Two years ago, staying on a Eurocamp in the South of France, the boys were drawn to the purpose built football pitch, 20 minutes’ walk through the forested campsite from our caravan.
One of our early visits to the pitch had ended prematurely with ‘the Tackle’, a near miss for no.2 son and an eye-opener for me about the dangers of radical mixes of generations (i.e. adults and five year olds) in the same game. We continued to cross the park to the football pitch, but only in the day-time, before the serious evening matches took place.
One afternoon, when we arrived there, a multi-generational, multi-national game was under way. Over half of the participants were kids, with Dads and a few older boys. No.1 son (10 at the time) and I integrated ourselves into one of the teams and began to play. The sun was still high in the sky, the air hot and the players sweaty. There was a lot of rotation of players on and off the pitch as everyone sought to rehydrate. I waved on a couple of boys in England kits, who were wavering by the side benches with an anxious mum.
The game was flowing but being dominated by a handful of older boys, parading tricks – fine – and taking the ball off the toes of their younger teammates – not fine. The younger boys were running around in the heat, finding space, but being ignored by a few, more senior ball-hoggers.
After one particularly selfish bit of play, I called out to my teammate who was responsible, in awful French, something along the lines of, “Hey, you! Give the ball to the little ones.” He was surprised, but I thought I had made my point.
A minute or so later, I had the ball and looked out for no.1 son, but couldn’t see him. He wasn’t on the pitch. He must have had the good sense to get to the water-fountain, I half-reasoned. Nagging at me was another possibility. I played on for maybe five minutes, trying to spot him in the trees around the pitch. Without a positive sighting, I left the game, and began to search for him.
I checked the table-tennis, the pool, the tennis courts, the water fountain and the snack bar. The many trees could have hidden a slender boy upset at his father. But he wasn’t there and I set off back to our caravan, heady with that unsteady parental mix of anger and anxiety.
A full 30 minutes walk away, Mrs TL was playing at the other pool complex with the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. No.1 son appeared, raging that “Daddy’s an idiot. So embarrassing.. He’s humiliated me.” He didn’t explain what or why and Mrs TL asked if Daddy knew he was here.
We met back at the caravan. As I concocted possible consequences for no.1 son’s action of fleeing without telling me and attempted explanations of why it was unacceptable, something became clear: no.1 son was uncompromising. I had made his participation and even presence at the football game impossible. I had crossed a line, whose existence I was so aware of, but hadn’t appreciated how tightly it bounded my behaviour. In the normal run of things, this was a boy who wouldn’t walk around the next corner unaccompanied. So grievously had I threatened his self-esteem, he had run a mile to get away from me.