It was hell out there today in the temples of Sunday shopping. It was Dad's turn to do the shopping, and to have the children with him to help. As a rule, I really, really like small children and greatly enjoy their company. They're funny, interesting, versatile, endearing, and they love noise, and larking about, and the use of funny voices. They can be great fun to go out with, and if kept interested, can co-operate reasonably well with the peculiar expectations of adults. They can even do supermarket shopping if this is kept brisk and organised, with a promise of sweets and we'll-be-out-in-a-few-minutes.
But today I found myself becoming horribly child-intolerant, coming out of Sainsbury's muttering to myself about the urgent need to ban children from such stores on Sundays, or at least when in the sole charge of their fathers. The combination of father, children and trolleys is the stuff of which nightmares are made, and today there were hordes of such combined mother-free groups. The dads were out in force, and they didn't appear used to it.
These hapless men, peering at lists and bumbling about unable to steer their trolleys because of all their bawling, shrieking, squealing, demanding offspring hanging off them, seemed to have no control at all as their toddlers - Eddie, Reuben, George or Cassandra - veered off to another aisle to stop dead in the path of an oncoming trolley or to pull all the cards off the displays. They just shouted after them, at top volume: "Eddie! Eddie! ED! Not that way! This way! Eddie! No!' and the toddler paid no attention. At all. As is the way of toddlers on a mission. Every adult within earshot paid attention all right.
Then, several minutes too late, the dads would abandon their trolleys to go toddler-hunting, giving the remaining children a chance to fill it with more exciting (sugary) stuff that wasn't on the list, or to escape, screaming shrilly, to the aisle with the toys. Then the dads shouted for those children too, while the toddler threw a tantrum. Once all loosely gathered up, there followed some scolding, hugely ineffective, in what I think of as that unconvincing 'public parenting' voice, intended more for the general audience than for the child itself. The children fidgeted, plotting their next bid for freedom, which they took within moments. Sweets, daddy! Cars! Cola! Harry Potter DVDS! Let's go! Daddy began to look sweaty and anxious; the unaccomplished list was growing damp and the toddler could wriggle like an octopus; this was becoming stressful.
Women with their own trolleys smiled sympathetically at first, perhaps even murmured something about "You've got your hands full!", helpfully retrieving a pilfering tot or preventing the collapse of a wobbling stack of musical reindeer, but the noisy, shambling caravan of chaos, with its list-reciting, name-shouting, child-squabbling, haranguing soundtrack set to Extra Loud, lumbered remorselessly round every unfamiliar aisle. It went back and forth, round and round, a Spaghetti Junction of repeatedly-missed signs and unnoticed produce displays, to search for the eggs, or the bran flakes, and where would the baby wipes be? and the same trolleys met again and again.
Gradually the women shoppers grew tight-lipped and steely-eyed; the father-accompanied children grew wilder as they evaded dad again and managed to reach the soft drinks aisle undetected. Large, heavy bottles of carbonated drinks were hauled about and dropped, fizzing up ominously as they rolled. Strong women clenched their jaws and gave up their methodical tour to hasten to the checkouts; two little girls who had been on their best behaviour beside their mother were spoken to unnecessarily sternly, clearly on the receiving end of frayed nerves and vicarious scolding. They drooped, their thoughts of "Not fair!" showing on their obedient faces.
I escaped too, feeling unusually frazzled, and hoped that the absent mothers who had given themselves a break from shopping, children, and earnest-but-clueless partner, were making the most of their hour of freedom and peace. Maybe, blissfully unaware of the impact of their loved ones on the mental health of other shoppers, they were having a peaceful little lie down in a darkened room; I know I needed to do that too this Sunday morning.