There's a manège up the road at the moment; we stopped to look at it for a while today, but the boys didn't want a go. They went for the pêche aux canards instead (hook ten plastic ducks and win a piece of tat), and then Fingers couldn't choose what he wanted as a prize and I got snappy. It's been that kind of day; fractious, discordant. I looked back at the manège as I herded them away, grumbling, late for a doctor's appointment for Lashes (searingly awful, incidentally), a little wistfully. Manège is one of those words I only really know in French. I used to say 'roundabout' in English - as in the Magic Roundabout - but I think merry-go-round might be more accurate. Or is it a carousel? Every manège I see in Belgium (except these beauties, of course) is the same; a hydraulic spider with ten or twelve gaudily coloured vehicles at the end of its legs, one of which might ascend jerkily skywards some small number of feet, if the button happens to be working. Fat, coloured bulbs flashing along the full length of each limb, and on the struts supporting the canopy that covers the riders. A low studded metal platform surrounding it, a supremely bored man or woman in a booth, amplified generic pop music, a few plastic chairs scattered around the perimeter for parents. They spring up now and then in the neighbourhood, when there's a brocante, or a fair, or an r in the month.
They're getting a bit big for the full manège experience now, my boys. They'll watch, appraisingly, eyes narrowed, especially if there are things that go up in the air or have some other kind of bells and whistles. You can see the struggle in their eyes, if it's a good one. Can I still? Maybe they'll allow themselves if it's butch enough, or if there's a pompom. Le pompom is a mangy piece of cloth, or ancient soft toy on the end of a rope, dangled by a stonily indifferent teenage boy. If he lowers it above you and you manage to grab it, you get a free turn. It requires decent reflexes and a moment's inattention from the teenager. If there's a pompom, surely it's still ok to have a go if you're 8, wonders Lashes, indecision hovering, visible around his brow line.
I want to urge them, thrust tickets into their hands, though of course that would make no difference; they're too old to be bounced into enjoying themselves against their will. Of course you can go on the bloody manège, I want to tell them. Go! Good god, enjoy your two minutes of .. what? I don't know, can't remember, it's been too long since I tried it myself. It seems such a sedate thrill to the observer, uncomfortably wedged into one of those flimsy plastic spectators' chairs, but it still draws them in, just, for now. The ritual of buying your token, watching as the previous riders slow, your eyes fixed on the seat - the only one you want - willing it to stop near you, the single-minded dash, musical chairs style, to take your place as it finally stops. The wait, surprisingly long at times, token in hand, strapped on, or in, for your turn to start. They look extraordinarily serious at this point, children on manèges. Such concentration. It always seemed an odd, grave, sort of enjoyment, seen from the outside; riders tend not to laugh or smile. Bar the odd screamer, face crumpling in terror or distress for whom the manège would be brought to a premature halt, the whole business is conducted in silence. I wave, cheerily, show I am still watching, am still there. It's sometimes greeted with a serious nod of acknowledgment, sometimes not.
I have been standing by manèges for, what, nearly seven years now I suppose. It started in Paris. Paris was a solitary succession of manèges and cake shops; me, a pushchair, and a baby strapped to my chest. The Parc Monceau, almost daily, a swift, no frills number forever associated for me with darkening October or November skies, night falling around that squat green roofed structure, illuminated yellow and and red. It's always dark in my memory, the park is emptying and if we are lucky, the manège is still open, lights visible through the thinning autumn trees. A couple of muffled figures standing by the green railings watch their charges, similarly muffled, for heaven help the Parisian child who goes out without coat, scarf, mittens on the mildest autumn day. For months on end, I would watch Lashes, aged 2, revolve, face set in a mask of concentration, in whatever car, or fire engine, or motorbike, had caught his eye that day. I remember his bright yellow Petit Bateau cirée, remember the awkwardness of manoeuvring a toddler into his chosen spot with a truculent baby attached to my front, remember those couple of minutes of, not peace exactly, but respite, maybe. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other solitary, unspeaking parents, grandparents, nannies. It was the place where Fingers - aged 10 months, or so, first accompanied his brother on a manege, wedged in his plump toddler arms, initially sceptical, finally smiling.
There were others, of course. The manège at the end of the Rue de Lévis street market, where it meets Boulevard de Courcelles, which I recall as having a certain eighties retro splendour, with a canopy for poor weather and some outlandish Night Rider style cars. The Jardins d'Acclimatation (the place I first encountered the pom-pom phenomenon), which is a whole succession of low-tech rides, including the famous petits chevaux that process in a stately fashion around a wide loop of scrubby grassland in the Bois de Boulogne. I would find the hot pink plastic tokens in my pockets, or in the corners of handbags, for years after we left. I could probably tell you fairly accurately where I could still find a couple in the CFO's house. There was the manège at the foot of the Eiffel tower with proper painted horses, which you can watch turn from the top, then go back down and have a go yourself, staring back up at that gigantic pylon. I did that with Lashes on our only Christmas in Paris, setting off in the pale sun of a wintry morning, striking out across the city yet again, desperate to do something memorable. During the same week I remember watching a freak snowstorm through the plate glass windows of the Cité des Enfants, and coming out to a sudden white-out, building a tiny snowman in the shadow of that big shiny ball, the Géode. Tiny snatches of joy in a bleak year. The Jardin des Plantes manège was small but brilliant, with giant turtles and dinosaurs to ride on. Square des Batignolles, beautifully old fashioned, usually shrouded in green tarpaulins you could peep under; occasionally, thrillingly open (it's the one in the picture up the top).
Such big parts of my life spent watching as the revolutions gather momentum, watching for their faces to spin past, waving. How many more tours de manège, how many chances to use up those plastic tokens? I might have a few more months, as much as a year perhaps, if I'm lucky. I'd like it to last a bit longer. It's such an easy way to say 'I want you to be happy, I want you to do this thing that pleases you, and I will stand and watch and wait'. I'll need to find other ways, but for now, I think all three of us could do with a few last spins.