Today, 29th March, is my son Jake’s twenty-first birthday and I’m not at home with him. I very much wish I was. Instead I’m deep in the Northumbrian countryside at Highgreen Manor, home of William and Cynthia Morrison-Bell, running a writing course with my fellow Dark Angel, Stuart Delves.
Highgreen must be a spectacular place in any weather. Today, under an unblemished sky and a blazing sun, it is doubly so. A turreted Victorian manor at the centre of an enclave of greenery, it’s surrounded by mile after mile of empty moorland that still wears a sere end-of-winter coat. The house and outbuildings are sheltered by trees, the grass around them is lush and well tended, plants and shrubs are putting out their first shoots, and ranks of daffodils stand guard on the margins of the large lawn.
It’s the lawn, and the noise emanating from it, that holds my attention. A gardener on a small tractor is making stripes as he mows his way up and down in the sunshine. Sitting on his knee as he goes is his young son. Both of them wear back-to-front baseball caps. The father steers with one arm, the other placed protectively around the child’s waist. There’s a look on the little boy’s face that says this business of being with his father, of doing grown-up work with him, is a solemn and wonderful thing that should never, ever be allowed to come to an end.
And here’s the strange thing about it: this very scene is one that was played out in a different place, at a different time, with two-year-old Jake and me as the protagonists. It happened, almost identically, nineteen years ago, at the house we lived in when we first came back to Scotland, and although I frequently remember it, I have never seen it repeated until today.
Also surrounded by a wild landscape, the hills of Highland Perthshire, our house had an equally large lawn, sheltered by trees and bordered by daffodils, where Jake used to love to come on the mowing tractor with me. But being slightly younger than the boy here at Highgreen, he would invariably fall asleep, almost at once, lolling forward over the arm with which I held him safe on my lap.
I remember the warmth of his small body against mine, the smell of his skin and hair mingling with the smell of petrol and freshly cut grass, the unconditional, animal love I felt for the limp child sleeping so trustingly and soundly on my arm as we puttered round the garden.
Today Jake is tall and slim, full of virile energy and charm. I would love to be there to see him over this threshold into full manhood, to tell him in person how proud he makes me with his curiosity about the world, his eagerness to engage. But I am not and the universe has handed me an entirely unexpected consolation prize: an intense memory of where the love I feel for him today first sprang from.
Absent in this lost, beautiful place I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate his existence.