June 2008: Last year, we spent a week on the Northwest coast, staying at my inlaws house in Morecambe. During that week, on a trip to a toy shop in Bowness in the Lake District (a venue that I estimate is about 300 miles from our own home, making a casual return visit inconvenient, to say the least) my eldest daughter decided to buy a soft toy with her holiday money. The toy was in fact meant to be a squirrel, but she called it 'Skunk-skunk', whereas I called it (in private) "That hateful rat-thing with the bug eyes".
As is the manner with all her soft toys, for the week that she got it, it was the single most important object in her life. She took it to bed. She sat it at the table when eating. She insisted on carrying it around everywhere with her. She would press it's horrid little face into mine when I put her to bed, saying "Night-night kiss from Skunk-skunk." And she would continually - continually - keep losing it.
It was lost and found multiple times that year: in the car, down the sofa, in coat pockets, left at school and in the garden - a seemingly endless cycle of loss, inconsolable tears, a tense and frantic search, before (finally) recovery and stern exhortations that she should take better care of her toys.
April 2009: And then one fateful day, Skunk-skunk got lost and couldn't be found again.
Now, we've been here before, and it usually blows over - another toy comes along, takes it's place in her affections, and we can all move on. I can almost measure my daughter's age in favourite cuddly toys: I have lived through the eras of Red Ted, Green Ted, the Bunny twins, Carrot the Rabbit, Snowbear, Ducky and many, many more. There is always another toy, I thought - just give it time.
But it wasn't to be - not this time. The tears lasted for weeks, a small session of heartbreak at every bedtime, and with no apparent sign of the distress abating. We searched everywhere, at least twice. Relatives and friends who we had visited were called, on the offchance they were harbouring the fugitive. Cupboards were turned out. Light-fingered little sisters with previous convictions of toy-theft were quizzed extensively. Finally, things came to a head when I came home from work to find an A4 poster stuck to the tree outside our house. It was a picture of a red, mostly amorphous mass, but I thought recognised the two big eyes in the centre. The misspelled words written underneath confirmed my suspicions and explained the whole sad story:
"I have been making posters to help find Skunk-skunk," she explained. "I have drawn one for you to put up at you work." She handed it to me, another A4 sheet with the same message, meticulously coloured in.
"How many of these did you make?" I asked.
"I lost count. One for the tree. One for the fridge. One for my bedroom door. One for school. One for you to take to work. One to give to Nanny..."
Lots, then. It must have taken her all afternoon. I looked down at her sad, earnest face, and decided steps should be taken. I took her hand and sat her down on the stairs.
"Sweetheart, I think Skunk-skunk has maybe really gone this time..." I began.
"Daddy, I know. That's why I have drawn posters. So when somebody else finds him, they know who he belongs to..." she explained patiently.
"Yes..." I said, trying to sound optimistic, but picturing the many and varied possible deaths of Skunk-skunk in my head (shredded in washing machine filter, found in park and chewed to bits by dog, thrown away by accident, drop-kicked into canal by vengeful sibling, etc) "...but I'll tell you what: we are going on holiday again in July, back to Morecambe. If he hasn't turned up by then, we will go back to the toy shop in Bowness and try and buy another one."
She pondered this.
"OK," she agreed. "But will you laminate my poster, for your work?"
"I think if Skunk-skunk was at work, Daddy would have seen him..." I suggested tentatively. Her face clouded over.
"But Mummy told me you would laminate it. She said you would laminate it, and then show it to everyone at your work..."
At this point I became aware of a faint sniggering coming from the kitchen.
"Did she? Good old, Mummy, eh? Always there with the bright ideas..."
"Mummy is very helpful..." said her number one fan.
"Yes," I said, meaning the opposite. "Helpful..."
July 2009, last week: Skunk-skunk has remained lost. We step off the ferry at Bowness. As our feet touch dry land, our daughter asks (as she has done every day for a month): "When are we going to the toy shop to get Skunk-skunk?"
"Be patient..." chides her mother, then whispers to me: "I do hope they have them in stock..."
I have not considered this. We could be minutes away from the mother of all upsets.
"Let's hurry..." urges our daughter, tugging on my arm.
We get to the shop which is small, with a single central shelf. The soft toys are on the far side, out of view. We round the corner to find...loads of Skunk-skunks. Baskets of them. This is something of a relief to me. I pick up one of the red squirrels and waggle it at her.
"Here we go then, sweetheart. It's a new Skunk-skunk, at last..." I say.
She is not really listening. Instead, she is staring, transfixed, at the shelf.
"They make pink ones now.." she says in a voice full of wonder.
"What?" I ask, mildly irritated.
"Pink ones..." she says, pointing.
Indeed, it appears that they do now make pink Skunk-skunks. There are a row of them right in front of me.
"But you lost a red one," I insist.
"Pink..." she says, plaintively.
"You have been crying for months about the red one," I say. "How can your affections have switched, just like that?."
"Can I get them both?"
"No, just one..."
There is period of umming and ahhing. She picks both up, one in each hand, as if weighing them.
"I will buy the pink one now, and the red one next time" she finally announces.
"Fine" I say, feeling slightly saddened at this last minute switch of loyalties - she ran a poster campaign, for Gods sake. I decide that, when her back is turned, I will secretly buy the red one as well, and hide it away in a cupboard until Christmas.
August 2009, last week: Home from our holidays, and while tidying away the coats and shoes, my daughter picks up her old pair of wellies and tries them on. Her foot won't go into one, as something is stuck inside, so she tips it out - and lo and behold, the original lost-and-long-presumed-dead red Skunk-skunk falls out onto the floor.
Now she once again has a red Skunk-skunk to go along with her new pink one. She is naturally delighted, and it appears so is everyone else - except for me, because I have just purchased a replacement red Skunk-skunk which is now clearly surplus to requirements.
August 2009, this week: I come home from work, and find the rest of the family are out. I sit on the front wall to catch a bit of sun, and wait for them. Soon enough, the car pulls up, but it's clear something is wrong. I can hear our daughter crying over the noise of the engine. That can't be good...
I open her door and she collapses, sobbing, into my arms. I look at her mother with a raised eyebrow.
"She has lost her pink Skunk-skunk" she explains.
The sobbing intensifies.
"She wanted to take it with her, and I think she left it in the park. We have been back to look for it, but it's gone..."
The sobbing turns to wailing.
"Well, at least you still have your red one..." I suggest.
The wailing gets louder. I refrain from telling her that we have a spare red one in a cupboard, as I don't think that will help either...