OK, son? By Wendy Erskine

1. On a trip to Amsterdam we went to a Ryoji Ikeda exhibition. It was for me a pretty immersive experience of sound and light and movement.   Because it was so dark, the gallery attendant could not see my teenage son when he knocked on the window that bordered the space. For him it was one of the highlights of the trip, when the guy chased him into the blackness of the exhibition. It was a good laugh. Unlike the exhibition.

2. In Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response, Audre Lorde tells how she and her partner were considering attending a Lesbian/Feminist conference where no boys over 10 were allowed. She says how this, in relation to their son, presented philosophical problems as well as logistical. In their letter to the conference organisers, she and her partner said that ‘Our thirteen-year-old son represents as much hope for our future world as does our fifteen-year old-daughter.’

3. I have a boy and a girl. I find neither one less interesting than the other.

 

4. It is however different, having a daughter. She is a version of me. We are more or less the same shape, can wear each other’s clothes, use the same box of tampons. My son is at fourteen a foot taller than me.

 

5. I showed my kids Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’ when they were quite young. They both got upset when Judas killed himself but my son was particularly agitated when Herod ordered the babies to be slaughtered. We used to go to the cinema reasonably frequently, my son and I. He would often ask at the start, which person are you in this? I suppose I unconsciously identify with characters but he always wanted this explicit, right from the outset. We don’t really go that often now, because he’s busy with other stuff.

6. My son likes Fifa, Zinger meals, his local football club, rap music and Arsenal. At present he is going on at me to buy the Armani EA7 tracksuit.

 

7. One night my husband, on his way out to have a cigarette in the dark, accidentally stepped on a frog. It let out a horrific noise before dying. That poor frog, I said to the kids, its sister and its mum and dad were waiting and waiting for it, but it never came home. My son said that it was the sister got killed. The brother and the mum and dad were waiting for her.

 

8. Somebody once told me that in relation to dealing with children, they will either think you are a bastard or a stupid bastard. I have found the bastard / stupid bastard antithesis as axiomatic and central to my thinking on virtually every subject from literature to work to politics – but have never found it to hold true in relation to children. What is required from adults is, I think, cool, hard kindness. Then kids, whether you are a geography teacher, a social worker or a mum or dad, will find you alright.

 

9. A while ago, I wrote a short story about a mother and a son. It ended up on the radio. It was about a woman called Sonya whose son goes missing. It was a story about suicide. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of suicide in the UK, men (particularly young men) outnumbering women. The mother and other members of her family put up missing posters around Belfast. Quite possibly many people will have seen posters like this where they live. Belfast does not have the monopoly on suicide. His body is eventually discovered. Sonya has no idea what led him to do it. What she can’t stand is that the posters are still out there. And so the rain still pours down on, the wind still buffets, the face of her son. And so she goes out with a bottle of soapy water and a scraper to remove them.

 

10. A favourite memory is of waking up in a house only a few yards from the sea at Portbradden on the north Antrim coast. Everything was white, the walls, the curtains, the clean sheets. My little son, only three at the time, was sleeping in the same room and he when he woke up he climbed into bed beside me. We fell asleep as the sea continued its rolling. Back then I was the boss, I suppose. There were limited variables.

 

11. Every home is a semi-autonomous statelet, with its own rules and its own laws, its own ideologies. It also has its own factions. This land of ours is, I feel, a kind of easy-going, progressive democracy. But it subdivides into little cantons, bedrooms where one person might pursue their strange music pleasures until four in the morning, where another, playing on the XBox screams for one of his friends to pick up the hand gun for fuck’s sake. Pick it up now! He’s behind you!

 

12. My son doesn’t read books. The last book I read to him was I am Football: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It was pretty good, but it got lost somewhere. Although I love books it doesn’t bother me at all that he doesn’t. My dad was into sport, any sport. I played nothing. Such is life. Your children are not you, and they are not the means by which you vicariously achieve what you think you missed. That said, it is lovely when you find you have things in common. But if you don’t, it’s fine.

13. Years ago, I got my daughter to take a picture of me and my son in front of a shop window, to produce a version of the Ian Dury cover, New Boots and Panties. I want to do it again, all these years later, but he doesn’t want to do it. I could consider a bribe in relation to the tracksuit.

14. Because I am a writer who has produced a book of short stories, I am no more qualified than anyone else (and less so than many others) to offer any commentary on young men and the challenges that they face, on suicide in Belfast or anywhere else. Because I am a writer who has produced a book of short stories, I am no more qualified than anyone else to comment on what it means to raise a boy.

 

15. I rang my son to ask him where he was and he said C S Lewis Square. This is a spot in Belfast with various statues in celebration of the Narnia books.   Yeah, I’m sitting on top of the tiger, he said. Jeez, I replied, that’s not a tiger, that’s a lion. That’s Aslan. Well whatever it is, he said, it’s got really big balls. When I happened to be passing C S Lewis Square I took a look and he was in fact correct on this.

 

16. Later my daughter made a short film out of my story about the mother and son. It was part of her coursework for school. Not having a roster of actors available, I had to play the mother and my son the son. We tried our best. The posters were made up with my son’s face as the missing boy. I can’t say it wasn’t strange. Part of the film involved us being shot messing around in a back garden, having a laugh, to a soundtrack of Cat Power. These were the halcyon days in the story, the time of happy-tinted carelessness, before the son was lost. I thought about the physical closeness, carrying a child, looking after a child and what it must feel like when your son, despite perhaps being surrounded by people, is alone. And what it must feel like for anybody who has a loved one they cannot reach.

 

17. There is so much that could have been told here – the hilarious, the shocking, the amazing – but what appeared did so only with my son’s permission. Because, if you are willing to compromise your kids in order to produce what might be perceived as a more exciting and pimped piece of writing then you are making a mistake.

 

18. Audre Lorde writes that ‘The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself… And this means how to move to that voice from within himself, rather than to those raucous, persuasive, or threatening voices from outside, pressuring him to be what the world wants him to be.’

19. ‘And that is hard enough’ she says. Agreed.

 

20. ‘Simmer down love,’ my son says to me when I’m getting annoyed about something. It’s said with affection and at least some irony.   Simmer down love, he might say, right now.

 

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