The bean machine

My fingers touched something soft, smooth, comforting; when I pulled my hand from the box I was tidying, I held a small oval of material. It was cream coloured with little flowers on it, a silky cool fabric. I don’t know how it ended up in the box, but I know where it came from. When Joe was little, I quickly realised that he experienced the world in a very tactile way. There were things he could not bear the feel of – he would never paint with his fingers or put his hands into the cornflour-water mix at toddler group – but there were also things he would actively seek the feel of. Joe would find any water anywhere to put his hands into, he would go up to random children, even adults, wearing soft fleece (particularly pink) and stroke their clothes (not always an easy one to explain to an irate woman on the high street). He would find the shops selling loose bird food and push his hands down into the mix, watching it run through his fingers; I was very slow to realise that Joe requested and sat through the same bedtime story each night for months (the Milly-Molly-Mandy1 story where she helps Billy to repaint a garden roller) purely in order to hear the paragraph at the end:

“Billy Blunt buried Milly-Molly-Mandy in the corn, right up to the neck. And when he helped her out again she was all bits of corn, down her neck, and in her socks, and on her hair. But Milly-Molly-Mandy didn’t mind a scrap. She liked it”.

Joe found these tactile experiences comforting, and in an attempt to offer him relief in times when he was anxious and stressed beyond my reach, I tried to create ways to bring the comfort to him when he needed it. That’s where the material had come from. Nothing fancy, but I had found scraps of material in his favourite textures and put them all into a box with a circular hole cut in the top, a box he could put his hand into when feeling upset and find something calming, pleasingly tactile. I sewed scraps of fleece into the pockets of his school trousers in an attempt to give him a coping mechanism for when he was becoming agitated in the classroom, and as he grew older, together we came up with the ‘bean machine’, a large lidded container filled with rice and lentils and a scoop that picked up the grains and poured them out of the handle like a chute. Joe would push his hands through the grains, pour cascades of soft sound onto his hands; he would calm down and find himself in a better place again.

I feel as though our whole family could do with a giant bean machine at the moment. This second lockdown has made us feel apprehensive as a whole. It’s strange really, because our routine hasn’t changed – the children still go to school and Mark is still working from home. Perhaps it’s just the cumulative effect of months of restrictions. Joe is enjoying college, but he is only able to interact with a small group of people, his hours are cut back to the minimum and it is necessarily an even slower process than usual to sort out the support he needs because of his autism. Peta feels cold at school with windows and doors always open, with the requirement she eats her lunch standing in the playground regardless of the (often wet) weather, and frequently sitting in class in wet clothes. Fun clubs are off, the school musical is off, carol singing is off. The joy has ebbed away. The same can be said for Amos and Melody’s school experience – it’s nobody’s fault – but the constant reminders to social distance, not to hug, not to high five are taking its toll. And it creeps home – their concerns they may have corona virus on their homework, on their faces, on their reading books. Even the ban on singing in school sneaks into my home – the children have got into the habit of having their voices restricted; I really miss the sound of their singing in the house.

How lucky we are then to have found our bean machine; we have our woodland. We were there at the weekend for our exercise. Once we’d completely disinfected the lock on the gate (a friend who had been up 36 hours before had called to warn us he’d tested positive for Covid-19), and walked through to camp, it was wonderful to see everyone gravitate to their chosen stress relief. Joe picked up the log splitting axe and was soon in his shirt sleeves, chocks of wood tumbling. Peta, Amos and Melody checked the leaf pile they had built last week, then made an even bigger ‘leaf castle’ as an experiment ‘to see how much would blow away in the wind by next time we visit’. When their castle was big enough, they were off to the trampoline to play at Hogwarts. Mark spent the day hand-sawing felled wood into log lengths.

It was lovely to sit by an open fire in the warmth of the sun. The air was still and the smoke moved slowly, keeping low, drifting between the trees. The sound of the kettle coming to the boil, the smell of brewing tea, the hiss of cooking sausages and the aroma of frying onion were all small pleasures, often overlooked. Things seem better in a sunny wood. When everyone crowded round for lunch, with rosy cheeks and jokes, eyes were bright and a weight had lifted for a short while.

After lunch, I went to retrieve something left under the osprey-platform larch. It meant walking through the least ancient part of our wood, planted in the early 1800’s. Though less biologically interesting than other parts, at this time of year it is beautiful, with beeches still holding onto their leaves of lemon yellow, gold, and warm brown. There was no air movement as I wandered and the low sun illuminated the wood with a mellow light, making the moss glow luminous. There was a faint smell of wood smoke and the sound of children playing. The leaves crunched beneath my feet and I could hear the distant rasp of a saw, the call of geese on the estuary, a buzzard’s cry over the wood. There was a hint of fox on the air. It’s these things that disappear the moment we arrive home, these things that are so hard to hold onto as yet another bit drops off the oven or a new damp patch appears on the walls, as the Covid statistics round the world pop up on the computer screen unbidden or the next email of additional school Covid rules zooms into my inbox. But these are the things that make the difference to us as a family at the moment – they are our collective ‘bean machine’. And they remind me again of the absolutely essential nature of green space, the ‘bean machine’ of the planet.

1The Adventures of Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley