This week, another milestone in my life has been reached. Toby, my youngest son, has his last GCSE on Friday which thus effectively ends his time at secondary school. So many other things come to an end as well – packed lunches, homework arguments, lost PE kits and head-lice inspections to name but four – which stretch back almost unbroken line to when my eldest son, Michael, started primary school in 1997. Though all these tasks are dull, thankless and often expensive, I’m a bit sad to see them go. This is not just for the obvious reason, that it reminds me that I’m getting old. There’s also a part of me that quietly liked having someone rely on me and doing my best not to let them down. There’s also the issue of your children accepting, or even listening to, what you have to say on any particular subject. This point has long passed with all my sons: but the end of secondary school is the final proof that however much you want to pretend otherwise you’re living with other adult males. You don’t need to re-watch Life on Earth to know how that can end.
Although this is probably heretical in these times, I never had a great deal of interest in any of my children until they started to talk. Perhaps being present at the births didn’t help. The first was in a blizzard, the second in a heatwave, the third in hospital after a failed water-birth and the fourth at home. Each made me feel in different ways superfluous to requirements amid the crowd of professionals. The set up was like, in this respect if none other, those Ska bands in the late 70s and early 80s who always seemed to have one too many members. I was left standing in the corner with my string bag of organic tangerines and constantly getting in everyone’s way.
Back home was not much better. Michael was premature and spent his first ten days in an incubator. He came home on 1 January. On 3 January he started crying. He stopped – or so it seemed – round about the middle of April. It’s not, I told myself at 3am one night, that this stage will go on forever: it just feels like it.
With speech, however, a whole new relationship opened up. Michael’s first word, delivered in a flat and sinister monotone, was ‘scissors’: his brother Dom’s was, less menacingly, ‘dog’, an animal which I’ve never owned. From this unpromising start things got rapidly more interesting. One thing that amzazed me then and does so still was how quickly children pick up, and are fascinated by, the concept of ‘gone’. You wave a toy and say its name, then whip it behind your back and say ‘it’s gone.’ The child gurgles with delight and repeats the word, quite correctly, whenever something else vanishes. You’d think it was too alarming and abstract an idea for a tiny mind. Apparently not.
Not all their forays into language were so successful. Michael’s mum and I both worked so we employed a feisty nanny, Michelle, to look after Michael and his younger brother Dom during the day. She quickly controlled the situation by managing to relieve me of my car during the week, claiming it was essential for both her transport to and from us and her satisfactory entertainment of the boys. I never knew quite what form this took but when we came home in the evening their clothes were normally stained in a way that suggested most of the day at been spent eating cake.
One day, having wrested the car from Michelle, Lynda, I and the boys, then aged about three and one, were out for a little jaunt. In a narrow side street I paused to let through another car coming the other way. The driver paused, unsure of the geometry. I beckoned encouragingly. For a while nothing happened. Them from the back seat, a little voice piped up:
“Come on, mate,” Michael said, ‘you can get a fucking bus through there.”
Lynda and I both swung round. “What did you say?” we asked. Michael repeated the remark. He had even managed to pick up some of Michelle’s accent. Words were said with her the following day. I didn’t manage to regain full access to my car, though.
After Lynda and I split up, I drove between East Garston and Surbiton pretty much every other week picking up and dropping off Mike and Dom. This went on for about 12 years and rather less frequently after that as they got older and their local social lives started to dominate their weekends. I calculated that this was equivalent to driving two and a half times round the world. I mentioned this fact to Adam, then about 11.
“Really?” he said.
I then mentioned it to Toby, then about 10, who gave it a bit more thought. “You mean going up there, coming back with them, then taking them back on Sunday and coming back here?”
He thought about it some more. “But that means you’ve driven one and a quarter times round the world on your own.”
This aspect of it hadn’t occurred to me. Put that way, it seemed a very sad statistic. “Don’t worry,” I said, “that’s what Radio 4 is for.”
On one of these journeys, when Mike was about eight and Dom six, they started describing to me some object they’d recently found in the school playground. It seemed variously to resemble a gun, a large penknife, a small bomb or the discarded paraphernalia of a drug deal. I was becoming more and more agitated but every question produced fresh uncertainties. Where exactly had they found it? What had they done with it? Did they tell anyone? I took a deep breath and tried again.
“OK,” I said. feeling like a TV cop who’s decided to re-start the interview but this time without all the lies and bluster, “how big was it?”
There was a long pause. “It was the size of a dead squirrel,” Michael said: then added, as if this made everything clear, “glowing.”
At that point I remember slightly losing my mind. What did the fact that the squirrel was dead have to do with its size? Or that it was glowing? And glowing in what way? To my list of possible horrors I now had to add another aspect: was the item radio-active? In the back, Mike and Dom giggled and poked each other and occasionally gave completely irrelevant answers. I was quite glad to be doing that particular journey back on my own. If that was the best they could come up with, I thought, it would have better if they’d called it a day after ‘scissors’ and ‘dog’.
Some years later, they told me the whole story had been a complete invention. Thanks, guys.
So, all that linguistic nonsense is now over, as is the dependency (many of the costs remain, however). I don’t miss it: with one exception. This is when I see parents, normally mothers, with very small kids at the swimming pool.
This reaction mystifies me. I used to take the boys swimming quite a lot. The act of getting all the gear together, driving there, getting them changed and – worst of all – getting them dressed again afterwards were all ghastly. The swimming itself was fine, particularly when they were big enough to know how to hold their breath but still small enough to be thrown around, but being in the water occupied quite a small percentage of the total trip. When they were very young, extra excitement would sometimes be created by their pooing or peeing in the pool or falling over and cracking their heads open. I would come home exhausted, normally minus someone’s sock and a towel and often with a sore back from too much child-throwing. None of this made for a relaxing parenting experience.
And yet now, whenever I’m getting changed at the end of an adult session and the mums and tiny children, barely able to walk, are going in at the start of theirs, I get quite misty-eyed. It may because the sense of dependency for the kids about to enter this alien, watery world is heightened and so the steps are more hesitant, the parental hand gripped that more tightly. Perhaps it’s just that I’m recalling something that I ought to have derived more pleasure from at the time. Perhaps I’m just being confronted with another stage of life that I thought would carry on forever but has now ended. Whatever the reason, I often find myself staring at them getting hesitantly into the water, briefly transported back into a past that seems both very recent and alarmingly distant.
That, of course, is what I see and feel. What the mothers see is a middle-aged man staring at them and their child in their bathing costumes with an odd, yearning expression on his face that they couldn’t possibly identify and which could conceal a number of emotions. People have been barred from leisure centres for less.
So, now I’m careful and avert my eyes. The thoughts roll on, though, occasionally causing random words to rise unbidden towards my mouth. So, if you see a man with a battered swimming bag and his hair standing on end muttering ‘scissors…dogs…the size of a dead squirrel, glowing…’ that’ll be me. Nothing to worry about, guys – I’m just reconnecting with my past and keeping these long-gone moments alive in a way that doesn’t bother anyone else more than necessary. Either that or I really am finally going bonkers. Take your pick.