With her youngest son heading off to university Alison has mourning, tidying and readjusting to do…
My Neil’s kiss is still raw on my cheek, the squeeze of his hand imprinted on mine. Alone, I stand on the station platform, watching the train as it eases slowly away.
I shiver. The September air is bright with morning sun but already chilled by that undeniable autumnal nip.
I’m not going to cry, I promise myself, shutting my eyes for a second and fighting for control.
At least not here; not now. I might bump into someone – Mrs Jefferies from the doctors’ surgery or Emily from next door who just loves a good gossip.
I don’t want anyone to see my tears.
I want the luxury of a closed door and a silent house to grieve for this latest stage of being a mum. I’ve feared this pain for months but buried it deep inside.
I open my eyes and realise my left hand is still raised in a wave to Neil’s departing train. It’s a disappearing blur, slithering around the bend in the track.
“It won’t be long, Mum,” Neil had said, shifting the weight of his huge, black rucksack on his shoulder, his brown eyes glassy with the tears I longed to shed. “Then I’ll be back again. We can even have another party, if you like, to celebrate me coming home.”
I’d smiled tightly. How I loved him for trying to jolly me along when there was no way I could be jolly.
“That’s a good idea. A Coming Home party has a better ring to it than a Leaving –” I’d said, trying to sound upbeat. But the croak in my voice gave me away and I couldn’t finish my sentence.
I didn’t want to offer him platitudes.
What I wanted was to scream, Stay home with us. Please don’t bring your childhood to such a sudden, full stop. Come back. Fill the house with your noise and mess and sweaty socks again.
Instead I’d tried to reassure him with the words, “I’ll be all right and… you’ll have a great time.”
I’d squeezed his hand, hoping to brand the feel of his skin on to my memory.
“Just make sure you phone or text or even Skype.”
I made a mental note to ask my husband Sam to show me how to master this alien way of communicating.
I suppose not keeping in touch was my biggest fear.
That once Neil had gone – was settled in the Halls of Residence – he’d be too busy, too involved in his new life, to contact me and his dad. That I’d lie awake in bed, night after night, in the house that for years had seemed so desperately cramped but – now that the last of our four sons had left – felt achingly empty.
Once Neil was living away, I’d worry if our youngest was all right. If he’d got home safely from a night out or if he’d changed his jeans; that he was eating some fruit and veg – five portions a week, if not a day, would be something.
The train no longer in sight, I suddenly wonder, what would my own mum say if she could see me now?
I smile, tightly. She’d have told me off, no doubt, her arms folded under the ledge of her bosom.
You’ve a lot to be thankful for, Alison Barber. Four happy, healthy sons all making their own way in the world. Lots of women would be glad to wear your size fives, right now. So stop moping.
A surf of guilt splashes over me. Guilt for those other mothers who’ve kissed their own “babies” goodbye, perhaps from this very station, as they slide off, not to live out their dreams at university, but to fight in other men’s wars.
I turn from the platform and step into the station building, my sandal heels clacking on the polished, wooden floor. My bare toes feel cold in the chill of the morning air and I make a mental note to dig out my autumn wardrobe.
Yes, those mothers would love to be saying cheerio to a son who’s off to university and the fun of Fresher’s Week rather than to such an uncertain future.
University. It’s the goal we’ve all been working towards. I should be happy. Celebrating. And, in some long-forgotten place, I am.
But Neil is my baby. My soulmate.
All my boys are my favourites for their own reasons, but since our eldest three have left home, Neil and I have grown super-close. He’s simply become my reason to be.
“How did we manage that, hey, Ali?” Tom had asked wearily late last night as, exhausted, I’d snuggled into him. “A son of ours off to Uni.”
“Don’t ask me,” I’d whispered as his breathing deepened rapidly into a growl of snores.
Even with revising into the early hours, I’d only managed to scrape together a handful of GCSEs.
“I still can’t add up in my head,” I’d often smile at our boys, wishing I’d been born with an extra hand.
Tom’s a better mathematician than I am but he struggles to remember how to spell “receive”.
So what I’m saying is, neither Tom nor I are what you could call academic. We’re not thick – not by a long chalk – Tom’s an electrician and I was a driving instructor before Neil came along, making juggling a home, small children and a job virtually impossible.
“Got off all right, has he, your Neil?” Marjorie asks as I step past the station’s refreshment counter where she sells teas, coffees and Eccles cakes.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
“Think – an empty nest. Means you can do what you like now,” she chuckles, running a hand through her short, blonde hair.
Her words sound so positive but it doesn’t feel to me that I’ve achieved an aim this morning.
Do what I like…
Well, there’s one last job I must do before my life of leisure starts, I think, crossing the car park and sliding into the driver’s seat of my old Renault. A job I was reluctant to start – tidying up the debris after Neil’s leaving party last night.
Normally I’d have woken at silly o’clock to clean the house but today I’d deferred the housework, wanting to cherish every last minute with my son.
Last night’s party had gone with a bang. All our boys had come over with their girlfriends and Neil had invited as many friends as he could from his year at sixth form who still lived in the village.
The house had been packed. I thought he’d want Mum and Dad to make themselves scarce, but he’d urged us to stay.
“My mates think you’re cool,” he’d said, giving us the top teenage accolade.
Secretly I’d been glad we could stay, glad of the rush to fill glasses and dish up endless bowls of my homemade chilli that had a kick like a street fighter.
“Keeping busy, Mum?” Rich, our eldest, had asked.
I’d nodded. “I’m coping with this one hour at a time.”
He’d hugged me then, his six foot two frame making me feel as small as a kitten.
“Neil’s not leaving home, properly, Mum. He’ll be back before you know it and you’ll still have us popping in more times than you want.”
“I can never see enough of you all,” I’d smiled into his hazel eyes.
“Sunday lunch then for me and Michelle this week?”
“You bet,” I’d croaked.
That was something to look forward to, I thought, letting myself in through the front door of our 1970s semi. Rich was more intuitive than he liked to let on.
He’d known I’d feel the absence of my boys all the more keenly now Neil was moving away.
As soon as I step into the bright, sunlit hallway I’m met by the silence and through the lounge door, I can see a scattered mess of paper plates and
dirty beer glasses.
Dropping my handbag on to the sofa, I move into the kitchen for a black bin bag and scoop up the clutter with the efficiency that looking after a houseful of men for so long has taught me.
I vacuum the cream carpet and feel vaguely pleased it will now stay clean.
Instantly I feel disloyal. How can I prefer the gleam of an empty house to the muddle of motherhood?
Polishing the television, I instantly recall a dozen arguments over whose football match was the more vital to watch that Saturday afternoon.
Moving to the coffee table I scoop up the dirty paper plates and beer cans, revealing the unmistakable watermarks left by Ben’s glasses of squash. Why would he never use a coaster?
The lounge is straight, if not immaculate, and I know suddenly that I must do it. Now. Get it over with before the dread grows unbearable.
I climb the stairs and stand at the altar of Neil’s bedroom. I peek in, the emptiness slapping my cheek.
The duvet slides from his bed like a drunk from a park bench.
Beside it is his Manchester City supporters’ mug with the slogan, Pride in Battle, barely visible under dried splashes of coffee.
On the wall, among the posters of pouting blondes with lazy zips and soulless eyes, are his swimming certificates proclaiming he was once a Dolphin and an Octopus in some long ago, primary, summer term.
In a discarded carrier bag I find some screwed-up sweet and chocolate wrappers surrounding an empty lager can; Neil’s neither a man nor a child. I perch on his unmade bed and cry as I have longed to all morning.
Eventually I blow my nose and my attention is caught by a photo on his window ledge.
It shows a perfect time, freeze framed, with Neil smiling, one arm around my shoulder and the other around his dad, who’s looking ever so slightly uncomfortable to be hugged in public even by his own son.
Standing in front of us are our boys, Rich, looking teenaged skinny; Harry with his sprawl of fair curls and Ben – ever the joker – purposely crossing his eyes.
Another party; Harry’s eighteenth. A time we truly celebrated.
Where did that whoosh of days go, from solids to shaving? I wonder as my finger traces their individual smiles. Will my Love-You-Mum days now be confined to Christmas and Easter?
Rich, Harry and Ben all come home frequently – their visits heralded by, “Mum, can you just…?” shouts from the hallway.
This is different. All his brothers live fairly close but Neil is miles away.
How will I live not knowing every detail of his life? Not waking him in the mornings when his alarm fails to stir him? Not picking up wet towels from the floor after his third shower of the day?
Before I open the window to let in some much-needed fresh air I breathe in deeply that mix of staleness, deodorant and teenage boy smell. The scent brings him within a whisper back to me.
A galaxy of childhood “night-nights,” cuddles, temperatures and tears remind me who I most want to be and who I shall always be – no matter how many miles lie between us.
I strip the bed and, as I move the duvet, I find on the floor Neil’s silver party hat from last night. Its tissue streamer is bent and bedraggled.
I pick it up and imagine Neil beside me.
“Another party, Mum, that’s what we need,” he’d said as he kissed me goodbye one last time before stepping on to the train with my heart wrapped around his soul.
Caressing the hat with a moth’s touch I cry again for my lost boy but finally accept that for life to be properly lived, it has to be full of changes and goodbyes.
As I wipe my eyes I hear the phone ringing in the hallway.
“It’s me, Mum,” Harry says. “The lads and I thought you might like another party tonight.”
“Oh, that’s very kind but I don’t think…” I stare round at the barely presentable downstairs rooms.
“Not at home, Mum,” he says, as if reading my mind. “Dinner at La Ronda. We guessed you’d be feeling down and thought the last thing you’d want to do is cook. Let’s have a quiet dinner out. Celebrate having a brain box in the family, and you and Dad having more time for each other.”
I open my mouth to object. To tell him that it’s too soon. I’m too miserable.
But one word sticks in my mind – Time. Once the rawness passes, Tom and I will have time to enjoy life at a different pace.
“Thank you… Thank you very much. Meet you all at seven? Give Dad a chance to come in from work and get ready.”
My mobile pings. It’s a text from Neil.
Missing you Mum but I’m here! Looks good so far. And think – only 43 days till I’m home.
I can feel the buzz of happiness in his words and it’s infectious. I smile.
It doesn’t sound so long when he puts it like that. That’s forty-three lie-ins. Forty-three quick, easy suppers. Forty-three cuddles on the sofa with Tom.
I can get used to that, can’t I?
As Marjorie, at the station, said this morning, Tom and I can do what we like. Become a couple again instead of harassed parents.
We used to like running. It was how we met. Could we find time now to start training again?
Maybe, just maybe, I can savour this new life instead of rejecting it.
I almost forgot. In forty-three days there’s that Coming Home party to look forward to as well.
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