Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Room To Meander

On a warm, late summer evening, the sun's setting over the river. Nursing a blue plastic beaker full of sweet black tea, I sit on the bank and watch colour diffuse across the sky. Another day's finale.

Across the water, far-away tractors and combines bring in the harvest, bringing summer to a close. Tomorrow will be the first day of September - the season I love the most - a comma in the year's busy sentence.

While I pause, enjoy the pleasure of doing nothing, not having to do anything, I stare at the ripples corrugating the surface of the Great Eau and allow myself to be drawn in, hypnotised, for who-knows-how-long.

After a while I'm joined by Lightning. He sits beside me and stirs the chicken noodles I've rustled up for him with a spork. Minutes pass as we watch the sun sink in silence. Part of me acknowledges the beauty of the moment - a time for profound statements from father to son. Before I've thought of something, however, Lightning's already got there first.

'These noodles, Dad,' he says, lifting a few out, looking at them and then returning them to his own blue plastic beaker. 'Do you want the rest?'

It's his way of saying - Dad, this snack you made is disgusting.

I take the beaker from him, smiling, and balance it upright between my out-stretched knees. 'I'll eat them when I've drunk my tea,' I tell him.

Unable to sit still for long, Lightning's soon on his feet and clambering down the bank to the water's edge.

'Careful, mate - don't fall in,' I call after him, despite the fact that he's a much stronger swimmer than me.

He lies down on his front, parallel with the river's edge and props his chin on upturned palms. Then he looks straight at the reeds which fringe the water and starts talking.

'Hello reeds!' he says. 'I bet no-one's talked to you before, have they?'

He looks up to me and laughs.

I can't help laughing too.

'How do you do?' he continues, giggling, 'What you been up to?'

I watch him as he asks question after question with a huge smile on his face.

'Hey, mate,' I ask him after a bit, 'Do the reeds talk back to you?'

In the seconds before he answers, a stiff breeze moves across the water, passing through the plant life with a shush.

'Of course they do,' he says, looking up to me, 'Didn't you hear them?'

I'd had the idea for our overnight trip a couple of weeks previously. During the long summer holidays, Lightning and myself had paddled short out-and-back stretches of the Great Eau between Withern Bridge and the road bridge near Saltfleetby. A natural culmination to our kayaking adventures would surely involve a continuous paddle between the two points. Inspired by Alaistair Humphrey's 'micro-adventures', I suggested to Lightning that we set off from Withern one evening, paddle for an hour, wild camp for the night and continue to Saltfleetby the following morning. I was pleased he was so excited and enthusiastic about the plan. Of course, I was excited too. I had my own motives for proposing the trip. After the holidays, our  smasher would be starting 'Big School'. We'd be losing the little boy he once was. Before that happened, I needed some time together. Just the two of us. Some time to remember that spiky-haired toddler careering around the front room in his baby walker, the stories I'd told him at bedtime over the years, the short runs we'd shared together. Some time to remember the occasional supermarket tantrum, the toy he bought with own money on his baby sister's birth, the kindness and sensitivity he'd continually shown to his friends and family. Some time to remember how incredibly proud we are of our little man. And some time to say goodbye to the person he used to be as he becomes something more.

On Saturday afternoon, we'd loaded up the boats with a few essentials - my old Tera Nova one-man tent, a couple of sleeping bags and mats, a Jetboil, a change of clothes, some food and some water - and dry-bagged them in heavy duty garden sacks. Tam had dropped us at Withern Bridge at some time past 6, and off we'd set on our mini-expedition.

We'd scoped a suitable camping spot a few days earlier, and within an hour, we were there. I'd primed Lightning over the golden rules for wild camping - arrive late and leave early, be respectful to the surroundings, leave no trace, keep a low profile and be quiet. Adhering to our guidelines, we'd put up the tent down the bottom of the bank, a handy bush hiding us from the view of a distant farmhouse. Getting into a change of clothes, Lightning had sorted out the sleeping arrangements inside the tent While I'd worked wonders to prepare tea and noodles. As pinks and orange coloured the sky, I'd left Lightning to finish his snack and climbed up the bank to find the best seat in the house for the sunset show.

The next morning, after a long but mediocre night's sleep, we're up at dawn and on the water before 7. In contrast to the heat and humidity of yesterday, the weather's overcast with more than a touch of autumn chill.

I glance across at Lightning, his hair bedraggled and that tired look in his eyes.

'Ok?' I ask.

'Yes, Dad,' he replies glumly.

'Sure?' I ask.

'It's a bit cold in't it?' he replies glumly.

'Welcome to the world of adventure!' I tell him.

He smiles and says, 'What, Dad?'

'Go on an adventure, mate,' I continue, 'And most of the time you'll be too hot, too cold, tired or hungry.'

He gives me his what you on about? look

'But don't forget these miserable bits,' I go on, on a roll, 'Because when you've finished and look back on your trip, it's often these bits that you'll remember as the best.'

I can tell he's unconvinced, and we paddle on into the damp fug of a misty morning.

Twenty minutes pass before Lightning speaks again.

'Do you know what you were saying earlier, Dad?' he says.

I nod and he carries on.

'Well, I don't think I'll remember being freezing as one of the best bits of this trip.'

I laugh and then notice that he's shivering, immediately feeling guilty. But then he laughs too.

'It could be worse mate,' I say. 'You could be snuggled up on the settee under your warm duvet, watching a repeat of last night's X-Factor.'

But we're not. We're paddling a river in the middle of nowhere on a cold autumn morning for no other reason than it's there. and we can.

And when I look at Lightning, he's still shivering, and he's still smiling, and I know then that he gets it.


It's a long way to Saltfleetby, and I've a long time to think things through. I'd embarked on this trip in a bid to capture what remained of a time that was almost gone. Stirred by the advice of others who always played the same tune - make the most of those days when they're that age -  once they're grown up, it's just never the same - I'd set off from Withern Bridge on a voyage of remembrance, desperate to recall what was and to create new memories I could look back on sentimentally in times to come.

As the river meanders, however, I can't help feeling that I've got it just a bit wrong. I look across at Lightning - no longer our baby, but a confident, popular young man. With each silent stroke of the paddle, he leaves behind a little more of his childhood and heads further into a future that he'll face on his own terms. I imagine the days out in the mountains we'll spend together as he grows up and I grow old, the adventures we'll share, the things he'll teach me once I've taught him everything I know.

And, far from being a time of looking back with fondness and melancholy, I realise that this moment is one to be celebrated. Between us, Tam and myself have helped guide his early years, but now it's time to loosen the reins, give our young man the space to find his own feet in the world. Give him the room to meander.

The distant hum and whoosh of traffic tells us that Saltfleetby bridge can't be far away. Having playfully resolved to race to the finish, I eventually draw level with Lightning's kayak and press on, sweat blurring my sight. Lightning veers left, grabs a hold of the back of my boat and pulls me perpendicular to my direction of travel.

'That'll slow you down!' he shouts, laughing, and paddles off strongly, leaving me floundering.

I watch him go - he always wins anyway - spin my boat round and set off lazily in pursuit.

Ahead of me, Lightning stops paddling. He waits for me to pull alongside, and we set off again slowly.

'Let's get to the bridge together,' he says, 'We'll call it a draw.'

It's not long before we round another bend, and there's Tam and Whirlwind waiting on the bridge.

'Enjoy that, mister?' I ask him before we arrive.

'It was great!' he answers.

We paddle the last few yards side by side, matching strokes, father and son, together. And just before we get there, he turns to me again.

'Thanks, Dad,' he says.