Elise Hancock didn’t like children. Oh, she didn’t hate them. She didn’t think they should be seen and not heard (well, not all the time, though there were times she would much have preferred them to not even be seen) and got as angry as anyone else with a glimmer of decency when she heard of a child being abused or neglected. But she just found adult company and adult concerns far more interesting and stimulating, suspected that many of the “cute” things children said, reported in magazines or by their doting parents or guardians were either made up or copied, and photos of children with food smeared faces made her feel slightly sick rather than entranced.
She had never got it that adults waxed lyrical about fondly remembered or recently discovered children’s books, though she was generally too polite to say so. Even when she’d been a child, she hadn’t really liked children’s books much, or had preferred the adult characters. She had a particular aversion to the type of book where a group of children easily outwitted the adults, policemen and teachers included. In real life it just wasn’t like that. Not that she was a natural worshipper of authority.
She was relieved to have found a job, working at the local garden centre, where she didn’t come into too much contact with children. It wasn’t the kind of place where people brought them. Of course it wasn’t entirely immune, and she had to admit that most of them were pretty well-behaved, but a litany of what’s it called, Mummy? and can plants talk, Mummy? was, so far as Elise was concerned, not endearing and not fascinating. She suspected that a fair number of the children knew perfectly well that plants couldn’t talk, and were capable of reading the names, and weren’t remotely interested in either but had been promised an ice cream sundae in the cafeteria if they were good and “took an interest”.
That was another thing. When she was a child, Elise had never quite grasped what was so marvellous about massive portions of melting ice cream that would probably taste the same if you couldn’t see the colours, topped with alpine peaks of cream or fake cream, and adorned with sprinkles. She much preferred a piece of apple pie or some plain chocolate mousse. How much was nature and how much nurture she never entirely knew, but did know that when she was asked round to a friend’s house and served with breaded fish shaped like dinosaurs, though she was well-brought up and ate them, and they tasted okay, her honest reaction was why?
She was equally puzzled by her colleague Tonya’s firmly held belief (and she let people know about it) that hotels or holidays that stated adults only were a disgrace and should be banned. In most cases, they probably wouldn’t appeal to children anyway, though she acknowledged the irony that they would have appealed to her when she was a child. She once said, “But surely it’s their business, they should be able to take who they please,” and Tonya asked, “Would you say that if they banned same-sex couples?” Of course she wouldn’t, but couldn’t help the feeling that wasn’t quite fighting fair.
As was the case with most businesses, the staff of the Daisy Dale Garden centre had to endure training courses and seminars from time to time. So she wasn’t unduly concerned when the manager, Alec, first mentioned a course. They did no harm if they did no good, and every so often did actually come up with something useful. There were exceptions to everything.
Alec was in a state of high enthusiasm. There was nothing unusual about that. Alec could get more ebullient about a new blend of compost than most people could about a trip to the moon. But she stopped half-listening, began listening intently, and then wished she didn’t have to hear it at all. Daisy Dale was going to become more child friendly. It was going to have an adventure playground for the youngest visitors, and a (small) education centre for the older ones. “This is a new and novel and exciting venture,” he said, and Elise was so dumbstruck that she barely even noticed the tautology of new and novel. “Any questions, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked, like an eager puppy.
Elise found her voice. “Alec, do you really think this is a good idea? Is this really the kind of place that interests children?”
“Elise, that’s the whole point! So far, no it hasn’t, much, even though some of them are still keen to ask questions, bless them – but it’s time to improve on that! So that’s why we’re all going on a training course! “
“Oh, come on, Elise, it’s not as if he’s said we have to learn how to lance boils or clean sewers,” Tonya said later on, seeing the dark cloud that had taken up apparently permanent residence on Elise’s expression. “And we do get a weekend at a hotel out of it. I know you think King Herod was much maligned, but lighten up a bit!”
Even though Elise was squeamish, lancing boils or cleaning sewers developed a sudden distinct appeal.
“Mind you, the Roadlodge is hardly a hotel,” Quentin, who ran the café, said, “It’s an office with beds. Still, what’s the harm?”
The harm is that I am going to hate every single minute of it, thought Elise, but something you hate can be endured for a day or even a couple of days. It is not that simple. It is what comes after.
She sounded off on the subject to her mother, who listened with patient good humour. “It’s as well you were an only child, or I might have had a sororicide or fratricide in the house,” she said, unknowingly picking up on Tonya’s King Herod reference, and showing exactly where her daughter got her pedantry from by not simply saying “infanticide”! Elise did not bother to point out to her, as she had not bothered to point out to Tonya, that she wished no child ill. If a child were in danger she would, she supposed, try to help them, just as she would help an adult. But that did not mean she had to regard the prospect of supervising them smilingly as they clambered over plastic trees with anything but abject horror. “Not that I can’t partly see where you’re coming from,” her mother admitted, “To be honest, I was always quite glad you were a bit of a little old woman.”
A bit of a little old woman was hardly a retrospective compliment, but Elise let it pass. She had worse things on her mind. Unfortunately, she had hardly hidden her views on the subject, so if she pleaded flu, they probably wouldn’t believe her, and it wasn’t the flu season anyway. Plus, knowing her luck, she would actually come down with the flu two days later, flu season or not.
Had it been for another purpose, she didn’t even have any problems with the Roadlodge. True, it was never going to win any awards for heritage or archaeology, but the rooms were comfortable and the breakfast buffet (which was, apparently, included) was part of the appeal.
She had been under the misapprehension that the course was only for the Daisy Dale staff, but the Roadlodge was positively swarming with persons who were going to learn how to make their establishments child-friendly. Though she didn’t care for crowds much, she was pragmatic enough to think it might save her from being singled out. But it was scant comfort. After all, her issue, her real issue, wasn’t with the course itself. And she also suspected Alec would have his eye on her. Though his ebullience could be a tad tedious, he was a kind and easy-going boss, but still, his puppy-dog eyes could develop x ray vision when it came to anyone not pulling their weight, and his more in sorrow than in anger talking-tos were an experience best avoided.
On the way to the hotel, she had seriously wondered about handing in her notice. But in her heart she knew she wouldn’t. She liked her work, dammit, and for all their little ways she liked Alec, and Tonya, and Quentin in the café, and Becky, the head nurserywoman, who had, so far as she knew, never yet failed in coaxing an ailing plant back to life. And the area’s economy was still suffering post-pandemic blues– finding another job wouldn’t be that easy. The trouble was, Elise was one of those people who had a good brain and a good degree, and a pleasant manner, but couldn’t actually do anything out of the ordinary, and didn’t have the kind of talents and qualifications a future employer pounced on. She had dropped on lucky at Daisy Dale, and she knew it. She even got pot plants free or reduced. And Elise loved her pot plants.
Elise was resolved not to embody clichés, especially when the general version was in the wrong gender and, being utterly opposed to the death penalty, she was determined not to make jokes about the condemned man. So no, of course, she didn’t eat a hearty breakfast the day the course began. She wasn’t even hungry, she told herself. Coffee, which was available in unlimited quantities, and was very good, was medicinal, wasn’t it? And toast and marmalade, followed by toast and cherry jam, didn’t count as comfort eating, not really, it had fibre and fruit, and protein in the liberally applied butter, and starving herself wasn’t going to achieve anything.
The course began with a lecture, which was tedious, but shorter than she’d hoped. The best thing to do, so the lecturer (who made Alec look positively lethargic, though he was gazing at her with besotted, albeit platonic adoration and admiration) was to get to the task in hand.
There was no need to establish a mock-up of a playground at the Roadlodge. It came with one ready made, outside the on site imitation of a pub, that welcomed children of course but very considerately provided somewhere for them to let off steam. Elise was of the opinion that steam was often best left in, though as they tramped over to the playground, she would have given a fair impression of the Flying Scotsman.
“This will be fun,” Tonya said, and Elise realised that she wasn’t saying it to be annoying, she genuinely did think it would be fun. The playground consisted of what she supposed was the usual playground equipment, but given a theme. Well, of sorts. It appeared to be myths and legends and fairytales, being careful not to break any copyrights or traumatise any toddlers. The slide had a dragon’s head at the top. The seesaw had little metal elves already on the seats to keep the children company, and the swings were watched over by grinning fairies twined round the frame. “Of course, play areas can be adapted to suit your purpose,” the instructor, wearing a vivid yellow name badge that informed people she was called Vikkii said, as if imparting the wisdom of the universe. “Now let me see – we have a group here from a garden centre, so what would be appropriate?”
Weedkiller, thought Elise, and perhaps a Venus Fly Trap. Tonya was already waxing lyrical about daffodils and – of course – daisies. Teacher’s Pet, thought Elise, acknowledging her own hypocrisy, as she’d been accused of being that more than once. At this point, the children arrived – a party of Year One lab rats from the local primary school. Probably most of them had been to theme parks in their time and thought this was pretty inferior, but still preferable to sums. Under Vikkii’s watchful eye, Tonya and Quentin, along with a couple from a local bakers’ shop, were arranging a game of Dragonslide. Well, full marks for imagination and originality, thought Elise. Vikkii seemed to share, nay, surpass, Alec’s capacity for spotting who wasn’t pulling their weight, and bounced over to Elise, leaving the dragonsliders in her willing students’ hands. “Well, how about it, Elise?” she asked. Well, how about it was one of those expressions that meant too much and absolutely nothing. “Why not try to bring that little girl out of her shell?” Why not let her stop in it if she wants to, thought Elise. Feeling like a heretic yielding to the demands of the Inquisition, she went over to the little girl in question. She looked – well, bored! You and me both, thought Elise. “Are you okay, love?” she asked, feeling not unlike a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“Yes, thank you, Miss,” the child, a small, neat, rather world weary looking infant said.
“Don’t you feel like – dragonsliding?” she forced the words out. The little girl turned large, quizzical dark brown eyes on her. “It isn’t a dragon and you KNOW it isn’t a dragon, it’s just a slide and I don’t like slides much. I’d much rather be reading my storybook if we did have a morning off school!”
Now this was interesting. The one person who seemed to be totally in harmony with her was – well, there was no getting away from it – a child!
“Can I tell you something – what’s your name, by the way?”
“My name’s Elise. Well, let me tell you this, Susannah. I agree with you.” A well-mannered child, Susannah didn’t say anything, but her expression made it plain she was waiting for the but that informed her that if she only joined in she’d love it and it would be such a shame to miss this chance. “It doesn’t look much like a dragon, and if I had my way, I’d prefer to be reading, too.”
The look of relief on Susannah’s face was a sight to behold. And that was when Elise decided that if Daisy Dale had to do something like this, then it was as well she was a part of it. She had a duty to children who were like Susannah. To children who were like her.
It was both chastening and comforting to realise that she wasn’t unique at all! It had taken a while, but yes, a child had taught her the lesson!