D is for Dad

notepadWinter has us, and our children’s sports, in its sopping, phlegmy clutches. Football games are cancelled days ahead because of waterlogged pitches. Frosty ground encountered one Sunday provided variety, but the same outcome. “It wouldn’t take a stud,” explained the official dolefully, as if he was a horse breeder excusing the performance of his mare.

Each of the children has missed activities as their constitutions struggle to ride out the waves of respiratory viruses that ebb and flow through their classrooms and settle in our home, making stately progress from one upper bronchial tract to another. The 1&onlyD, who cannot be stopped practising gymnastics by a sodden floor or icy bars, has had to be collected mid-session, when all her spinning and tumbling had the effect on her, that it would have on any of us: an acute headache.

Confined to quarters, we take up indoor pastimes. My children (15, 13 and 10) have moved on from the games of their younger childhood when the roll of a die decided everything. No.1 son, almost ten years ago, had a phase of playing snakes and ladders with the earnestness of a grandmaster. I had to leave him mid-game once to help Mother in the Middle get his siblings ready for bed.

“I’ll play for you,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied, already on my way to the stairs.

Twenty minutes later, I heard a shout of, “Daddy, Daddy.”

I came to the top of the stairs. “Yes, what is it?”

“You’ve won,” explained no.1 son, who was punctilious in completing the game according to the rules and with fairness to his absent father. I humbly accepted his congratulations on my victory.

From games of luck they all progressed to electronic gaming: DSs, Wiis, Kindles, PS3s and X-boxes. I was and am alienated, but also complicit in my alienation. Their screen time gave (and continues to give) me time to pursue my own interests at home. But computer games, above all the ravenous FIFA, remind me powerfully of our mortality and that time is short.

This winter, we have begun to play classic indoor games of duelling: draughts, backgammon, chess and darts. With chess, we strain our minds, but tend to stumble across a checkmate, having no sense of strategy informing our play.

We play darts in no.1 son’s room, stepping carefully over school uniform and electronic accessories that layer the floor, to collect our darts from the board. 301, nearest the bull, around the clock, darts cricket. Our host plays his spotify play-list as our accompaniment. None of us has the consistency to win routinely. Big leads are built and then frittered away as the final dart to finish the game keeps missing its target.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager. Alone at home, revising for another in the wave of exams that just kept coming, I would take my study breaks at the dart board. After a game of around the clock, I would set myself challenges to stay alive – or return to my revision if unsuccessful. Each set of three darts would have to score above 30; or every dart had to be within the circle bounded by the treble band.. or back to the books.

Reassuring and familiar, yet recently I had a jarring moment of disequilibrium, of falseness. I was setting up the score-sheet on a scrap of paper, each player’s initial underlined. Both boys, G and R, then me. Hesitantly, I inscribed D. It felt like that time you call your partner’s parents by their given names for the first time. Self-conscious and awkward. D stood for Dad and Daddy. Me for over fifteen years; addressed that way by my children up to and beyond 100 times in any single day. Yet when I went to self-identify as Dad, it felt odd and artificial.

I don’t believe I am experiencing any deep-seated denial of my parenthood. It is such a prominent part of my identity in the physical world as well as here, my on-line presence. I think it is because, ‘Dad’, when vocalised by me, or written in my own hand, has to mean my Dad. Taking that title for myself felt like I was taking it from him.

Next time we play darts, I may write C, or just let my children do the writing and have their own D. I know how important that is.

 

 

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Take

Take a girl.

Take her hair. It falls down in long, straight lines of summer honey and yellow autumn. She will still plait it sometimes in the morning, for school, but by the time she comes home it will be a fine tangled sheet down her back. More often now she will let it fall over her face, across one eye, to hide her freckled paleness and a secret smile, or to attempt to conceal newly found fury and frustrations.

Take her face. All hint of baby flesh has long been stretched into sculpted cheeks and a straight nose, dotted with a thousand cinnamon freckles. One dimple pops improbably into view in the plane of her right cheek when she smiles. Sometimes when she comes back from her friends’ houses, she is wearing eyeliner and has powder dusted into her eyebrows. It still makes her look younger, not older.

Take her hands.   Her thin, white fingers are quickly purpled and swollen in the cold. They move a pencil skilfully across a page, composing beautifully delicate drawings. They dart quickly over her mobile phone as she chats compulsively to her online world. They whip across a keyboard with increasing proficiency as she completes her homework. The nails are still varnished, at weekends or when she thinks the teachers won’t notice, but there is no more time for the little-girl pinks and purples of old, messily applied, the fingertips taking as much as the nails. She has moved onto cool and quirky blues and turquoises, expertly applied and carefully co-ordinated with her clothes.

Take her body. She is short and slight but has impressive strength in her thin arms and legs and phenomenal flexibility through her gymnastics-honed, muscled core.     Accustomed to walking alongside her taller brother or taller friend to school, her stride has become fast and purposeful. At night she curls up sideways, neatly catlike as her hair fans over her pillow and her face relaxes into her younger self in the half light.

Take her spirit. It is independent, resilient and kind. She can be a sarcastic sister, practicing her witty wisecracks and caustic comebacks on her brothers, but unfailingly kind and sympathetic should the situation really demand it. She is empathetic and intuitive, with a mostly calm approach to life.

Take her quirks. She is teased for having no sense of direction, for being unsure which way to turn even on oft-travelled routes. I think she could probably do it if she put her mind to it, but she has no interest in working it out: her mind is on other things. She rarely gets through a meal without spilling water or dropping something absent mindedly from her fork. She loves riddles, puns and wordplay, often dissolving into helpless giggles at her own jokes. She hates making decisions, however small and will often be paralysed with indecision over what to wear or whether to wash her hair or not, wanting someone else to make the decision for her. She loves anything containing golden syrup or salted caramel, whether it be actual foodstuffs or sickly smelling rubbers or scented candles.

Take her friendships. A few, close friendships are especially important to her but they fall in different circles – from primary school, from secondary school, from gymnastics, older family friendships. Sometimes a friendship Venn diagram situation arises, where girls from different circles start to overlap but it causes her emotional stress to be responsible for the mix and she prefers to see them separately. In twos and threes, there is giggling, dancing, conspiratorial heads together on secret missions. She is generally a follower, not a leader, happy to fall in with others’ plans.

Take her twelve years, eleven months and three and a half weeks. Take my wonderful daughter and find her on the brink of her teenage years.

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Red (and Blue)

Last month, 10th September to be exact, I filled the time that child number two was at a trampolining party by shopping for ingredients for one of child number one’s GCSE Food Tech practicals. As I stood motionless in the aisle, scanning the supermarket shelves for pecan nuts, a tiny elderly woman shuffled right up to me. I gave her what I hoped was a friendly smile, as I stepped slightly away from her to regain my personal space. She took another step towards me, gripped my arm and in an excitable stage whisper blurted out ‘are you a Red or a Blue?’

As the mother of Manchester City fans, I knew immediately of course that it was Manchester Derby day and that her question used the local shorthand to gauge my allegiance. I laughingly told her that I was neither, but I had some ardent Blues at home waiting for me to get back with the shopping. She shuffled off again, looking slightly disappointed; I can only suppose she was a Red trawling the shop for comrades.

Child number three was eagerly awaiting kick-off at home. Earlier that morning, he had agreed to do some final practice for his 11+ exam, due the following Monday, before the match, if he could be allowed to watch it in its entirety. This is a well-rehearsed negotiation by him, generally involving trade-offs between homework, football and screen-time. He did not need to negotiate very hard on this occasion, as we know how much being a City fan means to him. It means, for example, that he refuses to wear red clothes (with the honourable exception of his own under 11s football strip); it means that he has tiny stickers of City players, old and new, lovingly stuck next to the bed in his blue-walled, blue-carpeted bedroom; it means that he employs theatrical, self-conscious hisses and boos when we drive past the United stadium; it means that, on the day he was told that he had not passed the 11+ exam after all, he took comfort in wrapping himself in a City flag and curling up in abject, profound disappointment on the couch next to me.

As much as he loves watching football on the television or in the stadium, he loves playing it even more. He is animated, skilful, fast and beautiful. His face lights up with joy, as he throws himself into it heart and soul, determined to win the ball, delighted to run with it, ecstatic if he manages to get it past the keeper into the back of the net. I often find myself watching him from the touchline with a group of dads who cannot resist shouting out to the players on the field and who appear to invest so much of their own emotional energy in the outcome of the game, feeling every kick and flinching at every miss through their sons.   I love to see my boy with the wind in his hair and a grin on his face, but I often lose track of the score in my focus on my son as poetry in motion. The dads don’t lose focus for a single second: they live and breathe each ball, bemoan each perceived injustice by the young referees and discuss the strategies of the under 11 coaches with more gravity and criticism than that levelled against the Premiership managers on Match of the Day.

Much like the woman in the supermarket, they also use a shorthand for their in-match interjections which has taken me years to understand. It’s important, I have come to realise, to concentrate on the manner of delivery – just listening to the words does not always clarify to me what is being said. ‘Tackle!’, for example, can, depending on the tone and pitch, mean either ‘get in there and tackle their number seven immediately or you’re no son of mine!’ or ‘my word, what a superb tackle that was’. ‘Pass!’ can be either an anguished instruction, or an approving recognition of a skilful move. As can ‘feet!’ and ‘pace’. ‘Shot!’ can mean ‘what a try, shame it missed, but you gave me a bit of excitement there!’ or ‘hurray, we scored’ (generally the whooping and clapping helps me distinguish that one if I happen to be distracted watching my boy whilst the goal flies in).

In a week when my sensitive, hilarious, clever, capable boy has been left feeling worthless and stupid, I am very grateful to those touchline dads and to the gruff sports teacher at his school. I know he has heard their terse, economical yet enthusiastic and heartfelt commentary and I know when he hears it, he understands them and he feels he is doing something well.   Long may it continue. Respect.

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Mirror

The photographs stand side by side,

one faded colour, one black and white,

two classes of schoolchildren a generation apart,

traditionally arranged, tallest at the back

and in each sits a girl in the short-child chairs,

one fringed and dark, one plaited and fair,

both staring ahead, hands on laps, sombre-faced

following instructions with fingers laced,

but with one small thumb in unconscious rebellion,

poking proudly aloft to break the standardised vision.

Across the years a mirrored gesture

linking mother with daughter.

….

Sometimes -not when looking directly –

but in a shop window, obliquely,

or in an angled wing mirror, viewed quickly,

by the clench of my jaw

by my wary eye

by the set of my hands on the steering wheel

I see my mother reflected in me.

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Motion

It was a day of warmth and wonder,

rightfully Autumn’s, stolen back by Summer

for one last brilliant burst

of sunshine, as we trekked the Anglesey coast.

We three walking together in deep conversation,

cementing friendships in nature’s contemplation.

 

Stepping along striated limestone boulders

we see the lifeboat station fling its boat asunder;

a brief breathless ascent to a quiet copse

to find ancient stones our world forgot,

then down to feast at variegated brambles

of unready reds and glistening purples.

 

Last back through gentle green undulations

to watch twilight birds swoop in secret formations,

to rest, to think, to pause

in the salty air and listen to the noise

of the ceaseless rhythmic incoming waves,

a giant yellow moon rising over the bay.

 

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Remember

blue-dress

Once she made her own blue dress,

tied ribbons in her short brown hair

to dance the night away with him.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they held hands and kissed

on the back seat of a Balham bus,

before he walked home again, penniless.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Once they swam naked in azure seas,

ate seafood on the beach then

walked quietly through island flowers.

She cannot remember it now.

 

Always she did everything for him,

entertained his friends, concocted special meals

from vegetables she grew in their garden.

She cannot remember it now.

 

So now he cooks some basic fare,

he slowly vacuums the floor,

helps her into her clothes, combs her snow-white hair

because he remembers everything about

 

his girl of seventeen,

his bride of twenty-three,

his lifelong companion.

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Clara

I first met Clara in the day room of a community hospital on a humid afternoon in late summer.   Sunlight flooded in through the floor to ceiling windows, as elderly people dotted here and there around the room dozed, mouths agape, heads lolling, curved spines wedged uncomfortably into high backed armchairs, with the unlikely high-volume background soundtrack of Judge Rinder from the TV.

Clara, however, sat alert and upright in a chair in the far corner, awaiting her visitor.  I joined her at her table, introduced myself and explained that I had come to talk to her and to listen to her views, wishes and feelings about whether she could return to her own home when she left hospital. She returned my gaze directly, her bright brown eyes in a surprisingly unlined face framed by long, straight grey hair searching my face as I spoke. If I had had to guess her age, I would have placed her at a sprightly eighty or so and yet her notes told me that she was ninety six and had been diagnosed with mixed dementias.

Clara was polite, articulate and keen to talk, but it became apparent very quickly that she could not remember many, if any, details of her life prior to her admission into hospital several weeks earlier. She could also not remember questions I had posed to her less than five minutes after I had asked them. At one stage, I asked her if she had ever been married and initially she shrugged her shoulders saying she did not know, but then lifted her left hand and stared at it intently. She looked in wonderment at the thin gold band embedded into the fourth finger, almost as if someone had just placed it there that moment without her knowledge or consent and announced rather stiffly ‘I appear to be wearing a wedding ring, don’t I, so I suppose I must have been.’

When asked what she felt about the doctors and social workers’ concerns that she would not be able to look after herself properly if she were to return home, she refuted the allegations tartly and told me that she could manage perfectly well. We discussed how she prepared her own meals, fetched her own shopping, washed and dressed herself and did not need to have carers visiting her in her house (none of which was true, according to a long suffering neighbour and the care agency who had been sending carers into her home three times a day prior to her hospital admission). I told her that I would like to come back and see her again the following week and asked if she thought she would remember me when I returned. Clara reached forward and plucked the long strand of beads I was wearing away from my chest, twirled them around her fingers and said thoughtfully ‘I like these. When you come back to see me, wear these…’. I assured her I would and asked her if she thought that it would help her to remember me and what we had talked about if I wore the beads again, to which she smiled slightly and replied only ‘it’s worth a try’. It was worth a try; I did wear them on a return visit the following week but she did not remember me (although she graciously complimented me on a pretty necklace).

On my visits to Clara, when I asked her about returning home, it became clear that, whilst she could not remember her husband or her home of the past fifty years, she could remember the home of her childhood and youth. The world she had known first was the only one still fixed into her disappearing memories. She spoke animatedly about living with her mother and father, who in her world were still alive and in need of her services helping behind the counter in their grocery shop. She told me all about the work her mother did in the house and that she was teaching her how to run her own home. She told me all about her little brother, who was away in the war and from whom they hadn’t heard for a long time. She told me about getting another job too, so she could help out her lovely mum and dad who still worked so hard.

I asked Clara if she knew how old she was. There was a long pause while she fixed her eyes on mine, arched her eyebrows and said ‘about twenty-five? Am I right?’. I told her it was not quite right but that she could be any age she wanted to be on the inside. She then asked me to tell her how old she was, confessing she had guessed at twenty-five because she had no idea, but that was how she felt. However, when I did tell her, she reacted with astonishment and rising horror: ‘ninety SIX? NINETY SIX?’. Thankfully (for me), after a minute or two she had moved on to telling me about her mother again and appeared to have forgotten everything except her desire to return to her days as a young adult living in the family home above the family shop.

 

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