Not a day passes when I don’t look on my father’s record with shock and awe. I’m not talking about his authorship of Labour’s 1945 manifesto, his invention of the word ‘meritocracy’ or his creation of the Open University. I’m talking about the fact that he fathered a child at the age of 80. How on earth did he cope?
My eldest was born when I was 40, with three more following in quick succession, and I already think of myself as an old dad. The problem is, they want to play with me all the time — rough, competitive, physical games — and it’s completely debilitating. The boys, aged six, seven and ten, are particularly demanding. I’m just not up to it. God knows how my father managed to stay alive until he was 86.
Until recently, I was required to play on the trampoline for at least 30 minutes a day. Put aside the issue of just how undignified it is for an overweight 51-year-old male with ‘man boobs’ to bounce up and down. If you’re over 40, dignity goes out the window the moment your first child appears. No, the issue was that my children invented a game called ‘trampoline dodgeball’ — or ‘incoming’ for short — that is almost guaranteed to produce cardiac arrest in anyone above the age of 25. After ten minutes of vigorous play I would be gasping for breath like a trout at the bottom of a bucket.
Salvation appeared in the form of a rag-and-bone man who turned up on my doorstep in January. Did I have any scrap metal I wanted to get rid of? As a matter of fact, I did! I led him down to the bottom of the garden, pointed at the trampoline and told him that if he could dismantle it before the children got home from school he was welcome to it. ‘No problem, squire,’ he said.
I was expecting them to be furious, but no. The three boys took one look at the empty garden and started hopping around with joy. Unbeknownst to me they’d been having a long-running argument with their sister about whether to keep the trampoline and now, it seemed, I’d inadvertently sided with them. ‘That’s brilliant, Dad,’ said six-year-old Charlie. ‘Now we can play football.’
Seconds later I was being dragged into the garden for a game of ‘three-and-in’, which would have been OK if I’d been allowed to be in goal. Instead, I had to compete with Charlie and the seven-year-old to try and get three goals past the ten-year-old. Given that the ‘goal’ consisted of a small cardboard box on its side, this was nigh-on impossible. It didn’t help that we were playing with a ball so small — a squash ball, I think — that I couldn’t see it without my bifocals.
Needless to say, they now insist that I play football with them every evening. I’ve invested in a proper ball and a couple of pop-up goals, but that hasn’t helped much. Instead of ‘three-and-in’ we play ‘two-a-side’ — and, again, I’m not allowed to be in goal. Rather, the boys take it in turns to be on my team, knowing full well that whoever plays with me will lose. Not that it’s a quick death. The standard rule is ‘first to 15’, which can take up to 45 minutes given the goalkeeping athleticism of my sons. The sessions end with me humiliated and drenched in sweat, often nursing a pulled muscle or ligament injury.
Later, when the children have gone to bed, Caroline commiserates with me, but with barely concealed sadistic glee. Her favourite trick after listening to me reel off a list of symptoms — ‘My left arm has gone numb! D’you think I’m having a heart attack?’ — is to suggest we hire a ‘manny’, i.e. a male nanny who could play with the boys without collapsing from exhaustion. She isn’t completely joking, either. One of her friends managed to find a 21-year-old German man on an au pair website who looks like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt. She flew him over the following day and this Adonis is now installed in the spare bedroom. Her two sons absolutely adore him, while her husband says he feels like an abandoned motor car waiting to be carted off to the junkyard.
I daren’t risk having a ‘manny’ in the house so I’m going to soldier on. I suppose I should be grateful that my children still want to play football with me. But my chances of living until I’m 86 are vanishing-to-zero.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.