Saturday Night: Virtual reality of Little Girl World

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NOW that I've been writing this column for several weeks, people are making suggestions. 'You should do my friend's club, it's the best night out in Belgium,' they say. Or, 'What about a pub crawl through Portsmouth?' While these comments are warmly received, I worry that people see me as some loaded and freewheeling rake, ready to jet out at a moment's notice, unfettered by duty or responsibility.

In fact, as the father of a five-year-old girl, my Saturday nights alternate between the exploits usually reported here, and the equally surreal but far more salubrious time spent in the company of Phoebe Lovatt-Sharkey. I take charge of her every other Saturday and every Wednesday, too. For those brief hours, I forsake the Logic Trance compilation for The Aristocats soundtrack, A C Milan for My Little Pony, and bel poori for Heinz chocolate sponge pudding - the new recipe, with chocolate sauce. I put away my toys and play with hers.

Welcome to Little Girl World, a virtual environment where Walt Disney is eternal president in absentia, a world of primary colours and hairbands, where questions of morality must be answered in clear, non-paradoxical terms. Is this a good or a bad thing? Phoebe wants to know.

Phoebe lives with her mother, Jane, five minutes from my place. Jane and I separated in June 1989, when Phoebe was 18 months old. For a long time I thought she might not recover from the trauma of watching her parents go through a nasty, if mercifully brief, disengagement. Thankfully, things are perfectly amiable between us now. Phoebe seems to have forgotten the bad times and accepts that she has two homes, as do many of her friends.

Sometimes I think back and shudder: how strange it must have been for a two-year-old girl to be taken by her father to stay overnight in a one-bedroom flat with no furniture or carpets, no television, no cooker. I have a photograph of her sitting on my toolbox, eating a peanut butter sandwich (thank you, Fay Weldon). She is beaming. Only very small children can be so trusting, so loving.

Mostly, we paint, draw or watch television. If I'm in the mood to clear up after, or if Kitty's around to join in, we make Fimo clay figures or jewellery. Sometimes I break out the glitter and glue, which ends up all over the carpet. As much as possible I let her dictate the activities, as Phoebe is very much her own woman.

Born in Bow, a bona fide Cockney, she was nurtured at the Soho Family Centre, a multicultural nursery opposite the Anne Summers sex shop in Brewer Street. She attends school in Covent Garden and has spent time in Jamaica, Australia, France and the Canary Islands. Quite a list, you'll agree. The kind of thing you find on the inside of a dustcover, under the words 'About the author'. Next Thursday she and I travel to Andalucia for a week's holiday. I'd better be on my toes. This is one cosmopolitan miss.

Occasionally, we'll visit a friend or drop in early at a party, but I've noticed Phoebe is increasingly protective of our relationship. She doesn't want to share my attention, she demands quality time. Good job one of us understands this parenting thing.

Saturday ends quite early, leaving me to the paper and Match of the Day, unless her asthma is playing up. I try to act responsibly and get her to sleep before 8.30pm, although bedtime can be as late as 10pm if we're having fun. Even this is positively monastic compared to our wild clubbing days together, before she started school. A couple of years ago, infants were hot fashion items: they could get you into otherwise exclusive clubs. Kitty and I once took her to a party in a squat just off Russell Square, starting out around 9pm. 'We're being naughty, aren't we Daddy?' she asked, delighted, as we emerged into a misty autumn night. Two hours later I was finished, but my little starlet was pleading to stay. Though Kitty agreed with her, neurosis got the better of me and I dragged them both home, still protesting.

The tone of our evening is generally determined by our day together. This oftens starts with a small thumb lifting my eyelid, and a mockingly gentle voice: 'Time to get up, wakey-wakey.' After breakfast it's off to ballet class. A couple of weeks ago I learnt that her fees had not been entirely wasted. 'When I grow up,' she announced, 'I want to be a ballerina. Then a nurse, then a hairdresser.'

Even before starting school Phoebe was explaining to me the subtle differences between a French plait and a French pleat, and how best to pin a bun. Where do little girls learn this stuff? No amount of interrogation on my part could uncover the root of this trichological arcana. Perhaps it is genetically ingrained behaviour, requiring only the smallest stimulus. In which case, Barbie would have done it.

The career path has since been modified: now it's ballerina, then gymnast and, finally, an acrobat. Why an acrobat? 'Because it's cleverer than being a dancer.' She recently discovered monkey bars and a growing confidence in her sturdy little physique. But the best and brightest announcement of recent weeks came last weekend, out of the blue. 'When I'm 15 or 16,' she said, 'I'm going to play football for a girl's team.' At last, reward for those long hours of indoctrination. My joy was compounded when she correctly answered the question: 'What is the best football team in the world?' Even the pronunciation was correct, with the emphasis on the first syllable of 'Milan'. I'm telling you, this kid is bright. For a start, she knows how to humour her father.

This week, when I went to pick her up, she was reading to herself. I was so excited. Phoebe loves books and demands at least two stories at bedtime. This is how our Saturdays end, and this is the great wonder of my evenings with her, that she will grow up literate and well-loved, a beautiful child, as all children are until adults wreck them. Ballerina or nurse, hairdresser, gymnast or acrobat: who cares, as long as she still loves me?

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