We can always tell when it’s the children’s Harvest Festival coming up, as they both start chanting out songs about Michaelmas Daisies, purple in the border. I’m to attend the early showing, and I’m to brush my hair, not wear wellies and not to laugh too loudly.
My friend D ferries me to Hornton, and I look out over the fields as she drives. It’s proper Autumn today, and I admire the bright fireman-hat yellow of the blackthorn leaves. Mist lies like an exhausted child in the valley below the Hornton Road, and a silly pheasant heaves itself from the hedge, trying to claim right of way.
Autumn suits Hornton hugely well; its gorgeous golden houses are set off by the russets and acid yellows, and the artless beauty of the falling leaves disguise the worse ravages of the retired gardener. We manage to bag a decent parking space, and then walk down to the Chapel, the heels of our boots loud on the damp flagged pavement.
Inside, it’s Arctic, and everyone’s still wearing their coats. D and I spot two chums on the third row back, and we slide into the chairs beside them. There’s lots of waving going on, and mouthing over heads. The New Parents are all in the front rows, having been here for half an hour to bag good seats. Us Old Parents grin and raise eyebrows, exchange rueful smiles – the here-we-are-again brigade.
The children start filtering in – oldest first – and my Elle waves with a tiny barely-there smile: she’s being cool next to a boy almost twice her height, whom she adores. Jess saunters in, one sock up, one sock down, her plaits already unravelling. She raises her hand in my direction, but doesn’t look, because audiences make her shy. Both of mine disappear behind bigger, younger children, and I go back to gossiping with my mates.
Then there’s an endless pause, when half the children are in and Foundation are missing (‘Bet they’re all on loo breaks’ we say). The children all sit perfectly quiet, and the row of Old Mums are attacked by the giggles. The headmaster, Mr. Green, rocks on his heels and mutters something to his teachers. We only get worse when R’s handsome husband rolls up and sits behind us. R and C grow particularly raucous and are shushed by me, because I like being bossy. ‘The children are behaving beautifully,’ I hiss. ‘You two are terrible.’ It only makes them worse. ‘I’ve always got in trouble,’ says C, and we all collapse again.
Finally, all of the children arrive – the Foundation Year heart-breaking with their sparkly-bobbled plaits and brand-new uniforms. ‘Can you believe they’re so tiny?’ we say. ‘Do you remember? And ours were like that so long ago-‘
And they’re off, the Michaelmas Daisy song belted out at full volume; Elle’s favourite teacher giving it the beans on the old up-right piano. ‘Big FAT leeks, STANDING up in order-‘. They’re following the words from a projector on the white vaulted ceiling behind us, each child tilting its head to look up. It gives them a touchingly angelic aspect, as if their singing was star-bound. Mothers bob up and down, taking photos on smartphones, loud with synthetic clicks.
Next up is a presentation on Water Aid, the school’s chosen charity of the year, which makes us all count our blessings. Two of the Year 6 girls tell us the stark facts of some other child’s life, and I touch my fingertips to the wooden surround of my chair, silently thankful that I am not the mother of that child. As the older ones speak, the younger ones gaze up at us, as if willing us into some sort of action. I’m sorry, I think, impotently. I used to want to save the world.
Feebly, I slide my eyes to the left, and focus on a flower arrangement, gorgeous with gladioli and delphiniums. I imagine the hand that cut the stems, that arranged the blooms. I force myself to consider if the white spangles I see are chrysanthemums or late dahlias.
Thankfully, the presentation is swiftly followed by poetry, which is all very jolly and mostly in rhyming couplets, which always make me feel cheerful.
But the relief is not for long. The Year 6 girls stand up for ‘Global Child’, and their voices are so relentlessly sweet, the words so simple and affecting, that R and I turn to each other with pinkening eyes and pressed lips.
‘God,’ I say, at the end. I blink, in that face-up way you do when your mascara’s not waterproof.
‘Yeah,’ says R, sniffing. ‘Me too.’
It’s only near the very end of the Assembly that I realise something awful. I’ve rushed out of the house with my mobile, three crumpled green poobags and a tub of lip balm, but absolutely no money for the retiring collection. We’ve been told each new well for Water Aid is £40, and the school has so far bought two. I want, more than anything, to put my money in the plate with everyone else.
I’m forced to scav off my mates, and they all drop coins in my cupped hand, joking about me running off with it and going on a penny-sweet rampage. I laugh, and take their teasing, silently vowing to go on the Water Aid site when I get home.
And then the children are being shepherded back to school, and Jess files past me, refusing a kiss. I pout, and make her cross.
‘Silly Mummy,’ she says, severely.
We all start to leave: the fresh air soft on our faces, the rest of the day’s To-Do list ticking busily through our brains. I drift along with the rest, walking down the Chapel steps, still chattering.
On the last step, I’m almost knocked off my feet by Elle, racing to kiss me goodbye.
‘It was sad, Mummy, wasn’t it?’
‘You sang beautifully,’ I tell her, squishing her to me. I kiss her silky head, silently marvel at her height, her strength. She who was once so tiny.
She’s swept away in the stream of her friends, and she doesn’t turn back to wave. I watch her dark head weaving back down towards school, and I feel that thing in my heart; that knowledge particular to being a mother, that hurts as much as it fiercely pleases.
For a moment I touch my cheek, teetering on the Chapel step. I feel a boundless gratitude; a tacit understanding of the absolute fluke of fortune. The recognition of grace, of sheer luck, that enables our children to live the lives we choose for them.