The guinea pigs have gone to a better place: Crystal Palace. A family of pet lovers came and took them to join their lone female, two ferrets and a rabbit. Lydia’s relationship with them had dwindled to roughly where I am with my ex–boyfriends; she wished them well but had ceased to feel personally responsible for their happiness.
For a day or two, a ghostly whiff of hay and urine hung in the air. And even three weeks on I’m still bending to grab dandelions off the verges then suddenly straightening up again empty–handed, which – to be fair to the children – really does look mad.
The night they left, Lydia asked me to read her a story from Old Peter’s Russian Tales, which Arthur Ransome collected and rewrote when he went to research folklore there. I had no idea that the author of all that messing about in boats was capable of breaking your heart as effectively as Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately, Lydia had just got up to ‘The Snow Daughter’: a lonely couple make a child for themselves out of snow, and through their own greed and stupidity, lose her forever. It made me cry so much I had to bend down and pretend to pick up some toys. Luckily the room is currently chock a block, so I was able to be down there for quite a while without arousing suspicion, and I did clear a path to the wardrobe.
I’m not one for repressing emotions in front of children, mind you, just for demonstrating a modicum of control; I don’t want to be one of those women who go to pieces at the drop of a hat, crying in bus queues and telling people they’ve just met about their operations.
However, one must face the real issue here. You can stiffen the upper lip all you like, but parenthood is about the management of separation and loss. So some kind of safety valve is useful, where you can let it out from time to time in reasonably controlled conditions. Then when the children say, “Why are you crying, Mummy?” you needn’t say:
“Because one day you will grow up and leave, assuming something awful doesn’t happen to you first, like being run over, and you will meet someone you love more than you love me, which will be wonderful, but I will miss you dreadfully, and you may have children, I hope, which will be great, but I may be dead by then and never see them, as my father never saw you, and when I think about this I want to cry a lot, which is why I’m pretending to pick up toys.”
Instead you can just say:
“Because the story of the Snow Daughter is so sad.”
But life renews itself, or as my old nanny puts it: one door closes, another one opens. Lydia is going to sponsor a child. Yes, the person who wasn’t up to stuffing hay into a cage will be contributing to the welfare of an actual human being – a round–cheeked little girl in Nicaragua, though we requested the Caribbean: ‘non–hurricane zone preferred.’
At one letter or so a month it has to be manageable, even for us, though there’s a risk that it will be viewed by Lawrence in the same light as the cuts at home versus the ring–fenced International Aid Budget: why are we not allowed Special K (over £2 a box) and yet sending £12 a month to someone we’ve never met?
There are several answers to that. One, twelve quid goes a long way over there, so there’s a sense of being effective, which one almost never is at home. Two, I’m still hoping to hone Lydia’s responsibility skills before she becomes a parent herself or Peter brings home the alpaca he promised her, whichever comes first.
And three, Nicaragua is nice and far, so when little round–cheeks no longer needs us I can wave her off happily. No toys will get tidied, but I’d say it’s a pretty fair trade.