Peter Pan would never be my darling


It's Saturday night, the baby-sitter's here, the dryclean-onlys are on and we're off to dinner at K and D's.

We arrive to find Julian (old university friend) just finishing his San Pellegrino, perched on the edge of the sofa, trousers hitched, an open briefcase on his thighs, laptop and papers smothering the dining table. "Just bear with me," he says, holding up an index finger by way of apology. "Been going through some figures with D." He drains his glass, chomps his ice and glances at his watch.

"Julian can't stay," K forgivingly explains. "He's got a meeting first thing tomorrow."

"On a Sunday?" I tense.

His face doesn't crack. "Busy, busy," he says, snapping the briefcase shut. "Love to stay. Got to run. Sorry."

He gets up, puts his jacket back on - he's wearing a suit on a Saturday - and, amid several affable gestures, says to me, "Really good to see you again. Must get in touch, get together sometime - here," and he hands me his card. His business card.

I laugh - because it's genuinely comic (I've known Julian off and on since he was 19 and ironing his jeans in hall) and also because I'm not impressed. But he's already off, shoving his arm into the sleeve of his Aquascutum, talking, nodding, shaking hands. His shoes gleam and there's a little nervous twitch just beneath his left eye.

When he's gone, the whole room relaxes. "God, Julian thinks he's such a grown-up," I remark and, though everyone laughs politely, I reckon they don't quite get it.

OK, so we're no Peter Pans ourselves, the rest of us, with our mortgages, kids and steady jobs. I fill out VAT returns, talk to headteachers, get planning permission, have an in-tray, letters to answer. I get called "Madam" in Peter Jones, sometimes

even "Mrs". All wildly grown up.

But I'm still scared of the dark, can't tune the radio back to Radio 4, still wet myself if tickled. I still really enjoy crayoning, get the giggles in restaurants and churches, still hate broad beans. I blush when I meet someone in the street, still get claustrophobic in a sleeping bag.

I was once, briefly, grown up enough to have a business card, but forgot to give it out and ended up tearing corners off newspapers to write my phone number on, while the cards crumpled with the tampons at the bottom of my bag.

My lack of grown-upness is a mixture of (I'm afraid) genuine ineptitude and (I hope) just not being sufficiently impressed with myself to believe in all the trappings of being 35.

I would prefer to exist in a pleasant state of flux - baffled, ever so slightly confused, still not afraid to ask "What does that mean?", let alone "What do I do now?" Clearly, Julian does not afford himself this luxury.

When I was that most ungrown-up thing, a student, wearing dungarees. putting gel in my hair and being ticked off by the Midland bank manager about my overdraft, my mother would always go on about a friend's daughter. "Two years younger than you and so grown up. Earns £7,000 a year and wears stocking tights, runs a car."

Stocking tights were "it" as far as my mother was concerned - the epitome of grown-upness, the key item of clothing none of her three daughters ever wore. The girl in question (strawberry-blonde bobbed hair, with a name like Fiona and despised by all of us) had a Good Job in Dog Food.

It become a family joke: "She's sooo grown up. Wears stocking tights, runs a car, works in dog food." Our mother was much too grown-up to be amused.

That was then. A decade or so later as I approached motherhood myself, trying to grow up, preparing myself to be responsible for a whole new life, my mum was living alone, newly in love, all caution thrown to the winds. She was behaving more like a student than (surely?) I ever did.

As I nested and cleaned out cupboards and folded tiny, terry baby-gros, she gleefully gave up cooking, existed on Diet Coke and menthol cigarettes. "You're about to be a grandmother," I complained as I lay clutching my bump, "and you're messing about like a teenager."

"I've spent a whole life pleasing other people," she retorted. "Now I'm going to please myself. I'm having a ball. I've never felt so free." She was perfectly entitled to feel this, of course. At 21 - the age at which I was reading Baudelaire - she was rinsing nappies and for most of my life she has seemed far too young. At 48, she was a mere kid.

But my mother is the only person in the world I expect to be grown up. No, I demand it. I remember the reassuring grey hair of my friends' parents, the weary, wrinkly smiles, the women who conformed simply by ageing. You don't want your mum turningup in the playground in hot-pants (as mine did, though she always denies it, and there'll be a row when she reads this).

Needless to say, in my more stoic moments, I now value her for the sense of anything-is-possible with which she suffused our teenage years - for her glamour and spirit and energy and for not always bothering to be grown up. I also forgive her about the dog food.

If Peter Pan ever upped sticks and left Never-Never Land, he'd make a lousy grown-up anyway - one of those dreadful men who corner you at parties and talk in a loud voice about how successful they are. Come to think of it, he'd be a bit like Julian.

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