MeredithPosted: August 27, 2012
I doubt Meredith could have been happier when I handed over her first penknife. All I could see were beaming teeth. I told her to be careful with it, and she promised. She’s a big girl. She’s six. I showed her how to break it apart so she could use it to eat – it’s a complete, fold-away cutlery set – and she tried the spoon on an aluminium plate of canned lentils and sausage I’d heated on a gas burner. We were hoping to see bats as the light dropped, as they usually feed over the river at dusk, but the water was so clogged with deadfall on the bend next to our camp I assume it would have been impossible to fly. I set up the bivouac, and after the meal we washed the dishes in the Vézère. Meredith made me jump around like a rabbit on the stones next to the river, something she found hysterically funny. Eventually we just sat and watched the summer water flow around the faces in the boulders. After we lay down, the trees blackened so deeply that we couldn’t see our fingers, or our feet, or the trunks on which I’d tied the ridgeline.
Meredith has been giving me sleepless nights recently. I’m losing my daughter, as every father loses every daughter, and the realisation that her toddlerish world of surreal imagination is being chipped away by time is making me increasingly sentimental. I’d announced I was taking Meredith to sleep rough in the woods with me one evening over dinner, much to my wife’s weariment, and the girl was thrilled. I’d never done any such thing before, obviously, so went on a trial run alone to practice setting up the camp, see how much water to take and use a compass. I decided I was going to give Meredith her first knife. I could see the shift in her, and I was determined to make our memories. I took her down a gradient so steep we would have been in serious trouble if one of us had fallen, well out of range of any mobile mast and not expected to appear until the following morning, but she lolloped spider on the roots and rocks, bright fear bonding us as we hunted the bank for a flat spot to sleep. Then we played and ate and explored and slept. I took a picture of Meredith in her sleeping bag. I kept a four-inch tactical folding knife in my fist for the entire night, and always ensured I could feel her next to me.
She’s starting CP next week. This is the first year of “proper” school in France, the year in which children get homework and do real classes. Primaire’s finished. She can speak fluent French and read in English. She can count to 100 and write her name. She knows the difference between a cep and a fly agaric. She can ride a horse.
She has her own penknife.
It occurred to me just how quickly she was changing when I read Through the Looking Glass with her over this summer holiday. At the very end of the book is a poem which has nothing to do with the text itself. Dodgson always claimed that Alice wasn’t based on a real person, but he knew a young family of three children – Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell – he clearly references in the verses. He talks about “a boat, beneath a sunny sky” in July, and “children three that nestle near” to hear his story. But “long has paled that sunny sky: echoes fade and memories die: autumn frosts have slain July.”
The children are “dreaming as the summers die.” When I read it to Meredith I stroked her head and she looked at me as though she could see nothing else. I’m watching the leaves of her total innocence wither, and it’s so painful I sometimes wish I could hide her with me in the woods forever. But I can’t. And I have to let go of the rabbit by the river and the shining face in the trees. I have to let go of my beautiful little girl, and accepting it is truly breaking my heart.
My boys will be next. They’re starting school together next week, and I can already see the doubt in their expressions, the knowledge that they’re going to have to be brave, away from their parents and alone for the first time. But they’re excited about coming with me to the woods when they’re bigger, and about owning their own knives and torches. As they get older, I’ll teach the three of them to trap, fish, build fires and find their own way. I’ll make our memories while I’m still here, and I’ll show them that there are bats over the water and faces in the rocks, that magic doesn’t have to evaporate with the summer of childhood. I’m not sure I could live with myself if I didn’t try.