We're sitting in a line at the parent-teacher meetings in our son's secondary school and I have a list of subjects to get through which I've divided up with my wife, who is off somewhere queuing for an English teacher while I'm stuck here waiting for maths.
"Uh," I tell her, my mouth gulping like a fish, but what I'm thinking is, 'Deirdre? Dee? Debs? Deborah? Something beginning with D. . .' How do I explain that it's not my fault -- that my brain is obviously deteriorating by the second, that we're just lucky I'm not wearing nappies.
"Seems like only yesterday they were in primary school," she coos wistfully.
"God be with the days," I say and begin frantically fiddling with my phone. "Oops, better take this," I tell her, mouthing the word 'English' meaningfully, like it's a call from hospital.
I flee to the relative safety of nebulous corridors nearby. Now what? Perhaps I should put on my shades. There's a text on the phone -- 'Still waiting. Make sure you see history teacher. R7'
R7? This whole expedition is starting to feel like a confusing episode of Lost, which is precisely what I am now as I find myself wandering aimlessly from corridor to corridor.
I'm soon rescued by a patrolling child, one seemingly assigned to round up wayward dads and frogmarch them through this warren to the next queue of flustered parents. She expertly plucks the list from my hand to see for herself where it is I'm supposed to be.
"Don't mind my notes," I tell her, squinting at the spider's webs I've drawn; the obscene figures, the game of noughts and crosses, "they're just for my, eh. . . records." She doesn't look up, just sets off, politely motioning for me to follow.
"I suppose you're quite accustomed to all this," I puff as she clips along ahead of me. "Heh-heh," she titters politely, not looking around. Perhaps small talk with strange, unshaven, middle-aged men who wear sunglasses indoors is discouraged. I can't imagine why.
"Here," she says, stopping so abruptly that my feet skitter and I only just manage not to fall over her on to the floor, taking her with me -- something which might, I suspect, be frowned upon.
"Oh," I say looking up, but what I mean is 'ugh' as I'm greeted with the sight of four more queues of pen-chewing parents, snaking away out of sight. "Perhaps I'll just forget this one for now," I say sheepishly, fumbling for the dog-eared list again. "Do you think you could just take me back to the, eh. . ." But my helper has evaporated.
"Oh, hi!" I hear with dismay. Another parent I don't recognise. "How are you getting on?"
"Fine, fine," I lie, taking a seat in line for a teacher who, I notice, doesn't look much older than my college-student eldest. I frown at my ragged list again like there's something important there before we're mercifully bumping along, each to the next chair like a party game, until I'm next.
I approach the table tentatively and take a seat, feeling not for the first time as if I'm seeing a fortune teller. "Sammy's father," I say, like it's a password.
She peers over her glasses at some sort of vast and complex chart divided into countless boxes filled with tiny markings, spreading her hands over them like they're Tarot cards.
"Hmm," she says, blinking at the rows of ticks and numbers. "Mmm-hmm." Finally, she looks up. "Well, you've little to worry about here," she says and I blink dumbly at her indecipherable notes. Little to worry about where? I wonder.
"I see great potential," she says and I stifle a smile, afraid she might ask if there's something I'd like to share with the class. Instead, she gobsmacks me with, "Your son is a pleasure to teach."
I'm aware my mouth is probably hanging open. I've hit gold. "Thank you," I tell her, meaning it, then grabbing her hand and shaking it far too enthusiastically and way too long.
"But --" she adds behind me as I charge off into the maze to tell my wife, almost running her down, as it happens, around the next corner.
"How's it going?" she asks, frowning at my crumpled piece of paper.
"Pleasure to teach," I announce with a grin. "Are we done here?"
We decide we are and begin making our way back through to what I hope is the exit, at one point passing the youngster who rescued me earlier. 'A pleasure to teach!' I mouth as we go by, motioning to my tattered list with my eyebrows. She flashes me a slightly worried look.
"You know we've about 10 more years of this," says my wife, referring to the fact that our youngest has yet to even begin secondary school.
"No worries," I say, hurrying her past the still endless queue for maths and on towards the not-too-distant prospect now of a bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator.
"Only, next time," I add, "perhaps I should bring, like, a REALLY long ball of string."
"Huh?" she says.
"Never mind," I tell her and we step out of the labyrinth and into the night.