My children, who I call the dwarfs, at the end of the day, after I've concocted them three meals, sometimes four, have a habit of asking for warm milk and a platlet of fruit or bowl of dried banana.
I remove myself from the sofa and fiddle around in the kitchen heating the milk and assembling the plastic pieces of the beaker which prevent leaks. I'm threadbare from the day, and the day before that, and even a little bit of residue from the one before that.
The larger dwarf has sensed something and follows me to the kitchen, naked, on his scooter. He says sheepishly, 'Mummy, no rush with the fruit.' As he scoots out again, he turns to me and says little more quietly. Head down. 'Mummy. Do you miss Daddy? Because I do.' And scoots out the door.
The Daddy diet has begun, as my husband, J, begins his first seven week stretch away from us. We have a year of this ahead. He in Baghdad, me and three small people in Jerusalem. We're used to random-combination destinations as a diplomatic family but this one's a strange one. His lack is my overload; his silence, my noise; his solitude; my endless companionship. Mostly of dwarfs. But as Tom Hanks said recently: there is big difference between loneliness and solitude. In my mind the two are as different as starvation and hunger. One is a deeper need that can't be solved with simple company or food; the other is a deep understanding that everything is alright, but comes with a little pang of a reminder to enjoy the feeling and use it well, before the situation changes: ie. your husband returns, your friend comes to visit, or you have food on your plate.
As J works towards one single mission, my missions are multitudinous. The dwarfs, the boddler (she's neither baby nor toddler, quite) and I all have our routines, but I've noticed that through our intense togetherness, we've also begun to leak into each other's lives. The dwarfs stay up later with me, as we're invited to friends’ houses on weekend evenings. On our starlit walks home, I'm flanked in the darkness by two dwarfs on scooters, boddler in a pram as we wheel through the darkness back home, the call to prayer sounding through the warm air. And I find myself of a Sunday morning, with no fellow adult in the home, eating nutella on toast and hooting with laughter over Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip; or trying to stifle a sob on E.T. when he points to the little boy's head and says: 'I'll be right here.'
Our lives and our flesh seem inseparable in our small oasis in the centre of one of the most magic yet tragic cities of the world. The physicality of dwarf and baby presence, both trips me up and supports me. J has none of this, and the seven weeks of absence must be in this sense harder for him.
The dwarfs are most of the time my allies - their conversation sometimes deep ('Mummy, God is the guard of the world' or 'Mummy if all the people in the whole wide world, died, would that be the end of the world? And if so, would God begin making it all over again?' from the smaller dwarf) between naked wrestling or boddler wrangling. 'She is the most loved, and cuddled and stroked and pummeled and sucked and occasionally kicked or dropped-by-mistake, baby sister. You guys are going to be so fine you know - you'll swim the river, you'll wrestle the crocodile and it'll all be good,' J says as he leaves us.
And I also have my other allies - so many friends around, and Marwan in the local shop on the corner, whose shelves are stacked so high in his tiny store he has to flick the cereal down with a long stick so you have to duck to avoid flying Cheerios. Marwan is my friend. He sells cereal, salami and Leffe Blonde beer.
We have our moments, also. When I signed up for this year of separation, the boddler wasn't moving. Now we have a constant refrain. 'Hang on, where is she?'
It's as though she's on wheels, and she doesn't answer when we call.
'Mummy - she's crawling down the path to the gate!'
'She's got a mouth full of fir cones Mummy'!' as the smaller dwarf shoves a grimy hand into her mouth to pull out the dribbly brown bits.
'She's chewing the loo brush!'
Or worst of all, tears of fury as 12kg of human gnocchi crushes a Lego masterpiece.
Before he leaves, J gives us a beautiful chess/backgammon set made in Syria, so we have something other than Alvin and his merry 'munks to focus on while he's away. The larger dwarf and I play chess (we're teaching ourselves on Youtube which is time consuming and intense) so the smaller dwarf gets bored and rearranges the pieces or drops them on the floor. 'Look - I've knocked off some of your prawns and your ponies,' he cackles, looking for a rise. We look down as the boddler squashes a bishop into one cheek, the other side already packed with draughts dics. More tears. I study the mother of pearl on the chess board and wonder where are the Syrian hands that set the tiny pieces into it.
When we're in the house together, there is constant, constant conversation, and I sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure I’m listening - because it's all important, though all incessant. I almost switched off this morning while slicing into a newly baked fruity loaf, re-heating porridge, packing snacks for school and feeding the boddler with a sticky spoon of mango inbetween. But fortunately I switched back on in time to hear the larger dwarf's vignette on Gene Wilder's death.
'Willy Wonka, Mummy?' 'You mean he's dead?
'Well - the actor who played Willy Wonka died. Because he was very old and he was ill'.
A small silence.
'But you know what? That is really clever because what they do is they make the film with the Willy Wonka man in it, the one who's just died, and then they put it in a DVD, so then, so then he will stay there forever! Even when he dies, then he doesn't go away.'
A six year old's way of explaining preservation in Celluloid. Gene - you're with us. In our cupboard under the telly. And it's really nice to know you haven't gone away.
If only we could keep Daddy under the telly too.