Wearing a black taffeta evening gown underneath my Marks and Spencer anorak, I waited. I didn’t normally dress like this to collect my daughter from school; it was the result of my inability to make decisions.
What to wear for my husband’s annual dinner-dance that was the dilemma. In a spare twenty minutes before the school run, I dragged my three faithful evening gowns out of the wardrobe to try on. I stepped into the folds of taffeta and lace and pulled the first garment on.
It wasn’t as elegant as I had remembered, and the material clung to my skin a little too snugly. I should have heeded the warning signs at that point but I didn’t, and, with dogged determination, I gripped the zip and began to tug. Suddenly, halfway up and halfway down, the zip stopped. It would not move an inch and I was completely trapped. With clammy hands and beads of sweat forming on my forehead, I frantically yanked the metal tag, first one way and then the other, but to no avail. I had no choice but to slip on my anorak, gather my skirts, and head to the playground.
I was assertive once, I remember it well. It was on a Tuesday in 2003. But that self-confidence had long since marched away, to be replaced by self-doubt and, when I could be bothered, apathy.
When I was younger I could make a decision within seconds, whether it was choosing a dessert or changing career paths, but now I find decision making is a much trickier business altogether. I agonize over cereals, toilet rolls, car parking spaces, and if a new washing-up liquid is launched, I am completely lost. What happened to the woman I was before marriage and children? Where did she go, and will she ever come back?
I stood at the edge, always at the edge, next to the fence in the furthest corner of the playground. It hadn’t always been that way, in the early days I had tried to infiltrate the various groups of women by hovering hesitantly on the periphery, waiting for an opening, but I quickly discovered that acceptance wasn’t a gift easily given.
To my left gathered a clutch of five women who seemed to have an inordinate number of offspring between them of varying preschool ages. They were surrounded by an armada of pushchairs and prams, all of which appeared to be sporting scars from their daily skirmishes with supermarket escalators and potholed pavements. Their young charges chased in and out, shrieking and laughing.
“Bradley, let go of Chantelle’s leg,” barked a young woman as she expertly shifted her baby from one hip to the other whilst harnessing the errant Bradley in one fluid movement.
To my right was a much less animated group of women. Their arrival is always rushed with only minutes to spare before their children stream out of the school doors. They make polite conversation about the banalities of the day whilst trying to calm their frazzled nerves. These, I surmised, are the part-time workers, who constantly fight the guilt of being neither a full-time parent nor a full-time provider. For them it is a no-win situation.
There are rare glimpses of the full-time professionals who are seen only in the mornings. A four-wheeled blur as they screech to a halt outside the school gates to allow their children to clamber out of the vehicle before disappearing. What’s left is a cloud of dust and a disorientated child. Later in the day, the After School Club is guardian to their young, thereby preserving their elusive quality.
Scattered amongst these clusters are the men, sometimes found in pairs, but predominately alone. They are nervous creatures whose constant pacing of the social fringe is interrupted only by the brief, ceremonial nod of the head acknowledging the presence of other males. Their eyes scan the scene in anticipation of the release of their off spring. Such is the daily life of the concrete Serengeti.
I contemplated my position at the metaphorical watering hole and decided that as I was neither a dynamic professional, nor a harassed part-timer, and had chosen not to produce children until the end of my child-bearing years, I simply did not fit in.
My daughter, always one of the last to emerge, trudged across the playground trailing her bag and blazer along the tarmac. Clutched in her fist was a crumpled ball of paper which she thrust into my hand. Wordlessly she walked on, making no comment about my eccentric attire.
The paper was moist from her grip and I marveled that only thirty feet ago it had been a smooth, crisp white sheet. I gingerly unraveled the document from corner to corner.
“Trinity Primary School invites you to a farewell concert,” it read.
My daughter would soon attend secondary school. Her first steps toward independence and my first steps toward redundancy. Once again I gathered my skirts whilst negotiating the throng of pushchairs which now straddled the gateway, and I contemplated where my life was going to go from here.