Donkey Days

Carousel horse with green saddle, decorated with roses

“No,” I said with a shudder. “Absolutely not.”

Two mutinous small faces looked up at me and blue eyes glared. Rosie crossed her arms and scowled.

“You’re rotten.”

“Yeah,” added George, his face all pink and cross. “The rottenest mum at the fair, so there.”

“The rottenest mum in the whole world,” Rosie said wildly.

I stood my ground, even though that was a downtrodden bit of grass struggling to survive under the onslaught of summer holiday crowds.

I knew how it felt. Nothing like bringing up two young children on your own to make you feel as if life were little more than an endurance test. Especially when you were all on holiday together.

“You are both far too young to go on the Terminator anyway,” I pointed out, trying not to lose my cool. “You’d fall out from under the bar and go kersplat on the ground and you wouldn’t like that, would you?”

Rosie dissolved into laughter.

“Let Georgie go on it – and then we could scrape him up and have raspberry jam for tea!”

“My name’s George, not Georgie, you great, daft, Barbie doll,” George shouted and started to hit her with his hamburger so that the onions were sent flying all over the place.

Honestly, anyone would think they’ve been dragged up in the gutter instead of in a tatty two-up and two-down which is all I could afford when their father walked out on us.

I really despair sometimes, especially now that the happy years of being content with donkey rides and making sandcastles were over.

“You never let us go on anything decent.”

Sulks all round and claiming they were bored, in spite of all the exciting rides and stalls that made up this fairground by the sea and which everyone, apart from ourselves, seemed to be enjoying.

I plodded on after them as they ran from one money-grabbing attraction to another.

If the kids were so obnoxious now, I thought fearfully, what were they going to be like when they became teenagers in a few years?

“Look, Mum, you have to let us go on that!” George shouted with excitement as we stood there looking up at a seriously stomach-churning ride on something called The Whip.

“Oh no, George, please,” I whimpered. It was enough to give you whiplash just looking at it.

I knew I shouldn’t have had that last hot dog, it was definitely adding to the queasiness I felt just looking at the metal horror.

I wouldn’t mind, but I was still recovering from the bumper cars where George had seemed to be on a mission to seek and destroy everything in his path.

Were all children as aggressive as my two?

There was a real scrum around the man in charge of dishing out the tickets and taking the money. Two of the boys were being really obnoxious and behaving, I was surprised to see, even more horrendously than my George.

“You wonder where you went wrong don’t you?” said a male voice gloomily behind me.

“They’re yours?”I asked sympathetically, turning round to look at the voice’s owner.

He was worth looking at too, I realised. Tall, blond and strong, he looked as if he could move mountains. Not in the slightest bit handsome, but attractive all the same.

“And we’ve two dogs and a cat at home,” he added, sighing.

“That’s tough,” I commiserated. “At least we only have a hamster.”

We continued to watch the scene in front of us. The children were still all pushing and shoving to get on the ride, but were told they would have to wait for the next one.

“Will,” the blond guy said, holding out his hand to shake mine.“Widower.”

“Will what?” I was bewildered.

“My name,” he said patiently. “Will.”

“Oh. Mandy. Divorcee. And those two horrors are George and Rosie.”

“Jake and Ryan.” He nodded in the direction of his two sons who were kicking each other into the middle of next week, much to the delight of my two.

“It’s lovely to watch children enjoying themselves, isn’t it?” said someone behind both of us.

I turned round fully expecting to see someone being sarcastic, for which I wouldn’t blame them in the least, but, much to my surprise, it was an elderly couple, looking as if they really believed it.

“Er, yes,” I stammered. Will and I looked at each other and I knew we were both thinking they had to be joking!

“These are the best years of their lives – and yours, aren’t they?” the woman said with a smile. “When the children are young and everything is exciting.”

Mm, I thought. The way these kids were behaving, they would be lucky to last until they reached their teenage years, let alone any older.

The couple obviously meant well, though, so I couldn’t be rude.

The elderly gentleman nodded.

“They’re little more than babies, really,” he said, leaning on his walking stick.

Babies? This lot?

“Might as well enjoy them for what they are, plenty of time to get them tough enough to cope with the world later on,” he added.

He must have seen the disbelieving looks on both Will and my faces.

“Children are supposed to be short and childish,” he pointed out with a smile.

Which was true, of course.

“Ssh, Desmond,” the woman broke in. “I must apologise. We didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that it’s so nice to see the whole family out together and enjoying themselves.”

“Oh, we’re not…” both Will and I started to say together, but then we stopped.

We didn’t want to disillusion this sweet old couple.

Let them keep their memories of happy family life. They weren’t to know that Will and I weren’t together, nor that we would give the whole boiling lot of them away just to have a few moments to ourselves.

Failures, both of us, I thought sadly, wondering what the secret of this old couple’s success had been. Perhaps we should ask for some tips.

“Well, enjoy the fair, my dears,” they said, preparing to move away.

“We would,” George spoke up, swinging on my arm, “except that Mum’s a rotten shot on the rifle range so we never win anything.”

“And she’s no good on the hoop-la,” Rosie added. “All I got was this little widdly frog, instead of the great big panda I wanted.”

“But I bet you’re stuffed full of lovely things to eat and have been on lots of rides.” His wife smiled.

“Yes.” Rosie jumped up and down with excitement. “I went on the bouncy castle and Georgie went into the Haunted House.”

“And Ryan was sick behind the caravans and I fell over a cable,” Jake added proudly.

The elderly couple laughed.

“And have you been on the carousel yet, children? We used to go on the merry-go-round every year until we got too old. That was always our favourite thing at the fairground.”

I fully expected at least George to profess that he was far too grown up to go on such a girlie thing, but instead, with enormous pride and surprise, I heard him protest, “You’re not too old, you can have a go now.”

“Can’t get up on the horses with this gammy leg,” Desmond pointed out, “and Madge doesn’t like to on her own.”

“We could come with you and give you a bunk-up,” Jake said in all seriousness.

Rosie chimed in, “If you hold on tight, we’ll make sure you won’t fall off.”

“Oh no, we couldn’t,” the couple began but the kids were having none of it.

Will and I couldn’t believe it. Within what seemed a matter of moments we were all somehow ensconced on plunging carousel horses, The Whip forgotten, and all of us were screaming with laughter and having a great time.

We were all a bit breathless when we came off.

“What a pity we’re all too old to go on the donkeys,” Madge sighed as we made our way together across the green. “Desmond and I love donkeys.”

George nodded solemnly.

“Yes, it was our favourite thing, wasn’t it, Rosie, going on the donkeys when we were young. And making sandcastles on the beach.”

He sighed deeply. “We’re too old for that stuff now, though.”

Will and I glanced at each other and tried not to smile.

“Oh, you’re never too old to make sandcastles,” Madge said quickly.

“And you can make lovely sand sculptures, too. You know, like the ice sculptures they make in China. Dragons and things,” I suggested.

Madge looked like a child herself for a moment, wide-eyed with wonder. Sand sculptures? They clearly hadn’t thought of that.

George and Rosie looked at each other, then they whirled round on Jake and Ryan.

“Bet we can make a better dragon than you,” George boasted.

“Oh yeah? You just be here on the beach tomorrow morning and we’ll see,” Ryan said forcefully, arms akimbo.

“I don’t know -” I began but Will shushed me.

“Listen,” he whispered. “It would be cheaper than forking out more money for rides, and it would be nice to be off my feet for a few hours. Unless you can’t stand the thought of being with me and my family.”

“No, I’d like to, really,” I said, knowing that my cheeks were going pink.

“Perhaps I could take George on The Whip for you,” Will went on, looking happier by the minute. “And try my hand at hoop-la for Rosie.”

“All right,” I agreed with a smile.

We were still gazing rather happily into each other’s eyes when we realised that Madge and her husband were edging away and leaving us to it.

“Wait a moment, please,” my Georgie called and started to run after them. “Will you two come and judge the sand sculptures for us tomorrow? Please.”

He was looking up at them with such a pleading expression on his face that I felt quite proud of him.

“Well,” Madge hesitated.

“I’ll bring a picnic for all of us,” I added quickly. “Please, do join us.”

They nodded happily and went off with a spring in their step.

Then Will and family waved farewell too and set off jauntily across the green as we gazed after them.

It really did look as if Will’s parental shoulders had lost quite a burden. I knew how he felt.

Maybe Madge and Desmond were right. It was so easy to forget that our offspring were just being normal kids – selfish, naughty and… well – childish. Yet those same kids had proved to have kind hearts right when they needed them, and that boded pretty well for the future.

“What a nice day,” said Rosie, taking my hand. “Maybe we could ask the donkey man tomorrow if we could pat them and give them carrots.”

George punched her playfully on the arm.

“And I’ll bring an extra carrot just for you, little donkey.”

“Oh yeah,” she shouted back. “Georgie, Georgie, ugly porgie,” and off they chase along the beach with the sunlight bringing out the shine of their hair, their laughter ringing behind them.

I think it is going to be a very nice holiday, after all.

Enjoy a new holiday-themed short story from our archives every Monday and Thursday during August