We’ve been expecting the eldest to fly the nest for some time now. However, the USA borders have been closed for months, so our expectation was that she would leave in January. As is of our time, things change, and they change fast. The borders are now open to international students and the USA Embassy has re-opened. We have suddenly been flung into a mad panic of appointments, interviews, flight booking, insurance investigations and packing. The youngest, who has felt the C19 changes the most, has lost his school structure, friendships and soon to be his elder sister. His wing man and his confidant. So he and I are heading for the Island.
I do lots of things with Libby, my eldest daughter. She is easy going and easy company. We have things we like doing together. I don’t do much with Archie, the youngest. I can’t kick a football for toffee. I fall over just looking at a skateboard. I hate the Xbox vehemently, and in particular the child he becomes when he’s been left to play on it for hours. But he is soon to become an only child, my only child at home. As if our world hadn’t changed enough over the last few months, the biggest change of all is yet to come.
Although I don’t spend much time with Archie, he and I are very alike. Highly strung, overtly and overly sensitive. At our worst we clash and at our best we understand each other intrinsically. Lockdown has been hard on everyone and our household is no different from the next. But Archie and I have felt the changes most intensely. We both need time alone to process and re-charge our batteries. Hard to find in a crowded house. After a particular trying day of friendship fallouts (him) and family frustrations (me) we met in the kitchen before bed. Our trip to the Isle of Wight hung in the balance as the eldest now had an emergency visa appointment. Archie could see this was upsetting me greatly. He understands my need for the beach, the sea and nostalgic family tradition. So he said “let’s still go mum, just you and me, because it will make you happy.” Never has a greater gift been bestowed upon a mother than a teenage child willing and wanting to spend time with her. I reacted as any mother would. I gave him a hug so long and hard he squirmed and almost suffocated.
Archie is tricky character, but then so was I at 15. He feels hard and reacts ardently. Over the last few months he’s had the rug pulled from under his feet. He finds managing relationships difficult, has a black and white view of the world and I pity the person who dares go against his moral compass. So when you are prevented from seeing your peers, had your daily structure removed and your body decides now is the time to go through puberty, your world kinda falls apart. Small disagreements on the Xbox or group chat are magnified by the circumstances of meeting only one mate, having mates that are shielding and having concentrated long on-line battles. He has been ghosted by his lifelong friends -he will be by no means blameless – but it’s a pretty piss poor place to be in. So although she said “let’s go to the Island” to make me happy, I think he knew the break would make him happy too.
Getting ready to leave started subtly a few days before. You have to warm Archie up before leaving the house. Lots of gentle reminders of our plans. On the day of departure you have to ramp up the reminders but not so much that he shuts down. You are teetering on a cliff edge. I was reassured all mornings that he would be ready to leave at 3pm. I say all morning when in reality he didn’t stir until midday. At 2pm he finally got in the shower. Like a hawk, I swooped into his bedroom, curtains pulled, bed made, rucksack found, clean undies located, swim trunks packed and out again before he returned to drop a sodden towel on the floor. It was inevitably after 3pm when, despite his reassurances, we were still looking for his headphones and chargers, Rushing him would be counter-productive and cause more delays and door slamming but we had a ferry to catch. A ferry on a reduced service and a car with no fuel. Finally a few hours later we were sat on the sun deck crossing the Solent. Him without any type of jumper on his body or in his bag. “You told me it would be hot mum”. At least there was no turning back now.
As we disembarked the boat grandma was there to greet us. Archie accepted the obligatory embarrassing hug and kiss. He does this sort of sideways smile when he is clearly doing things out of duty. The smile is preferable to the sullen sulk I’d be treated to for the whole car and ferry crossing. And frankly any type of smile is way better than the alternative. We headed straight to the beach for a dinner of beer and chips (coke for him). He indulged my parents with whole sentence answers and we watched the sunset over the bay. We were off to a good start.
The next morning he surfaced before noon and set about cooking us all breakfast in the garden on the BBQ. We packed a swim bag and headed to the beach hut for the day. The forecast was for glorious sunshine all day. We set up camp and he then came with me on a walk along the foreshore looking for sea glass and shells. It was everything I hoped it would be. Me and him, together, relaxing by the sea. He then took a nap on the shingle while I explored a bit more, then back to the beach hut for a lunch fit for kings, cheesy chips and ice cream. With the ice cream first. But by teatime it had all gone to pot. The swim shorts I’d packed were the wrong ones. He didn’t want me to buy a new pair from the shop. He was hot and uncomfortable with no means to cool down. We bumped into old friends with their two teenage girls, yes that’s girls, cue hiding behind fringe and back to monosyllabic answers. And the cherry on the top was he’d got sunburn. I hadn’t nagged him to reapply cream because I didn’t want to take off my rose tinted glasses. The result was burnt feet, shins and nose. The salt in the wound was we still had to walk, in ‘rubbing on sunburn’ sliders, round to the next bay where we had a table booked for dinner before departure. The walk is along the sea wall, the water is an incredible turquoise colour and the bay is full of beautiful bobbing sailing ships. Yet this was the most arduous and unpleasant walk ever. He sighed and huffed the whole way, sweat dripping off him, while my mum tried to placate him. I love my mum but she is shit at reading when people need to be left alone but she eventually looked up to see me frantically making cut throat signs. Finally seated at our table, in searing heat but at least shade he began to come back to us. Food for a growing 15 year old can work wonders. Dad and I walked back to collect the car so we would not have to suffer another sunburn on sliders walk home, and when we returned he was smiling, sort of.
We got the last ferry home. I hadn’t refuelled the car in the rush to get there the previous day. My dream day shattered. It would be midnight before I saw my front door. This was not the mum and son wistful trip over the water I had wanted. On the way home, Archie navigated us to a service station to refuel, mars bar for him, diesel for the car. And when the A27 was shut at Arundel, because it couldn’t get any worse could it, he stepped up and became navigator once more. Finally home he had a cold shower and went to bed with flannels on his feet.
The next day, when asked how it had been, he told his dad “Really good apart from the obvious”. We still don’t know what the obvious is. Was it spending time away from the Xbox? Getting sunburnt? Seeing teenage girls? And then I realised I need to the focus on the ‘REALLY GOOD’ and not the ‘obvious’. He tells me he no longer likes the beach and that he is not like me and doesn’t want to go in the sea. But that is just not true. He, like me, truly relaxes there, was happy foraging in the foreshore, snoozing on the shingle and yes he was pissed off that I’d packed the wrong shorts, but that is because he wanted to get in the sea. A lot is changing but a lot stays the same. Buried beneath teenage sullen sulks that kid is still there. The one that would dig trenches in the sand, be the first on the SUP or foamie, draws on pebbles and jump off cliffs into the water with the dog. And as long as I can still drag him to the beach I’ll get glimpses of my boy back. The really good! And that’s as timeless as the tides.
Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’