4 October 2004
We started dismantling the children’s climbing frame at the weekend. The kids are too big for it now, or at least think themselves too grown-up for it, and despite my best efforts to throw them outdoors at the weekends they prefer to vegetate inside, little hunched shapes in darkened rooms, silent except for the insistent pulse of thumbs on mobile phones and gameboy keypads. Well, I figure we gave them a good start by buying the ultra-expensive wild west fort in pressure-treated, ecologically harvested timber: if they want to develop trash culture posture and arthritic thumbs, that’s up to them.
Incidentally, buying the fort in the first place was just another round in the Lawyer’s battle for status. When the kids were tiny he’d endured a gruelling barbecue at one of the other partner’s houses, where all the children practised pushing each other off the newly-acquired climbing frame while the men discussed square footage, how long it takes to get it up (three days!) and all the other male anxieties centred on extremely expensive garden play equipment. The Lawyer hadn’t even known he was expected to shell out more than a grand on stuff only the children would play on, but apparently that’s what it takes to prove you’re a functional family nowadays, so out we went and ordered the whole lot: monkey bars, climbing nets, steering wheels, gondola swings that delight in whacking four-year-olds in the back of the head, death slides and climbing walls. The snails loved all of it, smearing the gigantic edifice that took up half our garden in slime trails, and none of the children dared go near the thing after the first crunch.
The Lawyer thought he’d got the other partners beaten with Fort John Wayne, but they’re an aspirational bunch: climbing frames were soon replaced by junior quad bikes, which means you’ve got to buy a farm to drive them around on. The Lawyer gave up shortly after that (we’re really not farm people) and embraced the appearance of genteel poverty, which is a far more effective weapon. “Look at all those senior people who drive rustbuckets,” the Lawyer said. “They’re playing with your mind. You know they can afford something really jaw-dropping, but they’re choosing not to. Do they just not care? Are they planning to retire at 45? Do they despise you for buying something new? At the very least it’s provocative. It could even be downright insulting.”
He emptied the loft at his mother’s house and brought home all the old toys any sane person would have thrown out years ago: paintless and dented cars, ancient wooden tricycles, lethal wind-up tin soldiers. Out they came whenever other lawyers and their families came for Sunday lunch. The Lawyer would wax lyrical about traditional toys and the joys of playing creatively with the children while I restrained myself from pointing out that he’d spent the entire morning reading The Sunday Times and how Liability had lacerated herself on raw tin. The mummies immediately felt terrible for buying anything made of plastic that goes beep, while the dads realised that they could stop spending so much on the kids and go out and get surround sound for the telly after all.
Anyway, I was sorry to see the climbing frame go: I always thought of it as a metaphor for the Lawyer’s working life. You learn early on, when Jasper, the head of corporate’s son, is hogging the only swing, that you can’t always get what you want; and that, no matter how hard or how fast you climb, there isn’t room for everyone at the top.