It’s Saturday night; we’ve just arrived at a restaurant for a friend’s birthday dinner and already I can feel my phone vibrating against my leg under the table. As we left Eldest was riding up and down the hallway on a tiny scooter, the clatter of wheel against floor tile reverberating up the stairwell. I drew him aside. “I’m relying on you to act like a parent here,” I said, and he murmured something reassuring while not quite meeting my gaze. I could feel his high spirits about to bubble over, like too much Prosecco in a champagne flute, which incidentally I’m now being offered as I delve into my bag for the phone.
A missed call from Eldest and two from Middle One: not good. I ring home as fast as I can and make out sobbing but no actual words. “I love you!" I shout down the receiver, dashing for the exit so I can hear. "It’s okay. Please stop crying.” Suddenly my voice sounds loud and alone in the dark silence of the beer garden. I drop down a whisper: "Yes...Okay... I know he’s an idiot. Maybe you can put yourself to bed. I see…Oh dear… Well, we’re not far away… No, I can’t come home, I’ve already had too much to drink to drive the car.” I look down. I’m standing next to a table where two men are sipping beer and watching me with interest. From their perspective that didn’t sound great but what they don’t realise is that we have left our precious little child with an elder brother who is almost old enough to join the army and fight for his country - or get married (which is arguably more dangerous), he should be able to cope with a spot of babysitting.
“But I can’t contact you or text you or anything,” sobs Youngest.
“You can,” I say, “I’ll send you a message now to your brother’s mobile and then you can text me back.” He seems happy with this so I hang up and text as fast as I can so I can get back to the table and resume drinking - and chatting - and within minutes I get one back: “I love you Mummy! xxx ooo. Eldest is a rubbish babysitter. He is not looking after me. He has been horrible. Please do not leave me with him again.”
"Tell that older brother that he has to be nice to you or he will not get his £5 pocket money," I reply, and moments later there’s another one: “Dear Mummy, I am fine now. Eldest is being a lovely babysitter. I don’t know what I was thinking. I am totally mad and unreasonable. Love you, xxx ooo.” I have the feeling I’m not communicating with Youngest anymore but at least it goes quiet after that and I can get on with the rest of the evening.
In the morning over pancakes we have a post mortem. “I’m very disappointed with you,” I say to Eldest. “I trusted you to be sensible and look after him. You were in loco parentis. I expected you to behave like an adult.”
“I did behave like an adult,” he protests, “I was calm and sensible, he’s just hysterical and completely mad. Really!”
It is true that Youngest can be hysterical and mad so I’m tempted to give Eldest the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment, until Youngest says, “I wasn’t hysterical! Well, not at first, not until he hid in my wardrobe and suddenly leapt out at me when I was in bed!" I can’t quite believe my ears. I look at Eldest. “You’ve got to admit that’s funny,” he says, with a sly smile, and I feel a wave of despair pass over me. “It is not remotely funny,” I say, “I feel like I’m living in a sit com.”
“What’s it called?” asks Middle One with interest and without looking up from his pancakes.
“F star, star, star, star, star, star, Boys!” I shout.
“Ok," he shrugs, "not very snappy.”