Wednesday morning began with a face-splitting grin by my bedside.
'Mum, can I make my lunch?'
'I made it. It's on the counter.'
'Wow! You're so good.'
Seconds later: running feet. A small voice interrupting my half-sleep.
'Mum! I can't find it! It's GONE.'
'I think it's under a tea towel.'
I close my eyes. It's 7am.
A few minutes pass before the voice materialises again, bursting with excitement.
'Maybe I should be the Mum, huh?'
My eyes snap open. He's holding a transparent microwave container: a bread roll, crackers, an apple and a carrot inside. The Husband stirs at my side.
'No!' he mutters. 'That's my container.'
I drag myself out of bed as F disappears again, his dejected voice floating back down the hallway.
'Well, I CAN'T take my lunch in a plastic bag. What if I get teased?'
It's The Husband who finds a spare lunchbox on the top shelf of the cupboard (F lost the lid of his old one last year and somehow I haven't thought to replace it until now). F eats his Nutri Grain quickly, perfunctorily. His schoolbag is packed with the diary I've bought him and a few exercise books he has used to write stories and draw cartoons in the holidays.
'I have schoolbooks already! See?'
The Husband pumps up F's Christmas footy, still in its plastic wrapper, for playtime. (The good one, the Sherrin, is for home, he reminds us.)
On our bikes, out on the footpath, F's excitement dissolves a little.
'I'm nervous' he tells me. He elaborates on the ride down the main road, over the crossing and through the park. 'It's a new teacher. I don't know how far I can go.'
'What do you mean?'
'I don't know with rules of the classroom yet. What if I break one without knowing it?'
'I think you'll be fine. The teacher will tell you the rules. And you pretty much know them anyway. Don't talk while the teacher is talking. Don't get up and walk around the classroom when you're supposed to be doing your work. Don't be a smart-mouth. Don't talk back. Do what you're asked. Do those things and you'll be fine.'
At the end of the park, the bottom of the street the school is on, he dismounts to walk his bike up the hill. He leans close to me and murmurs more misgivings, softly, so no one passing can hear.
'I have to fit in. I have to blend in. I have Asperger's, you know?'
My heart breaks a little, just a hairline crack.
'I might be too smart.'
'Asperger's isn't just about being smart, you know. It's also about learning the rules of how to behave. The way your mind works. You just have to think about it a litle more. But you're doing that. You should be fine.'
He thinks about this.
'Think of it this way. You're not alone, you know. You have a silent partner at school with you. If you're unsure of anything, if you have any problems, if you have any worries about your teacher or the other kids, come talk to me and we can sort it out together. I'm your silent partner.'
I don't think about this in advance; it just comes out. To my surprise, it works.
'You know,' he says, 'that makes me feel a bit better.'
And he gets back on the bike and cycles across the road to our final stretch of footpath.
At school, we wander the schoolyard a little after putting our bikes away. Familiar kids pass by and F greets them lustily: 'WHOSE CLASS ARE YOU IN?' One of them, a new and tenuous friend from the end of last year, is in his class. He forgot. The boys beam at each other before moving on, each rushing in separate directions.
He shows me his classroom before the bell goes for morning assembly. The door is open and F strides right in. The teacher is standing at the whiteboard.
'Hello!' he greets us. I apologise for intruding and he smiles back at us, waving away my apology. He watches benevolently as F circles the room, scouting for the best desk, then waves us goodbye as I lure F back into the courtyard. It's a good sign. Last year's teacher would have shooed us away in record time.
F is one of the last kids into the assembly hall. He looks about anxiously, clutching my hand tight in his. 'Where's my teacher? I can't find him!' Last year's teacher's aide approaches us and bends to talk to F.
'Hi F! I think you're going to have a great year.' I wonder if she is alluding to his change of teacher. F frowns back at her.
'I haven't made a very good start,' he mutters, his voice wobbling, just a micro-amount.
'You've made an excellent start! You're here. Who's your teacher? Okay, he's over here. See? Fine.'
I step back, relieved. I am still holding F's library bag, with last year's overdue books. I'll have to wait out te assembly and catch him on hi way to his classroom.
Ten minutes later, F is second in line when his class troops out of the hall and past me, where I stand, banished, on the fringe of the other parents. His buddy L sees me first and waves.
'Mum!' He reaches out and hugs me tight, surprising me. Last year, he was past the stage of public affection. I am both delighted and slightly afraid for him. I pass him the library bag, squeeze him back and urge him to march on with the others. He holds onto my hand for a few seconds that seem more like hours, a beseeching look in his eyes, then turns and carries on. I watch his retreating back with tears in my eyes.
And he's eight years old. My eyes were dry on his first day ever. What's happening to me?
At the end of the day, he runs into my arms, but he is smiling and full of news of his fantastic new teacher and what he did in the playground.
Two weeks on, I'm still getting my hugs. And I'm still both pleased and wary.