The right stuff.
You read some of their papers and you realise very soon the central flaw with whatever the hypothesis being put forward is they’ve never had or raised a child. Every child is unique, every one is a new road and one not less travelled but one never ever before travelled, even for parents who’ve already had a child.
It’s a loop we all go through. You’ve had your first child and think you’ve now mastered the art and get that same surprise with the next one. With each one of them, it’s back to square one. You get used to it and it becomes part of the pleasure of being a parent while at the same time it completes the process of your own growing up. There’s a lot of stuff about your parents you finally see.
Looking back on it, my parents knew I’d be out of the nest fast, and their reactions were classic for any loving parents. I was a strong-willed child, never the pampered sickly one, and perhaps because of that, a strong-willed child who wasn’t going to change as I grew older. My father knew I would go out into the wild world early and spent time with me giving me some very practical advice while he quietly welded on armour plate around my expectations of it.
She supported her man’s decision because she saw there was no stopping me, the inevitability of it, said nothing, and stayed lioness strong for one of her more difficult cubs. I was a trial to them, but they never let go of me.
I did go out into the world and passed among new men, strange faces, other minds to quote Sir Bedivere, but in the end came back in through the same door out of which I’d left, to quote Omar Khayyám, a Chobham armour poet my father had taught me to love. My kin and people who knew me were I think a little bit envious of all the travels to foreign lands while they were in the busy day-to-dayness of building mutual trust with a spouse, settling into a loving relationship, getting the scary number mortgage and coping with it, putting down roots while I was jaunting around.
You do enough time on that frenetic carousel, you start to think what your life is going to look like in thirty year’s time, because you’ve met too many tired burnouts on their Nth spin around that carousel, and you have to do some deep thinking. Too many journeys, to many samey hotel rooms, too many contracts you could already see wouldn’t end well, too many clients with their head up their ass, too much of always being last man out, the survivor, too much of everything. Just too bloody much.
At an opportune point, you jump off the spinning carousel, and find somewhere solid where you can put down some permanent roots. I came back with some damage, but nothing I felt the need to visit on anyone else, or was anyone else’s damn business but mine.
An important part of that process is deciding you’re a homebody from now on – no more foreign adventures. I thought that would be hard, but it was surprisingly easy, like letting go of a breath you hadn’t realised you were holding in. It was an emotional confirmation, rather than a logical one, that the decision was the right one for me.
The last few years I haven’t travelled anywhere but locally, and then only under grumpy protest. I’d quietly let my passport expire, which was a great excuse to stay put, since it was the last remaining photo Id I had, and you can’t get on a plane without something like that these days.
My sons are crazy about rugby, specifically the six nations tournament which is played once a year. Six teams drawn from the best club sides in England, Ireland, Wales, France, Scotland and Italy go up against each other in fiercely contested and physically bruising games played to the highest standards of sportsmanship. It’s the only and most tribal contest in the British Isles. As young children, I’d taken them to matches, so maybe that’s where they caught the bug. They’re a very family friendly occasion with all generations present because it’s safe. A sport that’s so punishing on its players but still played with care not to injure your opponent is highly respected by its fans.
A movement begins that we should all go up to Edinburgh for this year’s opening game between Scotland and Ireland. I make various weaseling out excuses but they pile on the pressure. Mum’s never been to a game and this one is Ireland. She’d love it, plus there’s some great boutique shopping there, and you know her bargain hunting instincts. And her birthday is coming up as well.
I’d been to Edinburgh many years ago in another lifetime, and while I was sure it’d still be a lovely and somehow Dickensian city, I also knew it had more hills than bloody Rome, and better ones too. If you live a varied enough life, you pick up a few injuries, which despite being supposedly healed come after you with a vengeance when you’re an older lion. I know if I say yes, I’m going to have to work on my fitness, and that will be a slow sunnuva bitch slog.
Out of an automatic habit I’ve yet to lose, I watch my surroundings. People around me inevitably fall into routines and I find that reassuring. There’s a woman who walks by my house twice a day. She walks her son to school and back. She was never pretty I’d say, tall, rather gaunt, Harry Potter glasses, ruddy cheeks that have never known a powder compact and wears the same clothes every day. I often wonder if there’s still a man about or did he do the by now customary runner. Her hair is always tightly curled, naturally so I’d say, because she has that very tidy look of a proud mother forever on a tight budget for whom the extravagance of a visit to a hairdresser would be out of the question.
Her son is twelve / thirteen and always smartly turned out in his school uniform. He always walks along in front of her and she has to march to keep up with him because he’s pigeon toed, which means he can’t walk slowly. He always smiles, and it’s a lovely child’s smile which he’ll never lose because he’s a special needs kid and I know they’re going to the special needs school at the end of the lane. I know that because they let the special needs kids out fifteen minutes before the other school because of a bullying problem years ago, and the two of them are always fifteen minutes ahead of the homeward bound pack.
She’s been doing it for years and I’ve literally watched him growing up. There’s no remnant of a girlish bloom left on her, if ever she had one, but she has a hard flinty beauty I’ve seen in the faces of nineteenth-century photographs of the women who settled the plains of America and the outback of Australia. I watch her pass by as usual and make a decision. Such steady fortitude shames me to get off my lazy arse and man up. The inevitable plan B with options kicks off and I go into a training mode pacing around the house to build back up my ability to walk a reasonable distance.
If I can’t do it, I’ll play the no passport card and honour of giving it a good old try from my side will have been settled. If I can, it’s game on. It’s a bit of a painful bastard, but over the space of two months I go from buggered after half a klick to yomping ten of them, no problem. To be frank, nobody was more surprised than me – I sorta thought those days were well behind me.
Knowing by now I won’t be an embarrassment to the rest, I graciously cave and apply to the embassy for a passport renewal so I’ve got Id for the airline check-in. The embassy have a neat online tracking system to see where your renewal is in the process. It’s looking good; estimated delivery is expected two weeks before the flights to the game. The day arrives when it should have arrived, and no passport drops through my letterbox. A few days go by and still no passport. Panic is setting in in Detroit, so the boss figures out the online tracking system and finds out the delivery date has slipped by three weeks.
The bureaucratic ineptitude presents itself as my great escape but everyone is looking at me accusingly, as if it was somehow of my doing or my fault. “Fix it” is the none too subtle message. No way out Pointy, no way out. I make some phone calls to the embassy, and after getting blocked by the usual we’re-ignoring-you bollocks shield, manage to apply some pressure several levels higher up the ladder than the quill pushers. My passport will now magically be with me within two days, and it is.
That’s it Kiddo, you’re five by five, in the slot, hot, cocked, locked, loaded and ready to rock for Edinburgh.
Three generations of us fly northwards to the land of the Picts or the lost tribe of Scotti. The boss and I are top tier generation, in between our sons and their women, and finally our grandson, the fine wee man, being at the ludicrously loved bottom of a whole clan and sept, who are moving purposely and fully ganged-up to a meeting of two tribes. Being part of that was worth the pain.
We get to the apartment we’ve all rented and dump our rucksacks in various rooms; it was at the top of four flights of stairs. I look after my grandson and we play while the grownups busy themselves doing useful things. His parents are well into this baby signing thing, so I read his signs to me but pretend not to understand, just to piss him off to see what’s in him. Awkward bastard that I am, old enough to sign, old enough to start speaking.
He gives up with me, so I squint my eyes half shut at him in my best evil Fu Manchu fashion. He thinks about it, and then squints back. The devil in Granda comes into full play. I hold my left hand up to him, making a fist of it and then releasing my forefinger to do a little wiggle up and down while I squint evilly at him over it. I’m watching you. He thinks about that one for a while and then does exactly the same back. It’s just play, but we’re communicating.
When we’ve all got over a bit of hyper-ventilating after the stairs ascension, we head out to meet up with some Scottish friends at a place called Bubba Q’s, which very possibly serves the finest BBQ I’ve had since leaving Texas. Coming back from a loo trip, I hit a people traffic jam and start chatting with one of the waitresses. Edinburgh is an old university town and all the kids waiting on table are obviously student part timers.
We chat and I ask her how caught up students here are with all the Trump protests. We’ve no time for all that bollocks she says, using that exact word with a certain venom. Where she comes from, girls are lucky if they can read, never mind running hard at an engineering degree at Herriot-Watt university, which is what she was doing as a day job. I wish her luck and tell her I know she’ll do well, and I’ve a feeling she will.
Next day is game day, and we all mooch towards Murrayfield stadium, but the wind would cut you in two and it’s bitterly cold through the day. It’s a good old walk but I’m handling it okay. We’ve decided to leave behind the wee man’s buggy and pass him around between us like the little toddler mite he is. He’s only had a forty minute nap this morning, but is wide awake. There’s simply too much going on around him. When his eyes aren’t swivelling, his head is. He’s so bundled up, he looks like a miniature Michelin man. His mittens were forgotten in the load out, and touching his cold hands I’m concerned.
We arrive at the stadium. There are kids from both tribes playing pipes; bag pipes or elbow pipes – pick your church, but I love the sound of both. My wife, who’s never liked piping even though I’ve always been a complete slag for it, says she’s changing her mind. Lots of music, tribal drums, bodhráins, smells of fast food, milling around, men in kilts both Irish and Scottish, a melange of all those smells with a barely discernible whiff of pipe smoke over the top of the lot of it all. A meeting of the Celtic tribes. I watch the wee man mounted high atop his father’s shoulders start to bop to the drums. Primitive rhythms and old school genes.
The entrance to our section of the stadium is reached by going up eight flights of concrete stairs, which nearly kill me. They’re all looking a bit bushed themselves, so when I insist on a time out, everyone is more than willing to accommodate me. I’m beginning to think all these stairs in Scotland is how they kill off invading Sassenachs.
When we’re rested, we enter the stadium half way up, and are presented with more concrete stairs heading towards the stars. I look at the first one in front of me and see it’s been spray painted with an “A”, which obviously corresponds to row A. The next step has a “B” on it. The third has a “C”. That magic combination of a terrific memory and some finely honed deductive reasoning immediately tells me I’m fucked on this effort, because I know I’m on row “TT” which is up there in the gods somewhere. When they got to “Z”, I just know they restarted with “AA”. Bugger. People up there are probably used to oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling.
No backing out now Kiddo, so I start the ascent of Annapurna. I get half way up but at some point there’s simply no fuel left in the tank. I have to stop, and feel like a prick as I take an as yet unoccupied seat for a few minutes. The kids swarm all over me and I bat them off, because I haven’t got the breath left to say I’ll be fine. I still have some authority, so they feck off to a safe distance and watch me carefully.
A stranger appears at my left. Forties, granite-faced Scot, slightly pockmarked, piercing grey eyes. “Do you need assistance?” he asks, and boom boom just through the choice of that last word I know I’m dealing with a first responder; cop, medic or a doctor. I’m in no mood to do the medical prima donna evacuee in front of my family and thousands of people. I keep eye contact, because I know that’s one of the things he’s been trained to look for; because I am looking for those signs myself. I count heartbeats and eventually tell him I just need to catch my breath.
He stares for a few seconds more and tells me with a tap on my shoulder to take my time. Thank God he’s not one of those enthusiasts just awaiting to make a crisis out of a situation by ramming you into the back of an ambulance against your will. When I’m stabilised, I start the ascent again and see first responder sitting at the end of a row on my right of the stairs. I hold out my hand palm upwards as I pass to acknowledge his offer of help and he smiles back. Like I said, a good crowd.
We’re now top of the world Ma, surrounded by the loyal supporters of a Scottish rugby club who got an allocation of tickets, and with a slight markup towards club funds, have sold their entire unused allocation to us among others. They’re a good bunch, accepting the green jerseys in their midst, and the banter is witty and never foul-mouthed, because there are ladies and children present. Scotland have never beaten Ireland in fifteen years, but their team roars into a 21-0 lead. They deserve it.
My wife videos our sons singing the Fields of Athenry. She’s never seen them in colours, in a stadium, singing their hearts out for their team and totally behind the boyos and into the event. It’s a bit of an eye-opener for her, but at the same time she’s busy forging new relationships with a Scottish community. I think from now on, she’ll be well up for a six nations weekend.
Second half, the lads come roaring out for a 22-21 comeback, which is a rare thing at this level of rugby competition. Ten minutes to the end and it’s all finely balanced. Ireland blink and give away a needless penalty giving the Scots the three points and then another three they need to secure a famous victory. After seeing victory snatched away from them for so many years, I can’t begrudge them the win on the day – they were the better team after all.
There’s always two games on a Saturday, and the second one is being televised on BBC. Most of the gang are retiring to a pub for the atmosphere to see it on TV before then heading out to a pop concert afterwards. The wee man’s parents are going to the concert later while we promised to babysit at the apartment. We’re quite good at looking after a child for an evening without killing them. They haven’t had a night off in fourteen months, so we’re happy to oblige. The four of us walk back through the night, with the well wrapped up boy on his dad’s shoulders.
Dad makes the inadvisable comment to Mum that he’s getting a certain whiff off their son around his neck. She forefingers down the top of the back of his nappy and is immediately rewarded with a geyser of baby poo under hydraulic pressure which goes upwards and then down his dad’s rugby shirted back. We take the emergency diversion of the next right into a side road.
It’s brutal – windy, cold and just a mist of rain clinging to you. They strip the little mite to the waist with one holding him up off the ground, one using copious baby wipes to clean him and the other one running furious errands to a conveniently placed bin with the tissue discards. I’m the chef one too many and try not to get in the way. He screams those baby screams that are so distressing for a parent. I see his bare little legs kicking in the freezing wind, look away quickly, and will them to make it a quick change to get him out of the cold. Best I can do is position myself to provide some sort of windbreak. I’m useless.
I stand angry in my impotence and watch three taxis come down the side road with their for hire lights on. It’s obviously one of those rat runs that only the taxi guys know. People passing by hear his cries and most at a glance know it’s a diaper change under not so optimum conditions and move on. A few take a step towards doing a bit of virtue signalling by moving closer to investigate further, but I give them my fuck you, I’ll break your fucking gawking head off at the fucking neck look, and they scurry on back to being fearless keyboard warriors.
The baby screams a lot but eventfully, they get the job done and swaddle him up again. I tell them this is a taxi-rich road but of course, nary a bloody one of them turns in an appearance in the next five minutes, so we make the decision to march on to the apartment. We all want to get the little fellow in a warm bath.
He’s draped over his father’s shoulder staring at me. I’m worried. I know infants and the elderly have poor resistance to cold or plunging temperatures, and I’m looking at him for response, just as the first responder did with me a few hours earlier. He’s just looking at me a bit too placidly. Kick ass to find out.
I give him my most evil Fu Manchu squint. He thinks about it without a flicker of acknowledgement showing. Eventually, I get a slow squint back. Good, but not good enough, so I wait, not responding, pushing him.
I wait, and then I wait a bit more, keeping the eye contact pressure on him, because he’s one of life’s shinier pennies who’ll understand, or I’ll bloody go biblical to get him into a warm bath. I’m thinking car jacking. His right hand slowly extends over his father’s shoulder, he makes a fist, and his little forefinger slowly extends to make a slow up and down movement. He’s telling me he’s okay.
The right stuff.
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