Illustration: David Rowe
Recently, I said no to another late-night Christmas party. You know the sort? Lots of booze, finger food, music so loud you can't hear yourself speak (people complain about the volume but, let's face it, the night always reaches a point where nobody understands what's being said anyway) and lots of middle-aged people celebrating the sentimental notion of Christmas they've lost somewhere between the magical wonderment of childhood and the irresponsibility of adolescence.
''I can't make it,'' I lied. ''I've got to pick up my kids.''
''Oh,'' one of the conveners said. ''Sorry, mate, so - what're you babysitting again?''
I want a dollar for every bloke of my generation who's aped his father by saying this to me. While I wouldn't quite be able to give up my day job (when I find out what that is, precisely, I'll let you know), it would probably pay someone else's Secret Santa bill for many years to come.
I wondered: babysitting? My own kids? How freakin' bizarre.
There have been many times (like when my two-year-old son, ''Hannibal'', bit another child's face, and when a passer-by chastised me because my baby daughter was screaming fit to pop because I'd broken the head off her chocolate beetle to make it easier for her to eat) I've wanted to call in the babysitter. Or the taxidermist. Or the medical-science guy. Or just dial triple-0.
But alas, the parent gene has somehow kicked in. And guess what? Rather than just abandon them to nature, or rather more precisely to the urban dangers all around, I've occasionally picked them up from daycare or school, fed them (in a manner), bathed them (I claim immunity from responsibility when it comes to doing daughters' hair), read them a story and put them to bed.
Why the hell have I done all this? Simple, really. Because they are mine. Which is why I decided, with the words of Peter Finch - ''I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!'' - echoing in my head, that I wasn't going to let it go this time. I would deconstruct this further.
''So, what exactly do you mean by that quip about me babysitting my own kids?'' I asked the convener of said boozy, loud, finger-foody, Christmassy party?
''Nothing at all … it's just that you seem to spend an awful lot of time babysitting those kids.''
''Are you implying something about my children's paternity? I mean is there something you know that I don't?''
''Immaculate conception, perhaps? I mean it's the time of year for that.''
''Are you OK?''
''Er, great. Enjoy the babysitting.''
I did, as it transpired, enjoy my night at home. I shared a glass of red with Wallander and was in bed well before that weird time at Christmas parties - or the Walkley Awards - when your mates start repeatedly hugging you and declaring their undying love, and when the penny finally drops that it's probably a really, really, really good idea just to keep drinking, push on all night through the pain barrier and rock up straight to work the next day.
Every time my son asks me for something - money to see a movie, a mate in for a sleepover, an extra piece of schnitzel - I joke, ''Sure, mate, I'll just stick it on the bill.'' After I paid the last lot of school fees, I said: ''And don't forget - that's going on the bill, too.'' At which point he asked his mother: ''Is there really a bill?'' ''No,'' she said. ''He's just kidding. I think.'' The gag started when I recalled an old school mate whose father, an accountant who'd fallen on hard times, presented him with a bill for $20,000.
It covered 18 years' worth of food and board, private school fees and ''sundries'', such as school excursions, sporting gear, trips to the football and his share of family holiday expenses.
My mate told his father that $20,000 - even in the 1980s - seemed relatively modest. ''Yes, well, that includes a family discount,'' he replied.
My mate realised his father was, indeed, quite serious. He wondered whether to pay.
Then the father died ''suddenly'' and my mate spent decades and at least $20,000 on therapy, trying to untangle the complicated grief of it all.
There's probably a lesson in there somewhere about Christmas, the implied parenting contract and everything.
Meanwhile, I doubt I'll be invited to the same Christmas function next year. Which is fine, really. I'm happier to stay home and babysit my own kids.