My 6 year-old daughter’s birthday present is a new bike. It is pink, of course, with Disney Princess decorations on it, and I have added shiny new stabiliser wheels. She is excited and can’t wait to go out on it, so at the first opportunity we go to the park. It is the first sunny, warm, day we have had this year, and we must make the most of it. We cross the Ormeau road at the lights, and enter by the Park Road gate. She pedals furiously, racing me to various lamp posts, trees, and benches. Try as I might, she always manages to win somehow; we agree that this is amazing. As we pass the enclosed play area with its slides, climbing frames, and zip line, I notice that the entrance is blocked off by temporary high metal fencing. A sign says that there are refurbishment works going on, and the place is closed. There are no workers in there today though, and it looks finished. The wee girl looks disappointed, but then points out to me that there are kids in there, so I assume that the other gate is open. We do a tour of the park to give the bike a good run, and finish our circuit on the other side of the playground.
This entrance is closed off as well. Inside there are around ten children and two men. Opposite us, beside the other gate, there are three women standing at the low fence. We both instantly understand what is happening, and in a flash my daughter has monkeyed her way over the fence and is waiting for me on the other side. I lift her bike over and then climb in easily myself. She quickly makes friends with another girl the same age, and they play together. I help them on the zip line, although there is little need; they just want me there to give them a wee push – not too much though, I am warned. I ham it up a little and they squeal with feigned terror as they sail at a leisurely pace down the line. They return straight away for more of the same, admonishing me for my reckless behaviour; I respond by pretending I’m going to push them really fast. It’s a well-rehearsed and essential part of the game to keep the drama going like this. After a while the girls grow tired of the zip line and start on the climbing frame; I am now superfluous. Some older kids call me over to help them get their bikes back over the fence, so I stand on a seat and pass the machines awkwardly over to the mothers on the outside. My good deed completed, I join another father at the seating area, and we start to chat. We concur that it is a crime to close the park on a lovely day like this; we don’t get such great weather in Belfast all the time.
We pass around fifteen minutes talking in this way, until over his shoulder I see a small van bearing the livery of the City Council pull up on the footpath, its hazard lights flashing. A man in blue overalls and a fluorescent orange high-visibility jacket steps out onto the path, surveying the situation. He doesn’t approach us, but takes out a mobile phone, dials, and speaks into it. He then climbs back into the van. I point him out to my compadre: it looks as if our moment of stolen freedom will soon be coming to an end. I wonder who the groundsman has called. Not the police, surely? My question is soon answered: another van arrives and an identically-attired man disembarks to confer with his colleague. They look nervously in our direction, and take no action. We stare at them defiantly; it is a Mexican Standoff. Our kids play on in the sunshine, joyously oblivious to the mounting tension. Ten more uneasy minutes pass before their boss arrives in a car. After a brief discussion with his troops, he makes his move. The ties to the temporary gate are cut, and the counter-revolutionaries enter, calling to the parents to take their children and leave; they are about to start work. My daughter is aware of the implications of this incursion, and makes a break for the zip line; I follow more slowly. She manages to squeeze three more rides out of it before the boss arrives, and one more while he and I talk. He explains that the work is unfinished, and that we can’t be in there while it’s still a building site. He is apologetic; knows it is a beautiful day, has kids himself. I ask what remains to be done, and he points out the new soft rubber ground covering that is being laid around the climbing frames. By now the playground has emptied; we are the last to go. He holds the gate open for us, and my child bursts through on her bike, racing me to the gate. Behind us a compressor starts up, and the men get down to work for the remainder of the afternoon. I am happy with our illicit time in the sun: the children played, and now the renovations are finally getting done. It wasn’t a Mexican Standoff after all: more like a small victory. ¡Viva la Revolución!