Robin’s birthday came and so did his agonisingly chosen guests – three from his new school, two from his old. They had an hour at Inflatanation – bouncing in a warehouse of inflated shapes. Two mobile phones were lost and both found. At home, sitting down for tea, without the outlet of physical activity, some awkwardness returned, but fortunately new friend T is garrulous and kept the chatter going. Robin was happy with his birthday, signing off with a sleepover for old friend A. A week later, and Robin has invited his first school friend, M, home after school, and they had a kickabout in the garden.


Eliza’s school PE class was set a challenge: do as many sit-ups as you can, keeping time with a ticking clock. Eliza stopped in the 80s, but could have continued. She was conscious that the rest of the class, all having given up, were looking at her. Her legs were a bit wobbly afterwards, she conceded.


Gabe has been making slow progress with his 5,000 word extended essay (aka EPQ), on 60s music and social change, which is due for submission in March. He asked me to read the first 1,500 words. He is stuck trying to unpick what was a cause of social change and what was an example of social change. Access to abortion, he points out, was a social change and created social change. ‘Spot on’, I reply. But he wants certainty and clarity not real world ambiguity.




The invitation came in contemporary style – by snapchat – and on the day before Cousin I’s wedding. Would Eliza act as ring-bearer? There was mention of the symbolism of Eliza fulfilling this role at the same location where Cousin I had been Eliza’s Mum’s bridesmaid. Eliza saw the message on the way out of school. She was thrilled and nervous.

She was handed the rings shortly before the wedding and went to leave the house without them, before being reminded. At the ceremony, she sat away from us, in the second row. She looked, I thought, a little twitchy amongst unfamiliar people and experiencing an unfamiliar rite. But she stood and delivered the rings on time – slender, angular, stylish, a girl not quite in or out of her place.


Gabe endured the wedding with a heavy cold. He barely slept the night in the hotel when we arrived in London. But he kept going through the day and long into the evening, asking gently when we might be returning to the hotel. And as we drove around Richmond in the hired van, he made his contribution to the celebrations with a jaunty playlist.


Through the early weeks of January, L and I have tried to nail down a party for Robin’s birthday. Still anxious about friends at his new school and those who have gone to other schools, this has tested him. He came up with names and an event was agreed. But he hesitated over asking anyone but his best friend, A – presumably fearing being turned down. With barely a week to go, he asked his three school friends, managed to get a parent’s contact number, and got positive responses.


New Year’s Eve Quiz

The pinnacle of our New Year’s celebrations wasn’t the fireworks, Auld Lang Syne or Big Ben’s bongs. It was a quiz in five rounds.

The day’s build-up to the quiz included a game of squash for Gabe and me; a City match on TV; a trip to see Wonder at the cinema; and a dinner of pizza and curry.

We began quizzing mid-evening. Each of us had researched (or made up) questions on a different topic. The competition was keen, with only Robin’s interest wavering towards the end.

Round 1, posed by L, was on geography. Two rivers that run through Aberdeen? Standing in Paris, are you nearer Edinburgh or Rome? Which former state of the Soviet Union is last in the alphabet, etc.

Round 2, with Robin as quiz-master, concerned sport. Where was Bob Beamon’s long-jump record broken? How many countries were represented in gymnastics at the Rio Olympics.

Round 3, facilitated by Eliza, probed knowledge of popular culture. Marilyn Monroe’s real name? Which TV programme from the 1980s featuring a small rodent has been brought back in 2017?

Round 4, saw Gabe test our musical knowledge, with five second excerpts of songs for us to identify. The music ranged from Bill Haley to Ed Sheeran and Robert Wagner.

Round 5 was my cryptic family quiz and included: Who kept seeing violet [Violett]? Who came back to meet [meat] old acquaintances? Who went without insects in the ear for a month? Who gave up the chair for someone who wasn’t elderly, infirm or pregnant? (Answers: Robin, Eliza, Gabe, L)

We also talked about ambitions or resolutions for the New Year. Robin wants ‘to persistently get 4’s in English’ – his preferred school subject and equivalent to a grade C at GCSE while still in his first year of secondary school. Gabe wants to improve how he plays Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ and progress to piano grade six. Eliza had already acknowledged wanting ‘to do more and spend less time on her phone in her room,’ as well as eat more fruit for breakfast.

We finished in time for midnight. Robin asked me to come upstairs with him as he didn’t like New Year’s celebrations, explaining that the countdown to New Year worried him that something bad would happen. With Gabe, we played some indoor cricket in Robin’s room, while Eliza and L watched Ed Sheeran on TV.

Christmas at home but not alone

We were at home from the end of school to the children’s return in the New Year. Eliza made a few breaks from the house – ‘going into town’ with school or gymnastics friends. Robin met up with his friend A and even came on a walk with L and me. Gabe went to a City game. We all went to a Christmas carol concert, a friends’ party and a pub to meet friends from out of town. There were also games of badminton, squash, football in the garden and, on one dry day, tennis.

At home, but not alone. We hosted three partly overlapping waves of visitors: grandparents, uncle, aunt and cousin, and Wirral friends. Gabe, Eliza and Robin each acted splendidly as hosts. Eliza, in particular, gave up her bedroom for much of the holiday without evident complaint.

On Christmas morning, we gathered in Robin’s room to open stockings. After the children opened theirs, we produced a fourth stocking for L. Each of us had contributed (Eliza with most imagination and commitment), following the pattern of their stocking contents to the point of a favourite fruit – in this case an avocado. It symbolised for me a very happy Christmas break, with L receiving a small return from the rest of us for all the work she put into the whole occasion.



A teacher training day fell on the day after Eliza’s birthday giving her the perfect opportunity for an evening birthday party at home. Seven or eight friends arrived – one girl as tall as I am. They sat and chatted in high-pitched voices, laughed, ate pizza, played with their phones, occasionally bust into song, accompanying something being played on someone’s phone. It was a great success.


Gabe attended GCSE awards evening where he and his classmates collected their exam certificates. A local MP and school alumna gave the address. Gabe received a faculty award. It could only have been more unlikely had it been Food Tech. It turned out that the boy who lies around for hour after hour, shirks exercise and has left his GCSE courses much less fit than he started, won the PE award.


Robin, following Gabe’s lead, returns from school and keeps wearing his school uniform through the evening. Even when we’re going out, as we did tonight to Eliza’s gymnastics competition, he chooses to keep on his blazer, tie and trousers. When finally, it’s time to get ready for bed, the blazer comes off and is tossed to the floor. L & I are trying, without much impact, to instil in him the habit of removing his blazer and hanging it up.

Michael Lewis


When I realised L would be away for Michael Lewis’s talk in Manchester, I offered the spare ticket to Gabe. Later it occurred to me that Eliza had expressed an interest in studying psychology, so proposed she come with me. She was never more than lukewarm about the idea and said she thought it would be “weird” for a child to go. Finally, on the day of the talk, she agreed to come with me to the Manchester University lecture hall. 

As she feared, it did seem she would be the only child in an audience of students and adults. But I spotted a girl of about her age sitting with her mother – five minutes later I turned and saw the mother pointing Eliza and me out to her daughter. 

Lewis spoke about his book on Kahneman and Tversky, two Israeli psychologists, for an hour, providing long fluent and entertaining answers to five or six questions from the presenter; and then took audience questions for 30 minutes. I found it fascinating. Even more rewarding was that Eliza was just as positive, to a degree that probably surprised her. We chatted about the talk all the way home, swapping examples and stories Lewis told that had interested or amused us. She also declared that she would definitely opt to study psychology for GCSE.


Robin seems more settled at school, but generally adrift and prone to be unhappy. News stories, or things he reads or hears about upset him. L came home early from book group when he called her distraught about an article reporting that Stephen Hawking said the world would be destroyed in 600 years. 

More prosaically he is struggling to make an impact in his football team. For the first time, he’s spending as much time off the pitch as a substitute as he is on it. He is being played in different positions – striker, central midfield – having played wide left for most of last season, but hasn’t really convinced the coaches anywhere and is convinced that he is unpopular with one of the coaches.


Gabe is thinking about university. He has been considering which universities he might wand to apply to, studying lists of top institutions. Oxford, Durham, St Andrews and Edinburgh are in his thoughts. I pointed out that the work experience he must do next summer may become important for his application statement. We identified places he might work at that would demonstrate his interest in history: local university history departments, museums and places of historical interest. He has written a few emails, received a few refusals, but not yet got on the phone to chase up an opportunity.

Bedroom cricket


Gabe and Robin invented the format during the summer holiday – a concession to activity when they were at their most idle. The three of us play (Eliza and L, on occasions, too) but more commonly now it’s Gabe and me. The playing area is the length of Robin’s bedroom. We use a windball and a size 2 bat. Most ingeniously, the stumps are a pair of jeans hung from mattress tipped on its side.

Robin’s carpet makes the game. It takes turn – Warne-like turn for the well-spun delivery. And, given that there is no straight-arm restriction on ‘bowling’ the game is all about turning the ball, or as a batsman, countering that turn. 


Returning home from work, it might be thirty minutes before Robin registers my presence and appears. Usually, he’s in the living room or his bedroom, interacting with his phone. Recently, I reminded him that when he was younger he would run to the hall when he heard me come in the door from work and hug my knees. “Really?” He said. “I’ll do that again.” True to his word, last week, one evening as I came in the front-door, Robin burst from the living room and hugged me. Possibly, a little ironically, but appreciated nonetheless. 


Eliza hosted a sleepover of gymnastics friends. It followed a gymnastics evening, which may have raised hopes that the girls would be tired. We set up two single and a double mattress for the five friends to sleep on in the living room. The rest of the family went upstairs to bed. The girls’ chatter and laughter carried on. Around midnight, the first text from upstairs was sent to Eliza, instructing her to quieten her guests. More agitated texts followed as the hours passed. Eventually, after 3am there was silence in the house.