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Understand When You're Older

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“Homework, darling? Can I help?”

His mother spoke as she moved: lightly, gracefully, leaving barely any indelible trace of herself behind. The hand that rested for a second on his shoulder never lingered, lately. Once, long ago, there had been a lap: been fierce, snatching cuddles. But he was not a baby now, as he reminded her too often.

The boy stared at the blank page in front of him. “Don’t know what they meant, giving us this to write about,” he groused, stabbing mutinously at the blotter. The nib of his pen scissored, sending a tiny splash of ink onto his cheek. “Bloody pen,” he continued under his breath, looking sideways to check the half-gratifying, half-shaming arch of her perfect eyebrow. “Sorry.”

She sighed gently. “Well, I should hope so. Did you ask your father?”

His father had been with Veronica, as he always was; Veronica, whom he must always introduce as his older sister even though he could perfectly well remember a time she had not lived with them. They were playing some complicated game with really big sticks, striking and crossing them together like Morris dancers on the village green. Silly. Grownups shouldn’t dance. Had they ever asked him to join them, he’d have said he preferred cricket.

When he told Father of his assignment, the two of them had grinned: that matching smile that made strangers think they really were father and daughter. They’d covered their mouths with an identical gesture, too: Veronica indelicate, snorting, mocking him, Father turning it into a dry cough.

Then they exchanged their look, the one that made the boy feel nervous, elated and excluded all at once. Father’s eyes, brisk and piercing when they appraised his son, as he calmly dealt out praise and blame with scrupulous fairness but no indulgence, were soft and bright. Then he looked at the swords in their rack on the wall and his face closed in a twist of momentary pain. Veronica stood still, watching him intently, basking in his regard and even, it seemed, in his pain. The boy had always been a little afraid of her.

Basking shark.

All of it took only a handful of breaths, until the boy shuffled his feet rather rudely and his father shook himself before asking heartily, his voice too loud in the bare room:

“Well, what do we do when we don’t know something?”

“We look it up,” came the dutiful reply, and off he’d trudged to the Small Study. The Big Study – a keyhole glimpse of dusty, bursting shelves, of tables laden with mysteries – was achingly, itchingly, strictly out of bounds.

Now, Mother’s gaze swept over the selected page of the appropriate volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, spatch-cocked on the table before her clever, stubborn, serious, passionate boy.

“Anything?” It was clear that she was already losing interest in the actual problem. Instead she kissed him quickly on the temple, before he could duck out of her way, and laughed her silvery laugh at having caught him this time. Mother believed in instinct, in action over thought, believed one could be too cautious. She fizzed through life like freshly-poured champagne. In her wake, life gawped open-mouthed like a fish stunned by the loveliness of its lily pond and the blue summer skies… her many admirers, likewise.

At nine, one did not think of one’s own mother as a beauty, no matter how often the idea was repeated. Symmetry and proportion, to be sure: he knew the Golden Ratio, the ideal of classical sculpture, the contest of Aphrodite. They were in the books; but ‘beauty’ in a real, live person was, like the taste of champagne, another of those things – how many there were – which he would apparently “understand when you’re older”.

“It’s no help,” he protested. “How am I supposed to write about…” he waved an inky forefinger at the columns of print “…all that?”

“Oh, darling, I don’t know. Pick just one, perhaps?”

“Mother.” He inhaled sharply and bent over his exercise book, hunching his thin shoulders and trying to sound like his father at his most exasperated. Only Father never spoke to Mother like that. The boy supposed that somehow he put up with the skittish, frivolous, merry wife which fate had bestowed on him, that he simply surrendered to her underhand appeal without a fuss. He touched her often and never minded when she touched him. Perhaps with a moustache and a sprinkling of grey hair, Father didn’t need to worry about being thought a baby quite so much. As if being a gawping fish was better.

Mother and Father: they should have something to do with it, surely. The boy shied away from some of it: from the odd noises in the middle of the night, the rhythmic creak of springs, the sound of his father’s voice calling to God and to Christ, although the family never prayed to either. He passed by those words and on to the others.

It was all so…circular. It all seemed to be about feeling, not thinking; too many verbs and adjectives, not enough nouns. In some places people thought that to name a thing meant to master it, his father had once told him. Humph, the boy thought here and now; some hope.

He settled on a strategy at last. One must have a strategy: in chess, in war, in solving a puzzle. His father had told him that, too. In fact, come to think of it, Father seemed to be the one to pass on almost anything useful to know. He straightened out the nib of the pen as best he could and began to write.

“As far as I can make out, it is what you can fall in, make, take, keep score with, win, lose, or leave. It doesn’t make much sense and it’s a wonder anyone sensible has much to do with it.”

He paused, and became aware of a presence behind him; a tall, gravely amused summing up. His father leaned forward to read what he had written and the boy saw that the corner of his mouth twitched slightly in an effort to restrain himself. Unlike Mother, he tried not to embarrass his son, and he read all his work with care, deliberation and interest.

“You know, I’m not sure I could have put it better myself, Rupert. Well done. Underline the title, now, and don’t forget to use a ruler.”

The boy reached for his pencil box. He positioned the ruler carefully with his right hand and drew a precise line under the single-word title with his left, thus: