The baby’s carry-on bag was packed a week ahead. We had thought of everything: two changes of clothes, nappies, wipes, snacks, a sippy cup, dummies and muslins. Surely we had bargained for every eventuality. But, somehow, between arriving at Heathrow – parking our car, having two cappuccinos and a croissant at Prêt – and boarding our flight to Greece for our first holiday with our nine-month-old baby, we were down to a single nappy and a solitary mini rice cake. For our first flight with baby, we were going to be flying by the seat of our pants.
The night before, I lay in bed imagining every possible worst-case scenario. A straightforward plane crash with no survivors was the least of my worries. We had finally got our son into some sort of routine with naps, feeds and mealtimes, but our plane left at 11am, which meant he would be wide awake for the whole flight. At nine months, he was crawling – up things, over things, throwing himself off the edge of things. He was at an age where he was never, ever still. I would sometimes turn my back for a moment and he would have somehow got across the room, onto a chair and onto the kitchen table. He would attempt to scale whole bookshelves, like a tiny mountain climber. How could I possibly control him and keep him calm all the way to Athens?
Six months earlier, we had excitedly planned our summer holiday. He would be nearly one by then, we thought, life would be so very different! We imagined our sweet, naked baby paddling in the turquoise Aegean; sleeping soundly in his pram as we sipped retsina in a beachside taverna. But now it was the night before we were due to catch our flight and I would have paid many hundreds just to stay at home. Home! Lovely, secure, familiar home, where I had finally got him to nap in his cot, with its blackout blinds and white noise machine. With CBeebies on tap, our washing machine and tumble drier whiring contentedly, and a chest of drawers full of clean clothes. What on earth we were doing going to some far away place we’d booked on the internet, leaving all our comforts to stay in a tiny stone cottage on an island with no cars. What had we been thinking?
We boarded the flight, and my son sat on my lap quite placidly at first, cooing and babbling, as the plane taxied on to the runway. Perhaps this isn’t going to be so bad after all, I said to my husband. Maybe we should go long-haul next time! But then, as if on cue, the engines fired and we lifted off, and my son’s face turned puce. He made his hands into tight little fists. He arched his back, took a huge breath and screamed the kind of scream that turns your blood cold, the kind of scream that gives you chills to the very core of your soul. I felt the whole plane turn around in horror. We were strapped in; there was no escape, no chance of getting up to jiggle him, no option of pacing the aisle or hiding in the loos, or even to reach into the overhead locker to fetch that precious last rice cake. We were stuck, imprisoned in a particular type of hell. And then, in the depths of despair, my guardian angel appeared, and his name was Geoff, from Sunderland. He was sitting in the row in front, and just as I was about to lose the will to live, to abandon all hope of making it through the next hour, he worked some kind of miracle. His head popped out from between the seats in front of us, “Boo!” My baby, a little startled, stopped crying. Geoff ducked behind the headrest again, waited a second or two, and then – Boo! My baby let out a squeal of glee. For the next half an hour, he and Geoff played peekaboo. By then, so exhausted by the fun, our baby fell asleep on my husband’s shoulder for the rest of the flight.
And do you know what? After that, the holiday was rather wonderful. We rigged up a tent with a few large muslins and some driftwood, where our baby seemed to sleep for hours as we read books. We put him in the sling (which he unexpectedly loved, having loathed it at home) and walked the cliff path to hidden coves. Having refused to eat almost anything other than banana and sweet potato in the past, he was eating spanakopita, dolmades; smearing tzatziki over his tanned little face. It was like another world, and for a whole week we became the cool, laidback hippy parents we always wished we could be.
But of course, before we knew it, the party was over and it was time to board the plane home. As we took our seats, I scanned the rows, desperate to find among the strangers’ faces that smiley man with a grey beard. “Where is Geoff?!” I pleaded aloud. Geoff was nowhere to be seen. Geoff had left me in my hour of need. We would be going it alone. “You’re going to have to be Geoff!” I told my husband. He looked at me as if I had gone quite mad: “Be who?” “BE GEOFF!” I shouted, desperately. The aisle in front was empty, so he sat where Geoff should have been and valiantly ducked back and forth in an attempt to distract our baby. He wasn’t Geoff, but he tried. The whole, interminable flight was a desperate balancing act of getting the baby to sleep, keeping him asleep, not letting him start crying, and stopping him crying. We passed him back and forth over the seats like a hot potato, willing the hours to pass, and apologising to everyone who would listen. By the time we got back to our car, hours later, battling (like a final insult) through a freak summer rainstorm in the car park, the azure seas and craggy cliff walks of Greece seemed a very, very long time ago. As we let ourselves back in to our flat that night, the tanned and hippy parents were long gone – we were back to our usual ghostly pallor, exhausted and broken. There was nothing for it but to book next summer’s holiday there and then. But this time, we’re going by boat.
Illustrations by Rachel Suzanne