Getting on board
I sank thankfully into an empty seat after a half-day wandering around the city. Why are art galleries so tiring? My stamina is not what it used to be and I was looking forward to a quiet doze for about half an hour during the train journey. I had deliberately chosen a train ahead of turning out time from school. After many years of working with children and young people I regret that I now try to avoid close proximity with large numbers of them in unstructured situations, especially in enclosed spaces.
So it was with mixed feelings that I watched a young couple and their two little boys settle around the table across the gangway. My fear was that the children’s piping voices would drive away all possibility of sleep. However, they were two of the most attractive-looking children I had seen in a long time. A quick glance at the young couple suggested that they had probably inherited their father’s genes for physical features.
My guess was that they were about 3 and 5 years old. They were dressed like identical twins and seemed to be very well cared for physically. They also seemed to be quite subdued and the older one responded to my smile with solemn blankness.
As the journey progressed I began to realise that I had no need to worry about their piping voices. Instead we were all treated to a constant stream of negative instructions from father. Neither parent used the boys’ names, although if I had been a foreigner I could easily have thought they were called Stop and Don’t, because this was how nearly every remark to them started.
Mother produced a kiddies’ magazine, which the older one tried to read, or at least look at in an organised way. The younger boy obviously felt left out and started to pull at the gaudy pages across the table. The parents had rightly, perhaps, put one boy on each side, so that an adult could keep them hemmed in and perhaps to stop them fighting. Sadly it also meant that they could not look at the pictures together. One had to wait for a turn. The other got irritated at ‘his’ magazine being pulled about. Whining and squalling broke out. Father, at a much higher rate of decibels, ordered Stop and Don’t to be quiet.
Mother was quiet and seemed exhausted. She and father exchanged the odd comment, careful not to be heard by the boys. Father tried a bit of engaging by pointing to passing things which he thought might be of interest, but tired and tetchy seemed to be the order of the day for all four. By now my own tiredness was forgotten and I longed to connect and maybe get the boys involved in that ageless standby ‘I spy with my little eye’, normally guaranteed to last for several miles on any journey, or even venture into a corrupted rendition of the ‘The wheels on the bus’, suitably changed to suit the train.
Sadly both boys seemed to avoid eye contact and when I did manage to be seen I got that awful blankness in response again. So I closed my eyes. These days you make direct overtures to other peoples’ children at your peril. I did not want to become a stranger suspected of posing a danger. But sweet little Stop and Don’t just kept getting a lot of instructions from dear old dad.
He seemed not a little annoyed by his partner’s lack of contribution to the situation. After another under the breath exchange she produced two boxes from her shopping bag. They each contained a knight in armour on horse back. I know this because I could see through the cellophane sides of the boxes. So could Stop and Don’t, and that is all they were allowed to do. A knight on horse back doesn’t actually gallop too well across a table while he is inside a box. But cellophane does buckle, if not pop altogether, when poked by pointy little fingers. Stop and Don’t were warned severely about the roof of the world falling in if they continued to try to connect with their toys in this way. The children made quiet little galloping noises. Father gave much louder warnings to be quiet, which the whole carriage heard. Both parents were looking more and more worn out and the tension between the two was mounting.
I well remember that feeling of utter bone-aching tiredness, when more than anything you want some ‘me time’, some stimulating adult interests and conversation, some light at the end of the tunnel. Somehow we have clung to this idea that young parents know what to do by instinct. At one time a lot of young parents did have some better idea of what to do, having grown up in sprawling extended families and having been given responsibilities for caring for younger siblings and cousins. But now never mind if you never had any contact with small children before you got your own: it is still assumed that it comes naturally. Sadly I know from experience that it does not.
Even now, when the Government has decreed that there should be parenting classes and has thrown money at Sure Start and other such programmes, there are a lot of people stifling creativity and positive learning for young children, because they don’t know any better and don’t have the imagination themselves to turn a boring train journey into a fun time.
I say this in no way posing as an ‘expert’. I feel that I ought to apologise to my own sons regularly for being so obsessed with making them acceptable in public in their early years that we missed a lot of fun together.
In the end I heaved a sigh of relief when this little family got off a couple of stations ahead of me. I was by now quite irritated, but not by the children, which had been my original fear, but by a father who no doubt felt he was doing his best, by keeping the children subdued. In reality it was his own attempts to do this which created more noise and nuisance, not to mention causing me to reflect with regret yet again on my own lack of parenting skills as a young mother, and on the social expectation that it is up to parents to control and bring up their children without the involvement of other adults.