‘I love slide,’ cries my son with greater emotion than he has ever mustered for me, the man who has fed and clothed him since birth, not to mention facilitated 90% of every slide interaction he’s ever had.
We’re at the playground. Not Big Playground, which is what we call the sprawling, Byzantine ludoplex in the larger park 15 minutes away, that has six slides, eight swings and little wooden forts. No, this is Little Playground, the smaller, more local one. It’s not my son’s favourite, but we like it because it’s less busy, which means he can use anything he wants – and I don’t have to talk to as many other parents.
Please understand, my problem is not with them, but my own newfound inability to make small talk. I revert to platitudes of such serene blandness I hate myself as I’m saying them. ‘He just loves this slide,’ I say to the mum beside me, as my son uses the slide he loves. She laughs and agrees, which is actually mad because her daughter also loves that slide, which sets me laughing, too, because, really, what are the chances?
Big Playground, on the other hand, teems with people at all times, each of whom – adult and child alike – seems on the edge of an extremely newsworthy nervous breakdown. Last time I went to Big Playground there were, conservatively, 8 million people present, and mayhem reigned in all directions. Here, children eating sand while their dads extract another’s head from a climbing frame. There, a mum begging her now shoeless son to be careful as he goes down a giant metal loop-de-loop, face-first with his tongue out. It’s basically a Hieronymus Bosch painting with swings. Going there to relax with a child makes about as much sense as going to Stansted airport for a coffee.
We operate under the polite fiction that none of the rules apply to playgrounds, which suits me fine. Nobody wants to see toddlers wearing face masks – except that kid with his tongue out – but it does give all these interactions a sense of famine and feast. We spend most of our lives fastidiously cleaning, wiping, washing and sterilising, and encountering as few people as is legally permissible, before breaking this rhythm with occasional half-hour bouts of preschool hedonism. It’s like spending six days a week in a Trappist monastery and popping to Burning Man each Sunday.
Sometimes, of course, Little Playground is completely deserted, which is disconcerting in its own way. There’s something eerie about an empty playground, the ineffable sense that people in hazmat suits may have just finished packing away the police tape 15 minutes before you arrived. Or that some day a wizened, wise old woman will point a spindly finger in our direction and tell us, with mounting horror, that we must leave this cursed place immediately.
‘Haha, it’s all right,’ I’d probably say. ‘He just loves this slide.’
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