The last day of school

The touch of the sun nudges me awake. I check my watch. It’s not yet 5am.

The first surprise is that I’m alone in the bed. I would have expected one, or possibly two others, to be beside me.

I suspect immediately that mummy has gone to check on our son in his room last night, disturbed him and ended up in his bed. I have a hazy memory of an old horror movie where, if the characters sat too close to the television, they got dragged into the screen. It’s sort of like that.

I sit upright and force the tiredness out of my muscles. Because of the complications of balancing domestic and employment existences, I know this is my best time to get some work done. Two or three hours in front of the computer before the rest of the house stirs takes the pressure off me for the rest of the day.

My mind is fresh and I work productively. It’s close to seven before I hear my son shuffling into my little office. He’s still sleepy and climbs into my lap and rests his head against my chest.

‘Do you remember what today is buddy?’ I enquire gently.

‘It’s the last day of school daddy.’

I take him downstairs and prepare breakfast. Then I bring a cup of tea up to mummy, who is stretching after a night spent hunched in a child’s bunk bed.

The sun burns powerfully already, despite the early hour. It’s Friday and it’s the beginning of the summer holidays. I consider that we’ve all earned the right to be a bit more relaxed this morning.

I consider that thought. Then reality crashes around me.

Summer means hay fever season and my son is particularly prone to the condition. Without constant medication his eyes itch and swell and he sneezes uncontrollably.

The potential misery would be enough to make anyone comply with the medicinal routine, one might think. My son is not that one.

I struggle, just like every other morning to get the medicine into him. He holds his jawbone determinedly shut and no amount of persuasion, temptation, coercion or physical intervention can prise it open.

The eye drops application is even worse. I have to restrain him in a wrestling-style hold while mummy aims the drops from a height and hopes they land somewhere in the general direction of his eyes.

Eyes, which, of course, are tightly closed.

While this is being done his screams seem to come from the depths of hell itself. The notice reminds me of the wails of the Nazi soldiers at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is open and the spirits within enact their terrible revenge.

And then we move on to dressing.

My boy is six-years-old and perfectly capable of dressing himself. Indeed that’s what he does on most occasions. It’s just that, like most other things in his life, dressing has become elevated to a ritual and an adventure. We have to go through a series of steps, and it all takes time. It has to have circumstance.

It begins with mummy at the top of the stairs and me at the bottom. I then have to shout up to her, announcing that our son is coming up to get dressed and she has to react ecstatically. If either of us get a single word wrong on the script then we’re sternly told off and the procession must begin again from the start.

Then he goes upstairs and eludes mummy for as long as he can while she chases after him with a hairbrush, socks and a pair of pants.

During this all I remain downstairs. This is not borne of cowardice or lethargy. I know, from painful experience, that if I interfere and try to hurry the process it leads to a huge tantrum and more delay.

So I wait. And after fifteen minutes he descends the stairs in his little uniform.

Then I get a text message on my phone.

It is from my son’s school.

It is reminding us to bring in £2 for charity because it is non-uniform day.

Non-uniform day.

Oh balls.

When I announce the news my son replies brightly: ‘Yes, I knew about that!’

And once more we’re back at the beginning of the process of me announcing his ascension of the stairs for the dressing ritual.

As he gets dressed for a second time I consider how close I came to bringing him to school dressed in his uniform on non-uniform day and the associated disgrace.

The truth is that I live in constant parental dread of missing a memo.

The school used to send a letter home on a Friday containing important information, but they have now discontinued that in favour of electronic communication. But, while the environment has benefited, I now feel constantly like I’m outside the loop.

I fear the day when I turn up at school with him in shorts and t-shirt having missed the important note about his class having a one-day trip to the North Pole.

He descends the stairs again, dressed casually. Now we’re a little late and I’ve got an extra complication. I need to find £2. I check my wallet. I’ve got 13p.

‘Do you have £2?’ I shout up to mummy.

But she’s already in the shower and can’t hear. I search through various compartments of my wallet, among loyalty cards and receipts and uncover a dusty old £5 note. I calculate how long it will take me to stop at the shop on the way to school to get change.

‘Come on buddy, we’re going to have to stop at the shop and we’re already late. Let’s get moving!’

At this point my son emerges from the living room smiling and holding a plastic bag filled with key rings.

‘Daddy, can you attach these key rings to my schoolbag?’

‘What now?’

‘Yes now.”

My has a particular talent for finding the most random objects and pursuing the most unlikely directions of thought at the least appropriate moment. If he was on the battlefield, at the moment his comrades were charging the enemy with swords drawn he’d have stopped and decided it was the exact right time to make an origami swan.

I spend five minutes attaching key rings to his schoolbag.

‘Now, can we go?’

Well, as it turns out, no. Because he has two key rings which look like Captain America’s shield and he decides now is the moment to discuss their relative merit.

‘Which of the two do you think is more like the real Captain America’s shield?’ he asks.

‘Neither because Captain America and his shield don’t fecking well exist!’ I don’t say.

Then, finally we’re in the car and driving towards the village. But I’ve still got it in my mind that I need to produce the £2 for the non-uniform charity donation. I go into the local shop, grab a bag of crisps, and produce my tattered old fiver. The young man with the beard on the other side of the counter stares at me dolefully.

‘I can’t accept that.’

‘What? What d’you mean?’

‘That’s an old five pound note. They’ve been replaced by the plastic ones. That’s not legal tender anymore.’

‘What? When did this happen?’

He strokes his beard and looks wistfully into the distance.

‘Maybe three years ago.’

I’m left holding the note uselessly before I have to retreat. Luckily the shop has an ATM and I’m able to withdraw a £20 note to buy the bag of crisps I don’t want just so I can pay the £2 charity donation.

I present the £20 to the bearded youth.

‘You wouldn’t have anything smaller?’

Minutes later we’re walking towards the school gates. Now my son is excitedly telling me about how he’s a big boy because he’s going into P3 now. He meets one of his little friends on the way, a girl who has been in his class since nursery. He takes comfort in the familiarity and is soon chatting happily. The kids pose for photographs together because it is their last day of school. Then I give him a quick cuddle and he walks through the gates.


And, like every other day, I stand there and watch him. I notice how, unlike many of the other children he doesn’t take the most direct route but instead stays close to the large metal fence, as if gaining comfort from it.

He’s gone perhaps ten yards when he turns at looks for me the first time. I meet his eyes, smile and wave. He waves back. I want him to know I’m still here.

He walks a little further before he turns again. He gives me a shy little thumbs up and I blow a kiss towards him. He shakes his head.

He walks further, close to the point where I have to strain my neck to see him. He turns for a final time, waving. He’s about to go off in one direction, an exciting new direction, but he always wants to be sure that the comfort of the old direction remains close behind.

Then he steps around the corner and I can’t see him anymore. I walk back towards my car and head for home.

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