He strides out in front, our dog trotting at his side. He doesn’t mean to leave me behind on the dark wet pavement. But his legs are longer than mine and he is in a hurry to get somewhere. Just as sixteen years ago he would screech his scooter to a halt on street corners, and wait for me to catch up, now he slows his pace until I join him.
I speak first. ‘I don’t like the fact that I won’t know how you are when you’re on the ship’. He says nothing. ‘We’d better cross now’, he says, and we cross the road before our dog lunges at another dog behind an upcoming fence. ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, as we stride down the hill. ‘I’ll be fine. You can always track the ship on the ship’s website. It shows exactly where the ship is’. ‘Sure,’ I reply, unconvinced. And I steer the conversation to all the things that he needs to do before leaving.
We round the corner and he pounds up the last hill, the gradient of which only a complete lack of urban planning could ever have permitted. He waits for me half way up, and then again near the top. Meanwhile our dog pulls with excitement at the prospect of another neighbour’s dog behind a white paling fence.
‘What will you do when I’m gone?’ he asks, as we turn towards our house, lit up by the moon from above. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work, and to focus on other things. Besides Emma still needs my help. After that, well, after that I really don’t know. But I’m fine with that. I’ve never been able to see that far ahead’.
I walk into the front hall behind him. He unclips our dog’s harness, drops it on the rug and disappears into his bedroom. ‘Supper’s ready!’, I call out five minutes later, placing a heavy wooden board on the kitchen table to take a big pot of pasta. Emma trips down the stairs, the last night of her school holidays. My husband joins us with a small glass of wine, making appreciative noises at the sight of pasta. ‘Supper!’ I call again. The three of us sit down and I start ladling pasta into warm bowls. Putting down the ladle I shout down to him one last time. ‘This is the fourth time I’ve called you for supper!’ There is a rustle from his bedroom. ‘Actually’, he says, bounding up three stairs at once, ‘I think it’s the third’.
As we get to the bottom of our bowls there is the usual friction with my husband over second helpings. Alex stays out of it, his head in a sailing magazine. He looks up briefly. ‘Go for it’, he tells his father, waving his hand towards the pot and turning to me. ‘Don’t you want some zucchini?’ he asks. ‘Not really’, I reply. ‘Go on’, he says, ‘you have to. We’ve all had it’. I take the plate he hands me and obediently place the rounds of zucchini on to my plate.
My husband makes himself toast and cheese at the kitchen bench. While his back is turned Alex picks up the Parmesan cheese and pretends to lick the rind. ‘Don’t do that’, begs his father, looking round and falling for his son’s taunt. The moment his father’s back is turned he picks up the wooden board on which the Parmesan cheese and grater had sat during supper. He turns the board upside down and rubs it into his hair, flecks of cheese going into his hair and on to the table. His father is too busy buttering toast to notice. I roll my eyes and say nothing. His sister makes a disgusted noise, his father whips around, and we all laugh.
Alex has caught me crying enough times this past week to make a joke of it. ‘The last time…’ is his sing-song refrain whenever he catches me looking melancholy, pulling his long fingers over his face like a mime artist suggesting tears. Dropping out of teasing, he’ll add, ‘I’ll be fine’. And he’ll stand at arm’s distance and look straight into my eyes – or as straight as a 6 foot 2 young man can look into the eyes of his five foot ten mother.
After supper I join him in his bedroom. ‘But I am packing’, he says, bristling at my suggestion that he is wasting time on the internet. I take in his desk. Even if the wallet that he lost a few days ago was on it, I think to myself, it would be completely hidden by the bits of rope and crumpled receipts and apple cores and sailing magazines and tools from my father and university brochures and curling exercise books and sailing books and tags from wet weather gear and maritime certificates and old letters and the odd photo and general flotsam from a life well lived but badly organised.
I roll up a few tshirts and shove them down the side of the red sailing bag that he has insisted on borrowing from his sister. ‘Will you be taking your computer with you overseas next week?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think so’. I try again. ‘Would you like me to take your phone to be fixed while you’re on the voyage this week, so that it’s ready for you to take to Europe next week?’ ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, ‘I can still use the phone with earphones. Besides I won’t be making phone calls at sea. We’ll be in port every few weeks and I can get emails then’. ‘So’, I say, taking in the obvious, ‘you won’t be in touch a lot of the time?’ He picks up his biggest jumper and forces it into the top of his overstuffed bag. Whether in reply to me or not, I can’t tell, he says, ‘I’m looking forward to it’.
Looking away, he adds, ‘I’ll need to take the green sleeping bag in the morning. Do you know where it is? It gets quite hot below deck’.That’s it, I say to myself, getting up to fetch the green sleeping bag. He is ready. He wants to go to sea. He wants to be with other people who love what he loves and to be well away from home. I pull down the sleeping bag, plumped up in a pillow case, and shut the cupboard door in my study. For a moment I stand in darkness.
That’s all I need to know, I tell myself. He really will be fine, just as he keeps telling me. He doesn’t need me to stay in touch. If anything for the next little while he needs me not to stay in touch. He needs to be away long enough to let go of his memories of school. He needs to forget the university brochures on his desk and our funny family dinners. He needs to have the kinds of adventures that he’s dreamt of for so long and that life has been good enough to throw his way. And, I tell myself, I have to respect this. Just as my mother did when it was time for me to leave home.
Returning with the sleeping bag I look over at his bag of wet weather gear and wonder how its contents can possibly keep him warm in the Antarctic, should the Dutch ship take him that far south. But I say nothing. Instead I hug him quickly and tell him I’ll be switching off the internet in five minutes – and that he needs to get some sleep.
This morning I wake early. As I flick on the bathroom light there is a crack of light under the kitchen door and I can hear the familiar scrape of his spoon in a bowl of milky muesli. He is ready.
I drop him at the ship before sun up – for a voyage of nine days that ends eighteen hours before his flight leaves for a larger tall ship berthed in Amsterdam. In the car he tells me off twice for sitting too far forward in my seat. ‘Your arms need to be straight on the wheel. You do know that if you have a crash the airbag in that steering wheel would blow up in your face?’ ‘But,’ I reply, ‘my back feels so much better when I don’t sit right into the seat’. For a moment we sit in silence, waiting for the lights to go green. Like some weird déjà vu in that split second I remember telling off my mother, when I was a teenager, for not wearing her seatbelt properly.
I park the car near the ship, we say goodbye – he’d never kiss in public – and he hops out of the car to get his bags from the boot. As he walks towards the ship I notice how the two bags that he’d struggled to get through our front gate in one hand are swinging lightly on his back. Lights are on in the cabin of the ship. He waves to one of the crew and boards the ship without looking back.