#174 Hell

It’s a children’s party on a half term weekend at a softplay warehouse about the size of Wembley. Just thinking about it brings on a minor panic attack. But it’s going to be OK. You’re an adult. You can do this. You have no choice.

As you walk in the wall of noise alone is petrifying. You survey your doom. The whole, enormous edifice is seething with crazed, shrieking children. Immediately your son disappears into the bedlam. If you had stopped at one child this would be fine. You could sit down now and drink coffee. But no. You had to have another one. And there she goes, fearless. OK. Just go in after her. You can do this. You’re an adult.

Once inside you feel like a fat, foolish caterpillar who’s wondered into an ant-hill on “kill the caterpillar” day. Your daughter, or her insane stunt double, hurls herself down a bouncy staircase, bounces, gets some serious air, somersaults, then lands at the bottom with a crash-mat thump. She starts crying. Thank God, you think, she’s alive, and you can have a rest.

“Let’s see Mummy.” You say, scooping her up and staggering out, overwhelmed with relief.

“No!” She wriggles free and runs back in. “Are you insane!?” You want to shout. But you can’t. You’re an adult. You follow her back in.

You’re lost, tired, sweating, surrounded by a terrifying cacophony of cackling, screaming and/or weeping children. Here and there are other bewildered parents being tortured by their leering, hyper-energetic little hobgoblins. You feel like you’re trapped in one of those Hieronymous Bosch depictions of hell, a helpless sinner being trampled by Satan’s little helpers. You have to survive this, somehow. At least things can’t get any worse.

Things suddenly take a sharp turn for the worse. You’re hot, then cold, then sweaty, then shivering. Then dizzy. Then nauseous. You’ve been the parent of small children long enough to know the signs. It’s yet another stomach bug. All you can think of is survival, now, and the intense desire not be the parent who passes out at the centre of the soft play, covered in his own sick. You lose sight of your daughter. Far away you can see your wife, sitting, chatting. Her head goes back as she laughs. You claw weakly at the netting. “Help.” You murmur, your voice lost in the storm.

This is utterly awful. Who could possibly enjoy this? They’d have to be a whole lot tougher than you. “Hello daddy!” Your son yells as he charges past, his grin almost too big for his face.

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