When we were little, my older brother and I shared a room. We had a wooden bunk bed, a deep reddish-brown varnished pine, with streaks of pale yellow where I had gnawed on the rounded bed posts.
I remember the bitter taste of the varnish and the hint of the pine. Bedpost gnawing was a curious obsession for me, satisfying as picking at a scab, or popping bubble wrap, and much more annoying for my mother.
The top bunk had a wooden bar across the side to prevent my brother from falling out, although he was never really the type to wiggle about much. I am a fidgeter to this day, a blanket stealer, a stuck-upside-down-wedged-between-the-wall-and-bed type.
I would have needed a cage to stop me from falling out.
From the comfort of my lower bunk I could stretch my legs up and tuck my feet between the slats, flexing and pointing my feet. The effect for my big brother was a sort of bedtime Chinese water torture as he tried desperately to fall asleep with his mattress moving about and my bony feet digging into his spine. I would think years of tolerating my bedtime antics might be what made him the patient, tolerant man he is today, although he has yet to thank me.
My mother hasn’t thanked me either for the near heart-attacks I gave her with my bunk bed acrobatics. With her over-exuberant grandchildren she is cool as a cucumber, never rising to their attention-seeking tricks. Having watched me turn somersaults and flips on the top bunk as a toddler, she had ample opportunity to practice keeping her calm while quietly working out how to extract me from my brother’s bed and possibly consider (but thankfully reject) tying my leg to a post in the garden. I would have preferred the bed post anyway, purely for the acrid varnishy taste. Anyhow, surely practice makes perfect, so I take full credit for my mum’s success in her career in early childhood education.
Tonight, I can hear my own kids giggling and sneaking around, overexcited by the bunk beds we have found ourselves with at Nana’s cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. I can hear Mads going up and down the ladder, probably choosing more and more books and teddy bears to tuck into bed with them. Danger Boy’s excited pitter patter is so easy to recognise – he is no doubt racing around the room, gathering loose change to put in his pockets for tomorrow.
It’s 8:30, over an hour past their bedtime, and normally they are tucked up in bed with very little fuss. Part of me wants to stomp up the stairs and tell them to hush up and go to sleep…. But this playful, nostalgic side of me tells me not to interfere.
One day, they’ll be all grown up, living on different continents, perhaps with a phone call every 6 months and the occasional card. The more I interfere, the more those phone calls will be stilted conversations about their respective jobs, not like my brother and I who can dive straight into a relaxed banter, laughing at the most mundane of things.
What makes us able to connect even now? It’s shared memories of moments like this, of shared laughter as we clambered up and down the ladder, leaping onto a nest of pillows from halfway up. The delicious feeling of conspiracy as we shut our eyes tightly and pretended to be asleep whenever my mum came into the room.
And so I’ll give them another moment to enjoy it, and then do my job and stomp up the stairs.
An addendum from my mother!:
A note to my daughter: Yes, thank you, Janis, for giving me and your brother LOTS of practice in patience! I took the ladder away permanently but still caught you, age only 15 months, doing somersaults on top bunk on a day big bro wasn’t even home for me to blame as usual for helping you climb up there. (You progressed to climbing on top of the fridge whenever you needed a good hiding place.) Three decades later beds were given to a neighbour, teethmarks and all, whose kids hopefully bonded as well as you two did. And, yes, I noticed that after not seeing each other for about 8 months, instead of “catching up” you two were laughing about anecdotes in the David Sedaris books you both had read!
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