The first signal that it’s a day to be endured rather than enjoyed is the weather.
I open the blinds and it looks like the world has toppled off its axis and landed in a huge bowl of rancid chicken soup. There’s no definition to the sky, it’s just a ubiquitous sickly grey. The rain is incessant, steady and merciless, like a method of torture.
It’s a holiday, Easter Monday, so there’s no school to give some parental respite. Instead we’ll have to entertain our four-year-old, although we’re already weary from the daily struggle of finding educational things to do. Over the past week he has been at the zoo, the folk museum and an open farm. All attractions which have the advantage of large open spaces where he can run around inventing his own games while I’m forced to feign interest as a woman in period costume displays the ancient craft of basket weaving.
But the weather eliminates the chance of going to any outside attraction today. I’m tempted by the thought of just plumping him down on the sofa with a big bowl of popcorn while Peter Rabbit loops on the TV, but the guilt of failing to at least try to provide him with a day he’ll remember in years to come overcomes me.
Over a hurried and unsatisfactory breakfast mummy and I settle on the planetarium. As we run to the car, my socks already dampening, I’ve got a low feeling. None of us say anything but the weather is deepening the sense of gloom as I drive along the motorway. There’s a heaviness to the day which seems to infect us all, seeping into our bones and souls. Our son is crabby and angry and weeps at a series of imagined offences.
We arrive at the planetarium in good time. The car park is full but as I drive around a vehicle pulls out and vacates a spot. Perhaps things won’t be so bad?
I ask for admission for three but the stocky woman at reception meets my inquiry with a gaze somewhere between contempt and pity.
‘Have you booked for any of our shows?’
‘Uh…no. We just thought we’d turn up.’
She sighs. All the shows are fully booked. In order to get admission today we would really have needed to book several years before my son was born. I nod like a chastised schoolboy. Then, we are told, for two quid each we can instead explore the exhibition rooms and take part in the craft activities. I quickly hand over the money and stumble inside.
But there’s a problem. It’s a wet day and most of the parents in this solar system have decided to come to the planetarium today. The exhibition and games rooms are heaving with droves of screaming children and haunted parents pretending to read boards explaining lunar exploration. The craft rooms are like an episode of Blue Peter on speed, a whirl of flashing scissors, puddles of glitter and little boys and girls with their limbs glued to tables.
This is worse than I’d feared. My little boy hates crowds and despises noise so he disappears into himself, refusing to take part in any games or activities. Experience has taught us that we just have to wait for him to come round in his own time. Experience has also taught us that this usually occurs five minutes before closing time.
There seems little else to do other than to grab a cup of coffee. So we go to the smallest and most overpopulated cafe I’ve ever sipped in, presumably set up that way so patrons can experience the discomfort of an astronaut living in the space station.
My son keeps finding new ways to fall out with me, at one point bawling because he doesn’t like the way I opened his packet of crisps. I’m continually nudged and bumped by passing customers, invariably at the exact moment when I’ve got a mug of scalding black coffee just inches from my face.
It’s all going so badly that I ask my son if he wants to leave. I offer instead to take him to an adventure playground. He ignores me. I’m not sure he’s even heard me.
But then some other family members turn up to meet us, including my son’s three-year-old cousin. Presumably the logic is if we’re going to be miserable, we might as well all be miserable together. However, having more familiar faces here does reinforce my son’s confidence and we’re ready to have another crack at the craft activities.
In one packed room children are making astronauts out of plasticine. A very kind staff member welcomes us and then proceeds to show my son how to build his own spaceman. I’m presuming she has been chosen for this job because she has some artistic talent, perhaps some Tony Hart inspired gift for making things. Then she presents us with a slab of plasticine which resembles a limp phallus, rather than an astronaut. We decide to proceed on our own.
Soon we have our own clumsily assembled spaceman and an egg carton which I pass off as a spaceship.
Then we go to the dressing up and video game room, full of models of space shuttles, telescopes and space stations. It’s fun for a bit but quickly descends into a series of tantrums, with the two cousins apparently competing to be the most pink-eyed and lachrymose.
They argue over the choice of two seemingly identical space helmets and bawl over other children spoiling the game where they burst imaginary bubbles with their feet. At one point the weeping has become so persistent that I lift my son and ask him why he’s crying.
Between sobs he responds: ‘I….can’t….remember….’
We manage to put in most of the afternoon in this way, keeping an eye on our watches, thinking about what’s a decent amount of time before we go home. When we eventually announce our departure there are more inevitable tantrums. I manage to calm my son down with gentle hugs and encouragement. Then he asks.
‘So, are we going to the adventure playground now then?’
My explanation that it’s too late for that brings another flood. His tears mix with the rain as we walk back to the car. It feels like the rain, and the tears, will never end.
We tried very hard to make it an educational day. I did learn something. One day on Mercury lasts almost 59 earth days. So does one wet day as a parent.