It seemed such an innocent request but it turned out to be the start of a nightmare.
I was out when Oliver came home. The telltale signs were already there - clods of earth on the stairs and the inevitable grubby jacket flung down in the hall. From the sitting room the strains of Wagner rang out even more loudly than usual (this was his father's standard method of counteracting unwelcome pop music) "Oliver back then?" I called out, trying to sound cheery.
"Yes, he bloody well is. He's gone straight to the TV to watch some awful pop programme. I don't want to have supper with him if that's the way he treats me when we haven't even spoken to each other for 10 weeks."
We did eventually manage to sit down to supper together but the mood was tense. I enquired tactfully about the dissertation. All I knew was that it was to be 10,000 words, it was for the final part of his philosophy degree and it was due in three weeks.
"But what is it about?" I asked innocently. "You wouldn't understand," Oliver grunted. "What do you know about the nature of subjectivity and what it's like to be a bat?"
By lunchtime there was no sign of Oliver stirring. but by mid-afternoon the sound of his guitar came from the bedroom, disrupted every so often by slamming doors and heated arguments between father and son.
As the days rolled by and zero hour approached I began to panic. Whenever my husband Peter or I enquired as to how things were going, we got our heads bitten off. Once or twice, when Oliver was out for an drink with his mates, I searched his room for any signs of a written word. There were none, not even a sheet of A4 with a title.
The next day I nervously made an offer: "Ben, I'm not sure how far you have got with your dissertation, but can I do anything to help?
"Oh Mum, chill out and give me some space," was the reply.
I derived a grain of comfort next day when some friends come to dinner. Their son is also doing finals this summer - philosophy and physics at Oxford - and they said his dissertation wasn't quite finished. I dared not say that I wasn't sure that Ben's had quite started!
Two days to go and blind panic began to set in: "Look, I know what hell you are going through. I wouldn't redo my degree for a million pounds but you know how vital it is to get a good degree. You are working aren't you?"
The message seemed to hit home. I was not the only one who was panicking. Wednesday morning and the dissertation had to be in by 5pm on Friday. I offered to cancel all engagements and drive him back to Manchester if that would help. No, he would get the 1pm train on Friday.
The next 48 hours were a nightmare. Oliver was at the computer day and night with just the odd break for guitar playing.
Friday morning dawned. Oliver was still at the computer, looking ashen with exhaustion after two nights and two days without sleep (why oh why could he never learn?). No chance for sustenance.
The clock ticked relentlessly on and on; 11am and I heard the distant sounds of the printer being set in motion.
Then at around 11.30am there was an agonising shout from above: "Mum, help me. The printer doesn't seem to be working."
We were due to leave for Euston at 12.30 at the latest, and I was making sandwiches for the journey. I screamed out to my husband to PLEASE come to the rescue. "Why on earth should I? It's his own fault for leaving it to the last minute."
My worst nightmare was coming true. Ben's dissertation would be disqualified for not being in on time.
I went up to the computer, breathed deeply and said a prayer through gritted teeth. Inexplicable windows and icons appeared before me. More prayers and more pressing of buttons. At about 10 past 12 the printer began whirring and the first page of script slowly but surely was disgorged.
"Ben, quick, pack your things and then load the car. Don't say a word but I think I've got it going."
At 12.35pm the final sheet spluttered out of the printer. I grabbed the sheets of paper and shovelled them into an old manila folder. How different, I reflected, from the wonderfully bound dissertation that my elder son had presented at Durham 10 years earlier. We piled into the car and drove off at breakneck speed.
As always, when one is racing against the clock, there were the inevitable traffic jams, roadworks and red lights. Not a word was uttered between mother and son.
I needed every ounce of my failing middle-aged concentration to get to Euston on time. Of course, there was nowhere to park as we approached our usual back entrance to the station. We double-parked with the flashers on as I screamed to Oliver to please at least put the folder into his hold-all before making a dash for it. I envisaged the final scenario: my son running for the train with the pages of his dissertation wafting like autumn leaves onto the rails below.
I drove home in a state of shock, with my heart still thumping. I dared not even contemplate the fact that he might have missed the train.
It is now five days on, and I presume that no news is good news. But do we really have to go through such hell for our children? Was the agony of this last-minute rush worth it simply to find out what it is like to be a bat?Reuse content