It's the summer holidays. The usual household timetable is suspended. I stay in bed reading in the mornings, because I can. Unfortunately this pleasure is tainted with guilt, about Youngest. He is free from school. He should be larking in meadows, his face browning in vitamin D-sunshine, his muscles strengthening through running and jumping and climbing. Instead he is in London, indoors, glued to the computer in my office from morning till night, playing games with a headset on, talking to his friends, who are also indoors playing computer games with their headsets on.
As an antidote to this I have arranged for him to go away for a few nights with his cousins, who are very close to him in age, to stay with my parents. I know that when there he will play and play and play, in the house, out of the house, for hours on end, not a computer in sight.
I meet them, accompanied by my brother, at Kings Cross Station. "You do know they're travelling by themselves, don't you?" says my brother (usually our mother travels down to London to collect them).
"Yes," I say, "I'm cool with it. I have a child wondering around South East Asia. Compared to that this is a doddle."
I'm especially not worried when I see my brother has booked seats for them in First Class and a kind lady nearby offers to keep an eye on them, and so does the train guard; and also when I realise that all they have to do is get off at the last stop, where they will be met.
"All you have to do is get off at the last stop," I say to Youngest, handing him a list of all the station stops, so he can tick them off and know where he is (this is along with a packed lunch, emergency money, and a fully charged mobile phone). "And you do know the landmark to look out for, just before you arrive at the station?"
"Yes!" says my eldest niece, enthusiastically, "it's a Tesco, isn't it, Aunty Libby?" (Libby is my family name.)
Actually I was thinking of an old abandoned windmill on a hill, which to me always romantically signals that I am about to arrive 'home'. But Tesco will do.
"I guess the only concern is if they need to go to the loo and a stranger accosts them," says my brother as we walk away together across the concourse, having waved them good-bye, "So I told them to go to the loo in pairs."
"Right" I say. I hadn't worried about that. That's a new thing to worry about. I had worried, in the middle of the night a week or so ago, that someone might plant drugs on Eldest in Asia, making him an unwitting and innocent drug's mule, who will be banged up forever in a boiling Thai jail, just like Nicole Kidman in Bangkok Hilton.* (A vivid imagination is a terrible curse.)
But now my brother's comment reminds me of a another story, about him on a train, which for years my mother relished the telling of. I think he was about seven, I was about ten, we were travelling from Vancouver to New York (glamorous, I know, my whole life has been downhill since that point). He went to the loo and did not reappear. The train arrived at a station, then left the station, and still my little brother did not return. My mother began to panic. Perhaps he'd got off the train to look for a toilet? She rose from her seat to find him, quickly coming across a locked loo door and banging on it, hollering my brother's name at the top of her voice. Now she imagined he was trapped in there, or he had fallen and banged his head…
A guard came, my mother explained, he dashed off for a key. Some time passed, time during which my mother continued to bang on the door, shouting my brother's name at the top of her voice. Eventually the guard returned and began to unlock the door from the outside. Suddenly the bolt shot back and a man emerged, cool as a cucumber. He looked from my mother to the guard, did not say one word, and sauntered off. Shortly after that my brother reappeared with a tale about having walked the length of the train to find a vacant loo.
No wonder, now fully grown, my brother is worried about his girls going to the toilet on a train. But he needn't have, they arrived without incident. And no one spotted the windmill.
Love E x
*Bangkok Hilton is a three-part Australian mini series made in 1989 starring Nicole Kidman. Its name is a fictional prison but a reference to the real Hanoi Hilton, used by North Vietnam in the Vietnam War.
P.S. I saw To Kill A Mockingbird at The Barbican Theatre on Thursday evening, and I stood at the end, along with most of the rest of the audience. Absolutely fantastic, and no elephants in sight.