Always a boy who needs to feel part of the tribe, Number Two Son tends his accent with the same care he gives his footballer’s quiff in the morning mirror. He works to eliminate his Kiwi short ‘e’, that giveaway vowel, as mockable as the Australian short ‘i’.
‘Axcellint,’ he says to himself. ‘Avrything. Agg.’ It’s not an intuitive process, and it takes him a while to get the hang of the vowel displacement, coming out with ‘pun’ instead of ‘pan’ for ‘pen’, ‘lawf’ instead of ‘lahf’, and sounding vaguely Afrikaans. Realising that his Kiwi ‘Daad’ sounds like ‘dead’ to his classmates, he addresses his father as ‘Dod’, until I point out that it should actually be ‘Dud’: “As in useless, sweetie.”
His speech is peppered with Norf-Londonisms – ‘innit’, ‘I never’, ‘yeah’ at the end of sentences – and Jamaican-inflected phrases (“Com on, allow et, mon!”). He embraces the glottal stop – “Who’s go’ my wa’er bo’le?” – and the double negative – “Ain’t got none” – and unblinkingly adopts the third-person “Miss”, as in, “Miss says it’s due on Wensd’y”. His aitches remain so far intact, only, I suspect, because he hasn’t consciously noted his peers dropping theirs.
Good things are swag, sick or mean. Dead, on the other hand, is not good at all. (“Your footbaw’ skills is dead, man!” bawl his classmates, flicking the hated tennis ball past him in goal.) He says ‘crisps’ and ‘sweets’ and ‘vest’, and affects total incomprehension if we accidentally say ‘soccer’, a word that crept shamefully back into our vocabulary during his season at Western Springs Football Club.
Oh, wow, he says, a withering expression of outrage or indignation. (I can’t believe you have the gall to make me eat mashed potato. Wow.) Pretty soon he’s mocking our accents. “‘Yiss.’ Hahahaha! ‘Yiss.’ You sound like a’ edeo’ [idiot]!” And it’s this, more than the accent or the vocab, that gives us cause to wince: the increasingly confrontational pitch and cadence of his language, the swiftness to verbal attack.
It’s how the kids at school talk to each other, to their parents, teachers, coaches. When our younger son first arrived at school he took the yelling and physicality personally. For a kid raised on Kiwi laconicism and reserve, it’s easy to interpret the getting up close and mouthy as hostility or dislike. But at least partly I think it’s an extension – or the flip side – of the highly verbal British culture. It’s there in the quick-fire banter of the pub circle, the bitchy, punning tabloidism, the brilliant panel shows. You can see it in the caustic narrative of the national Twitter football conversation (#ENGvanyone), where players are flayed in real time by their own fans on everything from their form to their haircuts. (“Can someone tell me why Raheem Stirling runs like he’s carrying a fucking handbag?”)
It’s a culture for whom daily engagement with the papers is still essential, from the Times subscriber on his iPad in first class to the brickie at the newsagent, picking up fags and a sheaf of red-tops for the lads. The British have newsagents like New Zealanders have dairies, on every strategic corner and in every cluster of shops, shelves and shelves lined with newspapers of every political stripe, magazines on dozens of niche subjects from caravanning to classic guitars. They read, they argue, take the piss, crack you up, keep you in your place.
Wherever our son goes, kids bellow his name in a tone that sounds like “Oi, you! Outside!”, but is intended, I think, as a half-affectionate verbal salute. He still swears the kids don’t like him, but when his best, most beloved tin of football cards goes missing, he’s flooded with replacement cards gifted in sympathy by his classmates. (Two days later the missing tin reappears, just as mysteriously, on the teacher’s desk.) The kids are voluble with their criticism but also their admiration, complimenting his hair, his shoes, his drawings, even the occasional goal. They’re more physical with each other too: they pat, pull, shove, slap, drape arms round necks, fold themselves in half laughing. Watched from a distance in the playground, Number Two Son is himself in the thick of the action, raising his hands theatrically at the ref: “Sir, sir, it was never a goal, sir!”
For all the possible misreadings, some signifiers are universal: the kids who get up and move their trays if he sits near them at lunchtime, the unpredictable ‘You can’t play with us today’ powerplays. He reports physical aggression everywhere: fights, blood noses and black eyes, teachers blind to everything short of actual violence. More than once our boy walks away from a kid dancing in front of him with his fists up: Gwon fight me fight me, gwon. “I could beat that Freddie easily but it’s not worth it,” scowls NTS, “His friends would just get me later.” Class trip money is stolen from the teacher’s desk, kids’ coveted possessions vanish. CCTV footage is reviewed, police come, there are rumours of suspensions.
But every morning NTS takes himself off to school almost without complaint. In the classroom he thrives under the more structured curriculum. He masters cursive handwriting, fractions, memorises grammar-led spelling lists of useful words like ‘non-refillable’ and ‘underpopulation’. He becomes intensely engaged with Morris Gleitzman’s Holocaust books, and runs hot and cold on Famous Five (“Why does Enis Plyton spend four pages describing what they eat for lunch?”).
He also gets his football mojo back, finding unexpected scope for heroism as a dependable club-team goalie, flinging himself in front of the toughest balls with no regard for personal injury. He has a few trial games with his club A team, including a man-of-the-match debut, and decides he might play next year after all. (In the face of the playground sledging and the Rugby World Cup proof of his indisputably mightier national team, he had almost concluded he might be more of a rugby man – something that never crossed his mind when he was living in All Blackland.)
And then there’s Firstborn. He too, is noticeably lippier, partly his own response to the social context, partly just pubescent. Rather than ‘mon’, he favours ‘brah’ or ‘fam’ as his Rude-Boy salutation of choice – “That’s bare sick, fam” [that’s great, bro] – though to his credit you can still hear the inverted commas.
He perfects the wide-eyed sarcastic head-wobble and the peeved door-slam, and invokes science during his regular – if thankfully short-lived – meltdowns. “I’m going through puberty,” he shrieks, testosterone-fuelled rage voiced with all his old choir-boy shrillness. “It’s hormones.”
His fascination with his own fast-developing physique – shared by his ever-prurient brother – is fed by two weeks of sex ed at school. He drops words like ‘oestrogen’, ‘pituitary’ and ‘gamete’ into conversation and ambushes me with questions over breakfast about contraception and nocturnal emissions. As a good feminist mother of sons, I find myself giving my 11-year-old The Talks about communication and consent and pornography, though for now, mercifully, his interest remains firmly theoretical.
Firstborn experiences a few social wobbles of his own, including a bewildering accusation of physical harassment from a female former friend, and some of the same pack-animal nonsense as his brother. He has a small group of sort-of friends to sit with at lunch, and the music room to retreat to during breaks, but it’s still a shock for him, used as he is to sailing frictionlessly through a benevolent world.
But he too, slopes off to school happily enough. Or slops, rather, in his new school trousers, oversized after he outgrew the last ones in under six months. But sloppy trousers is the look for Holloway boys – shades of Madness for sure. The girls, on the other hand, hitch their tartan skirts high above their waists, tucking their white shirts in barely below their armpits, rendering their silhouettes strangely dwarfish. The fashion among both girls and boys is to wear the tie just inches long, sitting above the third shirt button like a scrawny cravat.
Firstborn scorns his classmates’ fads, wearing his tie deliberately waist-length, eschewing the ugly and ubiquitous Kickers in favour of plain Clarks lace-ups. During the weekend he lives in heavy black boots and old-school jeans with one of his beloved GnR t-shirts, a look that would be slightly punky and bad-ass if it weren’t for his springy toe-walker’s gait, which together with the shiny swing of hair evokes something else entirely: Billy Elliot, perhaps, disguised as a girl dressed in male drag.
He discovers he loves RE (“Your son is a fully ‘out’ atheist with a fine philosophical mind,” his teacher tells me, though Firstborn himself states an affinity with humanistic Buddhism: “But, Mum, is it a religion or a philosophy?”). He scoops awards, rewards, extra privileges and responsibilities. At the parent evening his teachers line up to tell me how phenomenal he is. I’m surprised he doesn’t get more grief from his classmates. If I was a slightly underachieving Pommy kid he’d annoy the hell out of me.
Outside school he’s more immersed than ever in his music, claiming the family laptop and iPod as extensions of his soul. We keep him in E-strings and picks and 9-volts for his wah pedal, expenses we might resent if we ever forgot how much YouTube has saved us on guitar lessons. He thrashes Muse and Foo Fighters and AC/DC, learns ‘Stairway’ all the way through and gets his ‘Thunderstruck’ almost up to full speed. We suggest alternative playlists – with little success – and look fondly forward to the day he swaps the binge diet of bogan rock for something with a little more… finesse.
But in the meantime the question rises closer to the surface: how long do we leave it before we ship these brave, stoic, awesome kids back to their homeland for deprogramming and rehabilitation?