It’s two o’clock in the morning and I need matchsticks to prop my eyes open. I’m sitting in the kitchen next to the ironing board, trying hard to remain awake, listening out for sounds of my nineteen-year-old son Martin’s arrival home.
As I hear the clicking of the key in the lock I jump up, grab the iron in one hand and a shirt in the other, and try to appear very busy.
He lets himself in quietly and blinks his eyes twice as he looks over to me in amazement.
“What are you doing up at this time of night, Mum?”
“Oh, I had a lot of ironing to do. I never seem to get it done during the day, so I decided to try a late night stint to finish it off.” I’m trying hard to make it sound as though it’s the kind of thing I do all the time.
He fills the kettle and opens the kitchen cabinet.
“Want a cup of coffee, Mum?”
“Okay. Why not?” My eyes are still on the ironing.
He puts the two cups down on the table and sits down with his long legs up on the chair next to him.
“How’re things at college?” I ask nonchalantly.
Instead of the usual shrug of the shoulders and a meaningless “okay,” he starts to tell me about the course that’s turning out to be much more difficult than he’d imagined.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to cope with all the projects I’ve got to do. I had a row with one of my lecturers. They’re demanding far too much from us.”
Without taking my eyes off the shirt, I nod and make encouraging sounds.
I take the coffee over to the ironing board, deliberately not sitting down at the table with him.
“Well, I hope that at least you’re enjoying the social life, even if the work is hard.” My eyes are still down on the shirt.
“Mum,” his voice sounds unusually serious, as if he’s about to say something important. “Do you know what celiac disease is?”
My mother’s intuition is working in overdrive. Why would he ask? Obviously someone important to him has this problem. It must be Debbie, whom he started dating a few weeks ago.
I nod and tell him that I know it means an inability to digest gluten, which is in wheat and many other products.
“You know, Mum, when Debbie and I go out for a meal, I have to really grill the waiter, and sometimes even insist on speaking to the cook to check exactly what’s in the food.”
Yes, I’m right, it is his girlfriend.
“Mum, if I bring her home, you’re going to have to be really careful what you cook.”
My heart is practically singing. It’s serious. He's never mentioned any of the other girls he’s dated before.
“Don’t worry,” I say as calmly as I can. “It won’t be a problem.”
My arms are really aching. I’m moving the iron up and down, still on the same shirt as I was thirty minutes ago. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t notice. The iron is on very cool, so I don’t burn anything while I listen intently.
During normal waking hours, normal, that is, for the general world, my teenage children are half-asleep or just plain non-communicative. In the morning they just grunt as they rush out of the door, always late for wherever they’re going. In the evening they’re too busy getting ready for whatever they’ll be doing at night.
But when they come back in the early hours of the morning, that’s when they’re at their peak, communication-wise.
It was a stroke of genius, even if I say so myself, to try this late-night subtle heart-to-heart with Martin.
Another cup of coffee and my arms are ready to drop off. We’ve moved on to his plans for when he’s finished college—jobs, and the fierce competition in a hi-tech world. He knows he may have to settle for something out of his field.
By now it’s 3:30, and I’m forcing myself really hard to talk intelligently.
Suddenly he yawns and stands up. “Gotta go to bed or I’ll never get up in time in the morning.”
He wanders over and bends down to give me a kiss. “Hope I didn’t keep you up, Mum. You know you ought to go to bed as well. You must be dead tired.”
I smile to myself as I say, “Yup, you’re right. It’s my bedtime as well.”
I fold away the ironing board and put the still-creased shirt back amongst the others awaiting ironing.
“Do you want me to take any of those shirts upstairs and hang them up?” he asks.
I stop, rooted to the spot for a minute. “No, that’s okay. I’ll take them up afterwards,” I mutter. I’m sure it’s just an attempt to help on his part, not his way of saying he’s noticed I’ve not even ironed one single shirt.
I am exhausted, but it was worth it. I learned more about Martin’s life tonight than I would ever have done in any conventional parent-teenager chat.
Next week I’ll have to have another late-night ironing session. I haven’t had a good heart-to-heart with his seventeen-year-old sister Rebecca for a while. But she’s a girl, so she’ll notice if I never iron a single shirt. I’ll have to think of something else for her.