New term, new friends… and this year something more unsettling
September is always butterfly season. On Buddleia bushes… and in my stomach.
So many years of anxious academic year beginnings. That paralysing cocktail of excitement and fear of the unknown: new classes, new teachers, new terms.
I smile in remembrance, staring out at breeze-blown trees through grime-streaked windows. They need cleaning.
“Mum!” Tabatha deposits another cardboard box on the floor. “What are you doing gazing out of the window? There’s heaps more boxes downstairs.”
She giggles, eyes bright with hopeful anticipation and just a tinge of trepidation.
“I’d no idea there was so much stuff to shift.” I smile bravely.
“That’s what comes of being a hoarder, I suppose.”
I open my eyes wide and raise mocking eyebrows. Then I hug her hard and vow for the hundredth time that today I am not going to cry.
“I wasn’t gazing. I was thinking those windows need a jolly good clean.”
“But Mum – you hate housework.”
“Ha ha, I know.” I grin. “I was just wondering whether there was a good window cleaner round here.”
“Way to go, Mum.” She giggles and goes back downstairs to get more boxes.
Of course, when you have a child, September butterflies begin all over again.
Only this time you are worrying for them and like all vicarious emotions, it is much more intense.
For me September will always be bittersweet. It was in September that I met Michael.
“Hi,” he said flashing me the smile that would be my downfall. “I’m Michael. I live in the flat upstairs.”
“Susie,” I said, trying to stop teeth chattering and wishing I’d worn something more substantial to bed than a T-shirt.
“Some start to Fresher’s week, this is.”
He clapped arms around his sports shirt-clad torso; I couldn’t help but notice a muscular chest and toned arms.
“Who set the fire alarm off?”
“Search me. No one in our flat.”
He jogged on the spot.
“Let me guess – Sports Studies student, right?”
“Now how did you know that?”
There was a soft Irish burr to his voice. He grinned.
I remember white teeth in darkness, sparkling eyes and suddenly not feeling cold at all.
“Just a wild guess.” I giggled. “You know – gym arms; jogging; wearing a sports shirt to bed.”
He laughed. I was light-headed at the sensation of being the mistress of wit and flirtatious banter.
It seems stupid to say it now but I was sure from that early-morning fire alarm muster that he was “the one”.
That first university year sped past in a continuous romantic stream of Michael-and-me, me-and-Michael. Like two strands of the same skein of wool. I never imagined anything could part us.
“Still daydreaming, Mum?”
Tabatha flashes me her father’s teasing eyes; not for the first time, I think about how much he has missed over the years.
“You cannot be pregnant!”
I remember those eyes wide with horror; restless hands picking at threads on his sweatshirt cuff.
“It can happen, you know.”
I fixed my gaze on the frozen campus lake, feeling bleaker than black clouds cloaking the student union building.
“Can’t you – couldn’t you – you know?” Hands gestured at the unspeakable.
I knew then that it was finished between us.
And better then than later, when we might come to hate each other.
Perhaps it is because we’ve been alone together for so long that Tabatha and I are much closer than many mothers and daughters. I don’t know.
I only know that, even though in many ways they made everything easier, when she said the words they twisted like an ice pick in the pit of my stomach.
“It’s time I moved out.” She flicked long fingers through her father’s luscious, dark hair. My insides clutched so hard that for a second I couldn’t speak.
“It’ll be September again.” It came out as a high pitched squeak instead of a laugh.
“A good time for new beginnings,” my daughter said.
Despite a little Tabatha delay, I did get my teaching degree. So for years while she was growing up, my September butterflies were for myself as much as her.
A teacher’s butterflies: will I have challenging students? Will they love me? And even: can I still do it?
But this September’s new start is perhaps the most terrifying and exciting of them all.
For Tabatha; for me. Just thinking about it makes me tingle in anticipation. If only it weren’t also tinged with guilt.
“Mum!” She reappears, swaying under the weight of yet another box. “Dan says, is it OK for him and Jacob to come up and put the bed up now?”
“But I haven’t unpacked any of these –” I wave vaguely at Tabatha’s rows of boxes beneath the bedroom window.
“Come on, Mum.” She takes my arm. “Let’s leave them to get on with proving themselves Zen masters at DIY. I reckon you and I could do with a pick-me-up. Now I remember where we packed the kettle.”
I watch her moving with confidence around the kitchen: pinning up her long dark hair; running water into the kettle.
When did she turn into such a grown-up?
I get a sudden vision of her doing these things months from now. Making meals for her and Jacob on dark winter nights; forking pasta from the bowls I bought her with the sunflower pattern.
I see the two of them cosy together at the flat’s little kitchen table and know a prick of jealousy I have no right to feel.
“Let’s take them outside.”
Tabatha holds steaming mugs aloft and makes for the patio door.
We sip in silence for a while, watching Red Admiral butterflies devour purple Buddleia. As always, it seems summer has saved its best sunshine for the start of the school year.
I scrutinise Tabatha’s profile as she dips her face in coffee steam. I am searching once again for reassurance.
She turns; catches me staring.
“Mum, stop fretting.”
She shakes her head. “I’ve told you. It’s OK. I’m happy for you – truly.”
For the millionth time I think how absurd it is to feel as if I’m the twenty-something in this relationship.
“I know you thought that when Dan asked you to move in with him, it was somehow throwing me out of my home.”
“Listen.” She reaches over to squeeze my non-coffee-holding hand. “I told you, it’s time I moved out anyway and –”
I watch her taking a deep breath; making a decision.
“Well – I wouldn’t have told you this for the world, but Jacob asked me to get a place with him last year. But I wouldn’t because –”
“Because of me?”
She hunches up shoulders.
“I didn’t want to leave you alone. It’s always been you and me, Mum. And I know there must have been times when you turned down opportunities for happiness because of me – having to consider me.”
“No, no –”
She gives me her no-nonsense glare and once again I feel I’m the daughter, not the other way around.
“Well – maybe once or twice…”
She purses her lips and nods.
“Any mother would have done the same, Tabatha. It’s just what mums do.”
“Maybe,” she says, tilting her head, sceptical. “Anyway, last year – I don’t know – I guess I didn’t want to be the one to break everything up.
“But I couldn’t tell you any of this because I knew you’d just say ‘I’ll be fine’ just like you always do.
“But now – well – Dan’s a great guy, Mum. He’s good for you.
“I know you’ll be happy here with him, and our flat is only round the corner – we can have coffee fixes whenever we want.”
I am giddy with relief. For about two seconds.
“Oh, Tabatha – I’ve been feeling so bad about moving out and now I feel bad for stopping you doing it earlier.”
She groans and slaps her head in mock exasperation.
“Oh, Mum. Will you please stop guilt-tripping yourself.”
“It’s called being a mother – you just wait and see, my girl.”
Then we laugh together, my beautiful daughter and me as we gaze out at the sunlit garden, both of us finally ready
for the bright new beginning this September brings.
From now on, the only butterflies for me will be the ones on the Buddleia bushes in Dan’s garden.
We’re sharing a short story collection from our archives every Monday and Thursday during August. Look out for some heartwarming family fiction – and remember, there’s exciting new fiction every week in My Weekly magazine, too. Sign up for a money-saving subscription here.