Sunday, 18 September 2011

A Job Well Done

My son left home yesterday. We took him, and a van full of his belongings, to his university lodgings, deposited him and his stuff and without further ceremony, left him to his own devices in this strange new city. His lip quivered barely perceptively as we headed back to the van, but hugs and meaningful lingering smiles over, it was time to depart.

I remember how this felt, at least from my own perspective. I was left in a town much less attractive and frankly hated most of my first year. But the loneliness and abandonment one feels is to some extent outweighed, or at least balanced by the sense of excitement that the novel situation, with all its new people and hitherto unimagined possibilities offered. I am sure he will have a great time. All he has to do is avoid fighting with the sailors and be careful not to get drunk and fall in the harbour. Both of these, I confess, have haunted unreasonably those hours when night is darkest and I should have been sleeping. When the night is dark and the world is asleep, you alone are left there with your fears. Often they are ridiculous fears that in the light of day, you would dismiss with a mental brush of the hand. But at night, realism abandons you and all possibilities seem likely and terrifying.
Well, I have come to terms with those. I feel the lad has been prepared as well as we could possibly have managed. I am confident he has all the skills he needs to survive alone, or can develop them based upon his innate character and existing knowledge. My wobbliness subsides a little.

But I came home and sat on his bed. His room is clear, his desk empty. I walked into the garage and my tools still lie scattered on the bench with the remains of the final projects of late-boyhood. I suspect they will have no appeal upon his occasional return. A sense of something ending lingers indistinctly but decisively in the air.

Just under nineteen years ago, we could walk around to any town, drive to any friends and, bump and tiredness notwithstanding, stay out as late as we liked without consideration for anyone else. Then my son came crashing into our lives with a powerful set of lungs and vocal cords and a requirement for constant attention. Our time was no longer our own. Then less than two years later, my daughter arrived and now we were tethered, happily I add, to the home for the routines of daily life and the care of little, developing human beings.
And what a journey it was! I confess, I enjoyed most of it joyously.
There were the little innocent questions, the answers to which formed the growing understanding of the world, the little unselfconsciously offered child opinions on things, which delighted me with their funny little interpretations of a confusing existence.
I became expert in adhesives from mending broken toys brought to me by hopeful little faces. I regressed to my own childhood whilst skipping hand in hand with toddlers through the shops.
I became finally "responsible" as, together with my wife, we charted sensible courses through the sometimes troubled seas of parenthood with the ultimate aim of bringing to successful adulthood, two small offspring of our own conception.

Well, now all the huge shoes are gone from the shoe rack. The coat rack is almost empty as the big vintage overcoats are transplanted to another hall over a hundred miles away.
We have done our job and been successful by any measure.

And so, dropping him off with the gathered possessions of his own choosing, making and collecting, a task is complete. An independent adult, accompanied by vast amounts of food that we bought for him, is now starting out on his own in hopeful anticipation.

And here, the house seems somehow empty. Its a strange feeling and I am not really comfortable with it. But probably I shall get used to it. It is how things should be after all. He might phone sometimes and possibly he will be home in the holidays.

But now I get a sense of how my own mother must have felt leaving me all those decades ago in that god-forsaken campus in South Wales, her feelings being something very distant from my own self-absorbed bewilderment and excitement at my new situation.
Sorry, Mum. I had no idea! You left me with the Red Cross Parcel. I remember it well, and was grateful. I see now the box of food is not just sustenance for the coming weeks, but a token of the love we won't be able to give in person but which we hope will be apparent in every opened tin or bacon sandwich.

So now, we have only one offspring to focus on for the two years until her own similar departure. I hope she can cope with the increased attention!

And then, perhaps, when both are set on their courses, in about two years, independent apart from the occasional financial injection from us, the job will be largely done. Two independent human beings produced to contribute to society, enjoy their own lives as people and to hopefully nurture us when we become toothless and incontinent.

Call home sometimes, though, Son, won't you.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Resolving Landscapes

And once more, here I am in my favourite German hotel, in the most interesting town in Westfalia. My room has no view this time, only the wall of the building opposite, which is not particularly inspiring even given its mirrored cladding.
On my way here today, I had to go and pick up a colleague from his house, since he is a participant in tomorrow's meetings here. His house is a newly built dwelling on a piece of land near to the small village where I grew up. I rarely go back there as I find the smallness and insularity of it oppressive and it ushers into my mind those exact feelings of remoteness and loneliness that I experienced as an adolescent there with only a bicycle as a means of escape.

As I approached, it struck me how beautiful the place is. The scarp above the village is the beginning of the Cotswolds, designated as an Area of Outstanding Beauty and frankly, it very much is.
I won't say that this escaped my notice as a boy. I was always aware of how glorious the countryside was and how picturesque the vista of rolling English hills was that rose only a mile or so from our back garden. Oh, I was perfectly aware of all this. I just didn't really care because it represented unwelcome solitude and the bounds of my mental as well as physical horizon.
Villages have their advantages. Not much crime happens and it is quite secure. But they are boring and claustrophobic and you cannot so much as fart loudly without some busybody reporting it to the local Parish Flatulence Officer and everyone pointing at you in the pretty little streets for the next month.

So, it was an unwelcome revisitation that I undertook this morning to my home village, after so many years..
Down the lanes I went, the lanes that were visible from my bedroom some thirty years ago, lanes I ran, walked, cycled along. As I drove, slowly for this is a great equstrian area and many nervous horses lurk around corners (not in a furtive way you understand, but you can encounter them suddenly and disastrously if you are not careful), the ghost of another Pete rode along with me. A smaller, scruffier, more constrained Pete watched as the trees went by and shuddered slightly at the crossing of the parish boundary.

In many ways, things have changed. There are plantations of sycamore and pine grown to maturity where last I looked they were mere twigs in their deer-proof tubes. Houses are different colours. Barns have tumbled to ruins. But the big trees, the oaks and ashes they are much the same as I remember and look familiar in an unremarked kind of way. The landscape before me corresponds to a topography that is burned into my memory such that the new copses remain largely unseen and the countryside of my childhood is still somehow the landscape that I see.

And it seemed incongruous to me that this young lad, his world so small and limited would find the purpose for my being here this day incomprehensible: I am on my way to an airport to fly across Europe for my work, as I do regularly and without remark to myself, save those times I look up and with the words of the Talking Heads ringing in my ears as so often, say to myself: "How did I get here!?"

That boy who aspired to no more than a job as a truck driver, would not comprehend what he would one day become and do. "An Aeroplane? Me? For a job? No. No you must mean somebody else.." Ok, it's not head of the U.N. certainly, but to a country urchin of the 1970s, it might as well be.

Our destinies twist and turn, taking us places we would ever expect and sometimes we stop and look honestly at our situation, with a sudden older perspective, and we are astonished, unbelieving. That ragamuffin child, all long wild hair and tatty canvas coat, he is still here. Not merely a wraith of someone long gone, leaving only an echo of a presence, but still here. I am him. Oh, certainly he has been added to, distorted to some extent perhaps, toughened in places and abraded in others. But there, not so deep down, there he is peering out fearful, but occasionally excited, to see what still awaits.
The boundary that was the horizon has expanded beyond what he ever dreamed.

But at our core, do not all of us have our embryonic selves in some way still extant? Do they not occasionally look out of our eyes and halt a foot about to take a step, out of trepidation and uncertainty?
I am glad I bumped into him again. I shall consider his needs and senssitivities, but I shall also be aware of when he is unduly influencing my decisions and when his small way of seeing the world is hampering progress towards a more interesting and exciting life.

And sometimes I will indulge him, like now, when I shall bounce on the bed in this hotel room as if it was a trampoline and no admonishing adult will come to the rescue of the springs.