My first grandson, Oscar, born just before Christmas, has an elder brother and two elder sisters, all aged under six. Including his mum, whom I’ve only recently met, this meant five extra presents to be chosen, wrapped and delivered on Christmas Day. As I’m still a stranger to the majority of this family, I wanted to make a good impression by handing out good-quality, competently wrapped presents. On Christmas morning I went round to their house bearing a gold paper sack containing the results of considerable thought and effort.
The sitting room was ankle-deep in wrapping paper. Oscar’s brother and sisters were out of control with excitement. The boy was doing short sprints from a standing start, halting abruptly and, by going flaccid at the neck, trying to get his head to flop off.
Before I’d taken off my coat my boy had presented me with the baby. I like holding the baby, and my boy and his partner like me to hold it. Oscar is the first baby I’ve been besotted by, and they are encouraging me in my folly. Before Oscar was born, I couldn’t stand babies. The old British aristocracy had it about right, if you ask me: keep them upstairs until they can walk and talk, then send them away to school. As for men carrying babies around in papooses dangling from their necks, it was the most contemptible thing I’d ever seen, surely the result of too much oestrogen in the water supply. I shan’t be going about in public with Oscar dangling from my neck on the end of a sling, facing inwards. I shan’t be going that far. But I admit it: I am smitten.
Now that I can see the big attraction, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting down with him cradled in my arm and studying his face as it registers his first discomfort, his first hunger, his first grief. The unassuming little chap knows absolutely nothing. He doesn’t know who he is, what he is, where he is, or why he is. Neither does he know that he has been born into a failing state presided over by a fanatical buffoon who has already borrowed £16,000 off him.
If I wasn’t worried about outstaying my welcome, I would sit for hours at my boy’s place examining Oscar’s sleepy, expressive face and planning how I could fill in the gaps in his knowledge. I think I might show him the sky first. I haven’t really looked at it myself for a while, so we can have a good look at it together. I’m looking forward to that. I might take him up on to a wild and remote spot on Dartmoor. We can lie on our backs on the coarse grass and examine the sky from there and listen to the wind. I know a place where there are skylarks and ravens and sheep skeletons with bits of wool stuck to them. After that I’ll show him the sea. I’ve lived near the sea for almost 50 years and it still gives me a thrill every time I look at it. If we go during an easterly gale we can play chicken with the crashing rollers. Then I’ll show him some dogs; hunting dogs. I’ll take him to a country show and put him among a pack of foxhounds. Kids love that.
But on Christmas morning, as I sat down, still in my coat, with Oscar, there was no calm space in which to dream of a golden future together. His brother and sisters were in the grip of a collective present-opening psychosis and shrieking for more.
‘Want,’ said Oscar’s elder brother to me in a strangulated whine. He was too lazy to articulate the complete sentence, which presumably was the statement: ‘I want a present.’ A reasonable enough request and one that lies at the heart of democratic politics in this country. But I resented having to supply the missing words of his peremptory demand as well as having to accede to it. ‘Excuse me?’ I said, feigning both politeness and ignorance. He looked at me with contempt.
I proffered a neatly wrapped present. He snatched it and ran. I watched him rip the paper away. He gave the pair of metal handcuffs underneath a brief, perplexed look then simply opened his fingers and let them drop on the floor. Then he was back, demanding another present.
‘Didn’t you like the handcuffs?’ I said. ‘Want present,’ he said sullenly. I stood up, took him by the hand and led him over to where he’d abandoned them. ‘Let me show you what they’re for,’ I said, handcuffing his five-year-old wrist to the leg of a table. He stood there with an almost bovine resignation to his new limitations for much longer than I imagined he would.