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I think I have already explained that I was a slightly disconnected child.
When my mother was pregnant with her second child, I was five and had only the vaguest understanding of what was about to happen. I don’t remember being told what was going on, although I must have been.
One afternoon, my teacher said to the whole class, “Now listen, children. A member of our class,” she gestured towards me, “has a very exciting piece of news she would like to share with you.”
The class waited breathlessly as I stood up. I looked blankly at my teacher, and shrugged awkwardly. Whatever could she be referring to, I wondered…?
My teacher looked puzzled, and prompted me by patting her tummy.
“My mummy’s going to have a baby,” I recited woodenly. I remember that moment so clearly, because I didn’t understand the words that were coming out of my mouth. I must have been taught to say them by rote at some point, but there was no corresponding image or thought in my head. Just a roaring empty space.
I hadn’t even really noticed my mother changing shape. I must have been the least observant child alive.
One day, unexpectedly, my Dad collected me from school, and when we returned home, I discovered that my mother wasn’t there. He explained that she had gone into hospital to prepare for the big event, and that he was going to look after me.
I remember being filled with a pure and uncomplicated joy.
Like many children in those days, I didn’t get to see my Dad much – especially as he travelled abroad for a lot of the time. This meant that when I DID see him, he was Fun-time Daddy – we’d play games, draw pictures together, horse around. He could always think of amusing things to do. Memorably, he once drew and cut out several fish, sketching out their shapes deftly and skilfully, giving them comical expressions; then he stuck paper clips to each one, and handed me a ‘fishing rod’ made of string with a magnet tied on the end. I spent hours fishing for those funny characters over the back of a chair.
Now that I am a parent myself, I realise how unfair it was that he got to be Fun-time Daddy, who I saved all my smiles for, when my mother had to be Organiser, Disciplinarian, Caterer, Taxi and General Dogsbody.
But the 5 year old me was delighted at the thought of spending a few days with my Dad – life was going to be one hilarious roller coaster ride of good times.
The next morning, I came downstairs to find a boiled egg (with obligatory funny face drawn on) in my place. As I ate, I noticed Dad was standing at the worktop, holding some sort of utensil, concentrating deeply on a task. When I sidled over to see what he was doing, I saw he had rolled out some homemade biscuit dough, and was cutting out a big fish shape, freestyle, with a knife.
I was delighted with the fish – it looked just like the fish in my Miffy book by Dick Bruna.
He smiled down into my upturned face and said, “I thought if the biscuits were ready in time, you could take them to school for snack time.”
I stared at him, aghast, my cheery mood plummeting with sickening speed into my feet.
How could he not know that taking food into school was strictly forbidden? How did he not know that there was no such thing as snack time?
Stricken, I gazed back into his face. I had never broken the school rules – I just wasn’t wired that way. I knew that the punishment for taking food to school could be severe. But how could I tell my Daddy, who had obviously woken up very early to make biscuits from scratch, just to make me smile, that his efforts had been wasted?
Without noticing anything amiss, he placed the fish shapes on a baking tray and put them in the oven. I tried to finish my breakfast, although I now had a clenched fist for a stomach, and a lump in my throat.
Looking back, it’s easy to wonder why I didn’t just say, “Hey, thanks Dad – they look great! But we’re not allowed to take food to school, so can I have them when I get home?”
So simple. But the situation wasn’t simple. He’d woken up early to make biscuits in time for school. And I also felt I needed to protect him – earnest and buoyant – from his own ignorance about my schedule. He had NEVER done the morning routine before. He was not the one who washed my school uniform, who knew where my reading books were, who made sure I had packed my school bag, who ensured I was present at school events on the right day at the right time. My mother did ALL that stuff.
Somehow, I felt that callously refusing his biscuits would hurt his feelings, and alienate him from my life.
The biscuits were baked beautifully – golden brown, perfectly shaped, buttery and smelled delicious. He cooled them on a wire rack. I watched him with something like wonder, surprised that he knew where everything was – he never did the cooking usually. He wrapped them in foil, put the package carefully in a food bag, and tucked it into my school satchel, with a conspiratorial grin.
Miserably, I picked up my bag, aware that I was going to school a sinner; deliberately, knowingly breaking the rules, but feeling utterly backed into a corner.
The day was excruciating. I couldn’t have felt more guilty if I’d brought in 20lbs of semtex and a murdered kitten to school. My bag hung from its named peg, seeming to glower maliciously – whispering to all who passed by, “I have forbidden fooooooood….”
Then I realised with even more dismay that I couldn’t just stuff the cookie to the bottom of my bag and wait it out. If my Dad unpacked my bag when I got home, he’d find an abandoned, untouched, probably crumbled biscuit – and that would be even more hurtful than not accepting it in the first place.
Skewered on the prongs of dilemma, I found myself systematically creating excuses to leave the classroom. Instead of going to the toilet, I would stop by my bag, break off a piece of biscuit and hastily crunch it down, careful to wipe all the crumbs from my face before re-entering the classroom. Grimly, I repeated this manoeuvre throughout the day until I felt an acceptable amount of biscuit had been consumed.
It was the tastiest biscuit I’ve ever eaten. It was also the least enjoyable.
I realise that it sounds a little ridiculous to use this word in connection with a 5 year old child, but I went home to my Dad deeply depressed. I couldn’t understand how almost every interaction with him could produce this painful, conflicted love and sorrow within me.
It never changed. For the rest of his life, our relationship consisted of me protecting him from himself – from his ignorance, from his mistakes, from the knowledge that, in reality, he often made our lives at home more difficult, more stressful. From the day he baked that biscuit, I took on a huge leaden burden to carry – a burden no one asked me to hold – a burden I had somehow divined to be my particular curse and privilege.
So much for a hilarious roller coaster of good times…
I was relieved when my mother returned home, even though there was a crying baby attached to her. The routine may have turned upside down with the advent of a new life in our previously silent house, but my mother was there to ensure that nothing alarming, alien and unexpected happened. Dad went back to work.
A crying baby seemed like light work after The Torturous Incident of the Unwelcome Biscuit Fish.