I took Boy Wonder and his little sister to one of our local parks – Meanwood, a favourite of the Duchess, as it’s close to the new Waitrose, not to mention that other notable explorer, Captain Oates. Before we arrived, I told him to stay close and not to run off without prior permission as Little Buddha moves very slowly and I couldn’t face an afternoon of stomach flips every time I lost sight of him for 10 seconds.
So, we get in there, we walk together up to the very big slide at the far end of the enclosure and for a few minutes we are as one. Little Buddha is happy to watch her big brother come flying down the metal shute and he likes having an audience.
Then everything changes. Another blonde of similar height roars at him and almost immediately proclaims to his mum chatting nearby: ‘I’m with my new friend!’. The pre-match rules are scrunched into a tiny ball and thrown in a pool of mud at my feet as Boy Wonder tears off with his new best mate.
All I can think is: thank fook the Duchess dressed him in an almost fluorescent magenta t-shirt, so I can track his movements from afar. Within minutes, he’s in a gang. I shuffle up to them in time to hear him explain he’s ‘free’, as in ‘three’. Fellow blondie turns out to be four-and-a-half. The third amigo is seven. He looks like a wrongun, as far as I’m concerned (he’s dark-haired for one thing).
Graduating to Embarrassing Dad Status far earlier than I ever expected, I lean in to add some commentary: ‘You’re actually four in a couple of months, aren’t you son.’ Like his new best friends, Boy Wonder doesn’t so much as blink in my direction and then races off to the tunnel section of the park.
For the next 20 minutes, I push Little Buddha on the baby swing, nurse her very gently on the roundabout, hold her hand down the infant slide. All the while watching the magenta blur follow, lead and chase all over the park.
Suddenly, I realise he’s in a gang fight and sticks are involved: his three versus a lonely figure with a death wish and a very large tree branch. Charles Bronson’s mum looks agitated and when I arrive on the scene she’s condoning the fact he threw at stick at the four-and-a-half-year-old’s legs because her son had received a little rough treatment at their hands.
I intervene, in Full Dad Mode. I’ve been watching him like a hawk so I know he’s done nothing wrong – But There’s Another Parent Involved. Just as he’s about to race off, I call him back and suggest he includes Bronson in his gang. ‘But that boy keeps trying to hit us with a tree, Dad,’ he replies. And then he’s gone again.
But the rest of the gang have scarpered. My heart fractures as I watch Boy Wonder wander aimlessly around the middle of the park, shouting weakly: ‘Friends, friends?’ (no one remembers names at that age).
Eventually, he ambles over to us, his head lowered, his heart sunk. His knees are bloodied and filthy, sparking immense pride and nostalgia in his middle-aged Dad.
‘My friends are gone,’ he says sadly. He doesn’t add: ‘It happened just after you took me aside to tell me off for something I hadn’t done’. I give him a hug. His older friends have probably gone down to the riverbank beyond the enclosure but I keep this knowledge to myself.
This is a tricky situation. My son is now a boy. He has gained and lost something special in just one afternoon. I look him in the eye and summon soothing words from the spiritual well of fatherhood.
‘Son,’ I say, ‘do you fancy an ice lolly?’