Out of the door and back to school


On school days, Eliza is first to leave, before 8am, each morning; and last to return; and first to go out again. Her social life involves up to four different groups of friends. She goes to gym, coaches gym and helps run gym parties. She does dance. And she goes to some gigs and wants to go to a lot more. When she’s at home, there’s a soft strumming from her bedroom as she continues to learn to play the acoustic guitar.


On school days, Gabe is last to leave and often the first back home. In year 13, school hours seem less rigid. He is working hard but regularly needs help with composing his thoughts into writing. This was felt most acutely when up against a fictitious deadline for his University application personal statement. Both L and I were implored to give him ideas, help him word them and over again. Eventually, it was done, but with great dollops of self-doubt.


On school days, Robin heads out the door after one and before the other of his siblings. So far, it appears as though this year he is more settled at school. It may be because his classes have been streamed. It could be because he’s no longer in the most junior year. It might also be a change of attitude on his part – an openness to his fellow pupils, in place of his prior tendency to dismiss almost all as ‘annoying’, ‘weird’ or ‘idiots’.


A gallery, water-park and a Tudor house

The children’s interests have diverged, but I was even more conscious of the lack of pleasure they take in each other’s company. For the sake of harmony, I took three successive Fridays off work – each to spend with one of the kids at a place of their choice.


Eliza was first and didn’t have strong views about what we should do. I suggested, with her GCSE art course looming, a visit to a gallery. We settled on Liverpool and my research took us to the Walker. Although she loves doing her own art, Eliza acknowledged she didn’t know much about the subject, or even what she liked. We wandered through the 20th Century gallery, pointing out what appealed to us (for me, a Freud portrait). Then we found some paper and pencils to take on the challenge of sketching jugs selected from a painting of a dozens of jugs in a loft.

The older paintings, other than the Impressionists, held less interest, so we went to the 2018 Moores Painting Prize Gallery. We looked really hard to find something we liked, but failed.

Eliza chose Nando’s for lunch, where she chattered and bubbled like the little girl she used to be.


I took Robin and his friend A, to a water-park. We lunched on Subways – 12 inches allowed – before entering the indoor park which by early afternoon was heaving with holiday children. We toured the pool, tried the lively lazy river, the simplest of slides and braved the outside pool, before dashing back inside.

After an hour, the boys decided to queue for one of the major slides. For the next two hours, they moved from queue to slide to queue, before returning for a waffle by which time we were almost the last to leave as the centre was being tidied up and closed. In the car on the way home, Robin dropped off to sleep.


Gabe wanted to go somewhere historical, so complete has been his evolution into a serious student of history. I offered a couple of options, but then settled on Little Moreton Hall, the archetype of a Tudor mansion.

We walked the public areas of this odd, rambling but beautiful building. Gabe, unlike every other visit to somewhere of cultural interest, showed no impatience, content to wander, read and discuss. We took the guided tour, which answered our questions about who, when and how this hall had come about. I had expected Gabe to be unkind about the guide’s laboured jokes, but I was wrong. We had lunch in the tight, little restaurant with a curious menu – Gabe finding only a scone appealing.


Silver Coast and Lisbon

While Britain roasted, the four of us who travelled to Portugal found mostly sunny, temperate weather, which kept us active and outdoors more than had it been very hot. Robin was attracted to water, spending the most time in our villa’s pool and was the first in the sea or lagoon at each beach we visited.

Robin was insulated against the cold of the water. I joined him on an inflatable assault course that we had to swim to in the bay of a local resort. It was a cloudy late afternoon and clambering around, splashing in and out of the sea, I soon felt the chill. Eventually, taking pity on me, he agreed we should swim back, where I needed layers of clothes and tea to recover.

Robin and Eliza had two long surf lessons, the second of which took place amongst waves taller than them. Both progressed from their first lesson in France last year and quickly managed to stand as the wave swept them towards the beach. It thrilled them and left them exhausted.

Sight-seeing trips were much better-humoured than last year’s, with Robin sticking tightly to L or I. Eliza only protested at a march around the ramparts of Sintra’s hill-top Moorish fort and sat alone listening, I assume, to music. But a similar trip to Obidos, walking the medieval wall of the the village was approached enthusiastically by all.

A thread of anxiety ran through Robin’s holiday: the flight and difficulty sleeping. In Lisbon, over the final two days of the holiday, he worried about earthquakes. But we found the city benign, albeit noisy at night around our apartment in the traditional Alfama district. He added Benfica’s Stadium of Light to the list of major stadia he has visited. Eliza left with an attachment to nata, the Portuguese custard tart.

Flying to Portugal (or not)

Fear of flying (Gabe’s and Robin’s) meant that the holiday was put out for consultation with the kids at the turn of the year. “We will go somewhere we can reach by train, if you prefer,” they were reassured. Portugal got the go ahead.

In the weeks running up to our departure (the first day after schools broke up for summer), Gabe began to raise objections, in an ‘on and off’ fashion. L and I had a ‘final’ discussion with him on Thursday evening, two days before departure: “tell us now, or never.” He reluctantly agreed. But the agonised discussion recurred the following evening and eventually Gabe opted not to come – if he could stay with his Grandpa, which kindly, at barely two days’ notice, he agreed.

Four of us left on Saturday afternoon for the airport, with Gabe at home awaiting the return from holiday of Auntie S and family, who then took him back to Scotland with them on Monday.

Robin coped with the flight, but was highly anxious before the plane took off, settling once we were airborne and needing to grip L’s hand throughout.

Up in Scotland, Gabe studied and seemed to find a daily rhythm that complemented his Grandpa’s routine. He also had time with Auntie S and family as well as Alistair and Emily. He returned home a day before us, travelling from Scotland alone. The fraught decision to forego his holiday seemed to deliver a timely experience of independence.

University visits


In the space of two weeks, Gabe visited Oxford, Durham and Cambridge. The second he disliked. At Oxford and Cambridge, he attended sessions on applying for history and took in as many small, central and traditional colleges as his patience would allow. Oxford is his preferred destination. I asked if he could explain why. “No,” he said – he couldn’t put it into words. He seems both realistic about his chances and motivated to give it his best effort.

Amongst all the sights of academic excellence and ancient architecture, my strongest memory of the visits was from the very start of our journey to Oxford. To Gabe’s annoyance, I said we would take the tram to Piccadilly Station. As the tram pulled in, he baulked and like a nervous horse, refused the ‘obstacle’. I spoke quietly, but urgently to him and when the next tram came, he put aside his fears and stepped on board. 45 minutes later, we took our seats on the train to Oxford. A teenage girl sat on the seat to our right. She was being fussed over by her Mother, prior to travelling alone. My phone buzzed. There was a text from Gabe, stating just ‘Home schooled’. The swing from highly anxious to contemptuous had taken less than one hour.


Eliza’s Duke of Edinburgh expedition took place on one of the hottest weekends of this hot summer. The supervisors made a humane concession, relaxing the requirement that the participants carry everything they will need with them, by providing supplies of water at their check-points.

Eliza’s group didn’t repeat the navigational mistakes that saw them fail their practice expedition. On Sunday they rose early, left camp an hour ahead of schedule, made good time and arrived hours before they were expected. Eliza was lying on the ground, tired and bored when we pulled up, almost three hours after the expedition ended.


Robin won two awards at his school presentation event. One for being part of the league-winning football team and the other for being the best cricketer. He was unimpressed that they were not ‘proper’ awards. More to his liking was the day he spent at the Chill Factor skiing, snowboarding and tobaganning as part of a select group of students rewarded for their achievements during the academic year.



Robin and I joined his football team and their Dads on a weekend trip to central Ireland, via Dublin airport, where they took part in a competition.

Robin was anxious before and during the flight, grasping my hand. After some raucous play in our mid-refurbishment hotel annex, I persuaded him to bed. The next day, his team played four 40 minute matches, winning two (Robin scored and set up the goals in the first game), losing the final. Back at the hotel the boys and I went swimming. A loud face-off with some American boys ended peacefully. Later I again managed to persuade him to bed while some lads and dads continued partying.

Sunday started slowly: we arrived an hour late for the football match but still had time to burn before returning to the airport, where our flight was delayed three hours, intensifying Robin’s anxiety about flying. We were back in Manchester after 11pm.


After several weeks of volunteering at gymnastics (ref: Duke of Edinburgh award) with a group of younger girls, Eliza was offered the chance for some paid employment. She has started helping out at the parties hosted by the gymnasium. The first few sessions were unpaid ‘try-outs’, which she passed and now earns c£4/hr (£8 per party). Last Sunday, she assisted at three back-to-back parties. She works with a shifting crew of gym people, meaning roles change and a fair amount of improvisation is needed to keep the party beneficiaries happy.


We bought Gabe insurance to drive L’s car on his provisional licence. L was the first to take him out – to the local tram park and ride car park. He stalled the car and got frustrated with it not being the same as the car in which he has his lessons. By the third trip he had managed to start without stalling and seemed to be progressing. I asked him to pull into a parking bay. Slowly, he turned the car so it was between the lines, but kept going, up the kerb, over the shrub that borders one part of the car park from the next then down the kerb an into the next section. He was shaken, “not good, not good” he kept saying. We deduced he had forgotten to depress the clutch when trying to stop.

Two ticks


Two ticks – but not a mark of approval. L noticed a black speck on Robin’s upper arm as he lay in bed at his Grandpa’s house. She brushed it gently, but it didn’t come off. It was a tick – one of two that had half-buried themselves in his skin. Robin refused to eat breakfast before the ticks were removed as he didn’t want to feed the creatures. NHS Direct recommended a visit to A&E; the local pharmacy offered nothing. Auntie S suggested the vet, where her cat had been de-ticked. Robin was increasingly upset, walking around town bare-chested. The vet’s receptionist sold a pet tick removal device, which Auntie S successfully used to extract the parasitic insects.


The half-term holiday visit to Scotland allowed Gabe to visit two universities that he is considering: Edinburgh and St Andrews. The former, which we wandered around, he found reasons to dislike. St Andrews, around which he was taken on a tour, was much more positively received: old buildings, a university town (rather than a town with a university). He also likes the idea of the four year degree, with the first two years studying three subjects.


Eliza, setting to one side her recent indie-pop tastes, went to the Etihad Stadium to see Ed Sheeran. She was thrilled by the experience, although vague about what the concert had been like. She was a bit more specific about the taxi-driver, who had served time for manslaughter, who drove her, her friend and her family home.