Friday, 27 July 2007

Sammy Shrimp

It’s an old-fashioned holiday: cloudless skies, constant, lazy, heat, while at home the skies are crumbling into huge slabs of rain.

We are sitting next to an umbrella by the pool, my daughter and I. My wife is inside the villa, sleeping perhaps, or doing something unremarkable. It’s easy when you’re away for little things to expand to fill great chunks of holiday time. It is all perfect, apart from the road the other side of the hedge, but I don’t mind that as much as my wife or our friends do. We have just emerged from the shiny coolness of the water and I lie steaming in the sun with my head and shoulders propped up, while my daughter sits in the shade with her knees drawn to her chin, wrapped in a towel. I put my hand absent-mindedly on her head and feel the warmth below my palm. She smiles and puts her hand on mine. Just her and me under the umbrella. Stillness around us. The breeze and the rustle of palm leaves. I am in my own world of heat and memories and she is in her own. But our worlds overlap. Is that what makes for a happy childhood I wonder? Not too much togetherness, not too much separation.

In the evening we go to dinner in the old town. We find a restaurant on the beach, where the children can run on the sand while we sample a range of wines of different hues. The giant prawns are the hit of the night. Not least with my daughter who wraps a discarded head in a napkin and christens it Sammy Shrimp. Sammy accompanies her everywhere for the rest of the evening. She looks at him adoringly. And I think he feels the same about her too.

On the way home in the taxi I am vaguely wondering what the pungent smell is and realise it is Sammy. I remove him from my sleeping daughter’s grasp and when we arrive home I toss him in the bin.

The next morning my daughter wakes up and asks simultaneously “Where’s Sammy Shrimp?”
“Er, he’s gone to back to see all his other shrimp friends” I say.
She looks crestfallen.
“But I love him.” She says, lips quivering and tears squeezing their way out.
We hug her and reassure her, as if a beloved pet has had to be put down.
She soon recovers but I fervently hope she doesn’t decide to look inside the rubbish bin.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Theatre Land

We go to a friend’s for dinner on Friday night. The next day, early, it’s my daughter’s end of term performance. My wife and I spend so long reminding each other not to drink too much that we end up drinking all night. Consequently we are both slightly dazed on Saturday morning. In the car on the way there my daughter suddenly breaks into our conversation to say “I’m a bit nervous”. We both hesitate. We tell her she’ll be fine. We tell her not to be nervous. We tell her everybody gets nervous. As ever we tell her a lot of stuff. She considers our advice for a few seconds and it seems to do the trick.

At the theatre, cars are double and treble parked and everyone is smarter than me. I’ve selected a t-shirt with a surfing motif and my usual jeans and trainers. While my daughter shakes the head’s hand enthusiastically I cringe a little and try to move through the door as rapidly as possible. I hate school. Even someone else’s. I recently remembered how I used to tick the days off, literally, when I was young. I still have the school diaries with neat little biro marks. When I left school I started to tick less, but then I started working and the ticking started again in earnest, accompanied by new little sums, indicating how much time I needed to continue before I could stop. As I worked longer the sums got more complex, until seventeen years after starting work and thirty five years after starting school I finally started out on my own.

We say hello to a few people. It makes me feel ill seeing all these weektime people at the weekend in chinos and jackets. I meet the Japanese expat’s husband, who shakes my hand formally. He seems to be wearing a suit made entirely from chino. To fit in, I suppose. I look at his wife smiling uncertainly and wish I was somewhere else. I remember a story she told me at the farm park. She said she wasn’t looking forward to going back to Tokyo in a year’s time. I asked her why. “Because here my husband comes home from work at 10pm.” Perhaps she doesn’t like her husband, I thought. Seeing my confusion she added “In Japan he sleeps in the office. On a couch. He doesn’t come home during the week.” I look at her husband and wonder whether I dislike him or feel sorry for him.

The curtain goes up. We are sitting way up near the back, where I like it. But I realize now that we can’t see my daughter. And she can’t see us either. The little row of children, of whom my daughter is one, scan the audience desperately trying to locate their parents. We wave but we’re too far away. The spotlight is on them. For a moment I think my daughter is going to struggle to her feet and burst into tears. And perhaps stick her finger up her nostril for good measure too. But she doesn’t. She calmly takes the hand of the girl next to her, mutters something soothing to her and they all clamber to their feet like 50 stone men, the way the young do. There is a pause for the music to start, then they execute a word perfect rendition of their song. Flashes burst around us. A thousand different versions play on LCD screens. I was prepared to be proud of a nose-picker, but what I’ve just seen makes me even more proud.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Play Acting

My daughter has been rehearsing at home for the end of term play.

“Together we will garden! Together we will garden!” she sings, whirling her arms around introductorily.
“Dig the soyul! Dig the soyul!” she continues, swooping expansively with an imaginary spade.
“All day long…” She collapses to the floor, dragging the back of her hand across her brow.

I clap supportively, but am interrupted by more verses about stones and weeds.

Based on her last effort, at Christmas, I don’t hold out much hope for the actual performance. She spent the majority of the Nativity with her finger up her nose, sniffling unhappily while her classmates belted out the festive numbers.

Coming back from nursery I lean across to strap her into her seat. She grabs the seatbelt and says “No, I’ll do it.” She says this a lot nowadays. She marches into the loo and closes the door, behind her. “I can do it!”. She wants to prepare her own meals. “No daddy, I’ll do it.” What happened to the dribbling incompetent who needed everything to be done for her? That’s over already. That's me, soon.

From the back of the car my daughter tells me about the dress rehearsal at school. “There are curtains, but you can’t open them with your hands.” “Mmm, difficult” I say, distracted by suicidal tourists on Gloucester Road. It’s like Beachy Head around there. They step off the kerb and rely on me to save them. I think they must have notes in their pockets explaining to their families why they came to a busy street in central London to end it all.

“Yes it’s tricky daddy.”
“I’m sure."
“XXXX hurts my feelings
“What” I ask, peering into the rear view mirror.
“She says I’m naughty, but I’m not naughty”
I came across this girl at the farm park. She is naughty. Whatever she is told to do she does the opposite.
“No, you’re a good girl.”
“But she’s still my friend. The children at school are all my friends. All the children in the world are my friends. Even when they’re naughty. Even XXXX is my friend.”
I feel like stopping the car, unstrapping my daughter and hugging her tightly there on the pavement, among the pigeons and the dog poo and the suicidal tourists. Instead I mutter reassuringly and pull away from the lights.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Mere Complexities

…All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
W B Yeats

In the playground at the farm park my daughter effortfully drags herself across the rope bridge and then jumps down and turns back towards the line of ashen-faced children behind her. Standing next to them she shouts “Come on, you can do it!” like an army sergeant at an assault course. “Well done” she says as they make their way down one by one, while I fish off those too scared to move. There are older children than her pushing and fighting and plunging in front of others, and she’s stepping back and encouraging people. It makes me want to weep for myself and my craven self-indulgence and sell all my possessions and become a Buddhist. Well, maybe weep anyway.

It comes from my wife, this stubborn streak of niceness. What I saw twenty years ago in my wife I am now seeing all over again in my daughter. I had forgotten about it one way or another, and it’s a treat to be reminded. It’s not the only thing of course. I see my wife in a turn of the foot here, a wrinkle of the eyebrow there. I see my father too. When my daughter shrugs it is as if there’s a thumbprint on her genetic code that means like a stuck CD she replicates his shoulders to ears flinch time after time. On other occasions I turn round and find myself caught in my sister’s or mother’s gaze. I treasure all these little parts of other people and I want to find more. My daughter sometimes catches me looking at her and grins, lopsidedly, like me.

My father had lung problems and heart problems by the end. His body just gave out. If he had been a car you wouldn’t have wanted to open up the bonnet. You’d have just carried on sticking in the leaded and hoping. He knew, but he didn’t want the doctors to confirm it. I imagined them telling him to cut out the drinking and pack in the smoking. They might as well have told him to go easy on the breathing. He couldn’t really see the point of life a lot of the time. Sometimes I can understand that, sometimes though I think he didn’t search the most obvious places. I look at my daughter and see the glimpses of others that make time less lost.