Autumnal trees skip past on both sides of the road, a blur of green laced with all hues between yellow and brown. Natures signal that nights are drawing in, commuting will nightmarishly morph into hell on this earth and that my body driven by instincts towards hibernation, will gain three kilos before spring. The road ahead is winding. The rising banks either side of the rough tarmac are covered in wide lush stems of grass, which give way intermittently to naked patches of rich brown mud and swathes of fallen leaves as the banks fall away to ditches. I can almost smell the forest as these leaves decompose in the damp. I make a mental note to dig out everyone's wellies from the shed tomorrow. Beside me Kathy is humming a tune, just beneath her breath but loud enough that Jake in the booster seat behind can hear the melody. She probably doesn't even know she is doing it, so long has this been her way of dealing with the after effects of Irritable Child Syndrome.
We are as you may have guessed in a car, our Volvo. This I might add was not my first choice before you wrinkle your nose and recall all those slow meandering journeys. I will admit Volvos seem preordained to be owned by dishevelled drivers with a greater interest in the welfare of their dogs in the back than the open road. Owners that religiously adhere to the speed limit minus five and regularly swerve into the oncoming lane while checking out the construct of passing gardens and ploughed fields. I hope that does not include us. We don't have pets, at least none we would want to put in the back. The Volvo just works. It will effortlessly get you safely up and down frozen country hills, hardly ever goes wrong and is built like a tank with the added bonus of not being a 4x4. That would just not be cool. My choice was a Toyota Celica, which was overruled by a majority vote of one despite an impassioned plea.
The yellow and the brown amongst the valiant leaves of green puts me in mind of the dark brown hair sat atop my head and its losing battle to the rampant grey. I wonder what it is that causes new hair to turn grey after a certain age: genetic or chemical? Must make a note to check that out.
Kathy pointedly raises her left wrist, taking a theatrical moment too long to examine her watch before letting her hand fall back into her lap, still humming the tune. Waiting just long enough to not look like I am reacting to her signal I press down slightly with my right foot and the needle edges closer to 50, of the miles per hour. It is all pointless of course. We get round the next bend and a Landrover towing a horse box is straddling the road, being far too big to pull into the country lane in one turn. It busily completes a complex sequence of manoeuvres before setting itself towards destination final. This I rightly guess will be the same as ours, as we are headed to pick up Molly from her Saturday morning session at the stables.
Which ties up the cause for Irritable Child Syndrome quite nicely. Last thing Jake wanted was to be pulled away from the all consuming mission of guiding a dragon around a screen in the quest for pink sparkling diamonds. The carrot for prising him away from the sofa and out the front door is an hour in the local pool. That is of course once Molly has been deposited in the back full of vibrant energy and daring stories of trotting ponies, and repeated mentions of the older girls by name. Of course when I say vibrant energy I mean overlaid with disinterested nonchalance.
But that is still another ten minutes away. In the back Jake shuffles in his seat, rustling the overly large winter coat in the process. Kathy throws a quick look over her shoulder as Jake sighs deeply, expelling all the air out of his lungs and refilling them before opening and closing his mouth. This we have come to learn is often the precursor to a much considered question, of which we have noticed have been increasingly more considered of late. Not that they have been overly taxing. A number of peripheral questions have us guessing he knows Father Christmas isn't quite all he seems, he is just not quite certain whether to broach the subject in fear the present supply may dry up. There has also been the debate on Bionicles and Spiderman not actually being real but really interesting stories made up so little boys like Jake can dream and have fun.
The most recent was the question on why Jake's birthday was before Molly's but he being younger; he nine she twelve. I can remember asking that one myself while holidaying in the back of my dad’s Vauxhall Viva, while looking out over a choppy overcast sea. There must be something about kids being sat in the back of a car. Sort of focuses the mind with no other distractions. To be honest Kathy and I high-fived the night he asked that one, it was a sort of landmark: the first real signs our son has shown of addressing real questions, phew - an emerging intellect.
“Mummy?” his voice laced with thought and that high pitched sweet tone that nine year old boys have. The same voice that when uttered by trembling lips: 'Sorry Mummy!' Below large brown eyes has saved him more often than I can recall. Swap out Jake for Molly in these scenarios and there would have been a fiery battle of wills that I swear one day will have all the furniture levitating off the floor and rotating around the room. Our daughter seems to possess 10% of my genes, most of which seem to be of the belligerent variety.
'Yes Jake?' Kathy's nurturing voice, her head slightly cocked towards Jake to express attention.
'You know Adam and Eve?' The words hung in the air accompanied by the sound of the engine and tyres upon tarmac. Moments passed as our brains processed the words. Kathy flicked her eyes up at me and then back over her shoulder: 'Yes Jake. Have you been learning about Adam and Eve at school?'
'Yes Mummy. Miss Shufflebottom was telling us that god created Adam and Eve and we all come from them.'
I should probably mention at this juncture that both out little rugrats attend Church of England schools, and before you wrinkle your noses again we have not relocated to attain prize schooling. Kathy was bred two streets down the way from the schools and we now live another two streets further on, just on the edge of the village. Her mother is enshrined in the school hall of fame as a past deputy head of some accomplishment and this just happens to be our nearest school.
Well you kind of get the picture. I am the foreigner to these parts. Having originated from Mosley in this nation's second capital I now find myself driving Volvo and with two kids courtesy of a warm summer's night fifteen years ago, when I sat opposite Kathy as she fervently held hands with her future intended. I was hopelessly lost, bided my time and moved in for the kill, so to speak. Moving in for the kill actually took eighteen months and consisted mostly of attending any social event I thought Kathy might be vaguely interested in. And then trying to engage her in stimulating conversation if she was actually there.
Despite her union with Mr Middle Management being formalised through vows beneath tolling bells it eventually ran its course and dissolved. I would like to say I then dazzled her with my wooing technique. But when it came down to it we were both like: 'ah haa! So you are the one.' Parents talk about soul mates, maybe they are right, but sometimes two people just fit right.
'Wow. So you are learning some really interesting stuff now huh?' Once more the words were cast lovingly over her shoulder.
There was silence from our son for a few moments as he formulated his thoughts: 'Mummy?'
'Mr Bradshaw says we all come from fish in the sea and that they learned to breathe and live on land?'
Kathy's eyes now came to rest on the side of my face. Which I admit fought hard to suppress the joyous but fixed on the road ahead look. Would she hand responsibility over to me, or wouldn't she. Would she trust me in this my defining moment?
'Well Daddy ...' Kathy said, 'what do you think of that?' I resisted the urge to pull over so we might address the question fully.
Kathy spent most of her childhood Sundays in Sunday school, was raised in the shadow of the church and was educated, at least initially, in a school funded by the church. As a student she went on to study philosophy, psychology and now works and lectures in Paedopsychology which basically means she specialises in understanding the minds of children and getting the most out of child minds. Which of course means she is almost always five steps ahead of everyone in our household.
Along the way she became, as many of us have, disenchanted with the Church but with a cast-iron spiritual belief. I think this spirituality is some mechanism her mind has manifested to protect her from those moments when she stops and worries about the future - for her beloved children, her ageing parents and of course for her dashing, witty husband. Maintaining spirituality, some notion of a better place after death, irrespective of who actually might provide such a facility just allows her to sleep better. I can't really argue with that, not that I would even dare to anymore.
'Crikey fella, that's some interesting learning you're doing there. What made you think of that?
'I just did!' He replied, matter of fact.
'So did Miss Shufflebottom say why people think we come from Adam and Eve?' This seemed to hold his attention for a few moments.
'Because the Bible says so.'
The fingers of Kathy's right hand traced a small persistent circle on the inside of my thigh, just about three inches above my knee.
'Cool. And we all know who wrote the Bible don't we?'
Jake started to answer but left the first words hanging in the air, clamping closed his mouth at some faintly recalled alarm but unable to recall the exact reason, he ploughed on after a brief pause.
'Molly said the Bible was just a bunch of made up stories!'
'Did she now!' I could not help but feel a sudden sense of immense pride in my daughter. Having inherited a good proportion of her mother’s intellect she occasionally demonstrated my dogged determination for logic by burrowing down to the finer details of a problem in search of a cause.
Molly had never asked us the question Jake was now posing. Instead she had announced one evening last year, in between using her tongue and the vacuum in her mouth to force the thick matter of baked beans and chewed fish fingers out through the gaps in her teeth, that having studied biology she now considered the premise of mankind being created by a god very unlikely. That's my girl. With that we had effortlessly moved onto sleepovers and the likelihood of her being able to spend an afternoon in town with the older girls from the stables. Zero chance to the latter.
'Yes! And she said she knew this was true cos you told her Daddy!'
Kathy's fingers froze mid circular movement. The words had been delivered as a matter of fact, a recounting of truth as understood by a nine year old boy.
'Is it true Daddy?'
Of course it is bloody true son. How could the Bible be anything but the honest ramblings of people that lived over two thousand years ago, knew so little about anything that almost everyone died of an infection of some kind. Man was thousands of years from understanding bacteria, a round earth, the universe and were in awe of their insignificance. Of course they wrote a whole bunch of stories explaining their place in all this at the hand of some greater force!
'Well! That's a tough one Jake.' Trying to work out how Molly could come to think I had told her that. It was what I believed but both Kathy and I worked so hard in trying to respond to our children's questions with information rather than answers. It was for them to reach conclusions not to be brainwashed by what we believed. So how come?
Kathy's fingers restarted their circular motion and that somehow triggered the memory she must have already recalled. It now flashed through my mind.
Occasionally Molly got to stay up late, sometimes as the result of angelic behaviour or good grades but more often from a desire for us to spend more time with our daughter during a phase when Jake had been prominent. Having changed for bed she would get to choose a book and one of us to read it. These were no lose situations for Kathy and I. We were both secretly competitive to be nominated the reader, throwing our all into bringing the words to life. Molly would snuggle in close to the spare parent, latching on like only a child happy to be the centre of attention really can, one parent reading, the other sentinel and contented with our sleepy daughter's arms and legs wrapped around like a little chimp.
More often than not she would pick one of the Narnia chronicles or The Butterfly Lion, but Christmas last she had Waterstone’s vouchers to burn and had emerged after a very considered two hours of book selection with David Almonds: 'Skellig' atop a varied collection. Skellig on the first read had us all in tears, including Jake who had no idea why he was crying except for the fact mummy and daddy had tears running down their cheeks. More often than not during the last year Molly would pick Skellig and we would read the last few chapters, almost always tears fell when Skellig manifests as the angel.
After one such occasion Molly had wiped her cheeks and asked in a faltering voice whether the stories of the Bible might have started like this, but were now believed to be true. Kathy and I wiped the tears from our faces, inwardly celebrating her inquisitive mind and told her that mummy believed many of them were stories but about a spiritual truth and Daddy believed they were all just made up stories by people trying to understand the world. With that Molly promptly fell asleep and having been packed off to bed, little more had been mentioned. It just goes to show how our children squirrel away the information we feed them.
'The thing is Jake it is pretty certain that even before dinosaurs the first life started in the sea and eventually lived on the land. Pretty much all life you see everyday including us started like this.'
Jake was quiet, moments passed.
'You alright there fella?'
There was a slight pause: 'Miss Shufflebottom seemed so sure we come from Adam and Eve!'
He loved Miss Shufflebottom's classes. His thoughtful dilemma born of loyalty towards his favourite teacher melted both our hearts right there and then. I bit the bullet, swallowed the pill. It was hard and bitter, and stuck in my throat but I was not about to shatter any of Jake's illusions.
'Many clever people believe the Adam and Eve story Jake, and even knowing Mr Bradshaw is right, does not make Miss Shufflebottom wrong. As we get older and learn more it is easier to understand what we believe. You have done well for even thinking that question mate, very proud of you.'
Jake fell quiet. I adjusted the rear view and saw him lost in thought, eyes just high enough to stare over the door panel and out through glass window, tracking the random shapes and dull colours presented by the passing village.
Kathy's hand gently squeezed the inside of my thigh before drifting back to her own lap. It was a 'you are gorgeous squeeze' so I flick a quick glance in her direction, which is rewarded with a salacious wink. I feel her joy in seeing my love for our son override a desire to tell him just how chronically deluded I consider Miss Shufflebottom to be.
Fixing my attention right back onto the road with both hands firmly on the wheel I traverse the last few slate lined bends. We ease to a stop behind the horsebox, which slowly manoeuvres onto the long rutted track that leads to the stables.
'Yes Jake?' Kathy answered, once more her gaze tilted over her shoulder. My ears like radars hanging on the tone of his each breath.
'Can we have spaghetti for tea?'
With Molly deposited in the back beside Jake after three casual attempts at cleaning the mud from her riding boots, both Jake and Molly have immediately started bickering. Which requires a verbal shot across the bows and finally a fiery stare from Kathy, needing her to pivot right around in her seat to ensure both understand the significance of the glare. We then point the Volvo towards the local pool where a temporary truce will be forged while they screech and splash along with a dozen or so other pink faced cherubs.
Things initially go well. I collect the coffees while Kathy scours the tables for the Saturday papers and we deposit ourselves in seats that provide a panoramic view of the pool below - the cafe being on the first floor. I have never been wholly comfortable being separated from our vulnerable genes by a thick glass window but have figured that if they look like they are in trouble I will take out the glass with a chair, drop down and wade through the paddling pool and rescue said struggling collection of genes. What can I say! Parenting conjures all sorts of hero illusions.
We settle down. Around us we can hear the murmur of conversational adults, the occasional burst of steam from the coffee machine and only the highest pitched screams of glee from the other side of the glass. I find the mixed smells of coffee and public swimming pool very comforting.
Apart from quick glances up from a magazine and out through the glass, a certain serenity has descended upon Kathy. Her jeaned legs are crossed with her booted foot nestled against my leg. Her attention seems raptly held by a spread about Jordan and Mr Andre. Kathy's unwashed slightly dishevelled hair is pushed back behind her right ear while it hangs down a few inches above her shoulder on the other side, head slightly tilted. Dark framed glasses are pushed to the end of her nose so that she can read and then long focus above the frames as she glances down at the pool. Glasses which when perched on the end of her nose like this give her an impish quality. Nearing thirty seven her skin no longer holds that glow of youth, while her smile creases the skin around her mouth and eyes, just a little more than she would like. Skin that is lightly freckled across her nose during the winter but blooms into a full on freckle-fest during the summer months. Much to the horror of her Asian students - apparently Asians don't have freckles.
Noticing my gaze she glances up at me over her glasses: 'Yess?'
'Weren't they in that last week?'
Glancing back down at the magazine she closes the cover, keeping place with her thumbs while focusing on the hopeful faces of Jordon and child: 'Of course,' Kathy replies, looking back up at me, 'that's the point!' Her eyes briefly take in my face, giving away nothing of her thought save for a momentary gleam of the eye before throwing a quick look down at the pool: 'Drink your coffee.' And then back down at the magazine. I had been dismissed. Her foot almost imperceptibly rocked against my calf.
I find it really hard to read here. Always coming with the intention, but always finding my attention pulled to the pool - mesmerised by the endless fun children seem to find from just being in water here. Which is hugely ironic considering how difficult it is getting them anywhere near the bathroom at home.
Their whole bodies seem overcome with a barely contained energy. They jump up and down, splashing each other, disappearing beneath the surface, reappearing with some found talisman joyously held aloft – a coin, maybe a hair grip. Here Jake and Molly get on like best friends. Molly looking out for her little brother, warning off schoolboys that have gravitated towards her, who's adolescent displays were intended to gain her attention, but simply incur a rebuke for crowding Jake. I feel proud and fearful all at the same time. It won't be long now before she begins morphing away from the enchanting child she is. Kathy would probably tell me it has already begun.
Things take a downturn when I realise a couple of the other pink faced cherubs seem familiar. Almost as if on cue there is a high pitched screech from the other side of the cafe which sounds like a banshee wailing: 'kaATHIiee!' and we are suddenly sharing our peaceful hour with two other couples. I faintly recollect them from summer garden parties, school nativity ... and of course the 3:30 playground vigil while waiting on Jake's often long awaited emergence. I can never remember which male is with which female and their presence triggers some recollection of scandal. I make a note to only speak when the path is obvious.
Kathy, simultaneously removing her glasses with one hand while running the other through her hair beams back at the owner of the voice. They exchange high pitched greetings before glancing kisses off each cheek. Kathy welcomes the other female, more formally but with the same kisses before ushering them all to the table. I groan inwardly and draw up a couple of spare co-located chairs. One of the males - thick set in a crisp pink shirt and complementing tan finds another two. I know very well the beam Kathy just flashed at the women was her outwardly: 'very pleased to see you' but inwardly: 'mildly irritated' beam.
We stay only as long past our intended hour as is polite, during which we exchange banal conversation between quick looks to check on respective cherub status. The two couples from what I have now recalled are synonymous because the photographer husband of one is meant to be well acquainted with the rake like brunette bobbed wife of the other. I can never work out which one is the photographer, it's supposed to be the one you would least think is the photographer and I of course once famously got it wrong.
Damp kids are loaded back into our Volvo after a brief outbreak of anger and equally returned child punches. Jake has put his wet towel on Molly's side of the seat and is more than a little pleased with himself. This time I intervene and resolve the issue by singing. This is quickly accompanied by pantomime wailing and peace is restored once Kathy has demanded quiet. Soon we are easing over speed bumps and out into the traffic. The light is already failing, with red brake lights trailing down into the town. We have one more stop - to pick up spaghetti and Pesto before heading home.
The house is quiet save for the cooling timber and contracting metal of the radiators. Kathy has just returned from dousing Molly's light, having read herself to sleep - back onto the Narnia chronicles. Jake has completed his first sleepwalk but we are several hours from changing the sheets post bed wetting, if that is to occur. We are down to twice a week. As a child I recall that whole trauma and regularly being dehydrated by my mother simply because she imagined wetting the bed was caused by drinks too close to bedtime. Of course it is because little boy bladders grow a great deal between the ages of seven and ten, as does our awareness of the world. Which manifests as scary dreams and wet beds.
As she passes the end of our bed Kathy pauses, reaching across to open the curtains slightly, letting in more of the streetlight. It silhouettes her form, setting a halo around her hair and profiling her t-shirted breasts. Something is afoot. I surreptitiously reach down and begin wiggling down my boxers. Just in case.
Knowing exactly what the light is doing to her profile Kathy pulls up and away her t-shirt. Her breasts caught on the departing fabric struggle free, dancing like a couple of erotic jellies. Two children and gravity means they don't stand to attention like they used to but they still hold my attention, 'specially when they move like that.
'Mr Potter!' Her voice is authoritative while reaching out and pulling back the duvet, climbing over and straddling me - just moments after a flick of ankle has propelled boxers onto the bedroom floor.
'Yes my beautiful?'
Having manoeuvred herself onto me my wife leans forward, gently, slowly rocking up and down. Her breasts sway gracefully from side to side with each delightfully tortuous movement of her hips.
'I think ... a thank you is in order.' Her hair hanging either side of her face.
It ... is?'
'Yesss.' This last gasped slowly from her slightly parted mouth before placing a finger briefly over mine.
When she eventually took me to the edge and then beyond she sighed deeply and contentedly before lying forward, resting her head on my chest, hair splayed out. Her hands furrowed around my back, holding tight.
'Prey tell wife?'
'Sometimes Matthew, I love you so much for what you do not tell our children.'
After a moment Kathy lifted her head, passing her mouth lightly across mine, lingering for a moment, her warm toothpaste breath washing across my face. She kissed me fully on the lips before rolling onto her side of the bed, pulling the duvet with her.
Within minutes she was gently snoring. I lay there for a while longer, worrying about locks on the doors, closed windows, all that was precious to me. Before following her.
Submission: 7 November 2007