I consider it a strange kind of good fortune that I spent the morning out on a steam train expedition, with three teens and their gaming devices. Such is our level of privilege that I am able to indulge my son and his friends in two of his favourite pastimes (steam trains and computer games) AT THE SAME TIME for his birthday treat. Lucky, lucky me. (I don’t know how I managed to get the job of responsible adult on this particular outing, but there you go. Such is life, and parenting. (I did my best not to be Embarrassing Mother; something that seems mostly to require me not to say anything and pay for everything.)
I’ve had, it must be said, a very pleasant Easter break (despite the weather), during which I have visited far-flung family, caught up with friends I haven’t seen in far too long and met new ones for the first time. Set against that, and a couple of days sunshine in which we ACTUALLY GOT OUT OF THE HOUSE, a heritage steam train journey accompanied by Mariokart doesn’t seem so bad. And, sitting in silence, pretending to teens that I was not actually here, removed from the continuing responsibility of Sorting Out The House, I have had that thing which I have had so little of lately; time to think, to pull together and weave the threads of conversation, to make a beginning to making sense of It All. When you get to sharing the news of the last year, catching up properly and, if not setting the world to rights, mutually reassuring each other that we are not, in fact, mad, or in the wrong, but actually disappointed in, well, quite a lot of things it turns out, it takes a while for everything to come together. It’s as if our talk, in turns hilarious and tragic, is motes of dust, taking time to softly settle.
The unanswered questions, thrown into the air like chaff, take time to separate into some sort of pattern, to take on some sort of unified meaning.
Why does the help you are offered never quite match the help you actually need? (And, did anyone actually ask, before presenting you with a range of charitable ‘services’?)
Why are the hoops you have to jump through, in order to secure what you ask for, so off-putting? (And why does nobody ever seem to tell you anything other than, ‘here’s another person/website/charity you can ask yourself’?)
What is it about some people that seems to make them easier to help – or make people want to help them (whether or not the help they get is actually effective is a moot point)?
How is it that some people seem to know exactly which questions to ask? And why, somehow, is that person not us?
What is it that they, the recipients of so much succour, know, or do, that we don’t?
It was satisfying and reassuring to find that I am not alone in asking them, but at the time, there was no answer. It is only today, as I sat in a railway carriage straight out of my childhood, the fantasy of Days Gone By passing by the window, alone in my thoughts, occasionally smiling at the round eyed amazement of a first time traveller, that I think I have some sort of an answer.
The reason why we feel so judged, despite the way our families, the way we love each other and, despite our various challenges, are happy, is that, winding through the fabric of the society in which we live, like a seam of dirty coal, is a deeply held belief that poisons attitudes and stigmatises the sick, the disabled, the carer and the cared for:
bad things don’t happen to good people, and it’s sickly sibling, bad things therefore happen to bad people.
It’s an idea that burns, turning charity into cinders, community into judgement and the certainty that one day, no matter how strong, resilient, independent or resourceful, no matter how beyond our shared humanity we think we are, we too will one day need a helping hand to shame.
A steam train may look glorious, puffing its way through the slowly waking English countryside, but the gleaming heat of the engine and the scream of the whistle, the freshly painted station and the guard with his jaunty hat, the romance of it all, especially from a distance or from behind the camera lens, cannot hide, despite all the effort, the dilapidated state, the generation dust of the creaking ‘first class’ carriages.