Every End Is A New Beginning

Either her mum – if she was taking the boy to football – would drop her off, or I would drive the mile through the park to collect her. For a while, I themed our dinners by colour. Accidentally at first, a game we stumbled upon because of orange week – the week we had smoked haddock with sweet potato chips followed by a passion fruit Solero while walking up Calton Hill. Then, by design, came green night (guacamole, Thai green curry, kiwi fruit), and then beige week. Beige is easy, there are endless options for beige: pasta, chicken, rice, mash, bread. Enormously forgiving as to what I’d serve up, once she even agreed to Fish Finger Bhorta, something I’d seen Nigella make on television, knew it had the potential to look like cat sick, but decided to go for it anyway.

Dinner would be on when she arrived, and our routine flowed from there: homework or exam study, a post-dinner walk (if the weather allowed), news from the world of being a teenager, some television, a supper of yoghurt, fruit and honey, and then I’d leave out the makings of breakfast to maximise my morning time in bed. This was the shape of the weekly sleepover. It broke up the drudge, diluted her dread of going to school. For some youngsters school is drudge, it doesn’t suit them, they have something of an anaphylactic reaction to it. I was the opposite, loved school, leaving was a rupture. People are different. She’s leaving now and it is no rupture; for her it is rapture.

Trips to Toppings, our local independent bookshop, featured large on sleepover nights. Open until nine every evening, on winter nights we were often the only customers. Both of us loved this quiet time – wandering from room to room, scanning book spines, reading opening pages of novels. She’d tell me about her cottage, chicken coop in the back garden, rambling rose over the front door, inside, a small but replete floor-to-ceiling library with a stepladder on wheels and runners attached to the highest shelves. I’d tell her everyone must first imagine the life they want before it can happen, that she’s halfway to making it happen.

Our lives are built on routine, much of it a lot less pleasurable than these sleepovers. In 1998 I worked for the Lottery in Belfast. We were based in Hill Street, behind St Anne’s Cathedral, before that part of the city was regenerated. It felt desolate and abandoned, particularly the small lockup car park we used. I drove a tinny maroon Peugeot 106, had to get out from behind the wheel on dark winter mornings, often in the rain, engine still running, unpadlock the gate, drag it open, trudge back to the car, avoid the muddy-puddled holes, park, then pull the heavy gate closed and lock it behind me. I found the whole procedure an interminable drag, never mind the day in the office ahead of me. Once, a shadow drove off in Anne Flynn’s car as she was opening the gate, after that we were told to cut the engine and lock our cars while we opened the gate. Never mind the car, what about us, I remember thinking. I also remember dreaming about the day I would no longer work there and wouldn’t have to subject myself to the routine. I could not wait for it to come to an end, and when I moved on, I didn’t miss it.

I know with certainty, however, that I will miss these sleepovers. Reading poems, practicing violin, making time-lapse films on her phone while I cooked, knocking her door at half eleven to tell her to turn the light off – “I’ll just finish this one page”.

On the morning drive to school, I’d say the same thing at the same point. My sermon on the joy of the present moment would begin at the roundabout by the Parliament. “Blessed. We are blessed to drive through the centre of this historic city on our way to school. Look at these ancient buildings! And this pink sky! Look at Arthur’s Seat! Look at that girl with the dog in her backpack!” So distracted was I by looking here, there and everywhere, that one morning I failed to look at the red light before me and I sailed through a busy junction to a crescendo from the horn section. Sirens followed; the police had been behind me – my present moment noticing had not extended to seeing them. I was pulled in, my licence checked, and gently chastised, while my passenger delighted in what she has since christened the ‘school-run-car-chase’.

Every time we approached the school (bar the day of the school-run-car-chase), at the junction of Hope Park Terrace with Melville Drive, she would turn to me and say: “We could just go to a café. You could do your writing and I could read. Drop me in late. Please. I only have double maths.” And for a split second I’d consider it, then I’d drop her at the school gates.

She may not miss school now she has left it for something new, but I will.

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