The best way to keep the children quiet at Christmas is to sit on them

For the whole of this month I've been carefully looking for opportunities to play around with small children. Only last week I spotted one darling little five-year-old girl crying her heart out in the cereals aisle at Safeway's and was not only able to return her to her grateful mother but was rewarded by the most beatific smile from my new friend.

It's not only lost or distressed children who are likely to find themselves the object of my obsessive attention. In shops, restaurants and museums, I wait for the precise moment when a tiny child comes up with some piece of especially cute behaviour or endearing neologism and then allow myself to be caught showing a broad smile of appreciation. "What a darling," I mutter, "What an absolute darling. You must be very proud." And before you can say "Doctor Spock" I'm on my knees and happily canoodling with another little treasure.

My new-found interest in small children and all their doings is entirely prompted by a nasty scene which took place last Boxing Day. As usual the house was full of an assorted collection of little nieces, nephews and two grandchildren. And as usual I'd casually concluded that their mere presence within my house was sufficient indication of my benevolence. I could vaguely sense that others regarded them as appropriate objects for affectionate attention but, as far as I was concerned, they had little more intrinsic interest than the electronic stun guns with which they so relentlessly pursued each other up and down the hall.

It was about half-past four in the afternoon, 30 minutes into Sky Sports' match of the day, when the crisis broke. A child was missing. The matter was first brought to my seriously divided attention by my partner's sister, Anne, who wanted to know if baby Charlotte had crawled into the room while I'd been watching television. In the obviously heightened circumstances it seemed unfeeling to say that I wasn't absolutely certain which of the many crawling children in the house answered to the name of Charlotte, so I contented myself with some vague answer about my attention having been temporarily distracted by a disputed penalty.

But as the half-time whistle blew I realised that the crisis was far from over. Charlotte had definitely disappeared and a distraught Anne was suggesting that there was now no option but to ring the police and get them to organise a search party. That, it was agreed, was my job. But even as I levered myself from the sofa and set off towards the phone I heard a terrible cry from behind me. "There she is! There she is! Look at the poor darling! She's hardly breathing. You've been sitting on my baby! You've been sitting on my baby and you didn't even notice!"

I tried to enter some half-hearted defence along the lines that it was unreasonable to expect people to look behind them when they sat down in a familiar seat but it was quickly brushed aside. "Look at the tear stains on her poor little face. She must have been whimpering all the while you were watching the match. Don't you ever think of anyone but yourself ?"

At a house meeting later that night there was a unanimous vote of censure and I agreed to make a real effort in future to notice children and remember their idiosyncrasies and names. All I can hope, as Boxing Day looms again, is that my month of intensive practice will pay off. In a way I already have a head start. I now know which one of the multitude is Charlotte. You simply can't miss that pretty little retrousse nose.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?