A man’s development has certain clearly defined stages such as childhood, puberty, adolescence and owning a shed. Then, midlife arrives bringing with it all manner of miscellaneous really grown-up activities such as fatherhood, the owning of Tupperware, Radio 4 and the wearing of lycra when cycling.
Even when they emotionally mature – typically at age 43, 11 years after women –a small part of his psyche will remain forever a child. Preferences and behaviours, dormant for so long, bloom in to life once more like an Attenborough spring time -lapse: playing video games, riding mini-scooters, reading comics (now called ‘graphic novels’ because that sounds grown up), Glastonbury, Radio 1 and wearing a hood.
I hadn’t even noticed the patter of man-child creep up on me insipidly over two decades. Several gaming consoles, a remote control mini helicopter, two Airfix kits and a PacMan ghost colour-changing bedside lamp later, and I was still oblivious to it.
I had sleepwalked in to it wearing my Spider-Man onesie.
Barely recognisable at first, gradual, like a receding hairline, till one day, it smacked me in the face when I was standing knee-deep in a freezing pond.
That Christmas Day, my hinting had paid off with dividends – I got a remote control speedboat, 40 centimetres long, with a matt-black hydro-dynamic hull, with go-faster green stripes. On its underside were two propellers, which at the touch of the remote control unit, would whirr in to life with a buzzing venom as if to say “just add water and see me fly.” It was the business.
We headed to Wimbledon Common. I switched him on, pulled up the aeria and pushed him out on to Rushmere Pond. This big boy was pure plug and play.
The squeal of the engine on the water like a million angry mosquitos, the rotors slicing the water in to a frothy wake, the hull skimming on the mirrored surface: the boat made sharp turns and turned heads.
As I got used to it, a boy in a Parker who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, came to my side. He too was controlling a model boat, a small tugboat, wooden and pedestrian. Built for pulling things, not for speed, like my mine. His the Priyus to my Lambo.
I tried to make some space between us, along the water’s edge, but he appeared to follow me as if we were some kind of model boat club. So there we were, a man, and a ten year old boy, two strangers, both united by a mutual love of remote controlled children’s toys.
Christmas present is it? I asked
He nodded and explained that he had already broken it, but his dad on the other side of the pond had just repaired the rudder.
My boat zoomed the waves with a ear-piercing squeal. His chugged along, and veered left and grounded itself on the bank. He picked it up and pushed it out to get it going again. When it did get going it went along slowly.
Mines got turbo mode I told him, watch this and pushed the throttle.
Lines of white wake, a splash of ripples, a cloud of disurbed seagulls. When his little tugboat next completed its semi-circle to land on the muddy bank I showed him my reverse gear.
By sunset we were two silhouettes with two model boats on a golden pound, my one fast and sleek, his juddering and at times close to sinking.
By dusk, my boat was running rings round his. Literally.
Being oblivious to my manchild, it was idyllic in my eyes. I was ignorant of that gratuitous self-satisfaction, that competitiveness at all costs. Instead of shame in showing up a child a quarter of my age, and that too on Christmas day, there was ostentatiousness. Instead of remorse there was invincibility. Such are the traits of the manchild, traits that manifest themselves on the touchline at children’s football games, at the red lights, to be the first off, at the crazy golf putting green when a grown man coughs to put off his daughter’s final putt. The manchild knows no bounds.
The next day I tried it out again. Sarah said it was going to rain, but I assured her it wouldn’t. This time it was less windy, the boat felt faster, its turns felt tighter, all done at a distance of 150 metres with the 2.4 ghz remote control. .
After ten minutes, the boat slowed down. Its vvvvvvvshoooommm turned in to a subdued mmmmmm, and it came to a slow stop in the middle of the pond. I twiddled the controller but it was no use. The problem was the 7.4 volt battery – I had forgotten to charge it up.
Sarah was on the other side of the pond, but close enough for me to see the look on her face. Her expression said: have you just lost the Christmas present I bought for you?
At times like this men resort to basic, sometimes Neanderthal solutions. I threw a piece of driftwood at it in the hope of generating ripples that might push it along but they only lapped its hull.
Luckily a breeze picked up, so slight its movement hard to discern, but then my boat, started to drift getting closer and closer to me till it became entangled in a clump of rushes a few feet from the pond’s edge.
There was only one thing to do – I removed my boots and socks, rolled up my jeans and walked in to the pond. It seemed like a good idea at the time, creeping in to the freezing water up to my knees.
I lifted up the model boat triumphantly from the grassy tentacles of reeds.
So, it had come to this. My epiphany. I had my boat in my hands dripping with pondweed, but I was cold and wet. This was miserable. Here I was, a 47 year old man, standing barefoot in the middle of a freezing pond in winter. Families with young children stared at me. It had started to rain. My wife’s arms were crossed. I could just make out the expression on her face. She didn’t look too pleased.
A self realisation I had ignored for too long, my discovery of my manchild had finally happened, in a sudden, unexpected and very damp fashion.
Make no bones about about, all men have this. Ever seen a child open up a present? That’s how I still do it. Ripping up the wrapping paper in to shreds, not daintily peeling the sello-tape edge, peeling it slowly, patience giving way to curiosity and excitement.
Some people don’t have a childish urge when it comes to opening presents? I’ve only two words for them: Bubble. Wrap.
Those little whispers are, not from you, but from the manchild. Ride that Supermarket trolley. Stamp in that puddle. You see a shiny floor, you’re wearing socks, so, you slide. You can quote from Shrek. You see a pile of leaves in the park. You kick them up.
At a wedding dance floor, he might say Go on, breakdance. There’s a gap inviting you and for a flitting moment you consider it. You did it last as a teenager, how hard can it be, right? Like riding a bicycle, you don’t forget surely. But then you hold back, instead of the rush of blood to the head that agrees, there is a momentary internal dialogue that goes something like this:
Manchild: how about a windmill then? You’ve still got it in you, you know.
You: what if I snap my hamstring?
Manchild: okay, just do the caterpillar then, people will be so impressed.
You : hernia, back-sprain?
Your blushes are saved. You’ve put your manchild back in the man-creche. You’re a liberated man freed from the infant on your back. You are homo libero infanticus.
Mind you, at some times he will inevitably control you.
And never forget, that the manchild possesses wonderful qualities borne from the child. The child is curious, amazed with life, un-selfconscious, creative, excited and free from preconception and prejudice. Being childish and child-like are worlds apart.
There’s a place and time to act your age (work, social functions, IKEA) or act your shoe size and that That’s what I’ve learned since that morning standing knee-deep in a freezing pond rescuing a model boat. My feet still go cold when I think of it. Where’s that onesie?