Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Silken Tent.

I know that my son who has just gone to university is okay for two reasons. One: he hasn't rung since he got there, but has instead sent a series of cheerful text messages, mostly asking to be sent things he forgot to take with him. Two: I receive a text from a friend who lives in Buckinghamshire to say he was seen laughing and dancing at a party. Her daughter has a friend at the same university and she spotted him in the background of her Snapchat story. Welcome to the 21st century.

"But are you okay?" A different friend asks, in a different text message. I send a long reply with possibly more detail in it than she requires. While waiting for an answer I go downstairs from my office to make a cup of tea and while standing in front of the kettle it occurs to me that I won't need to make a cup of tea for Middle One, or for Eldest. My phone beeps with a reply from the friend and there are no words, only an emoji of a face crying rivers of tears.

Monday morning I prepare to go and sit in a windowless room and talk to lonely elderly people. "This might not be exactly what I need at the moment," I say to my husband, as I load things into my bicycle basket.

"No," he says. "But it might be what they need."

In the windowless room a 95-year-old lady on the other end of the telephone tells me your children never really leave you and her daughter rings her twice a day. She adds that when she looks back on her life her biggest regret is that she wasn't a good enough mother. "I wish I'd been more patient," she says, and a silent stream of tears runs down my face.

"Please don't reproach yourself," I say "You must have been a wonderful mother or your daughter wouldn't be ringing twice a day."

"You're making me cry," she says.

Monday evening I go to the pub for a meeting of mums called to arrange a forthcoming weekend away. People get out diaries or iPhones, or diaries and iPhones. I don't get out anything because I don't know when I'm going to be free, because I don't know when I'm going to be busy. "I'm going to be student," I say, "but I haven't got my timetable yet."

"What will you be busy doing when you're a student?" another mum asks.

"Laughing and dancing at parties," I say.

"Can I come?" she says.

"Yes," I say.

"How are you feeling?" asks another mum, "about your middle one being at university?" When I tell her she quotes a bit of A September Song by Pam Ayres - "The energy, the racket, all the songs you loved to play, and I won't know where to turn to when the music dies away." Which makes me smile.

Tuesday, my sister-in-law rings to suggest Youngest has a sleepover with his cousins and asks if I'd like to meet her for tea on Saturday, and then again for lunch on Sunday, all of us. I reply that would be lovely, and it reminds me to send a text to my niece to thank her for the letter she sent me. 

Wednesday I go for a long walk with Kay who suggested it as an antidote to feeling sad. When I pick her up in the car she looks at me suspiciously. "Have you been crying?" she says. "Only a tear or two," I reply, "because of the music."

Thursday I lie in a hot bath before bedtime and read a cool poem by Robert Frost. 

The Silken Tent.

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Which makes me cry. 

 Friday I meet up with another friend in the evening, who also has a son who went to university last weekend, and when I ask her how she is, I get out my tissues.

Love E x


P.S.  Late on Sunday I read the following by Gertrude Stein, "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences." Which makes me laugh out loud.

(I wrote this before the destruction of Chestnut Avenue, I'll be writing about that next week.)

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

It's the end of the world as we know it, almost.

Bringing up small children is hard work. There's the loss of freedom, of sleep, of privacy, the strain on your relationship, which many marriages don't survive, the enormous expense and self-sacrifice, but then one day all the hassle and aggro melts away and there standing before you instead of this cute little high-maintenance kid, alternately charming and infuriating, is an adult: warm, witty, kind, fun to be with, a home-grown bezzie mate, someone you can ask to empty the dishwasher who might actually do it. Hooray! And then he leaves.

I think that's how lots of parents feel when their children go to university. The problem with modern parenting like ours: placing children centre stage instead of having them play supporting roles as they did when we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, is that when they go there's a real danger the show might fold. I received an email once, in response to something I wrote about motherhood and careers, from a woman who told me she was so depressed without a job to go to and all her children at university, she didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. I look back and realise that when my eldest son left home and I suddenly lost weight and couldn't sleep, it was because he took a small piece of my sanity with him. With another boy now gone, a third to go at some point, I can only hope to hold on to enough of it to continue to get up each day, but I'm not counting on anything.

You might say I have only myself to blame: having made raising these boys my raison d'être. If so, my husband is similarly culpable. He thinks nothing of going out in the middle of the night to track a son down, or chase after one who just left home without his glasses. While I busy myself dashing backwards and forwards to the shops to keep the house stocked with food and toiletries. And it is absorbing, making sure between us that they have all they need: books for school, doctor's and dentist's appointments, lifts to music lessons and sporting fixtures, but when they no longer need it, when they're no longer around, what then? 

When we took our first son to university we stayed in a hotel with him the night before. On our last morning together I was able to watch him sleeping in the moments before he stirred. It was poignant. How many times had I seen him sleep before? Countless. How many more would there be? Not so many. Of course a child's face is beautiful to his mother even when he's a fully grown man, but when sleeping it takes on an extra vulnerability that wipes the memory of all his faults and misdemeanours. In that moment, watching him, he was my angel. I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and weep into his shoulder because I was about to lose him to the world, and I knew it. But of course I didn't.

I thought I might have a similar moment before leaving Middle One at university this weekend, but a conspiracy of circumstances - including the city hosting a marathon next day - meant we didn't have a night together in a hotel after all. Instead, our leave-taking was a hurried and unsatisfactory affair in the street, in the dark, in the rain. I kept it together for the journey back to London, mostly because I was driving, then woke in the middle of the night wracked with sobs. His loss is keenly felt. He talked to me, a lot, and joked, sometimes we made the same play on words at the same time. But most of all, as with his elder brother, it's his music I will miss; music he played on his acoustic and electric guitar, on the piano, ukulele, mouth organ, music he listened to all the time in his room, music he played for me to listen to in the kitchen. Since he's been gone, and it's three whole days now, all that music has stopped.

Of course there's still one boy left: the quiet one, always in front of his computer with his headphones on. Sunday evening I tap his right shoulder. He looks round, pulls his headphones away from his ears. "Right," I say. "Just you now; you have my undivided attention."

"Jesus Christ," he says, snapping his headphones back on.

Love E x


P.S. "It is hard when your children leave," my mother says, when she rings to see how I am. "And the thing is, you never really get over it." Then she sends me flowers.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017


The night before I have to direct a shoot in central London, Middle One tells me he's preparing to say goodbye to people before leaving for university. He tells me he has to say goodbye to his fencing coach, who has been teaching him for ten years, and he has to say goodbye to his guitar teacher, who has been teaching him for eleven. I remember how he didn't like to say goodbye to people when he was little and after dropping him at nursery he would make a run for the window to watch me walk away. He didn't like change, either. When we moved house when he was seven and we had to leave the apple tree behind in the garden, for obvious reasons, he was furious. And he still hasn't forgiven me for having the blue sofa reupholstered in orange fabric, and that was eight years ago.

Funnily enough, I also don't like change or saying goodbye to people. When the first two boys were tiny and the youngest was nothing more than a conversation I kept having with my husband, I made friends with another mum nearby with babies the same age. We hung out all the time with our children, mostly in each other's kitchens serving fish fingers and peas then watching them fly from highchairs to floors as we drank wine and swept up the mess afterwards, and laughed. For five years we supported each other through tears, teething, toilet training, and tantrums - some of them the children's - until one day she told me her husband had decided they should move to the country. I woke at 3am for weeks after that, unable to get back to sleep, often giving up and going downstairs to stare out of the window at what passes for darkness in south London. For a short while after she left we kept our friendship intact between south London and Ditchling using the A23. I sang a lot of nursery rhymes in the car, lobbing rice cakes and packets of raisins to my small children in the back, until her husband decided to move the family to Australia, and I knew I didn't have enough nursery rhymes or sugar-free snacks - or pounds for that matter - to make that journey palatable for my children.

I watch Youngest's face as Middle One talks about preparing to say goodbye to people, and it occurs to me that having a sibling leave home for university must be a lot like losing a cherished friend, especially if you are the youngest one left behind.

Next day I'm up at dawn to go to the shoot in central London. Over nine and a half hours I direct eight different scenes in seven different locations with a ten-year-old girl, and when we wrap at the end of the day a prop belonging to the little girl is missing. It will probably turn up, somebody tells me, and I'm troubled by the word 'probably'.

That night I have a horrible dream. I'm in my grandparents' old house which is transformed into my boys' old primary school, urgently searching from classroom to classroom for precious objects covered in a fine layer of dust as someone unseen, a step or two behind, attempts to throw them all away. I find my grandfather's hairbrush with fine strands of his silvery hair still on it, then wake with a start at precisely 3am. I get up and go downstairs and stare out of the window and remember doing exactly the same when my friend moved to Ditchling and then Australia.

When I go back to the location next day the missing prop is still missing. "We'll just have to buy another one," somebody says, but I know that buying another one won't be the same for the little girl. I have her sit in the middle of the frame and look straight at the camera, then up to the top left then bottom right, then up to the top right then bottom left, so I can edit a sequence together later that might look a bit like the opening titles of The Brady Bunch with the mum and the dad and all those siblings.

After we wrap and I get home from the shoot I go up to Middle One's bedroom. "How did it go?" he says.

"Good," I say. "Do you think you could tidy this room? It's a tip."

"No point," he says. "I'm packing it all to take with me soon anyway."

Love E x


P.S. Thankfully the prop did turn up.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Bleeding Canker - the movie.

Toy Story.

Imagine life as a three-part film franchise. The first film is childhood and adolescence: fresh, original, with twists and turns, you don't know what to expect but it ends up a big hit, especially in retrospect. Then comes the sequel, tricky to follow a box office smash like that but there are some of the same characters and this time there's a love story too, plus it ends with a marriage and some kids. Bit predictable, maybe, but everybody likes a happy ending. 

Except it's not, they bring out a third and to be honest it's not a film you'd normally go and see. Night At The Museum 3? Don't think so. The Hangover Part III? Nah. The Godfather Part III? Best glossed over. Now only a few of the original cast remain, those who didn't scarper after they made a mint and a name for themselves; the writers are definitely the same, though, because it's work, init, and it's a tried and tested formula. Thing is, when they reassemble to brainstorm the third plot they've used all their best stuff in the first two and frankly they're knackered. Sometimes in the late afternoon one or two of them nod off. 

Get the picture? Movie number three is middle age and beyond and it's not something I ever dreamed of as a girl. I don't think anyone does. You can foresee a bit of college, friends, travel, love and marriage, babies, who then turn into cute children. You can see your future self as part of your own little family, going on bucket and spade holidays, pushing children on swings. Maybe, if you're particularly imaginative, you can envisage your forties with teenagers, still a bit cool, perhaps sharing a spliff or accompanying them to a gig. But beyond that, as a saggy-skinned empty nester falling asleep on the sofa in front of The Great British Bake Off? Nope. Never imagined it, definitely wouldn't go and see it if it were a movie.

But hold on a doggone minute, because there's always hope in the form of an exception to prove the rule and in this case it's... Rocky III. Only kidding, although that was a massive hit, with a massive hit song to go with it. No, for me it's Toy Story 3 because that is a brilliant movie. I defy anyone not to be moved by the bit where the gang link hands as they edge toward the incinerator's fiery abyss... and the denouement when Andy gives his toys away when he's about to go to university, that always makes me cry. And that's pretty much where I am now, plot-wise, with another son about to leave home. In a little less than two weeks there'll be only one boy left and so far the only thing the writers have come up with is that mum goes back to uni.


But there are some advantages to midlife. If you're lucky you might finally hit the jackpot property-wise, that damp flat in Streatham with the negative equity is a dim and distant memory. Now you find yourself in a beautiful house watching The Great British Bake Off, and in my case that house is - and I can't quite work out how this has happened - in one of the world's coolest inner-city neighbourhoods. "Uber-cool" in fact, according to Lonely Planet.

Not so long ago I told people I lived "near Balham" because they'd never heard of Tooting. Not anymore. Now I shout the word across rooms at parties just to watch hipsters turn their heads. It's all true what they say. We do have a Turkish 24-hour shop from where we buy warm pide for 70p. We do have a gentrified pub with craft beer round the corner. We do have a mile long "curry corridor" from Tooting Bec down to Tooting Broadway. And then there's our pièce de résistance, the Common, with its Lido and its stunning avenue of mature chestnut trees, and you know where I'm going with this, don't you. There's trouble brewing in our "gritty urban" paradise.

If this were a movie here's Wandsworth Borough Council stepping up to play the villain. An evil and intractable force hell-bent on felling 54 of these stunning trees, many of them more than 150 years old, turning this much-loved shaded pathway into a Chernobylesque wasteland despite not a single arborist recommending it, not even the ones employed by the Council itself. So why are they doing it? Because they have a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, that's why, and it's less expense and hassle than maintaining the trees to make sure the bleeding canker they suffer from, which most are surviving, doesn't cause one of them to suddenly and expensively shed a branch on top of a person.

I love that avenue. I got a bit involved in the campaign to save it. Well, I went to some meetings, manned a stall at a fair, put a poster in the window. Now news arrives that the campaign has failed, the avenue is to be felled over the next few weeks. It's going to go from looking like this...

To this...

So I suggest to my friend Kay that we tie ourselves to a tree when the men turn up with chainsaws. Always one to up the ante she counters that we do it naked. I guess it could make a good story. We might even occupy a tree in the manner of Lisa Simpson in that episode called 'Lisa the Tree Hugger.' We'll be the rebel alliance striking back against the evil empire. All of a sudden this movie has real plot potential. It's Shirley Valentine meets Educating Rita meets the Empire Strikes Back and Calendar Girls, up a tree.

Love E x


P.S. The third in a worn out old franchise.