Monthly Archives: May 2016

Cloth ears

earI’ve been thinking about cross-country running a lot recently. Running that I did 30 years ago.

By the time I reached the sixth form, I had no interest in school sports. The school didn’t have much interest in me as a footballer, on merit, and rather than play cricket for the school I preferred having a Saturday job where I earned the money to go drinking with my Club cricket pals after Sunday matches.

Double games on Friday afternoons was a permissive business. I was allowed to jog off into the Buckinghamshire countryside, returning an hour later, changing and heading off for the weekend. Looking back, the surprise is that I did often go running. Not always.

Some weeks, two or three of us would visit a friend from the girls school, who had lost interest in school and whose Mum was happy to have her home for company. We would have tea and biscuits with them before jogging back to school.

What brings back these memories is something that happens a lot with both of my sons. With the older boy, typically we will be in the car, me driving and him in the passenger seat. The radio will be on, a window open. He’ll make a comment or ask a question. “Sorry,” I’ll say, “What was that you said?” Whole journeys will progress like this, with me straining and failing to pick up what he’s saying, asking for him to repeat himself.

The answer could lie in a trip to the doctor’s for a hearing test. I don’t think so, though. My wife, my daughter, my work colleagues, touchline pals and cricket club cronies can all be heard clearly.

With the younger son, the situation is also when we’re on the move. Walking to school, along suburban pavements, he’ll mutter something looking down into the gutter. Or, time his interjection for the moment that a car passes. Then he’ll look up at me. “Sorry. What was that? I couldn’t hear you.” He’ll look down and away and repeat his comment. “What? I couldn’t hear you.”

The temptation, and this is when the cross-country memory comes most strongly, is to nod and smile, give an affirmative indication, not let on that I’ve not a clue what he’s going on about.

On one of the surprisingly many Friday afternoons as a sixth former that I really did go running, I had taken a route with two or three others through a beech wood. We had cut back alongside the road that led up a steep hill back towards school. We made our way along an embankment a couple of meters above the road, until the path disappeared and we had to scramble down to the road. I went down ahead of Mark, reaching the road on the inside of a bend, and let my momentum carry me on up the road.

Behind me Mark shouted something that I didn’t hear. I turned and he shouted, incomprehensibly to me, again. “Yeah,” I replied to the unknown question. He pitched forward, ready to launch himself down the slope to the road when a car tore around the bend from behind him and up the hill. With a cold jolt I realised he had wanted to know if the coast was clear.

It was, in the language of health and safety, a near miss. There was no incident. I had beckoned a schoolmate into the path of a speeding car, but he had seen the danger just as he was about to charge down the slope to the road, trusting the clearance he thought I had given him.

When I strain to hear something my sons have muttered, that has floated away in the wind, I think of Mark’s near miss. I fight the temptation to nod, to let a matter of no consequence pass with a pretend acquiescence.

I don’t fear that I am going to usher them blindly into oncoming traffic. But I do worry. I worry that I might miss a sentence of import:

“Dad, there’s this girl..”

“I’m really frightened to go to school..”

“Daddy, what does.. mean..”

“Dad, I need some money..”

And if I don’t hear it and ask too bluntly for a repetition, it might be followed by, “Nothing, it doesn’t matter.” But it might matter, long after my cloth ears missed their chance.

 

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Fifteen

One evening in early May, fifteen years ago, I greeted my husband with alarm when he came home from work. I was newly on maternity leave, nervously awaiting the birth of my first child and had spent the day in conscientious preparation (washing baby clothes in non-biological powder, packing a hospital bag), eating and dozing off in front of the television. I had awoken in a daze to find myself watching a travel programme where a harried, old-looking couple were trying to find a suitable holiday for themselves and their morose teenage sons.

I had not found out the sex of my baby but I knew, deep down, that I was having a boy and I suddenly started to panic about how I was going to manage with a teenage son.  What on earth had possessed me to think this mothering business was the right thing to do? Why had it not occurred to me until now – when there was clearly no going back – that a little baby boy would grow up into a giant, sullen creature with whom one would have to find a suitable holiday to go on? The only thing that calmed me down that evening, as I paced around a flat punctuated by lots of little babygrows drying here and there on radiators, was the rationalisation that, by the time one had a teenage son, one would (hopefully) have got to know him and so the whole going-on-holiday-thing might be less of a challenge.

Fast forward fifteen years and I like to think I understand my teenage boy and what makes him tick, for now at least.

It seems rather abrupt, however, that he has suddenly attained an age that can be counted up in fives, leading me to reminisce about him being a baby, about him being five, and ten and anticipating the speed at which twenty will come hurtling towards me. Time with him feels like it is accelerating and is being used up at a terrific rate. Unlike the baby-time – those hours that could feel like days, or the sleepless nights that could feel like weeks. It is poignant and a bit sobering to realise that there is really not very much time left with him at home to have those family holidays in that sent me into such a flat spin back in 2001. I have now started to worry instead about how to fit it all in, about how to make it count, about how to not forget the hours, the days and the terms which are slipping away in a blur of football fixtures, cricket matches, margherita pizzas and mock GCSEs.

The time I do spend with my boy now is precious. In years gone by, he could often be an even-tempered, personable, intelligent and funny companion: at fifteen, he is all of these things consistently.   Most of the time, he has a new maturity of attitude and is equable and affable (sibling relations sometimes being honourable exceptions).

He has a new, deepened interest in music and has eclectic tastes – equally interested in attending a classical concert with his parents and grandfather to listen to Elgar and Vaughan Williams; in listening to and researching the music of the Beatles; in understanding the reason why 80s classics are 80s classics and even in attempting his own compositions on the piano or guitar. We spent an enjoyable hour or two recently listening to a downloaded ‘Best of British’ album where I challenged him to guess the performer and the decade of each track and a long car journey at Easter was punctuated by having to score and rank Beatles tracks out of ten. I can share favourite old songs with a truly appreciative audience, telling him about dancing him to sleep with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ when he was a baby, or explaining why John Lennon’s ‘Watching the Wheels’ struck such a chord with me when I stopped going out to work for a while.

He is endlessly acquisitive, searching facts and opinions on a diverse range of topics and – gradually – learning the difference between facts and opinions. He is articulate and well-informed on lots of current affairs, with a particular interest in the U.S. election, as well as an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of worldwide football statistics, honed by the considerable amount of his time which he devotes to football you-tubers. He is determined to get to the bottom of whatever he comes across, such as questioning me endlessly about the Cold War (as well as the rights and wrongs of 80s fashion) whilst watching Deutschland ’83 with me.

He is a child of his times in his communication strategies. He is a humourous texter (sometimes sending them to me in French or German, just because he can) and will sometimes talk to me via text from a different room in the house. This is not quite what I usually have in mind when I want to talk to him, but can sometimes elicit more information from him than a conventional conversation. He emails me his Christmas and birthday lists, but it is always politely done, with an acknowledgement that he does not expect everything on the list and with helpful links to the actual things he wants.   What he wants, aged 15, is trendy clothes (with a particular propensity for near-identical, ruinously expensive long sleeved grey tops), sheet music and lots of chocolate.

He is badly organised, messy, charming, impractical, beautiful, sensitive, bright and bonny.

He is physically stronger, bigger, hungrier, leaner and male-r than ever before, but I think he still has quite a way to grow.

If I could go back to the first week of May 2001, I would tell myself not to worry. Your boy is amazing and you will look forward to a holiday with him the summer he is fifteen.

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Filed under individual development, old head