Today I put my girls on a flight north.
I hugged them in the shade cast by a Cessna’s wing, I told them to be good. I checked they both had phones/ ID/ a bottle of water. I reminded them to Mind the Gap.
And then I drove home to a house which resonates with silence: did you know the quiet could scream?
I did not know what the Outpost sounded like without the perpetual, omnipresent necessary needfulness of children. A long time ago, when I first became a mother, there was brief resentment at my stolen self, at abandoned career and a social life in exchange for bucketfuls of nappies and broken nights.
For a while I minded that my identity had morphed from ‘marketing’ to mother, ‘just a mum’, I said – a bit bashfully – when asked, ‘what do you do?’
Circumstance and choice meant I never returned to work in an office. And slowly I slid contentedly into the pillow of parenting, as constructed in my own rather less conventional, absolutely non-competitive and consequently comfortable way: perhaps I’m a lazier mother for it. Occasionally I tried to do better: I rearranged scatter cushions in regimental lines on the back of the sofa when I thought the place could do with a Tidy Up. But in reality it was easier – and more reassuring – to note them tossed to the floor by lengthening limbs as my trio of offspring sprawled in front of the television.
And so with time, despite initial reservations, kicking of heels and admitting to my role with muted embarrassment, as if I should be doing more, I adopted the mantle of stayathomemother and wore it happily, more confidently, if a little sloppily, so that occasionally it slid untidily over one eye and obscured my vision so I took a wrong turn from time to time.
My children steeped my subconscious, tripped through my dreams, dictated, unwittingly, the direction of my day: from school runs to teeth brushing, from lunch boxes to homework, from class outings to Christmas holidays. Even when your children aren’t there, a friend once observed, they’re in your head, as you muse whether they took their PE kit to school, why they seemed subdued at breakfast, how they bloody hell they managed to get nits again.
And whilst withdrawing to the Outpost meant compromising the proximity I had to my children, and by extension stretching tenuously the links that reassured me, endorsed my role and purpose and direction, I still had Hat.
I have never sat in this house without her quiet and undemanding – but paradoxically just because she was here, noisy, needing-me – presence. She isn’t asking if she can make muffins. Her room is silent, I can’t hear Owl City emanating from behind a closed door. If I don’t make dinner it won’t matter as much.
In the days before my son left I wrote lists of all the things he needed to do when and where and how (old habits die hard: relinquishing control when you’ve held small hands across busy, busy streets is easier said than done). My eldest daughter witnessed my fussing and laughed, ‘Do you know what Mum did the first time I went to Gran’s by train on my own?’ My son didn’t so she told him, ‘she sent me directions of which trains to get from where and to what station and she put in bold letters, WHEN YOU GET OFF REMEMBER TO MIND THE GAP BETWEEN THE TRAIN AND THE PLATFORM’. My kids laughed. I did too, ‘Did I really?’ I ask, a bit horrified.
And for the last week it has sustained itself, that joke, every time I asked one of my daughters as they readied themselves for their departure, ‘have you got your phones/ ID/ a bottle of water?’ they’d merrily chorus ‘yes Ma! And don’t foget to mind the gap …’
I waved them off on that plane, full of tourists sporting safari camouflage, my girls juxtaposed flamboyantly in bright blues and black boots, jangling bangles. And I plastered on a big, big smile in acknowledgement of the happy adventures they’re off on.
And then I came home and heard the silence and filled a washing machine with clothes still perfumed with the heady scent of children.
And I remembered that it is me who must Mind the Gap.