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‘Children’ column on cars, The Independent On Sunday

‘Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!’”

We need a car made from some thick rubber substance. Ground-in, saliva-clogged biscuit bits could be peeled off seats. Sick stains and ‘accidents’ could be hosed down. Spilt juice, crisp grease and the adhesive produced by half-sucked Haribo could be wiped away. Best of all, every few weeks the car could be turned inside out and rapidly shaken over a skip, emptying out shredded comics, furry fruit, grimy stickers, crushed water bottles and all the little rockeries of crumbs.

This detritus doesn’t only look rough. A few years ago I gave a lift to a trendy-booted, childless young account exec and a middle-aged art director. As soon as they got in, the account exec said, “Urgh what’s that smell?” I had no idea what he was talking about. The art director – who has three children – politely mumbled, “You forget the smell that children make.” This was when Georgina and I had only one child.

With three, the smell (presumably) is worse. Certainly just getting into the car is trickier. Rachel and Rosemary lark about, hopping between the front and back, turning the lights on and off. Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!” He squawks and punches, torso stiff, as he’s harnessed into his corner throne, the rigid German boots he wears to straighten his rubbery feet kicking inches from your temple.

Rosemary sits next to him, hands folded, not needing toys. The peculiar details of the passing world entertain her enough, that and the pleasure of noting the random, stressy errors in her parents’ speech. “You said Rachel instead of Rosemary.” “You said Saddam instead of supper.” Rachel sits next to the door, playing school or demanding we arbitrate in border disputes.

The car brings them small excitements. For Rosemary there is the glamorous thrill of driving up the ramp onto Sainsbury’s roof-top car park. The tilt of Lawrence’s car seat gives him a better chance to spot and name his beloved flags (“Na-na!”), planes (“Na-na!”) and trees (“Na-na!”). The journey home from Rachel’s school offers a scintillating choice: the nail-biting drama of driving extremely slowly towards red lights so the car never actually stops; or the covert ingenuity of taking switchbacks and obscure roads so we avoid traffic lights altogether.

Excitement disappears on the long motorway trips, North West to my tribal homelands, North to Georgina’s. Unable to speed the journey or map-read our progress, the intense pitch the children live at causes the hours to stretch into a tedium grey enough to make them weep. The car becomes their mobile half-home: cramped playroom, a dining room where they can’t leave the table and an awkward bedroom. They shove and bash each other territorially in sleep.

Travelling by day gives them chance for revenge. As babies, they protested against the sun-glazed boredom by waiting until we were just past the half-way break, then filling their nappies to straining point, challenging you to bear the smell for 100 miles. Once potty-rained, they’d protest by asking for the loo as soon as we got on the motorway.

There is baby rage too. Many hours were lost on one Scottish holiday giving Rachel puppet shows to stop her ranting. Glens and lochs slipped past unnoticed as dolls talking in funny voices were danced along the top of the front passenger seat (although, unlike our niece, our raging children have never struggled from their straps on the motorway, crawled forward and tried to put the handbrake on).

Night travel means they sleep longer at least. The car quietens, traffic thins, sweets can be eaten without trying to hide the fact from them. This is how it is all supposed to be you think: the children peaceful and secure; the parents calmly guiding them onwards. We arrive red-eyed and needing bed. The children wake, refreshed and ready to play.

29 February 2004

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