Early evening, with a long road trip ahead of us: we will be on the motorway for at least 3 hours. We’re all packed and ready, but there are a few vital final preparations left to do before we set off:
“Amelie, you need to go the toilet before we go.”
“I don’t need to.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I’ve been already.”
“You haven’t. You need to try.”
This is Amelies new favourite word, and it’s getting tiresome. Whereas before she would restrict her disobedience to endless prevarication (“In a minute…I’m busy…I just need to tell you something first…I just have to finish my colouring in…”) these days she increasingly opts for a straightforward refusal. As a result we have had to escalate our disciplinary procedures to match, using increasingly dire threats of lost privileges or postponed treats. Given that we have a very long drive ahead of us and really need to get going, and that it’s early December, I decide that this is the perfect occasion to crush any resistance quickly by wheeling out one of the festive ‘big guns’ in the parenting arsenal…
“Amelie, if you don’t do what you are told, then Father Christmas will know…”
“No”, she replies immediately, with utter conviction. “He won’t.”
Ah, I think, did not expect that. Better react quickly…
“He will. He will because…I’ll tell him.”
She laughs aloud at my stupidity. “You can’t tell him, you don’t know his phone number.”
In retrospect, this was probably the juncture where I could have taken a moment and perhaps played things differently. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Sadly, instead I opted to plough on regardless:
“I do. I know Father Christmas’ phone number.”
She shakes her head emphatically. “You don’t.”
This is not going well, I think. You would hope a 3-year old would have a little more faith in her fathers’ ability to phone imaginary beings. It’s clearly time to up the stakes again.
“I do have his phone number. You go and ask Mummy”, I say, thinking that just the possibility that Nini might corroborate my statement will be enough to convince my daughter that I have a direct hotline to Santa for reporting errant children.
“OK”, she says brightly, “Let’s ask Mummy.”
Leaving me sitting on the stairs, she races off to the dining room at speed. Nini is attempting to sweep up the wide circle of mashed pasta that Neve has left in the wake of her dinner, all the while fending of our second daughter who is trying to use her as climbing frame.
Amelie skids to a halt, kicking the over the pile that Nini has managed to sweep up. “Does Daddy have the phone number for Father Christmas?” she asks.
There is a pause. Nini is clearly unsure what the best answer is, and can all-too-easily imagine scenarios where either answer could be the wrong one.
“Um….no?” she guesses.
Ah, bugger, I think…
Amelie comes running back. “Mummy says you do not have Father Christmas’ phone number,” she announces triumphantly, “So you are telling lies.”
This places me in a rather awkward position.
“Mummy has perhaps forgotten,” I say, in a voice I hope is loud enough to carry to the dining room, “but in fact I do have his phone number.”
“You don’t - Mummy said so. You should tell the truth.” says Amelie, pointing at me in the same way her Mother points at her during a good telling-off.
It’s clear the situation is spiralling very quickly out of control now. It will take a move of supreme strategic brilliance on my part to avoid disastrous loss of face. Fortunately, I think I know just what that move might be…
“I can phone Father Christmas whenever I want,” I insist sternly, “look, I’ll write down his number.” I fish out a receipt from my wallet and start to scrawl my own mobile phone number on the back. As I get to the end, I realise that the last thing I want is for anyone to dial it, so I craftily change the last digit - having my own phone ring in my pocket when I am trying to reach Santa would not be good; the only explanations being that either I am the man himself, or an epic liar, or possibly that I have stolen his mobile phone. I do not particularly want Amelie thinking any of those things.
Amelie looks gravely at the string of digits for a few moments.
“That is not Father Christmas phone number” she finally declares with certainty.
How would you know – you can’t even read yet! I want to shout. Instead I forge on with my rapidly crumbling master plan.
“Oh yes it is.” I insist. “Go and show Mummy, she will tell you.”
She disappears again. I listen carefully. When presented with a piece of paper that I claim has Santas phone number on it, surely Nini must realise I want her to confirm its validity….
“Whose phone number is this?” demands Amelie.
“Um…it looks like Daddys…” says Nini.
Ah, balls, I think. I should have written his name next to it.
It is time to take direct action. I march into the dining room.
“This is not Father Christmas phone number” says Amelie, waving the scrap of paper around.
“Yes. It. Is.” I say slowly, nodding furiously for Ninis benefit.
“Ah” she mumbles. “Right...
“Mummy said it is your number” insists Amelie.
"It is not", I am able to honestly reply.
“Well, if Daddy says it is Father Christmas phone number, then it must be...” says Nini weakly, managing to make it sound like the most half-hearted endorsement of my parental authority imaginable.
Amelie looks understandably unconvinced.
“It is his number.” I say. “And if you are not a good girl, and do what Daddy says, then he will know, and you won’t get…”
“Let’s phone him” interrupts Amelie.
There is a pause. I look at my wife.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asks out of the side of her mouth.
“Come on…” says Amelie, trying to drag us into the front room.
“I was trying to make her go to the toilet”, I whisper
Nini looks incredulous. “Right…” she hisses. “How do you feel that’s working out?”
“You need to support me better,” I say. “That’s why it isn’t working…”
“No, it’s not working because it’s a stupid idea…it's actually a new low in stupid ideas.."
“Come on…” says Amelie.
We get to the front room, where Amelie grabs the phone and thrusts it into my hands.
“Call him, Daddy...”
“Think about this, Amelie. You want me to phone Father Christmas, and tell him you’ve been naughty, do you?” I ask
“No…” (Amelie is beginning to waver, I can tell. Potential loss of Christmas presents is a powerful disincentive. My gambit may yet pay off)
“You don’t have to tell him that...” says Nini, suddenly. “You can just call him, and say hello, check that he is doing OK…”
“Yes! Daddy, do that!”
I look balefully at my wife. This should be fun, she mouths silently, I told you it was a stupid idea...
I scowl at her, and mouth back: You call this support?
She gives a bright, evil little smile and mouths: Like you wouldn’t do it to me…
I look at the number I have written down. With a sinking feeling, I remember that everybody in my office has been given mobile phones with sequential numbers. So although changing the last digit from my own number has prevented my lies from being immediately exposed, there is now a very good chance that in a few seconds I will be dialling one of my colleagues and having to pretend that they are Santa Claus when they answer the phone…
I try one last throw of the dice.
“Amelie, I cannot bother Father Christmas, he is very busy. So if I phone him, I will have to tell him you have been naughty…it's, er, the rules.”
Amelie looks stricken. Nini closes her eyes as if visibly shaken, though I am not sure if that is at the brilliance of my scheming or in horror at the depths I am prepared to sink to.
“Is that what you want?” I demand
“Then go the toilet, please, like I told you.”
Ami stamps off to the downstairs toilet, yanking her trousers down angrily. She leaves the door open at scowls at me while she pees. Somehow, she manages to project a kind of dignified disdain throughout.
“Now wash your hands” I command
Wordlessly, without breaking eye contact, she turns on the tap and runs her hand slowly and deliberately through the water once, as if to say: I have observed your petty rules, but understand that my spirit is unbroken. She then stamps out of sight with her pants round her ankles. I decide that on this occasion, rather than insist she turns the tap off and flush the toilet, it would be best if I do those myself.
I turn to Nini. She still has her eyes closed, and is gently massaging her eyelids, almost as if she is trying to rub out the memory of the whole sorry saga she has just witnessed.
“I think that worked rather well, in the end...”, I say.