COLUMN: August 30, 2012

I SAT on the bench in the children’s playground and put my hand in the picnic bag. All the grown-up crisps were gone, taken by ingrate children who had paid no heed to the iron law that thick crinkle-cut crisps have an 18 certificate.

All that was left was a packet of Quavers. I pretended to be disappointed, but secretly I was pleased. I know I am supposed to like thick crinkle-cut crisps. After all, the packet is designed to appeal to men, real men with beards and axes and B.O.

But as I get older I find I have less to prove, and thick crisps are more like hard work than a treat. Shards get stuck in my teeth, and it is difficult to explain in public the facial expressions produced when one is attempting to use one’s tongue to dislodge them. The only thing more difficult to dislodge is the type of mini plectrum one often finds in apples and which goes straight for the gum.

Give me a highly-processed melt-in-the-mouth potato – or maize-based snack any day. They are far less pretentious and far less trouble. Or so I thought.

I opened my packet of Quavers and began to munch them contentedly, yet mildly envious of the playground before my eyes. When I was a child, I felt lucky if a playground had two swings. Now children have something like a Krypton Factor assault course to play on.

“I’m allowed to have those crisps.”

I turned. I was being addressed by a dark-haired girl of no more than five years of age, wearing huge sunglasses and a little hair clip.

“Me too,” I said, unnecessarily. Perhaps I didn’t want her to think I’d stolen them, or obtained them in an underhanded way. It is important to set a good example.

“I really like those crisps. They’re really, really nice,” she said.

I knew where this was going, and I didn’t like it.

“Oh,” I said, in my most non-committal voice, i.e. my normal voice.

“Can I have one of your crisps?”

I was inclined to give her a Quaver. Yes, I do like them, but I am willing to spread them about. I am not a monster. Besides, I admired, without sharing in any way, her go-getting girl scientist spirit. One day, I thought, this girl is going to be my boss. I started to move the packet in her direction.

And then I realised that I was in danger of being pegged as a strange man on a park bench attempting to give a five-year-old girl a crisp. I am not hugely concerned with my image, but some impressions can be downright dangerous.

“Um, is your mummy here?” I asked, very loudly, not entirely for her benefit.

“No,” she said. “Can I have a crisp?”

“Garp!” I said.

“There you are!” A woman appeared.

“This man said he’d give me a crisp,” said the little girl.

“I didn’t!” I cried, possibly a little forcefully.

“Erm, she’s welcome to have a Quaver. Now that you’re here…” I said to the mother, anxious to appear simultaneously generous of spirit but also not a paedophile.

“Oh, she’s always doing that,” said the mother. “Asking strangers for food while we’re out.”

“Right,” I said, “Have you ever considered feeding her yourself?”

The mother gave me a black look and took her daughter away.

I felt rather disturbed by the whole business. On one level, it was reassuring to think that I was so unthreatening a prospect to this child that she was happy to demand crisps from me. But on another level, I could have been the worst person she could have approached. And it felt rubbish to live in a world where that second thought is considered perfectly normal.

Why did I have to be reminded of that, I thought? It was bad enough I wasn’t allowed on the climbing frame because I am “too big”.

Anyway, I have learnt my lesson. In future I will only be eating grown-up crisps in public. I might not enjoy the experience, but at least it will protect me from vigilante beatings.

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