It’s my last day of paternity leave – boo hoo hoo – so I thought I’d treat myself by escorting Boy Wonder to a soft play centre. After all, it’s been a whole three days since we last visited one and I’ve been slack these past three weeks by frequenting these junior fun palaces a mere seven times.
We return to a big site near Wetherby, which is called something like Little Toes or Bite Your Toes or Little Shits.
It’s early afternoon, so the ratio of men to women is 1:473. I’m unshaven and dressed scruffily, as I know I have sweaty work to do here, so I probably fit the identikit of the unemployed adult male sheltering from the cold. I set us up at a table and then follow Boy Wonder to the little race track, only just resisting the urge to say in a loud, Patridge-style voice: ‘Of course son, I know a lot about cars because I sometimes drive to WORK!’ or ‘You know, I was just saying to one of my team the other day that we should sponsor the British Grand Prix because we’re so darn successful!’.
After I push Boy Wonder round the circuit several times at a scorching 0.1mph, I follow him inside the adventure section: a dark, multi-storey pyramid full of ropes, ladders, slides, tunnels, nets and ballpits. Boy Wonder is still at that age where he can’t easily make new friends – it regularly breaks my heart to see him cheerily approach and babble to older kids who then just walk off – so if he’s climbing up to the top then so am I. We spend the next half hour spilling through holes, crawling through tunnels and somehow navigating our way up to the summit of the various slides. Sometimes it feels like I’m the supporting actor in Lord of the Flies II: Revenge on the Dads, as older kids push past us, bump us out of the way or force us back the way we came. But most of the time, I’m yelping with joy as my Inner Child hurtles down the helter skelter after Boy Wonder or I leap out at him from a ballpit or I perform a comedy trip and watch him laugh and copy me.
While I’m running around, I think how these places didn’t exist ‘when I was a lad’. It’s probably because no parent in the 1970s would pay for their kids to have fun, even if this marvellously safe technology was around then, when they were free to play outside, run round the neighbouring streets, wander off for the day with their little friends to playing fields and disused factories and the local baths. The memory of what we’ve lost, what I had as a boy on the council estate where I grew up, makes me sad, even if it won’t stop me being as over protective as the next modern parent. But as I wipe Boy Wonder’s sweaty brow and share a piece of cake with him, I’ve never seen him smile so much and we seem as close as we did before he was dethroned by Little Buddha. I wrap my arm around him, kiss the top of his head and catch my breath before we head back into the marvellous dark pyramid.