When my daughter was in year 1, her class teacher instituted a good hand-writing award. It was a small, gold painted trophy made of paste, and worth, it turned out, £8. Each week a different child would win it and take it home.
My daughter became fixated on this trophy. She was determined to win it. Each Friday she would come home dejected because some other, more careful child had carried off the prize. But Margaret was an unusually focussed and hard-working creature and so, about a month into this competition, she burst through the door, almost radiating delight and triumph: she’d won the cheap bauble!
As I cooked tea, Margaret wandered around the kitchen savouring her victory. I think she was imagining silent applause, when she threw her arm up in a gesture of gracious acceptance and the precious trophy slipped through her fingers, fell to the floor, and broke in half.
There was, of course, a moment of horrified stillness. After only 20 minutes, all joy instantly vanished. There the trophy lay, apparently magnified: the impact mark fragmented and then a clean break right across the middle revealing a strange interior substance that was both like plaster and plastic, and, we soon discovered, sullenly resistant to glues designed for either.
We replaced it, but this memory lies somewhere in the bottom of my psyche, let alone hers, like an unhealed wound. It is still awful, its edges still bloody and aching.
Yet there is a purity to it. I could not make it better. Nothing I could say could lessen the obvious enormity of the disaster, but it wasn’t my fault and I could give myself up to embracing her and sharing her misery. It confirmed a communion between us, and a capacity for empathy in me.
I truly do not want this memory. I wish it had never happened. That it still upsets me is of no benefit to anyone, which, ironically, seems to make it more valuable – it is unadulterated or is it uncompromised? Like the sadness that comes from music.
This is not the case with the most upsetting memories I have of my treatment of Daniel.
As I’ve said, because I doubt my ability to control the little mommets, and keep them safe, I used to be particularly fierce about crossing roads. I told myself I was trying to impress upon them the extreme dangers of something so apparently mundane. However, I suspect, now, that it may have been an outlet for my suppressed irritation which was growing as I became thinner and I found it more and more difficult to find the energy even to just walk them home from school.
One dark, rainy afternoon. I was talking to Margaret and Daniel was poddling along behind us, singing to himself. I turned around just in time to see him jump off the kerb, into the road, to splash in a puddle. He was silhouetted by the headlights of the oncoming traffic, through the whirling rain.
And I shouted at him, I really shouted; I gave him such a terrible roasting: did he not realise how foolish and dangerous this was? Did he realise what a fright he’d given me? I didn’t let up, while he wailed in apologetic misery, heart-broken, because I’d never done anything like this to him before, his loving daddy.
I worry, now, that this may have marked a dark and malignant paradigm shift in his subconscious psyche. That his father, who up until that moment had been, by and large, warm and supportive, helping his mother to create a stable, nurturing home-life, should suddenly turn on him, like a snarling animal.
Could this have undermined the foundations of his security? Because, the thing is, he’d done nothing wrong. Yes, it was a narrow-ish one way street, but we were on the right-hand pavement and the oncoming cars were probably over to the left. It was a moment of absent-minded happy play. So how could he know when I would turn on him again?
And, of course, I did. I can remember how I first gave in to the urge to be nastily sarcastic to them – first to one, while the other laughed in a bewildered manner, and then to the other. I told myself that I was being humorous, but I knew, and I know, the black shame of it, even through my hunger.
Because Daniel is now a mass of nervous tics and habits – nail-biting, hair-chewing, compulsive apologies, hysterical weeping. He is the gourmand of anxieties, a boy of catholic and eclectic fears, who can take any half-formed thought, any misheard adult conversation and expertly turn it into a fully formed sleep-depriving terror in a matter of minutes: monsters, climate change, terrorists, war, famine, all find a place in his ghastly library of horrors.
I did this. I am wincingly sensitive to his nervous, overly cheery, false persona with me, followed by heart to hearts with his mother where he reveals what is really worrying him. And he clings to her…