I’ve just watched Frankie skip off into Primary School for the last time.
Well- I actually missed the moment. Just as the Year Six doors opened, his best friend Ellie’s mum came running across the playground towards us to hand back a bag containing PE kit that he’d left at her house, and by the time I looked back up he had escaped from my grasp and scuttled off through the glass doors into the dimly-lit corridor, and although I craned my neck for a last glimpse, the back of his black fleece coat was by now indistinguishable from the rest of the flock. I stayed for another two minutes all the same, until the last of the usual-suspect last-second stragglers had hell-for-leathered-it across the playground with their bags all-a-scatter, and the slightly delayed 8:48 for Salford Crescent had rumbled away unseen overhead, its departure coinciding, as it has done every termtime weekday for the last seven years, with the end of the drop-off.
It didn’t really matter that I missed the moment though. The truth is that the entire summer term-has passed by in a sea of emotionally exhausting and largely self-inflicted nostalgia. The last week in particular has been punctuated with breathlessly experienced ‘last time ever’ moments, each of them anticipated, commented on, and, as they finally passed, chalked off the mental checklist we’ve been keeping in our heads.
And so: last trip to school in the car (and last time the cat from the house we park outside sidles up as we get out and thinks about clambering inside, before deciding that discretion is the better part of valour and leaping to the haven of the privets). Last time seeing the unkempt twentysomething commuter we long-ago christened ‘Hairy Harry’ speed past on his knackered bicycle, oblivious to our sniggers. Last time crossing by the station with Michelle the lollipop lady (‘I remember you were just this big, Frankie- and you were so shy you wouldn’t even speak. Do you remember?’). Last time discovering that in the rush of the morning the packing of lunch had been overlooked so supermarket-sweeping it round earlymorning Tescos in search of sausage rolls and multipacks of orange juice. Last time passing the articulated lorry that every Friday morning unloads the entire supply of takeaway Pizza flour for south and central Manchester (or so we have decided) into the cavernous streetcorner food warehouse.
Or today: last day going to school on the train. And because it was the last day going to school on the train, changing at Stockport, arriving too early in M19, and taking a ten-minute loop diversion back to our old street, commenting like a couple of old geezers on changes we’d seen. The butcher’s shop closed down and boarded up; the new nursery opening up in the shop that used to purvey further education and the accoutrements of UK citizenship (‘ESOL: Basic Computer Skills: Immigration Papers; Passport Photos’); trolleyfulls of exotic outsize fruits being unloaded outside the Asian supermarket that used to be a Barclays Bank; hoardings advertising the trendy new Saturday market in the carpark outside Hennigans Sports Bar; newly-minted council-approved graffiti with a pro-recycling theme, adorning the walls under the trainline (that’s actually quite good Daddy, don’t you think?’).
As we took our leave from Lollipop Michelle (‘thank you for all the safe crossings’- ‘ah that’s no bother- good luck now!’) we still have time on our hands. So we pause at several points along Marshall Road, a handsome speedbumped Victorian terrace littered with memories- memories which this morning become exchanged ‘Do you remembers?’:
‘Do you remember the clay dog in that window- we used to pretend it was real!’ (It wasn’t, was it?’)
‘Do you remember that miserable-looking mother we used to pass, we called her ‘Cheerful Charlie’? (‘Was it a boy she had, or a girl’?
‘Do you remember that house- the boiler-smoke used to come out of the basement in the winter mornings, and I used to tell you it was the Headquarters of the Levenshulme branch of the Cuban Mens Cigar Club?‘ (‘I used to believe you!)
‘Do you remember the time I took you in on the front of the scooter, and someone grassed us up, and we got a letter from the Gorton Police, and I had to go round there and pay a £60 fine’ (‘Oh I do!’).
All of this- and as if three months of self-inflicted End-of-Innocence-Longing-For-Times-Past wasn’t enough to cope with, yesterday the three of us also underwent the modern-day ritual of institutionalised mass intergenerational hysteria commonly known as Year Six Leavers Assembly. In the opening section Frankie appeared alongside his best friend Ellie, the boy playing the part of a Geordie collier in a two-minute theatrical piece somehow based on the world-conquering computer game Minecraft (the story was too convoluted for me to explain it here, even if I understood it, but the essential thing for you to know is that he spoke his handful of lines in the manner of the early Vic and Bob characters Donald and Davy Stott, and at one point his character made partisan allusion to the Class Struggle of 1984, drawing nods of appreciation from the smattering of leftwing academics and other Guardian Readers occupying a particular corner of the parents’ section benches).
An hour later, amid scenes of uncorked tearfulness reminiscent of Lady Diana’s funeral, a massed chorus of suddenly terribly vulnerable looking eleven-year-old children were serenading us with the traditional finale: a version of ‘Long Way to Tipperary’ in which the leavers, in ones, twos, and ten-or-mores depending on the intake for each High School, take turns to look forward what lies ahead for them (‘It’s a Long Way to Stretford Grammar’. It’s a Long Way to Levenshulme Girls School’ etc, etc).
Of course, since we have moved away, Frankie is the only one going up to his High School in the far southern suburbs, so is one of several who when it comes to their turn, cuts a lone figure up there. He delivers his cameo with conviction though (and not in the Donald and Davy voice, although I’m sure he considered it). And we look at each other back in our Guardian-Readers-Subsection-Of-The-Parents-Section Benches, and we remember how back in Reception he wouldn’t even let us leave the classroom carpet at 9 o’clock registration until he had literally covered whichever of us was dropping him off from head to toe in tiny, tearstained little kisses. And we think:
‘He’ll be fine. Just fine’.
And so will we. Just- I think we may need six weeks off now, the three of us, if that can be arranged. We would be most very, very grateful to the nation, really we would.