Somewhere outside of Cheadle Hulme, a weekday morning just before Christmas. Me and Frankie have been darting excitedly round Marks and Spencers foodhall, picking up the wherewithal for a packed lunch, for later consumption by the boy in a well-earned break from the school choir’s marathon annual fundraising day out, an event which shamelessly targets Cheshire’s well-to-do grocery shopping set with seven flat-out hours of angelic if amateurish flashmob-serenading via the medium of the more hummable Christmas Carols, for the express purpose of emptying their already-sherry-loosened purses of small change (all donations gratefully received in the choirmistress’s rattling bucket; going rate for a single waveringly falsetto interpretation of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, £4.75, and we’re robbing ourselves, Squire, we really are). In the queue for the checkout, the well-to-do lady behind us pipes up:
‘Ah now that is lovely to see. A father still holding his boy’s hand, even though he’s a little bit older. You should never stop, you know’.
I hadn’t realised, but of course we are holding hands, as we have done ever since he’s been capable of walking along beside me- it’s become second nature to both of us, even if nowadays, especially on home turf where there may be other Frankie-sized-or-slightly-bigger children about, it is more a coy, intermittent touching of the fingers than the full-blown hotfingered clutching-on-for-dear-life of the toddler years. One of these days though (and it will surely be soon, he’s officially a teenager in February and that is not a category of person famed for public displays of affection, at least not with their parents) I will realise the handholding just doesn’t happen any more. And I won’t (neither of us will, I suppose) remember exactly when the last time was that it did happen. The occasion will simply have passed us by.
Last times. Unheralded, insignificant-at-the-time-seeming, only appreciated for what they were after the event, if at all. There must have been, now that I come to think of it, plenty of them already, left scattered carelessly behind us in the seemingly-ever accelerating helter-skelter of our day-to-day. When, for example, was the last time I pushed him on a set of regulation park swings? It might have been last Easter Sunday up in Kendal, his patently-now-too-long legs causing the trainers to scuff across the tarmac, so we gave up and went running up and down the skateboard slopes instead, quite perilously actually, we damn near broke our necks. Or it might have been later in the summertime, a now-forgotten/ less eventful July afternoon at the usual place, up by the Middlewood Canal. Or somewhere else entirely.
The point is, I, we, can’t be sure- will never know now, because we weren’t watching out for the last time, the same way we of course watched out for all the first times (the first words, the first walk, the first day at big school: red letter days, commemorated in photographs or on video, greeted with excited phonecalls to relations far and wide, venerated in the family history, ever to be recalled with advancing nostalgia, to the point you’re not actually sure if what you are recalling is the event itself, or the story you have lovingly created of the event. ‘Do you remember the first time…’)
And there will be more of these last times. Plenty more. So maybe I should, as my workplace coach (yes, we have such things, here in Guardian-reader’s-not-for-profit- job territory) once said about something entirely unrelated, ‘set a filter’. Semiconsciously look out for potential Frankie last times, in other words, catch them unawares as they helter-skelter by, in order to be able to appreciate them in the moment, just for what they are, nothing more, nothing less.
Some starters for ten, then, in no particular order:
Last time buying him an item of child’s clothing on a whim (Charlotte’s territory really, the outfitting of the boy, but I do like to pick him up the odd rakish mod-style shirt from the supermarket aisles, the sort of thing Paul Weller might wear, if he was twelve, and the sort of thing I’d buy for myself, if the boy children’s clothing section went up to age 48-50, which due to some incredible oversight on the part of Sainsbury’s marketing department, it doesn’t).
Last time sledging down a hill (this morning, a scream from the downstairs; I thought he’d fallen out the window, or apprehended a burglar over his cornflakes . Turned out it was a scream of delight: the BBC were forecasting heavy snow for Hazel Grove and points South). Come to think of it: last time he’ll scream with delight at the prospect of snow (not betting on this one anytime soon, he’s smitten).
Last time hearing him unconsciously getting pieces of English wrong in ways that we’re not about to correct him on because- well they’re quite appealing and silly and of course altogether harmless and he’ll work it all out in the end of his own accord. We’re not in the days of ‘A-Z of Frankie’ anymore obviously, now that we no longer read to him at bedtime (when was the last time that happened, by the way?). Instead he reads himself to sleep with a Bronte, or with one of the more challenging Thomas Hardy novels, borrowed from the school library. But there are still just the odd occasions when you are reminded that the whole acquisition of the old native language thing is still a work in progress. Little giveaway grammatical slips, like talking to a proficiency-level exchange student over the dinner table. ‘I like these mince better than the ones from yesterday’. Or (a new development) experimental overuse of multisyllabic words picked up God-knows-where (probably from the Brontes) essayed scattergun-style in response to random televisual stimuli. This week’s is ‘predominantly’, as in ‘predominantly, they say it’s going to snow in Buxton on Friday’, or ‘I’m not supporting either of these teams, but predominantly slightly Tottenham’.
The last time he wakes up with a scream from some pre-teen nightmare and, after wandering fevered and dazed around the house, gulping in great gutfuls of air and begging for the windows to be opened (when he wakes up from a nightmare, which happens only once every few months thankfully, he thinks for a few moments he can’t breathe, and we have to stroke his head and speak soothingly to him until he comes back to earth, in between wondering if we should actually call an ambulance) he climbs into the the security of the middle of our bed for the rest of the night, there to sleep very soundly indeed, as if nothing has happened (and indeed, he won’t remember anything about it the next morning).
That last one I’m putting in as it just happened a couple of paragraphs back there, before I’d had a chance to even remember it was a potential for the shortlist and set one of these here patent filters.
Tricky business, this last-time-devining, what with the helter-skelter being an unrelenting 24/7 operation, and not one for the faint-hearted at that. Well, we can only try. Do us a favour, and wish us luck as we venture into this last furlong or so of ‘last times’, would you be so kind as to be so kind?