COLUMN: March 16, 2011

I DON’T know if there is a word for that feeling of being almost certain that one is going to get away with something. It is not quite relief, but more a euphoric anticipation of relief. I think we will call it “prelief.”

The worst prelief comedown is the one on offer in family restaurants. When I enter one of these chain establishments en famille – and, really, in what other circumstances would one enter them? – my eyes dart about looking for balloons. Usually there are plenty of balloons and I just sit down, resigned to the fact of their existence.

But sometimes they hide them away and lull me into a false sense of prelief. And it is only near the end of the meal that the waitress, who up to that point was going to get a decent tip, brings across a bundle of helium-filled bags and asks the children which colour they would like. 

Nobody ever warns you that the worst thing about being a parent is having to deal with balloons.

If you allow me to take you through the stages of balloon ownership, perhaps you will understand…

Stage 1: Acceptance
The waitress brings the balloons to the table. If there are three children, there are three balloons. Each of the balloons is a different colour. Two of the children have the same favourite colour. There is only one balloon of that colour.

Stage 2: Negotiation
The balloons are distributed in accordance with the Iron Rule of Who Got Blue Last Time.

Stage 3: Docking
The balloons have been brought NEAR the end of the meal, not AT the end of the meal. Therefore, there is still some meal to be eaten. The balloons are taken away from the children and affixed to cruets, glasses, etc, but not too tightly, enabling later decoupling.

Stage 4: Retrieval
One of the balloons slips its not-too-tight mooring and races to the ceiling. The ribbon is not long enough. A grown man in his late thirties has to stand on a chair in full view of other diners and reach up, exposing his midriff. Several diners push their plates away in disgust.

Stage 5: Exodus 1
The balloons are attached to the pushchair as the family leave the restaurant. They are trapped inside the restaurant as the door closes.

Stage 6: Exodus 2
The balloons are reattached to the pushchair at face height. As the grown man in his late thirties pushes the chair through crowded shops, he is constantly smacked in the face and has his vision impaired.

Stage 7: Reunion
At the car, the balloons are handed back to the children. They are told to keep the balloons down so that a grown man in his late thirties can see out of the rear windscreen.

Stage 8: Crisis 
The balloons are not kept down. The grown man warns the children that the balloons will be popped if they don’t bloody keep them down. The balloons are not kept down. The grown man takes the balloons from the children. This puts the cry into crisis.

Stage 9: Prelief 
The grown man puts the balloons in the boot, carefully ensuring they do not fly away or there will be blue murder. Calm, he sits back in the driving seat and drives home. He puts all thoughts of balloons out of his mind.

Stage 10: Prelief Comedown 
The car arrives home. The grown man, all thoughts of balloons out of his mind, retrieves the shopping from the boot. The three balloons sail past his head and pathetically flailing hands. The youngest child notices. There is a reckoning.

If you are going to open a family restaurant and you have a sign in your window of a balloon inside a red circle with a red line through it, I will be your customer forever.

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