The coach finally got underway a quarter of an hour later than planned. The sun, streaming through the windshield, bifurcated the vehicle in two. I remained in the section kissed by it. I read my book whilst my son talked to his friend J. My son. It was the first time that father and son would be on a holiday together, albeit weekend-long. To me it felt like a rite of passage, like a secret fraternity in which we both suddenly found ourselves. Father and son. The phrase, cliché-tainted, had never occurred to me before. After all, we’ve always been a compact family together and I try to not make distinctions between my son and my daughter, age gap and gender notwithstanding. As the coach smoothed down the A406 eastbound, I suddenly thought of Steve Biddulp’s book ‘Raising Boys’. ‘Sport offers a boy a chance to get closer to his father, and to other boys and men, through a common interest they might otherwise lack’. Well, this was our chance. Woodcraft Folk had arranged a whole weekend full of activities at Shadwell. These included kayaking and canoeing. I was looking forward to seeing my son interacting in a different medium almost on his own.
We arrived at the centre just after eight in the morning and immediately we were shown our sleeping quarters. These consisted of nothing more than a long room where we placed our sleepings bags and mats. Boys and men would sleep in this room, whilst women and girls would take over another room opposite to ours. The excitement coursing through our bodies was palpable to all present there. Games were produced, pizzas were cooked and the joie de vivre did not leave us until the small hours when I finally realised that I had to pump both my son and mine sleeping mattress and steer him to bed. The latter was difficult to achieve as he was high on energy but once he collapsed in the bed brought to life by me, somewhat deficiently, Orpheus took over and fed him the beautiful dreams we all want our offspring to have. I watched him in silence as his tiny curls moved hither and thither and suddenly it dawned on me that I was the happiest father in the world. I was witnessing innocence asleep. I kissed him on his forehead and sneaked into my own sleeping bag on my also very deficient and below-par mattress.
The morning found me in high spirits. In the absence of curtains in our room, we were all woken up by a sun curious to know how our night had been. My son was already playing cards with his friend J on his bed and upon seeing me awake he jumped onto my mattress and gave me a huge hug. After my morning workout we both helped make breakfast for everyone in the centre. Later it was time to get in the water and I could not wait to see him donning his wetsuit and manoeuvring his kayak. After an introductory session from his tutor, who turned out to be a very no-nonsense kind of fellow, all the children went into the water. Bar a few mishaps at the beginning, he got the hang of it pretty soon. At some point they formed a circle and watching him so full of mirth I was compelled to ask myself: ‘How am I turning out as a father?’ And more pressing, how am I turning out as a father to a boy? Questions that could look lofty and pretentious for some take on a special meaning when you are born in a different country and the colour of your skin seems to be an excuse for abuse rather than mere pigmentation. As my son spun around on his kayak and joked endlessly (without falling in the water once) I wondered what my expectations were when I was his age. True, we look at our childhood through the eyes of nostalgia and melancholy most of the time. Sometimes with rage, sometimes with candour. But we always look back. What we don’t do, what we can never do, is look at the present as we’re living it. On the one hand we lack the capacity to apply many of the concepts we’ll develop in later years to our infantile understanding of the world. On the other hand, even if we were to question the functionality of our surroundings, we would need a catharsis-like reaction to effect change. My father never played with me, there was never a throw-around with a baseball, or a kick-about with a football. It was piano from the age of five, school homework to be completed by the end of the day and a strict system at home in order to attain academic achievement. In a way my son’s own short life so far has mirrored mine, piano from an early age, good reading skills and an avid reader, good sportsman, talkative, confident, shy at times. During that weekend at the Shadwell Centre, two of the three girls there took to playing with his curls and sought him out more often than his mate J. Everyone was amazed at his bilingual abilities. I could see myself in that nine-year-old. Even down to his overbearing Dad. Am I? Yes, it pains me to admit, but yes. I am. But the main reason is that I love him, I love him to bits and when the time came to jump into the water and get soaked, he wouldn’t do it at first (who knows, stage-fright maybe?), until I re-assured him that it would be OK, that he could, that he would love it. And he did. He just did. And I was laughing. And so was he.
On the way back we occupied the same seats, with the sun playing shadow play. Its illuminated backdrop was the perfect setting for us opaque moving images. My son was reading a book in Spanish before turning to his mate J to pick up the thread of the conversation they’d left unfinished back at the centre. I listened in whilst pretending to read (I swear I can do both) and the innocent tone of it brought back memories of chats under mango trees in my uncles’ and aunties’ when I was a teeny weenie prepubescent boy. It brought back the smell of September mornings in Cuba as summer still lingered behind for a little sleep-in but autumn was already announcing its grand entrance. There were not coming-of-age ceremonies over that weekend at Shadwell, no titanic feats to accomplish, but on that late summer afternoon and on the two days that preceded it, my son and I grew to the same height together, hand in hand, together.