Everyone thinks that the big days are the hardest, Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, but they’re not. The hardest days are those small marks in the calendar that hit you round the back of the head when nobody else is watching. This week has two in quick succession, dedicated to what I considered my key strengths as a parent: reading and feeding them carbs.
Pancake Day was observed with due ceremony, although without Fred’s melodramatic pancake tossing which really was a full body experience.
And now to World Book Day, which has been made even more melancholy by the passing of Shirley Hughes.
I always loved World Book Day, although I pretended I hated it. I bristled at the expectation and I think at one point argued that it was a construct of the patriarchy. However, I was dedicated. My rules were strict, no film characters allowed. If it was a film then the book had to have come first. There would be no Darth Vader on my watch. This always led to some angst as Fred would be completely non-committal and then very insistent about 36 hours before about what he wanted to be. I think we had, Horrid Henry, Oliver Twist, The BFG, The Boy In The Dress, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Poirot. I’m pretty sure I’ve blocked some out, and one year we all breathed a sigh of relief when they had to come in pyjamas.
But it’s World Book Day, not fancy dress day. I loved reading to my children, and Fred loved being read to. He was a master fidgeter and never really sat still long enough to read to himself, but was always happy to listen, often upside down. By contrast my younger son was more than capable of reading himself and once brutally told me that he’d rather have audible than me because Stephen Fry did better voices. Harsh.
Fred loved the Alfie books and we had a set of 5 that we would read over and over again. He delighted in Alfie Gets In First, where Alfie locks himself in the house, causing much panic until he eventually gets a chair and proudly opens the door. Even at a tiny age I think Fred was thrilled by that show of independence.
“The front door suddenly opened and there was Alfie. He had managed to reach the catch and turn it-like that- after all. He was very pleased with himself. He opened the front door as wide as it would go and stood back grandly to let everybody in.”
Alfie and his family were doing ordinary things that felt extraordinary to tiny minds. From Mrs McNally’s Maureen to Bernard’s birthday party, this was the little world he recognised and learnt to make sense of. We also loved Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson and all of the other fantastical worlds, but secretly our hearts belonged to the every day, and those little boots on the wrong feet.
When he was about 11, I read The Secret Garden to him. I made no secret of the fact that this was my favourite book too, but he was happy to indulge. His Dad would pop his head round now and again to snigger at Dickon, and younger son declared my Yorkshire accent sub-standard, but we were happy. Much like Alfie, it’s another story about the magic of the real world, rather than the made up one. Of all the fictional characters, Dickon was definitely the best, a boy with an easy charm who belonged to the outdoors.
“As she came closer to him she noticed that there was a clean fresh scent of heather and grass and leaves about him, almost as if he were made of them. She liked it very much and when she looked into his funny face with the red cheeks and round blue eyes she forgot that she had felt shy.”
Since Fred died, books have been my solace. In grief, some people say they can no longer read, but I have felt the opposite. Reading is pretty much all I can do. Sometimes it’s good to be taken somewhere else, and easier to read other people’s stories, even if they are similar to your own. Fred and I were similar in that we never really liked fantasy; you can keep your Middle-Earth. Even our favourite Roald Dahl was Danny Champion Of The World. There is a truth to be found in the every day that’s hard to recognise on your own. It’s the real world that needs cherishing.
Stories end but they leave something behind, that is to be treasured.