Melissa Todd: ‘Can you believe he is 18?’

Happy birthday James

My son James turned 18 last week. “Ooh, can you believe it!” everyone said, one and all, as though it were obligatory. “Can you actually believe it though?” Well yes, I can believe it, because I was there for the last seventeen birthdays, and I understand how time works.

What I find more baffling is the way I suddenly have another grown man in the house – rather more grown than my 63 year old husband, in fact, whose birthday was three days later. He requested school stories, chocolate tools and Tunnock’s tea cakes from the birthday bunny; James wanted whisky and bed linen.

He has a car now too, which is weird. You know the sudden horrifying transformation when they go from sweet stationary baby to giddy, rolling, crawling, weapons of mini destruction? It’s worse when they get a car. He could be anywhere, doing anything, with anyone, at anytime. At least toddlers have a limited set of desires and opportunities when they find their feet: mobile teenagers have no such limits.

Worse, mine usually chooses to work. He works at least six days a week now, sometimes seven, partly assisting a plumber with plumbery things, partly down at the Brasserie in Ramsgate harbour. (They treat their staff incredibly well down there and deserve your custom, and they haven’t paid me to say so).

When he’s not working he likes to worry about the state of the world, and particularly his future within it. Trump, Johnson, Brexit, environmental devastation. He wants a credit card, not to blow money he doesn’t earn on fripperies, but so, he tells me, he can “build a credit rating”. So yes, I believe he’s 18.  In fact I’d believe he’s 48 at least, all careworn and wretched, scowls, alarm clocks, insurance and flossing.

A friend of mine got a rescue greyhound recently, so ground down by by life that even when ensconced in a loving family home he had no idea how to relax or play. Eventually she had to get a puppy, too. The puppy knew, the way young things should, that life isn’t meant to be all misery and work.

Slowly the greyhound learnt how to enjoy himself. Once he got the hang of it his world was transformed. He plays non-stop, desperate to recapture his many months of lost youth and joy. My boy is beginning to remind me of that greyhound. It’s my fault. I work seven days a week and worry constantly. But I’m not getting him a puppy, nor, yet more horrifying notion, the human equivalent.

Instead I shall try to stare into space more. Go for walks on the beach. Make cakes.  Watch sparrows bathe in dusty hollows. Remind myself, and him, by deeds as well as words, how little anything actually matters.