We were in the middle of Bristol, and Thomas had his ears covered.
The last time we’d visited the M-Shed, it was New Year’s Day, and he’d spent a happy hour wandering around a relatively quiet museum. Today, some weeks later, it was also New Year, only this time they were celebrating it in China. We knew that things were likely to get sticky the moment we noticed the queue snaking out along the harbour; they were operating a one-in, one-out policy. It was moving, so the four adults held places while the children raced up and down the waterfront next to the edge of the river.
Joshua, I think, was keen to run off his lunch. God knows he took enough time to eat it. He’ll usually sit there waiting for things to happen. It’s not so much laziness as it is an apparent inability to connect with the world – he’s off in the isle of wonders that is his brain most of the time. Things came to a head one morning when I turned back from the fridge and saw him sitting, staring at his cereal blankly.
“What are you doing?”
“I haven’t got any milk.”
I sighed, exasperated, and put down the green cup I’d been rinsing out so that Thomas could have the correct crockery. “You could get it yourself, you know. It’s not as if you don’t know where it is.”
It would be easy to mistake it for sloth. It really would, and I wouldn’t blame any of you. But Josh is a forty-something Cambridge professor in the body of a seven-year-old. He doesn’t do things because a lot of the time it simply doesn’t occur to him. Daniel, on the other hand, had arisen at seven o’clock that morning and got straight into the shower. When he’s hungry, he’ll push chairs to the side of the work units and fetch himself biscuits. He has better potty training habits than either of his older brothers. I maintain to this day that if they’d all been as easy to raise as Daniel, Em and I would be on our sixth by now.
Ten minutes after we’d started queuing at the museum we were all inside, but Thomas wasn’t happy. The craft room was full of noise, and my heart sank: I braced, expecting the giggling and the running. But his reaction was to stand very still in the middle of the room, refusing to approach the low tables where dozens of primary age children sat with scissors and crayons decorating paper snakes and learning elementary Chinese calligraphy, discarded coats and jumpers draped over the plastic chairs. We’d come later in the afternoon because we felt it would be quiet, and also because it had taken a while to get moving after lunch. (My sister-in-law makes a delicious roast. I’m really going to miss her, though. Still, don’t knock cannibalism ’til you’ve tried it.)
But Thomas has got good at self-regulating, and while we thought a craft might distract him, it was clearly not going to wash today. A few months ago he’d have automatically gone into overload, but he has learned – and I think the school has had a hand in this – to tell us when it is becoming too much. I sat down against the wall to get eye contact, and brought him over. “You’re not happy in here, are you?”
“It’s TOO LOUD.”
“If you sit down and decorate a snake, you might not notice the noise.”
“No, it’s making me annoyed.”
“Fair enough, son. It’s very loud and very hot in here, and also very bright.” I beckoned to Emily, who took him off to the quieter parts of the museum, the ones that weren’t adorned with pinboards covered in zodiac signs and the whitewashed history of Shanghai.
Joshua wanted to know what sign he was. I confessed that I didn’t know. There was apparently a display somewhere but we never found it. I looked it up later: he is a rooster, a deep thinker with a hot temper. Daniel is an ox, honest and amiable. Thomas, falling between the two, is a pig – pigs, apparently, are “light-hearted and usually go to sleep easily”, which is as good a reason as any for me not to believe in astrology.
A few minutes later, we queued for a display. Miriam said it was going to be lion dancing, but I misheard her, and subsequently spent ages searching for the cowboy hats, Billy Ray Cyrus lookalikes and Mavericks tribute band. Of course, she actually meant this.
Which is all very well, but it would be more fun if you could see it moving.
The evening consisted of eggs, the Baftas, and repeated attempts at settling the boys. We’d given Thomas his own room, largely because he spends half the night distracting the others, given half a chance. The fallout came when the room was “too scary” because he was on his own. Emily lay down on the camp bed next to him and reassured him that it was fine; he had nothing to fear but that she would stay with him. Forty-five minutes later they were still talking and she emerged some time after that, exhausted.
Downstairs, the Baftas had yet to start, and the four of us were watching Home Alone when Thomas came downstairs, raising a curious eye at the antics of a pre-pubescent Macaulay Culkin screaming into the camera, repeatedly, years before he discovered modern art.
“If one of your children was left home alone,” said Miriam, popping the cap on another bottle of ale, “which one do you think would cope the best?”
We thought about it for all of a second and a half, before simultaneously replying ”Daniel!”.