We are bad parents.
Despite working in education, I signed NG’s request for leave form with a flourish, knowing it would come back as unauthorised absence, and we whisked the children away to the West Country before her term finished. Thus, I have denied her the final two days in Year 1, and the prestige of receiving a ‘values’ certificate and hologram sticker at final assembly. (She claimed them on her last day, in a slightly less ceremonial setting – luckily, they weren’t for attendance).
Now, having been in Cornwall for four days, most of which we have spent lying on the beach, inhaling ice-cream like dazed bumble bees imbibing sugar water, we are going for a walk. Not too far – just around the headland – NC is still only three, after all… but first, we need breakfast.
NW has chosen Paul Simon’s Graceland to listen to. “People say I’m crazy, I’ve got diamonds on the soles of my shoes…” I sing, putting lovingly prepared fruit and fried eggy bread in front of both children.
“This is the same song we heard on the way to the Eden Project!” says NC, delightedly. “It’s funny.”
“Yes, it’s from a thing called an album,” I say. “All the songs are by the same person. And do you know what it means?” I don’t wait for an answer, because of how much I love deciphering song lyrics for my children. I have spent hours unpicking REM and Take That anthems over the years with glee.
“It means the lady is crazy, because she must have a lot of money to buy diamonds, which are beautiful and sparkly, but she chooses to put them on the bottom of her shoes, so no-one can see them.” I pause for dramatic effect. “Crazy, hey?” My children, polite but unmoved, say nothing but we sing along together, rubbing sun cream into limbs, until wildflower books are packed and shoes fastened.
Out on the open path, we quickly fall into a pattern. NC, believing he is an express train, zooms ahead, stomach-lurchingly close to the edge of the cliff. NG follows with NW, both deep in discussion about which variety of thistle is the most prevalent. NC’s hair is in plaits, her fringe clipped up out of her eyes, making her look older than I am used to. Her school sticker, which she has added to her handbag, twinkles in the milky sun.
I drink in the air, happy to be alive despite the usual inane terrorist chatter in my head: the world is burning up (we have left behind a 38 degree heatwave in Hampshire); the cabinet reshuffle has simply realigned toffs badly, like a shaken box of Quality Street with fruit cremes on top; I still have imposter syndrome despite working for twenty years and the bite on my leg has swollen to the size of a baby’s arm.
“Everything ok?” shouts NW, and I nod, and zoom up to NC to be his engine. We forge on.
After an hour and half of verging-on-Enid Blyton levels of hearty walking, we pull in to a beach for a snack stop. NW, ever the provider, has remembered to bring pistachios, Kind bars, lashings of water and NG’s birthday polaroid camera. We are nothing if not middle-class-parent-prepared.
“When can we have pudding?” says NC, after his second Kind bar.
“Pudding comes after lunch.”
“When is lunch?”
I look at NW expectantly.
“We’ve done about two miles”, he says, confidently, “and we’ve probably got about two to go.” NC groans, and careers off in the direction of a bull. We straggle after him, safe in the knowledge that in three seconds’ time, he will be asking for a shoulder ride.
I walk with NG for a while, and we talk about what’s beyond the horizon.
“It depends where you are,” I say, matter-of-fact. “At home, you can’t usually see far into the distance, because there’s not enough space. But here, you can look out and almost understand that that earth is curved, can’t you?”
We both gaze out at the sea, luminous under clouds that give nothing away. I can trick myself into thinking that the Earth really is sloping down at either side, but instead of being amused, my heart starts falling apart again, that feeling that the planet is so small.
“I can see, Mumma. I can tell it’s round. And where it meets the sky, it’s sort of like someone’s used a highlighter, isn’t it?”
I agree that it glows. We hold each other’s hand tighter and catch up with the males, soldered together like a two-headed giant.
“Can’t you walk a bit now?” I encourage NC with the promise of ‘a nice straight bit of racing track’ and he disembarks as Lightning McQueen and careers away, nearly knocking over an oncoming family.
Another hour passes quite happily. It is twenty past twelve and although tummies are rumbling, NG is getting a kick out of her legs getting stronger.
“I’m feeling good, Mumma!”
“That’s because your muscles are being exercised and even though they might start to ache a bit later, they are LOVING it,” I say, encouragingly, even though my legs have definitely entered a minor state of shock. I make up a little monologue for NG’s muscles, “Oh my goodness, I’m so tired – but when I’m in bed I will STREEETCH AND STREETCH,” that sort of thing. She finds it hilarious, and I feel my heart stretch and stretch. “The things I am proudest of you for are being kind and strong,” I say.
A second later, NG watches her brother take a nasty spill, and finds it hilarious.
It was cheering to read, amidst missing teeth, England football and Mustique holiday speculation-related coverage of Prince George’s sixth birthday, that his school’s only rule is, ‘be kind’. I find myself too often telling the children, ‘be kind, be kind to each other, for God’s sake!’ before remembering that my sister and I were mean to each other for years. Is it hormones, the sibling rivalry that comes with growing up? A fervent desire to please your parents? Both children are now having a competition whereby there is only one correct way to sing, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.
We reach the point that NW had as ‘destination’ in his phone.
“Where’s the ferry?” asks NG.
There is a silence. “Sorry,” he says. “I thought this was it but this is the Head – we need to go along the coastal path a bit further.
“How much further?”
“Maybe… a mile and a half?”
He doesn’t sound sure. NC, who thinks that eighty thousand pounds is less than a metre, cheers. NG and I swap dark looks.
“Come on,” says NW with forced cheer. “It’s downhill all the way.”
We start moving, girls at the front, boys behind, NC on NW’s shoulders – when NG lets out a wail. “My sticker!”
“Where is it?”
But I know the answer: it’s gone. It was on her handbag, but now it’s not.
I sink inside: the idea of walking four miles back is intolerable, but even NG is grown up enough to know it. I turn around to consult NW, who is closer than I assumed.
“Ow!” NG’s foot, which he is banging rhythmically on NW’s chest, hits me squarely between the eyes, just on the place I was headbutted by him two days ago.
“Hang on,” I squint. There, on the underside of NC’s foot, is a glitter sticker.
“I found it!” I peel it off with relief and transfer it to NG’s chest. “Now look after it – you don’t want to lose it again.”
The jetty comes into view. It is made of floating plastic petrol cans, which NG eyes suspiciously, and I can tell the speeches of Greta Thunberg are front of her mind. “Mumma, why is all that plastic in the sea?”
“Because without it, we wouldn’t be able to board the boat,” I snap, hunger getting the better of my patience.
“Is the ferry made of sustainable wood?”
“I certainly hope so,” I say, as a woman shaped like a small trawler gets on.
“Mumma, that’s not kind,” says NG with feeling. She’s right. We sit down, all of us breathing relief as we rub our aching feet.
We chug into the harbour. “Do you want my sticker? You could put it on the bottom of your foot if you like, I don’t need to show it off – and I don’t mind.”
And then I remember it is her end of term sticker; the one she got for demonstrating kindness. My lovely girl, my six year old daughter, was voted by her class to be the person who best epitomised kindness all year.
And despite there being a new Prime Minister who breaches protocol with the Queen and casts despair into my heart, despite the planet heating up for reasons that are nothing to do with my children, despite us being achey and hungry, my inner terrorist his been quelled; the sights and smells of other families in their beachwear, carrying tired children, lift my spirit.
We’re all in this together – whether we’re holidaying in Mustique, Cornwall, in the grip of the daily grind, we’re all trying to make sense of it and all we can do is our best. Like Paul Simon lyrics, it’s not always straightforward. But when things are tricky, surely a good bet is never to be ostentatious and always to be kind.
Key to characters
NW – husband (not William)
NG – daughter, 6yo (not George)
NC – son, 3yo (not Charlotte)