Wearing shorts last week in a mid-October heatwave, having worn shorts continuously since March, Les Murray’s poem ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’ seemed achievable. Would we still be in shorts on Christmas Day, I wondered? Better still, no socks? I recently met an English chap who stated in all seriousness that his main reason for emigrating to the South of France was to stop wearing socks and he hadn’t put a sock on for 30 years.
But at the exact moment when the dream of wearing shorts forever looked possible, it was winter. As I put it to the woman in the boulangerie the next morning: ‘Yesterday afternoon I went upstairs for a snooze. I fell asleep in summer and when I woke up it was winter.’ It was true. The seasons fast forwarded in two hours from ‘Adlestrop’ to ‘The Darkling Thrush’. She laughed heartily at an Englishman caught napping by the weather. To her it was a perfectly normal transition.
Sunless Provence is grim. The locals go from semi-nudity to dressing like Nanook of the North. I followed suit. It was out with the Barbour Northumberland, which the man in the shop had warned was too warm even for Northumberland these days. Back into the cupboard went the light sandals; out came the heavy boots; on went the dreaded socks.
On that first day of my resumption of shoes and socks, I thought anxiously of my 11-year-old grandson. That same day he was starting at a new school, also wearing new shoes and socks, sent by his loving grandad via Amazon. (His poor mum has temporarily given up the struggle of looking after five kids, and he has gone to live with his father, who lives 150 miles away.)
Aged 12, I too had started at a new school in a faraway place in the middle of term. I had reported in the morning to the deputy headmaster and he had told me to stand there and not to move from a particular spot on the polished woodblock floor outside the assembly hall. I was wearing short trousers because my parents anachronistically imagined boys wore short trousers not for ever, perhaps, but until around the age of 14. Also, I was wearing the official school cap. My new shoes hobbled me.
While I waited there, the entire school, 600 boys, including many witty giants, filed past and went through the double doors into morning assembly. Not one of them was wearing short trousers. If it wasn’t the shorts they all found hilarious it was the cap. I have never been so insulted in all my life. So all that first day of winter, wearing socks and shoes again, I thought of Oscar wearing his, and I hoped and prayed that his experience would be less shattering than mine.
I kept him in mind all through that first winter day, which began with Catriona’s beloved old dog falling down the stairs. She hopped about on three legs shrieking. Old Sally is 14 years old, totally deaf, partially sighted, and has a dicky heart. But she has a lovely smile and enjoys her walks still. Nevertheless a busted leg would probably mean the parting of the ways. But as we carried the miserable dog down the path to the road, and on the car journey to the vet, it was my grandson I had in mind. And it was on his behalf, not the dog’s, that I pleaded for a lucky break.
Oscar’s father had promised a phoned report of his first day at school some time during the evening. The call came late and I picked up on the first ring. Oscar himself was ushered to the phone to soothe the doting old fool. His new teacher was a man, Oscar said. A Mr Green, no less. The first male teacher he’d ever had. Marvellous. ‘And were the other boys kind?’ Well, at lunch break he had been invited to play football. They had a proper football and were allowed to play on a proper pitch with goals and nets and everything. The teams lined up nine a side and he scored eight goals in 20 minutes, he said. After the third one had gone in, a long- range Lanzini-style rocket, two players from two teams had separately asked him if he would play for their Saturday morning football teams. All considered, that had meant four friends, he thought. Yes, he said: they were kind. ‘And did your shoes hurt?’ On this point I was especially anxious. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being new and your shoes hurting. No, he said. His shoes were comfortable.
I don’t know. Maybe children are nicer these days and new shoes more comfortable than they used to be. They’ll be telling me next that Mafeking has been relieved. Anyway, great news.