Although I know what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote that ‘April is the cruelest month’, in my experience, it seems that September is the cruellest month. It’s when the earth convulses and hurricanes called Ike and Katrina and floods with no name wreak havoc and destruction. It’s the funeral of a princess and the anniversary of 9/11. In years to come, it may even be seen as the anniversary of the Chernobyl of the world economy. That’s how it looks in the newspapers stacked in the recycle basket, waiting to become bricks logs for the fires that will keep us warm in this winter of our discontent. There is another September tremor that doesn’t make the headlines.
An eight-year-old son goes off to prep school. It’s weekly boarding and his father explains that ‘he’s nearly nine’, that I will see him every Wednesday, bring him home after games on Saturday. Five years later, another September, as we drive to ‘public’ school a misuse of the word to my ears the 13 year old describes that first week as a boarder: night after night, the dorm bully threw his beloved raccoon pillow out of the window, and night after night, the eight year old climbed three flights down the metal fire escape in the dark to retrieve it. He hadn’t told me before, because he was afraid I would report the bad boy and his life would be made worse. Perhaps the raccoon incident made Sam the man he is now.
Someone who weighs up a situation and finds a solution (he brought his raccoon home his first weekend and never took it back). He doesn’t panic. He avoids revealing things that would incite his volatile mother to homicide (even now, I’d like to strangle the bad boy). But time moves on. We are loading the Volvo, this time with goosedown pillows and duvets, boxes of books, a copy of a Second World War poster that reads ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, a quilt, a rug, a cafetière, wine glasses.
This is the first time we’ve driven to Scotland without fishing rods, guns, dog, the first time that, instead of driving past Edinburgh on our way north, it is our destination. It’s also the culmination of all those school journeys that paved the way for this trip. At the last minute, a Zoom airline ticket threatened to leave him stranded in New York, but Sam booked a Virgin Atlantic ticket within an hour of hearing that Zoom was no longer zooming. He hardly needs that poster: the message is in his bones. I squeeze into the back and the 6ft tall son sits up front with his father. American mothers are famous for weeping at this milestone, but English mothers who have endured boarding schools are pros at dealing with the pain of separation. Perhaps middle-class eyes are less watery also because university provides some financial relief.
English universities charge their undergraduate students a fee of £3,000 a year. Scottish universities charge English students £1,775 a year and their Scottish sons and daughters pay no fee at all. Despite the fact that Sam’s great-great-great-grandfather was Provost of Edinburgh, his post code is IP31 2DW, so he pays the fees. But compared to school fees, they are paltry.
Throughout the journey, I keep humming the song from The Fantasticks: ‘Try to remember the kind of September/When life was slow and oh, so mellow./ Try to remember the kind of September/When grass was green and grain was yellow.’ I can’t remember after that, but ‘tender fellow’ sticks in my mind as I deliver my tender fellow to the next stage of his life. I try to shut out all the catastrophic news in the world. It helps that the tender fellow isn’t the least bit sad, that he has a dozen friends here, and he can’t wait to unload the car and begin his new life. As he hugs his ma and pa, I remember two more lines: ‘Try to remember when life was so tender/That no one wept except the willow.’