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On to 'big school' as dad clings on


A scene from the movie Cliffhanger.

A scene from the movie Cliffhanger.

A scene from the movie Cliffhanger.

HER school skirt hangs on the door of the white wardrobe that takes up one whole wall of our daughter's bedroom, so that the bright red tartan stands out; the pressed, new garment, sharing equal precedence with the 'Where's Wally' posters on adjacent walls.

The skirt is a three-quarter length affair, to be worn with blue tights or socks and black, flat shoes, then a white polo shirt and a blue sweater with the school crest. We bought the shoes for her while we were on holiday - 
little black pumps.

I tried to imagine her tip-toeing to school in them gingerly to avoid September puddles, all on her own with a big, school rucksack full of books on her back, but it made me feel a little sad, so I shook off the image. "They'll look lovely on you," I said instead.

I walked past what is now her 'old school' the other day, realising as I watched leaves tumbling in little circles around the empty playground, that from now on I'd always be a passerby here.

No more hanging around the school gate, making conversation with the mothers, waiting for the excited little herds to come gambolling out the doors like so many multi-coloured baby goats.

I've seen the way the pupils in her soon-to-be new school exit the gate at going-home time. They plod, they shuffle or trudge. Nobody gambols or skips. They've left all that behind.

And there's certainly no parents waiting for them - or, if there are, they wait silently, anonymous shadows behind steering wheels of occasional idling cars. A short, sharp beep and their teens look around to see that no-one's watching, then slip in to the passenger seat as though meeting a secret agent.

I ask my daughter: "Will you mind if I still collect you now and then from school?"

"No, I won't mind," she chirps.

"Can I walk you to school, too?" She wrinkles up her nose, as if I've suggested I might accompany her wearing a pair of Speedos, flippers and a snorkel. "No," she snorts.

Until June this year, she'd often hold my hand if I collected her. Clearly there are to be new boundaries.

The school year suddenly yawns ahead like an Alpine crevasse, the flimsy zip-line of days suspended like a thread above. I haven't even started grieving yet for the little girl whose small, cool fingers I'm quickly losing my grip on. Eat your heart out, Stallone.

Back at the locked gate of the little school she's left, I press my face against the cold railings. All those dark evenings, huffing into my fists as I headed to some school meeting or other, already a ghost. For 16 years we've had a child in here, between our four. Sixteen school 
shows. "Is this your last?" 'Nope, just one more year." Then suddenly that was it. The final curtain. "Can parents please help put away the plastic chairs."

That's what we should have taken photos of. Familiar faces of parents trundling around in the wings, anxious to get home. The people on first-name bases we may not see again now, except in the frozen foods department. "How's yours getting on in the new school?" "They DO grow up, don't they?"

I think of all the times I wished it away. "Won't be long now," we'd sagely smile and nod to one another, when I was even there, that is. So many days off when I'd rather have done anything but the morning school run or 2.15pm collection. No more chances now.

I try to think when the last one was. Was there some school collection that I knew would be my last? When I took her school bag, held her hand and said to myself: "Wow, this is it. This moment. Enjoy!"

There was not, of course. Things just seemed to run their course and like they always do. Always something better to do. These silly pangs of nostalgia will run their course and fade as well.

I take in the twilight view of closed windows and doors one more time, scraps of other 
children's projects still taped to the glass; the empty playground. It'll all go on without us now.

In fact, I realise, this place has already started feeling like it doesn't even belong to us any more, except in memory, a raft of photos hidden away somewhere on a computer hard-drive.

In our kitchen hangs a calendar. It's one of those family-photo affairs, where you send in your holiday snaps and each one illustrates a month for the next year.

I turn the page to look at September. The photo is from our holiday last summer and I barely recognise our daughter, she's changed so much. I flip back to August. Under the box marked '28', she has written her name with stars around it. 'First Day, 11.30am to 1.30pm' it says, underlined.

I make a mental note of this. That's the day I'll be hunched behind the steering wheel, waiting in the shadows to give a short, sharp beep when the girl I'll barely recognise comes plodding out in her bight new uniform.