Jason Goodwin looks at his nearly-fully-grown children and wonders how it all came to this. (In a good way.)
I returned to the fishmonger, at long last. He’s happy when the sun’s out, because business picks up. ‘Doesn’t matter what’s on TV or how much Broadchurch we get, it’s what’s up there that makes the difference,’ he likes to say, pointing to the ceiling.
‘We’re buying fish again,’ I explained. ‘The boys are back, so the fish-averse child isn’t calling all the shots.’
It’s not really about fish, of course. I mean that normal service has been resumed. After a perfect storm of GCSEs, A levels and finals, the sun is in his heaven, the blackbird’s on the lawn and everyone has come home. The kitchen is full of breakfasts in the morning and the garden full of laughter in the evening.
Hilaire Belloc wrote that there are certain primal things that move us: among them a winding track, a tower on a hill and voices at night in the road outside. Homecoming is another of those primal things: Odysseus making his way back to Penelope, the joyous return of the Prodigal Son, that scene in The Railway Children when Father emerges on the platform through the steam.
The primary primal thing with the boys is to keep the fridge topped up. It’s not all fish, but it’s certainly about food and the fridge is like a dud phone battery with a tendency to drain inexplicably overnight. A truckle of cheese is pared away to nothing. Salami disappears.
It reminds me of that period in the 1970s, after the Oil Shock and the Three Day Week, when TV adverts tapped into the popular fear of shortage and ran on the possibility that a creature called Humphrey was coming to steal your milk or that your father was raiding the fridge at night because, unlikely and perhaps tactless as it may now sound, he had turned into a ‘secret lemonade drinker’.
“His final duty as Head Boy will be to welcome us to the Leavers’ Ball, yet, in my mind’s eye, he’s reclining on the rug, one pyjama’d knee raised, surrounded by scuffed Matchbox cars and miniature lorries”
I peer through the kitchen window and see the children sprawled on the trampoline, where they like to congregate for a bounce and a chat. The croquet hoops are out, mallets strewn across the lawn. Gone are the days when I deliberately fluffed a shot to keep the balance – and the peace.
Their forays into the wider world have completely reconfigured my understanding of the rules of croquet. The boys can get through all the hoops in a single turn and they disdain to cheat. They insist that nudging the ball with a foot is not regulation play for Hurlingham, a fact I can scarcely credit.
That young man who only the other day had hair as long as a tiny Tarzan and spoke in husky whispers is through with school. His final duty as Head Boy – did I mention that? – will be to welcome us to the Leavers’ Ball, yet, in my mind’s eye, he’s reclining on the rug, one pyjama’d knee raised, surrounded by scuffed Matchbox cars and miniature lorries, each opening up to him their own secret personality. Now, he’s 6ft something and driving.
Another goes off to work.
In an earlier life, we ran a shop together, made from a cardboard box and staffed by knitted mice. The washing-up is being done by a hulking fellow who, moments ago it seems, knelt on a chair at the kitchen table, reaching for pastels in a box: a pint-sized Jasper Johns.
Kate takes Anna into school, to look at the work hanging in the Art Show. In two years, she’ll follow Harry and be out of school herself and the first part of the enterprise will be over, just as it should be, batons passed, horizons widening, Hurlingham rules.
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