Off to School

I had a moment of euphoria yesterday when my 15-year-old daughter told me she had decided to start walking to school with her best friend.

“Finally!”, I exclaimed. Unless the weather’s rubbish my son cycles, and I dreaded the morning school run with poor Francesca. The days I didn’t have to be at work early were bad enough, sticking jeans and a jumper over my nightie and bundling four-year-old Nancy into her car seat half asleep, but the days I did start early were a nightmare. It all comes down to my wretched inability to ‘do’ mornings. I could go off on a great big tangent here about subconscious self-sabotage, but I think I’m just a night owl. (Or I used to be, before I started getting old.)

With Francesca and Toby both getting themselves to school, my children would be spared my all too predictable tirades in the car about getting to bed earlier, getting up earlier and preparing everything the night before, followed by a calmer resolve (as I dropped one or both of them off several minutes late – again – oh, the guilt! the failure!) that this would be the last ever chaotic morning; a resolve that would be forgotten that evening as we sat down to binge-watch Modern Family once Nancy was asleep.

It dawned on me three seconds later, much to Francesca’s amusement, that I would have just one school run-free day, before Nancy’s first taster session in reception. It’s practically the same journey too.

Another 10 years of school runs. 

This evening I wearily brought all the bits of uniform downstairs to scribble Nancy’s name in all the labels, having been too disorganised to order the sticky name tags in time, then went upstairs to replace them on their hangers. She was peacefully asleep, hugging her Bunkey (strange bunny/donkey hybrid soft toy). Her last day as a preschooler.

Tomorrow she will wear the little red and white gingham dress with the red cardi, the white ankle socks with red hearts and, if time permits, the red and white scrunchie in her plaited hair. There will be no hidden pyjamas for me, no dumping and running: I will be showered, dressed, even wearing make-up if you’re lucky. When we park up at the school I will hold her hand as she skips along beside me. (I hope she will be skipping, not clinging fearfully to my leg.) I will take her to her classroom, reassure her, hug her, wave goodbye, blow kisses … and leave.

I will have two hours to kill; two hours when I’m neither at work nor looking after Nancy. That will be different.

As this new term unfolds my working hours are going to increase, but there will still be times when I’m not working and Nancy is at school. I have a list of things to do: blitz the house; clear all the clutter; learn to play the clarinet that my mum bought me and I have yet to get a sound out of (Nancy can play several notes, no problem); have coffee with a friend, talking in full, uninterrupted sentences – the decadence! – write, write, write … So why am I not looking forward to it more?

I thought having two older children had hardened me to the customary ‘first day of school’ sentimentality. “She’s a September girl! She’s more than ready! I’ve done my time raising preschoolers!”

Done my time? I make it sound like a prison sentence, when I see now it was freedom: freedom to head off to the park on a whim, or to the farm, or to snuggle in the big bed and read stories, or to make play doh dresses for her magiclip dolls (hand on heart, I think I enjoyed that more than she did). I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been able to work part time. She and I will never have that time again, just the two of us. And she is ready – oh boy, is she! – and so am I, but this evening as I watched her sleep, it dawned on me how big a change lies ahead. Not bad change, just change.

And I realised it’s OK to have a bit of a wobble. But I’m having mine now; following my own advice and at least trying to get everything sorted the night before.

Love and strength to all you parents with little ones starting their school adventures this week.

Mr Hilarious

“And coming up on our left, ladies and gentlemen, we have St Eric’s College which, of course, is where the 27th Earl of Dukinfield trained his world-famous troupe of circus parrots …”

Heads turn and faces stare as this self-proclaimed “gobby Manc” continues his booming, impromptu and entirely fabricated tour of the Cambridge Backs, while the well-spoken undergrad tour guides falter in their own deliveries. Perhaps they wonder, suddenly, if there’s a horrible gap in their knowledge … the tall, shaven-headed gentleman from the north sounds so assured, after all, even if his punting technique is a little precarious. More likely, though, they are just thinking “What the hell …?” Well-heeled Brits frown suspiciously over the top of their champagne flutes, but American tourists in passing boats are already captivated.

I slide a little further down into my seat in our boat, trying to disappear whilst wiping my eyes. Will, my BBF (bloke best friend) has shown me many times over the years that it’s quite possible to be simultaneously mortified with embarrassment and doubled over with laughter. It’s one of his gifts.

Show off? Attention seeker? Actually, no: not in the least. Had someone else pulled that stunt Will would have been laughing the loudest. He never needs to be the one bringing the laughs (though he usually is). What matters to him is that the laughs are had.

Trying to create a snapshot of Will in a few hundred words is a huge challenge. I can tell you he’s funny and then enjoy detailing a few examples, but it is harder to explain how I know that the caption in the above photo is dripping with irony; to convince you that, paradoxically, Will is one of the most humble and modest people I know.

He’s also probably the most positive, despite having faced devastation in his life.

“I lost a friend at 11 who died, another friend committed suicide when I was 17, and my dad did the same when I was 20. So I went through a lot early on”, he says calmly.

He speaks fairly openly about his dad. “I can talk about what he did, but I don’t usually go into the detail of how it made me feel. I tell people quickly so they don’t put their foot in it. People don’t know what to say when they know someone killed themselves.”

How do you even begin to deal with something like that, I wonder, let alone remain so upbeat.

“I can compartmentalise. I did with my dad – that’s why it took so long to come to terms with it; probably about 15-18 years. I’d break down, shut it off again – it was a cycle.”

There is no trace of bitterness, though a rare and fleeting expression of sadness crosses his face. The only regret he has is the lack of photographs of himself and his dad together.

“I’ve only got one picture of me with my dad where I’m older than five, so now I always want to have lots of photos. It’s important to have things to look back on. Photos prompt so many more memories.”

Will and Ruth with my godchildren, Kai and Erin

Which provides a nice little segue into something else intriguing and wonderful about Will: as well as my BBF, he is also my favourite photographer. On my 40th birthday he stunned me with a book of photographs, mostly taken by him, with a few earlier ones of me with Ruth (his wife and my oldest, dearest friend) when we were at school. As I get older I generally dislike photos of myself, but there’s something about Will’s photography that seems to capture the very soul of its subject. It’s the same when we’re talking: a look of keen, kind intensity; a generosity of absolute attentiveness a million miles away from that loud northerner on a boat.

“My dad had two dreams: one was to have a farm, and the other was to own a mobile photography studio. Back then no-one was doing that. My dad died when he was 40 and I started my photography at the same age. I wanted to say ‘Look, Dad, you could have done this’. Part of me wishes that wasn’t there because I wonder, am I doing this just for him? I don’t think I am because I love it, but I’m never completely sure it’s 100% for me.”

I often describe Will as being full of beans. A dad of five, and now the world’s coolest grandad too, he seems to have an inexhaustible supply not only of humour, but of energy and sheer drive. I wonder if he has always been so motivated.

“Being an only child I had to entertain myself, pick myself up, egg myself on – only children have to have another part of themselves that’s pushing them as a sibling would. I was always the class clown. Part of that was an insecurity thing. I wasn’t convinced people liked me, even though I made them laugh, but several have now come back to me as clients.”

Much of Will’s positivity comes from the freedom of not being beset by common negative traits, such as jealousy.

“If I see someone who has something I want, such as a particular skill, or their own business, I go for that myself. You only get one try. I thought I’d have to throw the towel in with the photography but luckily I’ve had a lot more work recently. I do look at people and think ‘I wish’, but then I follow that up with doing. At the same time I realise you can’t do everything.”

It is his formula for banishing worry and maximising happiness, however, that I find most compelling.

“I used to worry about a lot, which could be tied up with my parents splitting up when I was six. It occurred to me at a point in my mid-twenties how many things I worried about, and that 90-95% of the time those things always worked out. This is where the logic kicks in. I thought, one in 20 things I worry about may or may not happen, but the rest of my time is being spoiled by ‘what if?’ When bad things happen I’ll have to deal with them. Also, bad things are important – you need to feel crap to appreciate feeling great. Part of it is setting your bar, too. Most people think of the 50th centile as ‘meh’, but for me it’s happy – and then something really happy is amazing.”

If you can process and live by this, it’s pure gold. If, like me, you struggle with logic and mental ‘off switches’ and are beset by insecurities, it is something to aspire to but may always be a work in progress.

In all the years I’ve known him, and known him increasingly well, I have only ever seen Will demonstrate anything approaching anger once. I wonder if anything annoys him. He insists he does.

“I do get annoyed when people are moaning and grumpy without good reason. If you smile at someone it can change their whole day, but if you’re grumpy with them it can have just as big an effect. It’s very draining when someone doesn’t return positivity.” He describes a recent, low-level altercation he witnessed between two drivers, during which his obvious amusement was spotted by one of them. “We made eye contact and the anger in his face just melted away into a big grin. The situation was defused. it’s a ripple effect. If I do get cross, it’s a flash in the pan. I snapped at the kids for the first time in ages the other day: they went dead quiet, but it was over.”

Not for the first time, I am completely baffled; almost frustrated. “Why are you friends with me?” I ask in an accusing tone. “I’m completely negative and draining!”

His wide eyes open just a little wider. “I don’t see you like that”, he replies simply.

I grunt ungraciously and thank my lucky stars I’m not prone to blushing. It’s that rose-tinted mirror again; the same one he uses in his photography. Or maybe my mirror is the one that distorts?

You see me … I see you!

Through the door I can hear Ruth, a nursery owner and manager, leading an enthusiastic Dough Disco session for the entertainment of our kids (and, more to the point, herself). “And squeeze, and squeeze, and splat, and splat …”

If ever there was a match made in heaven.

“We’re peas in a pod”, Ruth agrees. “We just like to clown around, and we have the same stupid sense of humour. We enjoy the same things too: the outdoors; the natural elements; family adventures. Will likes expensive tech but generally he’s not a materialistic person. He also encourages me to take risks as I tend to let worry put me off. He was really supportive when I bought the nursery. I probably wouldn’t have bought it if it wasn’t for him. I don’t believe in myself easily, but he believes in me. I support him too: he’s very self-critical of his photography and doesn’t like pushing himself forward, but people need to see how good he is.”

“I am a perfectionist”, Will admits. “Ruth cleans the bathroom in 10-15 minutes. It’ll take me an hour to an hour and a half because I’ll do it as well as I can. I do the mirrors, polish the towel radiator so there are no fingerprints, dust off the top of the cabinet. I judge my work, not Ruth’s.”

It’s not just about perfectionism, though. It’s about job satisfaction and refusing to be rushed, both of which are stepping stones to happiness in their own right. “I always take my time, no matter what the job is, and do my best. If it’s not the best you can do, then it’s not representing the best of you. Everything you do is a reflection of yourself.”

All well and good if you’ve got loads of time, you might think, but as I’ve witnessed over the years it doesn’t seem to work like that. While I seem to spend most of my time rushing around like a blue-arsed fly, in a desperate and futile attempt to keep all the balls in the air, Will is busy achieving. On many fronts. Maybe it is a case of ‘more haste, less speed’? Last time Will and Ruth came to stay, Will fixed our wobbly dining room table. It had been wobbly for the 17 years we’d owned it, and the time I had spent shifting it around and ramming stacks of beer mats under one of the legs had probably run into hours. Will simply spent a few minutes looking at it, and noticed there were small adjusters on each of the legs.

“I’ve fixed your table”, he said, as we came through for dinner. Git.

As you might expect, Will’s approach to food and health is, in keeping with his approach to most things, not entirely mainstream. He’s a fan of fasting. “Eating in moderation isn’t me so I limit when I eat instead. Fasting can help your body fight against cancers, it’s good for keeping a healthy weight, and it’s good for you mentally. It takes a lot of resources to digest so when you’re not busy with that all the time it can sharpen up your mind.” Well, I’m convinced by the evidence, but it wouldn’t work for me, being a natural grazer.

“I don’t drink much alcohol. I didn’t drink for eight years after my dad died. I (unfairly) blamed dad’s wife who was drinking all his money away, therefore I blamed alcohol itself; I personified it. I smoked for a long time, but when I made that real decision to stop, I didn’t have any drugs, gum or vape – I just stopped and threw myself into decorating the bedroom and playing on the xbox. I don’t even miss it now. I don’t think I have an addictive personality.”

With his photography business taking off, his home transformed (largely through his own hands-on work), a beautiful family and a blissful marriage, I wonder how Will regards his achievements.

“I’m proud of my kids, first off, and of marrying Ruth. Buying a house. Setting up a business, selling it, setting it up another … but I feel as though I’m working towards achievement. You’ve got to have a little bit of hunger if you want to throw everything into something and you’re taking a big risk. I’m happy where I am, but I would happily sell the house, take the equity, buy a run down farmhouse in France and live off the land, living a simple life without technology. I’d still have my camera, but in some ways I hate tech.”

And how would he like to be remembered, I wonder? As the man who cheated time, turned tragedy on its head, created a formula for happiness …?

“I’d like to be remembered as embracing life and being joyous. Not happy, as people can appear happy but be sad on the inside, but joyous. And funny.” He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “And hung like a horse.”