When I finished my undergraduate Arts degree in 2004, real life started. From that point on, my time was consumed with my demanding teaching course, a stressful new teaching job, marriage and having three children. Because of this, until recently, I hadn’t written anything of substance in ten years, excepting one story: Play Café.
I wrote Play Café in 2009, only a year into being a father for the first time. After visiting a play café with my daughter, I started to notice the politics that existed amongst small children. At this stage, I hadn’t taken her to many playgrounds and I was struck with how young we are when we first experience brutality and inflict it on others. Whoever says children are innocent angels is wrong!
Writing this story marked my first experience of writing for the sake of writing. No one demanded it, I wasn’t completing a course and I didn’t necessarily think anyone would want to read it; I just wrote for fun. I enjoyed the process so much that I vowed to work towards writing in the future. It took another five years, but I have finally reached a point in my life where I have the time and head space to be able to write.
It is not perfect and I have learnt a lot more about writing in the last five years, but I hope you’ll enjoy it!
by Chalky MacLaan
Jessica had only just learnt to speak, so she was chattering to herself, experimenting with the sound ‘eh’ as she lay in the ball crawl. She preferred the sensation of lying on the squashy plastic balls to that of lying on the sand. The absence of water was a benefit as well. As she thought about the beach, a shiver ran up her spine, her little hands started to shake and moisture gathered in the corner of one of her blue eyes. She remembered the way her feet sank in the soft sand and how she couldn’t stay upright.
She rolled over and came to rest on her stomach. She could see her mother’s safe smile through the fence, causing her to forget all about her past misadventures. Her mother nodded encouragingly just as something caught Jessica’s eye in the next section of the play café.
She rolled over on to her back, then kept going onto her front again and repeated this until she was at the edge of the ball crawl. She had experimented a little during her few minutes in the crawl and decided that this rolling action was easier than walking and more fun too.
She pulled herself out and onto her feet and waddled out of the enclosure, past her slowly-caffeinating mother and into the next enclosure.
Jessica was delighted with the sight that lay before her eyes. Cars lined up along the fence; cars that were the right size for her. She let out a delighted giggle and ran up to the first car, her arms outstretched at the ready for exploration.
“Go away,” were the words shouted at her as she was thrown back onto the floor. In the shock preceding the inevitable cry, Jessica had a chance to see what she hadn’t before. A large boy in a red t-shirt was looking down from the very car that Jessica had been investigating. He had small dark eyes that were narrowed in selfish anger, a long, narrow face and a chin that was as sharp as his words. “I said go away girl!”
As a mournful wail emerged slowly from Jessica, the boy decided he hadn’t finished. He slowly moved the little car away from the fence and as the startled Jessica was just getting to her feet again, he bumped into her, knocking her to the floor once more. He then turned his car around abruptly and trundled off to the other side of the enclosure.
The now very confused, upset and red-faced Jessica was still on the floor as her mother came up quietly and scooped her into her arms. Instant calm came over Jessica as she felt the warmth of her mother’s neck against her cheek. However, with this familiar feeling of comfort came a fresh batch of tears.
As she lay in her mother’s arms, listening to the comforting sound of her favourite nursery rhyme being whispered in her ear, Jessica saw an amazing sight. It was like a huge castle. It had slides, trampolines and tunnels. She was itching to go and climb on it, so she started to wriggle.
Her mother placed her on the ground and walked behind her as she made her way to the bottom of the ladder. This was like no other ladder Jessica had ever seen before. It was made of soft cubes placed on a diagonal across a slope. She tried to climb onto the first cube. It was a lot bigger than Jessica was expecting and she struggled madly to try and climb on to it. Eventually, after several seconds of pulling with her arms, wiggling with her bottom and scrabbling with her legs, she finally made it onto the first cube. She was exhausted and looked ahead to see that there were at least two more cubes to go to get to the top.
She then remembered that her mum was standing near by. She held up her hand and it was promptly wrapped in the firm grasp she knew well. In no time at all, Jessica was at the top of the ladder. She now was faced with a choice: would she stay near her mum, go down the slide and then have to climb back up again; or would she go through the tunnel to the left, away from her mum and deep into the castle with all its trampolines and other mysteries?
She stepped up into the tunnel and crawled her way through, stopping only briefly to look out of the port-hole. Soon, she could see the first trampoline, only it didn’t look like any trampoline that she had ever been on in the past. This one extended straight out from the level that she was on, which meant she didn’t have to climb up at all. It was also surrounded on three sides by nets, so Jessica didn’t have to worry about falling over.
As Jessica was just about to step onto the trampoline, she felt a dull thud at the base of her spine. She toppled heavily onto the trampoline. As she landed, she bounced back up into a standing position, just as a dark figure in a red t-shirt rushed out of view around the corner.
Jessica was about to cry, but then she realised that she enjoyed the feeling of bouncing. She walked back to the edge of the trampoline and recreated her bounce from before. She giggled madly and tried the same thing a few more times before she decided to press on with her adventure.
She turned the corner and was confronted with another tunnel. She felt a little apprehensive as her stomach gave a little nervous tickle. She turned back and looked for her mother. She couldn’t see her from here, but was sure that she was still nearby.
With a deep breath, Jessica plunged into the semi-darkness of the tunnel. About half way along the tunnel, Jessica realised that as she crawled, she was getting higher and higher. As she emerged from the tunnel, Jessica looked around through the nets, surveying the castle. Her heart gave a little jump when she realised that she was right at the top.
Immediately, Jessica dropped back onto all fours. Although there was plenty of room to walk upright, she felt much safer with her head closer to the walkway. She crawled slowly around the next corner and then stopped and remained very still.
In front of her was the biggest slide Jessica had ever seen. It went right from where she was standing, down to the ground. The slide was in a long, red tunnel that looked to Jessica like a long wiggly caterpillar.
Jessica was really scared. She had only ever been down little slides, and always when her mother was right there, holding her hand. She looked back towards the way that she had come and then back at the slide. Another choice had to be made. Two small tears began to slide down her cheeks as she pondered, when a small movement caught her eye. Her mother was waving to her at the bottom of the slide. She seemed to have a funny look on her face. Jessica couldn’t tell exactly what it meant, but the sight of her mother calmed her and she now knew what she had to do.
Jessica crawled up to the top of the slide. It was very quiet up here, only the faint murmur of voices could be heard. She sat, her legs dangling onto the slide, waiting for some sort of cue to tell her to go.
Footsteps came thudding up the structure behind her. She turned around quickly and out of habit sprung up, with her back facing the slide.
After turning, the first thing Jessica saw was a red splodge. Then the image of the boy formed quickly around the splodge and Jessica’s heart skipped a beat.
“That’s my slide,” roared the boy. Jessica couldn’t move. The boy’s eyes narrowed so much that they almost disappeared entirely. “Move!” The words thundered around Jessica’s head, but she couldn’t think of what to do. Her thoughts shifted to her mum. She started turning around to look for her mum when she was pushed in the side.
Thunder and tumble and a flood of red.
Round and over and crash and thump.
Jessica’s mum scooped her off of the padded floor at the base of the slide. Silent tears were starting to emerge from Jessica’s frightened eyes.
As she was carried towards the door in her mother’s safe arms, Jessica looked back into the café. She saw the boy get up from a heap at the bottom of the slide. He slowly rubbed his head. He looked around frantically until his eyes stopped. Jessica followed his gaze to a lady over near the back of the café. She was facing the other direction, leaning on a table and talking into a mobile phone.
The boy, after staring for a few moments started to howl. His tears were flowing down on to the foam mat. The lady didn’t flinch or react, but continued to talk to her phone.
Jessica and her mother had now made it to the door and the scene in the café was now out of sight. They walked outside into the bright sunshine.
Cover image: Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net