‘Oscar!’ cried Miss Herd as I arrived. She was standing at the classroom door releasing her charges one by one as the parent, or in my case the grandparent, arrived to escort them safely back to their respective homes. Oscar came solemnly out in his navy Academy sweatshirt carrying his red Fireman Sam lunchbox and placed his four-year-old hand in his grandfather’s 57-year-old one. We headed off to the car. ‘Did Tom play with you today?’ I said. Tom, by all reports, is omnipotent and capricious in his choice of playmates. ‘No,’ said Oscar tragically.
I was standing in on the school run for Daddy, who had to work an extra 12-hour shift at the care home unexpectedly. Oscar lives with Daddy and goes to stay with Mummy at the weekends. ‘Are you having me?’ said Oscar. ‘Until eight o’clock,’ I said. ‘Is that long?’ he said. ‘Very,’ I said. He looked up, pleased.
Before we did anything else, grandad had to go to the doctor’s for a depot anti-testosterone injection in the bum. While we were inthe waiting area he sat on my lap and I read him a picture story called Rupert and the Pirates. Rupert was kidnapped by three vicious-looking, ill-mannered pirates, and one much older pirate with a kind face who eventually helped Rupert to escape. We wondered why such a decent old man should be keeping such disreputable company in the first place. When Rupert returned with a burly, laid-back policeman, the pirate with a kind face grassed up his mates, and the copper took his good behaviour into account and let him off with a caution.
And on that happy note we went into the treatment room, where Oscar sat on a chair clutching his red plastic lunchbox and watched as the practice nurse punctured grandad in the buttock of his choice with a syringe. The nurse was extra cheerful, even festive, with a small witness present, and afterwards presented him with a Biro sponsored by a drug company as a souvenir. Then he put his small hand in mine again and we went out. ‘I like your shirt,’ he said when we were out in the street again.
After that we went to a literary festival. The main event was being held in a medieval banqueting hall. We sat on deckchairs on the lawned courtyard outside, eating peppermint ice cream from tubs with plastic scoops located in the lids, while observing the festival-goers coming and going. They were all fearfully old and not noticeably festive, though from time to time the current speaker in the Great Hall must have made a jest, because a gale of elderly, relieved, literary-minded laughter, amplified in the vast space between them and the hammer-beam roof, seeped out through the stained-glass windows.
We played a game of picking out individual festival-goers and guessing how old they were. ‘How old do you think he is?’ I said, pointing out a gentleman of about 90, gamely feeling his way along the path with two sticks. ‘Twenty?’ said Oscar. Then we went to the secondhand bookshop, where Oscar only partially succeeded in concealing his boredom. I bought for myself a biography of Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar from 1907–24; and for Oscar and myself equally, The Tale of Pigling Bland. ‘I was patient, wasn’t I?’ said Oscar, inserting his hand in mine again as we went out. His use of a word describing such an abstract concept surprised me, and together we dissected its meaning in case he thought it meant merely that he had been bored out of his skull.
Then we went to the leisure centre learner pool, where Oscar made his Great Leap Forward. The week before he had bravely submerged his head beneath the surface for the first time. Today, while his submerged grandad sat smiling encouragement and giving him the thumbs up, Oscar found the courage not only to submerge his entire self, but also to take his feet off the tiles and propel himself forwards three yards under the water. We celebrated afterwards with onion rings and Slush Puppies all round, large blue ones, in the leisure centre café.
Then we went home and read The Tale of Pigling Bland, in which another burly policeman calmly arrests a pig whose papers aren’t in order. Then we ate crisp-bottomed fried eggs on toast, and at ten past eight, Daddy, pale with exhaustion, appeared in the doorway wearing his sky-blue care assistant’s shift. ‘So what have you been up to, Oscar?’ he said. Oscar cocked his head and thought about it. ‘Can’t remember,’ he confessed. ‘Well, you can have ten more minutes, then it’s bedtime.’ ‘Is that long?’ said Oscar. I thought about explaining how time is ultimately relative then thought better of it. ‘No, not very,’ I said.
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