I push the door open and Elsie walks cautiously through. She takes Daddy's hand as I rummage in my bag for my purse, and hand over the coins to the man on the desk.
Spotting our friends, I go forward to greet them, (your little one has grown! what a big boy!) and Marek takes Elsie's shoes off and stores them on a shelf. 'Ooh look, Elsie!' I gush. 'a ball pool!' I love those things.
She looks up at me with a blank expression, and only wanders over when I lead her. Ignoring her friend, she stands in the middle of the play area, staring at the kids rushing past. The noise, and colours, seem to overwhelm her, and she just stands. Takes it all in. Absorbs the madness.
More friends arrive, and we sit down to chat about the sleeping newborn in her carseat, upcoming holiday plans and the ridiculous size of our firstborns. The two boys from our party join the buzzing crowd, rushing about, sliding down slides and jumping into the pool of plastic balls. Our little girl is still standing immobile, wide-eyed and solemn.
One of the other dads helps her onto the rocking horse and she takes fright, lip wobbling before the full blown weeping takes hold. He apologises and I tell him it's not his fault. It isn't. Elsie calms down, but won't move from my lap. Eventually I coax her over to the beanbag.
We take it in turns, sitting in a cage of brightly coloured padded fun, before handing over the relay and escaping to the island of adult conversation and cool drinks. Finally, I look over and instead of a serious little girl wondering where the hell her parents have brought her now, I see a smiley Elsie, jumping in the balls and shrieking with the rest.
The boys come out of the craziness for their snacks and I see Elsie walking round to the slide, taking her turn in an uncharacterically patient manner, and sliding down with a grin. A big boy in a green t-shirt pushes past and she laughs. No sign of the teary sensitive soul remains. She is finally tempted over to us with grapes, but is keen to get back as soon as her snack has been eaten.
After a while the boys droop and the newborn stirs, ready for a feed. Friends say their goodbyes and we are left, Elsie raring to go. We use our remaining time for a bounce on the bouncy castle. Elsie loves it, and bounces about with bigger girls, who rush past her roughly, adding to the excitment.
Shoes are put back on and we go outside with a surpisingly compliant Elsie. Only when we are half way into the carpark does she realise we're heading home. She turns back around, and runs. When I finally catch her, she wriggles in my arms, desperate to get back. I promise her we'll come back and she unwillingly accepts the inevitable.