HAS HAVING A BABY SIMPLIFIED MY LIFE? KIND OF…

As a father – still a single one – (and still a parent with a ‘co-‘ for a prefix) (and other brackets, sub clauses and dashes of difficulty) in a situation that remains stubbornly complex, I’m more minded than I ever thought I might be to read the myriad pearls of wisdom, received or otherwise, on offer on-line on the already overwritten subject of parenting.  Frankly I never thought I’d need the advice, but that was before the ground fell away and the great unknown of single parenting yawned before me, with Leo still six months from being born.  And when a particularly shiny pearl of wisdom is offered up by the estimable Lauren Laverne, I sit up and take note.

You see I love Lauren Laverne.  And before she need fear the online stalker, it’s a particular love of which I speak.  There are many variations, after all – the Japanese have nine words for love I’m told, though I’m not sure which would apply best in this instance.  The wireless – the digital one – has become a trusted friend throughout the first 22 months of my son’s life.  In the intimacy of the hearth BBC 6music has soundtracked my two-member family, and many a home alone parenting learning curve has been played out twixt ten and one to the accompaniment of Lauren’s mid-morning show.

‘Having a baby will simplify your life’ she writes in the Guardian. I sat upright for that.  Your damn tootin’ it will.  A baby, as Lauren points out, is the pre-eminent agent of life-simplification.  I too have learnt this. With all the baggage of my childless adulthood dropped by the roadside, my toddler is now my teacher.  That realisation, and the power of love (not Huey Lewis and the News’ 1985 hit single, but the actual power of love, of an order you couldn’t have dreamt could exist within you until the person you made shot out into the world and put you in your proper place) are the two things that have the power to bring down the entire parental advice machine.

I remember a frame from a Freak Brothers comic book, in which a perennial virgin finally gets it on and gets with the programme.  “I CAN DO THIS!!!” shrieks our hero’s thought bubble.  I’ve found it’s kind of the same with being a parent.  My biggest shock was not all the staple fare of the lad-to-dad memo; the frequency of nappy changing and the fact that babies dribble and vomit and yada-yada-yada… – for some men, these seem to be discoveries akin to the detection of life on an alien planet.  No, the biggest shock was that it was actually quite easy.  Even doing it entirely alone for stretches of a week or more is straightforward.

And whenever I think I might slip, there’s my little genius of love to remind me how to do it, with his constant need to be fed, changed, paid for, cuddled to within an inch of his miracle of a life, bathed, taken swimming, endlessly read to with all the prerequisite voices and sound effects, and have his dad’s forehead pressed into his chest as I gabble whatever parent-child patois we’ve landed upon at that moment until his laughter is bouncing all over the walls.  Leo has been a joy from pretty much the outset, and my one-on-one life with him a rare privilege.

And yet for all that, in so many respects my life remains beyond Leo’s powers of simplification.  For one thing it’s split in two; life with and life without the captain of my heart.  I’d happily swallowed the line that I’d have the ‘best of both worlds’, perhaps out of pure relief that my son was to remain in my life in any meaningful way at all.  Now I’m not so sure.  The ‘with’ bit, when it’s mostly just the two of us, is positively Panglossian – the best of all possible worlds indeed.  Simple.  But the downtime, well that’s exactly what it is – down time, because I’m still with him even even when he isn’t there.  

Time away from Leo is time working in any case.  Friends and social engagements do indeed evaporate, as Lauren, me, and millions of others have discovered.  But they’re disappearing into the ether just when I need them the most.  At 44, and with the vast majority of friends fully occupied with young families, I’m out on a limb.  In my statistically inverted social sphere, I’m surrounded by nuclear families and suddenly I’m the only single in the village.  No drinks after work when your mates are heading back to hearth and home.  Opening the door to the cavernous silence that only an absent child leaves behind is chastening, and frankly frightening.  One minute you’re living in the moment, the next you’re here but not here.  Stop.  Start.  Stop.  Start.  And some pining in between.

Ah, family life.  Or whatever you call this.  You get greedy for it indeed, Lauren.  But my plate keeps getting taken away.  And when someone else is eating from it, well… Well.

And then there’s the juggling between two jobs and the other job that isn’t a job – the one that might be work, but you don’t want paying for and you certainly don’t want time off from.  Your little boy.  And there’s the childcare for him, the cost and the jigsaw of an arrangement that necessitates my dependency on Leo’s maternal family, a family of which I am no longer a part and yet remain beholden to without any support of my own to call on.

Has my son simplified my life?  He’s certainly simplified me and our life together is a simple one, revolving as it does primarily around eating, reading, playing and sleeping.  But the business of life is Byzantine in its complexity, each week in the shared diary a Gordian knot at the outset.  My life as a single co-parent right now is a matrix of complexity, constructed in order to maintain one steady simplicity at its heart.  Me and Leo.  A whole lot of work for a whole lot of holiday…

FATHER’S DAY

So it’s upon us again.  I think.  Or has it just slipped by?  It may have been last weekend, it may be next.  It might just have well fallen in January, or be pencilled in for December – but then you probably couldn’t sell as much stuff you want but don’t need.  I wouldn’t know.  Apparently it’s unmissable, given the volume of media coverage, the cluster bomb of commercial opportunities and attendant advertising bonanza.  In my TV-free utopia I’m (almost) blissfully ignorant, but a feature on this morning’s Woman’s Hour has the rusty penny teetering before it finally drops.  I refer, of course, not to the beautiful game’s return to its spiritual home in Brazil – my utopia may be TV-less but it’s anything but football-free – no, it is, apparently, some time around now, Father’s Day.  Only I’m far too busy being a father to notice…

For some of Father’s Day I will be a father.  I’ll be a dad in the morning, or at least up until 11am.  I’ll hoist Leo up and out of his cot at seven and he’ll run tottering into my room and hook his right foot up and over the top of my bed and we’ll read stories under the duvet until eight, each one preceded with the pomp of a now-ceremonial kiss on the cheek from him – a mutually understood bargain or a signal to begin, I’m not sure which.  Then into the kitchen for a Sunday-slow breakfast and inevitably, having been lulled into a false sense of being time-rich, the pell-mell rush to Waterloo to deliver him to mum who’ll be en route to a Sunday more leisurely and reassuringly Sunday-shaped than mine.  Thence across Waterloo Bridge, swallowing down the vague sense of discombobulation and mortal panic that always bubbles up like bile in the minutes after I’ve left him, to the coal face to put in a shift and thereafter to the pub with childless drinking partner to reassure myself within the span of a pint or five that my life might after all be, in some way I’m yet to notice, normal…

That’s discombobulated and panicked not simply on account of going from my hermetic existence as a full-on single parent to two days without Leo throughout which the silence he leaves behind will be deafening, but because I know my son will be spending the majority of Sunday with a man I never see but who, it would appear, considers himself to be every bit as integral to my son’s life as I am.  So if this is Father’s Day, just who is it for?

‘We’ never did Father’s Day.  ‘We’ being me and Leo’s mother – I retain the inverted commas as the decade-long span of our relationship seems surreal in the memory now, a montage of scenes half-remembered from another life, and not necessarily mine.  Leo and I are now the only reality I know.  ‘We’ didn’t do Mother’s Day either, in the interest of balance.  Valentine’s Day survived the massacre and limped on in the form of a few handmade cards and some very cosy meals for two or three years.  The only days deemed important enough to be granted due weight and observance were prefixed with ‘Christmas’ and ‘birth-‘.  All others were derided, wisely it seemed at the time, as the spawn of American greeting card houses long since mutated into consumer-fests for fools.

But of course I’ll be his dad when he’s away on the train, when he’s in the other half of his life, when I’m rolling home drunk, when I sleep, when I wake.  And this weekend, or last weekend, and however much the head says no, this proud, bruised single father is wilting just a little as he discovers that Father’s Day is pretty much ubiquitous after all, and I wonder – do I want the sweet benediction of that card after all?

Do I deserve recognition? Do I need it?  On a day like today, maybe.  To the pool early for Leo’s swimming lesson.  ‘We’ do swimming and ‘we’ alternate – last week was mum’s turn, and when asked after me – mistakenly referred to as ‘your husband’  – by the instructor, declared ‘oh, he’s just the dad.’  That ‘just’ hung around for the rest of the day and might be worth a piece in its own right.  ‘Just’ dad’s day, perhaps?  There’s an almost cosmic irony in being, frankly, an exemplary father (hey, if I don’t say it who else will – that’s the whole point of this piece, right?) in as much as I do it all myself and I love doing it all myself, and being… alone.  And not just alone but, without wishing to break out the violins, entirely unvalued.  I guess it’s the relative isolation and the entire lack of real emotional support that has me pining for some token expression of appreciation.

Isn’t fatherhood it’s own reward?  Ah, ‘its own reward’ – how that phrase might have jarred had it been suggested to me before I had a son.  And yet I’d have discarded the sanctimony I wanted to hear and guessed at the truth in it, and of course I’d have been right.  It is its own reward and how liberating to know and feel that each day, even if at times I do feel a little like an a one man show with an audience of …one.  Though he is some audience.  Very receptive.

Some dads will be feted, treated, celebrated, lionised even and sure, it would be nice.  But I suspect I might breathe a sigh of relief to have given the Radiohead CDs a swerve this time.

Card or not, and let’s be fair, his crafty little digits aren’t yet two – though that hasn’t stopped him producing a glitter-encrusted Easter card courtesy of a thoughtful child-minder – I’m fortunate.  Indeed, partner or not (and right now I honestly prefer not), I’m fortunate. I know there’ll come a time I can tell my son that one sun kissed Saturday I crouched down to him and kissed him as he wrestled with the high drama of end-of-day fatigue.  In the kitchen with our bare feet still encrusted in the afternoon’s sand and grime, I squatted down and sang him The Byrds’ cover of Mr Tambourine Man as it played on the radio and as he nuzzled into me and we butted heads I knew I had the only show of appreciation I needed. And I marvelled just at being loved by him, and had the sense to know that these were the days of my life.

Might put that in a card and post it to myself…

Tagged

PICTURES OF LEO

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Week 78

Sitting in the front room staring at the Mac, I can just about catch the frosting of my breath from the corner of one eye, and I suspect it may be cold enough to hang meat in here.  My son Leo, meanwhile, is fast asleep in his cot at the foot of my bed in the back room.  And, of course, he’s feeling the full benefit of the ideal temperature at which the bedroom is kept over night.  Financial readjustments are already making it hard for me to justify heating any room not occupied by the light of my life.  Heat is money, and its spent on my son.

Back in the icebox I’m trawling through a monumental wall of pictures, put in mind as I do so of the statistic you may have heard quoted recently, to the effect that 95% of all photos ever taken have been taken in the last five years.  Or something like that – it’s a kind of a shaggy dog stat, I suppose.  Who’s counting, but in any case, we get – pardon the pun – the picture.

Looking at this bank of images, I’m beginning to wonder if 95% of all photos ever taken are in fact pictures of Leo taken by me on my iPhone over the last 16 and a half months.  Spread across the wide screen before me are hundreds of little Leos, in all his myriad outfits, throughout each season of the year, in states of undress and occasional distress, and in nearly all of them beaming.

These are a mere sample of the photos I’ve taken of him since his birth, some sixteen months ago.  That’s 1,429 and counting – an average of 2.6 for each day of his life thus far.  ‘Take one a day’ gushed my fellow fathers, and indeed the habit is now deeply ingrained – albeit somewhat to my surprise.

Nearly each and every one is a selfie, of sorts.  Virtually no-one else appears in any of these shots bar Leo in the starring role and myself in support – often literally.  As a visual metaphor for our lives together, that’s pretty much perfect.  This is the extent of the prematurely fractured family, after all, the nucleus rent asunder – just the two of us…  There is, of course, the occasional cameo – the visiting relative, the friend passing through – and the cast of extras from various playgroups.  But in the main we’re the leads in this show.

The photographic record began on day one.  In fact, it began much earlier, but we’ll come to that… On that day, a day which I still feel compelled to call the proudest and happiest of my life despite the events and circumstances that overshadowed it, Ellie naturally featured heavily in the photo shoot, too.  The very first picture of Leo, taken moments after he’d slipped out onto the hospital bed – a shockingly skinny rag doll, red raw and too quiet by far – is a beautiful one.  His pink face wrinkled as if the eldest in the room, topped with a white cap and eyes tight shut, a stranger in a strange new land, perched atop mum in blind search of his first feed.

A more naturally beautiful scene you’d be hard pushed to conjure, and yet how I’ve wished in the darker moments since – the times when I can’t find it in me to look back with unalloyed joy – to crop it, to excise her from it just as I had been exiled from my own paternal destiny.  I never have, of course, it would be an abject act of miserly vandalism, a kind of small theft from all of us.  Should Leo ever wish to rewind that far, if he can ever stomach viewing the vast shot-by-shot testament to his life I’ll have constructed by the time he shows any interest, he and his mum shall remain together and unedited.

But the life in montage shall of course be largely for my benefit alone.  Ever since my early insistence on keeping and digitising the freeze frames from the scans, the compulsion to chronicle has grown.  When we first saw those spectral little kicks inside her and let rip synchronised and involuntary gasps as we reflexively clasped hands despite it all, there was a kick inside me, too. Whatever the difficulties, a kind of freedom settled on me then.  The black and white portrait fluctuating before me, to the accompanying gallop of his heartbeat, had me in its thrall.  Love at first sight, inarguably, and all cares swept before it.

So what drives me is not so much the urge to capture or distil.  There’s been enough recent research and general guff on the deleterious effect our urge to snap has on our future memory.  By now we’ve all been at the gig where we’re distracted by the sea of raised handsets floating between us and the stage, we’ve seen tourists robotically snap exhibits they’re not even looking at.  It’s a truly modern folly.  We’re not allowing for memory, but rather feeding a hard drive we may never even refer to.  No, what drives me is a kind of disbelief – a) that I’m actually a father, and b) that I’m actually the father of this beautiful boy.

I’d always wanted children.  Of my own, that is.  Overcoming indifference towards other people’s had nearly always been something of a conscious effort until Leo’s arrival.  Bizarrely, I’d fantasised about being a parent even as a pre-pubescent, though when I watch kids with dolls I realise that’s perhaps not such an outlandish notion as it may at first seem.  But I never quite believed that it would actually happen and now that it has, it’s as if I need constant photographic affirmation of the fact before my heretic eyes.  And thanks to Steve Jobs, I’m now affirming on a daily basis.  The true purpose of the iPhone, evidently, is to whip it out from your jeans pocket and show off your first born to enthusiastic, tolerant, or despairing friends whenever words fail.  Which, I find, they do.

It’s the stuff of a thousand dad blogs, the big before and after story.  From lad to dad.  From dating to mating, and from mating to doting.  The reluctance with kids that gives way to selfless adoration, as our hero stumbles upon hitherto hidden internal dimensions hitherto hidden and unguessed at.  I, too, passed the parcel when it headed my way.  Now the parcel’s mine.  And I can barely let go.

I’d been similarly indifferent to the life photographic, both the taking of and the being in.  Landscapes were routinely committed to film on my travels, and my ex would regularly point out, with some justification, that she featured less than heavily in my work behind the lens.  The plea to ‘take a photo’ could freeze the blood coursing through my veins.  Why halt the flow in the effort to capture it?

And yet here I am, a snap-happy daddy, a serial offender.  Author of a monolithic visual record of a quite remarkable presence, a smile in 99% of its constituent shots.  Each one texted between separated parents forms a bridge of sorts, and though I can only guess what Leo might ultimately make of two distinct collections, I can have no regrets.  That, or I’m addicted.

But for all my marvelling at my progeny, I suspect the reasons behind my photographic rigour are quite prosaic.  And perhaps a little sad.  As yet, it’s still just the two of us.  There’s no-one else there, no pillow talk, no comfort in shared joy or amazement.  And in the absence of anything approaching a conventional family life, my guess is that I just need to prove it’s all real.

Because there are days and nights, long ones when he’s not around and I’m listless and unbalanced, when suddenly I’m a ghost haunting my own life and I need reminding I’m a dad.  And I find myself staring at the Mac…

ADDENDUM (PICTURES OF HER)

There’s another wall of photos.  The one I never look at.  A bank of images from another life, a life as distant to me now as  starlight from a far-off galaxy.  The life before Leo.  And what to do with these?  I’ve snipped away judiciously, editing my past, whittling away but retaining the core.  A decade of memories are still largely intact, and I haven’t the heart to consign them to the trash.

Some corner of me may be clinging on yet, but the stay of execution is for Leo’s benefit.  It’s occurred to me more than once that he’ll have no direct experience of, nor memory of, his parents as a unit.  Right now we’re doing well to be in the same room.  Indeed the notion of the two of us ever having been intimate may well seem as surreal as the moon landings to him, little more than a curiosity of history.

If he asks, he’ll be answered, and the memory bank will be opened for him.  He’ll see where he came from.  I’ll pick some nice ones, some sunshine and smiley ones, and he’ll see that, whatever the subsequent course of our personal histories, he came from a good place.  He came from love.

ADDENDUM (THE DARK SIDE OF THE MAC)

There’s another side to this Mac.  Once a shared computer, it’s now my own little digital fiefdom but her half remains intact if unvisited.  And there lies another wall of images yet.  Time now to clean these up.  These are shots not meant for my eyes.  Pictures of Leo, mere days in the world and still adjusting to it, lying on the bare chest of Ellie’s partner James.  His first trip outdoors since emerging from the maternity ward.  It’s only the second time I’ve felt able to confront these images, and on this occasion they’re to be deleted.  If only I could delete the feeling that curdles inside me.

But on this occasion Leo is with me.  He’s almost 18 months now, and we’re seeing out a rainy day indoors.  And from the toy-littered floor he raises his head.  And he sees these images.  And he says “da-dee”.  And my heart stops.  And it’s not happening.  “Da-dee”.  And in panic I hoik him up onto my lap.  And this time I bring up pictures of me.  His dad.  “Da-dee!  Da-dee!”  The knot in my heart unties, I breathe a little steadier.  I tell myself it’s just a word after all, an incantation of his.  But hasn’t there been some kind of visual association here?

An inconvenient truth would be the correct euphemism here.  Until Leo’s old enough for conversation, and perhaps past then, I am perhaps destined to be one part of a kind of composite dad, albeit the dominant part.

I click and drag James with Leo, and drop him in the trash.  I pull the plug.  Someone else’s memories.  Pictures.  Just pictures.

Tagged

A CHRISTMAS DIARY

Jumping through time, we fast forward a year to further festivity…

Week 72

Monday, December 23rd

It’s 6.45 am and I’m standing in the kitchen making porridge.  Outside all is dark, and Leo is yet to stir – such a good sleeper that I’ve learnt to hide his talent for slumber from other, less fortunate parents than I.  There but for the grace of God…

Mum is away, celebrating Christmas early with her partner, leaving me to make the Monday morning run to the childminder before a dash to the West End for a last day at work before the holiday.  She’ll return on Christmas Eve, in time to be with Leo for Christmas Day.  Any sense of iniquity I’m harbouring is countered by the fact that Leo and I will have been together now for five out of seven nights by this evening. Still and all, ’tis the night before that’s best, and I ponder Christmas futures.  Christmases when Leo will awaken to the magic, and awaken to the fact that dad is elsewhere.

Mission accomplished, and much of the rest of the day is given over to budgetary deliberations.  To spend or not?  An austerity Christmas, or one final fling with the plastic to ease myself through the season before battening down the hatches and sealing the wallet in the new year?  Given that I’ve recently learnt I’m to emerge from six years of joint property ownership with the smallest four-figure sum imaginable, a period of retrenchment inevitably beckons with its bony finger.

And yet, it’s Christmas.  It’s the season to be entirely illogical in regard to one’s finances.  One look around me is all I need for a quick reminder of that.  Town has emptied out somewhat, thousands fleeing from London’s lead grey skies.  Inclement weather incoming.  But those left on the good ship are making a scrum of it, scurrying from shop to shop like the recession never happened.  Who am I not to join in the fray?

In the full and certain knowledge that I face a second successive gift-less Christmas, I cave in to self-pity and, in the nauseating and infantilising advertising argot of the day, decide to ‘treat myself’, splurging on a bottle of Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon (it’s no longer Christmas in this brave new dawn without The Pogues at Brixton and a sour mash whiskey) and a copy of Charles Schulz’s Complete Peanuts 1967-1968 – the year of its zenith, I’m assured.  Added to Leo’s pile is a cuddly ‘Enormous Crocodile’, copyright the estate of Roald Dahl.  Not especially enormous, or even particularly crocodiley.  Retrenchment can wait.

Make the dash back south to Leo’s nan in increasingly hostile atmospheric conditions, skies apocalyptic.  By 8.00 Leo is drifting off on my chest, hearing for the first time how the Grinch stole Christmas.  It’s warm in here with him, and outside the wind is whipping around the flat, licking at the door and generating the near-hysterical whistling you’re more familiar with from films.  Inside, the reassuring rumble of the boiler and soft whistle of Leo’s exhaling breath.  Kiss his hair before laying him down between Eep-Eep and Morgan Jr.  The day couldn’t end any better.

Christmas Eve

By lunchtime I’ve ferried Leo to his nan’s, and spend the rest of the afternoon facing the madness of Christmas crowds. At 23 minutes to five I’m missing him fiercely, but have at least got the shopping in under the wire.  I’ve opted to have myself a Merry LIDL Christmas, and join the bazaar to toss smoked salmon, pistachios and the like into the basket for half the price.

But with the shops closed, the deadline met and the door shut behind me, the hush descends and the harder it gets.  From here on in it’s all about the anticipation and the kid within me stirs – but no playmate.  The problem is that I love Christmas – and if you love it, you can’t ignore it.  My Christmases have evolved down the years into a ritualistic observance of traditions old and new – the obligatory pilgrimage to, and weep over, It’s A Wonderful Life, the Pogues gig, Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart, the over-indulgence on Christmas Eve and the price paid in the morning.  To those indifferent, I imagine it must be quite easy to ignore.  But tonight the ghost of an alternate Christmas haunts – a Christmas from a parallel life, a Christmas with a family.  And again, the ghost of Christmas future – Leo’s stocking prepped elsewhere…  Periodically I remind myself that I don’t have to wrap his presents tonight, that I won’t actually see him tomorrow save for a conversation on Skype.

The flat may be empty, but the fridge at least is unusually full, and sleep comes easy.  Waking up will be the hard part…

Christmas Day

Stepping out of the bath tub after a long soak with a glass of bourbon and half a packet of Quality Street (toffees and fudge only – finally, the prayers of those who eschew the soft centre have been answered) I reach for the iPhone by the bed.  Just a reflex, I suppose, as I’m unsure who I might possibly be expecting a message from at this late hour.  I see we’re seventeen minutes into Christmas Day already.  Impossible as it is to ignore, right now it’s snow quiet and not a creature is stirring, but there’s no sense of anticipation, just a quiet dread that I swallow back down at intervals.  Dry off and slip between the covers.

Hours later I’m staring at the curtains.  Christmas Day is fingering its way around the edges.  Resistance is futile, and I swing my legs over the edge of the bed.  Traditional breakfast – bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon to the accompaniment of 6music.  A picture of Leo is texted over – brimming with festive glee… Then, the Skype call – mum and dad avoiding eye contact (though it’s curiously hard to look away without seeming rude or distracted on a video call…) – but soon Leo is on hand, kissing the screen in between circuits of the room, filling it with a joyful racket.  For Leo, every day is Christmas…  For me, he’s far away, so close…

After a hasty lunch, to Highbury Corner – I’ve volunteered to help out at a temporary shelter for the homeless run by the Quakers.  Wheeling north up bus lanes without buses, weaving through tourists on Boris Bikes, I’m still unsure as to what’s motivating me, or what I may be hoping to get out of the day.  This is a first for me – I confess  I’m not the type to volunteer ordinarily, and could hardly even classify myself as being charitably inclined.  Indeed I’ve even on occasion suspected that a great deal of charity is about the feelings of the giver rather than the benefit of the recipient.

The inescapable truth is that I have nothing to do on Christmas Day. My son is with my ex, family are outside of London and in no circumstances would I consider throwing myself at the mercy of friends, who are en famille to a man.  Rather than act the Christmas gooseberry, I’m intent on turning the situation around and focusing on someone else.  On the final approach along Upper Street I realise I’m afraid, and now I know why.  Without a family home and with barely a penny to show for it, I’m living in a flat I could conceivably lose at any point, and with an annual income of less than £25,000 and considerable debt face the prospect of housing myself and my son in London, where the private rental market is tearing strips off of couples and families.  Paranoia?  I hope so, but on the days that chew at me days homelessness can loom in the rear view mirror.

Hours at the kitchen sink with Gill help me overcome my nerves.  She’s a cheery and determined middle-aged divorcee who’s maintained a close friendship with her ex.  I’m all ears.  We cope with the brunt of a hundred-plus Christmas dinners, occasionally mingling with those we’re here to serve.  There are the alcoholics and habitual drug-users, and the victims of life-derailing childhoods.  There are men accompanied by dogs who’ve offered them more solace than any human.  Some seem haunted by the men they might have been.  One man sits hunched throughout, intent on a copy of Economics Explained.  I wonder whether he’s asking how he got her or looking for the way out.  I hope he finds enlightenment.

At five o’clock I’m sent on a mercy mission – with forty quid in my pocket I’m dispatched to find two carving knives.  I haven’t the heart to question the likelihood of finding a pair of knives on Upper Street on Christmas Day so gamely set off with the hopes of all resting on me.  Make it as far as the 24-hour Co-op garage where my request has a carful of patrolling policemen in stitches.  On hearing the dilemma, they suggest sharpening the knives we have blade-to-blade, cliche French chef-style.  I sprint back and we make like Boy Scouts.  Christmas is saved.

The workload hits a critical mass after dinner and though I flag, my spirits are high and I realise I’ve made the right choice in coming along.  I may have set out to do something for myself – ie distract myself from a Leo-less Christmas – but in doing so I’ve given of myself, putting my shoulder to the wheel for the benefit of others.  And it feels good.  All around is cheery chaos, only the dogs are fighting.  Merry Christmas, we wish each other over hot chocolate.

At the debrief we’re invited to finish in silent prayer.  It’s then I realise that I’m the only non-Quaker in the room and as their eyes close or meet the floor, I allow my faithless gaze to study for a moment the faces I’ve been working with.  Good souls, all.  No piety or sense of self-satisfaction.  No-one has asked them to give of their time on Christmas Day, and they’ve asked nothing in return.  If there is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, I suspect it may have just passed through this draughty room.

Feel sufficiently emboldened to yell a full-lunged Jimmy Stewart-style ‘Merry Christmas everybody!’ as I set off down the side streets of well-heeled Islington.  Cross back over the river as the weather becomes biblical and all the rain in the world is hurled at me, and the driving gets festive.  Plunge into a waterlogged pothole in Brixton, and bike frame meets groin with force.  Home by midnight.  Bath, bourbon, Quality Streets, bed.

Tomorrow, Boxing Day is Christmas Day.

Boxing Day

Or Groundhog Day.  At least until Leo arrives.  Languish in the half light of the pit until 9.30 before dragging my bones into the kitchen for a repeat of yesterday’s breakfast.  Time enough for a whistle stop tour of the encircling Sainsbury’s locals in search of brandy butter.  Success.  Before long Leo is trundling down the steps in buggy, mum behind.  It’s business as usual in the kitchen – a quick drop-off, a quick ‘how was yesterday?’, then Ellie to work and Leo and I are left to turn, belatedly, to matters Christmas.  It takes a few moments for me to realise that not one seasonal greeting of any variety has passed between Ellie and I.  We’re still locked in an ice age…

The remainder of the day is spent in the kitchen, and though of a decent size it seems to shrink as the hours pass.  Leo bounces happily between me and the cupboards for the duration, but learning to cook a ham with a toddler in a space like this is not an experience I’ll be in a rush to repeat.  One eye on Leo and one eye on the ham is not enough eyes.  Pull a tile from a fridge magnet poetry set out of his mouth and waste precious time confiscating the whole set from off of the fridge door.  Suspect the word ‘fusillade’ may well be working its way around his digestive tract as i do so.  It’ll all come out in the nappies…  With the giant fist of meat finally glazed and in the roasting tray, I take the opportunity to lay Leo down for a brief siesta.

We’re interrupted by a thump from the general direction of the oven.  It’s a thump with a metallic undertone and I assume it’s the sound of a roasting tin readjusting to life under heat.  I’m wrong.  Leaving Leo to doze I return to the kitchen to find that the ham has exploded.  The picture behind the glass door is an ugly one, reminiscent of the meaty mess left in the teleporter pod in the closing scenes of David Cronenberg’s cult shockfest The Fly, in which Seth Brundle attempts and fails to rid himself of the insect DNA that’s making life so inconvenient.  For a moment I’m scared to open it.  On doing so, a fleshy apocalypse reveals itself. Matter coats the inside of the door and charred gristle is welded to the inside walls.  Refusing to buckle, I drain the oil from the beast, have a hasty clean up, turn down the gas a little and resume the experiment, fingers crossed all the while.

After dinner bedtime beckons for Leo, and I hoik him up onto the big bed for his first e-book on the iPad – Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, a beautifully illustrated story of a young boy’s coming to terms with his fear of the dark and a delight to read aloud, voices and everything.  Once he’s slipped from shallow sleep into the deep and true stuff, I slip next door to my own dinner and a robust red.  After a day of cooking the unventilated kitchen resembles a sweat shop, rivulets of meat infused moisture coursing down the walls.  Approaching midnight on Boxing Day now and still not a present wrapped.  Grab a bourbon and the half-full box of Quality Street to help as I remedy this, and in short order I’m stealing back into the bedroom as he breathes in and breathes out, and I rest an armful of silver-wrapped toys on the floor at the foot of his cot.

The day is soon fingering its way around the curtains once more, but it’s no Groundhog Day.  Here’s Leo, standing up in his cot, head peering over the footboards, calling for me.  I sweep him up with one arm, gather his presents in the other, and we bundle onto the bed for the big unwrap.  Carefully sourced toys are duly discarded, and Leo is soon revelling in piles of the best wrapping paper he’s seen in his life.  And he’s learnt a new trick.  A kiss for dad.  Merry Christmas, son.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the ham should in fact have had its skin removed before its fateful journey in my oven.  Beginner’s mistake.  It was, however, all kinds of sensational…

LOOKING IN THE MIRROR

Most Weeks

‘Most of the time, I’m strong enough not to hate.  Most of the time.’

Bob Dylan

 

So it’s time I nailed this – for my own sake, dear reader, and, perhaps, yours too.  I’ve been made a single parent at the eleventh hour, ejected from my home and left dangerously impoverished.  But now I’m looking in the mirror.  Am I feeling sorry for myself?  Have I, in the midst of turmoil, been lulled into sleepy submission by the deadening self-administered hug of pity?

I know that, by many a separated man’s measure, I have no right even to the dubious luxury of complaint.  Throughout most weeks I’m now actually the primary carer, dutifully pinging off photos to a mum missing her baby at work.  It would be pedantic of me to say that I can’t see my son ‘whenever I want’.  True, I can’t very well knock on the door of Ellie’s flat and pop in for a quick hug (with Leo, not her) when the mood takes me, as it often does.  Our time is allotted and recorded in our shared Gmail calendar, our son’s life mapped out in blocks of bold colour – green for mum, red for dad.  Don’t strain for any symbolism in the contrasting hues, there’s none.

I enjoy instead the comparative luxury of the one-on-one quality time that an odd combination of sole parenting and flexible working allows.  Consequently I spend more hours with my son than many fathers in secure employment and steady relationships can manage.  My heart will always go out to any father in exile who finds himself in despair and in lycra, impelled by the the most unjust of circumstances to don a cheap Halloween Spiderman outfit and seek the spotlight, and justice, halfway up the nearest crane to Tower Bridge.

And yet I find myself in this position courtesy of a high-wire act of my own.  Maintaining relations of a civil note requires constant balance on a juddering tightrope, the most primitive of emotions to be kept in check lest I plunge into the chaos of the broiling waters below.  That may, I suppose, work both ways, and yet Ellie finds herself with every emotional and practical advantage – a new partner in support and an extended family in the locality, whilst I find myself adjusting to the disorientation of sudden isolation and nights in the kitchen eaten by emotions of an unexpectedly savage nature.

In truth a relentless schedule is all but swallowing any extended opportunity for wading in my own mire.  Now that Leo overnights I’m truly in harness, and days without him are given to work.  And already the life of the single parent seems more than rewarding.

It’s one of love’s curiosities that life without it seems unimaginable when we’re lost in its throes, and a life in love seems equally fanciful when we’re bereft of it.  Intimacy is slipped into with ease, yet when worn away seems alien.  Your own recent past seems, indeed, to become another country.  And rapidly.

Similarly, I’d now have to strain to conceive of any other way of parenting.  The nuclear families that I pass on the pavement, two tiny hands enclosed by the loving fists of the parents on either flank, evoke nothing more than a kind of inquisitive speculation in me.  They’re visions from a parallel universe, an apparition of what might have been but for a fateful and untimely fork in the road.  The absence of any real jealousy is a small kind of tragedy in itself I suppose – it’s just that can’t relate to these particular manifestations of happiness, having no experience of it myself.  Again, another country.

My own way with Leo is now the only way with Leo, and while the dynamic may not quite be us against the world, it is certainly just the two of us.  In fact that’s on Leo’s pre-bedtime playlist. Can you truly miss what you never had?  I never had grandparents either, and consequently they’ll be forever notional, though the ghost of the idea can haunt from time to time…

But despite the unexpected consolations of sole parenting and the fortuitous division of parental labour, I find that my troubles don’t simply fade by way of comparison.  A loss must be adapted to, after all, and is made no less painful by the presence in the world of those whose loss is greater than our own, however inspiring we may find them.  Inspiration is a beacon to show the way, perhaps, but no magic wand.

And let us be clear at this point, the arrival of Leo has been as sunrise to a bleak and war torn landscape, a dawning of immeasurable love.  If the master bedroom in the mansion of my heart has been locked – for now – then the doors to a previously undiscovered ballroom have been flung wide open.  Let’s dance.

If self-pity takes root then yes, it can be seen as a measure of defeat.  A measure of self-pity, however, might best be seen as a form of necessary self defence – a temporary retreat back into the shell, there to lick wounds and take stock in the muse-less, mojo-less days that humour can’t reach.

To put it bluntly, melodramatically even, there’s been a violation here.  That the end of the affair coincided with the entrance of Leo – desperately sad, but ultimately palatable.  A new life, a new love, a new focus – a job to be done.  The constant off stage presence almost immediately after conception of an unknown man in my son’s life, however – still, and perhaps ultimately, unpalatable.

Please, feel free to stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, but the certain knowledge that your unborn child has been been spoken to in soft tones by a voice it might well become familiar with before it knows your own, that it has heard the pre-gender nickname given by its father uttered by another …well, that knowledge brings with it one small mercy.  It is surreal, stubbornly intangible, and that in itself, at least, is a shield of sorts.

An abnormal situation remained defiantly normal throughout the remaining months of the pregnancy.  Despite the succession of texts meant for him that were inadvertently but repeatedly sent to me (insert psychological case-study here), despite the love notes left on the passenger seat of the car in which I ferried Ellie up and downhill, despite her lover’s visits to my home when work took me away, and despite the chill and ill wind that blew my way, I stuck to the task as agreed.  I held hands through the jabs, mopped up the vomit, I cooked, I drove, I did the classes, I went the distance.  Alone.  Until Leo showed up.

And if I jacked up on a measure of self-pity in the cavernous hours spent shrinking back into the shell, then I can’t beat myself up in retrospect.  A small dose administered here and there, well …it bolstered the defences, helping keep me immune from psychological ills of a more damaging nature.

Inevitably, in isolation one turns inwards.  And, on the last lap to fatherhood, to find oneself grappling with loss and violation with little fallback save for the occasional beer with a disbelieving mate or the snatched phone call to a geographically removed (and similarly disbelieving) family member, and all the while smiling at the midwives and fellow prenatals like nothing ever happened – and you do because you want to be just like them, living in the land where nothing ever happened, your future bringing nothing but the certainty of another life – well, that’s isolation.

And yes, on that last lap there were occasions of disarming warmth and honesty between the central protagonists.  Lunches shared, even if they felt more and more like final observances, two sets of thoughts turning elsewhere and less and less to say.  There were tears at times, cried in recognition of the end times.  But in the main that last lap was run in my own lane, the bottom line from her camp loud and clear – tough shit.  Which, indeed, it was.

There were the storms of crippling rage which surged through the body and which, on subsiding, brought shame.  There was the talking to oneself.  There were the debilitating realities that faded and swung around time and again like blazing comets.  I wish I could describe what it is to gaze agape at a picture of your newborn slumbering outdoors on the bare chest of a man you don’t know, and who has barely acknowledged you except by proxy.  The picture has been left on your hard drive, and you never get round to deleting it because you can’t bring yourself to look again.

But I can’t describe it.  It’s as if it were happening to someone else – is what I’m seeing real?  Does he actually think he’s the father?  Seeing that widescreened on the Mac was akin to disembowelment.  The realisation of the potential loss of sole paternity was worse than physical, it was somehow existential – to share your continuation in this world with someone you can bring yourself to refer to only as him has hollowed the soul.  And in the meantime salt upon salt is being vigorously rubbed into the gash where your heart once beat.

So yes, for a while, defeated.  On the floor in various pieces.  But at least those pieces are scrabbling around to find each other, like the scattered components of the killer android in the final reel of The Terminator.  No symbolism there, either.  After all, it’s not whether you’re knocked down, it’s whether you get up.  It’s now what happens to you, but what you make of it.  And other pithy sporting analogies.

Will I always be angry?  I guess the anger will lurk, but the key will be not to fall into it.  And in time the black hole will shrink, the universe will survive…  I shall follow the unspoken rules and expect that, over on the other side of no-man’s land, they’ll follow them too.  I’ll never speak ill of her in front of him, and I’ll endeavour always to love him more than I hate her when i do give in to that.  And in time I’ll strive not to hate her at all…  All sound advice from talking heads on the TV I never thought I’d need to heed.  I’ll observe the grammar of the separated.  I’ll punctuate each text with an ‘x’.

But I’ll forever wonder whether ‘I want a child with you, but I want to be with someone else’ was the most selfish, or the most generous, or just the most honest thing that I ever heard.

LONG NIGHT’S JOURNEY INTO DAY

NOTE TO READER

Forgive the non-linear approach, the hopscotching through time and space from one parenting episode to another.  I hope what may emerge is, if not a story, then a map, of sorts.  A map of fatherhood…

Week 20.  Christmas.

Attentive readers will by now have noted that the final frontier has been duly conquered and my boy Leo now overnights once more with his ol’ pa after a lengthy period of daycare only.  I paraphrase Captain James Tiberius Kirk and his words are not lifted lightly, as for some time in that long cold descent from autumn to winter the prospect of four-month old Leo living with me – and consequently taking up residence in two homes – seemed indeed as remote as the possibility of weekly warp-speed travel between galaxies and routine sexual congress with green-skinned alien goddesses who invariably possess a startlingly commanding grasp of the English language.

The challenge that loomed Himalayan on the horizon was not so much his being with me, as his being without mum.  The logistical aspect of the puzzle – i.e. milk, was whittled away over a period of weeks.  Mother’s milk was dispatched live and in person at intervals, and supplemented by expressed and frozen sachets of said milk that were ferried downhill from Streatham to Brixton, there to nestle among the herbs and the plastic trays of chicken stock cubes upon the top shelf of the freezer until called for.  These would be warmed and applied to the maws of the firstborn with paternal love in the absence of Ellie.  And with the addition of formula to the milk menu – gratefully received and adapted to by a compliant Leo – thus was he weaned from maternal dependence and freed to roam happily uphill and downhill between parental settlements, from one pole to the other.

The true hurdle, the one to bring the athlete head first into the cinder track but yards from the finishing tape, lay in the mind.  The mind of the apprehensive single father contemplating sole responsibility in the small hours that make up the long corridor from early evening through until the light of day.

Practical advice has been taken, and ideas mooted from a variety of sources including the practice nurse at the surgery during routine vaccinations.  Suggestions have ranged from the old school to the technical – an unwashed t-shirt of mum’s perhaps for olfactory reassurance, a recording of her voice on the iPhone or a photo looming large on the iPad should my twitchy finger find itself hovering indecisively over the panic button.  There must be an app.  At least, should Leo crash beyond reach of paternal comfort, there’s Skype, I tell myself, shelving for now any concerns re premature screen exposure.  Whatever gets him through the night…

Thus far Leo has been reassuringly adaptable, relishing his frequent rotation between venues.  Not in the slightest does he seem put out by falling asleep on one parent and waking on another a mile and a half away – a kind of cosy teleportation.   He’ll know nothing else, we tell each other.  Or tell ourselves.

Consistency is the watchword and a bedtime routine devised, rehearsed and perfected at moon base mama is to be replicated and adhered to down at dad’s basement outpost.  An A4 sheet folded four ways contains the instructions, a map to guide me on a night with no compass, and the procedure couldn’t be neater – on this crumpled paper, at least.  Forty-five minutes for bath time, bottle, book at bedtime, bed by 7.45.  The four B’s.  Then a mid-sleep bottle prepared before my head meets its pillow, midnight approx.

Leo, however, is not a five-point plan but a late summer child yet to see his first Christmas, and in his father’s mind, wracked with rookie nerves, there can be no knowing things will be alright on the night until they are.

Fittingly, ’twas the night before the night before Christmas that Leo first stayed, an early present dropped off by Ellie en route to a pre-holiday getaway.  This in stark contrast to the previous year’s festive season, when we celebrated as an expectant couple, weeks from our own apocalypse as Leo lay embryonic.

With Ellie coastward bound and the plan mentally embedded, Leo and I embark upon the first stage of our own new adventure – albeit via Tesco’s, Brixton, and to top up the electricity key at the corner shop on the way back.  In the supermarket the aisles are churning, no quarter given to the pappoosed parent wading against human traffic, a scrum of shoppers hurtling towards the Christmas deadline, oblivious to us as we head together into the night, abroad and on to our own new country.

Beetling home through the chill darkness I realise the master plan isn’t glitch-free, after all.  We’re without the smoke alarm I’d intended to purchase, but taking him home – taking him home, I repeat to myself, I’m too happy to care, content to muse that the fates surely won’t sanction the incineration of man and child on the eve of Christmas Eve.

In the kitchen there’s no need to consult the road map.  Like Luke Skywalker pushing his onboard guidance computer to one side and trusting to the force, suddenly all is clear and I know what to do.  Parental autopilot – or instinct – kicks in as the new ritual is ministered without fault.  The bottle is sterilised, the milk warmed, the cot mattress, pyjamas and sleeping bag gently toasted with a hot water bottle, curtains drawn and nursery lights lit, teddy bear (take a bow, Maurice Jr.) and cuddly alien (likewise, eep-eep) take up their posts – one to each top corner – as night watchmen.  All due observances paid.

Bathed, dried, fed, read to, kissed, cuddled and marvelled at, kissed again, I lay him down.  It’s as tender an act as I’ve undertaken in a lifetime.  Asleep already, in repose he’s beatific, arms spread wide as if bestowing the gift of peace upon the night in this basement flat that’s now a home.

And all through the house, indeed, not a creature was stirring, with the exception of the father who cooked and pottered in the warmth of the kitchen, eschewing for once his beloved 6music as he savoured the new quality of peace that had settled upon the place, silent as snowfall.

I check in metronomically, of course.  And it’s not anxiety that spurs me from the kitchen table to the cot at the foot of my bed, but the relative novelty of his presence at this late hour.  That, and a sense of wonder.  It’s not every parent that stands above the cot peering down through the soft light in a daze of bleary stupefaction, and now I wonder at those who never do.  Not for the first time – nor the last – I marvel that I could have had anything at all to do with the creation of what I see below me, beauty that defeats description.

Moving to a new rhythm now, flying by wire, I rush through prepping the night-time bottle so that I can get under duvet as soon as I’m able.  With the milk perched on the corner of the headboard I sink my feet down to meet their own hot water bottle and drink in the detail as I turn off the bedside light.  Too thrilled to read I lie in the warmth of the darkness, hands clasped behind head, listening to the steady metre of his breath rising from just beyond the footboard.

As a child, when too excited to sleep, my mind racing from the American comics, the Doctor Who paperbacks, and the abridged classics I’d gorge myself on before lights out, I would often imagine I was on a journey through the darkness of the night.  My bedroom was a cabin, and the small semi-detached in which it lay a carriage.  And all the neighbours houses were carriages, and the street a night-train bound for …where?  The destination was irrelevant, the adventure all, and my mind took me far and away, and down into sleep.

Tonight I’m on the move once more, my son with me, the steady cadence of my his soft breathing guiding us ever closer to the dawn.  For a while I fight off the weight of slumber, aware I’m charged with precious cargo to deliver through the darkness and into day.  But duty cannot keep my eyes from closing, and as he breathes in and breathes out he lulls me, and I let go as he takes me down with him to new dreams.

See you there, Leo.

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HE BANGS THE DRUMS

Week 36

A civilised breakfast for father and son – precision feeding, minimal collateral mess as porridge and blueberries find their targets – and we scuttle uphill fuelled by slow-release wholegrain, across the park for a whole new play group experience.

It’s not that we really need a whole new play group experience, in all honesty – being the only dad squatting cross-legged on the mat singing Wind The Bobbin Up has been no great burden, even if I feel my presence did inevitably alter the dynamic.

In my salad days as a solo dad-on-the-mat I was often put in mind of the Heisenberg Principle, also known as the Uncertainty Principle.  You know, the theorem that the act of observation itself influences the thing being observed.  The principle, Werner Heisenberg’s career defining contribution as a particle theorist of some renown – applied to the behaviour of subatomic particles but has since been proven to be spot on in the mind of many a reality documentary producer cursing camera conscious subjects, and might just as well be applied to heretofore all-mum play groups on the introduction of a keen but nervy first time father.  Heisenberg had seven kids to feed with his principle, including one set of twins, but I doubt he ever found himself the only dad in play group.  Or even in play group.

I’m guessing my presence won’t have any detectable influence on the behaviour of the group we’re heading towards now, however.  This is all dads.  How Heisenberg might like to drop a mum into this one.  Leo and I have previous in this area as occasional visitors to a local group – loose formed and without any real structure, a smattering of fathers strung out across a purpose built playroom for two hours every other Saturday.  No voices raised in song, handsets in evidence and football scores monitored metronomically.  I never felt that we penetrated the circle – it seems most play groups, whatever their constitution, have a circle to be penetrated – though that may be down in no small part to my own innate wariness.

These dads were corralled by a well-meaning volunteer named Tim, a self-declared, self-appointed child guru who wasted little time in back-combing my already semi-erect hackles.  I’d no idea this was a class.  Forgive my cynicism, but any man who declares that “children are my passion” clearly doesn’t have any.  Children, that is, not passion.  The very word has been long since over-used to the point of meaninglessness in any case.  My morning latte is made by people for whom coffee is their passion.  My lunchtime sandwich is designed and and hand crafted with passion.  Please don’t playgroup my child with passion, can we just have fun?

Tim fields questions from uncertain dads with the earnestness of the man in whose mind this is a science, and an exact one at that.  X amount of time on the naughty step, we’re told.  Now not for a nanosecond would I wish to give the impression that parenting is a frothy coffee and cake walk, but to nourish the idea that there are textbook answers can only be counter-productive.  Once we’re disavowed of that slippery notion, then parenting becomes in a trice a far less daunting prospect, and a far more manageable proposition.  We have instincts.  We, in fact, are the experts on our children.  Our own children, that is.  We just need reminding of it on occasion.

Parental anxiety is natural and, to a degree, necessary.  We need it like the performer needs nerves, or the athlete needs adrenaline.  But anxiety in the parent is fed, and an industry has been built to service it.  An industry that sells answers to our questions.

I can be overwhelmed by fear.  As a single parent, I’m beset with a miasma of phobias and paranoias.  What if something happens to me when he’s staying over?  What if I lop off one of my fingers when I’m distracted by him in the kitchen?  What if I take a ride on a stray toy of a cylindrical or wheeled nature and bust that worried little head of mine wide open?  What if I don’t wake up?  Who’ll miss us if he’s not due back with mum for another whole day?

And none of this is about me, you understand, this is what happens to him?  Where will we live?  How will I afford a place with a room for him on less than £25,000 a year in London?  What kind of a relationship will he form with his mother’s partner?  Just how do you meet women again, anyway?  In the supermarket?  Where is the time for it?   Meeting women, that is, not the supermarket – I’m lost in there on a near-daily basis.  How do I let someone else into his life in any case?  Will it be us against the world – or just the two of us, with apologies to Bill Withers? You get the picture…

Then there’s the anxieties that lie in wait, entrenched for now but ready to go over the top and hit you square in the sternum at some point in the near future.  It gets harder, right?  When he’s no longer a cute and (relatively) compliant blob who, between wowing the crowds on the buses, requires your ministrations only when tired, hungry, dirty, or in distress.

What happens when he asks questions, and not just the machine gun repetition of why? why? why? – which actually sounds like fun – but the questions you don’t know the answers to yourself, the kind of questions that keep rattling around the cage of your mind like apps running in the background when the lights are out.  What happens when he turns around and clocks the shock of your fallibility, when he sees that you’re winging it?

And then there’s the third wave, the big stuff that will roll down and break on you like a tidal wave when you’re sitting bewildered in front of the news.  Will he get a place in school?  Will he find fulfilling work?  What temperature will this planet be by the time he sees its in premature peril unless we pull at least one finger out?  What if he supports Man United?

But fear is like the dark – the day rolls round, the dread event rears its gorgon head and lo, the light is switched on, the dark turned off.  But in the meantime that’s enough anxiety in your half-empty cup, and what I can’t get in a lather about is looking after him – that I can do, and do well, thank you and good night.

So no teacher in the play group, please.  In fact, no cottage industry in symbiotic cahoots with the wellspring of parental uncertainty.  Love is all you need, they were right, it’s the bedrock that enables everything.  Well, love and a cardboard box.  You figure it out, instructions not included (or necessary).  Ok, and maybe a copy of Dr Miriam Stoppard’s Complete Baby And Childcare on the shelf for moments of self-doubt – common sense cover-to-cover, and nothing a quick dip into the index can’t assist with.

But we digress.  To a community hut on the periphery of the park, then, and the periphery of what else, I wonder, as we trundle through the estate it nestles in – is this the end of the line for men?  The hall has seen better days and within are a scattering of men who have, too.  I’m welcomed with tea and chocolate Hobnobs by my new comrades-with-babes-in-arms, all happily scruffy with the wear and tear of parenting, jeans worn at the knee and t-shirts in the various stages of staining.

Some are primary carers, having ditched ‘eclectic’ careers (i.e., like myself, no real one to speak of) to shoulder the burden while partners strive in the workplace.  Some politely express mild surprise at, and seem impressed by, the hours I’m putting tout seul at my own domestic coalface, confessing relief when mum arrives at day’s end.  I allow myself a brief, private moment of modest self-congratulation, reminded of my own feelings when mum returns and spirits Leo away to home, or from home, I’m unsure which.  Feelings, invariably, of loss and listlessness.

But I certainly got what I wished for – perhaps I should have been more careful of that.  The genie granted me the biggie, I’m a certified stay-at-home dad, but the other wish – work-from-home-dad – is proving to be, along with looking after myself, the real challenge.  Like many of the men I’m eyeing over the brim of my mug, I may want to raise my kid myself, but I want everything else that ever made me a man, too, and I’m left with the vaguely discomfiting feeling that not only has all of that evaporated, but I’m not sure I ever really knew what it was anyway…

Though my by now trusty single-dad-dar isn’t picking up any fellow lone travellers, I am picking up on an energy once described by Louis de Bernieres in his poem Every Other Weekend as ‘much too jolly by half’. Though these fathers seem, by and large, to be placed near enough to the centre of their children’s lives, the unmistakable fug of overcompensation hangs heavy in the air.  There is a pleasing outlaw flavour to proceedings, however, as though this were a guerrilla group of rogue dads, albeit cuddly ones.

But by the time singalong is in full swing I’m unable to muster the required energy – happy to try, but reluctant to try too hard.  And I’m definitely getting that here.  There’s an energy too close to fury driving the singing – not directed at the kids, heaven forfend, but the relentless nursery songs become adrenaline-barbed incantations.  We can do this, too, mums is the mantra.  Our chorus leader is exhausting me with his efforts and as he bangs his drum, literally and metaphorically, my eyes are drawn to the bead of sweat that’s plotting a course south from his brow.  The sweat of effort or a tear of suppressed rage?  I’m reminded of the scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien in which the ship’s onboard scientist is revealed as an android traitor by a single tear of biomechanical fluid tracing the contour of his jaw, and I wonder  what secret mission our choirmaster might be on and whether he’ll complete it before he self-destructs.

As babies and toddlers are hoiked into carriers and buggies and this band of brothers disperses for another week, I can’t help but feel relief.  I like these people – how could I not?  And a modicum of overcompensation is easily forgiven.  However socially acceptable the idea of dads as primary carers has become it is still, for many people, just that – an idea.  Little wonder the reality works up a sweat making the point.  Most of the buggies we pass on the walk home have mums leaning their weight into them, I note.

Yet somehow I know we won’t be back, though I wish them all well and hope our paths may cross outside the walls of this community hall.  The search for our grail will continue – a play group that’s not a mums’ group or a dads’ group.  Neither one thing nor the other, but a parents’ group – mixed, easy-going, messy and happily chaotic, and with no point to prove.

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LEO SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED

Week 12

I’m sitting patiently in semi-darkness with Leo bottle-fed and tucked into the nook of my left arm, into which he still snugly  fits.  I’m not sure why this particular state of partial illumination is always referred to as ‘semi-darkness’ and never ‘semi-light’ – seems a little ‘glass half-empty’ to me.  Everything is most satisfactory with Leo, though I’m definitely still waiting to enjoy myself.  And, truth be told, I’d prefer at this moment to hunker down with child in a cosy blanket of darkness.

I’m trying to escape into a movie and Leo is, in fits and starts, and probably wisely, flirting with an escape from row F into sleep.  Without the prerequisite level of cinema gloaming it’s tricky, however.  I like my movie theatre dark as a sackful of black kittens, with the silver screen the only source of light, but the ambience here is set halfway and it’ll be staying that way for the duration – the eye doesn’t know where it is.

Roughly half the audience need to see exactly what they’re doing  and who they’re doing it to when they’re not focused on the screen.  More visual confusion.  But there’ll be no speculative arms around shoulders today, certainly not on my part, no back-row groping.  More’s the pity.  No, this is not Friday evening, this is Friday morning.  This is watch-with-baby at the Ritzy.

Whilst this is not Leo’s first taste of movie heaven – he has already visited a well-known galaxy far, far away, albeit with his mum and from the comfort of his own sofa – this is his first  taste of the silver screen proper, and courtesy of pater, who’s been seized by a spirit of mild adventure.

This is, to be a little more precise, watch-Bond-with-baby.  It is, just to nail it, watch-Bond-with-baby-on-the-first-showing-on-the-opening-day of his most eagerly anticipated outing in years.  With Sam Mendes the helmsman and a promise of biographical backdrop for a stripped-back, stay-at-home, austerity take on the nation’s favourite psychopathic defender of the realm, record box-office beckons. (Yes, that’s right – he’s a psycho.  He needs to be, but more on that later).  This means guaranteed carnage in the foyer, and a crush of buggies that might occasion 007 an obstruction almost as insurmountable as the double-decker load of VW Beetles he encounters in the first reel.

Were Bond to find himself holding the baby – admittedly an outcome as likely as a penguin at the North Pole, though his offspring are surely legion – I’d like to think he might eschew even a buggy customised by Q in favour of the carrier.  Enhanced mobility counts when you’re the quarry in the bazaar, I’d have thought.  It certainly counts when you’re slipping through a crowd of babies on a minimum of three wheels escorted by vexed parents, and my seat is found with ease.

The distractions and obstacles within are multifarious.  Nappies are being changed on any available floorspace, and the overhead projector cuts through a tangible fog of rising fumes.  The Ritzy’s main space has the feel of a giant living room.  Once a full house of nascent families have ushered themselves in and negotiated their way along aisle and down row and A-Z is chocker, screen number one sounds not unlike a barnful of sheep, or at least lambs, a chorus of scattered babies keeping up what will clearly be a constant accompaniment.  A happy scene for sure, though already I’m realising that keeping up with the finer points of the next two and a half hours might well become an exercise in obstinately wishful thinking.

It appears I’ve been hopelessly over-optimistic on all counts.  Of course I have.  Today’s watch-with-progeny screening coincides neatly with Leo’s mid-morning nap, leaving him (and me) between a rock and a hard place.  Agog at sight and sound on a scale unprecedented in his 83 days on Earth thus far, he simply doesn’t know what to do with his beautiful eyes.  Sleep tugs, but there’s no escape from the gravitational pull of the monumental wall of vision that looms before him, a tractor-beam on his beleaguered attention.  The outcome is preordained, and before long he’s contributing his considerable lung-power to the pervading chorus.  The noise is impressive in its way – like a choir maintaining a steady note, some babies fading while others take up the slack, and the overall refrain is unremitting.

So thus far this has been Bond in dumb show – the set pieces engage, but when they give way to talking heads, we’re treated to the sight of Craig, Dench, et al silently mouthing the hard details of the plot to no avail whatsoever, leaving dozens of parents to wonder whether subtitles might be of help.  Probably not – too much nodding of head from baby to screen in any case to manage reading on top of everything else.

A trip to the foyer then, stepping lightly around and over scenes more commonly seen at playgroup.  En route I pass a dad who’s opted to root himself at the back with carrier, an idea not shared by my feet but it’s working for him.  His eyes betray a determination to see this enterprise through that’s just the wrong side of admirable.  One minute back in the foyer-cum-buggy-park is all it takes.  Leo, released from the torment of distraction, is asleep, and deeply enough to warrant re-entry.  But one minute back with Bond is all it takes to undo the previous minute.  It’s talking heads again, 007 and friend discussing Turner’s Rain, Steam And Speed in the National Gallery.  I’ll never know why amid the quavering din, and with Leo reactivated it’s foyer time again.  This time we hit the street, and though Leo hits sleep it’s a long moment before I venture back.

This time I linger near the exit with Determined Dad, Standing.  With Leo looking like he’s property of Sleep for now, I turn my attention back to events in James’ evermore complex world.  Big chap strapped to chair, imprisoned in glass cell, vaguely Hannibal-esque scene, clearly a wrong ‘un and a threat to all England holds dear.  I have no idea how we got here and it’s at this point I wish my fellow parents, if any of them have any clue as to how we got thus far, good afternoon and good luck with sticking with what’s clearly going to be one big slice of movie served with any number of diversions.  It seems most have roped their partners in as plot advisers, to the continual rhubarb…

At least I don’t feel I’m missing out.  Threading nimbly through the bazaar of buggies and out into lunchtime, I’m pleased at least that my feelings for the Bond canon have always been conflicted at best.  Even in the three-channel days of yore when ITV lured a nation bloated on Christmas dinner and beached on the sofa with a box of Milk Tray perched on its belly with box office Bond, I would turn to my toys and my own imagination.  Bond was dispiritingly Earthbound somehow, with the honourable exception of his attempts at re-entry in Moonraker, and as a boy I could detect no spirit of adventure, no sense that he was a hero.  There’s a savagery, a casual brutality to Bond that no amount of dressing with clipped accents, gadgets, fast cars and pat one-liners could ever quite conceal.  He’s a soldier, a murderer in black tie.

My heroes then were more likely to wear red capes and fly, wield lightsabers or pilot battered Corellian freightships, or travel through time and space in a battered police box – forces for good, not agents of Her Majesty’s Government and some already anachronistic notions of Empire.  And no emails about Superman and the American Way, please…  There were myriad reasons to follow Bond into and throughout adolescence and they were all, without exception, beautiful, but now, with a boy strapped tight, the boy in me is back for a second outing.

For me there’ll be another night and a second chance, even if I didn’t make it this Friday morning to the finale that’s more Buchan than Fleming in his Barbour-clad Highland hinterland.  I’ll snigger at his high-end-perfume-advert entry into the casino, the camp core at the heart of it all, grudgingly admire the stab at an origin story, and appreciate the departure from the familiar track.  For Leo, Bond can wait.  For now.  I’ll hope, in the meantime, that The Force may be with him…

THE BOX IN THE CORNER, or WHY DON’T YOU? GO AND DO SOMETHING LESS BORING INSTEAD LIKE RAISE A BABY BOY ON YOUR OWN (PART TIME)

With the nesting process now in full flow, a significant decision with far reaching implications is taken – and none too lightly.

There is to be no TV.  No cathode ray flicker shall cast the ghost of its lambency upon the walls of this basement flat, at least not until Leo is of an age, or of a stage, when he might truly benefit, if benefit is the word, from the box in the corner (or the flat screen on the wall).  Or at least not until his father is driven to a sufficient level of distraction to warrant plonking him on his arse before the screen, willing the firstborn to a state of hypnosis and himself back to sanity.  Whichever comes first.

There is nothing lofty in this refusal of our ubiquitous companion; the telly is to be shunned on practical grounds alone.  Who, after all, could possibly be impressed by, or even believe, the self-righteous claim tossed down from the battlements of the ivory tower that “I don’t watch TV?”  Such an outlandish profession could only be matched by the life-deniers who would have us believe they don’t like The Beatles.  And they nearly always do.  Besides, an entire medium is not to be breezily dismissed, particularly not one that’s brought us The Sullivans and The Sopranos and the entire spectrum in-between.  And that’s just the drama.

Perhaps I’m impressionable.  Perhaps I was too easily influenced by the lawyer I met in a bar in Copenhagen while taking time out during Ellie’s pregnancy.  Coming up for air, as it were, before Leo surfaced to stay.  She “didn’t watch telly”, and something in me stirred at that.  What a refreshing change, my ad-addled mind surmised.  She seemed far too busy living in the land of the living to be taken in by me, the viewer in the land of the living, and my evidently underwhelming telly-heavy patter, never mind actually lose valuable living-hours watching the stuff.  Far too passive.

Had she really never heard of The Bridge?  Copenhagen did seem the logical place to avoid the onslaught of Scandinavian noir.  Hiding in plain sight, as it were.  She did, however, note my conflicted frame of mind – brought on, it must be noted, by the impending arrival of a child I was expecting with a girlfriend I’d lost to someone else – comparing me, tellingly I felt, to the character of Mark in the estimable Peep Show.  See, we all watch telly really.

Down here in the den, it’s watching TV alone I can’t face.  Too easily maligned as an agent for passivity, TV has for longer than I can recall been, if anything, a shared activity – a true agent for cohesion.  Social glue, to be current and icky.  Far from being an isolator and a device for making people do nothing (with the honourable exception of Why Don’t You?), it succeeded for the best part of a decade throughout my childhood and early teens where all else failed – it unified my family.  For one hour in the week, the magic hour, (approximately 7.00pm, BBC1) All Creatures Great And Small served up old fashioned, no-nonsense dollops of comfort viewing to my well fed family in its entirety.  It must, I suppose, have had ‘something for everyone’ – manna for the TV exec.

On other nights, unlikely alliances were forged around the schedule.  Wednesday evenings, 9.00pm, BBC2, M*A*S*H.  Regular trips to the 4077 that were acerbic and humane in equal measure, draped gently in a mantel of martini-sodden despair never quite shrugged off by the machine gun patter and the wisecracks.  Or indeed by the machine guns.  My first intimation of the adult world beyond the suburban semi-detached one I was living in, even if it was the mud of ’50s Korea (or the foothills just outside LA) and shared with my father.  Other than the six episodes of the Beeb’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, those half-hour slots ring-fenced in the middle of the week were to prove our only real shared experience.  In life, never mind in front of the TV.  But as a child you take what you can get.

Friday nights were better yet.  The audience (me and my mother) warmed up with a double-header of Dynasty and The Cosby Show before the warmest hit of humanity you could hope for before the weekend started.  Central Television’s Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, an hour of true social cohesion (that’s living, alright) and in pre-video times, the best of reasons to stay in and watch with mother.

Fast forward to the box-set years and the hefty DVD tomes that marked the passage of ‘our’ relationship.  That’s the ‘us’ that now exists only in inverted commas.  Oh, and as co-parents.  When there was an ‘us’ free of inverted commas – us – , no richer a journey was taken in tandem on the sofa – steady – than the 86-hour odyssey of The SopranosPine Barrens, naturally, and Long Term Parking provided matchless comedic and dramatic pinnacles respectively.  An epic voyage that, along with the Dickensian sweep of The Wire, won’t be forgotten.  And we won’t either of us forget who we took the journey with.

Now it’s just me and the tablet – headphones on and face uplit in the darkness as Leo sleeps in the cot at the foot of the bed.  Match Of The Day and re-runs of The Crow Road, as he breathes in, breathes out.  This is the new TV – curation and collection, bespoke viewing tailored to the needs of the individual.

But my televisual needs remain simple for now, at least until such time as father and son can rack up some shared TV experience of their own on the sofa.  There’s going to be an awful lot of cbeebies before then.  Right now screen hypnosis can wait.  The most recent research emanating from the States into the influence of TV on very young children suggests much that doesn’t surprise with lower vocabulary, disturbed sleep, and disrupted playtime among the outcomes.  Indeed, in the States guidelines suggest keeping kids away from screens altogether for the first two years of their lives at least.

What intrigues, though, is that it may be that what a child is actually watching is key.  A child can be mesmerised or interact, depending on what’s being viewed – and who with.  The trippy day-glo costumed hypno-blobs who have hijacked the (very) early morning schedules are either proto-Paul McKennas (looking very much into our kids’ eyes, not around them), or kindred spirits in the minds of our progeny – I’m not sure any adult will ever know, barring those that created them.  Watching with mother, or father, meanwhile, can enhance viewing as a shared experience.  So we’re back full circle to the family round the box.  Even if only one member of the family gets it.

It’s the prospect of time siphoned off irretrievably that deters me, that and the screen’s true cohesive force – i.e. glueing you tight to it.  The net worth of time has rocketed and I can ill afford to lose any, so I’ll be declining the open-ended invitation to procrastination.  I already have the internet to contend with, thank you.  And in any given week, where time between work and Leo (and he’s not work but he takes time and I give it) has to be jemmied out of a locked down schedule, I’ll corral it and keep it and spend it on reading and writing.

In this brave new telly-free dawn the ministrations of a day with Leo are played out to the accompaniment of BBC Radio 6Music in any case, and that is precisely what’s required down here at lone-parenting central – the companionship of the wireless as opposed to the distraction of the TV.  Too busy living.  And judging by Leo’s high-chair dance routines, just the soundtrack is fine for now.  The visuals can wait…

THE LOWER DEPTHS

Week 11

The parenting curve, though gradual and not without interruption, remains upward in trajectory.

To the markets of the East End on this fine late autumn morning for a spot of nest-feathering, inasmuch as the bachelor den can claim nest status.  Deliverance from the familial home has been a jolt and I savour and curse my newfound freedom in equal measure – I find it has an aftertaste.  This peculiar strain of freedom comes in batches, parcels of hours to be filled until I’m a father once more.  Though of course, I’m always plugged in – it’s 24/7 with or without him, as I’ve fast discovered, even if the deal as it stands is technically closer to 06/7 on a fat day, 03/7 on the slim ones.  And in all those remaining hours not taken up with thin sleep, the sense of what’s missing, in exile from my son and annexed from any sense of purpose, is entire and ceaselessly gnaws at my composure.

But in the interests of sanity, and of homemaking, I’ve heaved myself east in search of kitchenware and a decent bacon sandwich.  The latter comes first, accompanied by a double hit of builder-strength, orange-hued, polystyrene-enhanced tea.  As I eat I’m careful to keep the happy units at the periphery of my vision.  I know they’re there – the newborns strapped tight to bosom while dad applies bacon sarnie to face, the bonny babes in carriers clasped to over-bearded hipster dads.  Nuclear units, a minimum of three atoms fused together by an electron field of love.  They’re everywhere.  I’m unsure how much it would hurt to look, to take a peep at the the parallel universe of the family.

So I keep my eyes to myself, or at least on my breakfast, aware all the while of the enduring strangeness of this.  How outlandish to be but weeks a parent and to so studiously avoid the sight of the similarly-blessed because I have no means to relate to them.  And who among them could guess that I’m father to a two-month old son who lies miles to the south stirring in the Sunday morning bed between, for all I know, his mother and another – the nucleus of another unit altogether?

So I walk a steady line through this Sunday morning, an invisible dad, not looking for anything in anyone’s eyes, and return south with a plastic rug, a onesie covered in cowboys and cacti, and a wooden letter ‘L’, having discovered the Leo discount.  The Leo discount is easily applied, simply by falling into conversation with entrepreneurial single mums running kiddie boutiques and casually disclosing my own status, illuminating matters with cute snaps on the iPhone.  10% off at checkout, as long as I promise to bring him along next time.

Leo makes his scheduled appearance as the day wears on and reverts to autumnal type.  I spend our first thirty minutes together falling headfirst once more into the overcompensation trap – too cheery by half, like a dying comic straining for audience approval – and waiting for things to go wrong.  A self-fulfilling prophesy waiting to happen.  I saddle up with a fed and playful baby and head to the park, and sure enough find myself strapped tight to a grumpy old man before I’ve put barely a block between us and the flat.

It’s the absence of any apparent reason that fosters the panic that rises like bile.  Surely not hungry after half an hour?  Was mum’s milk enough?  No sign of sleep, so my guess is over-tired.  I push on and up the pace, hoping a change in tempo will buy him some zeds.  It pays off, but only to a degree.  Sleep remains elusive for Leo as he zones out in the meantime and we head into the no man’s land of the park, halfway from me and halfway to her – the Neutral Zone.

Deep into the zone the situation worsens.  Leo is bent on fulfilling the prophesy, rousing himself to a state of epic disgruntlement, gorging on the kernel of fear in my chest.  Not for him, this walk in the park.  We’re caught between the bottle at my flat and the bosom at home, the milk I don’t have and the milk she does, and both are by now a good mile off.  Equidistant from either solution I succumb to the dither and after a moment’s potentially catastrophic delay I strike uphill for mother, fearing an apocalypse in the enclosure of my own flat.

Panic propels me to my former home, the frantic pace causing us both to overheat in our respective knitwear.  Leo writhes and howls as darkness descends, calmed only momentarily by the hypnotic sodium glow of the streetlights that hove rhythmically in and out of view over my shoulder.  Cresting the hill drenched in sweat I give way to gravity and let Leo’s wriggling mass drag us downhill to the flat.  I’ve phoned ahead and Ellie is at the door as I crunch up the path, everything Leo needs.

This is a capitulation for me, a first since moving out and I’m disconsolate on handover, able only to mutter “see you Tuesday, then” as I turn on my heel and head for the gate.  Between Leo’s subsiding yammering, all the sounds and smells of a Sunday evening domesticity assail me – the metric chop-chop of vegetables, the busy rattle of saucepan lids.  My name is still on the mortgage here, and I can’t get away quickly enough.

No longer fused to my progeny, the temperature eases somewhat on the incline home and I opt for the scenic route and a moment or two’s reflection.  Two hours clocked up at the dad factory, and one of them a step back.  Rallying myself with the thought of two steps forward next time round, I put in a quick text for an update.  Milk was indeed the issue, a top up required sooner than anticipated.  So note to self – don’t leave home without a bottle.

And just as I’m going another round with the demon self-pity – staring a points defeat in the face – a pair of headlights rushes me and suddenly I’m running to make the kerb.  A hulking emergency recovery truck has torn into the quiet side road I’m crossing at speeds more appropriate to the final round of qualifying at Monaco.  Stunned from reverie I turn back, agape.  Not a good move.  The vehicle comes to a juddering, chain-jangling halt and from the cab, to my dismay, emerges another hulking mass.  As the driver lurches towards me I fumble for the phrase that’ll take the heat off, coming across as polite as C-3PO and nearly as ingratiating as I draw his attention the not inconsiderable jeopardy his spectacularly laissez-faire attitude to driving has placed me in.  Again, not a good move.  Just as it’s dawning on me that there isn’t a good move he breaks swiftly back to the door of his cab and back to me again, full of purpose and all of it bad.  He’s a good head taller than my six feet and on inch, and nearly the same across.  And he’s got a twelve inch screwdriver fused to the inside of his fist.  He’s advising me ‘not to fuck with him,’ which is ok as it’s highly unlikely, and he’s also promising to kill me.  Which is not ok.  I’m conscious of only two things; the fact that I can’t move, and my son’s face.  I hear myself saying that I’m sorry, and can even hear the word please coming from my lips.  And even as I hear it I’m angry at myself for uttering it.

For an instant out of time it’s impossible to gauge the true temperature of the situation; I can just about read a stand-off in a movie, but life’s little set-to’s have yielded even less to interpretation in my mercifully limited experience of them.  My feet rediscover the memory of movement and one of them edges back.  At the same moment he lowers his weapon of choice and stalks back to his workplace.  He pulls away at twice the speed he arrived at, clearly intent on finding someone who will fuck with him.

I carry on down the scenic route, refusing to cry.  That works for a couple of blocks.  Back in the Stygian gloom of the flat I leave the lights off and slump on the sofa, still shaken.  I try to forget, try not to see it for what it is – an isolated freakshow of an incident, and not some karmic metaphor for where I’ve got to.  I call through to Ellie, asking simply for a photo of my boy.  Within seconds he’s there by jpeg, a rectangle of light in the shadow.  Clipped into his bouncy chair and hooded in green, eyes alight and beautifully nonplussed.  Still brand new.  I kiss the screen and reach for the light.

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