It's a Saturday morning and my wife, Lavender*, is at work so I bundle up T-Bone and Sea Bass in the old Corolla for the short trip to the Bundoora Park Playspace. To get there one must drive along a narrow and meandering road past several Soviet-era playgrounds containing equipment designed to maim. There is a pole topped with a menacing cartoon face that has two swings attached to it. The idea is that two people sit on either swing then gather up speed by running along to send the device into a treacherous spin. The swings hurl the unharnessed individuals elliptically into the air, then death usually results. Every time I pass this equipment there is a new tribute to someone who has tragically lost their lives, flowers denoting a simpler time when kids could be kids and not burdened by the harsh realities of public liability.
Bypassing what are now the satellite playgrounds we arrive at the Playspace proper, which has been designed more sensibly. There is a pretend horse that sits within a maze, and even he is caged in case he somehow springs to life, takes fright and tramples an unsuspecting toddler.
There are real horses too. In the children's farm next door a depressed Clydesdale drags along a rickety carriage weighed down by families with little regard for animal or human dignity. They excitedly try to elicit a wave from me but I am too mesmerised by the bag attached to the horse's backside that allows for the kind of freedom one can only dream of. Maybe life ain't so bad for the poor bugger after all.
The Playspace has everything you'd expect from a modern park - swings, slides, water pump, things to climb on etc. Sightlines are poor, however, and multiple children exploring the park can force an anxious moment or two on the hapless parent. There is also an escape route through the adjoining cafe into the farm or carpark. For some parents with well-trained and obedient children this won't be an issue, but for my wife and I it is. T-Bone sometimes comes back with packs of chips or ice creams liberated from the cafe and we'll have to return the item while giving him a publicly audible lecture on acceptable behaviour. Not so much for his sake, but for our own - attempting to save face and look like responsible parents in front of others, all the while knowing that some messages, no matter how many times they are repeated, just don't sink in with kids like T-Bone who are on the autism spectrum.
Speaking of the cafe, readers should note that the scones and coffee are of an acceptable standard, but the service generally is not. Indeed the staff seem about as thrilled as the Clydesdale to be plying their trade. I guess without the added bonus of being able to poo whenever and wherever they want, who's to blame them for being a little grumpy.
On the topic of poo – and pardon me for harping on the issue, but with toddlers and pre-schoolers, life tends to revolve around the function – T-Bone does one in the outside toilet adjoining the cafe. A cursory appraisal of the facilities reveals that they are, ahem, bog standard. That is to say, filthy. The way he perches his little backside on the grown up toilet is a feat of gymnastic strength and I can only marvel at his lack of shame as I trot off to collect his brother, leaving the door wide open.
Arriving back with Sea Bass, I shut the door, tidy up matters and the urge strikes me as well. The advent of the smartphone usually aids the process of distraction but internet connectivity is poor in this concrete den and I am left to hope and – though I am not a religious person – pray, that today is not the day these two children's obsession with unlatching and opening anything in sight leads to an audience for what should be a private affair. For if that door were to swing open and I was to meet the gaze of one of those surly lunch ladies, I don't think I would ever be able to go again. Ever.
Thankfully on this occasion the kids are more interested in sticking their fingers down the syringe disposal unit so I am spared any embarrassment. Reward for poo takes the form of banana paddle pop, followed by sugar sachet chaser. Reinvigorated by this hit, T-Bone heads to the playground and says to a girl on the swing, "you're going too high," over and over and over again. I am amazed he has spoken to an unfamiliar child and it occurs to me that maybe these hundreds of hours he has spent in therapy are making a difference. The repetitive language we can work on later.
Daddy's tired and it's time to leave what I call "Fundoora Park", though even at the ages of two and four, they seem to know, as you do, that this is a lame gag.
* not her real name.