Taking the field together

cricket gameAs I stand in the garden, goalkeeper and guardian to two football mad boys, I often think forward to a time when the brothers can play alongside each other. I imagine a one-two that cuts through a defence, or some other combination of their different strengths.

They have, of course, played together in ad hoc, occasional matches. There was the Euro-holiday game that could have ended grimly for no.2 son. And, three years ago, at home for once for New Year, we were invited to play a dads v lads game in our local park. We left home with no.2 son sobbing – his brother had told him he was too young and couldn’t play. Good sense – or not – prevailed and both boys lined up. The ground was frosty and the cold felt by all. No.2 son had cheered up. One of the dads, forced into defence, unsteady on the slippery ground, took a swing and sliced a ball hard straight into no.2 son’s face. He was knocked off his feet, but the tears that flowed when told earlier that he couldn’t play didn’t reappear. With jutting chin and stinging face, he played on.

Junior football operates strict age group delineation. So my two boys, five school years apart, won’t get to play together in competitive fixtures for maybe ten years. I can wait and will continue to imagine how they may play together – exchanging passes, creating chances, celebrating each other’s success.

Then, all of a sudden, this summer, it has happened. Two of my children have taken the field together, in partnership. It wasn’t the game I had so often watched two of my children compete and combine at. The pairing wasn’t even the one I had often conjured with.

It was no.2 son and his sister (the 1&onlyD), representing our cricket club’s under 9 team – the Squirrels.

Several weeks before the cricket season started, the club ran indoor practice sessions for its girls squad. Knowing that numbers would be low, I mentioned to the 1&onlyD that she might want to try out cricket. She surprised me and agreed. She surprised me again and enjoyed herself and continued to go to practices when they moved outside.

Junior cricket has hit on an excellent way of encouraging girl cricketers, which doesn’t rely on clubs finding a whole team of players in the same age group (which continues to be tricky). Girls are allowed to play for boys teams two age groups younger than their own. It was through that dispensation that the 1&onlyD made her competitive cricket debut alongside her younger brother.

The Squirrels Coach was alert to the importance of the situation. He invited the 1&onlyD to captain the side – taking part in the ceremonial coin toss – and when the Squirrels were invited to bat first, he selected the siblings as the opening pair. And that’s them in the middle distance in the photo at the top of the page (my daughter’s leggings and pink Converse are easier to admire below).

E bowlerThey returned to the boundary, smiling, having run some singles hard and shown solid batting technique. Later, in the field, they took their turn at bowling. No.2 son, more self-confident, bustled about and completed four run outs. The 1&onlyD stuck to her fielding position, stopping and returning the ball, and when the action dulled, turned a few cartwheels.

That this minor milestone in my children’s sporting lives (and my spectating existence) should have been shared by the younger two of the three, now feels fitting. They have been playmates and conspirators since infancy, inventing games and immersed in each other’s company. Neither has put age and gender difference up as a barrier, at home or, more notably, at school. It’s a very special relationship, albeit one that I’m reconciled to seeing change and maybe become less intense, as their interests diverge. On this evening, brother-sister, teammates, opening partners, continued their happy kinship, taking the field together.

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Why I am a Mother in the Middle

girl knightsI wanted to call myself ‘mother in the middle’ as it seemed an appropriate summary of my life now, in my mid forties. I hope I am central to my children’s lives at the moment and for some years to come and integral to the chaos that our family life brings. But beyond that, I am at a mid point in other important ways. I am the middle of three sisters, I live in the middle of the country between the family bases of Scotland and London and I am middle aged. And looming larger than anything else at the moment, I am in the middle of the generations, between children that could not be more full of life and energy and a mother who is dying.

When I was growing up and into my twenties and thirties, she was always the kind of mother who prided herself on being mistaken for ‘one of the girls’, the three daughters all born when she was in her twenties. She was always incredibly youthful looking, small and slim. She railed quietly against being one of the grown-ups and possessed instead a child-like air. Even her mannerisms suggested childhood and a wish to escape the boredom of life as an adult. Chairs always seemed slightly too big so she would either sit with her legs curled under her, or swing them like a little girl sitting on a swing. I recall family car journeys where she would race to the car to get into the back seat before me, forcing me into the role of grown up in the front seat sitting next to my father, listening to his inevitable diatribe about whatever was wrong with whichever classical music programme he had chosen to put on the radio, as she gazed out the window in the back, refusing to participate.

She was the kind of mother who got a second wind when her children grew up a bit. Having gone straight from her parents’ home to a marital home in her early twenties and, like many of her generation, been immersed almost immediately into homemaking and motherhood, she shook off the shackles at forty and blossomed as she went to university as a mature student. As a serious minded and introverted teenager, I think I was a challenge to my mother’s reinvention as she embraced a second go at teenage life herself, determined to do it right this time. Years before Ab Fab got there, she was the mother dressed in trendy outfits, urging me to ditch my embarrassing baggy clothes, get my nose out of a book and talk to the boys.

She was the kind of woman who found it challenging to accept that she was going to be a grandmother whilst still in her forties. Not for her the cosiness of ‘Nana’ or ‘Granny’ – that was for old women. Her first batch of grandchildren would call her by her first name.

Even after breast cancer first came to her in her early fifties, she came through it, apparently back to her youthful self in no time. She was not a ‘survivor’ or a ‘battler’, she just simply refused to talk about it and almost pretended it had never happened. When it came back after twelve years or so and began its slow, inexorable march through her bones, she displayed a dignity, bravery and stoicism that I would never have thought her capable of.

And most of all, there has been her trademark denial, her child like ability to refuse to acknowledge that anything bad could happen. Her refusal to ask any questions to which she may get an unpleasant answer. Her implicit faith that the doctors know what they are doing and that she will keep on taking the tablets, having the chemotherapy and doing what she is directed to do and that way she will keep on going until she’s ‘at least eighty’. Her pronouncements , whilst wincing and downing great swigs of liquid morphine, that a spot of shiatsu massage should sort out the back pain. Her tragi-comic assertions that perhaps it’s just that her bra is a bit tight that is making her breathless and in pain.

Now, at 71, she is finally and suddenly an old woman, a broken woman. She appears to have gone straight from seeming sometimes decades younger than her age, to seeming far far older. Cancer has finally taken her straight from middle youth to the physical trials of extreme old age. The destruction of her bones has given her a centegenarian’s stoop and the inability to shuffle more than a few steps. Her child like frame and short stature has become a grotesque shrunken tininess, as her vertebrae collapse to make her as small as my very small ten year old daughter. Something wrong in her head, no one knows quite what, means that one of her eyes will no longer open. The hair that she experimented with so often – no one had more hair styles in her time than my mother – is now an odd texture, tufty in its post chemotherapy regrowth. Her body is contorted with pain and her body labours to breathe properly, as cancer creeps through her lungs too. My father feeds her liquid morphine on a spoon, carefully tucking a tea towel under her chin to catch any drips and she opens her mouth like a baby sparrow to take it. I go to see if she is sleeping and I do not see my mother lying in the bed; there is instead a (mis)shape under the duvet, still on her side as she is unable any more to lie on her deformed back.

The doctors that she has put so much faith in have finally told her what others have seen for many months – that they have nothing left to offer her. The miracles of modern medicine have given her many extra years but they have reached the end of the line. We are told by my tearful father when visiting to mark my mother’s seventy first birthday this month. I talk to her later that day and she looks me straight in the eye and says that she was shocked, she had expected some new treatment to try to give her years not months or weeks, but that the truth is a relief, that she does not want to go on like this. With one eye in its permanently shut position and with her frame reduced to skin and bone, her one good eye shines enormous and blue, unflinching as she stares into my eyes and talks to me honestly, adult to adult.

I ask my parents, uselessly, what I can do to make this easier for them. They tell me that what I must do is nurture my family and bring up ‘the replacements’ for their generation. So this is what I will try to do.

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Going Dutch

departureNo.1 son has had a taste of European football. And it wasn’t the usual first round elimination on away goals suffered by so many English teams on their initial venture onto the Continent. He has spent six nights with his club side in Utrecht, playing four matches against local junior sides.

The club has run this trip for its under 13 cohort for a decade. It was with that experience behind it that us parents were told in December to get fund raising. Thirteen boys signed up and (sort of) got busy packing bags in local supermarkets, helping the car parking at the club on Saturday mornings, while the parents ran some other money-making ventures – always conscious that our kids having a trip to Holland was not a cause for charity.

No.1 son had initially said he wasn’t interested. A fear of flying was the deterrent. On being asked a second time, with most of his close friends on board, he expressed a desire to go. The dislike of travel by plane jabbed away at him – and therefore, at us – all the way until the departure. The only thing to deflect him from this obsession – by irritating him – came the week before leaving when the team gathered to be fitted for the tour tracksuit. His had been ordered two sizes too big, which he took as some form of conspiracy to make him look daft.

Sunday morning, a minibus came to take the team and its four adult coaches/support staff to the airport. Some mums cried. Dads were shaking their heads at failing to use this as an excuse for their own trip to Holland. And then there was, apart from a couple of Facebook updates each day, silence.

The story of the tour, told to us by no.1 son, is still quite fragmentary. The first game was won. No.1 son was awarded man of the match. He conceded he could barely keep his eyes open by the end of that game, due to some high jinks that kept most of the team awake through the first night in their hostel.

As news reached us on the evening of day 2 that the second match had also been won, I quickly made the equation that if no.1 son’s team could beat two Dutch teams on their own soil, Roy Hodgson’s task in Brazil would be far from impossible. More down to earth, I also realised how much I missed not seeing my older boy play in this new environment.

Games three and four went more like an England appearance at an international tournament, as they were lost to two “good footballing” sides. But, Won 2 – Lost 2, was a decent return from the trip.

What we find worthy of remark about another country says as much about ourselves as it does about where we have visited. I treasured most no.1 son’s surprise in finding that Dutch children all have showers after their games. What this really pointed to wasn’t so much our poor hygiene but that Dutch junior clubs have facilities that include changing rooms, club houses with kitchens (they all ate together after the games) and 3G pitches. Think about the changing rooms, if any, at your local junior football club and you get a sense of the investment the Dutch make in their youngsters’ sport. A hot shower at the ground is quite a good image to hold and compare with the muddy knees and sweaty heads that return home from games in England.

Four games in five days left the team just enough time for trips to FC Utrecht’s stadium, a theme park and an indoor water park. These events were the source of as many stories as the football matches and were important to the success of the trip.

Mother in the Middle and I asked no.1 son cautiously about how he had got on with the team-mates. We were intrigued (and pleased) to hear that one lad whom he has played alongside for three years, but never really considered a close friend, was his favourite company away. That sort of recognition is one of the fringe benefits of spending so much time away from family. Another spin-off, he tells me, is that he can now identify the smell of marijuana being smoked – “it was everywhere”.

I kept my Dad up to date with the trip. Not for the first time, his grandson’s sporting activities sparked a memory of his own youth. Shortly after the second world war, my Dad was part of a school group who went on a cycling holiday in Holland. While the country’s flat landscape made it the perfect location for cycle-touring, my Dad remembers most strongly cycling up a hill that due to an optical illusion appeared to be downhill. Known as ‘magnetic’ or ‘gravity hills’ there are records of hundreds of them across the world. Unfortunately, none of the lists on the web mentions one in Holland.

The Dutch welcome was as warm in 1947 as it was for my son’s team this year. My Dad remembers, wherever they stayed, being filled up on real dairy milk and eggs – products that England’s post-war austerity meant remained scarce and never something to gorge on.

No.1 son also crowned his account of the trip with a story of eating. It shows how much has changed in 67 years. This story didn’t concern the unexpected abundance of basic agricultural products, but of vegimite, KP sauce, cinnamon, and the other oddments which made up the team’s ‘Bush-tucker trial’.

____________________

I cannot finish without an (anonymous) acknowledgement and thank you to the two Dads/Coaches who chose to end their eight month season by taking the rest of our kids with them, as well as to the two club officials who also subjected themselves to our boys for a week. You are very kind, patient and brave.

 

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Advice to children aged 13

cake 13One of the pleasures of being a child is seeing your parents adapt and change. From silly games when you are young to full-blown sporting competition as you get older. From cuddles to a respectful decorum.

However, many children notice dramatic changes in their parents around 12-14 years after their own birth. What follows is a short guide to interpreting and managing those changes in your parents.

One of the surest signs that an adult has been a parent for around 13 years are flare ups of erratic, moody and dictatorial behaviour. They tend to occur in one of three circumstances:

  • you are enjoying yourself – this apparently becomes difficult for parents of this vintage to bear
  • you are settled comfortably watching TV or playing a game
  • you have been out of the house with friends.

You may also notice parents becoming awkwardly talkative, particularly at times when you’ve a lot on your mind and don’t want to be discussing your day at school or what you would like to do in the Christmas holidays.

You are likely to experience them being picky and very repetitive about trivial matters such as where in your room clothes are kept, or that you should talk to your siblings. It’s evidence of a wider loss of perspective on their part. Pressing issues such as our world becoming polluted; and which group of friends you should walk to school with, frankly, they just wouldn’t understand, let alone be able to engage with.

There’s also a resentfulness creeping into their behaviour. Accompanying you in the car (but not getting out with you) to the cinema, friend’s house and then shopping centre are somehow inconvenient. Your financial entitlement comes with strings attached. This aspect of parents’ behaviour is often most acutely felt when you put some of their possessions – jewelry, make-up, mobile phone – to good use; certainly much better than anything they would have done with those objects.

It’s not easy, but you should try to understand your parent, who is experiencing major life changes. At its root may be their sudden realisation that they are turning into someone they despised 25-30 years ago (their own parents). They may be trying to ‘spread their wings’ – having had a negligible social life for the last decade or more, squashed by their insistence on following you around since you were young. Many parents have simply lost the social skills to make new friends. Physically, they’re having to cope with changes, too. Hair is thinning or greying, or both. Joints are grinding and muscles becoming inelastic.

All of this is normal and you should take none of it personally. Although, that may be difficult if your parents exhibit the following extreme behaviour.

The very worst of it, which some of you will face, is that around this time some parents begin writing – blogging. And they choose to write about you; well that’s their pretext, but of course they’re just projecting the difficult changes in their life onto you. This is a tricky situation for everyone, particularly as they will be going through a pretence of not wanting you to know what they are doing, when really it’s a cry for help. Opinion is divided over the best response, but there are broadly two options:

  1. troll them into silence; or
  2. crank things up a little so they have a good selection of ‘episodes’ about which they can write.

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Cricket Bags – A Rejoinder

In his blog post ‘Cricket Bags – Good Home Sought’, my cricket obsessed husband posed the question ‘So what is it my wife has against my cricket bag?’

Well, plenty actually. As he shrewdly concludes himself, for both of us The Bag is not just a bag. For him, it is a repository of hopes and dreams. It represents an alternative life of sporting prowess, a belief in the possibility of heroic performance, a call up to the team that might just still happen, a remembrance of magnificent times past, a clinging on to youth.

So what is The Bag to me? It – or they (for my son has his own large bag too) – are firstly irritating and oppressive in the amount of space they take up.   Together, with various accoutrements spilling out of them, they can take up the entire floor space of our front room. They sit there, squat and ugly, bringing to mind sweating men on a train, legs spread wide, flaunting their maleness and laying down their expectation that they can take up as much room as they damned well please. The contrast between The Bag(s) and my daughter’s sporting equipment – a small velour leotard and a tidy drawstring bag of hand guards – could not be greater.

It doesn’t stop with The Bag either. There are the stumps, the helmet that won’t fit into The Bag, the balls that get taken out for a bit of casual tossing in the air (and then get left on the stairs as some sort of perverse assault course), the endless cricket coaching paperwork spilling out over the floor and left on various random surfaces throughout the house, the jumper that been taken off, rained on and then thrown on top of The Bag to slowly rot. Or most of the contents of The Bag, which have been rifled through in some search or other and dumped on the floor next to, but not back into, The Bag . There has been a gradual annexation of the front room, to the extent that I rarely go in it now. It is not just that there is not much room to stand in, but that the computer is usually tuned to BBC Sports or the Bundesliga highlights catch up on iplayer, with a junior male member of the family sprawled in front of it. It has become a male preserve, albeit one with my old Virginia Woolf books on the bookshelf.

The Bag also represents to me my expected role in the proceedings – being the support act. When I look at The Bag I see subservience. I see the washing that needs to be done, the washing that is only done by me. In my son’s case, I am either the bore who has to nag him to extract the dirty clothes for washing, or the inadequate servant who has failed to produce white clothes washed and dried on time.   I feel I am being inadequate generally – as if I should leap at the opportunity to rush up to the club and do a bit of ‘admin’ so that the men/boys can get on with the more interesting stuff. Or should pop on a batch of scones and a fruit loaf so that the men/boys can have something tasty and suitably homely to eat when they troop off the field at tea, exhausted by their sporting efforts. Although I have not been asked to do either of these things and I know that I genuinely could not shoehorn anything else into my week at the moment, I resent the fact that I even feel guilty about failing to want to contribute in this way.   I am not being a proper cricketing wife and mother.

The Bag in this context represents to me the fact that male leisure time is leisure for them and leisurely in nature. A cricket match lasts hours and hours and hours. Watching a test series lasts days and days and distracts one’s husband in the very marital bed itself (headphones, SkyGo and an Ipad are a heady twenty first century combination in the bedroom). Female leisure time includes having to do the washing, or the cooking, or the driving, or the watching – not the participating and none of the glory.

For as long as I have known him, my husband has gone away every August bank holiday weekend with The Bag on ‘cricket tour’, with old university friends and fellow cricket fans. At first, I was wholeheartedly enthusiastic about this tradition and referred to it as ‘cricket tour’ to my own family and friends, who on occasion (I’m looking at you mother) seemed rather confused that an accountant (not his job, but what my mother has believed his job to be for the last 17 years) would be doing on a cricket tour. After child number one, it was still an uncomplicated issue for me. However, after child two and child three put in appearances, it became clear that, due to the increasing age and decreasing fitness of the participants, there was no ‘tour’ at all. Since at least 2001 they have stayed in the same luxurious farmhouse. Since not long after that, they played the same one or two matches against the same local team, meaning precious little cricket and no touring whatsoever. I did not and do not mind my husband having a holiday, which he deserves, but I did find the assertion that they were going ‘on cricket tour’ increasingly hard to stomach when I was staying behind to look after three very small children. The grandiose Bag was part of that (self) delusion for me. Please call it a holiday – and I’ll admit to being jealous at not having an equivalent outlet in my life.

But I’m not all bad (I hope). I am pleased that my husband has a passion for something that engages him on a physical and intellectual level. I am delighted that he has something over which he seems likely to be able to bond with our older son (and possibly younger son) on an ongoing basis. I see the bond which he has with his own father, due in no small measure to their mutual passion for the game. I am very proud of the wonderful job he is doing as a coach for junior teams. If he could just been a teensy bit tidier and find somewhere for The Bag, quite soon, he would be practically perfect.

I agree with him, we need a shed. And as a wise woman said back in the 1920s, I need a Room of My Own.

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Thirteen

messi squaredIt does not seem possible that I am a mother to a teenage boy. But it was indisputably thirteen years ago, on an uncharacteristically hot Bank Holiday Monday in a now unfamiliar city that I then called home, that my body began the slow, agonising process of expelling my first child.

Thirteen’s body is now going through its own changes to expel the boy and embrace the man, albeit in a steady, incremental fashion. Not for him, yet, the spurting growth of many of his peers or the comically large shoes I see in my hall when his friends are visiting. He is still in clothes for children two to three years younger than his age and is anxious about his short stature, asking me nervously, without making eye contact, whether he needs to have injections to make him grow, like his hero, the footballer Lionel Messi.

And yet there are changes afoot. If I catch a glimpse of him unawares, I can see a certain new breadth to his shoulders, weight to his body and length to his jaw. I catch sight of him in a certain light and, just in time, stop myself from reaching out to wipe away a smudge from his upper lip, realising that is the first suggestion of some facial hair.

Thirteen is now aware of things that we have not discussed. Unable to restrain himself, he laughs uproariously at a rude joke in a film we watch together, that I had assumed would go over his head. He tells me, consolingly, that his brother has no idea what he is doing when dancing thrusting his hips in and out in parody of something he, certainly, does not understand. ‘But you do have an idea, do you?’ I ask, faintly horrified and he nods, briefly, smiling reassuringly.

Thirteen, whilst slow to show physical changes, certainly seems to be experiencing the emotional challenges of puberty. He is disorganised, quick to anger and tears and can create an argument out of any seemingly innocuous comment. In the week before his birthday, Thirteen leaves one of his school shoes at a cricket match, shouts at me for not preventing its loss, despite not being at the cricket match, recovers the shoe from a friend at another cricket match later in the week and then promptly leaves it behind again at a new venue. His insouciance at the original loss – ‘we can just get some more’ – and the subsequent loss – ‘it must be fate, you need to buy me some new shoes’ fills me with rage, but also seems vaguely familiar. I recall my father’s rage when, at a similar age, he warned me not to walk up one side of the drive as there was a loose roof tile and my languid response as I shrugged my shoulders with a teenager’s sense of immortality was ‘if it’s going to get me, it will. That’s fate’.

Thirteen is mercurial with his siblings. One minute shouting sarcastically at his sister, chastising her for her shortcomings and irritations, shoving her ‘by accident’ in the way past, the next helping her with her maths homework, patiently cajoling the right answer out of a sobbing, hiccoughing, temporarily more vulnerable person than him. He has the ability to switch into a completely different personality, seemingly at will and can change from sullen and objectionable to compassionate and entertaining – and back again – in the blink of an eye. He is felled, quickly, by embarrassment and his siblings know and, on occasion, exploit this mercilessly. On a recent trip to the country, to fulfil his father’s only expressed birthday wish to go for a walk (possible only with the deployment of threats and bribes), Thirteen was reduced to a shaking, crying rage by his brother and sister mooning by the side of a field. The fact that no one, except possibly some sheep, would have seen anything and that, even if they had, would have merely shrugged and smiled and not thought any the worse of Thirteen because of his younger siblings’ behaviour, was of no consequence to him. His humiliation was complete, his life was (temporarily) over.

I find it difficult not to get drawn into pointless arguments with Thirteen, not to respond to his kneejerk objection to things I say. I am slow to adjust my behaviour and, whilst I can see on one level what the correct parenting technique would be (pick your battles, they would say, don’t waste your energy in this argument about whether he or his brother and sister have more days off school a year), I cannot yet control the impulse to get drawn into the debate with him. Perhaps by the time he is eighteen, or twenty five, or whenever he grows out of disagreeing with me on principle, I may have found the perfect technique for dealing with him. He is already developing the perfect technique for dealing with me: ‘I’m really sorry Mum’ he says, spontaneously hugging me tight one Sunday night, after a tense weekend.Xmas piano ‘What for?’ I ask. ‘Basically everything this weekend’ he replies and I am flooded with happiness at my mature, beautiful boy, who is an overgrown toddler, needing a hug after throwing a tantrum. I want to tell him that I get it; that no one understands being overtaken by hormones and wanting to sob over apparently inconsequential disappointments like a forty something woman.

Thirteen remains intellectually curious and accomplished, a high achiever at school despite very little apparent effort. ‘What’s this?’ is a constant refrain, as he (over)hears snatches of conversation between his parents. He wants to know everything and be in control of everything he can. He strives to make sense of the world and where he is going in it. He is principled and moral – his vegetarianism has lasted four years now and he even eschews, martyr-like, sweets containing gelatine. He remains fixated on sport, both on the field and on the screen. He refuses to read anything I get him for months, then eventually picks up one of the books, becoming immediately obsessed by it and the sequels, devouring two thick books in a weekend and refusing all entreaty to save one for the holiday starting two days later.

Thirteen still lives with his daily disappointments and fears. He has such inchoate fear within him that seems to attach itself to an ever changing target of catastrophes – Ouija boards at school, space, whether any of the chemical from his science lesson could have accidentally got into his mouth during the lesson before lunch, flying on a plane, whether his lost (thrown away?) peanut butter sandwiches could have been found and eaten by someone with a peanut allergy who could then have gone into anaphylactic shock. Scarcely a night goes by when he is not anxious about something at bedtime, claiming that he feels sick and that something is really wrong. Efforts to console him are increasingly difficult. ‘Plane travel is the safest form of transport there is!’ I trill cheerfully to him as he sobs about feeling paralysed with fear about getting on a plane to go on his long-awaited football trip. ‘WHAT ABOUT MALAYSIA AIRLINES FLIGHT MH370’ he yells back and I have no answer. Platitudes do not work with someone who is very clever, very anxious and very determined not to be talked out of it. I try to take him for a trip to buy travel sickness medication. ‘It’s just a placebo Mum’ he announces wearily and walks away: several hours later he cries in despair ‘but why didn’t you buy it for me?’

When Thirteen feels pain or worry, I feel it too, like a punch in the stomach. When he cries to me of his fears about space and whether we could all be swallowed by a black hole, I want to cry too, because I do not understand it either and I cannot make it better for him. Thirteen is having to come to terms with my inadequacies: I can no longer make things up to placate him, I can’t explain ‘space’ when I do not understand it myself and what terrifies him terrifies me too. How to explain to him that I’ve just learned how to compartmentalise, how to dissemble, even to myself, about things. That in the end it’s just too exhausting to worry about every little thing. That he will have to come to terms with accepting that not only does he not know, his mother doesn’t know, most people don’t know but actually most people don’t care and are happier for it. I think, I hope, he will get there in the end. Perhaps Fifteen will be cheerfully checking the stars through a telescope and Eighteen will happily hop on a plane to go on holiday with his friends. And perhaps not.

Thirteen is still connected to me, physically, viscerally. He may have left my body back in 2001, but the cord is pulsing fast and strong, just as the little boy he was pulses in him still, as he starts his adolescence.

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Cricket bags – good home sought

bag 1To the cricketer, his or her bag is an object of comfort and reassurance. It contains all the essential equipment – bat, pads, gloves, whites, spikes – as well as spares. It has cricket balls – shiny new cherries to rotten old apples. It has tape, oil and rags, the materials for looking after kit. The bag may even have a pack of cards for rainy days or a toilet roll for windy ones.

To the cricketer’s spouse, the cricket bag is a hulking presence. It is lumpy with the strange objects obsessed about by the other half. The bat protrudes from the bag, tripping and catching anyone trying to step past it. It has an aroma, picked up from the changing rooms and bars it inhabits and seasoned inside its canvas skin. For heaven’s sake, there’s even a toilet roll in it.

I like my cricket bag to be in the hallway, where it sits among handbags, school bags and lunch-boxes – like an elephant trying to be inconspicuous in a flock of sheep. My wife doesn’t like my cricket bag to be in the hallway. Rarely does it manage an overnight stay there. The study, where it is placed between the exercise bike and the gerbil cage, is just behind the front-line, but vulnerable to sudden eviction.

In retreat, the bag spends time in the car boot. For very practical reasons, I don’t like this. I can’t justify the carbon emissions it adds to every journey. And when I have a match, I find it too easy to head off  incompletely equipped if I haven’t unpacked and packed the bag indoors. I carry this fear with me to every match ever since my debut (also my swan-song) for Buckinghamshire Under 12s. I arrived in the changing room, unsure when to swap from school uniform into whites. At the sign of my teammates changing I reached into my bag for my cricket kit. All present and correct.. except the socks. I thought I was going to have to play the biggest game of my life in grey school socks, already sweaty from my anxiety. Another boy had a spare pair, which helped my appearance, but not my confidence.

After that game, my Dad taught me the skill of packing a cricket bag by imagining you are getting dressed and padded up for an innings. Over 30 years later and I still do this, each time my stomach turning as I am taken back to a Northamptonshire pavilion, finding my bag devoid of white socks.

So what is it that my wife has against my cricket bag? There’s the general virtue of tidiness and that she doesn’t want the house turned into an obstacle course – particularly one where the hurdles smell. I am also convinced that the bag, large and with protruding bat handle, symbolises for her the obsession that draws me out of the house, or in front of screen or by radio, my attention on the family severely compromised.

I have come to realise that I like to have my bag visible around the house because it reinforces my belief that I am a cricketer. It validates my self-image. It would be so easy not to be a cricketer. I don’t offer a great deal to my team. Personal success, despite a very flexible threshold, is a rarity. In my mid-40s, a season-ending injury is never more than a quick single away. There’s the demands of family and the guilt of not fulfilling them. There’s work. And there’s a newer creeping occupation, offering another title, fulfilment and obligation: junior coaching. While the bag’s there, I have withstood those counter forces and maintained an identity that I care about.

bag 2For over a year now, my cricket bag has had a little cousin – an accomplice. My older son plays cricket in the team I coach. He has a bag, slimmer and more streamlined than mine. He also has my storage practices – if anything, he’s worse. After a match, he steps inside the front door and drops his cricket bag, before heading to TV or PlayStation. His bag, propped against the front door isn’t just an obstacle, it’s a fire hazard, blocking our evacuation route in (the unlikely) case of emergency. He can be forced to carry it to his room, but he does it in a weary, out of control manner that scuffs the walls on the stairs.

The harmony of my family is at stake. We need somewhere to store our cricket bags that is out of sight of the forces that would banish them, but accessible for those of us that take comfort in them – or just have a regular need to use them. Somewhere of the house, but not in the house; secure, weather proof, but out of the way. I have an idea – it is, as my younger son would say, a Beast of an idea.

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