Monday, June 7, 2010

Lessons From a Screeching Child

Oh no, here it comes again. One deep breath and suddenly the Sunday lunchtime hubbub in the Ox Inn is cut to silence by a scream so blood-curdling, you’d swear someone had seen a ghost. Cutlery is dropped in shock, elderly women tut their disapproval. The sound is beyond loud: it’s earsplitting. Sheep four fields away stop their chewing and bleat in alarm. Izzy has dropped a carrot.

I’m not quite sure where she learnt this new technique. I don’t recall my first four children expressing themselves this way. At 16 months Izzy has discovered the voice of a diva, and boy does she like to show it off. The busier the restaurant, the louder she screams. Then, carrot replaced, she magically transforms herself back to an angel.

I guess advanced age has tempered my memories of child-rearing. My wrinkled brain will only recall images of quiet babies politely chewing their rusks as the grownups debate politics and football over long social lunches. Of course, it was probably never like that: I guess you just erase the bad recordings. Or maybe I was so engrossed in my obsession with career-building, I never really took enough notice of my children growing up.

The changes are arriving thick and fast now. This week I’m going to Los Angeles for some meetings with broadcasters about a new programme idea; I’m not looking forward to it, partly because I’ll have to watch England play the United States in the wrong country, but mostly because I’m scared I’ll miss some crucial new Izzy development.

Yesterday she had her feet measured for her first proper pair of shoes. She now runs as well as walks, but always in the opposite direction to where we need her to go. Our formerly open-plan living area is now a maze of child prevention barriers; coffee tables and low shelves lie empty, waiting patiently for the end of toddlerhood.

Izzy’s language is now so advanced she reels off whole paragraphs of gobbledygook. She’ll stumble up with a big grin on her face, stare at you with her big blue eyes and reel off a passionate lecture of totally coherent gabble. She’ll wait patiently for you to answer her, and then nod her head in approval before toddling off to tell her extraordinary story to someone else. But not a phrase of it uses any human word I recognise. It’s a wonderfully sophisticated private language known only to her, and my stubborn attempts at humanising it, by pointing at Truffle and endlessly repeating the word “dog”, have been completely ignored.

Headstrong doesn’t begin to describe my daughter. “And where do you think she gets that from?” asks my wife.

Watching a child grow is like tending a Northumbrian garden. Every day brings a new wonder and, because our seasons are so short, you can’t bear to miss a single flower. You want to freeze in time each new scene, but sadly there’s no still-frame facility. For the last thirty years, my timetable of life was dictated by projects and paydays; now there’s something immensely satisfying about sitting back and watching the natural order of life unfold.

After all, if there’s one thing that the appalling news from Cumbria this week will have taught us, it’s just how fragile and transitory human life can be. If simple, innocent lives can be taken away so easily and unexpectedly, if the security of the safest, happiest community can be destroyed by one hour of madness, the least we should do is to taste and treasure every single moment we have left.

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