My son hadn’t seen my father for a long time, and touched us all by running full pelt across the front garden shouting, ‘Granda!’ as soon as we arrived. This was, however, the last bit of attention he showed his human counterparts for the duration of our trip.
My dad’s house is deep in Derry countryside and the terrain around us looks like the opening scene of Emmerdale, all rolling hills and patchwork fields. The garden is festooned with yellow and purple flowers, attended to by bees and butterflies, and the view from our living room looks out across the Foyle to sunny hillsides adorned with giant, languid windmills. Again, I’m struck by how much of this was lost on me as a child, when I’d have given anything to live closer to the city.
My decidedly urban son has the opposite inclination, marvelling at everything around him with a heartiness that shames my childhood self. It doesn’t hurt that my dad’s garden has somehow become a nature reserve since I last lived here. I certainly didn’t remember there being kestrels and buzzards overhead, nor dozens of rabbits in our field. Maybe they were always there and I was too busy watching action movies with the living room curtains drawn. But they’re here now, in full view of our kitchen window to the amazement of a toddler who has only ever seen them on TV. I momentarily wonder if my dad has hired them all in to tempt us to move home.
If that was the plan, it may be working on my son, who throws himself head-first into passionate naturalism. He hazards terrible guesses at the names of birds we encounter, waves at men in tractors and generally gives off the air of a returning country gent, temporarily housed in the evil metropolis for reasons beyond his control. He picks flowers, chases flies and moths – both of which he calls bees, but he’s learning – and strides excitedly in wellies with his hands behind his back.
His particular delight is Annie, my father’s new pup. She’s a jet black Alsatian/Labrador cross, and the only creature for five postcodes as excitable as he is. She yelps and cries with enthusiasm every time she sees him and he does the same, trapping everyone in their orbit in a vortex of elation that is as pleasing as it is exhausting.
As a breather for both boy and dog, my brother Conall drives us to a nearby hill fort, promising even more splendid views. My wife and I coo at the scenery as my son goes quiet. The excitement of the day comes to its inevitable head. The undulating roads cause him to spew his lunch all over himself, his mum, the car, and the pretty patch of roadside we lift him out on to.
‘Oh no,’ he says, pointing to the undigested macaroni strewn across the daisies beneath him. ‘Snakes!’. He’s a naturalist to the last.
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