We corral our kids, Ben, Max and Molly, aged nine, six and three, into the car on a Sunday morning before 10am to drive north over the river to Tate Britain, where we know we can park right by the entrance. It is January 2019 and bright but cold. As we unload ourselves from the car, a couple walk past with a buggy and stop near a tree.
The mother unpacks a potty and sets it up on the pavement for her son to use. He is probably younger than Molly and, while I push her arms into her coat and try to locate her hat on the floor of the car as she asks me about slugs, I think again that we need to toilet train her.
We race down the side of the building, my husband James running with Ben’s wheelchair to the accessible entrance, get out of the cold and begin the process of removing the coats we had only just put on each child. There is an exhibition of Turner Prize nominees and I ask a man at the front desk whether it is suitable for children. ‘I don’t think there’s any nudity or sex,’ he says. I don’t mind about nudity, but I am nervous of what the naked people might be doing since I had wheeled Ben into an inappropriate Gilbert & George exhibition a few years previously.
And he is right, no sex. The pieces are all video works. One of the films is about identity and belonging with sweeping footage of ancient standing stones on remote islands in Scotland. The other visitors are sitting quietly and I can see Ben is engrossed. The only noises are the squawks of island birds and the rhythmical clicks of Ben’s tongue.
Ben’s muscles move involuntarily, all the time, including those in his mouth. His tongue moves a lot, though not in a way that can manage food. It means Ben can’t eat, he dribbles and he makes a clicking noise sometimes. When he was first at nursery, the staff would call him Dolphin Boy, as if he were trying to communicate on some level unintelligible to mere humans. He would make the sound when he was relaxed or interested, never when he was tense or bored. We would often respond with our own clicks like we were speaking a secret language. I liked them and I think Ben did too. Over the years he has clicked less and I miss it. James and I sometimes talk with nostalgia about the clicks, wondering what had changed in his tongue, mouth or brain over the years to make them more rare.
When Ben was younger, I was self-conscious about him being noisy, particularly in very quiet places. For a child who doesn’t talk, Ben can be quite loud: there are kicks which makes his wheelchair squeak, whinging noises to complain, shrieks if he is excited and the clicks. In silent galleries, planetariums or theatres the noises can jar. I’m the kind of person who would rather not eat sweets than risk the noise of a crackling packet in a cinema. But Ben loves the cinema so we take him anyway, despite the noise. Now he is almost ten, I hardly notice the sounds because I am so used to them. I am less likely to see whether other people have noticed and I care less about what anyone thinks. After the videos, we wander through the main galleries of historical paintings. Somewhere around the seventeenth century, Molly takes off her shoes and tries to jump off an elegant wooden bench in the centre of the room before shouting, ‘I want to run!’ I try to tame her, to avoid her rushing into a room filled with carefully calibrated metronomes and knocking them all off course. Molly has just turned three and is extremely enthusiastic. I hear James occasionally asking Max not to lean too close to the paintings and I glimpse him leaning on Ben’s wheelchair instead. Max is six and more contained than Molly – less supervision required, his emotions and impulses not quite as close to the surface.
As we walk around the Tate with our children we aren’t once self-conscious about Ben and his behaviour. We are, however, mindful of his small whirlwind of a sister who risks careering into art of national importance. When Ben was a baby, I would have struggled to imagine that we could have mornings like this, in an art gallery, with three children in tow, and Ben the least of our worries.