Big Al is back.
My four-year old nephew and his family have been sunning themselves on Cornish beaches, and it has been quiet as the grave.
Perhaps Al missed things a little, for he has taken up a self-appointed role as the household’s receptionist and switchboard.
You will all know that seismic uncertainty when, for some unearthly reason, there is an under-five on the other end of the phone. The firm foundations of the grown up world disappear and you are held, suspended in random space, by the small person on the other end of the phone.
Because they know that by sheer fluke, and the happy coincidence of stumbling on a handset wedged on the sofa behind the dog, they have put themselves in a situation when they really are in charge.
For Al’s content, he chooses whatever has been going on just before he found the phone. Thus, he answered my call on Saturday “I have you in my power forever,” and roared extremely fiercely three times.
There was then a short silence.
“Hello, Al,” I ventured.
Al did not have the grown up’s urgency to propel this interaction forward. Keeping Auntie Kate dangling on the phone was entertaining. I riffled through hooks which might catch this slippery fish.
“Did you have a nice time on holiday, Al? Did you paddle?”
A grown up sane voice: my sister, and just as things were getting interesting.
Later I knocked on the door of Al’s house. The family had been doing a spot of Macaulay-the-dog sitting.The door flung open and most of the family was framed in the doorway.
Except Al, who flew belatedly through from the playroom en route to some Machiavellian toy-based scheme or other. Our eyes met and he screeched to a halt.
“Are you going to say hello to Auntie Kate, Al?” my sister prompted.
Al stared fixedly for about four seconds before bolting back in the direction from which he had come.
And then he reappeared, clutching a snowy white cuddly toy. He ran right up to me and locked me joyfully with his eyes. “This is Snowy!” he said.
Snowy is king of the moment, but he will never be king of Al’s heart. For that privilege belongs to Shammy.
Yes, Shammy: a small battered meercat who looks about as much like a meercat as a ginger tom looks like a ferret. A bug-eyed necessity. Shammy was packed in Al’s bag for nursery every day of his little-school life. Sleeping is tough without Shammy, tantrums ensue when we go to landmark places without Shammy. Shammy is the path, the route, the doctrine through which Al’s small life is lived.
Shammy’s tao-like status has given his mother the collywobbles. What if Shammy were lost? How could they ever replace him?
She sought out an identical toy and bought it immediately.
But it was not identical: it was new, and Shammy is lovingly matted, infused with the smell of toddlerhood and bedtime and life with Mummy.
And should Shammy disappear- God forbid, touch wood, turn three times round and throw a charm to ward off such a horrific event – Al must never notice another Shammy has arrived in his place.
So a Shammy Mark II battering programme was instigated, under the careful jurisdiction of my mother. She has been passing the days kneading the cuddly; exposing it to a little life.
But though Mum spends whole episodes of Antiques Roadshow squeezing Shammy II, the small toy remains stubbornly pristine. There is a secret ingredient missing.
Perhaps it is just time.
Or perhaps it is the unfailing obsessive love of a very small receptionist.