Thursday, 28 December 2017

Cat Café

For the uninitiated, a cat café is essentially a feline adoption centre which provides refreshments. I assume it's a mostly American thing but I could be wrong. Bess and I went to one in Austin. It was a large room, like a small department store filled with cats and furnished for the comfort of the same. There was a food truck parked outside but it was closed up, so that day we saw a load of cats but weren't able to get anything to eat; which was okay because we saw a load of cats and the shortfall is pretty much what we have come to expect from Austin which, for all of its admirable qualities, amounts to Texas for people who don't like Texas, in our experience.

The San Antonio cat café introduced itself through a facebook group promising that it would be coming soon to a then vacant premises very near where my wife works. We drove past a few times but there was nothing doing. Bess sank some money into the endeavour by paying in advance for a cat party. As should be obvious from the description, a cat party is simply getting the cat café to yourself for a couple of hours so you can invite friends who also like cats, and everyone gets to sit around petting felines while drinking tea and eating tacos or whatever. This kind of deal is central to the whole raison d'être of a cat café. The money goes towards the upkeep of the place and the care of the cats which have ended up there, everyone gets to hang out with the aforementioned cats, and hopefully one or two of them will find themselves adopted as a result.

We kept driving past, but the place remained vacant.

'I want my cat party,' my wife growled form time to time.

Summer turns to Autumn, and eventually the place opens, but in a different building a couple of miles down the road. We go along to the opening night. The new venue is a converted industrial unit divided in half with a wood partition. The café element constitutes the conversion of the space on one side of the partition to catering purposes. There's a small kitchen and a coffee machine. This being the opening night, they have ordered a stack of pizzas from Papa John's or one of those places, of which about three slices are left as we arrive, despite that we have arrived on time.

'Help yourself to nachos and popcorn,' our hostess suggests, breezily indicating bags of chips and one of those things dispensing the bright yellow chemical sludge everyone refers to as queso.

You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!

Well, never mind, because we're here for the cats.

Through the partition, the other half of the place is large with chairs all around, tables, cat trees and related fixtures. There are cats everywhere, all shapes and sizes, all ages, regarding us with bemusement as cats do. They look healthy and happy, and there's no weird smell about the place which seems like a good sign.

'Wait,' I say. 'Is this the cat party you were talking about?'

'No,' Bess tells me. 'This is the opening night.'

I realise this should be obvious from the fact that we're here with a whole load of complete strangers.

'So the cat party will be just us?'

'Well, we're allowed twelve people so there will be my mom and Andrea and a few others.'


We stay for about ninety minutes, playing with the cats, petting kittens, getting to know them. Our favourite is called Max, apparently the alpha male. He's constantly on the move, patrolling the room, making sure everything is in order. He has a peculiar stumpy tail, like that of a bobcat, but apparently he was born that way.

Just as we leave, more pizza turns up.

Never mind.

Weeks pass. Bess, sensing that the proprietors of our local cat café seem lacking in respect to certain organisational skills, makes a phone call to ensure that they haven't forgotten about our cat party on the Sunday afternoon.

They haven't.

Of course they haven't.

It's written down right in front of me.

We arrive on Sunday, Bess, myself and the kid, and strangely the place is already full of people.

'We're here for a cat party,' Bess explains. 'It's already booked, and I paid months ago.'

'What's a cat party?' wonders Spotty, who seems to be the one in charge. I remember her from last time, helping direct visitors towards the nachos and the popcorn. She calls the boss.

'They didn't know we were coming?' I ask.

Bess pulls a face.

'You paid, didn't you?'

She tells me how much she paid, and the figure is such that I'm not going to repeat it in case it makes us seem either crazy or like we have far too much money; but whatever happens, it goes to the care of the cats, so that's what matters.

I look around. In addition to nachos and popcorn, they now have candy bars. I get up and head for the coffee machine. Spotty comes over to see what I'm doing.

'I take it this works like the ones you see in hotels?'

She concurs, and points to where the creamer is kept.

'You don't have milk?'

She shakes her head. 'It'll be a dollar-fifty a cup,' she smiles helpfully.

'Okay. Forget it then.' I return to my seat. 'Apparently whatever you paid doesn't stretch to coffee,' I tell Bess.

Spotty hands me a tablet, a disembodied screen like the boy's iPad. I don't much like these things. 'What's this for?'

'We need you to sign a disclaimer before you go in to see the cats.'

'A disclaimer?'

'It's just for the sake of insurance.'

I look at the image on the screen, boxes in which I am supposed to enter my name. It has no keyboard.

'What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Do I just think my name at it?'

Spotty taps at the box in which I am expected to enter my details and a keyboard appears at the foot of the screen.

'I'm over fifty,' I can hear myself explain quite loudly to no-one in particular. 'Why would I know or care how these things are supposed to work? Seriously? I like to keep mainly just stuff which matters in my brain, and nothing of value has ever occurred within the vicinity of or by agency of an iPad.'

After five pages and the same count of minutes, I find I am required to suffix my petition with my signature, somehow written on the screen using my finger as a pen.

'Oh God - not this again.'

I sign. As usual the digital snail trail bears no resemblance to my signature.

The good news is that the woman who runs the cat café  has turned up. She explains what a cat party is to Spotty, her employee, then checks emails and text messages and eventually confirms that we have one booked. She suggests that it would have been helpful if we had phoned to check beforehand, but never mind.

By now the rest of our guests have turned up, Andrea, Bess's mother, aunt, brother, and grandmother, people from her workplace - Alex, Tristan and Alejandra.

We go in to see the cats. Some of those we remember from before have been adopted, but Max is still in charge. The chairs are mostly occupied by grumpy teenage girls playing with their phones. I suppose they too have paid to be here.

We hang around for our two allotted hours, as though the timetable means anything, and our hostess provides a tray of lunchables around ten minutes before we leave. Lunchables are packages of crackers which come with salami and squares of cheese cut to size. They're what your kid would take to school.

You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!

We go home, happy to have spent time with unfamiliar cats, but glad to get back to our own. We find ourselves oddly glad that it's over.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

After Five Decades of Christmas...

The earliest Christmas I can remember would have been on the farm in rural Warwickshire, the house heated by just one open fireplace. I came down the stairs, into the front room, and my parents were both sat on the couch awaiting my arrival with a little stack of presents.

'This is Huckleberry,' said my mother by way of introduction to a triangular dog. He was covered in orange felt, with eyes, nose, and freckles picked out in black and white patches of material. He had long flappy ears hung from the apex of his peculiar triangular body and a tail sewn on at the back. I thought he was wonderful. I recall him as being about three or four feet in height, most likely because I was small at the time. He probably wasn't that big, and I may have been as young as four. It's strange to realise I can recall something which probably happened in the sixties, and a time when my parents were still in their twenties.

I understood Christmas as the day of getting free stuff, possibly because, birthdays aside, we didn't get free stuff at other times of year. Childhood as a couple of decades spent happily beneath an avalanche of consumer goods seems to be a more recent development. Of course, I also understood the true meaning of Christmas as it's sometimes known, because I'd been raised to understand that not being an arsehole was a year-round deal, not just an act to be trotted out when you wanted something. I never bought into Father Christmas or the currency of any lists he supposedly kept. I appreciated the ceremony and the build up, everyone generally being a bit less miserable than usual and Slade on the radio. At school we sang carols - none of your happy clappy rubbish, and certainly no having yourself a merry little Christmas or any of that pish - and we made Christmas trees, Santas or snowmen from cones of coloured paper and tinsel like they'd done on Blue Peter, and all in preface to a wonderful day of good food, rampant acquisition, and usually something which you wouldn't ordinarily get to see on the telly. It was a simple, uncomplicated pleasure and served as an axis around which the rest of the year revolved.

The next decade was much the same, only with central heating in a different house and Micronaut toys giving way to albums by David Bowie or the Ramones; then an acoustic guitar and books about art, the great painters of the twentieth century.

The two decades after that saw a steady decline in my enthusiasm for the day of getting free stuff. This was because I had a job. I was a postman. People in England complain that Christmas starts too early, usually about half way through September, which is when its approach is first heralded in the larger department stores. For those delivering mail, it begins earlier, usually around June, that being when we'd be inundated with the first mail order catalogues directed at people spreading their Christmas budget across the second half of the year. The junk mail was horrendous in both its quantity and its banality, as customarily printed in garish colour on the outside of each A4 envelope and targetted at those with the least money to spend. Trudging about in the wind and rain with those same shitty envelopes, day after day, week after week, became really depressing. The most hateful were sent by a company imaginatively named Studio as though to invoke things of great artistic beauty which might come your way if you just kept up the payments. Each year, Studio decorated its envelopes with a different cast of characters designed to coerce you into buying their cheap tat, and worst of all were the Santa Babes, basically Care Bears in Christmassy hats, frolicking and trowelling on the corporate saccharine with the sort of abandon that makes Frozen look like cinéma vérité. The Santa Babes made me feel bad for everyone involved. There was something faintly disgusting about older and probably not that bright people screwed out of their meagre savings by directed application of cartoons from a nursery wall. It reminded me of the old biologists reduced to animals in tiny cages with just a bit of straw, renamed Big Ears and Tigger and fed on slops in Troy Kennedy Martin's
harrowing television adaptation of The Old Men at the Zoo.

The Christmas advertising really kicked in at the close of August, and the volume of mail began to build around November, becoming a back-breaking deluge by the end of the month. Overtime would be dished out whether we wanted it or not, and an eight hour day of hard physical labour would stretch to eleven or twelve, leaving for work at five in the morning, getting home hours after sunset, six days a week, sometimes seven for that final week; and working on Christmas Eve, finishing around one or two then spending the rest of the day crammed onto buses and trains slowly crawling across London, making my way to Coventry, to the house of one parent or another when I'd much rather have been home in bed and sleeping through the whole fucking thing.

It was hard to keep up the Christmas spirit after all those Santa Babes, all those weeks of ending each day feeling as though I'd been run over by a truck; and Christmas with the parents felt stranger and stranger as I turned thirty, then forty. Nevertheless, it was nice to see my parents, albeit seperately, and it was nice to just not be at work, and to have someone else serve up a roast dinner; and those are the aspects of Christmas I like.

Now fifty-two, married, and no longer breaking my back for a living, there are still aspects of the whole deal which seem uneccessary and tiresome. We'll spend three hours watching the boy open presents he probably isn't actually that excited to receive, novelties and nick-nacks and crap mostly representing a faintly dippy adult's idea of what a fourteen-year old boy might want, when mostly he just wants non-physical things he can play on one of his games systems; and some of the novelties and nick-nacks will be more the sort of thing you'd give him if he were still about four, but we all smile and no-one says anything because we're just happy to have dispensed with the letter from Santa and the fake bootprints across the carpet using flour to simulate snow. He was getting a bit old for it at least seven years prior to the custom's discontinuation.

Then there'll be the novelty corn holders my wife recieves each year as part of a running joke she no longer entirely gets or remembers, and all that stuff for which we'll say oh you shouldn't have, because we quite literally wish that you hadn't - a set of novelty pint glasses featuring scenes from A Christmas Story and other items which lack any context beyond that of gifthood, all destined for some corner of the garage so we don't have to think about them or feel bad for the rest of our curmudgeonly, ungrateful lives.

We've all agreed to participate in the gift exchange through the agency of Elfster, a website which takes our names, shakes them up, then assigns each of us the person upon whom we will each spend one hundred dollars, selecting presents from their online list. It's not a bad idea, all things considered, although I can't help feel it sucks the spontaneity out of the occasion, reducing it to just acquisition, the model to which I subscribed when I was four and didn't know better.

Christmas is mostly greed and flashing lights, and in Texas it doesn't even come with a guarantee of the parts I recognise. Thanksgiving steals the emphasis from anything I'd identify as Christmas dinner, and without equivalent gastronomic pleasure, it being a plate of mostly soft brown food - turkey served with mashed potato for God's sake - which screams nursing home, at least to me; and then we get to see what Elfster brought us on a day which usually isn't Christmas, because it isn't convenient.

Regardless of all of this, I'll open a few presents on Christmas morning and watch my wife open whatever I've given her. I'll eat some of the pork pie I had to make myself because you can't get it in Texas unless you want to pay $70 for refrigerated postage. The Christmas morning pork pie is either an English tradition, or just something my dad thought up, but I like to keep it going and I make a pretty decent pork pie. Then we'll maybe go for a walk or a drive, and in the evening I'll cook a roast dinner with Christmas pudding and brandy butter to follow - more stuff I had to order online because you can't get it over here.

After fifty-one reiterations of the allegedly happiest day of the year, these basic things are all that I require, and none of the rest matters too much.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Gift

'I need to buy rhinestones,' my wife told me. 'I'm going to glue them to the pumpkin.' It was the most profoundly Texan thing I'd ever heard her say. She was decorating a pumpkin for Halloween. She'd painted it black with a grinning muertito skull on one side, embellished with floral patterns; and now she was going to cover it in rhinestones.

She bought a large bag from Michaels, our local arts and crafts superstore. It was a big pumpkin but she still ended up with some rhinestones left over, so she glued those to the novelty wooden plaque which Mary had given us.

Mary is my dad's partner. She would have been his third wife but he didn't want to remarry after the second one passed away. He didn't seem to think it would be appropriate. Mary means well.

In 2009, I packed in my Royal Mail job in London and moved back to Coventry. The plan was that I would stay at my mother's house, generate some money by selling off my accumulated crap on eBay, and apply for the fiancé visa which would allow me to move to America and marry Bess.

Mary was initially sceptical. 'Never mind, lovey,' she told me, as though it had already all gone tits up. 'You can always move back here if it doesn't work out in America, and I think you'll find Coventry has a lot to offer.'

Nevertheless, I stayed at my mother's house, generated some money by selling off my accumulated crap on eBay, applied for and was granted a fiancé visa, following which I moved to America and married Bess.

Mary was very happy for me, once it seemed as though it had worked out after all, despite everything. She seemed to like the sound of Bess, whom I had described as having blue eyes, reddish hair, and a generous build, because I don't believe in the ideal female figure, and if I did it wouldn't be a lettuce-scoffing stick insect.

'They're very jolly, aren't they?' Mary observed thoughtfully.

'Yes,' I said, scarcely able to believe my ears, what with it being the twenty-first century. I suppose if she had been black, Bess would have been praised for her natural sense of rhythm.

'Here,' Mary said. 'I bought this for you.'

She'd been shopping at Morrisons and had apparently called in at some sort of retailer of nick-nacks on the way home. She gave me a heart-shaped piece of wood painted white and embellished with the words Love laughter & happily ever after. I wasn't sure if it was missing a comma and couldn't tell whether the words represented a list or an instruction, although both readings probably amounted to the same thing. There was a piece of string at the back by which I would be able to hang it in my home in America, now that it had all worked out, despite everything.

'Thanks,' I said.

Mary went back into the kitchen and my dad leaned across to stage whisper, 'Listen - if that doesn't make it into your luggage when you fly back, I understand.' He glanced towards the kitchen. 'You know she means well.'

'Yes,' I said, relieved to discover that my father and I were on the same page of this particular book.

A few years earlier one of Bess's friends gave us a thematically similar piece of wood for Christmas. It resembled a wooden baton, about a foot in length, painted black with always kiss me goodnight printed along its length. I suppose the point is that you leave it on top of something as a reminder. If left on top of something near a doorway or entrance it could perhaps also be used to strike an intruder. I don't know why such a thing would need to exist. Were our marriage headed down the toilet, advice printed on a piece of timber wouldn't make much difference one way or the other; and because our marriage is going pretty darn well, despite everything, we don't really require physical restatement of the fact.

Love laughter & happily ever after was hung from the dimmer switch in the front room because I didn't know what else to do with it. I would have felt bad excluding it from my luggage because, as my dad pointed out, it was meant well; and I would have felt awkward just chucking it to the back of some cupboard for the same reason.

'Gross,' my wife commented, trying not to laugh.

'I know,' I said, and we left it there because it was sort of funny, and it saved us having to think ill of those who give freely despite having no taste, because that would in turn lead us to think ill of ourselves, ungrateful pair of snarky cunts that we are.

The dimmer switch in the front room connects to an annoying chandelier type affair of five lights, a massive lump of swinging metal with which I frequently brain myself when doing anything on that side of the room. I don't even know why we have a dimmer switch. Pissing about with the voltage seems to dramatically shorten the life of the bulbs, and at one point we seemed to be replacing one of them every couple of weeks. Furthermore, it's not like there's ever anything to be gained from having the lights low. We don't indulge in romantic dinners because we're not fucking teenagers and we usually watch Wheel of Fortune whilst eating from folding tray-tables at the other end of the living room; and for all its fine qualities, Wheel of Fortune is seldom arousing.

Then a month ago, the dimmer switch began to emit a worrying electrical fizzing sound, so we stopped using it. Bess looked at the cost of getting an electrician out.

'Fuck it,' I suggested. 'Let's do it ourselves. How hard can it be?'

We watched a couple of YouTube videos, bought a multimeter and a new light switch - the regular on/off kind, not a dimmer - and I made the repair. It took about ten minutes and the replacement switch cost something like sixty cents.

Love laughter & happily ever after lost its home and went to live in the garage, because otherwise it would have fallen to the floor whenever we turned off the lights in the front room. Then Bess rescued it and hung it somewhere else because she said it seemed right to do so seeing as how she'd speckled it with leftover rhinestones and all. We no longer have to spend so much money on light bulbs, and I've learned how to use a multimeter. I am now able to stick the prongs into electrical sockets so as to check the voltage with casual abandon.

That's your happy ending right there.

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Unlike Ayn Rand, I endorse the general concept of charity, even though I'm never quite sure where I, as an individual, stand relative to public acts performed so as to raise money in its name. Several decades ago, Mandy - my girlfriend at the time - recruited me to a sponsored walk in aid of an organisation called Respect for Animals. Naturally I was opposed to animal cruelty, and was therefore happy to walk a couple of miles along the bank of the River Thames knowing that the money I raised would buy much needed Nicorette® patches for Beagles, or something; but the thing which bothered me was that the organisation benefitting from my legwork was called Respect for Animals. It sounded wanky and right on as though named by some condescending tofu-scoffing middle class twat keen to present something which working class thickies wouldn't need explaining to them, and which wouldn't terrify those Daily Mail readers perpetually on the defensive at the thought of anything having rights, particularly scrounging benefit cheats of the four-legged variety; and I was going to have to go into work with my silly little forms to screw some sponsorship out of my colleagues.

What's it for? they would ask, and I would have to tell them, and as I explained it would feel as though the organisation may as well have named itself Hey kids, let's not be fascists because that's like a real downer, yeah? Let's show some respect for animals, because like some of them are like really amaaazing, you know? Hey, anybody want any more taramasalata? Melissa Jane bought plenty at Waitrose so, you know, like help yourselves, yeah?

Back in the present day, its October, traditionally the time of year when my wife and myself undertake a charity walk in aid of fragile X awareness, and hopefully also some research given the cost of the tickets. This is the third year we've done it, although it should probably be taken into account that the first two were both rained off. It doesn't rain much in Texas but when it does, it really fucking rains. The walk usually takes place at Raymond Rimkus Park in Leon Valley, which was under five or six feet of water this time last year so it wasn't simply a case of remembering to take a brolly. One might think these cancellations would be a bit of a pisser for the charity in question, but surprisingly it wasn't so. The deal, so I am told, is that we all buy advance tickets which entitle us to take part in the event, and that's where the money comes from. Then all that is required of us is that we turn up, collect a free t-shirt, take part in the walk, and the job is done. It sounds a bit Kafka-esque to me, but it's a day out and it's a good cause, and all I have to do is hang out, walk around a park, then eat a few complementary tacos.

This year, the weather has turned cold, but there's been no sign of rain, so it seems like it's actually going to happen. While Texas enjoys an autumn in terms of leaves turning brown and falling from trees, where temperature is concerned, we wake up one September morning and find that it's winter. Last night we were still frying eggs on the pavement at eleven, two hours after sunset; but today we will need woolly jumpers, hats and gloves. It's like someone flipped a switch and turned off the summer.

Anyway, it's Saturday morning, and we're all awake and wrapped up warm. Junior has been obliged to rise five uncivilised hours prior to his customary weekend réveille. We drive over to Myra's place with the kid whinging and whining for most of the journey. It's too early and it's cold. It's colder than it's ever been before. It's probably not even this cold on Pluto, he suggests.

I spent the first ten years of my life in a farmhouse in England, a farmhouse heated by just a single log fire in the front room, no double glazing or insulation, and a farmhouse which was in such a poor state of repair as to have cracks in the walls through which wind, rain, and even snowflakes would occasionally enter. Sometimes I tell the kid that he's never experienced real cold, but I bore even myself just saying it.

Myra is the mother of Andrea, who is my wife's best pal; and Andrea is the mother of Tommy, who is our boy's best pal. Sometimes we go over to Myra's house for Thanksgiving. She's always interesting and tells us of her school days in a class of children in a school of just one room in what sounds like the old west. She doesn't seem that old, and her testimony probably reflects on how this is still a young country when it comes to the descendants of the more recent waves of settlers.

We are standing around outside Myra's place, flapping our arms to keep warm when Andrea arrives with Tommy, then the six of us walk to the park. We find other volunteers gathered around a covered pavilion with tables, benches, and the barbecue pits you always find in Texan public parks. Crappy music is playing from speakers wired up to a laptop - vintage hair metal for the oldies, autotuned idoru for the kiddies; but there's food and coffee. There are a couple of folks milling around with clipboards but nothing seems to be happening so we help ourselves to tacos. The tacos are wrapped in foil and kept in insulated styrofoam boxes, so they're still hot. They've been ordered in from Las Palapas, so we're eating the real thing as made by human hand with not a blob of bright orange cheese style snack product to be seen, which is nice.

'It's the least they could do,' Bess explains, before telling me how much the tickets cost - a figure so inflated that I've since forgotten it on the grounds that it couldn't possibly have been that much.

'Can we go to the park park?' Tommy asks.

I don't understand the question.

'Sure,' says Andrea, and the boys run off towards the trees just past where we came in. My enquiry reveals that we're in the park, therefore a smaller play area which I didn't notice when we arrived is the park park. Nothing is happening yet, so it doesn't seem to matter.

Beyond the pavilion are football fields as I would think of them, as distinct from handegg fields. There are a couple of small groups having a kick about in the distance, some taking it seriously with track suits and rules, others just passing the time and staying warm.

'Look!' I point to a family with a couple of small children, making their way over from the football field. The smallest child shuffles along dressed in a one-piece animal costume complete with ears. It's very cute. Maybe she's a bear or something.

Bess responds with her customary awww, and we try to work out what the animal could be.

Eventually it seems like something is happening so I go to fetch the boys from the park park, even though I'm not actually sure where it's supposed to be. It doesn't matter because they've heard the call and are coming to meet me.

We assemble and then walk around the circumference of the park, following the path. Volunteers are situated along the way dispensing free candy and similarly artificial treats to the younger walkers, who have been given buckets in which to collect their candy and treats because it's so close to Halloween as to make no difference. We share out the treats between us. I initially decline, then cave in and take a bag of Cheetos, mainly out of curiosity. They're bright orange, salty, and taste more like actual food than I thought they would. As I munch, we pass the family of the little girl in the animal costume. Her fluffy suit is a bit saggy, tan with large dark patches and small knobby horns on the head.

She's a giraffe, we realise.

The route we follow is punctuated with volunteers dishing out candy and informative signs stuck in the grass at the side of the path, reminders of why we're doing this. The US National Library of Medicine describes fragile X thus:

Fragile X syndrome is a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Usually, males are more severely affected by this disorder than females.

Affected individuals usually have delayed development of speech and language by age two. Most males with fragile X syndrome have mild to moderate intellectual disability, while about one-third of affected females are intellectually disabled. Children with fragile X syndrome may also have anxiety and hyperactive behavior such as fidgeting or impulsive actions. They may have attention deficit disorder (ADD), which includes an impaired ability to maintain attention and difficulty focusing on specific tasks. About one-third of individuals with fragile X syndrome have features of autism spectrum disorders that affect communication and social interaction. Seizures occur in about 15% of males and about 5% of females with fragile X syndrome.

This information is reiterated in simplified form on the signs we pass, one of which lists associated physical characteristics. One associated physical characteristic is large, sticky-out ears. This gives me some pause for consideration given that more or less the entire population of my school had large sticky-out ears.

After fifteen minutes, we're back at the pavilion. We eat more tacos and wait, although I can't tell what for. The boys have once again ran off to the park park.

A rope is thrown over the branch of a tree and a piñata is hauled aloft. Suddenly the place is full of children. I take another walk across to the park park to find Junior and his friend. This time I'm all the way there before I see them. It's mostly swings, roundabouts, and climbing frames of colourful toughened plastic. I would have thought the boys were a bit old for it, but then what do I know?

'There's a piñata if you're interested.'

'Okay!' They come along, jabbering away in what may as well be their own shared language for all the sense I can make of it.

We get back to the tree and I see that they're attacking the piñata in shifts, small kids first, older ones later. The smallest don't seem to fully grasp what is expected of them as an adult gives them the stick with which they are expected to get bashing. Most of them just tap the piñata a couple of times and look confused. The giraffe steps up to the plate, as they say, but she doesn't have much upper arm strength either. It looks as though we could be here all day. Eventually someone finds one of those small, violent kids from somewhere, all beetle brows and an evil grin. He smashes the papier-mâché with a high pitched yelp of triumph and makes it rain candy. The kids pile in like a pack of dogs. It's a feeding frenzy.

Then there's a prize draw. We find out how much money we've raised and it seems like a lot. We hang around and eat more tacos until it seems like time to go.

Once again I wander off to the park park to fetch the boys. They're on the swings, yelping and laughing and repeating meme-derived catchphrases to one another, and stood at the third swing is the giraffe. She seems upset and confused and she's calling Mommy over and over like its a spell which will summon her mother from the ether.

Oh fuck, I think, mind spinning with all sorts of unfamiliar, protective instincts. I look around and believe I recognise the giraffe's mother over the other side of the park park. We pass her as we go to join Bess, Andrea, and Myra.

'I think your giraffe wants you,' I tell the woman, pointing to the forlorn little figure still stood alone at the swing.

'Oh yes - she wants me to help her up,' the woman explains, amused, informing me of something I had genuinely failed to realise. I feel a great sense of relief, and we all go home.