They say that some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue. I don’t agree with that at all, because it turns out that no matter what happens, or what day it is, I always seem to be the one who gets shat upon.
Even on my birthday.
I don’t think I was asking for much – just a day I could be free from the constant strain and responsibility of looking after a boisterous toddler, a demanding baby, and a wife who can be both. Alas, this was beyond the power of the Fates to grant me, so I chose the next best thing – a day out doing something I wanted to do in a place I wanted to go. Something that, for once, was not about ball pits, face painting or Peppa Pig.
Since I love old buildings, I love books, and I love learning, I’ve been hankering after a visit to Oxford – a day wandering among the dreaming spires with my family, losing myself in endless bookshops and fantasizing that I’m twenty years younger and attending one of the finest educational establishments on the planet, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Only without my toddler.
I don’t want to single her out, but traipsing around a city centre isn’t anywhere near as much fun when you have a two-year-old pulling things off shelves, trying to yank her hand out of yours, and strangely determined to throw herself in front of traffic. And that’s not to mention the whining in the car all the way up, the awkwardness of keeping her settled on the Park & Ride bus, and the fact we can’t eat out anywhere without her behaving like a Ritalin-deprived bugwart (sorry, Izzie, but it’s true). So we decided to leave her at home with her Nana.
Given the way the week was going, I should have known it would all go to hell in a handbasket. I was meant to have two blessed hours to myself on Wednesday afternoon, but Izzie’s Granny fell ill, so that was nixed. Then on Thursday afternoon I was meant to have a couple of hours to myself, but the playdate that had been arranged fell through when the girl’s mother also became ill. And then on Friday, Izzie came back from nursery having bitten her lip and made it all bloody. Ominous signs that my birthday on Saturday might not go according to plan, but my wife reassured me that bad things happen in threes. How wrong she was.
My birthday started to go awry at 8.20 in the morning, ten minutes before we were due to leave. The moment I heard the phone ring, I knew. Halfway to our house to look after Izzie, my mother had vomited all over herself while driving. She had contracted a stomach bug, and was turning around to go home.
‘Well, that’s four,’ I said. ‘There can’t be any more.’
With no childcare, we decided, contrary to all sense and logic, to take Izzie with us after all. Sure, it’d make the day much harder, but we’d all be together.
I was pretty much spot-on with my predictions, and then some. As a naturally inquisitive and independently-minded child, Izzie was a bit of a pain, refusing to stand on the buggy board, pulling her hand from mine, grabbing everything that came within reach, and throwing herself down on the ground every so often because it’s really fun to do that on cobblestones. Eventually we went into a restaurant and ate a lunch punctuated by Izzie running around the table and shouting for attention, and me taking her outside and telling her in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of bugwart behaviour.
That’s when the accident happened, but it’s not what you’re probably thinking.
Midway through the meal I took the baby to the disabled loo and changed her on the changing table – one of those tall wooden things with all the shelves and drawers underneath. No problems. So after the meal, I took her sister to the same toilet, picked her up and placed her down on the changing mat.
And with a loud bang it flipped up to the side and flung my two-year-old daughter headfirst to the tiled floor.
I pounced forward but wasn’t quick enough. I will never forget it – the loud crack when her forehead hit the floor, the way her body slammed down, the screams from the pair of us, and the top of the changing table thumping back down into place.
As I cradled Izzie in my arms, watching her forehead turn grey over the space of ten seconds, I put my elbow on the changing mat. Sure enough, if you put enough weight left of centre it flipped up to reveal a plastic bathtub underneath. It hadn’t been put together properly or aligned properly or something – the top wasn’t even fixed to the base. It was not fit for purpose, and certainly should not have been put in a restaurant bathroom for use by the public. It was an accident waiting to happen.
I wanted to kick up a massive fuss, but the seriousness of your concerns is hammered home when you’re wandering about with a screaming toddler in your arms, her face a blend of grey, red and purple. The waiter, the maintenance man, the general manager all had a look at the table, and yes, it wasn’t fixed, and I watched as two of them fiddled with it, trying to work out how it was meant to go on, and how to stop it flipping up when you position a toddler on it slightly left of centre.
I felt awful, terrified, distraught. But I had the presence of mind to make sure an accident form was filled in and they arranged a taxi to the hospital. My wife, deciding she didn’t want something as insignificant as her daughter falling four feet onto her head to ruin her day, saw it as an opportunity to go do some shopping in Oxford with the baby while I took Izzie to A&E.
For the record, here is what my daughter looked like while waiting in Accident and Emergency some forty minutes after the fall:
Three hours and a lot of tests later, they decided that other than a massive headache, she was probably okay.
Getting another taxi back to the hotel, I carried my two-stone toddler a mile back into the centre in search of my wife, and after a quick look in a single bookshop – albeit the largest in Europe – and with the sun having set upon Oxford, I decided it was time to leave. After all, we had to get the bus back to the Park & Ride and load the car with my wife’s purchases for the two-hour drive home.
Which took three hours, as both kids decided the car journey was the time to cry, and scream, and keep saying, ‘Where my dummy?’ and ‘Where my water?’ The number of times I had to pull into lay-bys to find things she’d dropped, or feed the other one, I lost count. All I know is that eventually everyone fell asleep, and I drove on into the dark, alone with my thoughts.
Thoughts of the changing mat flipping up and throwing my daughter off; thoughts of her head hitting the ground; thoughts of failure for not having checked the changing station before I put her on it. But when do we check? We trust they’re going to work.
I felt a mixture of emotions. Guilt at not having protected her; anger at the restaurant for their negligence in not providing a safe and working changing station; vulnerable for how it could have been so much worse.
Getting home, I put the kids to bed then quickly followed suit, thinking that on my birthday, of all days, I should have been able to relax.
My wife reminded me the clocks were going back, and that we’d get an extra hour in bed. That was just before the baby started crying for the first of three feeds in the night I’d have to get up for.
I didn’t get to see much of Oxford. I didn’t get to go in many bookshops. I didn’t get to fantasize about being a student attending one of the finest educational establishments on the planet. And more importantly, I didn’t get to cast aside my cares and responsibilities for even a minute. Instead, I was shat upon by life again, as usual.
I will never be that pigeon.