On Sunday evening we lit a fire. The Chap brought out his wooden ship, the one he built so carefully as a boy, the one with tiny balsa planes and a fine layer of dust and cobweb. He brought out his bottle of dark rum. One ceremonial tip of rum went on the ship, one went into his mouth. A fir branch flared the flames: onto the fire went the beloved replica. We watched, we let it go.
For no particular reason I think of one afternoon when the electricity had run out. My son was four years old or thereabouts. It was autumn, perhaps that’s the reason. We had a key meter for the electric, the key could be recharged with cash at the local garage. I had put on my favourite coat which was soft as a rabbit, faux fur, pale silvery grey. The children loved that coat: they would hug it like a pet. But my son was still wearing his summer coat, thin cotton, sun faded yellow, one blue stripe on each arm. It was cold in the shade so we swapped coats: one small boy in ankle length bunny-fur, one mum in a demi sleeved bolero. We laughed all the way there and back. It took twice as long to walk the short distance because we laughed so much.
The Chap, tall and serious, stood atop the pirate raft that had kept the Little’uns amused all afternoon: saluted the shipshape ash.
On Monday afternoon we drove to Totnes. The Chap had everything packed. At the rendezvous we hold back: a hug is mandatory of course, a well wishing too.
‘Shall we wait here?’ I ask. We are looking for other smartly attired youngsters carrying ironing boards. (This is how one enters Officer School: in a suit, ready to iron more shirts.)
‘If you like,’ he says, which means yes, please, let me have the dignity of independence.
A minibus pulls up and out of it spring many officers, buttons blinding in the sun, dazzlingly white capped, wielding lists. They look like they are going to start jumping and clicking their heels together, so chock full of jolliness, like a well rehearsed show that the cast love performing.
We watch the smart youngsters shuffle from one group to the other as they are signed in by the jovial staff. They stand making introductory small talk. No hands in pockets, I note, although they must be nervous: they look friendly, I think, as we drive away: The Chap waves, even though our car is the one that clearly is not washed nor valeted. He is busy talking. He is one of the youngest there, I note, but he does not look out of place. Noting is a good distraction: that and all the work he has done to get here, the sunshine, the happy show and in particular the surreal detail of the ironing boards help to make it okay for our well dressed Chap to leave home.