The worst thing about being divorced when you have kids is that something is always in the wrong house. You only ever realise it five seconds before you need it, and it never ends. Maybe it’s the only pen with the right nib for the homework, and no, obviously that other pen with the identical nib won’t do because it’s the wrong colour. Or perhaps it’s a charger, without which no electricity can be connected to any device, or a hair clip in the shape of a snake that makes sense of the entire outfit. Once, it was a piece of paper with instructions on it for a project, which, it turned out, simply read: “Draw a diagram of the life-cycle of a plastic bag,” but only after every adult in the postcode had turned themselves inside out looking for it. It is always something tiny, that could be anywhere, unless it’s something huge, and you’re howling round the house, going: “How can anyone lose a saxophone?”
It is never about the huge or tiny thing, it’s only about the emotions. All the rage, frustration and sadness a kid might feel – this huge thing just happened, and life is now different and worse, and they weren’t consulted, and what idiotic thing might a parent decide to do next? – they never seem to say out loud. Instead, they will lose the lid to their sparkly nail varnish, and cry for so long that the next thing you know, you’re going through your ex’s recycling at midnight. The very worst time, which liquifies me with guilt just writing it down, was a lost script for a school play five years ago, resulting in the now-11-year-old being kicked out of the Three Little Pigs. The school was very rigid on this point: it would rather go out on stage with two pigs than suffer a performer who couldn’t keep hold of her material.
There is absolutely no way of getting ahead of it, because children lose everything, all the time; or insulating yourself against it: you feel bad, because you’re right to feel bad, because it’s your fault. By “you”, of course, I mean “me”. The other morning, I cycled so fast to get a school tie to the right place that I got flashed by a speed camera. “Ha!” you’re thinking. “Maybe if you want to be divorced, you should buy more ties.” We have eight. Somehow, they all ended up at my house. I’m like a tie-magnet, my ex a trouser-magnet, but if you think it works in your favour to be the one with all the stuff in your house, you’re wrong. There are no winners in the game of “Where’s my … ?”
Take the return to school after Easter. It’s 8.12am, our scheduled departure time is 8.15, and my son can’t find his shoes. Within maybe 90 seconds, Mr Z is trying to coax him into a pair of his shoes, which are only one size too big, and nobody needs to know (for now) that they were actually handed down by Mr Z’s uncle, for whom they were handmade in probably 1935. They are incredibly fancy, black patent with exquisite detailing, the shoes you would wear to your first dinner after you’ve just won a war, resoundingly. TJ would rather stop going to school, enter adult life with no qualifications and survive on the profits of crime, than wear these shoes. I am truncating a bit. It takes him so long to list all the things that he would prefer to do than wear patent shoes that it is now 8.19.
My daughter starts crying. She is incredibly stoic, these days, so her bursting into tears is more or less unheard of. It takes me a while to even make sense of the sound – I’m upstairs by now, obviously, looking for the shoes – and I tear down, expecting something terrible to have happened, like the rabbit’s died, or she has stuck her hand in a blender.
“I’m going to be late.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m going to be late, too, and I’m not worried.”
“We’re not the same person.”
She’s got me, there. On paper, I accept that H is her own person, with her own personality. Deep down, I basically think we’re identical, which makes her points of difference – punctuality, hand-eye coordination – completely incomprehensible to me.
Their dad has the old shoes, and can meet us on the way, but not the wanted shoes. I point out that he must have them, otherwise I’d have them. This sets him off on his annoying maths-logic-calendar thing. Good Friday was a bank holiday, the moon was in Capricorn and the windspeed was 16mph, so Thursday was the last school-shoes day, so they must be at mine. It’s annoying because it’s true: they are under TJ’s desk, where any idiot could have found them, if they had eyes.
It’s 8.23 and we’re out of the house, at the traffic lights. “You’re 13 and a half!” I explode. “You have to keep track of your own shoes!” “It’s funny how I’m always 13 when I’m not allowed to do something, and 13 and a half when I should have done something,” he replies, equably. Agh! Another maths-logic-calendar thing. He gets it from his dad.
H was on time, by the way. We were all on time, wearing shoes, looking – to the untrained eye – like winners after all.