We were touched by our son’s reticence to leave our company and go back to school, so reminded him we’d just be across the road. We were speaking literally here, since his school is on our street and, this year, his entrance directly faces our front door. It’s cut our 20-second commute down to a few seconds, but this was still too great a distance for our homesick boy.
‘I used to travel for half an hour to get to primary school!’ I told him, ‘and a full hour for secondary!’ I’d like to think I intended this as a comfort, but now realise it was that inescapable reflex of fatherly one-upmanship I’ve inherited from my own dad. If we grumbled about having to travel the last two miles home from school on foot, he’d say we didn’t know we were born. He, of course, travelled to and from school by clambering into the wooden spokes of a passing horsecart, and happily rotated for the full nine hours it took to reach his destination.
Sensing some gentler treatment was needed, my wife told our boy that if he stands by the door of his classroom, he can still see us across the road. With this, he toddled in slightly reassured.
I can’t remember my own first days back to school very well. I don’t recall much homesickness, but this would probably have been impossible since I was joining a school that five of my siblings were already attending. (The record came the following year, when my sister Fionnuala’s entry to reception brought our family’s count up to seven). If I strain, I can just about remember a vague sense of excitement and alarm, and the halting awkwardness of seeing old friends for the first time in two months.
My son’s gleaming uniform evokes that same sweet plastic smell I remember from my own uncommonly clean Back 2 School clothes, the perfect respectability of which was undone by their ill fit. We wore these uniforms, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, like a horse wears a stable, each having been bought a size and a half too big, so as to accommodate our wearing it for the entire year. As such, we spent the first months of every school year perched within the inner core of a billowing, polyester exoskeleton, like Sigourney Weaver operating the power loader in Aliens. And if we complained about this, my father helpfully reminded us that his school clothes were made from moss and sticks and did him for 14 years.
My son’s uniform was no longer gleaming when I picked him up, but he seemed to have gotten over the worst of his nerves. Until he saw his mum, that is, and all talk was of betrayal. It turns out that when she’d said he could see us from his room, meaning our house generally, he’d taken this concept quite literally and had, like James Mason in Rear Window, ventured out several times to said vantage point and been upset not to see us standing there, holding vigil until his return.
‘We can’t stand outside all day,’ I said, as he sniffled. ‘We live indoors. Now your granda, on the other hand, he actually grew up in a house without walls. Well, I say a house, it was more like a hedge…’
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78
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