At the weekend my wife, father-in-law, two youngest children and I spent the day in Southport. It had been many years since I had last been there-thirty seven to be exact. I can be sure of this as my previous visit had been with my first school, and I had only spent just over a year there before leaving due to moving home.
The first thing I can remember about that trip, way back in 1976, is that the sea seemed miles away from our little flock herded onto that stretch of beach.
My second recollection was an accident that occurred in the toilets of the car park where we disembarked from the coach. A girl from my class got her fingers trapped in the toilet door, and I remember a male teacher carrying her out in his arms. I no longer recall the teacher’s name, or what he looked like. He remains forever a faceless comforter.
Later, weary and bedraggled, as we were about to begin the journey home, the girl was sat on a coach that was immediately adjacent to the one that I was on, her seat parallel with mine. She was red-eyed, and had what seemed to be a huge bandage wrapped around her index finger which she held up, supported by her other hand.
I have no class photographs from my time at that first school, but I can remember the girl’s name, and amazingly, thirty-seven years after the fact, I can still see her face in my mind’s eye. She is one of four fellow classmates whose faces I can still conjure from memory alone, although there is now a blurring of features that were once well-defined. Like old snapshots beginning to fade and curl with time.
That day was the first time I can remember attempting to make somebody feel better with humour-I offered an apple that was in my lunch box to her through the two different coach windows that separated us, then pretended to devour it in great, over exaggerated bites. Red eyed and bandaged, I can still see her smiling.
That method of lifting spirits, particularly with children, has remained with me. Humour I mean, not the ‘old apple trick.’
Anyway, on my latest trip to Southport there was nothing to trigger any further recollections. It could have been any other seaside town.
We went on the funfair, with the not unreasonable expectation of a leisurely, pleasant day. But my nearly three year old son immediately became focused on his one obsession-obtaining his regular fix of balloons. He spotted the sign on a shop front, quite a way away, and, mistaking the painted balls for balloons, he was off, racing towards it as fast as his little legs would take him. That set the tone for the rest of our time on the site. No amount of distractions by Granddad, cajoling by Mum, shouting by Sister or pleading from I would deter him from his goal.
“Boons!” he cried, “boons!” over and over for the next hour and a half or so. Turning up his nose at every kids ride or chocolate on offer.
And of course we couldn’t find any balloons anywhere. You could forgive us for thinking our luck was in when we finally spotted a stall with the following title scrawled above it in bright lettering:
‘Balls and Balloons’
A great sigh of relief exhaled by three generations drowned out the cacophony of loud music and screaming kids of the funfair. But when we got to it-in James’ wake, there was not a ball or balloon in sight. Just one of the those punch ball things that you are supposed to hit as hard as you can to set the bells ringing and lights flashing.
James’ hand was already balling into a fist.
Back in the car, strapped in and still pleading for a boon, we drove for a few minutes to another spot. As I bent to unstrap him from his car seat, I said to him “Let’s get you out, are you going to be good now?”
Very calm, very low, but with a perceivable hint of menace, he said just one word: “boon.”
There was no compromise, no acknowledgement of our predicament. Just a you-know-what-I-want, and a you-know-what-you-have-to-do. A measuring with the eyes, a shifting of power between us.
New part of town, same old story. No balloons. The same old tat being sold in every shop and stall we passed, but no balloons. This was unfathomable to James. In the end we coerced him with ice cream, paraded him up and down in a hall of distorting mirrors that alternatively stretched out or compressed his sulking frame, and then finally distracted him with a trip on a motorised boat for twenty minutes. We all climbed aboard, with two young kids in tow, yet it was my forty one year old wife who asked nervously “We wont sink will we?” I think if we had stepped out of the boat the water would have come up to our knees.
Balloons, sinking ships, there’s always a drama.
James climbed in the front next to his Granddad and the little tadpole soon grew his sea legs as he turned the wheel, exclaiming “Mummy, I driving!” while unsettlingly trying to play Death Race 2000 with the gulls in the water.
This photograph was taken after the gulls had wisely scarpered.
Once out of the boat, his mood had lightened considerably, and we decided to head to the beach.
On the way I took this photograph in one of the shops:
When we got there, neither of the children would go into the sea. In fact they both point-blank refused. I cannot for the life of me understand why.
Content with the beach, my daughter Millie discovered a huge ‘X’ drawn on the sand, and made the connection to ‘x marks the spot.’
“It’s a treasure map!! She began to dig furiously with her spade, until her enthusiasm began to wilt. James stood observing this with all of the potential of a future construction site supervisor, when he suddenly straightened up, squinting past his sister into the distance. I turned to see what had caught his eye.
A kite could be seen further down the beach, fluttering high, all rectangular and green in the blue sky.
James momentarily caught his breath, then gasped, barely audible: