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Farewell to the children's menu

ONE could easily see how the lunatic jabbering, occasional ear-shattering shrieks and pounding of fists off a clattering table of dancing cutlery across the room from us in the family restaurant where we're all perched for dinner, might be considered disturbing to the average experience of some when eating out.

To my wife and I, however, after consecutive years of dining debacles spanning the early lives of our four, it's music to our ears, the merry refrain of which, even after all this time, as a fork now flies through the air and narrowly misses the eye of a ducking waiter, is: "Not OUR child."

It's like a bizarre re-enactment of the basement bunker scene in Downfall, where the deranged dictator lets loose a hail of psychopathic spittle over his hand-wringing generals as they try to dig a hole to disappear into with their toenails, only played out here by a pre-schooler and its mortified parents.

This, I tell my wife telepathically, making a thin line out of my lips and flicking my eyebrows upwards to compound a point that needs no vocalising, is where monosyllabic teenagers come into their own.

"So," I say cheerily over my menu as a glass shatters somewhere. "What are you going to order, guys?"

I regard them all sitting there in the next booth (because somehow in the intervening years, my wife and I appear to have become the embarrassing ones none of them wants to sit beside), each barely tolerating the other in such close proximity only for the prospect of food and no dishes to wash after.

"Chicken wings," chirrups our little girl, "no, a burger, no wait, chicken wings."

HAIR

"How big is 30oz?" asks the youngest teen.

"Why don't you all have something from the children's menu," my wife tells him.

The three boys, sitting in sequence of age and looking like the evolution of hair, flick simultaneously to the back of their menus then look back at my wife with pitying expressions.

"In fairness," I tell her as my pint glass rings to the nearby screeches of what sounds like a chimpanzee having its nails extracted with pliers, "it's been a while since we got away with a few rounds of chicken nuggets and spaghetti hoops."

Quite a while, as it happens, but not nearly long enough to shake the horror of the veritable slurry pit that can be made of a humble 12-foot-square section of a local eatery by the hurricane force of a single toddler intent on destruction through the medium of food, serviettes and a torrent of corrosive saliva.

Why some restaurants persist in providing foods with bright red sauces on the children's menu, is beyond me. You might just as well hand them a machine gun loaded with neon-orange paintballs.

In fact, it's still enough to summon an involuntarily shudder as I sit thinking of some of the messes we've left behind in our day, which – despite our best efforts – probably looked rather like you'd imagine a disaster triage station to be, after an explosion at a baby food factory.

And although somehow (for the life of me I cannot fathom why) with each ensuing tot, we were never quite entirely put off the experience of eating out, I'm pretty sure we must at some point have considered the idea of wearing rubber butchers' aprons and surgical caps wherever we went.

Truth be told, many is the meal where my wife and I, having tried for an hour to spoon-feed tomato sauce into a geyser and ending up looking as though someone had sliced opened a carotid artery at our table, would hastily scrape together the hideous mountain of dissolved food, tissues and shattered crayons into a neat heap before leaving an extravagant tip and trying to flee, wailing infant under one arm still trailing the filthy, dripping high chair by one buckle, before the waitress re-emerged.

"Order off the adult menu," I croak, shaking off the nightmare and happy to be back in the present.

In no time, the waiter is trundling off industriously to the kitchen with our two-page, mortgage-defaulting list of food items, at which point we suddenly notice how quiet it has become and I suspect my wife is thinking the exact same thing that I am now thinking.

Back in the day, the very best outcome we could hope for was that the youngest would fall asleep into their food, something that happened with a disquieting frequency bordering on narcolepsy with our second born and occasionally we would simply hear a sort of splat, then retrieve his head out of the fluorescent mash and leave him with his head safely lolling off his tray as we laid into the wine.

DESPOT

But it seems our neighbouring diners have actually beat a retreat with their diminutive despot and a cleaning crew are now roping off the slaughterhouse crime scene that remains with yellow cones on which appear to be little symbols of stick men slipping on messily masticated curly fries.

Our children tuck into their feast, disconcertingly stripping the flesh off chicken bones and seeming to unhinge their jaws to fit whole halves of burgers into their gaping maws in one go.

I stab a forkful of lettuce and shoot a grin to my wife as we notice a waitress counting mounds of wet change amid the debris and somewhere we hear the screech of what could be departing car wheels.

"There, as the saying goes," I tell her, "but for the grace of God, go we."


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