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It’s Freaky Friday All Week (5)

For five days in July 2022 I swapped lives with my children. This is the record of our experience.


Part Five

Day Four: Thursday

I am practically begging to leave the house. My usual strategy in summer is to spend as much time as possible outdoors, for several reasons. It’s healthy and wholesome. It means less tidying and cleaning up. It keeps everyone entertained. It keeps me entertained. The kids have been so happy to be left to their own devices and so busy working at cooking and laundry that they have barely left the house at all. Over a lovely brunch of potato waffles and Mary’s homemade Moroccan spiced beans I float the idea of a trip to town to tempt them outside. They agree to head off with me on the train to pick up a book I have ordered after they finish cleaning up. Yes! Freedom!

While they are doing the dishes I impulsively start to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while. We have a white tent-canopy over part of our balcony so we can air-dry our washing even when it is raining. I have long fantasised about decorating it with paint. Giving it a bit of colour and adding a Jackson Pollock vibe. I lay the canopy on the ground outside, get some of the kids’ acrylic paints and start to spatter. Before long the dishes are abandoned and everyone is getting involved. Once we’ve squirted some of every colour in the house Michael suggests adding footprints into the mix. I can’t resist, but accidentally go into automatic responsible-for-the-mess mode and bring a bucket of water outside to ensure everyone washes off their feet (and paws) before they hit the carpet. When we have finished there are multiple paint stains on the paving stones that look very much like they are never coming off. After a half-hearted rinsing attempt I abandon it and we head off to collect my book.

Once in town Séamus decides to have a tantrum in the first shop we enter because he doesn’t have enough pocket money to buy the toy he wants. He does something he hasn’t done for around two years- lies down on the floor in full brat mode. I am consumed with silent rage, but icily determined to get the book I have waited weeks for. I make an impulsive and unusual move. No bribes, not threats, no dire warnings about “consequences”. I wait for him to get bored on the floor and stand up and then I take them to the nicest coffee shop in town and get them hot chocolate. They are visibly confused. I explain that this week is a holiday for me too. Not just from the dishes and the laundry, but from being in charge and directing everyone’s behaviour. I tell them I really, really want to get my book (Fearless by Catrina Davies) before we go home. We get to the bookshop and somehow have a lovely time browsing for ages. As well as my long awaited book I pick up another on David Hockney (John’s favourite artist) as a surprise. We make it to the station on time for our train without the usual huffing, puffing and rushing. We even have ten minutes to pop to the loo before the train comes! 

Our modern art installation ‘Hung Out to Dry’

Of course I leave my book bag hanging on a hook in the toilet stall. I realise I’ve done so five minutes before our train is due. We go back and search the toilet to no avail. 

We ask a member of staff who tells us that a book bag was handed in. It’s my bag alright, but the expensive David Hockney book and Fearless are missing although some school books remain. The book thief has admirable literary and artistic taste. Of course we miss the train. The kids are surprisingly sympathetic as we wait for the next one. And patient. Strangely so in fact. Waiting an extra 30 minutes for a train after a long hot day with a four year old should be a nightmare, but he sits peacefully and quietly. It dawns on me that the usually constant background drone of sibling bickering has been absent all week. 

I get home exhausted, but very thankful that I don’t have to make dinner because I want to hoist our paint splatter canopy back up before John gets home. He might find our little foray into modern art a bit more acceptable if it doesn’t involve any DIY work on his part.

For dinner we have vegetable curry with homemade naan bread. This proves to be the first culinary mishap of the week for Mary as the naan dough is too sticky to roll out. I show Mary how to add extra flour gradually to make it less sticky. It feels more like an exchange of know-how between equals than my usual lecture “On How to do Everything Correctly”. The line between helping kids and doing it for them has become increasingly blurred of late. The experiment has really helped me find that line again.

It was hard to adjust to all the free time at first but I managed

Find a Feeling, Pass it on

I don’t think there is ever really just one moment when you decide to marry the person you are with, but some moments are such obvious forks in the road that we look back on them as decisive.

I was in the living room at my parents house in Dundrum, Co Down when my brother arrived home for Christmas. He handed me a small, folded and pencil-marked white package. On closer inspection it was a used office envelope, which had been folded over to form an improvised wrapper. “It’s a Christmas present from John”, he said. 

John was a friend of his that I had been seeing for about a month or so. It was such a new relationship that I had decided to cleverly avoid any awkward gift-giving uncertainty (and unnecessary expenditure) by suggesting in advance that we give each other a single book. Now this deal obviously had the potential to bring on some uncertainty and stress about the choice of book. Because I happened to be smugly secure in a lifelong identity as ‘the reader’ amongst my family and friends I felt sure I would come out of it looking ok anyway.

It took a beat or two to register that this dirty envelope was a gift, especially as someone else’s name had been written and crossed out on the front of it. I pulled a small, thin, volume out of the envelope and opened it. There was an inscription on the inside, but, alas, it was not to me. It was from one strange man to another, on the event of his birthday. Beside the inscription was the price inscribed in pencil- £2.00. The plot thinned. The inscription wasn’t for me because the book was second hand. 

The book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It tells the story of a rich Prince who turns his back on luxury and privilege to seek spiritual enlightenment after witnessing the suffering of the masses outside the palace. After years of wandering and trying many different paths he finds pursuit of both enlightenment and flesh equally disappointing and settles down by a river. The sound of the river flowing calls to him to stop searching and start living.

I was twenty six at this time, and floundering in a sea of opportunity. I was unbalanced by unexpected acceptance into my dream PhD program the year before. At the same time, I was lost in a vacuum left by the disappearance of my religious faith. The book floored me. It was just what I  needed to read. I had a strong gut feeling that John would be part of my life for a long time to come.

A few weeks later we were taking a walk together through a very quiet town centre. He had come to stay over with me as I was living an hour and a half away from him by train, in a peaceful seaside village in Northern Ireland. It was Sunday, so we were hung over. He told me what he thought about the book I had chosen for him. It was Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True. The story is about identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia. It is long, detailed, and emotionally tense. John is an identical twin, and as psychology was one of the interests that had gotten us chatting in the first place, I thought this was a no-brainer. He hated it, and pulled no punches in telling me exactly why. He rubbished the plot, eviscerated the structure, and tore into the style. Ouch. I was incensed. Who was this idiot to think he could tell me what was and wasn’t an enjoyable book? Stupid gut feeling! I never wanted to speak to him again, and I never did, for about an hour.

I hadn’t yet become acquainted with John’s unique style of giving or speaking then. He’s gives it to you straight. Not because it’s Christmas, or a birthday, or there’s a social obligation. Not because it’s expected, or meets the budget, or it’s what you want to hear.  

He had picked a book for me that he knew would resonate with my exact circumstances. That meant something to him. A book that at least attempted to stand at the edge of the void of our existence shouting back some ideas about why we are here and what we should do about it. He presented it without artifice, didn’t worry about looking cheap, and I don’t think he would have cared less if I’d left it in a train station, thrown it in a bin, or hated every word of it. I picked something diverting and superficially relevant, wrapped it well and hoped I wouldn’t look stupid in my choice. 

We’ve been married for twelve years now. Books pass through our house like a river. They appear from friends and family who have read something they want to share. Once finished, John always knows who to pass it on to. Somewhere else that idea needs to go. Giving without thought of return.

This reminiscence was inspired by Lucie Ehiwe’s post on reading to live better. I wish you and Peter many happy arguments about the ideas you read.