At the back of a bookshelf in Frankie’s room, semi-hidden behind the Charlie and Lola picture books that have long since been usurped by doorstop-thickness Famous Five novels featuring ‘literally lashes of ginger beer’ and weighty encyclopaedic tomes detailing the technological development of the steam engine in the charge of doughty, moustachioed industrialists from Newton-on-the-Willows , there’s a fading black and white photograph of a dozen-strong line-up of early 21st Century Mancunian three-year-olds, framed against the backdrop of a crumbling suburban Victorian park pavilion.
The image was captured by Jane, the mother of one of the toddlers, who is a professional horticultural photographer by trade, and had hit upon the idea of gathering for a group portrait that wintery Saturday morning the band of baby group contemporaries including in its number her son Joe, just as the children- who had been thrown together by the vagaries of Levenshulme aquanatal provision in their very early infancy-reached the cusp of nursery school admission age and started to go their separate ways.
That morning was six years ago now, but I remember being impressed by how the ever-resourceful Jane- a woman more used to photographing for the pages of the Sunday supplements lettuces, gladioli and other accommodatingly limbless life-forms- rose to the task of cajoling a dozen restless three-year old human beings into something resembling stillness for the 5 seconds needed to frame the shot. The crossing of palms with tiny sweets and tinier plastic farm animals worked wonders for the majority- but not for our Frankie, who is captured for posterity in the act of exiting determinedly if sheepishly stage left, on a slight diagonal trajectory away from the group. Unseen just out of frame I am attempting, vainly, to cajole him back into the fray for just five more seconds. He was never- I think it is fair to say- the most straightforward of children, even then.
We’ve all kept in touch, most of us, and last Saturday morning it was me and Charlotte’s turn to organise a social gathering. The occasion was Frankie and Joe’s not-quite-on-the-same-day-but-very-close-together 9th birthdays and we were taking the two boys, along with their one-time photoshoot partners Ellie and Dunya , out to Liverpool on the train to take a look around the Beatles Story museum.
A few things we found out along the way: both John and Paul lost their mothers while in their teenage years; the famous Lennon round-framed glasses were damaged in a fight with Yoko and were very nearly lost for posterity to a New York apartment litterbin; George very nearly didn’t get as far as being allowed to audition, as the other three thought Paul’s schoolfriend looked way too young (he was 16, they were 19- a chasm); oh, and our Mancunian toddlers are quite definitively not toddlers any more.
We knew that already, of course. But it took a day spent with a group of them together to bring home how damned independent and grown-up they have become so suddenly. All day they surprised us with self-contained little cameos of new-found maturity- such as when they sat round a table for four on the Transpennine to Lime Street sorting out the distribution of sandwiches (via civilised discussion as opposed to tears and recriminations conducted at screaming pitch), or when they assembled cross-legged on the floor of the ‘Apple era’ room to debate the rights and wrongs of the Fab Four's break-up (the nearest they got to falling out all day actually; 'What do you mean, Ringo is stupid? Ringo's not stupid!' I heard Frankie exclaiming at one point).
Another difference from that long-ago photoshoot: as their personalities, idiosyncracies and odd little obsessions develop, they don't seem as interchangable as they once did. So- while Ellie devoured every word on every wall (and later, told me the story of John's broken glasses, missing no detail and adding a couple of flourishes for good measure), Joe seemed more interested in the internal and external infrastrucutre of the City of Liverpool- at various points drawing my attention to radiators, escalators, and what he called the 'bad paint jobs' on the railings separating the Pier Head promenade from the grey expanse of the Mersey below. Wide-eyed Dunya just took everything in, happy to stay on the sidelines, her customary attitude of unassuming good-naturedness only brifely interrupted when her own round-framed John Lennon glasses became tangled up in her masses of unfathomably curly hair. Frankie- well he enjoyed the museum OK, but what he will really remember, I am pretty sure, is when the nice lady in the interactive section brought out the Beatles wigs and fancy-dress outfits and put some Little Richard tracks on the turntable for them to dance around like dervishes to (Frankie counts among his numerous current small idiosyncracies a fixation with Little Richard, a worrying development which we must blame on a compilation 'Hits of the 60s' CD bought for him by his grandmother last Christmas).
That's the bit I'll remember too, along with the magical ten minutes preceding it, where they amused a passing troupe of Spanish tourists by tiptoeing giggling and barefooted across an image of giant piano keys projected onto the floor, following the rhythm of unseen hands plinkety-plonking out the tune of 'Eleanor Rigby'. I'll remember it- not not just because it was so damn memorable- but also as part of what is becoming an increasingly concerted effort to capture those increasingly rare moments when you remember that - for all their easy acquaintance with a range of European languages, familiarity with the miracles of steam engines and Google Earth, and well-developed theories on how George's flirtation with Indian mysticism led to the break-up of the greatest popular music band of the 20th Century- you know what? They're still just kids really. As they proved, quite conclusively, when they all came back to our house for tea and trashed it to within an inch of its life over pizzas and hide-and-seek, before, as their parents arrived one-by-one to pick them up, taking their leave from us with massive, unselfconscious, open-armed hugs.
All of which- I suppose- makes it sound as if this childrearing lark is a constantly charming, life-affirming, and cinematically sepia-toned adventure, which we have glided through effortlessly for the past nine years, sporting beatific smiles of gratification for our cosmic good-fortune in being presented by the heavens with such unfailingly adorable children. Which- as Belgian Waffle points out in this astonishingly beautiful recent piece of writing- is only what it is like some of the time. There are also moments like this morning, where a last-minute panic involving a £1 saucepan, a ball of string and some duct tape (don't ask, it's National Book Day, if that doesn't explain it we haven't got time, not now) meant I was reduced to shouting very loudly for some minutes just to get us out of the door and in time for school. Or last night, when I came home from work exhausted, and couldn't raise the wherewithal to say a pleasant word to anyone, least of all a nine-year old attempting to climb all over my head while recounting how he had just navigated himself to Huddersfield and back without leaving the dining room, due to the wonders of Google Earth- so took myself up to bed and hid under the covers until the excited chatter subsided and it seemed safe to come downstairs and crack open two bottles of Fullers Bengal Lancer in front of Tottenham Hotspur versus Inter Milan.
There'll be more nights like that, I am sure, when this childrearing lark seems like not quite the film I thought it was, and even actually a task more responsible and exhausting than I (or either of us) will ever really have the strength to deal with. A good job, then, that I probably won't remember those nights, at least not properly, my head being too full of the other stuff, such as Frankie and his adorable friends, all in toe-length capes from the Mahurishi era and moptops, dancing their heads off to Elvis in a small room made out to look like the interior of a Liverpool record emporium, circa 1962. At least that's the plan. Wish me luck along the way, won't you?