Friday 24 March 2023

The End of an Era by Judith Skilleter, Argentinian Merlot

Avril and Ken are struggling. Avril is probably struggling more than Ken. Their daughter Louise, known as Lou, once known as Louby Lou, which Louise hated, has gone off to university. She won’t be home till Christmas and Avril is feeling the loss already.

In fact she felt the loss all the way home from Exeter back to Lancashire and was still feeling it four weeks later. She'd even felt the impending loss from the date Lou started talking about A levels and university. Probably the fear of losing Lou goes back even further.

“Why did she have to go so far away,” she complains to Ken, her husband of thirty-five  years. “Exeter is not even near enough for a weekend at home.”

Ken agrees. He too is missing his little girl, hardly little anymore but you know what I mean. “But you know Av, perhaps she needed time to herself, to explore a bit of the world without us - and to see what life would be like without us.”

“She could have done that at Manchester. Manchester has perfectly good universities, in fact Manchester has very good universities. And we would have kept out of her way” says Avril.

“I know” replied Ken, but he secretly thought “And you would have been going into Manchester every week with things you thought she needed and arranging shopping trips and cinema trips. You wouldn’t have left her alone.”

Louise Amelia Frost had been a surprise to Avril and Ken after nearly twenty years of unsuccessful pregnancies – early miscarriages, a stillbirth and failed IVF. She was a natural conception but for nine months Avril and Ken lived on their nerves. Every twinge was followed by a trip to the bathroom to look for tell-tale signs of another loss. Every book that gave advice on pregnancies in your forties and what to look out for and what to do were read if not devoured.

Eventually Louise arrived at forty-one weeks, a healthy and solid nine-pounder and was adored and cherished from the off. Avril and Ken were both hands-on parents and they spent as much time with their daughter as the rest of their responsibilities would allow. Avril had given up work to ensure a smooth pregnancy with few other concerns and she never went back. Louise was her work, her purpose, her future, her identity, her achievement. And Ken didn’t mind. Avril’s salary was not missed; he had a good job – but he insisted that at weekends Louise was his responsibility. Louise was breast-fed but Ken insisted that Avril express milk into bottles so Ken too could feed the tiny tot. It was as far as possible shared parenting.

Louise went to local schools for primary and secondary education and did very well. She was always near or at the top of her class. Louise was also sporty and Ken and/or Avril, usually both, would take her to whatever sporting fixture she needed to be at weekends. Football was Louise’s favourite sport and Avril loved getting her sports kit ready and ensuring that her boots were clean.

“I can do that, Mum,” was heard regularly and plaintively at weekends but Avril insisted. And Louise would go off to her bedroom feeling very frustrated and thinking that at times her life wasn’t really hers.

She would go out with her friends and when she arrived back late but always in a taxi, as Ken and Avril had always insisted and paid for, she could see one of both parent waiting at the open door and then asking if she had had a nice time and did she want a cup of tea? This another time when she thought that her life wasn’t really hers – and there were so many other occasions when Louise just wanted to scream “Get out of my hair” or “Leave me alone” or worse. There were more than a few blazing rows that just led to tears, especially from her mum, but Louise tried very hard to avoid these. They were too emotionally exhausting.

It hadn’t been too bad when she was younger but now she was well into her teens she wanted more freedom, and to make decisions for herself without having to share them with her mum and dad. She wanted independence.

When Lou first started getting homework it was great fun because she and her mum did it together and homework was followed by cake and milk as she and her mum snuggled in front of the TV before bedtime. But then, when homework became more serious, Lou needed to concentrate and do it by herself. Her mum was not pleased to be sent downstairs and Lou remembered a fading and plaintive “But I did history too at A level” as her mum got closer to the kitchen.

When she had to decide what universities she would apply for Louise was adamant that her choices would be her choices and not her mum and dad’s. Avril has already decided for her, the two Manchester universities, Liverpool, and Chester

“No way” said Louise. Her choices were Exeter, Edinburgh, St Andrews and the University of Kent at Canterbury. Avril was horrified and tried to include at least one of the Manchester universities in Louise’s list. But Louise was insistent. Places to read history were offered at all of them and she chose Exeter. And of course she got the right grades to go there.

When Avril and Ken drove to Devon, “to the ends of the earth” thought Avril, there were silent tears all the way from her mum.  Louise felt a bit guilty for leaving her parents who had loved her so much and given her so much all of her life but this feeling of guilt was soon pushed out the way by excitement and eagerness for new adventures ahead where she was the decision maker. Yes, she would make mistakes but she would deal with them she reckoned.

Avril hoped they might help her settle in and arrange her room, perhaps stay the night. But Louise said “No, I want to meet people and do things slowly. Sorry Mum – this is just me, please go home” and to her delight her dad agreed. “Lou is right, Avril. It's time for us to go home. She knows where we are when she might need us and there's always the telephone – but not every day please Avril.” Louise looked at her dad with gratitude. Louise knew her mum would give him a hard time at home, made harder by the fact that he would miss Louise hugely too.

A hug and Ken and Avril set off north, with Avril’s silent tears suddenly becoming noisy ones

“We have to let her live her own live love. She has to learn to be independent and not have us fussing all the time.”

“We don’t fuss” objected his wife. At this Ken did not reply but raised his eyebrows.

Once back home Avril cleaned and decorated Louise’s room. “I have to keep busy” she explained to Ken.

“But Lou might not want her room decorated. She may not want you going through her private things and changing things.”

“She will, it will be a lovely surprise when she comes home for Christmas.”

Ken told Louise what was happening.

“I figured something like that would happen and everything I don't want Mum to see is in the back of the loft in a locked suitcase. I'm relying on you, Dad, to ensure Mum doesn’t find it and force it open.”

“Of course sweetheart” said Ken – even though this felt like a betrayal of Avril and, of course, he secretly wanted his daughter a bit closer too. “That is my heart talking”, he said to himself. “I must listen to my head and let her go. If only Avril could do the same.”

As for Louise she loved university and her freedom from day one. And she found a new boyfriend, Alec. There had been boyfriends before but they had been kept secret as she couldn’t bear the thought of questions and interest from her mum. Alec asked her to visit his house after Christmas and meet his mum and dad. Louise so wanted to say yes but she knew what the reaction from home would be. It was a very difficult decision.


About the author 

Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social work and teaching. Her first children's novel The April Rebellion, has recently been published. Judith is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire forty-five years ago and is married with three grandchildren 


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