Cockroach in Wonderland

Spring has definitely sprung: the terrace tables are out for good and it is now impossible to know what to wear of a morning, given the teeth-chattering cold in the shade but the bite of approaching summer in the sunshine. Blossoms are out all over the city providing a backdrop of festive, candy-floss pink trees. Easter Saturday saw the Retiro bursting with activity and mad march silliness. My mother was over visiting, and we decided to take a relaxing stroll through the park. Yet the further in we went the more bizarre it became, like the onset of a hallucination, slowly at first, a few odd details glanced out of the corner of an eye, leading eventually to full-on visual mayhem.

First there was the posh but tacky family, on a scale of Strange only reaching about 2.5. The eight or nine year old daughter was skipping along in jodphurs and ballet pumps while the father wheeled a colour-co-ordinated pushchair. Over his shoulders there was a pillar-box red jumper slung in an Italian sort of way. Bryl cream kept his thick waves of hair swept back off his face. The mother tottered a few paces behind them in what were clearly expensive clothes which she managed to make tarty: the heels a little too high, the skirt a little too short and the fur collar a little too wide.

We entered the Palacio de Cristal, a wonderful glass structure a bit like a giant birdcage. There are sometimes exhibitions inside, but today there was a new gardening project underway so we popped in to take a look. It was certainly innovative. The main attraction was a round flowerbed about the size and shape of a traffic roundabout, which had been cultivated into a woodland knoll stuffed with ferns, midget daffodils and lily of the valley. On its grassy hump was a mini fir tree and then a bank of verdant moss, and nestling in the moss were several giant pumpkins. They gave the installation a kind of Jack and the Beanstalk, dreamlike quality. The centre of this rural fantasy was so idyllic and green that it made you want to climb up and lie down among the flowers, transported to the heart of a fairy story or a mythical English glade in summertime. There were people queueing to have photos taken of themselves with the pumpkins, and one camp young man insisted that he have his picture taken as he grinned for the camera like a ballroom dancer, hugging a pillar with his head thrown back and one foot cocked behind him.

Leaving the fairy tale greenhouse we walked up to the lake and the lakeside promenade which was bustling with activity.

‘What’s that?’ asked my Mum, pointing to a short figure with an oddly-shaped head dressed in a black cloak.

‘It looks like a midget Darth Vader.’ I replied, as though they are a common sight in Madrid. We began to feel the approach of a fit of giggles, rumbling up from the belly like bubbles rising in a glass of cava. We were approaching the ´living statue/children’s entertainment’ zone. Next on the conveyor belt, Larry, there was a dancing tranny with exaggerated breasts and buttocks that bounced with every movement. She wore a short, brightly-coloured sundress with canary yellow tights and a bubble-perm wig. She danced samba for a very long while with a solemn toddler who beat time with a sword made from a balloon, and who, when she stopped dancing, tried to take his change back out of the hat on the ground, only to be dragged away by his parents. As we walked away we passed a portrait artist sitting on a low folding stool by his stall. He was dozing with his head in his hand, and as we approached he nodded off and almost keeled face-forward onto the floor, jerking awake with a confused grunt and perfect comic timing.

The next part of our walk was the stage of the hallucination where you realise you are seeing weird things. Really weird things, and it starts to mess with your head a bit. The lakeside path began to fill up with life-sized cartoon characters who were actually people in ill-fitting costumes. It was as though someone had raided the costume cupboard of some provincial rep theatre that specializes in panto, but that is experiencing financial and artistic difficulties. The fur looked as though it hadn’t been dry-cleaned for a very long time, and has lain mouldering at the back of the cupboard. There was something seedy about the outfits, details which were only slightly ‘off’ but made for a visually disturbing effect. Winnie the Pooh, for example, had a wrongly-shaped head, too angular and bullet-shaped, making him look aggressive as a U.S. military hawk. Minnie Mouse had a grubby dress and puffy, stained shoes. Later on there was a creature that could have been a bear or could have been an otter. Either way it had no snout and a startled expression, and the face was squashed and mis-shapen as though someone had tried to kick its head in. But he had nothing on the Easter Bunny Nemesis who was so sinister it sent my mother and I fleeing down the path in a fit of nervous giggles that finally erupted. But more of him in a moment.

I have seen these ‘performers’ before in Madrid, they can sometimes be seen wandering around forlornly looking for children to hand out balloons to. In fact, I have had a run-in with one of them, and a close friend has witnessed a run-in with one of the others. I imagine it’s a stressful job, having to look like an anonymous buffoon every day. All work is prostitution of some kind, but this must mean really bending over and taking it on a daily basis. They must come in for a good deal of flack. Picture a bright sunny Saturday. I was being visited by a Swedish friend who lives in London. We had spent the morning smoking grass and then went for a walk near the Prado. At the crossing opposite us was one of these ‘bad’ animated characters, a really bad Bart Simpson with a lop-sided head. I made some comment like ‘Oh Jesus, not him. Look at the state of that! What a shitty Bart.’ and poor ‘Bart’ obviously overheard us, spoke enough English to understand and was aware of our stoned giggles. As he passed us on the level crossing in the middle of the road humming with impatient traffic he exclaimed, with a strong hispanic accent,

‘Yeah? Well fuck you!’ which of course, made our day and led to almost pant-wetting laughter. We had been insulted before lunchtime by a shitty Bart Simpson. Sublime.

The other set-to was more disturbing and I wasn’t even there. But I can visualise it. This was related to me by a close gay friend who saw Mickey Mouse one day in the Retiro being taunted by a group of passing teenagers: Mickey was wearing the top half of his fusty costume accessorized with shiny tracksuit bottoms, and as the teenagers jeered at him he grabbed a handful of cock and balls and shook it at them, which I can only assume is an insult. According to my friend it was an ample handful, and, after glancing round to check no small children had been subjected to this obscenity, he decided that he found it strangely sexually arousing and wrong all at the same time, as it was, obviously still Mickey Mouse.

But back to the Easter Bunny’s Nemesis. This was by far the creepiest and most unsettling of the beasts. As though we were referring to the Observer book of exotic shitty full-sized cartoon characters, we identified him as being of the squirrel species, though I was then confused by the tail when he turned round. It was nothing like a squirrels’ tail, more like a furry dildo hanging off the back of his outfit, or a claggy turd that refuses to be shaken off. Luxurious and fluffy it was not. So maybe it was a gerbil or some other rodent. Anyway, the front was a hell of a lot scarier than the back. Its expression was intense and manic- Squirrel Nutkin on speed. For no discernable reason it was carrying a Little Drummer Boy drum in front of it, and attached to its neck at the front, almost like the prized scalp of an enemy was a cute furry bunny with a miniature drum in its paws. Squirrel Fuckwit crashed and lumbered about the shrubbery, encouraging small children to bang its drum, while my mother and I tried to escape its attention and fled down a nearby path. There was no way we were going anywhere near it. The overall effect was more Donnie Darkoe than Easter Bunny. Had we not been laughing so hard it might at this point have started to turn into a bad headtrip.

The final leg of the walk offered us a moment of pure drama followed by a moment of pure beauty. Which is more than anyone could hope for, I suppose, on a Saturday afternoon. The drama was provided by two Samur employees (emergency medical services) hurtling through the crowds on motorbikes and screeching to a halt near a fountain. Mothers clutched small children to them, people reined in their dogs and there was a lot of milling about, pointing and exclaiming excitedly,

‘He’s over there!’ ‘There he is, with those two women-‘ The medics leapt into action. The casualty turned out to be a small boy who appeared to have fallen over and cut his lip, hiding behind his mother’s skirt and now devouring an ice-cream with nothing more serious than a tearful expression. So nobody died, there’s nothing here for you to see. You can all go about your business now. But everybody loves a drama, especially here.

The beauty in the midst of this heaving colourful circus was offered to us by a violinist playing Stravinsky and Vivaldi. He was excellent, far too good to be playing in the park, but times are hard, and who knows why people resort to anything. The most gorgeous detail was the group of toddlers sitting in a semi-circle right under his nose, almost as close as you could get, staring up at him and listening with rapt attention. Who says children have no taste? Not one of them fidgeted or got up to leave as he played the Four Seasons. Two small boys edged up even closer to the side of him, commenting to each other on his playing and then standing and watching in awe for a good ten minutes. It was an image that will stay with me, that surprised me in this age of Gameboys, MP3s, online gaming and gadgets I don’t even know the name of. These children were not being made to stay and listen. They could have been looking at midget Darth Vader, giant pumpkins, or at Donnie Darkoe Squirrel, or the dancing tranny, but instead they were entranced by the live classical music. Here was the welcome comedown of the trip, the sobering up, the moment all the pixies stop dancing. Here was something genuine and touching.

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One Response to “Cockroach in Wonderland”

  1. christine Says:

    Side splittingly funny!

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