We – the boy and my self – are taking a slow walk back from the park on a still Sunday morning in October. The storm that abated the night before has left in its wake a world of bright puddles, sodden leaves and a rich array of foliage across our path.
We’re making our way homeward, but a buzzing in my pocket alerts me to a terse reminder that my wife wants us out of the house long enough for her to complete a few jobs that will be hampered by male loitering.
So, pooh-sticks it is.
Someone has kindly supplied the equipment: a wide bridge, a fast-flowing stream, and an assortment of twigs and sticks scattered by the previous night’s squall . Eagerly, the boy scouts round for a stick and, being the boy, selects something that is more akin to a branch – replete with sprouting twigs, yellowing leaves and its own eco-system. After all, when you’re four, biggest is always best.
So I’m trying to convince him that he may wish to re-examine his stick of choice. I’m launching into a lengthy explanation of hydrodynamics that I truly know jack-shit about. This culminates in a slightly ill-matched tug-of-war, my impatient snapping of the branch, and a junior meltdown of mildly-epic proportions. It’s not going well.
One shameful act of bribery later, we’re looking into the water – him partly thrust through the railings – silently watching the gurgling torrent wash over the stones. A moment passes and I point to the fastest flowing section of the river
‘Look there!” I say. ‘That is where you want to cast your stick, son.’
He contemplates this for a moment. He is four after all, so it therefore follows that the precise opposite is preferable. ‘I don’t want to throw it there. I want to throw it in the middle.’
‘But if you throw where I’ve said, it’ll come out quicker on the other side,’ I say. ‘You’ll be the winner!’
He ignores me, of course. Well, bugger him, I think. He can learn the hard way.
We count to three, and let the sticks drop into the water. I say ‘drop’: mine is a careful positioning into the strongest part of the torrent – I’m determined to teach this child a lesson – and his is a full body launch that almost casts him over the side with the stick.
Needless to say, the boy’s stick emerges from underneath the bridge way before mine. He makes no attempt to hide his glee:
‘Mine wins, mine wins! I was right, Daddy! Wasn’t I right and you were wrong? Weren’t you?”
I grunt and kick the bottom rail of the bridge. ‘Best of three.’
As we gather more sticks, I start to make connections, as I am wont to do. This little lad is soon to start ‘Big School’. He too will be thrown overboard into a fast-flowing system with so many outcomes possible. The dark underside of the bridge is that largest part of the day that we, the parents, don’t get to see: the part where we put the future of our boy into the hands of other adults, namely the teachers. Teachers like me.
I think back to a week before, when I saw Simon. I’d been ambling home from work, head tangled in all kinds of nonesense, and I didn’t realise that it was Simon at first. I just saw a regular guy before me – heavily-bearded and slightly on the large side of ‘in good shape’. Wrestling and cursing a baby buggy out of a people carrier, he’d stopped to look up as I passed:
As someone who’s taught in the same school in the same city for a long, long time, I’m familiar with random greetings from ex-pupils. And they always call me ‘sir’. But the Simon in my head has always been an overweight boy who started the school year late; a boy with an obsessing, over-protective mother and a dearth of what you could call friends. He was forever a picture of abject misery, shuffling and tearful. The others kept writing ‘Simon the Pieman’ on his exercise books until his absences joined together and he stopped coming back entirely. And then I never saw him again. At least not until now.
So, we chatted a little until I could join up the dots and connect this cheery new dad and successful business-owner, to the lost years of that lonely and fearful kid who hung around Reception in Year 7. I’d smiled to myself. It was a great outcome that I never would have predicted. Who’d have known?
And then there was another ex-pupil: Billy. Running into him a month or so before, I’d recognised Billy immediately – he had those sharp features that three or four years’ absence could not soften, and now here he was, working behind the counter in Subway.
The Billy of old was quirky, artistic, indefatigable. Always at the centre of the ‘arty’ crowd, he was a keen musician and burgeoning young graphic artist, kitted out in drainpipes and a shabby military jacket. Quick witted, permanently smiling and easy-tempered, Billy was the older kid all the younger kids wanted to be. He was never short of companions – male or female- and the last I’d heard, he was sailing into a competitive sixth form college with a healthy clutch of top GCSE grades.
But the Billy I was looking at wasn’t the Billy of old. When you greet someone you haven’t seen for years, it’s easy to assume that their life has followed some natural trajectory, launched by early promise and a fair wind. It’s that stick that catches the current and slides along through to the other side with consummate ease. So, when I saw him again, I found myself asking insensitive and rather mundane questions that made assumptions about where he was at and where he was headed. The Subway job was a stop-gap, a holiday job, right? How had uni been?
He’d sighed. ‘They always ask me that,” he’d said. He’d gestured, rather hopelessly, across the face of the shop. “This is it. This is what I do. Being honest, it’s a lot more than I’d have hoped for a year or so ago.” As he spoke further, I was hearing words like ‘addict’, ‘recovery’ and ‘medication’; a random sketch of chaos, depression and run-ins. As Billy recounted the dark edges of a young life that had scudded along a downward trajectory for too long, I started to notice the dark rings around his eyes for the first time. Whatever had befallen Billy, he lived a half-life as a shadow of what he once was. That knavish smile had long-since deserted him to grace a new soul.
And listening to him made me think: we – parents, teachers, carers- do all we can to launch young people’s lives, casting them into the currents, and hoping that they can negotiate their individual ways through the flotsam and jetsam of modern life. Mere bystanders on the bank, we cheer, we cajole, we nag. Occasionally, we feel inclined to take over. It is as it always has been.
And so, back on my bridge. Round Two sees my stick hurtling out from beneath the bridge first. My boy watches for his own, clutching the railings, ever hopeful. He watches and he watches. But this time, there is no stick. He turns his face to mine:
‘Where’s my stick gone?’
I’m afraid he’ll cry. I squat down to his level. ‘It’s probably got stuck, son. Somewhere under the bridge, I’d imagine.’
He is silent. He narrows his eyes, affecting dismay with a twinge of hope. Suddenly, he’s grabbing my hand and is dragging me towards the muddy nook where bridge and bank meet.
“Daddy? Can you go under and get it?”
I look fearfully at the dank space above the muddy river, and then back to my wholly inadequate footwear. I groan as I bend down to fetch a fresh couple of sticks, before holding one it for him:
“Best of three, son – remember?”