Now if you’re stuck for a while consider our child
How can it be happy without its ma and pa
Please stick together
Come on, come on let’s stick together
You know we made a vow
To leave one another never
Wilbert Harrison (with thanks, of course, to Bryan Ferry)
‘Bastard’ is an awful word. However casually lobbed, however worn through overuse, it retains nonetheless its capacity, if not to shock, then certainly to hurt. ‘You were born out of wedlock’ may not be the direct translation running through the mind as it’s uttered or received, but the clarity of its barbed meaning remains… ‘you don’t belong‘. It’s not a word, so much as a weapon. By 2016 half of all British children, my son among them, will be born ‘out of wedlock’. The phrase itself, not quite yet the anachronism it deserves to be, reeks of institutionalised prejudice. But 2016 will be a significant milestone all the same and if it proves a tipping point, if we see finally that our children are to be prioritised over the institution and not vice versa, then there are grounds for optimism.
We came so very close to marriage, Ellie and I. Suitable venues, mostly large rooms above pubs, had been scouted, registry offices duly approached. Were it not for the lack of a disposable grand or two at the right moment, we certainly would have made the leap. Not that it seemed a leap to us, rather a natural progression. I don’t think we had any illusions about the importance of marriage per se, for ourselves or within society at large, other than it being a private and public declaration of commitment. And love, I suppose. Yes, there was that. That, and a good excuse for a party. We may have had some guiding notion of the proper sequence of things, some unspoken sense that it was live together, travel together, buy a flat together, have cats together, watch box sets together, get married, have kids. It needed to happen in that order, somehow.
The sudden arrival of a new love in Ellie’s life, like a deus ex machina, changed the course of the traditional plot irrevocably. And, I see now, for the better. Though we’d spoken of kids from the off, and never as a possibility but as a certainty, our eleven years together suddenly seemed an illusion to me when, three months into her pregnancy, Ellie decided her future lay with James. It was as though we had awoken from the dream. The reality of co-parenting lay ahead. Now, as the aftershocks fade, the proper sequence of things is simple. Leo comes first. And that’s it. And that’s as it should be. Marriage – theirs, or even mine, will be the icing on the cake. Certainly not the foundation.
If that sounds in any way like a simplification, it’s because it has to be. If the day-by-day remains at times a struggle, from my own point of view at least, the basics stay in place regardless. We have a child. As we sat in the kitchen amid the ruins of our own relationship with Leo three months inside her belly, like state leaders at a summit drawing up the accord that would see him through into the world, Ellie joked over tea that one day we’d be guests at each other’s weddings. I didn’t laugh, and it remains to be seen. Meanwhile as parents we’re travelling in parallel, gliding along like icebergs with very little on show to each other bar what’s necessary. Who knows what lurks beneath.
At present Leo revels in my undivided attention on one the side and bathes in the glow of their new love on the other but I wonder how important it might be for him, ultimately, to see the two of us together? Heaven forfend he should want to see us reunited, as the more naive among my male friends were convinced might inevitably be the case – as though this were a Disney rom-com with only one palatable outcome, however circuitous the route. No, he’ll need to make sense of his own story, to see the central protagonists sitting around the same table from time to time at least.
All this raced through my head during a recent handover, as Leo threw himself from one of us to the other, oblivious to the sterile space between us, propelled by joy and a love that sees no division. ‘MUMMEEE!!’ ‘DADDEEE!!’ I couldn’t help but note how curious it was that, given we all share the same space only fleetingly and at irregular intervals, how natural it seemed to him. Perhaps it was a relief? I found myself hoping, as I fastened down the Velcro straps on his trainers, that this joyful outburst wasn’t induced in some way by the uncommon triangle we made.
I’m outside of the real triangle. They form the trinity – Ellie, Leo and James, the family in the foreground with their respective extended clans populating the backdrop, delighted by the child that’s swung into their twin orbits. Either I’ve learned not to envy this or I’ve simply adjusted down through the days to a tableau that is, after all, invisible to me. Either way I’ve come to cherish the dynamic of my own immediate family – me and him. Largely free of the claustrophobia that two years ago I feared might envelop me, we enjoy in the main what can only be described as ‘quality time’. The cheap Americanism serves here as this really is a rare privilege and the movie moments, shared by us both and remembered by me alone, are coming thick and fast. No, really. But that’s another piece.
Those stagey performances around the table may become more naturally and richly inhabited in time; one can only hope so. On Leo’s second birthday – hosted on neutral ground at his grandmother’s house – I rarely escaped opening night nerves, failing to find the lines. Dry mouthed and marooned on the sofa, a stranger in a house in which I was once family, I watched on, partly with a kind of morbid curiosity, as Leo flitted between me on the periphery and the family at the centre. Every word from my mouth felt stilted, my voice as foreign to my ears as if recorded and heard on playback. The love and the tenderness I held for him as he turned two could find no natural expression and I yearned for escape, and a time when it could be the two of us once again. But time brings change with it, and there is plenty of time yet before gaps within his world become evident to him.
He’ll know his parents as wonderful individuals, but as individuals, two component parts however cooperative. The idea of us ever having been together will be illusive, impossible – and unpleasant – to grasp, the stuff of prehistory. But such is the sex life of any parent to any child. Though the mysteries of what lies between us may yet animate a febrile imagination. You don’t miss what you never knew, of course. But you may wonder. I never had grandparents. Nothing was lost. But as a child in a world generously populated with grannies and grand dads, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, ‘what if…?’ As a couple we’ll be tucked away in Leo’s hinterland, and whether or not he turns around to look will be up to him…
Marriage may be in sight for Ellie; I’ll wish her well though doubt I’ll be in attendance. As though I’d be invited. For myself the prospect remains entirely conceptual, an oasis for now, as much the shimmering mirage as a house or a mortgage. The strain to preserve marriage for its own sake, and with it the sacred cow of traditional family life, the denial that there could be anything beyond it, can lay waste to what it seeks to defend. That was the unfortunate experience of my own childhood. I have at least the opportunity to get the order right this time; to raise and cherish a child and to build a foundation for him. I’ll put being a father first for now. In the meantime I’ll expect the unexpected, and should marriage ever find me I’ll take it for what it is – not an institution, nothing upon which to build a society, not a reason to legislate against the single parent or those who choose another way, just a chance to look her in the eye and say “I love you” in front of a lot of people.