By the time I entered secondary school I was taller than three-quarters of my grandparents, with only my mother’s father overtopping me. On our first day in The Cardiff High School for Boys, we were lined up in order of height and then distributed to the Houses so that each one could have a ‘fair’ selection for their rugby teams! At the end of the line, I was the second tallest. And in case you’re wondering, as I was never exactly willowy, I was placed in the second row in the house rugby team and there I stayed for seven muddy years!
I am working to a point. If you are tall and solid, the ‘dangling child’ years are limited and what I describe in the short poem that follows was restricted to a painfully short number of 'growing' years.
I can remember sitting on my father’s shoulders, and there exists a picture of me standing on his shoulders during one of our many visits to Barry Island beach. But the memory that stays with me most concerns flying and the sea.
My especial delight was to accompany my dad into our bit of the Bristol Channel in Barry Bay, then put a foot into his cupped hands and be thrown over his shoulder into the waves. I could happily have been flung for hours, but physical (dad's not mine) limited my satisfaction. All too soon I was too tall and too solid for my dad to pander to my aeronautical desires.
In school too, in gym lessons, demonstrations on the trampoline for example, always used the lighter, smaller, more manageable kids. Not I. I needed the teacher to ensure my safety and he was in shorter supply than fellow students. Still, I would be lying if I said that gym lessons were my favourites, and I was generally quite happy to watch rather than participate. But the memory of flung flight has never left me.
Sometimes in the pool I see fathers and sons engaging in what for me is only a distant memory. It was noticing one such couple that was the inspiration for the following poem.
My parents would often tell me about my early love of swimming pools. When I couldn’t walk but had elevated crawling into a juvenile Olympic sport, I was placed pool side in a swimming pool in Leeds and proceeded to make my determined way towards the water’s edge. My father swept me up before I fell in, but he rapidly tired of thwarting my ambition to get wet. He decided, therefore, to allow me to achieve my goal, suffer the consequences and thereby learn just why he constantly picked me up before I got to my destination.
I crawled. I fell. I spluttered. I was rescued. Lesson learned, I was placed poolside once again. And proceeded to crawl towards the edge. I had obviously decided that death was a reasonable price to pay to get to the element that I enjoyed! As I am typing this more than sixty years later, you can appreciate that my father did not let me drown, in spite of my best efforts then, and indeed on one or two other occasions much later!
A child believes that mum and dad will always be there. You can be thrown in the air in a blanket held by parents in a grandparents’ house; you can be held upside down by one leg and swung around; you can be held and be pretend-dropped and caught just-in-time - because your parents will make sure that you come to no harm. It is the safe-danger of parents, like the safe-danger of thrilling fairground rides.
But your parents are not always there. And belief is tested. And faith strained. And assumptions questioned. Some trust games destroy rather than cement.
So the last two lines of the poem are perhaps a cautionary exploration of the implications of the word ‘play’ in the title.
As always, I welcome comments.
A wriggling and excited child,
manhandled by devoted dad,
and tumbling down his father’s frame,
caught upside down in
A careful roughhouse,
ending with a tummy kiss,
with hands on shoulders,
with bright eyes wet
with dangerous delight.