Fourteen flings his arm easily around my shoulders and tries to push down on me to elevate his own height, keen to prove that he is taller than his small mother. He’s not, quite, but it will only be a matter of months. If I turn my head just a small amount whilst his arm is around my shoulder, I am startled to see his face, right there, where once I had to bend over him in his cot or his highchair to press my cheek to his.
His face is still as beautiful as the baby face I adored, but is now morphing into a man-face. There is heft and length to the jaw, a new untamed bushiness to the eyebrows and a definite dark shadow on the upper lip that will soon need attention.
The hand that playfully claps me on the back, accusing me of only being taller because I am wearing heels, is bigger than mine. The feet that he tries to raise imperceptibly to give him the height edge on me as we stand back to back have gone through several growth spurts in the past year, pausing for too-brief months at a point where we could share shoes. Suddenly there are almost-man sized extremities on a still slender, still short, boy’s frame, presaging the growth to come.
His voice has deepened and is deepening still, his laugh catching in his throat, unable to settle on the right register. He can kick a football with such force and strength that his younger brother sprains his wrist trying to stop it powering into the net.
Fourteen has bursts of physical energy, playing football and going to a gym. He seems to need to spend the rest of his time in recovery, lounging on the sofa for hours watching episode after episode of The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother sighing ‘I’m so tired…’ periodically. The boy who for years and years woke up (and woke me up) at 5.50am every….single….day now needs rousing on school mornings and lies in at weekends. He has become the slug-like teenager that people told me he would, but I never believed possible.
His appetite has grown to facilitate the changes. I see him standing by the fridge-freezer, opening the top half hopefully to seek (vegetarian) fuel within and realise with a shock that, standing at full height, he used to fit under the door, clinging to my legs as I cooked. I wonder how I have missed noticing his boyhood passing so quickly.
Fourteen has the twenty first century teenager’s reliance on technology down to a fine art. He likes nothing better than playing FIFA on his Xbox whilst simultaneously flicking through Instagram on his phone, 5 Live on his radio all the while providing a droning background commentary of a real football match somewhere out in the real world. I have the twenty first century parent’s anxiety about my teenager’s dependence on technology down to a fine art. We have awkward conversations where I feign an ‘easy chat’ about the risks of modern life and he feigns insouciance about the embarrassment I am subjecting him to.
But I realise that technology has given Fourteen and me a way of meaningful communication – albeit sporadically and on his terms. We text, quite regularly. ‘Time for bed’ I try, from my bedroom upstairs to Fourteen watching TV downstairs (I have tried ‘time 4 bed’ but I can’t pull off the ‘4’ with any sense of credibility). He begs for a few minutes longer, on one occasion to finish watching a documentary about gay people in Russia, which has obviously become unexpectedly fascinating when faced with the alternative of going to bed. Texting gives me the possibility of regular inconsequential communication with him and an insight into my witty, entertaining son’s life. When engaged in a quick fire exchange, he tells me things via text that I do not think he would get round to disclosing face to face.
Fourteen can be an engaging, witty, charming companion. Whilst still prone to sudden bursts of anger – particularly directed at his younger siblings and particularly triggered by car journeys – he has calmed down a lot over the past year. He has a lively, enquiring mind and an interest in history and current affairs. He is interested in and can talk knowledgeably about the election to be held the day before his birthday. He is a safe pair of hands with whom to entrust conversation with visiting adults – he generally likes their company and they generally like his.
Fourteen still has a preference for trying to establish a definitive answer to any question and is particularly keen on pitching ideas or concepts against each other. He becomes engaged by a school history project to decide who was the greater villain out of Stalin and Hitler. I recall similar exercises in my own schooling and my tendency to find it unbearable to plump for one side or the other, preferring instead the ‘on the one hand….on the other hand’ type of argument. Fourteen, however, delights in being able to argue the case for the one over the other. I am met with bemusement if I try to point out to him subtleties of argument, unreliability of evidence or uncertainties of conviction.
His insistence on being given ‘the’ right answer is wide ranging in scope. Fourteen is soaking up his cultural heritage, exploring his place in twenty first century Britain and deciding what the ‘right’ thing for him to think is on any number of issues. Amongst other things, I have been asked over the past year to pronounce on the definitive ‘best band of 90s Britpop’, who should have won the Blur v Oasis chart battle, the ‘funniest sitcom of the 80s’, the ‘best play that Shakespeare wrote’, whether Lennon or McCartney should go down in history as the greater man, whether ‘people’ think Beethoven or Mozart was better, who the best James Bond has been and (after YouTube research) why people ever laughed at The Two Ronnies. He rolls his eyes when I refuse to be drawn on a ‘winner’ and talk to him of opinion, perception or historical context and try to tell him that the world should not be reduced to an endless series of competitions or black and white pronouncements. For the time being at least, it falls on deaf ears – he is a competitive boy, at a competitive school, being endlessly prepped for a competitive future and trying to negotiate his road to success.
Fourteen’s vulnerabilities are better hidden than when he was younger, but lie ready to be scratched just beneath the surface at all times. He has begun to relish time alone in the house without an adult (something previously unthinkable), but can be panicked suddenly by noises, smells or things glimpsed out of the corner of his eye. An innocuous household noise prompts a panicked telephone call to me, with Fourteen convinced that the living room ceiling is about to fall down. Swirling leaves in the garden become unexplained visions at the window.
A fear of flying is becoming more entrenched: the rational boy who loves and repeats statistics, facts and figures refuses to be convinced that flying is less dangerous than car travel, despite all evidence. Instead, he refuses to move beyond his assertion that most people survive car crashes, whereas no-one survives a plane crash and tortures himself with his anxiety about an upcoming holiday. He is so certain, so definite, so unwilling to be consoled.
We are in an awkward inter-regnum between requiring babysitters (generally in the humiliating form of girls not much older than him) when we go out, or letting him be the unstable, vulnerable king in charge of his younger brother and sister for the evening. His huge capacity for empathy, his charm, his self control are not yet quite reliable enough to withstand the provocation of two younger siblings. But it won’t be long.
He is interesting, sometimes infuriating, lovely, charming, obstinate, empathetic – my beautiful boy at Fourteen.