Hello dear blogging friends, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? The past few weeks have been both hectic and stressful chez Litlove but I can at least report some good news: my son did well in his exams and is heading off to university in London in a couple of weeks time. This is adding to the current madness, of course, as we try to get him prepared for self-sufficiency. Today we were shopping for all the kitchen equipment he’ll need, and my son does like to look at everything, ideally twice, and have a good think before he comes to any serious decisions, like what kind of can opener he should have. This all triggers immense nostalgia for me, as I remember so well doing the same things (if quicker) with my mother in preparation for leaving home. It was twenty-five years ago and I’ve squeezed quite a lot into that time, but in some ways it still feels like yesterday. And then there are times when I am reminded that I have left adolescence far, far behind.
My son’s treat for his exams was a ticket to the Reading music festival. When he suggested it we struggled to prevent our jaws hitting the ground as it was not at all the sort of thing he normally likes. But his friends were keen to go and he thought he’d like to try the experience. The idea of four days camping interspersed with standing in the middle of an 80,000 strong crowd for hours at a stretch qualifies as one of the inner rings of hell in my mind, so it was very difficult to picture him having a nice time. Nor did it help that he had had one of the worst getaways I’ve ever been put through. He emerged from the cocoon of his bed at about midday on the day of departure, obviously believing that he could sling a few things in a bag in half an hour. Mr Litlove had enthusiastically retrieved his old rucksack and tent and camping stove from the attic, and these were joined on the kitchen floor with a heap of clothes and an array of food. Our son was horrified to hear of the prices in the main enclosure and steadfastly refused to pay them, an admirable economic sentiment, but a disaster as far as packing went. By the time I had returned from the supermarket with a pack of socks (having discovered a laundry crisis that could not be fixed in an hour), he had filled the rucksack to bursting whilst essential items such as his sleeping bag and Wellington boots were still on the floor. This rucksack he had managed, somehow, to get on his back.
‘This’ll be fine, won’t it?’ said my son, swaying slightly in the breeze. He looked like a reed that an over-ambitious stag beetle had climbed up and bent to a 45-degree angle.
‘Are you completely mad?’ I asked.
I was beginning to feel like I was in one of those dreadful game shows in which contestants have to build a raft out of tin cans and knitting wool that will transport their survival supplies downriver for a week in the jungle. Together we got him out of the rucksack and lowered it to the floor. I surveyed the chaos in the kitchen, the ticking clock and decided it was time to panic. So we rang Mr Litlove and demanded his help. ‘You can’t leave me to pack his rucksack to go camping,’ I complained. I’d been in a tent once, aged 12 and sworn never, ever again. ‘That really is the blind leading the blind.’
‘I think you’re underestimating me,’ said my son, crossly. ‘I can carry the rucksack just fine.’ This was a cunning trump card to produce in an argument. But I went and found a wheeled suitcase and transferred his clothes to that, making the rucksack a bit lighter. After all, how much does a weekend’s supply of chicken noodle cupasoup weigh? And Mr Litlove came home and attached the tent to hanging straps at the bottom of the rucksack, freeing up some space for the sleeping bag. By which point our son’s friends were texting him from the railway station and so we hurried out the door.
Mr Litlove rang us ten minutes later, saying he was holding a festival ticket in his hand, having found it on the kitchen table and perhaps he should drop it off at the station on his way back to work? Even our son had to put his head in his hands at that point.
So I was not feeling particularly optimistic as we embarked on the long Bank Holiday weekend. Mr Litlove and I were unusually tired, the dental work I’d had a couple of weeks back had left me with some neuralgia, and although we knew we ought to be doing something to celebrate four days of holiday, we sat about dozing over our books and watching the torrential rain that had begun to fall. Every few years the newspapers gleefully print pictures of festival-goers knee-deep in swamps of mud, and I couldn’t help wondering what the conditions were like in Reading. We’d heard once from our son who had reported that the special transfer bus from the station had travelled for all of five minutes to the campsite gates, leaving them an hour and a half walk to the place where they could pitch their tents. I was beset by images of mud-coated teenagers returning to waterlogged tents, forced to watch packets of cupasoup float past on the tide.
I’d decided to reread Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, a historical novel I’d read aged 18 and loved, on the grounds it might be comforting. But it was a bit silly the second time around, though the historical parts were quite good.
‘I’ve got to the part where Matilda, Lady of Hay and her son have been left to die in an oubliette by the wicked King John,’ I told Mr Litlove.
‘See? Someone’s having a worse time this weekend than you.’
And yet, when I thought of it, I couldn’t help but make the analogy between an oubliette and a peapod tent, and wonder whether our son and his girlfriend were slowly fading away from hunger and fatigue and a chronic inability to look after themselves effectively.
Never had I been so glad to see two people as I was to see the happy campers late on Monday afternoon. No, the rain had only been at night in Reading, and the days had been hot enough to dry it up fast. Yes, they’d run out of mentholated spirits for the camping stove on Saturday evening. Yes, they’d had fun. No, they probably wouldn’t camp again. Sleeping had been so hard that they’d ended up in bed by eleven pm some nights, an outrageous concession for teenagers keen to party.
I think they must have lived off dry breakfast cereal for the last 48 hours of the trip as I spent the next ten days cooking and yet never producing enough food to satisfy their appetites. Our son’s girlfriend rapidly came down with a nasty throat virus as a result of too much exposure to the elements (she was staying with us because her family had gone on holiday). Small, voiceless and just about nocturnal, we might not have even known she was in the house apart from the coughing, by which means we could track her from room to room. Inevitably our son caught it off her and is coughing still, the Reading legacy lasting longer than I might have guessed. But a couple of nights ago, he called us to the computer to watch a brief shot of video, taken from the festival and uploaded to the BBC website. There we saw his white t-shirt, bobbing up and down in the midst of the enormous crowd.
‘Yup,’ he said proudly, ‘I was there.’
One final thing I should mention: I recently embarked on a three-month creative non-fiction writing course and so posting here will of necessity be constrained. In fact, I am not at all sure what life will be like over the next few months as we all adjust to very different routines. But I’m hoping to post once a week, just to keep in touch and let you know what’s happening. I’ve missed you all and been so touched by the emails sent by friends wondering where I was. The book blogging community is so lovely and supportive – big hugs to you all.