I got an email from my son’s school:
Your son was not present at roll call this morning at 9 a.m.
Shit. Again. This had already happened about a month ago, twice in one week, we’d grilled him about it, but he wouldn’t tell us anything and we had no idea where he’d been or what he’d done. This new email indicated it might become a habit, and we needed to act more decisively. He was 12, way too young to be doing this sort of thing. I talked to my wife and we came up with a plan. If we knew where he was going, what he was up to, maybe we could act more effectively.
So when he got home that night, we said nothing about it, and the next morning, when he left the house, I waited about a minute, then followed him at a safe distance. He’s a headstrong kid, not taken to looking back, always moving forwards, so I knew I was pretty unlikely to get caught. It was he who was going to get caught today – red-handed, in the act – and I was feeling pretty excited about the prospect of that. I’d nab him. That would be the end of his skiving off school.
His route to school was as follows: walk 5 minutes to the local commuter train, get on it, head out into the suburbs four stops, get off, walk the remaining 5 minutes to his school. Where, I wondered, would he deviate? Or would he just go to school today after all? He got to the train station on time, me trailing behind, and wham, instead of going straight up the steps to the platform for his trip out to school, he crossed under the bridge, and ascended the steps to the opposite platform, where all the trains headed straight into the centre of Madrid – totally the wrong direction. We’re on! I thought, and went rushing up the steps behind him to collar him there and then and stick him on the train to school.
By the time I got to the top of the stairs he was through the ticket barrier and a train was pulling into the station. Shit! I pulled out my wallet, grabbed my own ticket, burst through the barriers and leapt onto the train just as the doors beep-beep-beeped before they closed. I’d seen him get on a couple of carriages down, and, despite being totally out of breath from the mad dash, started heading down between the commuters towards his carriage for the big denouement – “well, well, well, this the new route to school is it?” Or something like that.
I got within ten seats of him and stopped. He was on a foreword facing seat and had his face pressed to the window, smiling. He looked so excited by the world. By the adventure. I sat down in a free seat where I could keep a close eye on him, fascinated by his clear joy. It was a ten minute ride into the city centre anyway, instead of creating a possibly ugly confrontation on the train, I could wait, let him enjoy the ride, then nab him on the platform at the other end. So I relaxed a little, watching my son watching the world go by. Planning the best possible quip as I would lay a paternal hand on his shoulder in about 5 minutes time.
But 5 minutes gave me a lot of thinking space. Where was he going? Wouldn’t it be better to find out his whole plan if we wanted to knock this on the head for good? Was he meeting friends, could I let their parents know as well? Was he going to buy something he shouldn’t, something I should know about? It was too late for him to get to school on time now anyway, and suddenly the most intelligent thing seemed to be to let this whole thing play out just a little further. I convinced myself that this was a much more responsible thing to do.
When the train got to the city centre station, my son seemed to lose all his usual headstrong, rushing direction, and to relax completely. He usually ran everywhere, and, here he was, sidling off the train! Strolling casually down the platform! He still didn’t look back, he hadn’t lost that, but he was taking it easy! Half speed! A flaneur! This was amazing. I had a new son I never knew about.
We’d stopped in Atocha station, and once out on the street, he walked straight towards the Reina Sofia museum across the street. He’s heading for Lavapies, I thought, the bohemian heart of central Madrid, and I panicked for a moment – does this mean drugs? But he crossed the street, walked along the side of the museum and turned into the museum cafe, taking a seat facing away from the street. This meant I could watch him through the window with no chance of being caught, and saw how he got a waiter’s attention, and ordered himself hot chocolate and a dozen churros, the sticks of deep-fried batter he asked for continually at home but we’d only ever let him eat on special Sundays or holidays.
Coming out when he’d finished a very leisurely breakfast, he walked back towards the plaza in front of the museum, back towards Lavapies I thought, but no, he went into the museum, bought a ticket, walked confidently through security, and headed for the glass lifts on the outside of the main facade. From my position in the plaza I could see that he got off on the second floor. What the hell was this all about? My worry that he was off to do God-knows-what in Lavapies, was totally supplanted by a new and inexplicably bigger anxiety – that he was skipping school for modern art!
OK, fine, I thought, I’ll wait here, then get him when he comes out so he can explain just why the hell he’s going to art galleries when he should be at school. Then I realised that since the big renovation of the gallery a decade or so ago, there were now multiple ways in and out of the museum at the back. I had to get up to the second floor as soon as I could and find my son, or he could head out the back way and into any corner of the city he felt like. I ran in, got a ticket, and got the lift straight to the second floor, caught for a moment by the view through the glass across to the lovely apartment buildings and the music Conservatorio across the plaza. I always loved that view, ever since I got to Madrid, single, 22 years before. Imagine if I could have seen myself now! Chasing my kid!
It took me a while to find him. He was in room 207, standing right in front of Dali’s Figura en una finestra, about my favourite painting in the whole museum! The painting shows Dali’s sister from behind, leaning on an open windowsill in a simple room, looking out at a calm Mediterranean scene. A barely rippling sea. A slightly cloudy sky. A sailboat far in the distance on the other side of the wide bay. The painting radiates peace and light. I’d hung a copy of it on my wall in my first flat in Madrid, and here was my son, apparently transfixed by it. I was watching him, watching the girl in the painting watching the world outside. And now I felt in a panic at the idea of being caught by my son while he was doing something so innocent. Something I’d done myself so many times when I was young and free in Madrid. I nipped out of the room and hid behind a column in the corridor, and by good luck when he came out, he went in the other direction, and I was able to follow him again, feeling a mixture of bewilderment and excitement. I was suddenly determined to let my son have his entire day out.
He headed straight out onto the street. He’d come to see that one painting, and now had other plans to put into action. Off we went on a merry dance around the city, with me always a few paces behind, across the street, occasionally diving into shops, or behind a crowd, to make sure I’d never be seen and ruin his day. After the gallery he walked up to the Retiro park at his new leisurely pace. He took out a row boat on the lake, then wandered into the Barrio de las letras before crossing Sol and heading up towards the Plaza de Callao where he walked into a sushi place and ate a long, full lunch (I sat in another bar right across the street and took my time over a sandwich so I could get up and leave whenever I needed – no need, he had a huge quantity of sushi, then dessert and left after a full 60 minutes!)
The afternoon took him, and me at my safe distance behind, slowly back down to Sol where he spent half an hour browsing the video game department in the Corte Ingles department store, then actually trying on clothes in the sports department. Everywhere he went he seemed to exude a sort of calm and confidence that clearly put every shop assistant and waiter at ease, never questioning why this kid was out and about on his own instead of being at school or tethered to parents. I couldn’t believe it. I guess it’s obvious, but by now I was just brimming over with a newfound respect for my son. My God, wouldn’t we all like to live like this? To stick two fingers up at the system and spend our days out of school or work’s grip and wander around a city like Madrid at our complete ease? I wouldn’t have humiliated him by catching him in the act now for anything in the world.
When we finally got home later, he first, me a few minutes later, I’d phoned ahead to my wife, telling her not to say a thing to him. I got in and found her asking him about his day at school. ‘Oh, you know, the usual boring rubbish,’ he said.
‘It can’t have been that bad!’ I said, and went upstairs to my computer to send a message to the school:
I apologise for our son not being present at roll call this morning, he was extremely overtired from us keeping him up late last night, and we thought he needed a day at home, he’ll be back at school tomorrow.
For a month I drove him to school every day. He complained a little, saying how much he enjoyed taking the train to school, but I told him I had work out that way every day and enjoyed his company. After that we relaxed a bit, sent him off to the train in the mornings on his own again, and the missed roll call emails would come in about once a month or so. We all got in a lot of trouble with the school, but I figured it was worth it. What could I say anyway? Without telling anyone, I’d started taking a day or two off work a month to wander slowly, guiltlessly around the centre of Madrid.