I was talking to a friend, my jacket collar turned up against the cold, when my son put his head out of the cabin below. ‘Helen’, he said, (he’s stopped using the ‘M’ word) ‘when you’re at sea you’re at sea. You’re not chatting on land’. I laughed. He was right, damn it. I was prattling on as if we were doing the washing up after dinner. And not as if we were in the middle of the harbour, waiting for the wind to fill the sails.
On a boat Alex knows exactly what to do. When to reef the sails, when to tack, and when to turn the engine on and turn home. With this he assumes a friendly diplomacy with his sister that, too often, escapes him at home. On a boat he’s in control. Not the captain of his ship – there’s no way he can afford the kind of boat he longs for – but very much himself.
If the New York Times Wellness column is to be believed, my son’s prefrontal cortex will not be full developed until his mid-20s. Does this explain how he can head up to the snow line on his mountain bike without a jacket, and in the next breath exhort his sister to wear her fluorescent jacket on her bike to school? Is this why he taunts Emma for not doing what he calls ‘real subjects’ in her final year at school? She, he claims, hasn’t been forced to study history and languages, as his father and I forced him into. She, clearly, is having an altogether easier time of it. I smile softly at Emma as she finishes calculations for a Housing and Design project, one of her so-called easy subjects, before returning to cooking supper.
That night, after Alex has washed up, I suggest a drive. Grabbing the car keys we’re on the road in minutes, Jack Johnson on the stereo, heading for the hills that we spent so much time in when he was learning to drive two years ago. Though he drives more carefully than he did then, he still rides the accelerator as if pushing through the gears of his bike. Relaxing into my role as passenger I find out more in that hour on the road, about where he is, than a whole of week of mealtimes has revealed. Details of the voyage he has just returned from, concerns about his future, the exorbitant cost of things he would like but can’t afford, his school friends’ mixed feelings about university life, more angst about his future.
In theory Alex accepts that he’d be miserable if he were locked into a sensible university course. In theory he doesn’t envy his schoolfriends’ long-term futures. In theory he agrees that he can’t have the kind of freedom he currently enjoys as a deck hand on tall ships, and also have long-term security. However he has just turned 20 and is full of contradictions. He hates cars, preferring to get around on a bike. Yet he loves to take the wheel on country roads as the car turns with him into each bend. And however much he’d like to know what he’ll be doing and earning in three years’ time, we both know that he wants adventure more. Iceland and Canada and the Gulf of Mexico beckon – and already he’s been to more continents than I’ve visited, or am likely to.
As we swing into the car park next to our darkened house we agree that we’ll turn off the Internet in half an hour’s time. However even after I’ve forced myself to pay a few bills and reply to emails his light is still on. ‘Can I turn off the Internet now?’ I call down to him. ‘Can I have ten more minutes?’ ‘Sure’, I say, wanting to sound reasonable while not actually feeling it.
‘What will you do when Emma eventually leaves home?’ Alex asks me the next night, walking the dog before dinner. ‘I know it’s hard for you to imagine’, I say, ‘but I was on my own for a long time before you and Emma came along.’ ‘But you’re so good at looking after people’, he says. ‘What will you do when Paul is off in Europe and you are on your own in the house?’ ‘I don’t really know yet’, I reply, halting. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work. Of course it will be weird. It’s been ages since I’ve really been on my own. Although, even with travel Paul will be at home most of the time.’ A pause. ‘And I do realise’, I add, ‘that Emma must feel free to fly when she’s ready. It’s important that she doesn’t feel that she has to stay at home to hold my hand.’
‘Perhaps you’ll be able to travel too’, he suggests. ‘Oh, I don’t know’, I reply, ‘I’m not planning on going anywhere. I like being at home and anyway travel is expensive. Besides’, I say, starting to sound defensive, ‘I’ve still got the house and garden to look after. And there’s Pippi, of course’.
Pippi the dog pushes up the hill. I follow on behind as Alex strides ahead. We fall into silence as we near the top. That’s when it strikes me. Neither of us knows what the future will bring. Neither of us has a five-year plan. Neither of us knows how our lives will look after one door closes and another opens. But I don’t say any of this out loud, knowing that he’ll tease me if I do.
I break down in a Yoga class, crying in the low light of the final meditation – for me closer to thinking with my eyes shut. The Yoga teacher, a friend, sees my distress and puts pressure on my legs.
I throw myself into helping Alex pack, sewing name tags that I ferret out of the sewing basket on to his wool leggings and tops, and writing his initials on every tag I can find with a permanent marker. He washes his sea boots and leaves them out to dry. He empties whole drawers of clothes on to his bed, and pretends to sort through them. He picks up the bin bag into which I’ve thrown a few stray items, and retrieves worn out socks.
On the weekend he spends a couple of hours chopping wood, before opening the sitting room window wide as, together, we stack it behind the sofa. Most days he stays in his room, reading magazines, chatting with friends on facebook, and generally wasting time on-line. Cross with himself by mid afternoon, he’ll disappear up the mountain on his bike, even without forking out for new brake pads. Or he’ll join friends for a meal, look at other people’s boats on the harbour – or spend the morning doing a refresher course in First Aid.
After dinner one night we flick through old photos on the computer. ‘You know’, he says, ‘on my last voyage I had a lot of time to think’. ‘Oh yeh’, I say. ‘Yes, I had so much time that I started remembering bits of my childhood that I’d forgotten about. All the things that we used to do. I’m really glad that we did those things, they were good times.’ ‘Thank you’, I say, and we continue flicking through the photos, laughing here and there and causing Emma to thump on her bedroom floor to make us quiet.
Last Friday Alex’s fortnight at home was up. On Sunday he left Tasmania for Iceland, flying from one end of the world to the other, to wait for his ship to come in. ‘Climbed a mountain today’, he texted on Monday from the north of Iceland. ‘Glad you are up to climbing’, I texted back. ‘Good luck and’, I added, ‘eat blubber!’