Tuesday, 27 July 2010

End of an era

It’s the end of an era: after years together, as a team, a family, they’re moving on to pastures new. Childhood is over, a new chapter is beginning, another phase. Something intangible is lost forever. It’s so sad.

Middle One leaving primary school? No, actually, I'm referring to the new Toy Story movie we saw on Sunday, but the parallels are uncanny.

I’ve spent a lot of the last ten days in tears and Toy Story 3 didn’t help. My blubbing started when Woody, Buzz, Jessie, et al, think they’re going to die: sliding toward the fiery abyss they stop trying to fight it, they look into each other’s eyes, they link hands. So brave! And I cried from then on.

(Spoiler alert: don't read this next bit if you haven't seen the movie.)

When Andy gives his toys away, I couldn’t look at the screen - they’re animated characters, for God’s sake, digital creations, nothing more than a load of pixels! But my children have grown up with Buzz, Woody and the gang, particularly Eldest, who’s the same age as the first movie (I think it came out in 1996). And there he is, sitting just a few seats along in the darkened cinema, next to his younger brothers, taller than me now, legs sprawled out in front of him, nearly all grown up, just like Andy. At least we’ve actually got him to the cinema with us for this whole-family outing: an increasingly rare event.

I suppose the crying began at the school play a week before, at the moment I heard, “when I grow older, I will be stronger, they call me freedom, just like a waving flag,” to be precise. Youngest had been singing the lyrics round and round the kitchen for days and their familiarity, and poignancy, was unnerving suddenly heard again in the charged atmosphere of an end-of-term production. It was too much for me. Growing older, getting stronger, all of it so significant at the moment with Middle One reaching the end of primary school and Youngest struggling to recover from a broken collar bone (again). And then on Thursday there was the leavers' assembly…

Strangely, I didn’t cry during the assembly itself, although I expected to and I took tissues along especially. In the event, the atmosphere was jolly, quite upbeat, maybe because there wasn’t any music or singing until the end. I heard that the Headteacher was determined there shouldn’t be any, “hysteria,” like last year. And there wasn’t. By the time Middle One stood up to read his memories, receive his award, take his certificate, it just felt right: time for him to move on, like Andy in Toy Story (see what I mean about the parallels!).

Still, I know I’m losing a little piece of him: his primary school persona, and our precious chats on the way to and from school. Inevitably, I will no longer be so involved in his life. I won’t see, and partake, in the little details. The secondary school world he is about to inhabit is largely unknown to me: I don’t know the lay-out of the buildings, I don’t know the teachers or the curriculum. It’s a whole new environment for him to explore and for me to observe from the sidelines.

Struggling him into his new uniform - the oversized blazer, the stiff white shirt, the scratchy trousers - he suddenly looked strange, alien, and just like all the rest: another sausage for their sausage factory. His clothes have been such a big part of his identity at primary school: ludicrously tight skinny jeans, brightly coloured converse trainers, rock group t-shirts, Rolling Stones courier bag slung casually across his shoulder: I will miss it. And I will miss seeing his familiar, loping frame descending the Year 6 stairs as he chats to his friends, and watching him rise from the bench at Friday assembly to read a piece of work. That little boy has gone, never to return.

Thank goodness there’s another, younger brother.


Dear Guardian reader: any resemblance between the sentiments expressed in this blog and Tim Dowling’s column on Monday in G2 are entirely coincidental…and rather spooky! I wrote this on Sunday after seeing Toy Story 3.

And also...

Dear all and any-type of reader: this is my last entry for a while. I’m taking the summer off and will return to blogging the week beginning Monday 6th September. Happy holidays!

Monday, 19 July 2010


A teacher rings to tell me there's been an accident at school. I’ve just plonked down at my desk having whizzed round the house, at top speed, eschewing my usual coffee and chat after pilates on Thursday, to tidy up and make beds in preparation for the grandparents’ visit. They’re on the train right now from Yorkshire, coming to see the youngest two in the school play tonight.
It happened during rehearsal this morning, says the teacher. Youngest fell off a bench and seems to have hurt his collarbone. Again? It must have re-fractured, I say. This is one of those moments, I want to rewind, put the phone down and pretend it isn’t happening: the play tonight, plans for the next few weeks, the much anticipated holiday in Spain, sports camp for the youngest ones so that I can work, all of it flashes before me like a roll of film played out, rewound and played anew. I can hardly bear it.
Middle One has lots to do in the play. He dances, he plays guitar, he acts the part of a traveller who comes to the kingdom, solves a mystery and is crowned King. And Youngest has a couple of lines too, he says, “he might be the paparazzi!” and, “let’s dance!” So he's thrilled. He’s doing Michael Jackson’s Moon Walk as well and he’s over the moon about that. It will be the last time they’re both in the primary school play and the first, and last, time they’ve been on stage together.
At school, sitting alone on a tiny chair, looking pale and hunched and fragile, his arm slung across his body in a flimsy piece of gauze, as soon as I see him I know he's broken something. That look is familiar, except, hang on a minute, that's the other arm! It’s not the bone he broke a few weeks ago, it's his right side this time!
He’s so little, and skinny, and he struggles with so much, the mere thought that he won’t be able to take part in the play after all, when he’s been so looking forward to it, with his two precious lines, and the Moon Walk, in front of his Grandparents…it’s too dreadful. I crouch on my knees to look into his big, doleful eyes. “I'm so sorry,” I say, “this is so sad, it’s breaking my heart. It’s just breaking my heart.”
Luckily, I’ve brought a carton of juice, for Youngest, and lots of spare cash for the car park, anticipating the inevitable trip to A&E. But what about the grandparents? How will they get in the house if I’m not there? I ring my mother’s mobile. No reply. Then I remember, she only switches it on when she wants to ring someone. I ring husband and he says he’ll try to get through, I also ring a friend. Luckily, I happen to see them emerging from the Tube as I drive past and pull over like a lunatic (double red route and a bus lane) handing them the key and shouting out the alarm code as I go.
After two and a half hours in A&E, Youngest and I finally escape only slightly better off than before, and a great deal more frazzled: he has a marginally better sling and I have official confirmation that the right collarbone is broken. Oh, and he decides he’s going to perform in the play tonight come hell or high water. Really? Are you sure? Yes! The show will go on.
I’m so over-wrought by the time I get to the performance that I sob all through the start as cute little Year 1’s sing the Africa song. Middle One sees me from his spot in the wings and looks horrified; but it’s all wonderful. How Youngest manages to dance in the middle of a throng of thirty gyrating Year 3’s without being bumped or knocked is a miracle. Had I known quite what he was proposing I’m not sure I would have agreed, but he does it and it’s fab. By the end of the hour, after a heady cocktail of nervous energy, adrenalin and pride I can hardly speak.
Later, gingerly helping Youngest lie back on his pillows as I put him to bed, I notice tiny bits of disco make-up still sparkling on his eyelids.
“Is your heart okay now, Mummy?” He asks. “It’s not still breaking is it?”

Monday, 12 July 2010

One small step for him, one giant leap for me.

5.10 pm.

I’m sure he’s fine. He’s eleven. Just think what I did when I was his age. And he’s sensible, mature for his age.

5.15 pm

Rehearsals finished at 5.00. With a bit of chat, walking down the stairs, meandering out of the playground, then down the High Road…

I’ll just start dinner, that’ll take my mind off it. I need to make a white sauce for the lasagna...

If any of this anxiety sounds familiar you’re probably the mother of a newly independent child, like me, and you have my deepest sympathy. It’s late afternoon on Wednesday, I’ve already picked up Youngest from school and now I’m waiting for Middle One to appear - one of his first forays into freedom, walking back from school all this week after rehearsals for the end of term play. I’ve been here before, of course, with Eldest – and have my regular panics about him still - but this is different, I’m not used to this yet, and despite the fact he would never admit it, neither is Middle One.

5.20 pm

The doorbell rings and I rush to answer it expecting to see a familiar skinny frame through the glass, to hear a laconic response as I open the door. But no. It’s two charity workers wanting money. I’m unreasonably short. I was expecting my son, I say, as if it’s their fault he’s not standing there on the step.

I go back to cooking, thinking of all the things that could happen, I decide getting run over is most likely. I think about that driveway into Tesco Express, the way cars whizz in at top speed. I think about the programme I caught the other night on BBC Four, In Loving Memory, with all the sad little ways in which people commemorated the loss of their loved ones, and in particular, I think of the scene in which a mother takes the camera crew into her 15 year-old daughter’s perfectly preserved bedroom: here’s her teddy, here are her photos, here is her handprint photocopied for an art project. The mother gently rests her own hand on top of her dead daughter’s ghostly imprint. “We were very alike,” she says, and she cries. Again.

5.25 pm

I remember, when we lived in our old house, the first time I let the oldest ones go to the sweet shop on the corner; I stood by the gate watching them run down the road. Only twelve houses or so along from us, no roads to cross, and I’d already told Mr Yogi, the lovely shopkeeper, that they were coming, asking if he would keep an eye on them, and I know he did. But I still worried.

I remember the time we first let them go swimming at the local pool without us, after they nagged and nagged. They’d only been gone ten minutes when I changed my mind. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea? Eldest was 11, but Middle One was still only 9. Was it too young? Would Eldest be sensible and wait for Middle One? I fretted, and after a long while, when they weren’t back dead on time, lost my nerve completely asking husband to look for them. He went off on his bike. There they were, just round the corner, walking very slowly, bickering all the while, Eldest just about to give Middle One a sneaky little kick. And we were so cross, we said they weren’t allowed to go anymore.

5.30 pm

None of this helps. I look at the clock. Rehearsals finished half an hour ago. It doesn’t take half an hour to walk back. I drop the spoon in the saucepan, pick up the keys, walk out into the street and peer down the road. Nothing. I go back in. Will you go and look for Middle One? I say to Eldest. Just walk down the road a bit? I have to cook, Youngest has a friend over. Eldest nods and goes to look for his shoes. I stir the sauce. This is it. What shall we do if he doesn’t come and we can’t find him? Who can I ring? Will anyone still be at school? The doorbell rings. It’s Middle One leaning against the porch, hand on his hip.

“You were a long time,” I casually remark as he lopes into the house and throws down his bag.

“Yeah, it took F a really long time to find his things. Then I went to Tesco for a cinnamon whirl.”

Of course you did.

“Okay,” I shrug, giving him a relieved little hug and kissing the top of his head.

I go back to the sauce and almost straightaway forget that I was ever worried.

Until the next time.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The school trip

We’re on our way to Dulwich Picture Gallery for the Year 3 school trip.

“What’s got molars and a crooked nose?” says Youngest’s classmate, L, sitting next to me on the coach.

“Molars? What, like teeth?” I say.

“No!” Says L, making little imaginary dots on his cheeks. “Molars, like this, on your face!”

“Oh! Moles.”

“Yes. That’s what I said, molars on your face.”

I let it go. He’s half French. “I don’t know, what has moles and a crooked nose?” I say.


Incomprehensible riddles aside, I’ve landed on my feet here. No public transport (hooray!) so no tube changes with no herding six unruly boys (they always give me boys) on and off the Northern line. And no sweaty-palmed anxiety either, as one of my party runs ahead, turns a corner and is suddenly, albeit temporarily, lost.

No, this is the crème de la crème of school trips, the Thompson a-la-carte, rather than the day trip to Butlins. Metaphorically. They don’t actually take children to Butlins, although having said that…

Going back a few years there was a trip, when Eldest was in reception, that, even after all this time I haven’t expunged from the memory. Like some sort of post-traumatic school trip stress, it’s seared in there.

It was very hot, like today, but unlike today there wasn't an air-conditioned coach to waft us to and from our destination, nor fresh, green manicured lawns with mature oaks to sit under for a snack when we got there.

For some baffling reason we set off by train to a funfair in Battersea situated on the baking, featureless, tarmac surrounding the old power station. Upon arrival each adult was given tokens, for rides, and that was it. Just me, my group of boys (of course), the baking sun and about four hours to kill.

Of all the horrific moments that day - and there were many - two people’s expressions stay with me. Eldest’s stricken little face when he came off a huge bouncy castle at the entrance, rather than the exit, and for several excruciating moments couldn’t see me through the crowd. (I could see him, but getting to him, while shepherding four others, was another matter.)

And the unflappable reception teacher. Slim, tall, elegant, her smooth grey bob still as smooth and grey and bobbed at the end of the day as it had been at the beginning. It was just her smile, while every bit as firmly attached, which was rather more ruffled.

But, as I say, Dulwich Picture Gallery is nothing like that. There’s a café-stop built into the schedule (despite word on the street that coffees for parents are now strictly forbidden), and lots of parents too, so groups are small and manageable. What with clean, fresh loos and plenty of opportunity to sit down, every box is ticked.

There is, alas, still the obligatory getting involved, as Lois, actor-turned-drama-teacher (all smock dress, rounded vowels and hair scooped-up sixties-style), enlists our help on the bongo drums. But apart from that, it's a lovely day and a perfect end to the year.

On the way back, I sit next to L again.

“What has more molars and a crooked nose?” He says.

“Don’t know.” I say. “What has more MOLES and a crooked nose?”

“Still ugly.”