As I've mentioned before, Whipsnade is a zoo not far from where we live. We go there a lot: the girls love it, as it has lots of animals for them to point at excitedly and a vast adventure playground, and we love it because annual membership is very cheap. Because we are such frequent visitors, it has also been the site of countless incidents of everyday family trauma. I still recall with horror the time the family (including my mother) took my 7-year old niece for a visit to see some 'real live' (i.e not on the television) wild animals, only for her to observe rather more 'animal conservation in action' than we had bargained for: the rhinos chose to celebrate our arrival at their enclosure by engaging in an astonishingly brutal bout of public lovemaking. I don't know if you have ever tried to tear a fascinated 7-year old away from the sight of a pair of bellowing black rhinos going at it, but I can tell you this: neither my wife or mother would have been any help to you whatsoever, because they would have been insensible with laughter.
But I digress: it's the most recent shameful incident at the zoo that I want to talk about....
Because Nini is a 'Friend of Whipsnade' (which just means that she has an annual membership card: it's turns out it's not actually that difficult to become Whipsnades 'friend'; you can buy your way into its affections for about £45 a year) she has been supplied with a discount card that gives her 10% off at the zoo shops and cafes. Almost without fail, she forgets to use it.
But on our last visit, we remembered to use our discount on the restaurant for our 'chipnic'. A chipnic, as the name maybe suggests, is a picnic with extra chips. It has a couple of advantages over the standard, run-of-the-mill picnic in that (a) you get to enjoy some delicious fried potatoes with vinegar and ketchup and (b) you have legitimately purchased food from the restaurant - which means that when the staff jobsworth comes over to your table and tries to tell you that indoor seating is for restaurant patrons only, and that there is plenty of picnic seating outside in the rain, you can triumphantly point at the plate and tell him to go and fetch a damn high chair because the little one needs her lunch...
So, in any case: we bought chips. I queued up to buy them, and used Ninis 'Friends of Whipsnade' card to save a full 42 pence on the asking price. Nini, Amelie and I ate our chips along with our sandwiches, Neve half-chewed her share, then threw the remnants at fellow diners - all was well in the world.
It was when we were packing up to leave that the trouble started. I was trying vainly to restore Neves appearance with a damp cloth, in the hope that she might look more like a little girl rather than some freakish ketchup monster, when I innocently said to Nini: "Don't forget to put your membership card away."
"You've still got it" she replied.
P: "I haven't. I gave it back."
N: "You didn't. I haven't got it..."
P: "I did. I put it down on the tray with the napkins when I brought the chips over."
N: "I don't think you did..."
P: "I did. I am certain. I remember putting it down..."
Nini looked dubious.
N: "Are you sure? You always do this. You are always losing things, and your memory is rubbish... "
P: "My memory is fine."
N: "...and then you insist you've checked, and that I'm wrong, and then it turns out that in fact you were wrong after all..."
P: "I am not wrong. I gave it back to you."
N: "...but by then we have turned the place upside-down, and I have wasted ages and doubted my sanity and you've made me feel like an idiot."
P: "Nini, I gave it back to you. Look!"
At this point my voice has risen, and people are looking over curiously. I made a triumphant tour of my jacket pockets, turning each one out theatrically, like a stage magician demonstrating the lack of objects up his sleeve, all the while muttering "Not there. Not there. Oh look, not there either..." and sneering unpleasantly when each pocket was revealed to be empty. Nini looked on with pursed lips.
N: "I bet you put it in your wallet."
I took my wallet from the back of my jeans, and fluttered it open in front of her, dramatically rifling through each note and receipt to prove that no, I haven't put it back in my wallet. I then turned around, thrust my buttocks in her direction like a baboon in mating season, and waggled my hands in each of my back pockets to show that they were also empty.
P: "See? I do not have your card. I have given you back your card. You have lost your card."
Nini sighed loudly, and start to unpack the picnic basket, picking through the rubbish and the munged up sandwich and yogurt that Neve had left behind. Amelie looked on, confused.
"Why is Mummy unpacking the chipnic again?", she asked.
"Mummy has lost something", I explained loftily. "She thinks maybe she has put it back in the picnic basket."
After a minute, in which Nini accidentally got pre-chewed food all up her sleeve, she turned back to me despondently.
N: "It's not here."
P: "Maybe you dropped it?"
We pushed all the chairs back to look on the floor. The place was busy, and I accidentally barged into the man sitting behind me. "Sorry - my wife has lost something," I explained, rolling my eyes in her direction.
Nini unhappily picked through the detritus on the floor. The card was not there.
"You must have put it in your bag", I said, knowingly.
The restaurant was busy. People had seen us get up, and assumed we are leaving, so were hovering nearby waiting for the table. Nini was rattled, so she strapped Neve into her pushchair, put the picnic basket in the bag, and headed outside to go through her bag. I briefly wrestles Amelie into her coat, and then led her after her mother.
Outside, Nini was emptying her bag onto the pavement, picking carefully through the wads of tissue, spare nappies, snacks for the girls, and notebooks that she carries around with her. She looked utterly miserable. Neve was sitting a few feet away, howling from her chair because she couldn't join in the fun.
"Huh", I thought, "It'll take her ages to find it, she carries so much crap around in that bag."
The wind picked up, blowing a slew of Ninis important papers across the picnic area. Amelie chased after them, helpfully stamping them into the mud to stop them escaping. The wind was chilly, and I thrust my hands into my jean pockets to keep them warm.
My left hand encountered something unexpected: a flexible plastic rectangle with rounded edges. There was no doubt at all about what it was.
I briefly, desperately, considered whether I could somehow slip it into Ninis bag while pretending to help her look for it, and then rejected the idea - shamefully not on the basis that it would be wrong, but rather on the basis that it was unlikely to work, and getting caught doing so was probably the only conceivable way I could make thing worse for myself.
I gazed sadly out over the lake, trying to savour the last bitter seconds of my presumed innocence. Dark clouds were forming on the horizon, and it looked like the weather was about to turn nasty. I shivered involuntarily, and looked back at my family scrabbling around on the ground.
Cold as it was, I knew it was just about to get a hell of a lot colder...