Sandy pulled into the parking lot of the Pine Tree Community Centre. The main facility which consisted of an indoor pool, gym and basketball court was still closed. Thankfully, the splash pad and playground outside were open. She was relieved to be able to go out again, albeit with lots of precautions. Lockdowns, reproduction rate, variants and rate of transmission were previously unknown terms to the public. These terms were now used in everyday parlance.
“Let’s go TJ,” said Sandy, grabbing her mask, sanitiser and snack bag for TJ, short for Thomas James. She unbuckled TJ and set him down. He clung to her, unsure about what to do. “It’s ok buddy,” Sandy reassured him, “we are going to have lots of fun!”
“Okay,” TJ said unconvinced. After endless weeks of indoor life, an otherwise mundane park visit felt like exploring a new world.
They walked towards the play structures. There were a few families about. Everyone seemed uncertain about the protocols to be observed. Sandy was a zealous mask wearer. The only problem was that the temperature was about 40 degrees celsius! It was hot.
Sandy found an unoccupied bench and sat down to take it all in. The sunshine and fresh air, the laughter and shrieks of children as they ran in and out of the water spray in the splash pad and the reprimand from a parent to maintain a safe distance. The scent and sounds of the woods nearby; chipmunk calls as well as the telltale chirp of chickadees in the trees. After being cooped up for so long, it felt like sensory overload.
“Come on TJ, where do you want to go first?” Sandy asked.
“Umm, maybe the swings,” replied TJ . Sandy lifted him onto one and gently pushed him. As he settled into the hypnotic back and forth rhythm, she looked over at the splash pad. Social distancing is a very difficult concept for kids to grasp and pretty soon, it was put to the test as kids got closer and closer to each other.
“Can we go to the splash pad?” TJ asked.
“Sure,” Sandy said reluctantly, having witnessed the disappearance of all distance protocols.
TJ walked to the edge of the splash pad, close enough to feel the spray but not too close to get so as to get drenched. He seemed overwhelmed by the presence of other kids. Sensing his discomfort, Sandy took his hand. She felt a little awkward being the only adult at the splash pad.
With a firm grip on her hand, TJ walked around the outer edge of the splash pad. A little boy in green shorts waved at TJ.
“Come on, it’s fun!” he said, as he ran towards a small group of four boys.
Sandy overheard their conversation.
“I’m 8 years old,” said the boy in green shorts who had waved at TJ.
“I’m 9 years old!” said a boy in red swim shorts.
“No, you’re not. You’re tiny!” replied the 8 year old.
“I’m bigger than you!” said the 9 year old pointing to him.
“No, you’re not!” replied the 8 year old, sounding somewhat offended.
Little boys, thought Sandy, smiling inwardly.
“It’s just that you have a really big head!” the 8 year old added, coming up close to the 9 year old. The other boys laughed. Buoyed by the other boys’ laughter, the 8 year old added, “Have you looked at your face in the mirror?”
Sandy cocked her head. The lighthearted tone of the boys had changed to something darker.
The 9 year old fell silent. He seemed to know this was a trick question. The 8 year old proceeded to let out a string of expletives that made Sandy gasp. Sandy looked down at TJ who was thankfully oblivious to what had just been said. Sandy looked around. The other parents were too far away to hear anything. Sandy began to move away from the boys, unsure of what was about to unfold, if anything.
The other boys were hollering and began to circle the 9 year old, like predators stalking prey. The eight year old, who was emboldened by his ‘grown up’ talk, continued with expletives which rolled off his tongue with ease. Clearly, this was not new to him.
“Why do you swear so much?” asked the 9 year old. Before the 8 year old replied, the 9 year old continued, “I know, it’s because you have nothing to say!”
Good for you! Sandy cheered silently.
Furious, the 8 year old let out more expletives then added, “Look in the mirror. Look at the color of your skin!” The other boys laughed. “You’re weird and you speak a weird language!” the 8 year old added, with more expletives for added effect.
Sandy gasped. The 9 year old deflated visibly. Unable to speak, he turned around and walked away.
Sandy looked on as the boy walked to his mother. Sandy didn’t know if she should do or say anything. “Come on TJ,” she said. She walked towards the 9 year old’s mother. Weren’t kids just being kids? Weren’t they just being silly. The 9 year old was in tears.
“Can I speak to you?” Sandy said through her mask.
The 9 year old’s mother looked up. “Excuse me?” she asked, angry at being interrupted at the moment when she was trying to speak to her clearly distressed son.
“Some boys have said some unkind things to your son,” Sandy said to her.
“Why would they do that?” his mother asked. After a brief conversation, Sandy scooped TJ in her arms and walked away.
Elsie looked around for an unoccupied seat in the shade. The central seating area, covered by a tarp, was fully occupied taking into account the new social distance requirements.
She moved towards a bench that was next to the splash pad. At least the water spray would provide some relief from the scorching heat.
She sat down, took off her mask and glanced beside her. An old man sat by himself on the bench beside her, watching those around him. She reached for her water bottle which she had filled with ice. It had all melted but was still deliciously cold. She reached for her Kindle. She tried to read, but she could not see the contents on the screen because of the sunlight. She turned it off. At least she was out of the house after all those weeks of lockdown. The sun, hot as it was, fresh air and the sound of human voices were all welcome.
Elsie watched the children in the splash pad. They ran in and out, hesitant at first, then ran headlong into the water. All the Covid protocols disappeared in an instant. There was a group of small boys, showing off to each other as little boys did. Elsie smiled inwardly. She thought back to the days when her sons were so young and carefree. That was a long time ago. They were both grown now, trying to make a life for themselves. She was nostalgic about the past, but only for a moment. Raising children was hard, so many decisions to make and the knowledge that no matter what you did, they would make their own choices, with or without your approval.
“Hey, Alex, look at me!” said a little boy in blue shorts to a boy in green shorts.
“That’s nothing Tom, I can run faster than you!” said Alex zipping in and out of the jets of water. Two other boys joined them.
“Hey, my Dad is teaching me to drive!” yelled one of the boys.
“Liar!” replied Alex and Tom.
Little boys, Elsie thought.
A fifth boy walked towards the group. He seemed older and hesitant yet eager to be part of the group. “Hey,” he said, waving shyly to one of the boys.”Hey Ali,” Tom replied. This greeting seemed to boost his confidence and soon he was running in and out of the water with the rest.
“I got a new game on my xbox,” Ali said.
“Cool,” said one.
“I’ve got hundreds of new games!” Alex boasted. On and on it went.
Elsie watched as a young mom walked towards the splash pad with her son. Her son seemed hesitant, maybe he was overwhelmed, Elsie thought. Eventually, the little boy and his Mom made their way to the edge of the splash pad and lingered there. The boys were getting louder and louder. Elsie then heard Alex launch into expletives which were shocking even to Elsie who used expletives liberally. Shortly thereafter, Elsie saw Ali walk to his mom, followed by the young mom and her son. After a brief conversation, the young Mom left with her son.
Ali’s mother got up from her seat looking like a wounded beast and headed to the splash pad towards Alex and Tom. She spoke to the boys and they pointed towards their mothers. Ali’s mother went to Alex’s mother to let her know what had happened. Alex’s Mom shrugged and seemed to say, “it’s not a big deal.”
Visibly upset, Ali’s mother went over to Tom’s mother and told her what happened. Tom’s mom walked over to the splash pad, grabbed Tom by the hand, reprimanded him and led him to Ali and his mom.
Elsie concluded that something had been said or done and someone offended. She shook her head in disgust. Adults should stay out of kids’ business, she thought. Kids said absurd things all the time without much thought. Parents who intervened in kids' skirmishes only made their children weaker. Besides, in life people would say lots of things about you, true or untrue. It was good to learn that at an early age. Just deal with it, Elsie thought.
Patrick was glad to be outdoors. The park bench by the splash pad at Pine Tree Community Centre was not his ideal spot, but it would do. He would rather be doing laps in the indoor pool but the facility was still closed until further notice. So much fuss and inconvenience, he thought.
Patrick looked around. There were mostly families with young kids, the parents clearly eager to have their children play outdoors despite the scorching temperatures. He felt sorry for parents. He did not like children and had none. Children cost you a lot of money, they were ungrateful, noisy and inconsiderate.
Patrick watched as a lady sat beside him. She took her mask off, grabbed her water bottle and pulled out her kindle. Patrick shook his head disapprovingly. Why waste a good spot by coming out to stare at your device? Couldn’t you do that at home? He looked around at the parents with their heads down as their fingers scrolled their phones. They should have just dropped the children off, Patrick thought, instead of pretending to be present.
He did not despise technology and agreed that it had its uses. What he deplored was how it had taken over the world and replaced common sense. Recently, he needed to have some lab work done by his doctor. Off he went as usual to the lab, only to be stopped at the door.
“You need to book an appointment online,” a lab technician at the door said.
“I’m already here. Can you book the appointment? What if I don’t have a computer?” he asked.
“Sorry, “ the lab technician said, “call our customer care number.”
Then, there was online shopping. Patrick thought it was akin to rolling dice in a board game. You were hoping for a six but got two, three or four. That was the same with online shopping. You hoped that you would receive what was advertised. Oftentimes, what came was not what you expected. Then there was the nightmare of returns, exchanges and refunds. He shuddered at the thought.
Patrick watched the kids in the splash pad. They were loud and said the most outrageous things, trying to show off to each other. Patrick didn’t think back longingly to his childhood. He was small and scrawny when he was younger and got picked on alot. Six decades later, he detested bullies.
He saw a woman with her clingy son at the edge of the splash pad. She stuck out like a sore thumb, awkwardly trying to keep her distance from other children while holding her son’s hand. According to Patrick, playgrounds were for children not adults. Needless coddling of a child was a sign of poor parenting. This child would not perish from having to endure a bit of cold water.
As he was watching the little boys, Patrick overheard one of the boys who had on green shorts, swear appallingly and speak rudely to another boy. Patrick was shocked. What a foul mouthed child! How utterly disgraceful, Patrick thought.
Moments later, Patrick saw the boy who had been spoken to so appallingly, head over to his mom, followed by the woman and her clingy son. Having explained to the offended boy's mother what had happened, the woman turned to the 9 year old and said, “You were very brave. You stood up for yourself.” The 9 year old smiled weakly through the tears.
“Thank you!” his mother replied.
Patrick was a crusty old man, who was rarely moved. Maybe, he admitted to himself, he had misjudged the woman and her son.