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.