The children are back in the jug agane, whizz boo, I can resume my usual regime of quiet desperation and chicken surveillance.
I was prompted, in conversation with M today about veal escalopes (thank god we are both free from the bonds of ghastly vegan-slash-juice detox and can return to our normal staple of conversation: what animals we are going to eat and when and how), to reflect on the contrast between their holidays and mine. Since my parents were separated, school holidays would always, or almost always, involve a trip to stay with my father. The longer ones would involve several weeks in Yorkshire succumbing to trench foot and studying the decomposition of small mammals, or even some more exotic foray aboard, but shorter holidays normally meant a trip to visit him in London, where I would basically sit around his Imperial College office while he worked.
I wouldn't be totally idle: he would always devise some task for me, sorting papers or tidying in return for pocket money. As I got older the tasks became progressively more complex - one summer I remember having to interview someone in Tanzania for a job monitoring fishing on Lake Tanganika in French on a very haphazard satellite connection - but the key element remained that I had to be around his office, because he simply couldn't get away and, I don't know, take me to the zoo or whatever.
They're actually very jolly memories. My father's office was treasure trove of fossils and bones and photographs of friendly whales and he was surrounded by young, jolly, patient biologists. For a few wonderful years, he even worked with someone who would bring her parrot, Casper, into the office every day. Casper would sit on a sort of jerrybuilt perch outside my father's office, clicking, shredding monkey nuts and squawking if he didn't like the look of you: he could, occasionally, on high days and holidays of which there were many, be persuaded to sit on your shoulder. At lunchtimes, my father's tremendously posh secretary would escort me over to Knightsbridge to buy me a Pizza Hut pizza for lunch (a great novelty, this, in the early 1980s), then we would perambulate briefly around Harrods, so that she could check out the new arrivals at Country Casuals. On one glorious occasion, she even took me to get my ears pierced in the sixth floor 'salon', an event of such ineffable sophistication I dined out on it back in York for months. Sometimes other kind, obliging (or conceivably put-upon) souls would take me to the Imperial College shop for biscuits, or to the Polish Club on Exhibition Road (it's gone posh now, it emphatically wasn't then), or the V and A caff. When I got older, I could roam the ludicrously expensive shops of Knightsbridge all by myself or eat a sandwich in the Brompton Oratory garden.
A couple of times a week, when my father decided to escape, he would walk me (and anyone else he could inveigle into coming; I don't think I was a sparkling conversationalist at ten) briskly to the Piccolo Venezia trattoria next to the Ismaili Centre, a haven of red carpets and giant pepper grinders. This was my very greatest treat : the most proper of lunches with a proper tablecloth and wine for my father and a Coca Cola for me. There would be Saltimbocca alla Romana, with crispy rosemary sauté potatoes, for both of us (or just for me, and my father would have the liver), served with four token green beans, followed by the portentous rumble of the dessert trolley. I can still taste the wet boozy sponge and coffee and heavy cream of the tiramisu, the tart-sweet gently furred raspberries my father always encouraged me to have as well. Sometimes there would be orange slices in caramel, topped with those neat, thin, curls of peel: my mother made them too, but hers were cut thicker, the oranges were chewy and pithy and tasted of actual orange. At the Piccolo Venezia they were soft and medicinal and strange, like the Turkish Delight in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
I remember being intermittently quite bored, and increasingly awkward as I shaded into the teenage years, but it never seemed odd that I was spending my holidays in the corner of his office: I quite liked the faintly superior sense of purpose I got from setting off early in the morning and whooshing past the meandering, rucksacked groups outside the museums. My mother took me to work too when she couldn't find any alternative. With hindsight, both my parents were apparently quite unapologetic about me whiling away my holidays with a box of stolen biros and some index cards (remember index cards?), but also about imposing me on their colleagues. I can't imagine ever being able to do this in any environment I've ever worked in, possibly because I was never important enough to brazen it out, but also, I suppose, because I worked in huge organisations and you're hardly going to sneak your kid into your shared office past 500 other people. They both worked in small, friendly, self-contained units within university departments where, apparently, you could get away with this kind of thing.
Since the 1970s and 1980s were hardly more enlightened, child-centred times, there was presumably less scope for palming me off on some kind of organised childcare, but also, I think, they both had a conviction that what they were doing was sufficiently important that it shouldn't be interrupted by, well, me. Objectively, that was right: my mother was researching and influencing policy on provision of services for families with handicapped children, and on the role and burdens of child carers. My father was saving whales. And it's not as if these times were any kind of hardship for me: they felt special, grown-up.
I don't really know what I'm saying with this - uh, it was different back then? But also, I suppose, that it's ok for your children to fit around you sometimes rather than the other way. I'm not particularly susceptible to guilt about how my children spend their holidays: I mean, I'm here most of the time aren't I? Quality be damned. But it is hard not to succumb to the sense that you should be constantly laying on a smorgasbord of age-appropriate and improving activities, when in fact, some of the best and most enlightening times of your childhood can be neither of those things. I felt a lot closer to my father - who could be a rather distant, intimidating figure on the end of the phone from York - after those strange, chaotic weeks. I liked how we'd hop on and off the 52 bus, or drop into Patisserie Valerie to buy croissants on grey summer London mornings with that particular smell of warm city dirt and diesel. I loved our skiving saltimbocca lunches and I liked discovering him in that other, adult context, at home in the big, glamorous city and at home in his work. I liked to see him being impressive, concentrating, or laughing, pink cheeked and tipsy with Casper on his shoulder. You discover your parents in another light in those moments: I remember too, opening the front door at home to my mother, joyfully staggering drunk having just been awarded her PhD. It's instructive, important, sometimes slightly shocking, to see their life beyond you.
Both my father and mother were better than I am at remembering to be themselves rather than simply being parents: their love for me was never for a second in doubt, but their aspirations were greater and broader. That's what comes from having a vocation, having ambition, believing what you do is important, I suppose. Those things have proved bewilderingly elusive for me, which is not at all what I expected based on what I absorbed in those childhood holidays. Maybe it'll change, eventually and maybe it doesn't actually matter (the wonderful Prog Rock didn't have a passionate professional vocation: he looked after us and learned 17 languages and cooked curries and read Le Monde Diplomatique and Heinrich Böll smoking a roll up in the garden and he's the most magnificent person I know). But every parent should have the odd parrot on the shoulder moment.