I lied (as I’ve often quoted) when I said I was the outdoors type. Supermum, however, would probably live in a yurt, given the chance, and loves to camp. So periodically I submit to this, with greater or lesser good will. Dudelet and little elf also love camping and I want them to enjoy it and I’m delighted it’s something they share with their mother, especially dudelet. Still, the weekends when supermum gets the urge to pack up her gigantic bell tent, fill the roof-rack with rugs and throws and a hardcore panoply of portable gas stoves, pans, cunningly nested place-settings and inflatable beds and sleeping bags fill me with creeping anxiety and dread. It isn’t the actual camping so much as the preparation. Attics have to be explored. Cupboards emptied. Cars filled to bursting point. Over-excited children corralled into other unsupervised activities whilst we pack everything up.
Normally, the three of them will head off on a Friday and frequently meet up with Favourite Aunt (who is a thoroughly Outdoor Type with positively hemulic tendencies). Work often requires me to arrive the following day to find supermum exhausted after a late bedtime, a sleepless night, an early (5:30 am) start and the children still hyper beyond belief.
There are points, generally at about eleven or twelve pm, after dudelet and little elf have finally fallen asleep out of sheer exhaustion, when we’re in bed and aren’t far behind them and when the racket surrounding us (transistor radios, trains, geese, canal boats motoring after dark, families bumbling to and from the shower block without torches finding their way by high pitch squeals like bats) when I understand what a tent, if not camping, is good for.
Supermum’s bell tent is about seven feet high at the top and wide enough to sleep all four of us comfortably. She’s kept every embroidered bedspread or cast-off rug from her student days onwards and they all come out when she camps. They layer the floor like a history of our lives together written in textiles. The tent is canvas with a separate ground sheet and it breathes. It is one of the few times we all share the same space and find it comforting as opposed to irritating. Outside, the plains and forests could roll on for infinity or buildings and people close in on all fronts. We care not. There is, for a few hours, only our own little microcosm.
The next day we hired a boat for an hour – a bona fide skiff. I rowed, Supermum sat in state in the stern (a tiny down-payment on the twenty years of driving I can never reciprocate), dudelet shouted instructions (“Port!” “Starboard!’ No, PORT!” Bump) and little elf finally agreed to put on her life jacket and trailed her hand in the water, marvelling at how warm it was and wondering whether the ducks would come and talk to her. Rowing a skiff puts you down at duck level. It is surprizingly quiet, apart from the splash of the oars and the occasional thump of the bows against the canal-side brickwork (“I said PORT, daddy!”). Birds ignore you and continue about their business and other navigators, seeing your tendency to progress in wildly tangential arcs and dashes interspersed with outright collisions with banks overgrown with holly bushes and nettles, do their best to avoid you.
I like rowing. I should do it more often. Basingstoke Canal glided by attractively and an hour gently sped by. I discovered that a rowing boat full of my family on a sunny day skimming across a quiet stretch of water is as much a microcosm as a tent at midnight. I remembered Swallows and Amazons and other books of my childhood full of oars and dingys and adventurous gangs of children. I felt like the Water Rat. There was no Badger, however. Little elf had earlier banished badgers whilst we were on a hunt for bunnies along the towpath.
“Badgers are bad,” she had declared. “Bad, bad, bad.”
I never discovered why. We can tackle that later.