Best man and his family – and were heading home when my pal most helpfully let Max and Osher take as many sweets as they like out of his cookie tin, just as we were leaving on an hour and a half journey. Had his wife not been standing there I would have punched him in the face. While very quickly losing the plot, over the impending chaos of spending an hour and a half in a four foot square space with two kids on a high Ken Kesey would have proud of, my friend told me to calm down and relax about it. I would never forget those words.
Because my moment came a few years later, when his boys were playing up. Sunday morning and my oldest friend and I take our four boys down to the local recreation centre. Swimming, throwing, catching, sliding, more throwing for two horrendous hours. In the changing rooms my boys are getting dressed and are ready to go, good as gold. However, my pal is not having such luck. To my pleasure, he is losing the plot as his kids charge around, whimper, disappear off, fill a nappy, get their clothes wet, lose their socks, etc
I wait close by, enjoying every second. My friend turns an odd purple colour in his fury and I have not even played my cards yet. I look after the kids while he goes to get the car, I stuff as many sweets down his boys as I can get down them before breaking the law. I have achieved my goal. By the time the boys get home they have demolished his car, my pal is apoplectic with rage. In one final kick, I tell him to calm down. My victory sealed, I take the applause and exit stage left.
I managed to avoid flying with my kids for nearly ten years, having only ever flown with Lola once and that was last month. For me, I cannot think of anything worse. The stress of packing everyone up, the sleepless night before a flight, getting everyone out of the door, panicking if you have left enough time for the airport,finding the parking, passports, security, the gate.
Customs is my worst part. For a couple of years I used to regularly travel to the States, every time I was shaken down by their customs guys – such nasty pieces of work it has permanently scared me. I was always one up from the full cavity search, so never experienced the full horror, but even so.Which now manifests itself in me becoming a nightmare when approaching customs.
Once, as a teenager myself in Dad’s car going through the border at Dover, having just driven half way across Europe, Dad decided to have a little Daddy joke with the customs men – ‘Anything to declare?’ no, ‘Apart from a couple of refugees…” even circa 1987 that was not funny. “Ohh, well let’s have a look then sir, pull over please…” As Dad tried to talk his way out and Mum blaspheming at Dad for being such a colossal idiot at 5am on a wet and snowy morning – the Customs men pulled everything out of the car in front of us. Having discovered nothing in the car apart from some of my french bangers, I was saving for my latest Airfix model to blow up, we were left there to repack the car.
Tanya thinks it is hilarious how badly I react, telling everyone to shut up and look normal, forgetting that my irritated state and fear of customs makes me a prime candidate for a two fingered chocolate salute. It’s all too much, and for what? Just for the ungrateful swines to pester you for more treats, eat out and leave half their food, nick your phone off you for the entire holidays and sulk with the precision of an Olympic relay team.
Driving is no better. I have tried driving at night, while blissfully quiet, Tanya can’t drive after 10pm or much before 7am, so by the time we arrived anywhere it was not the kids you had to watch out for, but me. My next day would be whipped out, either in a poor attempt to gain that extra day and end up screaming at everyone and anything before collapsing in a drunken heap sometime after 8pm – or going straight to sleep which kind of defeats the point of driving through the night.
Bladder control was a major issue with Lola. If you could time it worse, she could. Fly past the services with the immediate announcement that she needed a wee. Torn between everything getting soiled and eyes smarting with ammonia in the heat or risking my entire family on the side of the motorway. A crescendo of noise as the attempts to hold on started to collapse and we end up doing both – sitting in a puddle of wee and finishing off on the motorway.
I grew up being told that at four months old my parents took me across the English Channel on a 35 foot yacht, in rough seas. Apparently I had the entire cabin to myself as no one could get downstairs without gagging on the contents of my nappy, which was left unattended to for the entire crossing. Did no one think that would not be a good idea to take me along?
When I was fourteen my Dad took me to South Africa to see my older brother who had moved there since I was nine. Our flight home was delayed for 24hrs, so the airline put Dad and I up for a night in a nearby hotel. That night I ordered chicken and the inevitable happened. Deeply ill with salmonella poisoning I was placed in the middle aisle of I think a four seat row. Whatever it was I had to jump across at least one person every time I needed to use the facilities, not always successfully, with my Dad left to deal with the disgruntled and increasingly wary other passengers.
And what about those teachers who thought it a good idea to take 40 screaming kids on long European adventures, on a couch?! A quarter of vodka down and within a few hours some over zealous teenager is being violently sick and stinking out the bus. Irate car drivers threatening to push the coach into the ditch as one side of the coach moonies a distraught Mother with her family. Every lorry get the Eddie Stobart treatment – honk your horn or face the wrath.
Not only were we using these trips to indulge in early experiments with booze, but also girls. One particular time, we were just leaving the resort. The two teachers at their wits end after a week of hell were doing the head count and we were one man down. Now I knew we were one man down because I had been asked to cover for this lad who had snuck off that morning, it was only 9:30am, and gone over to a girl’s hotel and up to her room on a ‘last chance mission’. I kid you not, from the coach, which I was sitting in, I briefly saw my friend on the balcony of the girl’s room, he waved to the coach, with its engine running and signaled he needed five minutes. Sure enough, he was back within five minutes. The bus had waited with its engine running. The entire bus erupted with applause as the crusader ran across the car park to the bus.
We had a holiday of a lifetime with Max and Osher to East Africa where Tanya grew up. But it was not without incident. We abandoned Max in our Jeep when it was being charged by a lone bull elephant – we had all managed to get out and all we could see was Max pouring at the window trying to get out as the elephant charged. It’s not a face you want to see.
Another time, we had been out for the day, in Tanzania with some family friends and were driving at night and stopped for a gentleman’s wee, after a skinful of beer. We all jumped back in when our driver screamed for us to get back into the car – a car was racing towards us on a road where there should not have been any other cars. It could only be a carjacker and we were in real danger. Max didn’t move quick enough and the car started moving and was not stopping for anything. We managed to scoop him in as he ran for his life alongside the car.
And have you ever broken down and had one of your children ask you if the car would be fixed in time so we could get home for Christmas? No? I have.
So to summarise. It is a miracle anyone leaves the house with children, but we fall for the same giddy optimism every time. But as the kids get older, and you think you can start trusting them, think again. What you mistake as trust and growing up then morph into a teenager who thinks, like you they are trustworthy and responsible, except they are anything but. We were in France, staying in a small chalet with our four kids. Max and Osher were early teens and in order for Tanya and I to have some piece and quiet from the bickering, I camp up with a winner plan. I suggested that we gave the boys some money, gave them a tent and ‘as an adventure’, they could fend for themselves for three days! They were dubious, I was desperate, I was up selling as hard as I could. Money talks in theis situation and with 100 euros in their pocket, a tent and a mobile phone for emergencies, we were free.
Except we weren’t. Within hours the mobile had been stolen, the tent was wet on the inside and the wheels were falling off the metaphorical bus, big time. We were still blissfully unaware of the disaster unravelling a few kilometers down the road in the campsite we had chosen. As I poured my first glass of wine and sat on the balcony and just as wine touched my lips, my phone went.
It was the campsite manager who hastily put Osher on the phone. Max had burnt himself. Osher never one to over dramatise things, made it clear he thought it was serious. I jumped in the car and got down to the campsite and causualy went over to the boys – Max had been sitting for half an hour in a raging torrent of water which could itself ended in total disaster becasue one slip and he woudl have been dragged all the way down from the Alps and he would have been spat out somewhere near Nice.
I got him out of the freezing water and watched as, within seconds, his shins blistered up infront of me, this was very bad. He had done the classic. Having opted to spend all their money on fags and booze, their budget for food was slim. Hence the pot noodle. The pot noodle that had been balancing precariously on the small gas burner which once boiling, Max and knocked over onto his legs. As Pot Noodle is inert and void of anything likely to cause infection, but the burns were horrendous – I scouped him up, left Osher at the campsite – no idea why, and sped down to Moutiers to A&E.
By now Max and shaking, sweating and in and out of consciousness, deep shock, now I am scared and driving as fast as I dare trying to shelve the panic and remaining focused and calm – shock can be the killer.
We made A&E, we messaged back to Tanya who was equally scared and poor old Osh was stuck in a campsite halfway up a mountain on his own while we were rushed through A&E. The upshot was second degree burns, bandages for three months and no sunlight on his legs for a year – and a lesson or two learnt, teenagers revert to the brains of a pavlova with the skillset of baffoon, the confidence of a stuntman and the experience of ham sarnie.
They didn’t camp that night, and I never finished my wine, and like a fool, I still travel with kids.