FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17th 2014
6.45 am and my eyes snap open. In the murk before dawn, there’s little to see. I’ve woken off kilter, as though I’ve forgotten how to do it. I’m not convinced that I’ve even slept at all. Crash landed in the new day. Thoughts fly in unbidden and instantly I’m sixteen years ahead of myself, wondering how I’ll be making money when Leo turns 18 and I’m 60; when he’s up and gone and with him the child benefit and tax credits. It’s a kind of preemptive fear and it’s ludicrous, but I can’t quite bring myself to laugh. I’m right to be concerned – I’m as close to 60 now as to 28 and heading in the wrong direction, and becoming a single parent has left my finances in a patchwork state with the loss of any constituent part potentially disastrous, but there’s time to turn it around, surely? If there is time, it’s slipping away from me, down the cracks between the days, lost somewhere between work and Leo. It feels as if the thought has had me, not the other way round. That’s single parenting – no one to listen, no one to tell you you’re paranoid, and too busy to dwell on anything but the child before you until the quiet moments in the dark when the big picture assails you.
Thankfully Leo is awake and calling me by 6.45 – ‘DAAA-DEEEE’ from the cot in the next room and I take instant advantage and heed the clarion call, whipping him over the wooden rails for a hug and a kiss. For a time I struggled to adjust to his fresh starts, holding on tight to the comfort blanket of my late nights, but these days I’m ready and waiting for his summons. By 7.00 we’re cosy together in bed and read Dinosaurs After Dark and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax before a breakfast of porridge, blueberries, yoghurt and Maple syrup. I’ve been a dad for 808 days now, most of them, thankfully, spent with my son, and every one of them single.
After a brisk shower we head south to the Horniman Museum on Forest Hill. We’re first through the doors and head into the bowels of the building to explore African tribal artefacts – tall glass cases dense with twentieth century masks and costumes. Leo skitters in the gloom between exhibits, hiding between my legs in delighted mock terror from gaggles of adoring schoolgirls. Much ooh-ing and aah-ing – always appreciated, however familiar it’s become. We stop in the gents for a sharp nappy change and even the school boys are taken, ‘aw! So cute!’ We take in the stuffed menagerie in the galleries upstairs, a fusty collection of taxidermied beasts. Foxes and lions snarl in mute defiance, petrified for all time. Leo and I hold hands before the skeletons of an early Homo Sapiens adult and child. A mummy skull and a baby skull stare back, slack-jawed as if in disbelief that they found themselves here and I try to imagine how they lived, how they died, what they saw. Was there anything more for them than a brief and brutal struggle between birth and death, or did they laugh and sing? We duck down into the basement rooms and play music together before we’re ousted by a group of adults with special needs who make a sweet cacophony of their own.
Then out to the gardens on the hill overlooking the city where I hoist Leo up onto my shoulders and teach him the names of all the herbs and vegetables – ‘parsley, cabbage, chard, …I, love, you.’ I remember the old Fast Show sketch when the laird declares his love for old Ted and we play it out for ourselves, ‘I – potato – love – cabbage – you. Chard.’ Satisfied, we both nod off on the bus home, as we always seem to after the Horniman, but all the while something is building in me. Resentment towards Ellie, and worse. A kind of hostility. Anger at being left alone as a parent without even having felt what it might be to parent with a partner, to have to guess at what your own family might feel like. A father in exile.
Back at the flat, Leo stirs in the buggy. He’s not slept nearly enough and we struggle through lunch. He takes it as an affront and I can’t blame him. And all the while there’s something of my own I can’t digest. The situation, to put it euphemistically, the struggle. In the main it’s fine, I could even say I love it, but but there are times when I crave a break. Not from Leo, never from Leo, but a break from the cycle of chores, work and relentless hustle that supports us both. Some perspective. A hug from someone who isn’t two. Once the injustice of lunch is over I lay him down in his IKEA cot where he finally returns to the business sleep, just before his mother arrives. She’s dropping off his scooter and picking up flowers delivered here for her partner James, who it seems has been diagnosed with arthritis. Briefly I consider what the implications of this might be.
She pokes her head around Leo’s bedroom door before stopping to chat for a moment in the kitchen. We discuss the new wellies I’m about to buy for Leo and she dips into her blue leather handbag to show me her current reading, a true life account of an allied soldier’s war. We rarely wander off topic and my mind, for once, is unreceptive to suggestions for new reading matter. The details of the book, usually taken in as if by osmosis, elude me. I’m edgy, hovering between the need to have her leave and some nameless need to have her stay. She’s still his mother…
We hold eye contact momentarily, something that’s been a struggle lately – whether for her I’m unsure, but certainly for me. Suddenly I remember, as if in flashback, who she was and who we were; both of us used to be somebody else, more than just separated parents being admirably sensible, that we shared over a decade of our lives before the switch to parallel tracks, that there wasn’t once a vacuum between us. I haven’t remembered ‘us’ for a while. And then whatever it is that’s lodged in my gut today, the animus fuelled by injustice now grown hard like a gall stone, melts. I cannot hold onto it.
We say goodbye after she’s checked in on Leo again, who’s slept throughout. I take the chance for a quick nap myself, ten minutes of black to slingshot me back into the day. Instead I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed crying. I’m not sure why, but it’s as if a wall has come down. I can’t find it in me to hate. Most of the time I’m strong enough not to – most of the time – but it’s visited me in my weakness today. Tired of the effort of being alone, vaguely hypoglycaemic and hunched like a dray horse over a buggy that seems to be pushing back, I’ve caved in. Fleetingly I recall the hoary nugget of wisdom from a divorcee I once watched interviewed for a TV documentary, ‘love your children more than you hate your ex.’ I’m running a marathon with my ex here, and now feels like the time to stop sprinting and drop the animosity. It’s giving me a stitch.
Its a kind of refuge, hate, an invisible shield that costs energy to maintain – energy which, at 44, I can’t afford to waste. I can’t hate her, I can’t hate being left high and dry on the cusp of family life, I can’t hate paying London rent for a two bedroom flat while she plans an extension, I can’t hate the mornings I wake and remember he’s not with me, I can’t hate never coming home to him. I can’t hate the glimpses I catch through the curtains of my son in a stranger’s arms. I can’t hate the fact that here I am, high and dry, behold the reconstructed male, in fact the male that never needed a real overhaul, who was raised by his mum and sister, who never needed to be taught to respect women, who was faithful if perhaps the flame was flickering, who was class swat at antenatal, who held hands at the scans and wiped the vomit off the floor after the jabs and dutifully massaged his pregnant partner even as she rapidly and dramatically became his ex partner, and who learnt to look after a baby on his own.
I’m brimming with love for my son. Most of the time the only struggle is to believe I had a hand in his creation. At times it can destabilise me to think that the intimacy I share with my son runs in tandem with the intimacy he shares with someone who remains an outsider in my life, and that while he’s my entire world, I’m but a part of his. But mercifully I’m too busy for such thoughts to remain in focus. When it’s us, it’s just us. The phone, to my frequent relief, puts the cushion of distance between me and his mother, and with physical proximity and all it brings back removed from the equation, the wonder of it is still visits me – we made someone, we made him. And if our hearts are unbound, then he carries them both.
Leo’s awake before I can quite squeeze off the nap I need. But I swing my legs over the side of the bed, feeling a little lighter all the same. For a brief and sudden instant I miss all that we were, and in my mind I see all that we could have been, everything I’ve blocked out. She was my girl. But that was then. In the three strides from my room to his I skip from the slough of the past and leaning down to his cot, and I doubt I could even find it in me to hate Man Utd. I swing him up and over for the second time in a day and squeeze him tight.