Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Playmobil bus of grief

It is 14 years this summer that my brother died. It seems as if a lifetime has passed since he drowned while swimming off a beach on the Isle of Wight. Our wounds of mourning have healed well in that time and thoughts of him are more fond and nostalgic than grief-stricken. Occasionally, it can feel as if the loss-monster is twisting his dirty spade into my guts - those mornings when I wake up from a dream of him. Or if I hear his voice on a tape recording he has made. Or stumble upon a picture of him as a student, dressed as a horse at Ascot or some such youthful caper.
But generally, it has been ok. Life goes on and we try to remember him without making too much of a fuss.
But watching my two little boys play together, building towns across the living room floor with Duplo Lego and Playmobil (and the odd Spiderman) I am prompted to think about my brother more and more. For much of the day now (bear in mind I am on maternity leave), I think about him and the childhood we shared.
We spent so many hours building cities with Asterix figures and Playmobil, sometimes in my bedroom, sometimes under the big ash tree in the garden, building dug-out houses with roofs of sticks and moss. I remember the total absorption - the ‘flow'- we experienced when we were engaged in these games that came so naturally.
The importance of these memories came to the fore recently when my parents started passing on my own Playmobil sets to my children. Previous kits (a police car, a medieval castle) had been torn to pieces by my not-quite-old-enough offspring and I was not keen to see my beloved 1980s stuff destroyed in a moment.
"Just let them enjoy them, it doesn’t matter if they get broken" my dad had said offhandedly. I try not to be too materialistic, but I found this wanton squandering of my toys painful.
I had to steal my tattered Playmobil school bus away and hide it in the wardrobe, the thought of it being torn apart by a three-year-old was so unthinkable. 
It took me a while to work out why these lumps of plastic were so important to me. Why does it hurt so much when the youngest one tears a headlamp off and loses it between the floorboards? Why do I feel a tear in my eye when I see three figures of schoolchildren with their hair torn off?
Then it occurred to me: the Playmobil sets are among the last few things I have left of my brother. We pushed that little bus around in the dirt endlessly and it became the basis for so many stories and scenarios that we shared. To lose the bus would be to lose a symbol of those happy and innocent times, before life brought us insecurities and responsibilities and grief.
I have resolved to keep the bus in its hiding place - I will allow myself to preserve this little relic. I have started to raid Ebay to keep the children kitted out with Playmobil sets with less sentimental value. I have my eye on an incredible exploding volcano/Jurassic scene, a sweetshop and a playground. I can’t wait to start playing with them.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Babies: The Consolations of Maternity Leave

To ease into my new era of domestico-political ramblings - some notes on babies and maternity leave:

To those who have never been on it, maternity leave is a glorious, self-indulgent holiday. To those who have, (I am on my third bout) it is an intense period of extremely hard home-working which seems to involve a large amount of exhausting lolling around.
Yes, I am in a cafe reading the i newspaper - but my little 14-week-old time bomb will go off any second, demanding me to perform a mini-striptease in a public place.
Yes, I am lying on my back on the rug working on my abs, but with every leg-lift I have to remember the next verse of the Sleeping Bunnies song.
And yes, that is me going for a pleasant suburban stroll in the evening crepuscule. But if I stop to look at a house or tree, or to marvel at the squirrels as they leap across the top of the wheeleybins, I will have 30 decibels of baby fed directly into my ear.
A large amount of time seems to be spent on the sofa, which is slowly becoming encrusted with breastmilk. She snorts and sucks wildly as I stare at the TV remote, so far across the other side of the room. I gaze into the walls for inspiration as the oxytocin washes over me and I forget which way is up, which way is down, and why we are here at all.
So, this period of intense child-rearing - a mere prelude to the reality of ‘going back to work’ and THE REST OF YOUR LIFE- is both a wonderful gift and a hideous prison. Irritations drip one by one onto my forehead until I beg for mercy.
But, as I am clearly a glutton for this glorious form of punishment, there are clearly upsides. For me, it is all in the little details, that keep you going through the sleepless nights and frustrating days, where minutes last an hour and months last a second.
Here are my 10 consolations of early motherhood:

1. The way the baby’s nose-breath cools your hot, gnawed nipple after it slips from her mouth - a much underrated design feature.
2. Wearing your favourite slippers on the school run.
3. The chance to marvel at the multi-purpose nature of one’s body parts.
4. Incredible bicep and deltoid development.
5. Popping into the office seems like a short holiday.
6. Looking into the poppet’s dark, black eyes - which remind me of a baby seal as it looks up at a hunter with a club - and sensing she might love me as much as I love her.
7. The three weeks after the birth, when you feel you are wheeling a miniature celebrity around the neighbourhood.
8. Seeing the sun is out and going outside immediately.
9. Admiring a washing line covered in clean drying nappies (I don’t like admitting this one...)
10. Spending an hour staring out across the garden, hoping for the robin to drop in.