This was big news, and getting to the heart of the matter was proving to be very difficult indeed
Life never throws things at you you’re ready for, I thought, my hands tight around the steering wheel. I gave a sad little laugh. Besides, I always was useless at playing catch.
So how do I tell him? How do I explain? He’ll think I’m a fool. His friends will disown him.
Chris did have a long history of volatile reactions to unexpected news.
I pulled in, gazing at the children passing by in their school uniforms – the boys with their ties adrift, the girls in skirts so short they made me wince.
There he was. Surely he looked even taller than when he’d left our flat that morning.
I sounded the horn. He jumped; his head swung my way, a look of horror descending over his face when he saw my battered old car.
Yes, Christopher, your mother’s come to pick you up today. Surprise!
“Mum,” he said in a throaty growl as he threw his backpack onto the back seat. “What are you doing here?” He climbed into his seat.
“Seatbelt,” I reminded him.
He buckled himself in.
“You weren’t supposed to pick me up today. The dentist is tomorrow. You’re not being scatty again, are you?”
Why does he always assume I’m being scatty?
“No, I know when the dentist’s is. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
His face fell. Nearly fourteen, he’d started to sprout fuzz above his top lip. His voice had broken. He had an Adam’s apple now.
“What’s happened?” he whined. “Oh no – it’s not George, is it? He didn’t break up with you, did he? He was going to teach me to windsurf in the summer.”
Well, at least he liked George. Apart from his name – he’d giggled at that for half an hour when I’d first mentioned George a year ago.
“George? He’s actually called George – like the royal baby?”
“What wrong with that?” I’d replied, sure he was imagining a man in a nappy.
“No, he hasn’t broken up with me,” I said in the car. “I love the way you assume that he’d break up with me, and not the other way around. No, he’s still
Chris peered at me from under brows that seemed to get thicker by the day.
“Good,” he said.
I started the car, checked my mirror and pulled away from the kerb.
“Do you remember when I broke up with your dad?” I asked him.
Chris helpfully didn’t reply. Instead, he started twirling his grandad’s ring around his finger. The ring his paternal grandmother had passed on to him.
He grunted finally, watching the houses flash by.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Back then, my volatile child of eight had packed his bags. Red-eyed, he’d scrunched his clothes into a rucksack.
“I’m going,” he sobbed. “If Dad’s going, I’m going.”
I’d stood, staring at my husband of ten years, Rob. He stared at me, the pair of us helpless suddenly.
We could plan a divorce – but not how to persuade an eight-year-old that his life wasn’t irretrievably broken.
“I’ll only be at your gran’s,” Rob had said, his voice wavering as he spoke. “I won’t be far away. I promise.”
Chris had thrown himself into his dad’s arms.
“I don’t want you to go to Gran’s. I want you to stay here.” He’d clung on so tightly.
I’d run to the bathroom and ended up staring at my own reflection as tears streamed down my face and plopped into the sink.
“Is it all right if I take him with me for the night?” Rob called. “We need to have a man-to-man.”
“Yes.” My voice had quivered. “That’s… that’s fine.”
The house had descended into silence after they’d left.
I’ve hurt him, I’d thought, sitting in a daze on the sofa. He’ll never forgive me. He’ll never come back.
He had, but after that he’d kept a bag packed. He left. He returned. He became a travelling salesman child, peddling his love between my house and his gran’s.
Now, in the car, I cleared my throat. “Do… do you remember the day I told you I needed to sell the house?”
Chris’s eye narrowed.
“Oh no, we’re not moving again, are we?” he said. “I’m not changing schools. Not now.”
“No, we’re not moving. I just… want you to remember.”
My volatile child had shouldered his backpack all right on the day I’d told him.
“That’s it. I’m leaving forever.”
He’d actually pouted. Nine now, taller, his hair in a buzz-cut I hated.
The phone had rung. I’d dashed to answer it; sure it’d be the estate agent. After my call I planned to explain to Chris calmly and reasonably exactly why I couldn’t afford to run a three-bedroomed semi any more.
“Now you see, Chris…” I began, entering his bedroom ten minutes later.
His rucksack had gone. So had he. My volatile child had decided to walk the four miles to his gran’s all alone to hammer his protest home.
I dashed out to my car, not realising until half an hour into my search of the town that Chris had taken the scenic route across the fields.
“Do you remember how upset I was when I caught up with you?” I said in the car.
His trousers were too short again, I noticed. His socks were showing.
He’d be six feet tall one day, just like his dad.
“I remember,” he muttered, crossing his arms over his seatbelt.
Maybe I ought to buy him something, trail round Gamesplaza, waving my credit card. Get whatever games you like, Chris. Anything to soften the blow.
“Are you marrying George?” he asked, his eye widening.
“Would it be awful if I did?”
He shrugged, rubbing at his forehead as if it hurt.
This is Terry. Say hello, Chris.”
That’s how I’d introduced my first male friend. And that was precisely what I’d called him.
Chris, aged eleven, had gawped. Male friend? I could see his mind whirring.
Did that mean Terry hadn’t come to fix anything in our two bed-roomed flat? He wasn’t a plumber or an electrician.
His eyes had widened further when Terry had sat right next to me on the sofa and taken my hand. He’d turned mute, my volatile child refusing to speak to me all weekend.
“I hate you!” he snapped then when I’d dropped him off at school on Monday morning.
I sat dumbstruck. He’d spoken to me finally, but I dearly wished he hadn’t.
“George hasn’t asked me to marry him,” I said now, taking a right turn, my old car wheezing as I accelerated.
“Oh,” he said. Was that relief or disappointment in his voice? He gasped in a breath. “You’re not sick, are you, Mum?”
Oh Lord, I really was making a mess of this.
“No, I’m fine. I only went to the doctor’s yesterday.” I broke off. Was that too big a clue? Apparently it was.
“Oh.” He stared hard at me, his mouth falling ajar. “Oh. No.”
He was clever, my son. A quick thinker, only sometimes he spoke before he considered the consequences. Every protest began with the word I.
He looked me up and down. He gulped, then stared at the road ahead.
“Now Chris, I know it’s a shock. I mean, obviously this wasn’t planned.” My face began to burn, while his paled.
“This is all backwards,” he muttered. “Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to come home and tell you things like this?” He gawped.
“You’re not going to get rid of it, are you? I mean, it’s your choice, but it’s not like taking a dog back to the rescue centre or returning something you don’t want to a shop, is it?”
“You, you think I’m pregnant?” I stammered.
Anticipation shone in his eyes.
“You’re right, Chris… I am.”
Silence fell, as thick as a snowstorm and just as chilly. I always get it wrong, I thought. I always mess everything up.
He’d bolt. He’d go home and pack. He’d live with his dad, because his dad would never do anything like this. Oh no, of course not.
I shot a glance at him as I drew up at a set of lights. Here was the ideal opportunity to make a grand exit, a whir of retracting seat belt, a glare my way.
“You’re hopeless,” he’d snap. “You’re forty-one. How could you let this happen? What kind of example are you to me?”
The lights changed. I stomped my foot down and the car shot forwards.
He didn’t even look my way. He sat like a test dummy tensely waiting for the next car crash.
“Say something,” I urged him when it became unbearable. “I was shocked too. I didn’t even believe the doctor. I demanded more tests. I just…” My lip quivered. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
“But you are happy, aren’t you?” he blurted. “You like being a mum?”
I blinked. I’d imagined every scenario: his anger, his disappointment in me, his sudden jealousy at not being the centre of attention any more, but I hadn’t foreseen this.
“Of course I love being a mum. I’m not making too awful a job of it, am I?”
“No,” he said before his brows knitted. “I’ve haven’t been too horrible, have I? I haven’t put you off?”
“No, of course you haven’t.”
Was this his reaction then, no tantrums this time? No yelling? No sentences beginning with I – just this wish for me to be happy that I’d soon be a mother again.
“Oh, Chris.” I wiped at my eyes.
“You’re not going to cry, are you?” he asked in alarm.
I shook my head even as tears dripped down my cheeks. “No.”
He huffed in mock exasperation as he hauled a pack of tissues from the glove box.
“Next time, just tell me what’s wrong straight away.” He sounded so old and so very wise. “Whatever it is, just tell me.”
“I… I just didn’t know how you’d react,” I confessed. “I had no idea.”
In my bag on the back seat, my mobile rang. It’d be George calling to find out if I’d found the courage to tell Chris the news.
Had my son exploded? Had he gone to live with one of his friends?
I let it go to voicemail.
I had no idea what the future might hold: marriage to George, moving house, moving to Switzerland?
No, I had no idea at all – but, as I glanced at my son, I knew he’d be all right this time around.
“Your trousers are too short again,” I pointed out. “You’re growing up far too fast, you know.”
Chris stroked his chin, leaned back in his seat and thought about it all a little more.
The volatile little boy he’d been left behind, a sensitive, sensible young man taking his place far sooner than I’d ever imagined.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
Life never throws things at you you’re ready for, I thought. But sometimes the things it surprises you with are amazing.
We’ll be adding another lovely family-themed story from our archives every Monday and Thursday throughout March. Look out for the next one!