‘Hey! You’re not even waving!’ Annie’s voice had an air of authority, but with a wry undertone. She was wearing the biggest smile and waving frantically as we walked past the window of 1 Croft Road.
‘Oh, sorry!’ I was suddenly ripped from my mini mind-drift and gave a clumsy left-handed wave to the bush, having missed the opportunity to wave at the window, hoping that I had done enough to redeem myself. I watched my daughter’s black lace-up brogues match the stride of my fuchsia-pink mid-tops as we sauntered on, past the garden frontages.
‘She wasn’t there, anyway.’ Annie remarked.
‘Oh! Why did you tell me off for not waving then?’ I asked, feigning disbelief and upset.
“Because she might have been in her back chair which means she can see you but you can’t see her.’
Insightful. Deft detective work. Perhaps a calling to The Met?
‘So,’ she continued, ‘whether she is there or not, you still have to wave.’ Playful yet purposeful. Her delivery reminded me of a teacher who was always firm but fair.
I glanced over my shoulder, squinting in the sunlight, to see the next batch of people turning the corner: smiles fixed, heads locked to the left, hands waving. It was amazing how, despite no visible person in the window, people still waved because, as you descended the small slope of Croft Road and approached The Bungalow that’s just what you did. I tried to remember when it had begun. Did we see others doing it and follow suit or did we glance at the window, see the lady waving and simply wave back?
I noticed a band of white-grey cloud drifting towards the sun, threatening to dim its light and steal the warmth it had already faithfully bestowed upon the village of Redborough.
‘Excuuuuuse me,’ a voice from behind us shouted. Annie and I stepped to one side and let scooter-boy pass. ‘Thank youuuuuuuu.’
‘Do you know, Mummy, he forgets his reading diary EVERY week?’ Observant. Diligent. Journalist?
‘Who was it?’ I asked, trying to fathom the helmet-wearing child.
‘Toby. He’s in year five but is in my athletics club with the year sixes ’cause he’s so fast.’
‘Mmmm, you’re not wrong! He’ll be getting his first speeding ticket if he’s not careful on that scooter.’
She giggled. That sound. Magic. Right there, I wanted to capture it. I thought about one of those little boxes that plays music when you flip the lid up, the type in which you might keep a special pair of earrings or daily medication. I imagined Annie’s laugh in place of the music – available on demand – and swiftly lowered my sunglasses from the top of my head onto the bridge of my nose.
Two dog walkers, dressed in almost identical khaki shorts, white tees and robust-looking sandals with bum belts around their waists, walked up the slope towards us, their almost identical-looking dogs lingering behind them, sniffing at the daisies on the grass verge.
‘Good morning!’ I gave a collective greeting that sounded more ‘Oklahoma!’ than ‘Monday-morning-school-run’. They responded with equally cheery hellos.
‘Who are they?’ Annie asked in a whisper.
‘Oh, I don’t actually know them. Just two ladies that I usually see on my way home from school but maybe they decided to do something different this morning.’
‘Or maybe their dogs got up early and demanded to be walked!’ Annie chimed in, raising her arm as though holding up a protest sign. Forthright. An activist? Campaigner for social change?
She tightened her ponytail and I wondered how many times I had brushed her hair. The style was the same as my own at that age; waist-length, fringeless, golden brown, silky – unfrizzable. It changed the shape of her face depending on how she wore her hair on a particular day. I delved into the ‘baby pictures album’ in my memory bank and dug out the photo of her lying in the Moses basket, swaddled in a pale pink baby blanket with her little head poking out of the top. At that time, I had often wondered what she would look like ten years from then. I just wanted a glimpse, a sneak preview. But here we now were, almost in the eleventh year, having experienced the full-length, decade-long feature film of that swaddled baby.
Her hand found mine and our fingers interlocked effortlessly, like the Lego bricks we used to play with together.
‘Let’s cross over,’ I guided her towards the roadside.
‘I want to check out the posters in the library window. It’s their Summer Reading Challenge.’
We let a cyclist pass, followed by a Royal Mail van, and walked up the little path to the entrance where it looked as though the library staff had been busy with their art supplies. The whole window was adorned with fish made from vibrant coloured tissue paper: a huge octopus with crêpe paper tentacles, orange cardboard crabs, swathes of blue-foil and real sea shells arranged in small clusters across the entire scene. Above the ocean spectacle, in large lettering, it said: ‘Underwater Adventures’.
‘What do you think then?’ I asked Annie whilst taking in the effort that had gone into creating the display. ‘Fancy it?’
I looked at her face which had ‘I am not in nursery school’ written all over it.
‘I think I’m a bit old for a reading challenge?’
There it was. Cue: parenting curve ball. The one where you have the best intentions of initiating a wholesome activity whilst simultaneously being faced with a psychological stand-off.
‘No, I don’t believe you are too old for a reading challenge. The people at the library have gone to a lot of trouble to make it appealing. It’s targeted at your age group. It’s a fun activity and you’ve been doing it since you could read by yourself!’
Translation: in the name of nostalgia, please do the Summer Reading Challenge and keep all of the associated paraphernalia for posterity.
I could feel myself stalling and my response felt uncharacteristically delayed.
‘Surely you’re never too old to take on a challenge?’ I eventually mustered.
‘But… I don’t need a challenge to encourage me to read.’
I sighed. It was a fair response. She was a bookworm and definitely didn’t need the encouragement, but that wasn’t really my point.
‘I’m not saying that you have to do it, just that it might be fun, you know, to round off your primary years?’ My powers of persuasion seemed to be waning.
‘Maybe.” She walked closer to the window and put her hand on the glass as if to try and reach out and hold the crêpe paper tentacles. ‘Or I could write my own underwater-based story, with pictures to go with it!’ Author? Illustrator? Dreamer? Creator? Negotiator? But she had mentally moved on before I could even pass comment on this inspired idea.
‘Do you know why she sits in her back chair?’ She asked, reigniting the earlier conversation.
‘Because she’s fallen asleep?’ I suggested.
She rubbed her cheek as though her jaw ached, ‘I don’t think so. Chloe’s grandma knows her and she says that it depends on whether or not she’s finished her cup of tea because there’s no table in the window for her to rest it on.’
‘Ahhh, so she has her morning tea in her back chair, then comes to the front chair in the window for the waving?’ We resumed the route to school, quickening our pace to make up the time.
‘Yes, I think so.’ She replied, absentmindedly. ‘Bella’s tooth – you know, Bella, the sort-of new girl – dropped out in our classroom the other day. She nearly fainted when she saw the blood!’
‘Oh gosh! What happened?’
‘Everyone crowded around her, but Mrs Browning said that we all had to sit back down and give her some space.’
‘So, did you do as you were asked?’
‘Mmmm, sort of. I went to get some toilet roll and gave it to Bella before sitting down.’ She smiled the way someone does when it was all in the call of duty. Caring and compassionate. Paramedic? Doctor? Nurse?
A group of younger children raced passed us towards the zebra crossing with calls of ‘Wait there Harry!’, ‘Watch the road, Isaac!’ and ‘Steady, Molly!’ catching on the breeze. But despite the trio’s exuberance, they all waited calmly and obediently by the kerbside, awaiting further instruction from their grown-ups. I remembered that phase: a time for Annie to venture beyond the safety of my side. Although the boundary was a mere mentally mapped-out two-metre radius, along with accompanying voice commands, it had felt like I was affording her a ticket to freedom.
‘Did you bring it with you?’ She asked nonchalantly.
I hit ‘search’ in the mum file in my mind and raced through a series of subjects, adding a filter for ‘school-related topics’ before landing on: non-uniform day.
‘The non-uniform day donation that we forgot to take in last week?’ I delivered this in the style of a pencil-skirt-wearing PA, efficiently making diary entries on an iPad whilst walking alongside a fast-paced CEO in a busy office.
‘Yes.’ replied the CEO.
Boom! That feeling when you have it all together: you are mind-reader, scriber, organiser and activator, all whilst making the coffee.
‘Sure, it’s in my pocket.’
It had taken two Post-It notes along with a reminder on my phone to ensure that the money had, indeed, made its way into my pocket. The determination to be the model mother this week and not forget anything – or worse: walk back home with a PE kit still slung over my shoulder – was unwavering.
We walked past the dry cleaners on the corner of Croft Road and approached the zebra crossing. Two senior school boys, sporting black blazers, had now taken the place of the obedient smaller children. They were looking down at their phones, ear buds firmly fixed, eradicating any sound from the real world in favour of what was being pumped through the little white sticks and into their ear canals. I looked at Annie looking at them. Was she wishing that she could be like them? Was it cooler to be watching and listening to the latest YouTube uploads than to be in the present moment or environment? I laughed internally at the ridiculousness of my own question – I already knew the answer – and my thoughts jumped to a time, in the very near future, when I would find myself reluctantly handing Annie access to the world’s content by crossing her palm with a smartphone.
Traffic on both sides stopped and the four of us crossed over, the two boys still on their phones, only glancing up to ensure they were going in the right direction. Annie and I gave each driver a thankful wave before reaching the other side and beginning our ascent up the hill of School Lane, where the two boys cut down a side path that led out onto the field of the senior school.
‘My character’s going to invent a machine that sucks up all the plastic from the ocean.’ Annie announced. Current affairs. World-awareness. ‘And that’s all I can tell you about my story at the moment.’
She extended her neck, pushed back her shoulders and smiled the smile of someone who has a plan and can’t wait to put it into action; a sense of satisfaction at having thought up a pleasing story plot in a matter of moments. This only fuelled my smartphone anxiety: would it stifle her creativity? Chip away at her imagination? As we approached the brow of the hill on School Lane, her happy-features faded as she rubbed her cheek again.
I paused our walk, beside a holly bush, and turned her head to face me. In these situations, the ones where I was disciplining or consoling, I always used to crouch down to her height. Adopting this stance meant I was inadvertently engaging in a test of squat-holding strength which, fortuitously, had real toning benefits. These days I only needed to bend my head down, tilt her chin up and we’d be almost at the same level. I stroked her cheek with my thumb.
‘Is it your tooth?’ I asked, softly.
She nodded then proceeded to wobble it with her finger. It did look as though it was hanging on by a thread, two at most. I made a wincing expression and sucked the air between my teeth.
Cupping her face, I rubbed our noses together.
‘The longer that stays in there, the longer the Tooth Fairy has to save up!’ I said and kissed her forehead.
‘Mummy!’ She chuckled, glanced around – presumably to check if any of her friends were near-by – and tugged at my arm in the direction of the next crossing.
‘I have £19 from the Tooth Fairy you know, so I have lost nineteen teeth. All the coins are in my little frog pot next to my bed.’ Accountant? Hedge-Fund Manager? Long-term saver ready to launch a start-up? I duly carried on walking.
‘Do you think I have enough money to buy Mrs Browning an end of term gift?’ She asked, earnestly.
‘You definitely do but we’ll have to get a wriggle on if you want to give it to her before you finish! What sort of a gift did you have in mind?’ We stood ready to cross the road.
‘Over we go then young ladies.’ We were given the all clear by a jovial Mr Karr, the lollipop man. Annie beamed at him, ‘Thank you Mr Karr! Beep, beep!’
‘Beep, beep to you too, Annie!’
Mr Karr had taken up the position as lollipop man for Redborough Primary at the start of year one. He had been introduced to the pupils in an assembly and, at the sound of his name, all of the younger children had erupted into fits of laughter.
‘It’s like he’s one of the Mr Men, Mummy! Mr Karr, like a car!’ Annie had been so excited to make this discovery, and she and her friends soon developed a lovely rapport with the old gentleman. A younger sibling of one of Annie’s friends would shout ‘Beep, beep!’ to Mr Karr when crossing the road, and somehow the ‘beep, beep’ turned into code for ‘have a nice day’. It wasn’t long before the phrase was adopted by parents, teachers, children and Mr Karr himself.
I was amazed at how it had stuck: that the tradition had continued all the way up to year six. She might feel too old to take part in a summer reading challenge but she was still happy to launch into ‘beep, beep!’ for Mr Karr. Here was where the logic baffled me. Perhaps that was the point – emotions didn’t follow logic.
I’d chuckled with the other mums, back then. We’d all thought it so cute, back then. Everyone joined in, back then. But today, I couldn’t join in with the tradition; the words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth. A half wave to Mr Karr was the best I could manage and I felt grateful for my sunglasses that shielded my eyes.
The ‘despatch and collection’ area of the school drive was as busy as ever and, although there were still four days left of term, the keener children – or, perhaps more accurately, the organised parents – were already clutching gift bags of all shapes and sizes, bunches of flowers and bottles of wine to bestow on the teachers. With the average class size of thirty kids, I wondered if the teachers deliberately drank down their wine stocks in the knowledge that they would be quickly replenished during this week.
‘I think I might give Mrs Browning the underwater-themed story that I’m going to write.’ Annie said as she surveyed the scene. ‘I could roll it up, like a scroll, and tie it with a ribbon. Maybe I could give her some chocolates to go with it. Then I would have enough money to buy a gift for Mr Karr, too.’ This declaration almost took my breath away and it was all I could do to stroke her head and beam, eventually managing: ‘Great idea,’ after a few hard swallows.
We walked past the school noticeboard with its eye-catching posters advertising summer camps, summer clubs and the end-of-term cake sale before pausing by an oak tree, away from the bustle.
‘What will we do this summer, Mummy?’ Annie asked, reaching into my pocket to retrieve the pound coin. At least her mind was focused.
‘Well… I know what we won’t do. We won’t have ice creams, or days out, or picnics, or any fun at ALL!’ I threw my arm around her chest, bringing her in close and nuzzling into her neck, attempting – but failing – to blow a raspberry onto it. She giggled and we stood cheek to cheek as I wrapped my other arm around her body and held her tight. We both watched the frenzied scene of parents rushing to get to work whilst others lingered, deep in thought, watching their offspring saunter up the drive. Childminders navigated a clear path with their double buggies and the Breakfast Club weaved their way through in pairs. I slipped my hand into my other pocket and pulled out my phone, tapping the camera icon before holding it up into the air and capturing the moment. Our moment: our faces beside that oak tree, on the last Monday of primary school.
‘Whatever we do, my darling,’ I whispered in her ear before planting a kiss on it, ‘It will be the summer of you.’
I remember that summer. The summer of her. I paused the trip down memory lane, put down my cup – empty of coffee – and took out some tablets from my little musical trinket box. I swallowed them down with a gulp of water before heaving myself up from the kitchen chair and walking slowly over to the window in the lounge.
I stood for a moment, assessing the weather, and gazed out at the street whilst admiring a glass painting of a fish that Annie had bought during a research project at the Red Sea. The richness of the colours, particularly when they caught the sunlight, looked exquisite. I opened the window, from where the gift hung, and welcomed in the warm July air.
The time on the clock, perched on my bookcase, reassured me that I was on schedule. Next to the clock was a framed photo of Annie and me, our faces close together: me in my sunglasses and Annie sporting a smile shortly before her tooth had dropped out later that day; she’d taken great joy in telling me that Bella had been quick to supply the tissues. Even after all these years of photographs, that picture remained one of my favourites. I picked up the frame, held it in my hand and sat down in my fuchsia-pink, velvet armchair – a new-home gift from Annie.
Still clutching the photo frame, I looked out onto the street, raised my arm and started to wave. As the smiles and waves were returned back to me, I wondered if any of the parents or children could even begin to comprehend the lift that this ritual gave to me each morning.
The girl looked happy, full of sparkle – a picture of the future. The mum was walking alongside her but, today, her usual wave was missing. She looked distracted. It was familiar. I felt it, even from behind the window. Every part of me wanted to run outside, cup her face and tell her: I understand.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.