Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

I picked up my grandson from his mother's flat and noticed the change in him the second I clapped eyes on him. He was taller than when I had said goodbye to him a month ago, and his spirit seemed more conscious of itself. I also noticed that my devotion to him (lately inviting criticism as being excessive) was as strong as ever.

Alone with me in the car, he was reluctant to speak. The circumstances of his life have changed in the past few months -- new home, new school, new friends, new town, a different parent -- and I wondered if he was defeated by it all. We were bowling along a fast country road when I turned to him and said, 'Are you happy?' Oscar is too intelligent to measure the complexity of his experiences against a simplistic concept like happiness. But he has a kind and forgiving heart and he knew that his grandad's question was kindly meant. 'Yes,' he said, and he met my searching eye as he said it. He might have lied, of course. Faithfulness to a good cause does sometimes cause Oscar to palter with the truth. But I chose to believe him. 'Fancy a swim?' I said.

He did, and, unusually for a Saturday afternoon, we had the vast local indoor pool largely to ourselves. We measured his recent growth spurt by seeing how much further he could walk towards the deep end on tiptoe before the water covered his nostrils. The difference, since our last swim, was about three metres. The only other occupants of the pool were a swimming teacher and his pupil, a little girl aged about five. The little girl was learning to front crawl. She responded to her teacher's laconic instructions by throwing herself at the water with an almost suicidal fanaticism and flailing madly. Oscar and I stood in the shallow end and threw a small plastic octopus back and forth over a low-slung string of bunting.

Simple and undemanding as this game was, Oscar played in earnest. I am not above throwing and catching a small plastic octopus competitively either. Equally and excitingly matched, we threw the octopus to each other for half an hour, keeping score of catches and drops, disputing vehemently over no-balls and dropped catches, while the poor pool attendant, visibly bored out of his young skull, gained about £4.50 at the current minimum wage rate, and surely wondered to himself how life's glad confident morning could suddenly deteriorate to this. …

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