For every small child, the world is like a pile of jigsaw pieces without a picture showing you how the finished job is meant to look. Worse, than that, whenever you think you’re starting to fit a bit of it together, make sense of it, some adult drops another handful of pieces onto the pile, that don’t seem to match up with any part of what you’ve already got.
When my friend Andy’s son, David, was about six years old, he was obsessed with being a soldier, in that way that imaginative children have of living rather than just playing a game. In the right mood, David could be in role from the moment he opened his eyes in the morning, until his bedside light was turned out that night and he was “ordered” to go to sleep.
During this phase, there was a family celebration to which I was invited. We set off to stroll to a nearby pub for lunch. Well, most of us set off strolling. For David, this short walk along the A6 in Milnthorpe was a route march and, since he was chatting to me at the time (no doubt about soldierly concerns), I was striding along to keep up with him.
As we approached a busy junction, David’s dad and uncle, deep in conversation, were about twenty paces behind us. Andy spotted the upcoming hazard and called out:
“David! Hold Martin’s hand when you cross the road.”
The little soldier came to an abrupt, perfectly drilled, halt at the curb.
Hearing teenage children utter disdainful remarks about their parents is an uncomfortable experience. However, when the contempt for a beloved parent comes from a six-year-old, it’s a bit of a thrill to be his trustworthy pal.
“I don’t think soldiers hold hands, do they?” David put it to me, in a tone that implied ‘my father’s an idiot, but you and I know better.’
“David!” This time, Andy’s voice was louder, firmer, not to be disobeyed. It finally struck David that being a soldier was now in direct conflict with being a small boy.
The internal struggle writhed and wriggled across his brow. Soldier’s definitely don’t hold hands, but little boys have to do what their dads tell them. His small face scrunched up, while these two undeniable truths did battle in his head.
Then, all at once, he’d solved it: connected another two awkward pieces of life’s jigsaw.
The soldier and the boy could carry on living, side by side, inside him. He looked up at me and smiled, knowingly.
“I expect soldiers do hold hands when they cross a busy road,” he informed me.
Hand in hand, we marched safely to the other side.
Read Martin’s story A Bedroom With A View