"All this buttoning and unbuttoning," read an anonymous 18th-century suicide note. Struggling to fasten a few buttons on Astrid's dress, I catch a glimpse of this age-old melancholy, exasperation and world-weariness with the process of dressing. I try to catch Astrid as she writhes and wriggles on the bed. Butter-fingered and clumsy-thumbed, it takes me five minutes to do up three buttons. To make it worse, it is her third set of clothing and it is not even midday.
Clothing is full of mysteries that seem to override more immediate practicalities. Take, for instance, the way men's shirts button up on the right, while women's shirts button up on the left. In the 17th century, when this custom apparently began, clothes with buttons were worn mostly by rich people. And while wealthy men dressed themselves, wealthy women had servants to dress them. Men's shirts were therefore made for right-handed wearers to fasten easiest, while women's shirts were made for the benefit of right-handed servants. This practice has remained in place well beyond its function.
Clothing is littered with such relics of bygone customs and traditions. Fortunately, baby clothes are not as prone to such impractical remnants. It is just as well: Astrid would turn a white dress with frills and intricate lace patterns - the garment traditionally worn by Victorian babies - into a stained rag in minutes. She is not a sedentary being. She pushes clothes to their limits. In truth, Astrid demands an item of clothing that has not been invented yet. Made of the hi-tech materials such as Teflon and Kevlar, it would resemble a boiler suit with sturdy protective knee and elbow pads. It would be non-stick, wipe clean and have a fur-soft lining. It would fasten with Velcro or magnets, perhaps. Buttons on baby clothes are, as I have already established, a very bad idea. Metal studded poppers are not much better. Most importantly, the ideal garment would be a living, organic thing that would grow at the same rate as Astrid. If not, all this effort and expense would be in vain. No matter how hard wearing, it would only last for a few weeks.
Astrid grows so quickly. When she was a few months old, she was given some red shoes as a present. They are delightful. Soft leather with green leaf shapes sewn on the front, they are made to look like strawberries. Since they were sized 12-18 months, we put them away until she grew into them. When she was about seven months old, we tried the shoes on her, just to gauge when they might fit. It is fortunate we did; they were the right size. By 10 months old, she had outgrown them. The opportunity for a child to wear a particular item of clothing is fleeting. Its shelf life is short.
The scant use of children's clothes does have its benefits. The second hand shop in St Andrews Church in Abu Dhabi, for example, bristles with good-quality items for a fraction of their original price. Friends are often eager to pass on clothes that their children have grown out of. All in all, most children's garments are well used, eventually. There's only one problem for us with this life cycle of clothes: by the time Astrid has finished with them they are almost always worn out.
Like an infant ornithologist, Astrid spends a lot of time on the balcony watching birds. Small ones dart to and fro. Big ones with flashes of yellow come and perch on the rail. Pigeons flock and congregate on the pavement below. "Birds," we say, as Astrid stands at the glass watching these remarkable things flying about in the sky. Then there are big, noisy ones: "Aeroplanes," we say, and point. She has become very good at pointing whenever she hears the muffled roar of jet engines. We are on some kind of flight path and planes often pass over when we are having breakfast or dinner. Astrid has started pointing at things that sound like aeroplanes: the big lorry collecting rubbish or an old car spluttering into life. Mostly, though, it is the sound of planes.
The strangest thing that has appeared in the balcony's patch of sky is two men levitating on the side of the building. Astrid looked surprised when they floated down one morning. They tried to just get on with their job, but Astrid stood there, pointing and waving manically, trying to get their attention. Eventually, just before they set off to the floor below, one of them waved back. "Window cleaners," we said, as if in explanation.
Life on the balcony is complicated and interesting. * Robert Carroll