As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.
Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.
Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.
Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.
On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.
At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.
Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.
Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.
I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.
The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.
The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.
Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.
We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.
Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.