Jonny McCambridge: The school trip to London – my son is out of the house for three days and it’s too, too quiet

The meatballs are not as good as I had imagined. My wife and I are having dinner in a small, but busy Greek restaurant.
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It is a date which we have been planning for weeks. There may be significance in the choice of a Mediterranean-themed eaterie, a reminder of a distant time of more frequent travel and holidays, an era when it was just the two of us.

An array of mezze plates, breads and dips are on the table. There is more food than I could possibly tackle even when I am on my best eating form. On this evening, I don’t feel particularly hungry. As well as chewing on the dry meatball, I am moving parts of a salad around my plate without much interest.

Conversation is a touch stilted, not quite natural.

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Packed for the school tripPacked for the school trip
Packed for the school trip

And then, inevitably, one of us cracks. It is not important who says it first because we both know we are thinking the same thing, a sentiment as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.

"What do you think he is doing now?”

Our son is on his P7 school trip, a three-day voyage to London. It is the first occasion he has been separated from both his mother and father for any significant period of time. Due to the school’s ban on tablets, phones or smartwatches, it is also the first time we cannot contact or locate him.

The trip has been almost a year in planning, with a level of organisation far in excess of any normal holiday. The payments were made over the course of a number of months, countless updates have been posted in forms or on apps and chat groups.

There was the information meeting for the parents in the school dining hall and, it would seem, there has been talk of very little else other than the London trip in the classroom for weeks.

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The teachers, well used to organising such a venture, gave plenty of advice. One tip was to make the airport drop-off a brief affair, leave the child in the care of their teacher and move on quickly, with no fuss. I thought at the time this was for the benefit of anxious kids.

Now, I wonder, was it a comfort blanket for the parents?

When we walked into the terminal building in the early hours my son ran off quickly to meet his friends. I had to pursue him to get my goodbye hug. He was too excited to look backwards.

When I got back home something felt different. There was a suffocating silence which seemed to spread across the space, clinging to me. The rooms were largely tidy and in order. There were no crumbs beneath my son’s spot at the table, no mud transferred from his shoes to the floor.

I did not experience the familiar crunch of Rice Krispies under my feet as I walked through the kitchen. The hand-towel was folded neatly on the rail in the bathroom, not crumpled or dropped in a heap on the floor.

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The silence was too much, so I walked to the shop to buy some breakfast. I hesitated as I reached for a carton of orange juice in the fridge. I prefer the juice which contains bits of orange pulp.

My son refuses to drink it unless it is without bits. For years I have been buying the version he likes. I take a moment before I select the smooth orange juice.

As ever, there is work to be done so I am able to partially distract myself with the tasks of employment. I am covering the Covid-19 Inquiry which requires substantial concentration. Long hours of evidence are given, thousands of words, hundreds of documents, dozens of journalists.

I do not want to be the one who is not fully engaged, who misses a key fact, or neglects a line that merits being reported.

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And yet, I keep being pulled in a different direction. My internal alarm is alert to the moment when, on a normal day, my son would be leaving school, when I usually pick him up. I find myself constantly looking at the clock even though I don’t need to.

There was a promise that photographs from the trip would be uploaded regularly on the school’s social media account. It is not so. I check dozens of times throughout the day for new images which do not materialise, refreshing the page over and over. I tell myself off for such desperate behaviour.

After work I meet my wife and we travel to the Greek restaurant, as we had promised we would weeks before. I think of the countless people I have spoken to about the school trip, how they all made the same quip about it really being a holiday for parents, how we could finally relax for a few days.

The truth is, as my wife and I both know but don’t want to say out loud, is that we’re really just filling the time until our son comes home again.

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I have trouble sleeping that night. Absurdly, I find myself checking at 3am to see if the teachers have uploaded new photos. In the deepest part of the night I think I uncover what’s really going on.

I am not only missing my son, I am dreading the future without him. That time, several years from now, when he leaves home to set up his own life and does not return.

I tell myself off again for such feeble nonsense. How can it be that I have allowed a simple school trip to become engorged with such ominous meaning?

It is absurd to worry now about something so distant. Moreover, I know well that the human condition will inevitably become accustomed to any new state, perhaps even begin to enjoy it after a while.

But just for now, as I watch the sun begin its early morning creep, I don’t much like this silence.

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