A long time ago, I was lucky enough to spend three months in France with my best friend as part of my university degree course. I was twenty-one. My son wants to spend a gap year in Australia. What could be more exciting?
Young, beautiful and alive
It might sound vain. It might sound hollow. But looking at this picture of myself when I was twenty-one, I think most people would agree with at least part of what I see.
What has brought on this digging up of the past?
Why does it matter?
I’ll tell you.
My seventeen-year-old son wants to take a gap year. He announced a couple of weeks ago that he was going to go to Australia before starting his university course in 2018..
You can probably guess my reaction. Double it, times it by infinity and you’re probably still nowhere near the shock and fear levels that exploded in my stomach and my head.
I didn’t say much. Just - ‘This is a new idea – I thought you’d decided on Spain...’.
I didn’t want to hear more. Far from it. I wanted to turn back time and pretend we were still talking about things like an InterRail ticket around Europe, travelling with a friend, doing a bit of casual fruit picking to boost spending money.
You know what I did next? And I consider myself an intelligent person…
I sat down at my laptop and put in ‘gap year in Australia’. That wasn’t the worst bit. I sought out the bad news, the disasters, the number of backpackers robbed, kidnapped, murdered, bitten by snakes, spiders or lost in the outback with no water and a mobile phone with no signal. I knew I was doing the wrong thing, but I couldn’t stop myself.
After a week of trying to be more reasonable, I told my son, just before he went to bed, that he would be going to Australia 'over my dead body’ adding, ‘When you’re eighteen, I won’t be able to stop you, but you’re not eighteen yet.’ He took my mild hysteria with a pinch of salt and said that he would be going two months after his birthday as this would be the optimum time for casual work in Australia.
My son was getting the better of me.
My husband said it was my own fault.
I slept on it.
Next morning, at seven o’clock, just before I waved my son off on his school bus he asked me if I had calmed down. I said I had. I said that we would have to talk about it. He smiled and gave me a hug.
It felt as though I were being handled gently by a superior being.
For the next few days I see-sawed between anxiety and excitement. Anxiety that was, I eventually realised, due to the fact that I would not be in charge of his safety and well-being for the first time in his and my life. Excitement because I thought back to the most memorable times of my own life so far.
I don’t mean the things like getting married or having children.
I mean the times when I was brave enough to step off the path I was taking. To explore. To take risks (although, at the time, I was mostly unaware of what these might be – there I go again, thinking like an adult!).
When was my first real adventure?
Who was I?
The answer is in the picture at the beginning of this post. Or at least, partly.
I was young, beautiful (even I can see that now – at the time I remember wishing I were slimmer and didn’t have a scar on my nose) and, crucially, alive.
Alive in a way that somehow gets lost as we grow older and bury our free thinking in mortgages, taxes and our children’s futures. When we end up worrying about absolutely everything that possibly might spoil the family life we have built.
So, I went back. Or at least tried to. To the summer of 1979 when I decided to go to France with my best friend. After all, I’ve written a book about it, so it must have been memorable. This time, though, I wanted to get further in. To try to re-discover who I was in the picture.
Maybe it would help me to be more useful to my son.
To be continued...
PS I am interested to hear any reader comments - please feel free.