When

 

When I was a little girl

Fascination lay in the bottom drawer

Of a corner cabinet

Where hid a small bulging bag

Stuffed full of my mother’s girlhood hair –

Waist-length plaits, severed at the nape of her adolescent neck

When a more grown-up style beckoned

In the 1950s.

 

When I dared,

I would pull out one of the soft, heavy ropes,

Navy-blue school ribbon still tethering its end

And hold it to my own neck

Marvelling that my mother,

With her ever-changing colours, curls and styles,

Ever had the same plain, brown hair as me.

 

When I think of my mother now,

I remember her not just by her things,

By the bags stuffed in drawers,

But through my son’s shy smile,

My sisters’ gentle voices

And the waist-length plaits snaking down my daughter’s back.

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What has the FA Coaching Course ever done for us?

trainingAct 1

Scene 1

I turned away from no.2 son’s football practice and headed towards the lean, grey-haired man who was erecting goalposts and nets for the afternoon’s senior matches. Our paths had crossed on Saturday mornings before.

He held the key to the gate into the running track. That’s where the posts are kept between matches and he had let, or at least not stopped, my touchline pal and me onto the track to do laps while our boys practised.

An older man, diligently performing a community function.

“Can I help?” I asked, wanting to thank him and gain his confidence so that future excursions to the running track could be assured.

“No. It’s alright,” he replied.

I stood beside the goal and tried to be sociable. “Which team is it playing here this afternoon?”

The grey-haired man told me. “Oh,” I said redundantly, “not United”, the club my boys play for and whose practice sessions were going on around us.

“No,” he confirmed, “not this rubbish,” and he swept his arm out to indicate the dozens of kids running around on mini pitches. “This isn’t football. None of these kids are going to be footballers. This is just nonsense that comes from the FA.”

“Right. Well, good luck this afternoon,” I wished him, cutting short his rant and heading back to watch no.2 son, apparently, not playing football.

Scene 2

No.1 son and I arrived at our local park for a kick-about. A school friend, also with his Dad, recognised no.1 son and we combined for an impromptu Dads v Lads match.

No.1 son was eight and had three years of junior club football behind him. Contriving defeats when we played each other was becoming easier, but still required concentration to ensure a close finish. His school friend wasn’t a member of a club and was less adroit. His Dad, a well-built, near six-footer, played close to full throttle. He challenged his own son for the ball, barging him over and then blasted the ball past no.1 son’s left ear, claiming a goal and leaving the keeper to trot fifty yards across the park to collect the ball.

On our way home, no.1 son and I speculated that his friend may have reason for being less keen to take up playing football.

Scene 3

Standing on the touch line at the pro-club development centre, I chatted to MarineDad, parent to one of no.2 son’s club team mates who had also been ‘spotted’. We discussed football and it was taking all my social skills to maintain a conversation where I disagreed with 90% of the opinions being expressed to me.

“They teach them these ball skills. Don’t know why they bother. I say to my lad in the garden, ‘take the ball past me’. He tries these fancy moves and all I have to do is stick my foot out to get the ball off him.”

Act 3

Scene 1

No.1 son is going on football tour. To Holland, aged just 12. It’s a team effort from the responsible adults at the club. A team lead by the Dad I first met in the park four years earlier, barging over his son and blasting the ball past my son. He has galvinised the parents and, importantly, the boys into fund-raising. He has consulted parents, reassured anxieties, even anticipated concerns: quietly explaining to me how he plans to ensure that no.1 son, as the sole vegetarian, is well-nourished and won’t subsist on a diet of chips.

The tour, like any adventure for 12 year old boys away from home, is not without incident. But he is instrumental in putting those incidents into perspective, and making the trip a sporting, social and developmental success. He cares about the boys he coaches.

The following year, he is hospitalised. He continues to text us, from his sick-bed, letting us know what’s happening that week for the team. He discharges himself to attend matches, to see how the boys are doing. The only difference is that he is, mercifully, a little quieter.

The team has groups of mates and some lads outside of those groups. He notices and challenges his players to recognise the value those boys bring to the team. He’s an extrovert, doing something difficult, looking out for the introverts.

The boys are now 15 and he knows that they have reached an age when many will be drawn away from playing the game. He is trying to run a team that will continue to be important to as many of these lads as possible.

Scene 2

No.2 son is thriving in his club’s first team. They are amongst the best in the district, playing a fast, passing-brand of football.

To begin with, they lost a lot of games. They kept changing goalkeeper, whereas all the successful teams had one boy in goal every game. The instruction they got from the side-line during matches was briefer, less angry and macho than that received by most of their opponents.

MarineDad is the co-coach and chief organiser. He noticed early on that the boys shook off the defeats faster than the Dads – including himself. He persevered with the style of play and by the end of the first season began to see whole matches, not just flashes, of smooth, cultured football. The keepers, three per game, are still volunteers.

When a game against a particular opponent, for a second time turns ugly, he takes measured sensible action, reassuring parents that he won’t allow a repetition. His one good knee buckles, so he runs training on crutches and even referees a match in a knee brace. When the coach for another of the club’s teams cannot attend training, he helps them out.

———————

What happened to Act 2?

A lot must have happened in the lives of these two dad-coaches between Acts 1 and 3, so much that it would be misleading to ascribe the changes I have seen to a single factor. However, I do know that both attended the FA Coaching Course and I do know that both talked differently about junior football after it. They are both good men, whose potential as coaches has been released by some timely educational input.

What about the lean, grey-haired man?

He still assembles the goals for Saturday afternoon’s senior fixtures by himself. I’ve not seen anyone help him, or try chatting to him. I think I have a solution for him. There’s a course he could attend..

 

 

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Ten

We had a difficult start, my last child and me, ten short years ago this month.

Three pregnancies in four a half years, a difficult birth keeping me in hospital for several days and the demands of mothering a four year old boy and a two year old girl had left me bone-weary and ill-equipped to give him the attention he deserved in those early days.

I don’t think any of us coped very well that first year. He cried, they cried and I cried: my memories of 2006 are a blurred confusion of tears, sick, nappies, double buggies, plastic animals and plain boiled pasta. His (as then undiagnosed and now outgrown) food intolerances to dairy and egg led to prolonged screaming and endless vomiting from him and frustration from me as he tried to digest the milk I produced on my dairy and egg rich diet.

A decade on, it is almost impossible to conjure up the difficulties and the tiredness I felt then. My baby is now a beautiful, mostly cheerful, entertaining, irreverent and endlessly affectionate boy who has a great capacity for joy and who makes me laugh every single day. As the youngest in the family and the only child still at primary school, I see him now testing out a number of roles for himself – the joker, the sportsman, the Mancunian man-in-waiting, the eternal baby of the family.

At a time when I am having to reconcile myself to my older children of 14 and 12 growing up and away from me, I find great solace in the manifestations of the physical attachment to me which have thus far not left him. He is still keen to hold my hand, to sit on my knee or to ask me to lie next to him in his bed to help him go to sleep. More than this, though, he has a touching tendency to communicate the exact nature of the comfort this gives him: ‘I like this part of your shoulder the best Mummy’, he said to me recently, intently stroking a specific two inch length of my collar bone for a couple of minutes. Or, at the point of drifting off to sleep, whispering ‘I missed you in Maths today Mummy and wanted you to be on the seat opposite me so I could look at you’. As a younger boy, his class were asked to write a description of somebody and he wrote about my ‘soft hands’. In fact, he sets great store by softness generally. He has a special furry pillow case and will usually only wear soft trousers with a fleecy lining.

Another defining characteristic of my boy at ten is his enormous physical energy. I have often heard it said that boys are like dogs and, whilst it is a lazy analogy, the comparison certainly holds partly true in his case. He needs at least one outing a day, preferably more, otherwise trying to contain his energy indoors becomes painful.  He has a propensity to roll in mud and chase balls and regularly comes home from school in another child’s spare trousers, presenting me with a mud-soaked bundle of his own clothes with a rueful smile.

Although there are some encouraging recent signs that he is starting to sleep later in the mornings, he has thus far in his life awoken ready for the day, metaphorical tail a-wagging, at a painfully early hour and gone into everyone’s bedroom to enquire in a stage whisper whether they are awake yet. He is constantly hungry, wolfing down his favourites in surprisingly large quantities for a boy his size, big brown eyes looking eagerly for more. When he is happy, his energy erupts from him, causing dives and rolls around the floor, leaps around the furniture and an uncontrollable, infectious belly-laugh which can make adults in nearby rooms pause and smile at the wholehearted joy of it.

He is a committed, enthusiastic and competitive sportsman who has his older brother’s achievements in his sights. He is fast, bold and strong, often beating bigger and older boys at running and football. He is fearless and heroic on the field: his spells in goal often have me wincing and shielding my eyes as he launches himself towards metal goalposts to throw himself in the path of a hurtling ball.

He is careless of injury and impressively stoical when it invariably happens, enduring the studs in the leg or balls in the face which have other children understandably crying and being led from the pitch. In stark contrast to his first year of life, he now rarely cries in pain and I feel true panic if he ever does cry. He is also stoical when ill. When his siblings are occasionally struck down by illness, they will cry or throw up where they are, rendered instantly vulnerable and requiring rescue, but, since being very little, he has trotted obediently to the bathroom to complete the necessary unpleasantnesses in the neatest way possible.

However, whilst displaying stoicism in the face of physical challenges, pain or illness, my boy at ten is increasingly showing vulnerability in other more cerebral areas, as he comes to terms with growing up in our particular family, in our particular world. He is recently tearful, fearful and jumpy, imagining that strangers will attack our home, mistaking the noise of fireworks for gunshots and worrying that we will be gunned down if we travel to Europe on holiday. He is easily spooked by the tall tales from boys at school about ghostly faces in windows and is easy prey for an (occasionally) merciless older brother, who is trying to distance himself from his own previous insecurities by mocking his little brother’s.  The boy who shows no fear of physical challenges or danger can be reduced to a shaking, shivering, crying child who can only get to sleep with an overhead light shining directly in his face or a parent next to him holding his hand, the furrowed brow and quivering lip softening into a toddler-like curve of flushed cheek and swoop of long eyelash as sleep quickly overtakes him.

He is acutely aware of his place as the youngest child in the family and displays increasing vulnerability when comparing himself to the achievements of his brother and sister, particularly living in an area still ‘blessed’ with a selective secondary school system, which is now looming large for him. Whilst his teachers do not recognise my descriptions of a boy who hates school, he usually comes out of his classroom sulky and miserable and declares on a daily basis that he hates school and is no good at anything (or at least anything academic – he acknowledges some sporting prowess). Perhaps this is some sort of self-protective mechanism against his fear of failure, the result of having siblings decreed by the system to be clever and successful, or perhaps he genuinely just does not enjoy school and I am over-analysing the situation. Either way, it upsets me that my lovely, clever, intuitive boy feels this way and I am at a loss as to how to resolve it for him.

He also shows that he is testing out an identity for himself as a northern boy, in a northern town. He revels in his northern accent (consciously making it stronger and broader), prefers the nylon football strips of his sporting heroes to the jeans and jumpers I buy for him and spends time perfecting his goal celebration signature moves, usually involving thumping his chest, running around in circles whilst acknowledging the adulation from an imagined thousands-strong crowd and sliding on his knees. I gave him dolls and even dressed him up in his sister’s princess outfits in his early years, but he has rejected all my attempts to avoid stereotyping and deliberately chooses mannerisms, actions and clothing which signal his preferred role models to the rest of the world.

 

My last child entering double digits is a rite of passage for me. For nearly fifteen years, I have found my identity as a mother to young children. My last child leaving single digits heralds for me a brave new world of less physical parenting, more time to myself and the need to develop a new relationship with my son as he grows, when I know I will still see the face of the beautiful baby he was in the face of the beautiful, complex boy he is becoming, when I turn off the bright light shining in his sleeping face.

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Twelve

party_12

 

Occasionally, now, she can be prickly,

As hormones without warning ambush her,

Diverting her from habitual dimples and smiles,

Into causeless tears and despairing shrugs.

She does not know why she feels this way,

But I do. I remember.

 

So I open my arms and pull her close –

Small enough still to tuck under my chin,

With room to spare.

As she nestles into my chest,

Her father’s blue eyes look up at me

From her upturned face, freckled and pale

Like cinnamon sprinkled on milk.

 

She is all elbows and knees, jabbing into me,

Lithe and lean,

Limbs like knotted rope

From the hours upside down or swinging high

In her purple velvet leotard,

The slightest curves beginning now to break the lines.

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Going through the motions

pool netThe new school year has seen us quickly hit our stride: football practice (x 2); football match (x 2); gymnastics (x 2); cricket practice; refereeing course; dance class; piano lesson. Three children and ten different weekly out-of-school activities to organise in a plan that must allow for domestic duties, as well as Mother in the Middle and my slim extracurricular interests. Among the pursuits that get too easily crowded out is anything that allows us to exercise and keep fit. Until some way of harnessing our kids’ running, bounding and cartwheeling into our own metabolism is found, we need to get out and exercise ourselves, lest we slip with elevated blood pressure, atrophying muscles and impoverished lungs over the cliff edge at the far end of our forties.

For a year or two I had this dilemma of mixing the kids’ activities with my own exercise cracked. During no.2 son’s football practice, my touchline pal and I would go running. We had the option of running along the canal, around the water park or, if the gate was left open, around the running track. There, I discovered that Mo Farah would complete a 10,000 metres in less than the time it took me to run half that distance. I would however, nudge ahead of Usain Bolt in a sprint that involved him running twice as far as me.

But last season, our sons started playing competitive fixtures on Saturday mornings. My pal and I ditched the running in favour of something far more thrilling: spectating our boys’ matches.

There is, of course, the option of playing with the kids. We kick around in the garden and sometimes in the park. I play with them just enough to know that they play more physically, at greater pace and belt the ball harder than me – and the risk of injury playing with children is well understood.

So I have looked for new opportunities to get my exercise.

A new leisure development close to work has given me the chance to swim in my lunch break or at the start of the day. Determined not to flap up and down the pool doing breaststroke, I took a short course of lessons and have worked hard on the crawl. Stringing together, first eight, then twelve and finally 20 lengths of crawl – before breaking for a few minutes of genteel breaststroke – gives me great satisfaction. Thirty minutes of swimming leaves me fulfilled and fatigued from my shoulders, all the way down my body and legs. When I’m in the pool, I’m definitely not just going through the motions.

Last week, held up in a meeting, I narrowly missed my lunchtime window for swimming. Edgy all afternoon, I agreed a late return home, so that I could swim after work instead. I arrived at the pool as the lessons were ending. Heading from the showers, I stood to one side while the school kids piled into the changing room. I was first into the pool and swam a couple of lengths before a lifeguard bent down to me and asked me to come out while his team prepared and checked the pool. Two of his colleagues wound in the lane ropes, while he patrolled the pool carrying a net on a long pole. I shivered on the side, waiting for the nod to restart.

The man with the net said it all looked clear, but then got into a discussion with a lifeguard. They pointed at the middle of the pool, then looked at me. “Could you, with your goggles, check out the middle of lane three?” net-man asked me. I stepped back in and waded across to the lane, as net-man continued, “we think one of the kids had an accident.” A sticking plaster, I began to think.. “But it’s fine as long as it’s not diarrhoea. The chemicals make it safe.” Right, a poo. “Could you check?”

I ducked under, swam a little way and there at the bottom of the pool was the accident. I surfaced, confirmed the sighting and began wading towards the side. “It’s fine, because of the chlorine”, the net-man repeated. “We don’t have to close the pool.”

The lifeguard and net-man looked at each other, then at me. They were in t-shirt, shorts and trainers and were dry. I wasn’t. Holding out the net to me, he asked, “Would you mind catching it for me?”

With all the aplomb of the sanitation engineer that I’m not, I took the net and after a couple of swipes made the catch and returned the net, receiving thanks and further reassurances of the efficacy of the chemicals. I then swam 40 lengths, eyeing the pool floor suspiciously. I showered and at home took a bath.

A few days later I told some colleagues the story of my odd job at the pool. “You didn’t really go swimming,” someone said. “Oh, yes I did.” “No,” he countered. “You were just going through the motions.”

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A Life Ends Alone

il_340x270.94197839Grace came to England from Jamaica in 1962, when she was a capable, enterprising young woman in her thirties. She settled in the Moss Side district of Manchester and never left the country again, scarcely even set foot outside Manchester again, and died recently in hospital at the age of eighty-something.

I first met her about a year before she died, when she was ill, virtually housebound and stubborn as a mule. The Council had embarked upon an extensive renovation project involving several streets of terraced houses and was busy relocating the (mostly grateful) tenants to better and brighter homes. Not so Grace, however, who point-blank refused to consider moving from the dilapidated mid-terrace that had been her home for the past fifty years. She liked where she lived and she wasn’t about to move out of her home, she explained tetchily to the series of increasingly exasperated – and increasingly senior- Council employees who trooped in through her front door to try to change her mind.

I had my suspicions during my first couple of visits that Grace was in fact living only in one room of her home, the back room, with occasional shuffles from there into the kitchen which ran directly off it.   I do not know at what point she had given up trying to climb the steep Victorian stairs but, when she eventually trusted me enough to send me on an errand to her bedroom, the upper floor of the house had a strange, unlived-in air. The bed’s pink candlewick cover was entirely undisturbed; the bottles and pots covered in a thick layer of dust on the dressing table.

Where was she sleeping, I asked her? At first she maintained that she was sleeping in her bedroom but later, defiantly, confirmed that she was sleeping in her armchair because of her COPD. What about the toilet, I asked her? Wordlessly, she jutted her chin in the direction of a bucket half-concealed in the corner of the room. Washing herself, it turned out, was a precarious, infrequent event standing at the kitchen sink.

I tried to talk to Grace about accepting some help, explaining that the housing officer and others were very concerned about her, and that the GP was frustrated when she rang with emergencies. It took several visits even to be able to mention ‘social workers’ without a sucking of teeth and a vehement shaking of the head. I told her that I needed to alert social services to her vulnerability, as I was concerned about her safety, at which point she asked me to leave, subsequently refusing to answer the social worker’s knock at the door.

A couple of weeks later, she rang and asked me, stiffly, if I would kindly rearrange the appointment. I called round to meet with her before the social worker arrived, and she asked me to help her tie her headscarf and put in her earrings. She was donning her armour, I realised. And I felt like I had been taken into a circle of trust, a club of which I was perhaps the only current member.

Over the next few months, I got to know Grace a little better and she told me about her life in England. About how she had come over from Jamaica with her brother and had always been ‘one of the boys’. About the fine life she had had, when they all looked after her and she looked after them. About how she had never been interested in marriage or children, telling me that you can get on with men just fine, if you operate on their level, but you must never trust them an inch – experience (darkly hinted at but never disclosed) had taught her that. About how, when her brother died ten years ago, she had lost her last link to her family, having never kept in touch with the extended members back in Jamaica.   One by one, her friends had passed away or moved away until, finally, she was the last one left in the street from the old days. Her friend’s son now kept the shop she had always patronised and, if she rang him up on the telephone, he would (for a cut) go and draw her pension for her at the Post Office and then drop off parcels of ackee, rice and chicken.

The ‘package of care’ which she reluctantly accepted from the social worker was endlessly problematic in its operation. Grace did not fit the mould: she did not want cheery carers turning up in pairs to wash, dress and feed her in fifteen minutes flat – she wanted a discrete lady to sit outside the bathroom whilst she took a bath by herself, just to be on hand in case she ran into difficulties. She did not want microwaved frozen shepherd’s pie and sponge pudding plonked in front of her – she wanted saltfish, rice and peas, freshly cooked.  Grace did not want to be carted off to day care, to sing along with other pensioners, or play bingo. All her friends had gone, she said and she did not want new friends. Several times, the care agency complained to the social worker that they were running out of carers who could work with Grace, as she continually refused their interventions, but the endless parade of interchangeable young women only served to enrage her further.

And all the while, the Council’s renovation works went on around her. Grace was by now quite the only person left living on her street. There was scaffolding all along the outside walls of the terrace and the resolution had been taken to carry on with the outside work only whilst Grace was still a thorn in their sides. The house vibrated and dust rained down around her – COPD or no COPD – as the workmen pressed on. I expect they thought she’d give in eventually; I think she knew she didn’t have long left and she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of making things easier for them.

One day when I turned up to see her, birthday cards – about fifteen of them – were strung up on a piece of wool around the walls of the back room. I congratulated her and commented on how lovely it was to see she had such a lot of cards. She looked me straight in the eye and nodded, looked at the cards, looked slowly back at me and admitted that she put them up herself every year. It dawned on me that these were the same birthday cards that she had kept and displayed year after year: on closer examination, five were from her brother and the most recent card was from about 8 years ago. I recall feeling close to tears as I looked back at her, but her defiance (almost) repelled sympathy.

Grace died about three weeks later. She was found, collapsed, by one of the carers on the floor of her back room and taken to the local hospital. She never regained consciousness and died a day later, alone.

I wish I had known she was in hospital. I would have gone to sit with her and hold her proud hand.

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Bold fearful boy

FullSizeRenderObserving no.1 son grow up has, on many occasions, felt like undergoing a psycho-therapeutic exploration of my childhood. So many of his motivations and anxieties trigger memories of my own youth and the predicaments that my thoughtful but naïve younger being would self-inflict. And seeing my older son heading up cul-de-sacs of his own making would make me wish I could convey what I have learnt: making mistakes is uncomfortable but worth getting used to; doing something is almost always better than doing nothing (exceptions: sinking sand); you only look embarrassing if you are looking embarrassed.

I have never been unaware of the possibility that I am merely projecting my personality and motivations onto my older son. Approach a problem with a particular frame and you’ll see what you want to see. I believe, though, that I have indisputable evidence that this is not a solipsistic delusion. The most persuasive argument I can present is: no.2 son.

Four and three-quarters years younger than his older brother, the third and last of Mother in the Middle and my progeny, he clearly has different influences to the first born: the example of two older siblings, relatively relaxed and experienced parents, a busy household, a school and social life where for many he is so-and-so’s little bro’.

Yet, allowing for these environmental factors, there is an innate distinctiveness. When friends ask how the family is, I relate Mother in the Middle’s non-stop life and then for the children I will summarise the latest achievements of no.1 son and the 1&onlyD, then pause. “No.2 son, he’s just a [insert age] BOY.” That sounds belittling, but I know when I’m saying it, I’m shaking my head with wonder, trying but failing to encapsulate the essence of energetic, affectionate, noisy, charming infancy that he represents. Where his older brother and sister have been precocious, pushing some of the boundaries of their age, no.2 son exists comfortably within the developmental median for his calendar age. He’s a pup in no hurry to be a dog.

Mother in the Middle booked our summer holiday before last Christmas. The kids had months to speculate and build expectations of their two week stay in France in August: the pool, the tennis court, canal, river, pizzeria, beaches and French folk. One day, earlier in the summer, rain falling outside, the 1&onlyD was longing for this trip. It would be so good just to sit in the sun and read, we agreed. No.2 son heard us, expressed shock: “No. There’s a pool and a river, we’re going to be swimming, not reading.” We had, but really didn’t need, fair warning.

The first morning of the holiday, I woke early. I carried a chair, a book and a cup of tea out into the sunny garden. Minutes later, no.2 son was at my shoulder, asking for breakfast. Not many minutes after that, he was back, in swimming shorts.

Can we go to the pool?

No. It’s too early.

Will you play football?

Not yet. And can you speak quietly, there are lots of people sleeping around here

Ok. [withdraws, singing heartily]

Throughout the two weeks, no.2 son’s appetite for activity was continuous, and probably entirely consistent with that of a nine year old. In child- and adulthood, I have had a threshold where the desire for activity is submerged by a preference for comfort. Sure, I’ll play in the pool. But once I’ve dried off, getting wet and cold again has insufficient appeal. A kickabout in the garden is fun, but tea time means full-time, not half-time. No.1 son shows similar reservations and qualified commitment.

I admire and envy my younger son’s relentless pursuit of physical fulfilment. Another plunge into the pool, yet more charging after a ball in the garden, gymnastics with his sister if that’s the only action on offer. This physical boldness equips him well for sport: tackle after tackle on the football field; every time he gets the ball, a dribble past opponents or attempted defence-splitting pass; in goal, he bursts out towards attackers, diving at their feet; on the cricket field always closing in on the batsman, defying the coach’s instruction to take 10 steps backwards; sliding, sprawling to stop the ball hit in his vicinity.

Standing on the touchline, I see him play without fear. It is exhilarating, the most predictably exciting part of my week. And it’s disorientating, that a child with my genetic inheritance runs unencumbered by fear, the very impulse that has inhibited my every sporting fixture or active adventure.

He’s not tireless or immune to pain, but neither are reasons to stop. Activity is an end in itself. Comfort, reflection, quiet time are reluctantly accepted and usually attempted swinging from a chair, singing or chatting in a funny voice. A family friend once asked Mother In the Middle what it must be like for no.2 son to live in such a quiet family. It’s a good question.

Where might this boldness end? In A&E, Mother in the Middle worries, particularly when we’re on holiday. Our time in France, though, showed that it has its natural limits.

Sitting together on the flight, I tried to distract no.2 son’s anxiety of flying by reading and offering sweets. Twenty minutes after take-off, his hand still gripping my arm, Bilbo Baggins’ adventures were lost in the drone of the plane’s engines and no.2 son’s anxious inattention. A lady in the row behind tapped me on the arm. “My daughter wondered if your son would be happier with this,” handing me an iPad, headphones and a Pixar movie, which he used for the rest of the flight.

Shopping in France, there was a bouleversement in the supermarket. A known shop-lifter was being escorted out, against her will, noisily. No.2 son grabbed my arm and tried to drag me away from the till which the assistant was keeping shut while the incident was dealt with. “It’s a riot. I want to go. Take me out,” he implored.

Then there was the thunderstorm. Like flying (and dogs) it’s not an unusual fear for a nine year old. But, given his bullish, bold presence through so much of life, it’s a reaction that surprises me.

There’s one rather bland conclusion to this reflection about my younger son: that we are all complex beings with apparent contradictions at our heart.

Writing it down has helped me reach a slightly more sophisticated insight. It suits my shorthand image of my family that no.1 son is ever so similar to me and his younger brother a different animal all together. As a shorthand it holds a lot of truth. But as an appreciation of my children it short changes them and risks me under-appreciating where my older son is different to me (his ease in the company of adults, is a strong example) and the many aspects of my younger son where I can’t just sit back and say, “Wow, I could never have done that.” Difficult as it is to do, I would be better off keeping the comparisons to myself out of it.

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