Last week my handsome friend Neave turned 40 and my wife and I decided we’d like to let our hair down at his birthday party. For the first time in three years we decided we’d put our son out to pasture for the entire evening, ensconcing him with his cousins Ardal and Nora for an overnight trip.
This was not a decision we took lightly, as he is only three. I watched my phone intently, convinced we’d be summoned from our revelry to pick up our devastated child. Perhaps I feared the worst because my own history of sleepovers was pretty mixed. I always envied my city friends who had next-door neighbours with whom they’d stay over. I grew up a few miles outside Derry city, in the deep countryside bordering Donegal. Most people from Derry don’t know where it is, even when I mention the name and, on several occasions, even after they’ve visited us. It’s remote enough that visiting the nearest pub is a 45-minute walk, and one that requires you to leave the country, since it’s located across that one international border, which nobody in England knew existed five years ago.
Neighbours weren’t really a thing. The nearest houses to us during my childhood were all farms, or didn’t have a directly analogous child with whom I could form a particularly strong bond. Saying I was lonely would be a bit of a stretch, as I did have 10 brothers and sisters, some of whom I even liked. But even I would have balked at the sad desperation of staging a sleepover with one of them, since it would have amounted to little more than dragging a sleeping bag down the hall. In the case of my three brothers, it would have involved simply staying in place since the four of us shared the same room until I was 10.
When I did finally start doing sleepovers with friends from school, I seemed to have less practice than others my own age. I cried all night at my friend Christopher’s house, and repeated the same trick at Kevin’s a few weeks later, which he should have expected, since all three of us were present on both occasions. Struck by the cold horror of unfamiliar clock ticks and alien fridge hums, I wept my homebody eyes out, longing to be back in my own bed.
No such queasiness presented itself in my son, however. A city boy through and through, he took to his night with Auntie Maeve and Uncle Jimmy with aplomb. He found the novelty of his new surroundings delightful, save for Maeve’s decision to offer him a nightlight at bedtime. Where I would have cried, he simply called to her, demanding she switch off that showy bauble on her way out.
That night, we went to bed in a house without him in it. It was nice to have the peace and quiet, of course, but I’d be lying if I said some small piece of me didn’t long for him to be back in his own bed.