My youngest son was one and a half when we first locked down. He’ll be three in a month.
His older brother spent that crucial toddling period learning how to make friends and share by squabbling over grimy toys at toddler groups in church halls. He first tasted freedom from constant parental monitoring in the huge, padded, contained structures of a soft play.
The wee one has missed out on all of that. He struggles in groups, clings to legs, is terrified on the very few occasions we’ve left our village.
He found a picture of himself as a baby in a soft play ball pit and couldn’t understand it. “But why I got all those blue and lellow balls?”
“He’s learned to climb trees instead,” we boasted (smugly) to the grandparents, “He’s growing up outside.”
But, healthy as that may be, it’s still impossible to forget the smallness of the world he knows, that we’ve all grown used to.
So, back in May when things felt optimistic, instead of a long break we booked three three-night mini holidays. To ease the wee one in, we said. To ease us in, we didn’t realise that we meant.
‘I go into work expecting death now’
Holiday one was Aviemore, with pals, on the first weekend of the school holidays. Being out of my enclosure returned me to that early-stage lockdown jumpiness, where we all crossed the street to avoid other bodies.
A two and a half hour long train journey. The queues in enclosed spaces to check in to the hotel. Suddenly I was terrifyingly aware of everyone’s collective responsibility to keep each other safe – every maskless face a possible threat. It was not the relaxing experience I remember from holidays in The Before Times.
My friend returned home from the holiday to an ICU once again completely full of Covid patients, none of whom had been vaccinated and most of whom had refused it
Our five-year-old and his best friend waxed nostalgic about the hotel’s soft play (six kids per slot, 50-minute slots in between two hour intensive cleaning sessions). They worked out that they had been to soft play every year of their lives “except for our four year”.
The wee one refused to come out. Things I had not missed #245878: wending my body up four floors of padded primary coloured canvas to extract a tantrumming toddler from the top of a tube slide.
On the last night, as my friend and I sat at a picnic table right at the bottom of a pub garden, as far away from the scarily undistanced bourach of stag parties as we could get, she mentioned that she’s aware that she’s changed. She’s an ICU charge nurse, has been riding wave after wave since early 2020, hasn’t had the time or space to reckon with the person this pandemic has made her yet.
“I go into work expecting death now,” she said. “I used to go in ready to save people.”
She returned home from the holiday to an ICU once again completely full of Covid patients, none of whom had been vaccinated and most of whom had refused it.
Being allowed to bloom again
Our next two trips were to Bute and Barra – islands, with beaches and wide, people-free spaces. Not wanting to be the tourists who brought the disease with us, we dutifully did lateral flow tests. The five-year-old’s histrionics any time the swab approached him almost made up for 18 months without live music and theatre.
Our kids ran along white sand and stared at the full force of the Atlantic, rode in boats, spotted seals and puffins, collected shells and expanded their worlds out again
It was easier to be in less populated places, although sobering to see the effects of the pandemic – Rothesay in particular seems to have suffered a lot more closures of shops and restaurants. Take your Covid-free tourist bucks to Bute, folks.
Once a bit more relaxed, I realised that I’d really missed talking to strangers. When it became clear that my lovely ideas about cycling round Barra were not going to work with our particular offspring, we befriended taxi driver Cursty, who’d become a surrogate gran to the kids by the last day of the trip. I’m still texting her now.
I watched my fella, who is always fuelled by company, blooming again as he got to make jokes with the staff at the chippy, ice cream shop and bar.
And our kids ran along white sand and stared at the full force of the Atlantic, rode in boats, spotted seals and puffins, collected shells and expanded their worlds out again.
“So, was that the best holiday or what?” I asked them on the ferry, ready to be smug again as we watched the island disappear.
“No. It didn’t have a soft play,” said the big one. And the wee one got over his fear of people and yelled: “I WANT THE SOFT PLAY” at everyone on the observation deck. I’m so proud.
Kirstin Innes is the author of the novels Scabby Queen and Fishnet, and co-author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Brickwork: A Biography of the Arches