When I was eleven, a week off was nothing special. The holiday at the end of the school year felt as long as summer itself; Then you’d step back through the schoolyard fence, and it would be winter, with sleet pelting your back, and all the puddles in the quadrangle frozen into thin sheets of slippy ice. Summer holidays were all about exploration. Disappearing at dawn with a shout from my mother to be back before dark, remembering to bring a hatchet, shovel and knife but forgetting food and water. The number of times I drank from some tepid pond, down on all fours like a heat-struck dog. I never once caught cryptosporidiosis, but I was always home late, always in trouble, always starving. I didn’t like sitting around unless I had a good book, so I fled with my friend (singular, always) into the bush, and there we could pretend to be anybody, recite our lies until we’d perfected them, and put off the idea that this childhood would ever end.
I thought the Boys Own Adventure stories were the promise of my own exciting future. Swallows and Amazons had me searching for lost tribes on island swamps in the bush and finding nothing but tiger snakes and cannabis plantations. Even the now-despised Enid Blyton books were all about youthful rambles (and lashings of ginger beer), yet I never met the Kirrin kids out there among the pines. Being the eldest, I was always disappointed by the responsibility foist upon the oldest male sibling of fictional English families: they never had much fun. I didn’t want to be Peter, even if he did become High King. Firstborns seemed to inherit the dullest storylines, and I could see that happening to me in real life, so to read it in my escapist holiday fiction was equally shit. But (returning to Swallows and Amazons) at least my name was’t Titty Walker.
Fast forward forty years, and I have a week off ahead of me. Tomorrow, I’m returning to the pine forests (of Sapphire Bend) to fossick for gemstones with Child Number 3. He wants a pretty stone to set into a ring for his girlfriend, and my wife’s put in an order for a matching — yes, matching — pair of wild blue sapphires for earrings. Maybe swinging a pick will loosen the knot at the base of my neck. Then, as soon as I get home from that, I’m unpacking the prospecting tools and repacking the car with backpacks and camping gear to spend a couple of days in Royal National Park with Child Number 2. He wants to put his 16-35mm to the test with some landscape photography, maybe a little astrophotography as well. If I come home with a moody ocean-at-dawn panorama to frame above my bed I’ll be proper pleased. If not, well, I’m still having adventures.
You’ve noticed that my daughter, Child Number 1, isn’t among those plans. That’s because she’s the eldest. Life is full of responsibilities, especially when your baby (CN 1.1) is an inquisitive elf who wants to pack twenty-five hours of adventure into every day. My daughter is as outdoorsy as they come, but she has to defer the things she’d like to do for herself until “later”. I can’t tell her when later will be, but when she’s ready there are lots of places I want to take her and the elf before I get so old I can’t go there anymore. And that, if you’re interested, leads us to the secret of happiness: Work hard enough so that you can afford the time and means to have adventures with others. Go down the rabbit hole, step through the looking glass, and find out what’s at the back of that wardrobe. The kid inside you never really grows up; he or she’s just waiting for you to get off your phone.