Birthday Party

John. Information Technology Engineer. Wants: babysitting Offers: Computer fixing.

Paula called him. She needed help in buying a computer and then she wanted it connected to the internet. At the time, only a fraction of the population had internet at home, and that was always via the phone line – either there was a phone conversation or an internet connection. They used the same line.
Paula had to get the phone line first. Then a phone. Then the guy, for fifty monetary units an hour, offered her advice on computer model and software to get. Even about the companies that were offering internet connectivity. Fifty an hour, noted Paula. She would have to look after his children for five ours in order to pay on of his hours. But it was worth it.

For her five hours were spent at a party. She was going to help John’s wife with the birthday party of one of their two children. Paula went there by bike. Her first trip on her new – or rather, newly acquired bike. It was awkward to bring her whole bag, and the A-Z book with her, and stop every few hundred metres, to check where she was, check the names of the streets on the street signs, check the names on the book. But she got to their house. She locked her bike with her new lock (this was new) to a tree outside – no stands for bikes in this residential posh street.
The birthday boy was three. Paula had been asked to arrive well before anyone would be due, but John’s mother was already there.
“Please do let me know if I am on your way, darling”, said John’s mother to John’s wife, Serena. John’s wife was cheerful and easy-going; she made every one feel at home.
Paula helped unwrap the ready-made pieces of a meal for the children. Serena explained to Paula where to put each part of the meal. That was not how it would be distributed, for she was only preparing it all at home, but everything would go to the local community centre, which she had hired for a few hours to have the party for her son there. She explained to Paula that her son was allergic to some foods, therefore what he would eat would be different from what every one else in the party would eat. Her daughter, although younger than the rest of the party guests that were expected, would be in the party as well, together with other brothers and sisters of the other children who would come. Again, there was a set of food for Serene’s daughter and another set of food for every one else. Once she had explained all this to Paula, she got out a piece of paper. It was the schedule of the party. From three to four there would be the welcome, with toys from the local community centre itself scattered all over the floor. Then would be the meal, which Paula would help get out of the trays while the children were playing, on a table a bit far away from the playground. That would be from four to five. Then at five, a clown would come, then a singer with a guitar to sign songs for the children.
Once everything that could be prepared at home was ready, they proceeded to move everything to the community centre. John was taking the kids with him on the car, together with most of the food, in trays, and things like confetti and plastic plates. There were some bulky things, like a bag full of small present bags, that needed to be carried on foot. Serene and Paula walked with these items. When they got to the community centre, John had her daughter on his arms and was carrying her inside – she was dressed in her fancy dancer costume and her ballerina shoes needed to keep away from the dirt of the street, so strict instructions had been to not allow her to step on the street on those shoes.
Paula started to prepare the plates for the children as Serena had instructed her while social activity was buzzing around her. John tried to help too, but he soon got swallowed by all the social requirements. One of them was to record the whole event on video. Serene for her part, had a little photo camera, also latest model, and took the occasional photograph, of the moment she deemed best.
The parents arrived. With their children. Every kid brought a perfectly wrapped present to the birthday boy, with a perfectly sealed card. Every card was opened and thanked. Then every card was left carefully attached to the present had come with, and then every present was left unopened.
“We will open the presents later at home, darling. Otherwise it will be a bit messy here.”
The birthday boy didn’t protest, and if he did he did so completely imperceptibly for Paula to notice. It was not a big deal anyway – all his friends were in the playground and all the toys of the community centre were in the playground too! There were small cars with huge sits and huge wheels, plastic horses to ride, even an inflatable castle. There were smaller toys too, like puzzles or simple musical instruments. All for themselves. For an hour.
It was all so programmed, so fixed. It left no room for improvisation. The kids seemed passive consumers of the entertainment to Paula, used to look at whichever direction they were told. No one protested when the time with the toys was up. They had a table full of food anyway. Or not so full. There were packets of crisps alongside them that the kids could eat from, but most of the food available was already neatly distributed in their individual small plastic plates. Fish fingers, chicken fingers, some peeled and chopped fruit, ham, bread. The birthday boy wanted to eat from the plates of his friends because his food was so different from theirs. He was probably feeling left out of the uniformity of their plates. His mother stopped him. He could only eat the chicken fingers and the crisps already on his plate. Serena explained to the other mothers that her child had so many allergies, he could only eat very specific food.
The parents stood around the community centre, against the walls, watching their children eat and generally having a good time.
Before anyone would have time to get bored with their food, the cake arrived. Paula had not needed to help with that one. It had been ordered to some specialist shop, and tailor-made. It had the birthday boy’s name and the number of year he had lived so far drawn on it, with childish calligraphy. Serena took various pictures of the cake. It took a great effort to keep the children’s hands off the cake while she was taking the pictures and she had to get angry at a few of them. Then they were allowed to taste it. For that, she took the cake away, put it on a table for easier cutting, and made the children queue orderly for it. While John duly filmed the whole process with his video camera, Paula stood there with plates on her hands, handing them to Serena, one by one, and then putting them on the table so that the children would not just eat their cakes randomly around the playground.
At the stipulated time, the clown made his appearance. All the children left their plates on the table, whether they had been emptied or had some cake piece left, and sat on the floor to watch the clown’s performance.
Then came the singer and guitarist. The singer made a point of getting the children to sign with her, and it felt like the kids finally could actively participate in the whole affair.
Then again at the stipulated time, the party was over. Before they left, and as a form of goodbye, Serena made the kids stand on a queue so she could give them their present bags. Paula had not helped with this either; they had been purchased like this from the sweets shop.
Finally every one was gone. Again John got her daughter on his arms so she could get on their car without stepping on the street, while John’s mother, Paula and Serena made sure they were leaving the community centre as tidy and clean as they had found it. Luckily, Paula thought, a few women who sounded like employees in the centre itself helped them in this task, telling Serena and the rest where things should be left once cleaned.
Paula arrived back at John’s and Serena’s house quite exhausted. She thought that had been it and she could leave, but that was not it. Serena got the presents from a huge bag and put them on the floor. The birthday boy could not hide his excitement, but he was too exhausted to keep up his smile, and that was not a present-unwraping exercise per se anyway.
“Please, darling, don’t make a mess. Don’t open a second present before I have finished with the first one. I ‘need’ to write down who has given you which present, otherwise we won’t be able to write proper thank you notes. Oh, last year”, she was now addressing Paula, “it was such a nightmare. He unwrapped all the presents before we could realise what he had done and we could not figure out who had given him what. It was so difficult to write the thanks notes.”
So now Paula realised, came the task of writing some kind of note for every one who had given him a present.
Serene started with the task of opening up each present and putting it back in the wrapping with secretarial efficiency. The little boy wanted to help by opening presents the way children do.
“Oh, don’t tear off the paper, darling. It will be so difficult to put it back together again with all the paper destroyed. No, darling, you can’t play with the toy little Jimmy has given you. We need to put it back in its box. Yes, all the pieces, darling. And now we need to open this one. No, not yet, darling. Let me see the card attached to it first. Oh, little Lorna. So this is little Lorna’s. Let’s see what she has given you. A puzzle.” Paula’s task was to write down the kind of present next to the name of the kid who had given the present. “No, darling, you can’t play with the puzzle either. We need to check the next present now.
The birthday boy soon grew tired of the exciting task turned into a chore by her mum and John eventually put both children to bed while Serene and Paula got on with the administrative task.

Trueque. LETS

en castellano más abajo

Paula always remembered Aisha in several occasions more but she was especially grateful for what she had taught her every time she had to move house and had to look for things like where the church or the market were.

Paula’s land lady was surprised that she asked her where the library was. People usually asked her where the pub, the shops, the gymnasium were; sometimes even the church. Paula had learned, thanks to Aisha, that the most interesting and least commercial things of the neighbourhoods of London were announced in the libraries.

Registering was one of the first things that she did. Also, with almost the same excitement that she found the fair trade store two years earlier, she found a group of exchange-without-money. People who exchanged services or things, services or things, as Luna had explained.
She wrote to the address that was on the cardboard note on the bulletin board ‘of the Community’ and she was sent a few forms in which she had to say what it could offer and what she needed. She offered translation services which then turned out that nobody needed, but when he was sent the confirmation of her subscription and with her what other people offered and required, and this encouraged her to offer assistance at festivals and occasional babysitting services.


Paula se acordó en varias ocasiones más de Aisha pero especialmente agradecida de lo que le había enseñado estuvo cada vez que se mudó de casa y tuvo que aprender a buscar cosas dónde estaba la iglesia o el mercado.

La casera de Paula se sorprendió de que le preguntara dónde estaba la biblioteca. La gente le solía preguntar dónde estaba el pub, las tiendas, el gimnasio, a veces hasta la iglesia. Paula había aprendido, gracias a Aisha, que las cosas más interesantes y menos comerciales de los barrios de Londres estaban anunciadas en las bibliotecas.
Inscribirse fue una de las primeras cosas que hizo. Además, con la misma emoción con la que encontró la tienda de comercio justo dos años antes, encontró un grupo de trueque. Gente que intercambiaba servicios o cosas, tal como había explicado Luna.
Escribió a la dirección que ponía la cartulina pegada al tablón de anuncios “de la comunidad” y le enviaron unos cuantos formularios en los que debía decir lo que podía ofrecer y lo necesitaba. Ofreció servicios de traducción que luego resultó que nadie necesitaba, pero cuando le enviaron la confirmación de su suscripción y con ella lo que ofrecía y requería otra gente, se animó a ofrecerse como canguro ocasional y ayudante en fiestas.