The family were slapped by the sun as if that burning ball of plasma were a sugared toddler with a flaming fly swat. The dad shifted his feet, dismissed the simile and then let it stay in his head as something to think about while they all waited in the queue for the Spider-Man ride.
The dad sighed. The mum, eldest, middle and youngest sighed. The children dragged their hats from their heads, twisted them in sweaty hands and flapped them at sweaty foreheads. Then they were put back on again as the mum and dad growled instructions and warnings that may as well have been recorded and played on a loop.
‘Dad?’ the eldest asked. He squinted in the Florida sun, his skin wrinkling from either side of the orange and blue sunglasses that were slightly too small for his face. He still looked up to the dad as he spoke, but only just. His face twisted in that 12 year-old-boy way that shows every emotion that passes through him. He would never be a poker player.
‘Yes?’ the dad replied. The queue was long and they were at least ten metres from the shaded section ahead. The family sweated, their skin slick with moisture. They stood close but flinched from each other as they made contact, repulsed by the skin-on-skin extra blast of heat.
The eldest continued. ‘Is it racist to say that people from China look happy when they’re scared?’
‘Why?’ the dad asked, ignoring the smirking mum who was happy to pass this one on.
‘It was in the stunt show, remember?’
‘A scared Chinaman?’
‘It was a woman.’
‘A Chinese woman?’
They took ten too-short steps towards the shade, the entire queue a dying worm baking in the sun. ‘I’m not with you,’ said the dad.
‘She was a volunteer. She was told to act scared and then they said that she looked like she was laughing and then they said that that’s what people in China did. Looked like they were laughing when they were scared. But the woman wasn’t Chinese.’
‘Right…’ said the dad. He remembered. Sort of.
‘Is it racist?’
It was a job keeping up with the eldest’s thoughts; they were random at the best of times and he regularly re-earned his family nickname of goldfish. The dad thought over the various responses and took the easy route: ‘No,’ he said. He said it firmly, confidently, like he often tried to do with the eldest. It rarely worked.
The queue shifted and put on one of those odd little spurts that the queues sometimes did. The family walked into and through the shaded area, and on into the air-conditioned building in one smooth shuffling movement. Audible sighs of cool satisfaction hissed from the queue around the family. The family stood straighter, taller, their bodies re-inflating like last week’s balloons told they could go to another party.
A huge cartoon J Jonah Jameson looked down at them from a vast screen and told them how the spider menaced his beloved city. He was as angry as ever and the dad smiled at the familiarity and the coolness.
‘Who’s that?’ the eldest asked.
‘J Jonah Jameson,’ the dad replied. He looked at the eldest. He should know this. The dad wondered if the warnings about hats and the hot sun were coming true.
‘Who?’ the eldest asked.
The dad intercepted the middle child’s mocking response. ‘The editor of the Daily Bugle. Peter Parker sells photos to him.’
‘Oh yeah,’ the eldest replied. He laughed at his own colander-like memory.
The family relaxed into the cool air and the cartoon played for them on the many screens as the queue inched forward. Spider-Man and various bad guys acted out their story about a stolen Statue of Liberty.
For several minutes there were contented smiles and easy manners, each member of the family encased in a bubble of rare conviviality.
‘But it’s generalising,’ said the eldest, popping the bubble as surely as if Doc Oc himself had stabbed it.
‘What?’ the dad answered.
‘The woman who said that Chinese people look like they’re laughing when they’re scared. She’s generalising about Chinese people. You always say that that’s racist.’
‘All Chinese people can’t look scared when they’re laughing.’
‘So it’s racist.’
The dad struggled. The mum smirked again. ‘It’s… Not every… I suppose…’ He gave up. ‘Sometimes people say things that seem like they’re funny. And then they make a mistake and they just carry on and hope no one notices.’ The eldest, knowing that he’d noticed, started to speak again but the dad cut him off. ‘It was a silly thing for the woman to say but she didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘So it’s racist but it’s okay?’ the eldest asked.
‘No, not okay,’ said the dad, ‘just not deliberately not okay.’
‘Like Donald trump?’
‘He seems to be deliberate,’ the mum chipped in.
The dad nodded his agreement.
‘And he won,’ the eldest pointed out.
The dad was stumped.
Spider-Man swooped across the screen, scooping up one of Doc Oc’s victims. The queue shuffled forward, the family passing beneath one screen and coming into view of another, much larger, display. J Jonah Jameson appeared on screen again demanding the villains be stopped and Spider-Man be detained.
‘Well, it’s not a crime to make an honest mistake and I think the police are probably busy enough anyway,’ the dad pointed out, diverting the eldest’s attention back to the cartoon and Jameson’s demands.
The eldest laughed. ‘Yeah.’ He looked at the enormous face of Jameson. ‘Who’s that again?’
The dad looked the eldest in the eye searching for any sign of mockery. ‘It’s J Jonah Jameson? The editor of the Daily Bugle? The one Peter Parker sells photos to?’
‘Oh yeah.’ The eldest nodded.
‘How many times have you seen Spider-Man?’ the dad asked.
‘Not sure. Quite a few times.’
‘And you don’t know who Jameson is?’
‘I do,’ the eldest replied, clearly offended that the dad could think he was being dim. ‘I’ve just never seen this cartoon.’
The dad looked again at the image of Jameson. It was JJJ alright: black hair with a shock of white around the ears, angry face, cigar. ‘Goldfish,’ he said to the eldest. The mum tutted at him and he smiled at the eldest who ignored him; the queue had moved into a mock news room: rows of journalists’ desks stretched away.
‘Sick,’ the eldest commented.
The dad nodded. He understood ‘sick’ in the context, which, he assumed, surely meant that if he was aware of the meaning it was no longer a cool thing to say.
An American voice, loud and strained with excitement, announced over the PA: ‘All members of Scoop Team 6 to the loading bay. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.’
The eldest’s face twisted and froze. He was thinking, his expressions again seemingly shaped by some external force rather than any internal control. ‘What’s happening?’ he asked.
‘What?’ the dad asked. He was examining a telephone on a journalist’s desk, wondering if it was real. The croissant, a strange dusty green, suggested it wasn’t, but the phone did look real. Unlike the croissant. He stopped the middle child from trying to reach out to the flour and water pastry.
‘If it’s not a drill will we have to go?’ Thoughts of wasted queueing time forced the eldest’s face into another change, frustration making an Ordnance Survey map of his nose and forehead.
‘That’s part of the show,’ said the dad, a little shortly. His holiday patience was stretched by sun, queues, daft questions and deliberating on delicate points of racial stereotyping.
Other parents glanced over, sympathy and amusement and shared pains on their faces. The dad looked down, not wanting to engage. Americans, he’d noticed, were always more willing to chat about what was going on rather than simply allowing the moment to pass.
The eldest’s face twisted again and reformed quickly into confusion and then understanding. It was like his head was a crystal ball and his face the churning mists within, green Wizard of Oz hands twisting and curling, manipulating the fog. ‘So we’re okay?’ he said.
‘We’re okay,’ the dad replied.
The queue arrived at the 3D glasses and the family grabbed at them gratefully. A few minutes later they were at the head of the queue and a car swept in front of them, its side rising to reveal four rows of seats. The family would have to split over the front two.
As they climbed aboard, the dad started to call out to the eldest in the row behind, but he stopped. He’d been about to tell him to be the Chinaman and look happy when he was scared.
‘Nothing,’ the dad replied. ‘Just enjoy it.’