MUSIC

I suppose a lot of men would remember the make, model and precise performance spec of the first turntable in their lives. What I recall is the warmth of the walnut veneer finish, the heft of the metal platter, the reluctant pause before it consented to spin, and the snap, crackle and pop as the stylus settled in the groove and bobbed across the disc. I remember the chilly ache in my inner ear from the primitive signal of the headphones after hours of continuous listening, often in the dark, suspecting that it couldn’t be good for my aural health but feeling always that it had been worth it all the same. And I remember how odd it was that I had never, not once, seen either my mother or my father use it. Perhaps the system had been bought as a concession to children entering their teens, an acknowledgment that by the mid-to-late seventies the transistor in the back room – the dial forever oscillating between Radio 3 and 4 – would no longer do.

Like many record players of the time it sat mounted on a cabinet that housed the vinyl I’d never be able to renounce, whatever advantage any subsequent format was to deliver. There was nothing high end about the arrangement, and certainly nothing unusual. It was probably one of several that sat snug to a wood-chip papered wall in the living room of any number of semis along our street in suburban north west London. But our unit I remember as a portal, Narnian in its capacity to transport once the sticky latch had popped open and yielded its modest hoard; the disorderly ranks of thin spines, 12 inches tall, which were to have such a profound and lasting effect on my young life.

Now that my three and a half year-old son is cocking an ear to what I have playing at any given moment, I find myself thinking of that turntable and cabinet once again. As a parent I’m aware that I’m musical gatekeeper to Leo for the time being and, while he’s with me at least, the de facto early years curator of his nascent tastes. That’s some responsibility, and one I’m not sure I want. I’m happy to support him financially, house him and clothe him, wash him, feed him, read to him, right his wrongs and comfort him, but as for the formation of his cultural curiousity and outlook, I think I’d rather farm that task back out to him at the earliest available opportunity.

I’m a single father without recourse to live TV – largely out of choice – so radio has risen to the challenge; filling the vacuum that television abhors and proving itself to be the steadfast companion I always knew it to be. And in common with many contemporary stay-at-home dads and their offspring, it’s 6Music that soundtracks the midweek lunches and the Sunday morning breakfasts, punctuating the days we share. It’s also a fair barometer of my musical microclimate; a comfort in the day with its babbling brook of the familiar plus whatever’s on the playlist of new releases, and an adventure once Leo’s in bed as my one criteria for enjoyment is met hour upon hour – that I discover something I’d never heard before.

If there’s a downside to this staple diet it’s being made aware of every one else’s reactions to what I’m listening to, and more particularly their children’s. It’s a treat to hear my son yell ‘KINKS!’ whenever he hears them for the simple reason that I love the Kinks, too. And I’m no bloodless curmudgeon; how else would any parent react to the sound of their three year-old son singing along to Bowie’s Starman but to sing along with him? Though I’m every bit as delighted to hear him pick up on something from my left field like Kendrick Lamar’s Alright – the first rap I’ve been introduced to by a toddler. Now I just have to remember to play him the radio edit, not the version liberally peppered with expletives I downloaded the other day.

But the clamour of daytime parents informing the nation via social media that their little ones are being blown away by a Field Music session is sounding more narcissistic by the day. It’s a bonus if Leo likes what I’m singing along to. I’m still listening for one, and if he gets anything at all from hearing me burst my lungs to the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon then that’s all to the good. I won’t be following the advice of a friend who suggested singing the Smiths to him instead of the nursery stuff because when you’re three, some of that nursery stuff isn’t actually that bad. We forget that. What’s the rush?

This is recreation taken a little too literally; fashioning them after our own image. And to what end – reassurance? If I need a mirror I’ll use the one in the bathroom. No reassurance there. It’s understandable to a degree; how else are we going to clothe a child who can’t yet brush it’s own teeth unsupervised, never mind select and don appropriate attire, but according to our own taste? But it’s beginning to look like something approaching illness when we’re taking our children to 80s disco mornings – as advertised in a local pub with space to hire – or even, as I’m hearing more and more often, to a parent and toddler rave. By all means let’s let our kids know just how fresh the Tom Tom Club were back in the day – there’s a winning childlike whimsy to their best stuff. But if there was one thing we ever did purely for ourselves, to satisfy our own hedonistic impulses and nothing else, and that wasn’t to be shared with our progeny, it was surely raving and the particular kind of love that it engendered for one or two sunlit years as the eighties smiled into the nineties. Twenty-seven years on it feels more like dragging your child along to a Saturday afternoon engagement with a historical re-enactment society. Besides, raving responsibly isn’t raving.

I reserve the right to wallow on occasion in the gloop of my nostalgia – we all need a nice hot bath once in a while – but I won’t insist my son joins me. The word nostalgia, lest we forget, once gave name to a sickness, as denoted by its original Greek meaning – a painful longing relieved only by returning home. He’s a mini-him, not a mini-me, and I find I do a fairly decent job of bearing that in mind. And I’ll endeavour always to nurture his capacity to surprise in all things, be it his first gig, his choice of partner or his vocation.

By the age of six I was becoming my own gatekeeper, if only by default. There was no steady drip-feed of musical milk from my parents – only the occasional burst of Val Doonican when the mood took my mother or the drift of classics in the evenings from the back room where my father sat. Instead I feasted on the modest assortment of vinyl – perhaps sixty albums in all – left in the cabinet of curiosities by a brother and sister who’d left for university. Now I see that for the gift it was. Neil Young’s voice, which I first heard on Tell Me Why, the opener on his 1970 album. After The Goldrush, was the start of everything. Even at the age of six, the naked vulnerability in his voice resonated with me; it’s fragility and melancholy, the way it wavered close to breaking point under the weight of his solitude – perhaps I was a lonely child myself, but it spoke of a world beyond the end of our street and one I was hungry for.

The inconvenient truth is that we’re still only really dealing with one kind of music here and that’s the stuff we like. Whatever your proclivities that’s likely to be covered by the post-fifties boom – pop. As broad a tent as that is we still might pause for a moment to consider what we might be denying them, at a time when the sum of mankind’s musical endeavours to date is instantly accessible. That’s an opportunity which in itself requires an imaginative response from the listener, if they’re not to become lost. If raving taught us anything, the importance of remaining well hydrated aside, it was not to be puritanical. Let’s let them find what little room for rebellion might be left.

I can at least be Leo’s compass, until he starts to draw his own map. Other than that, the best any parent can do is to present their child with the menu, and not to stand over them while they make their choices. The most significant discoveries I made were those that were left lying around for me like clues – the game was afoot. So I’ll maintain the soundtrack for now and we’ll stick with 6. And in time, when he’s figured out how to use the turnable – and the CD player, and the MP3 player – he’ll see he’s surrounded by suggestions. Stacks and stacks of them.

THE (WO)MAN IN THE MIRROR

Life for me now is an episode of Frasier stuck on repeat.  How else to account for another evening spent padding around the flat as though it were a four-roomed cell?  Still, there’s hardly a better show in which to be living out your Groundhog days.  Fans of the long running, long since gone and long missed US sitcom might be familiar with the scene.  In the latter days of his estimable and Emmy-laden run Kelsey Grammer’s eponymous hero, home alone and perhaps terminally single (no spoilers here) following the successive – not to mention successful – couplings of both his brother and his father, is left in the company of one Mr Bottomsley, a feline of some pedigree thrust upon his generous care by an out-of-town friend.

Fresh from a disappointing evening out, he treats Bottomsley to a plate of fresh tuna, mollycoddling him all the way, before settling to a bowl of seven-vegetable stew of his own making – Bottomsley was right about the bay leaves, it would appear…  His sensitive bones chilled by a draught, Frasier shrouds himself in a blanket and takes puss in his arms, all the while keeping up the one-way conversation he began on opening the door and spotting his house guest. Frasier, you’ll have gathered, is a lonely man.  Crossing the room, he pauses before the mirror and sees himself for what he’s become – ‘my God, I’m Anne Shirley!’  That’s Anne of Green Gables, to save you the Google.

Well, that’s me on any given night my son isn’t here, and I don’t even have a cat.  Not since Mr Malachy went back to mommy.  I may not wrap myself in a blanket for security, either, but I’m not too proud to say I’ve caught myself talking out loud on more than one occasion. I’m 46 in a couple of weeks and pretty much the only lead character in my long-running show who’s single.  Cat or no cat, this was not in the script.

All of which begs the question, what happens now?  Beyond tomorrow, I can scarcely tell.  It’s now almost impossible to say as I’ve entirely lost the capacity to see myself. It’s like there’s no mirror.  That’s what happens when there’s no-one around you on a day-to-day basis who’s older than three and a half.  No-one to tell you you’re getting scruffier, that the beard is maybe not such a good idea once it’s past a certain point, that you’re only ever wearing the clothes at the top of the pile and your jokes aren’t that funny anymore.

Having said that, as mirrors go, toddlers do have their moments.  Mine only ever says nice things to me, such as ‘I like your hair’ or ‘you’re real’ – something I often need reminding of by the time Thursday has rolled round – before wrapping his arms around me and declaring, as though it were an oath, ‘hug’.  Now I like that, that’s the kind of reciprocal conduct I’m hungry for – food for the soul.  I’d just like to have it replicated, once in a while, by someone who hasn’t sprung from my own loins.

Being cut loose from a couple can savage your perspective.  Without a sounding board or co-conspirator beside me in the hours between midnight and six a.m., the arc of my life seems to have flat-lined.  There’s only today, tomorrow and the colour coded blocks that make up the following two weeks on the Google calendar I share with Leo’s mother.  Slave to a new rhythm, I’m only making plans for Leo.  As for me, I’m left to wonder not so much what’s next, but who?

Entering into a relationship in 2001 and emerging from it eleven years deeper into the 21st century to find a newborn on my lap has, at times, had me feeling like the Rip Van Winkle and son.  I’ve effectively fallen asleep in the nineties and woken to a whole new world.  The phone in my pocket has shrunk from the size of a brick to a matchbox then spread out again into something a lot smarter.  I’m choking on information without feeling any the wiser.  The food in London is a whole lot better, at least – I can buy a burger worthy of the name, one that doesn’t look like its been manufactured as set dressing for a child’s toy kitchen.  My friends remain, from a national perspective, a statistical anomaly – 100% of them happily maintaining longterm relationships and, for the most part, parents to children a good deal older than Leo.  I’m out of sync and out of fashion.  A thirty year-old trapped in the body of a mid-forties divorcee, and nobody’s planning a movie based on that premise.

I’m time-poor now, and the struggle to find the overlaps between my schedule and those of my friends can feel like a hunt for wild truffles – a lot of hard work (particularly if you’re pig) but worth it in the end, I hope.  One ongoing attempt to nail down a date with a female friend for a movie and a drink began last year.  Weeks of texting, months even, and we’re still searching for that free evening in common, leaving me to wonder if the prospect of successfully grafting my increasingly unwieldy life onto another is a little like the ongoing search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  Technically not futile, but likely to go on for some time yet.  If there are windows of opportunity in my life, then they’re sash windows, stubbornly refusing to budge and probably painted into place anyway.

Perhaps that’s not a bad way of looking at lasting relationships – cosmic coincidences, unlikely collisions between bodies hurtling through the void.  Certainly the relationship that brought forth my son was down to serendipity – that, or going to the same pub night after night – and it’s the delight of stumbling upon someone, followed in time by the realisation that you can share the same space for more than just a minute or two but maybe even for years, that deters me from dating, in whatever form.  I’m familiar with current thinking, that online dating helps, if nothing else, to maximise one’s chances.  But I’ll hold out perversely nonetheless for the type of chance encounter that’s the preserve of the classic 70s Woody Allen film – eyes meeting over a pile of newly translated Turgenevs on a rainy Wednesday evening, perhaps, or finding each other staring side by side at the same painting in the National for so long that an attempt at conversation becomes a moral imperative.  Or maybe just the pub again.

Admittedly, the social framework of my life having rusted a little since I last walked out to the crease alone, the chances of such a meeting seem remote. The possibility of successfully negotiating an asteroid field – approximately 3,720 to 1, as C-3PO once reminded Han Solo – sometimes seem more realistic.  Let’s not forget Han’s reply – ‘never tell me the odds’ – and they didn’t seem bad odds at all given the immediate circumstances, but the increasing likelihood of being alone and the opportunity it affords for eccentricity seems weirdly compelling at times.  The whole notion of romantic love has, in any case, taken a direct hit; it’s wilted as the shock of my love for Leo has mushroomed.  Losing the love of a partner at the precise moment your love for a child is launched has a way of reconfiguring everything.  Plus, I’m knackered.  And it’s a warm and fuzzy kind of knackered, cosy and familiar.  It fits.  And you end up wearing it round the house like a favourite blanket.  And some nights you catch yourself in the mirror and you do wonder.  You wonder if your life as a single parent has become a form of grand excuse, and whether it’s the very thing you want in life that’s terrified you into becoming Anne Shirley…

FROM MAJOR TO MINOR

For the novice single parent, still on your first child and without the benefit of previous experience to light the way as you stumble along with your one and only – and very possibly your last – straddled across your shoulders, there’s little by way of protection for your bruised heart. There’s no inoculation from the breezy brutality of the toddler.

Leo is my heart, flying out there into the world before me, but it doesn’t stop him reaching back into my chest, grabbing the happily tangled knot of muscle that propels me and tossing it with cheery abandon into the bacon grinder on a semi-regular basis. Like all children, he retains the capacity to disembowel those who gave him life. Any given Saturday will do.  

Take last Saturday. We’re flying high for an hour shared at soft play. It’s too crowded to join him so I take my place among the former children sitting along the side wall, now indentured to their offspring and variously adjusted to that, minding the coats and shoes while they duck into whatever escape a smartphone, a Saturday supplement, or even a rogue paperback can offer them. I’m usually too busy glowing to seek out an exit route. It’s a chance to let loose the tether and just sit back and watch as my son careens between kids and tears around the circuit of padded obstacles and ball pits as if shot by a loaded spring into a giant pinball machine. Leo’s been welded progressively to my chest, back and shoulders for three and a half years now – one long hug down to the bone I thought I’d never want to end. And after all that time spent hovering within range in the playground it’s an unexpected and welcome novelty to just sit here. That’ll do. And I’ll keep the dopey grin.

On to the library then, and with another thirty minutes or so before handing over to mum, our Saturday morning floweth over as we cosy up with a pile of picture books in the corner of the kids zone. We’re reading ‘Rex’, the story of a Tyrannosaurus who accidentally adopts a foundling dinosaur hatched in his cave, and I’m enough of a ham to attract a small gaggle of kids away from their own books. ‘Rex’ is unadulterated father and son stuff, not a mummy T-Rex to be seen or heard; a tonic for me, and for Leo – well, it’s unadulterated dinosaur stuff. I’m aglow again and this time it’s radioactive.

But how abrupt the transition can be with a child. How strange the change indeed, from major to minor. When mum arrives fresh from her haircut, Leo’s reaction to her is Hollywood big, 3D IMAX. His message to me is every bit as definitive. ‘YOU.. GO!’ is the command, issued with a raised arm and a finger aimed with laser precision in my direction, a stance not unlike that of Donald Sutherland in the iconic final shot of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. I’m singled out here. Mum and I hang for a moment or two to tie up a few loose ends but it’s clear in abundance whose world Leo now needs to be in.

And that’s all as it ought to be, of course. If anything it’s reassuring. His mum and his dad live in separate worlds – always have done, and always will have done by the time he grows, turns and casts his mind back. Even if those worlds are bridged by a 20-minute hop down the Peckham Road on the 171 – if you could ever really describe that journey as a hop – it’s clear that Leo has grown into the fact. It’s not notional, nothing to wrap his head round, it’s his life. It’s concrete now, set, and that’s the way he needs it.  

The overlap between his parents is hardly broad, conducted as it is largely over the phone and through these regular handovers. There are occasions when we’ll all three of us share the same space for more than a minute or two – school visits, nursery assessments – and we’ll undoubtedly run up more time as whatever kind of unit we are as Leo grows into the world and the obligations and appointments mount. There was a time when he’d bounce between the two of us in a paroxysm of joyous disbelief – ‘MummyDaddyMummyDaddy!’ Whereas now he seems to have established some sort of equilibrium, he’s down with it. He’ll dandle on either parent’s lap during those periodic intersections – ‘hey, this is my mum, this is my dad, they spend less than 1% of the year in the same space and that’s fine with me’.

I exaggerate, of course. I got my hug. I got my kiss. And that’s the way it always is for both mum and dad even if Leo can, on occasion, require a prompt from a (possibly needy) parent. But there’s still that nanosecond of annihilation, when your guard is breached and you realise that, for the time being at least, you no longer exist. You just clocked out.  

But while there may be intent, there is, it need hardly be said, no real brutality. It may lodge in the softened hearts of those who dote, but that is our lot. They break and remake our hearts over and again, and being a single parent has nothing to do with it. I may break into paranoid sweats whenever it appears Leo may be expressing a preference for his mother or, indeed, for her partner. But any four year old girl can turn to her agreeably enslaved father and declare, ‘you’re not my daddy anymore.’ Like a beleaguered Premiership manager, we’re liable to get the sack at any moment. It’s little wonder that much of the world’s most celebrated literature for children is built on the premise that a child’s parents aren’t who they thought they were after all, just as they’d secretly hoped. And when they disown us it is in fact a strange kind of a tribute. It’s a demand that we be there regardless of how they may be feeling, an expectation that we are there even when we’re not alongside them.  

That’s what the deal is, just to be there. It’s the minimum requirement, paragraph number one on the parental contract – they didn’t ask to be there themselves, after all. We saw to that, by design or otherwise. Leo recognises his world is halved. And there are times when my part is simply to facilitate the transition between the two; to cycle or bus him down, hand him over, plant a sloppy kiss on his cheek and pass on any relevant notes to mum – time awake, current state of appetite, amusing anecdote etc.

All of which means knowing when to keep your distance and ring-fence your emotions, even if that can feel like trying to sweep a boulder under the living room rug. When you’re challenged, the simplest error of all is to involve your own feelings. It’s the mother and the father of all parental pitfalls, the beginner’s mistake deluxe, and it’s weak parenting. Just as you ought never to meet their anger with your own when they’re railing against the injustice of, say, a lovingly prepared meal, you ought never to make a display of your attachment when it’s not required of you. Being attached is the easy bit, the bit I never anticipated but now have tied down after three and more years of parenting alone. It’s the detachment that blindsides you. Dealing with that is the work of each parent and, I suspect, a daily rehearsal for the final slackening of the tether when Leo’s days as a toddler are just memories. And when the time comes to let go I imagine I’ll tumble back to earth like a spent rocket booster, burning up on re-entry while my son achieves escape velocity. I wonder if another fifteen years’ rehearsal will be enough to escape my near certain fate…

  

IN THE GOO

Back when I was still waiting for my son to arrive, when he could still have been a she and I’d found myself marooned by mutual agreement on the living room sofa, I got through a lot of late night TV. Perhaps I had some premonition of the routine I find myself locked into now. Maybe one hour snatched piecemeal throughout the week to catch up with football highlights – Liverpool only, to save on time. Maybe an hour of Nordic noir on the iPad while my eyelids head resolutely south under combined pressure from the subtitles and plot density, before the blue light re-ignites my brain. Pre-emptive compensation for the TV kid inside, maybe.

One Friday night along the nine-month haul when mum was elsewhere, someplace in North London – North London, entirely undiscovered country for the two of us when we’d been the two of us – I’d settled on an old music documentary on BBC4. Browsing through the onscreen menu and the list of recordings destined to remain unwatched, it was hard to be interested in anything much when the child I was expecting was already spending time with mum’s new partner. That inconvenient truth had a way of setting my attention adrift. A documentary on Pink Floyd would do as well as anything in those circumstances. They’d meant something to me once, I was sure.

‘Are you happy?’ Roger Waters was asked. ‘Happy?’ Waters retorted. He was visibly stoned and clearly of a mind to play verbal ping-pong with the old school reporter who’d put the question and was now audibly stiffening as the giggling of young men getting rich rang round the room. The Floyd’s lead man allowed for a pause, probably long enough in his mind to accomodate an expansive David Gilmour solo, before continuing deadpan with a question of his own. ‘What do you mean… happy?’

I knew what he was getting at. Certainly at that point, on the brink of becoming a father for the first time and with no idea of how or where I might be housed, or indeed what the future under any roof might hold, ‘happy’ wasn’t the word I’d pluck from the air if asked how I was feeling. I’m not sure there was a word for the way I felt. ‘None of the above’ was the box for me to tick. Baby on the way or not, I knew what happy was and I knew it wasn’t me.

So I’d simply not have understood the question. I’d have been every bit as nonplussed as Roger. Now, however, living in a flat with my son – ‘some of the time’ as they say in the dating profiles – and with not one but two sofas though barely enough time to apply myself to either, I think I get it. I think. My son was planned, very planned. He took time, effort and fun so it’s fair to say none of this is quite what I had in mind during the planning process. This wasn’t the introduction to fatherhood I’d been looking for.But there was a great deal I couldn’t see then. I couldn’t see that being a lone parent, far from being the prison I’d assumed it to be for so many, could at times be liberating, exhilarating even. I’d no idea that the space the two of us shared could be so expansive, as though we were riding ongoing rush of explosive love. It’s the cliche I’d some vague notion of, the warm gooey glow I’d almost laughed at when it emanated from friends with kids.

Now it’s me in the goo, basking in the truth that fuels the cliche. It’s dinner time, macaroni’s on the go, 6Music is on and Leo is at my waist demanding what’s rightfully his – ‘HUG! …VERY HUG!’ I scoop him up and he wraps himself around me – the longer his limbs get the better these days, I find. And The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’ arrives, and with the wobble of the rising base crashing over the whirr of the extractor fan and synths washing over the kitchen I’m crying as I cradle him in our own private movie moment. If I’d ever cried for joy before Leo, then it was for reasons lost to me now. ‘Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick…’ I sing. Home is where the hug is, and it’s deep like osmosis. There really is no end to this love.

There’s an end to the hug, however, as the timer chimes and the moment melts with the fade out. Turning back to the hob as Leo gets back to play, I’m ready to go with the the butter, cheddar and Parmesan. I know what happy means and I’m glad I was alive to it when it set the kitchen ablaze. Just like a dream.

RADAR

It seems churlish on the face of it to complain that I don’t spend enough time with my son. I’m all too aware that any number of fathers will be seizing the Saturday this weekend, pushing their boys and girls back and forth in swings with pent up jollity, trying just that little bit too hard. Searching in a Happy Meal for something they can’t find, trying to buy back a bit of what’s been missing the whole week long. Meanwhile I’ve been in the thick of it. My son will be back here tomorrow night, Sunday. That’s 28 hours away but it feels like 28 days right now. Throughout much of this autumn he’s been with me more than the average three nights a week, while his mother’s home is given over to the builders. For as many as five nights in the week and most of the days around and between he’s been in my sole care. Having separated from his mother a full six months before his birth, I’ve found myself spending far more time caring for him than most fathers in a relationship might ever manage, assuming of course they cared to care. For days at a time I am, to all intents and purposes, the primary carer.

And that’s exactly why, confronted with an unexpected free Saturday, terror yawns inside me. The Google calendar I share with my ex-partner has betrayed me, a day off work for her has gone unnoticed and last night as I deleted the purple block from 9am to 6pm my heart contracted with fear. It’s now 3pm on Saturday afternoon.  I’ve been to Toys’R’Us on Christmas reconnaissance and Asda for cat litter.  I’m not sure what happens next. There are hours to fill, and he’s in none of them. The flat is silent, only the muffled deceleration of jets on their descent into Heathrow can be heard, metronomic on every second minute. Even the fridge has shut up. When he’s here, the flat reverbs to the two of us – the laughter and the music, the constant patois of our own devising that’s gradually giving way to ever more evolved sentences. From him, that is. I’m devolving. Even when he’s sleeping here the silence is full, a swell of peace and contentment that rolls from his room. When he’s gone it can be a howling void which no music fills.

Having tidied the flat, each of his toys now stands in its proper place, waiting dutifully on his return. They’re objects in the landscape of his febrile imagination, and increasingly mine as I lapse back into childhood with him, but now they appear little more than a series of items carefully curated for display, joyless and inanimate. Nothing, I’ve noticed over the last three years, speaks of desolation louder than a toy discarded by a child who’s elsewhere. I find I can’t enter his room. There’s simply no point, without him it’s stage scenery. Time behaves differently, as though I’ve entered another dimension. Alone at the kitchen table, hammering intermittently at the keyboard, I half expect to find an older version of myself staring back at me should I look up, like Kubrick’s astronaut in the final reel of 2001.

You get greedy for your children, I’ve noticed. I’d been dimly aware I’d change when a child arrived in my life. I’d seen it happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happened in mine, as the song goes. But I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the hunger I’d have to be with him. He’s the extent of my immediate family, of course – it’s just the two of us. But his impact has been like the Big Bang, we’re in a rapidly expanding universe of love that shows no sign of slowing. It’s a love that’s boundless, that grows and outstrips any conception of love I’d carried over from relationships. It’s like falling in love every day. So I need it every day, I need the hit. Its cold turkey this Saturday.

But it’s not just his absence that spooks me. It’s me, too. Time alone with myself is still a relative novelty. Being a parent can isolate even in the cosiest of circumstances, but in your mid-forties, out of an eleven-year relationship and out of sync with all those friends who started having kids ten years and more before, that isolation takes on a sharper dimension. You find yourself reading about loneliness within the context of health and wellbeing and suddenly you realise you know what they’re talking about. It applies to you. It’s as though you’ve been plucked from the life you knew – the one that had a constant flow of new people, the one with women in, the one where you didn’t really have to try – and dropped into a new one. With a kid. Fast forward fifteen years, all continuity gone.

I’m not sure I recognise myself when he’s not around. Even when I look in the mirror it’s as though I’m out of focus. Passing women in the street, I feel like I’ve evaporated. I’m more than I know, I think, but I could use a reminder right now. Maybe the best way to spend my time today will be to waste it. It’s something I never do, and it might just remind me that not every minute has to pay – you feel that as a single parent, with or without your child.

With or without him, I’m still a parent. I can’t switch the radar off – he’s a part of me at large, and mostly I can track him. But sometimes when I’m alone I find myself searching for other things, too. Everything I remember I was, and while I’m feeling in the dark my life as a father can suddenly seem little more than an echo.

So I’ll potter, maybe. I’ll ride into town and buy that speaker cable like I’ve been meaning to for months. I’ll listen to Tom Waits a little too loud – if anyone’s voice can fill up the space it’s his, and the wall insulation here is great. I’ll allow myself to drink beer at home. Just the one, maybe. And I’ll write about him. If it flows I’ll pick him up on the radar, and it’ll feel like he’s here again.  

FOR A BIG SOCIETY, TRY CHANGING THE NAPPIES

Remember the Big Society?  It was the big fluffy idea that blew in stage right with the Coalition then blew off stage left like so much tumbleweed before anyone could get a handle on what it might possibly mean.  A proposed integration of free market ideology harnessed to the workhorse of social solidarity, in case you didn’t get that first time round, and all dependent on a spirit of voluntarism.  Thank you Wiki.  So that’s DIY governance as opposed to governance by the people you voted for (or not) to govern, a little like serving yourself in the supermarket instead of having someone there whose job it would be to serve you.  It was a plan that turned out to be neither particularly big nor especially social, but the team that brought you the Big Society were not to be deterred and have been hard at work ever since on their next major production, the Tiny State.  But despite all this, and the irrationality of austerity to boot, the Coalition have still managed to stumble upon two bright ideas in five years that might enhance the prospect of greater social cohesion.  Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

The first was David Cameron’s personal declaration of war on the barriers to adoption of children in care.  In 2012 there was, in his view, ‘no more pressing’ concern for government.  Up until the end of last year the campaign enjoyed sustained success, seeing an apparent 60% rise in the number of children finding loving homes since its introduction.  Though the campaign has stalled in recent months, following concerns regarding a raft of ‘sloppy’ applications and a rush to adopt when in many situations other solutions might better apply, the Prime Ministerial mission to remove previously pedantic and often insurmountable obstacles facing would-be adoptive parents remains admirable.

The second prominent member of the Coalition to trip over a good idea lately is a less likely candidate as he’s not so much an ideas man as an ideologue – Ian Duncan Smith.  His outriders in the DWP are piloting men only relationship classes which will run in tandem with regular antenatal courses.  The stated aim is to save children from the near-certain fate that the DWP’s research points to – more likely at sixteen to have a smartphone to hand than a father.

We know that politicians, particularly those on the right, have long looked to the family unit as the fundamental building block of social cohesion.  But the nuclear family has long since mutated and evolved, in a great many cases, into something far more flexible and resilient.  It’s widening its gene pool, if you like.  Sadly many politicians, yes particularly those on the right, have yet to fully grasp this.

IDS and his merry band of social engineers are focusing with surgical precision on the father in a shift away from the traditional mother-centric model that, ironically, comes at a time when more and more men are involved with childcare in any case.  And though it is still framed very much within the context of strengthening the family unit of yore beloved still of Westminster, it signals at least a recognition of the particular importance of a male parent beyond the tasks he’s historically been charged (or charged himself) with – hunter-gathering, or more latterly breadwinning, barbecue-lighting, roast-carving, broken toy fixing, handing down lore, crashing about in the shed to no great effect on Sundays, swearing in the cupboard beneath the stairs, etc,…

There can be nothing more catastrophic for a boy than the father he’s afraid of, or the father who simply doesn’t care.  Better then that the father isn’t there at all.  In the case of my own father, it was difficult to know whether he was there or not.  He lived among us, the evidence was irrefutable.  There was the drinking, incessant and not one drop in his lifetime truly savoured, shared or enjoyed, just an ongoing isolated act of inoculation against life that infected all those around him, repeated joylessly and robotically until self-medication segued into self-destruction.  The squalid outcome, dad sitting dead in an armchair at 60, seems now to have been inevitable.  Though it lacked a single defining action, it was suicide all the same, only passive rather than proactive.  Rather than resolve to take his life, he simply let it go.

Then there was the rage.  Seismic, fuelled by fear and loathing, hurled like a weapon and always shocking as though new no matter how often it came upon you.  You forgot it, you pretended it never happened while praying it wouldn’t happen again.  Then it happened again.  And again and again.  When it possessed him the air thickened and congealed and the walls of a small suburban house shrank and wrapped themselves around me.  There was no escape – this was what happened, ‘this was your father’.  Often there was a perverse twist.  To be shouted at or chastised for some perceived misdemeanour was one thing, but to be threatened with crucifixion, to offer just one example, was quite something else.  ‘I’ll crucify you’ – that was the shrapnel that stayed in the wound, and sometimes when my boy dandles on my lap and thoughts of my father filter through three decades on, those words can still play in my mind’s ear, and I can feel a deep and unsettling bewilderment that a father could ever have directed those words at his son.

As he slid into his fifties and I trod warily into my teens his anger dissipated.  Where once it had gorged on itself, it now lay dormant, sodden with alcohol and thankfully less flammable.  I grew out of the fear, for with age came a recognition that his anger was nothing more than a volcanic expression of impotence.  And once he saw that I knew that, the game was up, and the chasm between us widened.  But an undertow of shame took hold as he tipped into steep decline, a shame that deepened with each of a succession of incidents as a private hell was dragged out into the open.  There were numerous disappearances and he would frequently be found blind drunk on neighbours or friends doorsteps.  He was caught shoplifting in the local Sainsbury’s when it was the only way left for him to get whisky, following a naive attempt to confiscate his money.  I once saved him from choking in a pool of his own vomit.  The fact that it was ultimately pointless to do so still jags.  For a faltering teenager these disgraces were impossible to digest, so I hid them from myself and from everyone else, too.  I would go to great lengths to deter friends from visiting me at home, and only one ever succeeded in meeting my father.

But still you would cling on to whatever could be salvaged from the wreckage.  It was better than facing the truth, that one of the two people responsible for your wellbeing was actually a threat to it.  Each Wednesday at 9.00 we would watch M*A*S*H together.  For 25 minutes sandwiched between instrumental takes of Johnny Mandel’s ‘Suicide Is Painless’ the distance between us would recede just a little, and a narrow window onto my father’s inner life would open up.  The BBC had wisely dropped the American laughter track, and prompted by his snorts and guffaws I began to glean the subtext of a richer and more complex world, the world of the adult.  Amid the young lives lost, the wise-cracking and the cracking up, the unrequited lust and the quest for the perfect vodka Martini, I realised I was yearning for what wasn’t there, reaching out to hold a hand that wasn’t offered.

That weekly observance and two trips to the match to watch my beloved Liverpool play in London marked the extent of our endeavours in bonding.  The weeks of anticipation curdled inside me as the side that conquered the eighties stumbled to uncharacteristic defeats on both occasions.  Maintaining a silence of convenience as we sat among the home support – my father refused the away end, leaving me with a wait of a few more years before I hurled myself among that happy heaving throng – I couldn’t help but feel the results on the field were confirmation that our outings were somehow ill starred, and in among the denizens of a hostile Stamford Bridge I certainly didn’t feel safe.

There was a reckoning before he died.  Though I’d been spared the brunt of the physical violence he’d meted on older siblings, our relationship, such as it was, jerked continuously from one stand-off to the next.  In his last months, with my mother now dead and with some sense in me that his descent was gaining irreversible momentum, I sought an answer to the question that chewed on me, ‘do you care? do you love me?’. These confrontations were in the main like a dance, a choreography of distance observed warily by both parties.  I was, I see now, afraid of losing control, and fearful also of showing how much it mattered.  And on the one occasion I wouldn’t let him walk away, when I pressed home my insistence, we tussled and in the struggle to remove his hand from my throat I pushed and he fell backwards to the floor. As the back of his skull connected with the linoleum covered floor, I heard a sound like the flat thud of a poorly inflated basketball on an indoor court.  It was a dead sound with no trace of an echo, it simply lodged in my gut as the low whirring whine of the fridge filled the kitchen.

And there I was, on my knees beside him, whimpering for him, in thrall to a father who cared nothing for me, and praying that I hadn’t killed him.  After a moment he stirred, stood, composed himself and walked out, as though after an afternoon nap in his armchair.  There was time for one last dance, and finally I got my answer.  ‘No’, came the reply.  ‘No, I don’t care.’  And I could see that it was true.  Something had receded from within him, finally.  What little light there had been of late in his eyes was gone, and the words were delivered in a flat monotone, a simple statement of fact from an automaton.  There could be no answer.  It was my turn to walk out.

That hand clamped around my throat is still the only physical contact with my father that I can recall.  Now, I can barely get my son Leo in or out of his pyjamas for the cascade of hugs.  That last dance in the kitchen left a blank space that was filled in over time with drugs and alcohol, but mostly with anger.  With Leo it’s now brimming, finally, with love.  My inheritance had been a debilitating shame and uncertainty.  There was a gap of twenty-two years between my father’s death and the birth of my son.  It took twenty-two years to see what was blindingly obvious, what I’d hidden from myself for all that time, that the presence of a good or even decent father is transformative.

Whatever the outcome of the DWP’s pilots, I feel compelled to applaud Ian Duncan Smith.  That’s a strange feeling, but there’s little doubt in my mind that, whatever the shape of the family, the bond between fathers and sons might be the glue that’s missing in society.  There’s a wayward emphasis on the need for ‘positive role models’ when we talk about those most likely to be listless or gravitate towards gangs – a society that’s looking towards footballers or musicians to carry the torch is getting something badly wrong.  Let them set an example, but a continuous male presence from the get-go that isn’t corrosive is a decent start.  The role models need to be in the next seat, not on the pitch.  And let’s not kid ourselves that problems of male identity are confined to those sections of society that are, unfortunately, most likely to produce fodder for street gangs.  A pack mentality that’s fuelling an alarming and dangerous attitude towards women is in evidence on campuses across the UK and the States.  That’s an altogether different demographic, but away from those examples and across mainstream society the restrictive male type, a compound made up of the usual constituent parts – beer, sport and sex – still holds the centre ground.  Meet the new lad, same as the old lad.  It’s a straight jacket that many are silently squeezed into, and they need to speak up.

It’s a curious state of affairs.  There was a time when stereotypical male culture seemed to face a challenge from within, when Lennon reconstructed himself, put away the lad and placed a woman at the centre of his universe, and Bowie like a chimera challenged and upended every preconceived notion of what a man could or should be.  With some exceptions, men we might admire or aspire to have melted away from the magazine covers to be replaced with the women we’re told we want.

At the more extreme end of the spectrum, crises in male identity can be of grave danger.  Perhaps it’s stretching things just a little, but I’d suggest we might be a step closer to freedom from the threat of jihadism if every Al-Qaeda operative or ISIS-inspired zombie had enjoyed the benefits of being carried around in a papoose by his daddy.  But to those young men who find themselves shunted to one side, puttering around the periphery of mainstream society on a pizza delivery bike, adrift and without purpose, it’s clear that death can hold more meaning than life.  They’re prey to the morbid siren of martyrdom and ripe to become fodder.  Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, was onto something when she described ISIS as a kind of ‘homo-erotic death cult’.

And while there’s growing evidence to suggest that young women are not mere groupies in these organisations, indeed it seems they are playing key roles, what’s beyond doubt is that ruthless and well-funded people with clear aims are seeding a message of hate to capitalise on the insecurities of the marginalised male.  We can’t discount the importance of economics in this either, but in the absence of a hug from dad, a positive role model close to home, or some conduit for channeling testosterone and a deep seated yearning to belong into something more imaginative than a headlong rush into a personal apocalypse, then gangs on the street or viral networks of terrorists can only ever swell in number.

As strongly as I’d advocate equality of opportunity for both men and women, I’d be tempted to see an experiment in global role-reversal in which over a period of, say, a decade, men got domestic while women got busy establishing a kind of worldwide gynocracy.  I think I’d vote for that.  We mightn’t get to Utopia within ten years, but by tweaking the micro-model we may see a macro-benefit and I’d hazard a guess that the planet might just be on the way to a more peaceful and prosperous destination.

I estimate I’ve changed my son Leo’s nappies around 3,000 times now, and while I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it every time, I’ve been aware with each wipe of his bum of a kind of incremental strengthening of the bond between us.  I’ve fed him, bathed him, dressed him, brushed his teeth and comforted him, read to him and hoisted him up onto my aching shoulders on countless occasions.  I’ve gone days at a time with him in my sole care and each time I’ve been dimly aware that, in terms of bonding, all of this has been just as valuable – if not more – to his wellbeing and our relationship as a kick about in the park at the weekend.  I’d recommend it.

Globally, nationally, domestically, the relationship between father and son, or sons and their male carers, is the link in the chain which, if strengthened, can be of lasting benefit for all.  Any initiative, at whatever scale, that brings that prospect a little closer to reality is to be lauded.  Society might be about to get a little bigger…

THE TANTRUM (or toddler, interrupted)

Leo has visited his first tantrum upon us, or rather ‘us’, and suddenly I see the word for what it is – a euphemism. Tantrum – it leaves a dark and spindly imprint on the page but in common usage it’s throwaway, light, and entirely disproportionate to the debilitating impact felt by the parent. It’s a limp, flaccid term that does no justice to what it purports to describe – an explosion of the will, a demonstration of shock and awe, a body and soul unbridled, a volcanic reaction that leaves me to wonder whether the restraint learnt in later life might be the greatest of human virtues. Long before Leo I’d witnessed twins in a kind of tantrum in tandem. It was like watching a form of self exorcism in stereo, as if each child were attempting to hurl itself out of its own body.

But I didn’t witness this one. Leo’s first, and so far only, tantrum was for his mother to deal with alone. I’d enjoyed an early winter Wednesday with him. Swimming in the morning, on to the library, shopping, lunch at home, a scheduled nap (for us both, mine far shorter than his), then a turn around the park before dark and finally dinner. With a little time to kill before Ellie arrived to pick him up, we cosied up on the sofa with the iPad to catch a few minutes of Pocoyo, the surreal adventures of a computer animated toddler who has captivated Leo of late. A recent habit, this, and I’ve rediscovered the lost joys of bonding through TV. For fifteen minutes it’s just the two of us, fifteen minutes that seem almost eternal. I’m aware, as I am so often with Leo, of how precious our time together is, how great the tenderness I feel towards him.

My awareness of this doesn’t crowd the moment but it’s constant nonetheless, like an app running in the background. It’s as though I’m recording. The smell of his hair evokes something close to déjà vu but deeper, a scent that’s somehow always been familiar to me. For a while I watch him as he watches. I’m pleased to see he’s not hypnotised but focused and concentrated, amused, delighted and engaged, and I recall in some vague way a magazine piece I’d recently read about the careful conception of programmes like these and their stimulating qualities. Suddenly in my mind there’s no yesterday or tomorrow, nothing but this moment, and nowhere else to be. Then Ellie is at the door.

Leo, as is his habit during these moments of handover, flits from the parent clocking out to the one clocking in, then skitters away like a skimming stone, as if inviting a chase. There’s no cry of ‘MUMMEEE!’ this time, no hurling himself forward into her embrace. It’s a dance, a kind of flirtation, it’s as if he’s circling before landing. And on this occasion, once he’s caught and shoed, he seems to recede a little as we wrap him and pack him into his buggy. As I squat down to him I wonder, not for the first time, how he finds these moments of handover in the hallway – moments stretched by his parents’ fumble for small talk as they strike poses unfamiliar to each other, hands on hips or in pockets. These brief moments are, by and large, his only experience of us together, or at least standing in the same space for a moment or two, and they are for him just interludes. He leans forward, straining against the straps, and grants me a faintly regal peck on the cheek for me before he’s trundled off into the night.

I have no cause for concern until a shaken Ellie phones two hours later. In the intervening time, throughout the bus journey and at home, Leo has kicked out, punched and screamed, fled from his mother, reduced her to tears and left her feeling – in her own words – ‘powerless’ and ‘hated.’ And, through it all, he screamed for me.

I’m perturbed by the news. Tantrums, it seems, are no longer the preserve of other people’s children. Even as I listen and reassure, paranoia grips. Can this have anything to do with the difference in his bedtime routines at her place and mine? I allow him to fall asleep on my chest after reading him a story or two – a shared primal pleasure I’ve given up resisting, but anathema to his mother, and indeed her mother in turn, for reasons I’m not sure I can grasp but I’m certain I can’t agree with – could he be angry that she doesn’t?

We talk it through, sifting through the evidence and teasing out the theories. I tell her about the day we’d had, how average it seemed, not exactly a Disney day, and how I felt I’d been ‘phoning it in’, as a distracted parent might often feel. I stay silent on our differing approaches to bedtime, knowing that he’d already cried for me at the end of the day two or three weeks previously. As I listen I realise that for the first time we are discussing in detail how we are as parents, how Leo is with us both one on one, how, for example, he talks about and calls for me when he’s with her. Odd as it may seem, this is news to me. He so often mentions mummy, and even on occasion James, that I’d simply assumed I was the odd one out, that they were ‘the family’ as it were and I was the babysitter, that his true home wasn’t here but there. Of course it was only an assumption, and a false one at that, but one easily compounded by the insecurity brought on by an ugly separation. Now I discover that ‘home’ is a word he uses as often with them. Clearly, then, he feels he has two homes.

I ask Ellie if she ever has concerns about Leo’s constant movement between us, between homes. She reveals that she has. This, too, is news and a fault line of fear yawns before me – for all the love that he soaks up between the two of us – or rather the three of us – do we risk destabilising him? Are we embarked on a course that’s essentially transgressive? Can ‘home’ divide into two? Already she’s been online but I counsel against Google, and having approached the topic from every angle we’re left to remind ourselves that tantrums happen anyway, that Leo is now on the cusp another fluffy parental euphemism – the terrible twos.

If I had to grasp for the reassurance of a reason, I’d rationalise it thus – Leo was interrupted, simple as that. On a cold night, with the wind beating the glass panes of the living room and a nice meal tucked inside him, cuddling up to his old dad with his favourite show, he was uprooted just as he thought he was settled in for the night. As far as he was concerned, in the natural sequence of events, pyjamas and bedtime story came next, followed by the sweet nothing of ten hours sleep. That didn’t happen, and Mum got the blowback.

But so much for the rationale. Beneath this there’s another, deeper fear, as yet unspoken and I know it must plague Ellie in the wake of this. Under different circumstances, ie had we not separated, a tantrum would be just that and only that – a tantrum. But the dynamics of separation can amplify your fears to the point of distortion. There’s little doubt she was the object of his fury, she’d taken him from away from dad, and how must it have felt for her to hear ‘DADDYDADDYDADDY!’ hurled at her until it reverberated around the room and right through her? Any father in the firing line of his toddler’s ire, with the word ‘MUMMY’ used for ammo, might no doubt pass it all off as natural; tricky to negotiate but easy to understand as a child’s righteous yearning for its mother. But the other way round? Inevitably, there’ll be a feeling that this subverts the order of things. And that order of things is a useless nonsense of course, it’s just that despite ourselves we still largely subscribe to it.

The great unspoken, then, is that it could be an early expression of preference; it is the spectre of his choice. In a carrier or a buggy, he’s been a passenger but with a mind of his own, a burgeoning character blessed with full locomotive ability, then later an Oyster card and eventually a driving licence, he’ll be at liberty to act on that choice. And whilst it’s natural for any child to form a closer bond with one parent than the other, within the context of a relationship that becomes a strain, at worst. When you’ve separated in the most testing of circumstances, however, a child’s natural preference will have more profound implications; a subtext of competition, of winning and losing, can fester unacknowledged. I’d always gone on the assumption that Leo would bask in the reflective glow of his mother’s new found love, and perhaps he does, but it may well be that my undivided attention suits him better. Who, for now, can tell? Just wait until he can really talk…

As we talk there’s a stab of immaturity through my heart, the inevitable legacy of all the insecurity I felt in the wake another man’s arrival in the life of my still unborn child. It’s shameful to admit to, but privately I feel relief. It’s as if the whole incident has laid bare the true nature of Leo’s relationship with me. For two years I’ve plodded along, head down, from day to day, caring for him and laying the foundations for what, I couldn’t be sure. For us, I suppose. James’s presence as – whatever he feels he is – in Leo’s life was, of course, deeply undermining and I couldn’t feel I could take for granted my position with my own son. Now I see the depth of my insecurity, though I can hardly blame myself for it. Leo’s familiarity with James stretches back, after all, even until his time in the womb, of that I’m certain. There were days I wondered if he’d even know which one his father was, if he’d need coaching or prompting, and in the early days there was a little of that. But now it seems locked down, and the attachment is primal after all. And here is the final confirmation of what I’ve felt for a little while now, that he’s my boy, and I’m stunned to find myself at the centre of his universe. ‘Daddydaddydaddy!’ is all I ever hear at times, and it’s music to me, it’s just I never thought it might be all his mother would hear, too…

So there’s relief as my insecurities are allayed but concern for Ellie, too. I still care, how could I not? Whatever happened next, we made the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But my concern is a pragmatic one, it’s a concern for the part she has to play. On a personal level we’ve retreated from one another, but as parents we will always need each other, we’re locked in.

Already, in the days since, Ellie has dropped a night with Leo in favour of a night at the cinema. I appreciate her working life militates against a movie, and that her partner now has health concerns, but nonetheless I find this disquieting. I, meanwhile, feel unable to turn down time with my son and when, a few days later, I find myself at short notice with even more time on duty I’m left to ponder. When we hand over, Leo seems happy to be back in harness with me, and I wonder whether Ellie is relieved or if I’m imagining it. There’s no denying her confidence has taken a knock, but I need her back on the horse and so does Leo. She’s his mum. But any festering doubts on her part, and we’ll have an ‘issue’.

For myself I have no such fears. This isn’t even a phase yet and there’s no reason at all that it won’t be me on the receiving end next time, of course, but somehow I can’t see it. And there’s no point bracing myself for it either, if it happens I’ll go along with Dr. Miriam Stoppard – put him in another room, make sure he has a route back to me and take him in my arms when he comes. I just hope we’re not on the bus.

But there’s a calm assurance building within me with each passing day now, an innate sense that we’ll be just fine, explosive interludes or not. It’s like we know each other…

808 DAYS A DAD

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.

It’s 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.

HOW MANY IS ENOUGH?

Whenever asked how many children I’d ideally like to have, by Ellie or whoever else, I always fell back on the same tired joke – ‘Three. One of each.’ The two of us spoke so often about having children and from such an early stage of our relationship that it seemed the only matter to be resolved was the number. It was as though the future were already written. In our minds the kids were already beautifully clad and suitably named. There was no ‘if’.

Later that worn out line was to resolve itself into the germ of a grand idea. Why not have three, indeed? And why not one of each? A boy, a girl, and an orphan. I’d struck upon the plan at a party thrown to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a restaurant I’d once worked at. Happy and hugger-mugger with friends amid a throng of faces old and new, with barely room to raise a glass mouthwards, elbows pinned to our sides and every word shouted over the cheery din that hung in the air, a couple we knew – happily married and busy raising the archetypal nuclear family – quizzed me on family plans. Madonna had been kicking up headlines at the time by adopting a young Malawian named David Banda, and swept along by the spirit of giddy – and faintly unrealistic – anticipation and generosity which the subject of kids aroused in us then, I suggested we might perhaps like to follow suit and give a home to a child whose need was great.

Initially my companions were confused and assumed my puppyish eagerness to consider adoption might have arisen out of a problem – were we unable to have kids of our own, they wondered? I assured them that wasn’t so, arguing the case instead for altruism. It was myself I was convincing, of course. Though my views haven’t changed to this day – in the face of arguments against interfering do-gooders trying to throw their arms around the world by rescuing but one child, and in doing so breaking the hearts of the many, I would always contend that if you have it in your power to change, if not the world, then one child’s world, do so. One child is never ‘just’ one child.

But how relieved I am now, for all the upheaval of the last two or three years, that our future remained unwritten and the blue pen was taken to the script. Our reality proved in the end to be little more than stage scenery, a construct whose removal caused havoc in my life for no short time. But destruction is often the first act of creation, and a brutal and beautiful reality at least has filled the void. ‘The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable’ – whoever said it first, James A Garfield or Gloria Steinem, it bears repeating. There was to be no orphan to take its place alongside the girl/boy axis of our nuclear family. There’s just Leo. And of course he can never be ‘just’ Leo.

How glad I am to be off-plan once more, to be swept up again in life’s currents, however buffeting the ride. What could have been more anti-life than to plan a family? How I regret that we’d opted to terminate a pregnancy in the summer of 2005, a promise of life that Ellie had sensed as we drove an exhilarating 3,000 mile loop of open road through every conceivable combination of weather and terrain, beginning and ending in San Francisco. It had been and remains the adventure of my life thus far; it seemed the road was rising to meet us. In Istanbul Liverpool had won the Champions League for the first time since my childhood in a manner that could only be described as miraculous, and I could hardly read that as anything else than an augury that life was opening up, the future bright and welcoming as the Californian sunlight. Could there have been a happier way to conceive?

And though I felt terror when we returned to London and a positive test, in my gut I still wanted the ride. I demurred and took on the passive role of support as I felt was right – or I felt was expected, I have never been sure – it was her body, and consequently her decision. Not for many years was I to register the distinction that it was in her body. ‘I want more time for just the two of us’, Ellie said. We’d had four years to ourselves. How much time did we want? We took our time, we agonised, and afterwards we moved on. I cannot know what Ellie endured alone, and have nothing but respect for her decision. And there is no percentage in weighing up the parallel life, or pondering what might have been for us. How can I care for what’s never been?

But soon I was to understand why friends would urge me to get on with it. Among all of my contemporaries or, to be more specific, the guys I played five-a-side with on Tuesday nights, only I was yet to start a family. When asked in no uncertain terms ‘so when are you going to whip the johnnies off, then?’ I could only blush and splutter into my beer, frothing about the insecurities of money and work. I thought, of course, that I was being sensible, putting the horse before the cart as it were. I saw it as dangerously lazy to assume that ‘everything would fall into place’ around a baby. I’d been missing the point. I was getting in the way of my own path. I’d allowed myself to be lulled into thinking about life as though it were a profession.

And now that I’m on the other side, how can I possibly think of a child as a mistake?

As for the notion that we ought to live our lives without the taint of regret, that’s the stuff of popular song and the tyrannical mantra of self development. Far more heroic, I think, to admit to regrets. To acknowledge them and move on. Give them a quick cuddle, even. They’re part of us. The failure is to live in them, to dwell in the house of regret, as it were.

Now, even though I don’t have what I’d hoped for, I’m contemptuous of the notion that we ought to do anything but live with the unintended consequences of our lives, however duty-bound we may feel. If anything, I’ve been liberated by living the life of the single parent even if it has been thrust upon me. I’ve come to see the stark differences in our respective approaches to parenting, where once there was only cosy consensus. I’ve awoken alone, apart from from the reverie we once shared to discover that I’m no longer a part of the me generation school. In fact I never was. It’s as though I’ve come to my senses.

I’m relieved to put Leo first, struggling not with the long days I spend alone with him but the infinitely longer hours away, cut adrift from the purpose I feel primed for. The empty flat I dread returning to, eerie in its emptiness, the lifeless aspect of the toys tossed to one side and the suffocating blanket of silence left in his wake – those are the shadows I wrestle with. The claustrophobic sense that for all the work, for all the love, the cushion of hearth and home has been whipped away at the very moment I was sitting back on it. Just as my heart has grown with the birth of my son, so too a layer has been stripped off of me…

The future used to be a map, now it’s not much more than a morass of entangled permutations that refuses to be read and there is little percentage in thinking too far ahead. Not long ago, short of breath as I ran to the nursery clutching spare clothes for Leo, I ran into an old flame at the gates. She had been and still is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my life, her luminous face had hammered through my heart long after our affair had petered out. How odd, how nice, so many years after I’d found myself at times almost incapable even of coherent speech as she shone before me and my heart threatened to batter its way free from my chest, to see us cross paths so briefly as she dropped off the youngest of her three children. Hearing my story, she cocked her head to one side and offered up her sympathy. ‘Oh, that’s… shit. That really is shit.’ I insisted on cheery disagreement, feeling particularly English that morning, though I still wonder about what she had to say next. ‘But it’s ok for guys, you know. You can keep on having kids.’

At 44 that seems like a possibility, if only technically. With my life now out of joint with those of my friends, whose children are by and large older, and virtually all of my time without Leo spent working, this hardly seems ‘the best of both worlds’. That was the vision of my future Ellie saw. It was Panglossian in the extreme; indeed it’s she who enjoys the best of both worlds, able as she is to devote time to her new relationship. It certainly seems the ‘best of all possible worlds’ when I’m with Leo but without him it’s a grind and a social life of any real kind, never mind a love life, requires a lot of imagination and time I no longer have.

The idea of more children is a fine one, but I sense it might remain just that. And I wonder whether two kids means twice the happiness; does the joy increase exponentially? Having Leo has brought completion, and yet paradoxically I’m entirely alone in that feeling. The odds certainly favour Ellie for now. As much as I hope for a brother or sister for Leo, and the broader base of love and support that would continue to offer him into the future, I find myself selfishly calculating the effects. Would another child for Ellie establish a family unit from which Leo would resent being separated when with me? Or would he revel in the undivided attention which only I could then offer him?

With a largely sublime dynamic between the two of us cemented I’m loathe to shatter it and even the prospect of a partner would feel intrusive in some way. It feels almost impossible that I could admit someone into the nights he spends sleeping here, however sensible that might be in some respects. Having been made a single parent before his birth has engendered a strong determination in me to go it alone and to have him to myself, to the extent I often find myself daydreaming of all the circumstances that might lead to that. But there’s also a fragility to being alone as a parent, an unbearable lightness. One person is my entire world. Where is my broad based coalition?

And money, or lack of, rears its head and militates against. How many parents in London I’ve met already of one child who must now hesitate before adding another. And for myself, the financial challenges posed by separation and raising a child alone on an average income are enough to grip my heart in fear for long and lonely moments in the night. London no longer does ‘average’, and the spectre of eventually having to leave looms. The feeling that I’m running a business sometimes descends upon me, and how much further could I be from the spontaneous joy of family life? Of more children just happening along?

If the last three years have taught me anything at all, it’s that if your partner of ten years and ten months can leave you for someone else six months before your first child is born then anything can happen. Anything. But you forget what ‘anything’ really means, sometimes…

IT’S A MIRACLE

It’s no more a miracle than eating food and a turd comin’ out of your ass…

Bill Hicks on childbirth

I’m starting to think the late, great Bill Hicks got it wrong. Childbirth is a miracle. And children are, too. Or my son is, at least. I laughed at the time, sure. After all I wasn’t the target. I was no sentimentalist like the bright eyed and bushy tailed newbie parents he lampooned, and he had a point, right? ‘There’s too many fuckin’ people in the world. Someone needs to say that…’ And I was glad it was Bill. To my mind, teetering as it was on the cusp of adulthood – it hasn’t stopped teetering yet – kids were like bad news on the TV. It happened alright, just to other people.

And now it’s happened to me, I’m back in the grip of childlike wonder. As a boy I’d gaped at textbook pictures and TV documentaries filmed in utero, agog at conception, a scene from inner space. In my febrile pre-teen imagination, it seemed utterly alien. Not hostile alien, not deep-space-stomach-bursting-humans-must-die-alien, but unknown nevertheless, wondrous and shockingly beautiful. Something from nothing. A Big Bang no less cosmic for all it’s incalculable frequency.

Soon of course, the mechanics of reproduction became apparent, and not through textbooks or the BBC. And in the wake of physical and sexual – if not mental and emotional – maturity, soon I, too, like Bill before me, was ‘wiping entire civilisations off of my stomach with a grey gym sock’. Nothing miraculous about it, quite the opposite in fact…

Leo’s eventual arrival, along with my simultaneous separation from his mother, was as tumultuous as a planetary collision and as the debris coalesced and our orbits realigned I found myself happily revolving around him, and once again in touch with the awestruck child inside me.

His very existence owed a deal to fortune. The timing couldn’t have been tighter. After seven months of trying, his conception coincided almost exactly with his mother meeting her new partner James. There’s a significance to that I’ve long since given up trying to unpick. That coincidence, entirely unbeknownst to me, accounted for the odd ambivalence in Ellie as the test brought the news, a fluctuation in her that registered with me immediately. Leo was on his way, but it felt like a ghost had entered the room. Another presence, someone other.

When, three months into the pregnancy, that presence finally revealed itself in the person of James the task at hand, even as the world swum around me, was to establish whether or not I was in fact Leo’s father. Cue tortuous phone conversations, consultation of dates and reassurances from the GP. Leo had been conceived only days before his mother’s life changed. My final act. I’d been only days from a life without him, and possibly a childless future. A parallel life now, of course, a life unlived, but one I can still catch a glimpse of on occasion. It’s the only reminder I need that Leo is miraculous.  For the remaining six months there was very little sense of the miracle to come; the day to day wore in even as the seismic shifts between myself and Ellie played out.  Any youthful fantasies of introducing myself to Leo as he grew inside her remained just that, as the space between us grew.  I knew full well Ellie was conducting her new relationship away from home and across the city – and indeed at home when I was away – and could not bring myself to talk to him when she asked me to.  What game were we playing?  How was I to act?  When she offered me her belly to feel him curiosity swayed me, but I reached out as a gynocologist might have done.  The gesture was automated; informed by interest but joyless and robotic.  All intimacy between us had evaporated, leaving me artless and clumsy in my own home.

But as I stop to consider Leo, the miracles stack up. Putting aside his conception, sadly miraculous in itself for so many less fortunate couples, what were the odds that, of all the bars in all the world, I’d walk into the one his mother worked in back in 2001? For that, indeed, was how we met. What then the odds of compatibility, never mind the lightening strike of love, intimacy – all of which seem chaotically random when you’re on the outside, however naturally they fit when you’re part of a couple? And the odds of our own respective existences? The chances that my own parents, both perhaps anxious of being left on the shelf, should run into each other in fifties London, or that two divorces would pave the way for Ellie’s parents to cross each other’s path and start again?

The existence of humanity is, in itself, a miracle of almost ludicrous magnitude when one starts to unpick the clusterbomb of coincidences that facilitated our rise. That this hunk of rock we’re still struggling to value should find itself snug in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of a star of just the right size, power and age to enable the creation of exactly the atmosphere required to help cook up the primordial soup and begin the evolutionary journey to us, a species capable of music and mutually assured destruction, Bach and bombs.

All coincidence, of course. Even the creation of the universe itself may be best understood as nothing more than coincidence. The right quark in the right place at the right time. Why, after all, would we describe anything as miraculous when it’s already happened, when it’s fact, when we can reach out and touch it and it’s and all we know? But if we are simply the products of maths, that’s a realisation that has limited appeal to our innate sense of story and our intuitive feeling that we’re special. In turn, that sense of our own specialness is challenged by sheer weight of numbers. We’re back to Bill and overpopulation. How can we believe in billions of miracles? Surely it’s counterintuitive…

And shrinking the scale once again, what else would I say about my own son, other than ‘he’s a miracle?’ Even if I can’t see it in the faces of all the other kids in the playground, even if they’re blobs in buggies to me, what else would I think of him? When you’re 44, innocence is a miracle. And when you can see, however fleetingly, your father in your son’s face, when that father wreaked havoc and the boy before you is bursting with all the possibilities of life, then it’s a miracle.

We forget that we’re miracles, each and every one of us. It’s necessary, even – a defence. But having a child weakens that defence, and sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off remembering – lifting the scales off our eyes, as it were, choosing love over hate just as Bill Hicks exhorted us to. He never had kids himself. He left too soon, returning to his parents home to die aged only 32. And he didn’t mean it, of course. By telling us our kids weren’t special, he was simply asking us to open up our tired eyes. He knew just how special we all are. He put it better than I ever could, ‘…the eyes of love …see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now… Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’ Amen.

For myself, as I sit on the edge of the sandpit with the all the other mums and the dads – pushed to the sides of our lives, as Philip Larkin had it – pushed out of my old life, out of my old future, and into this new life with nothing between me and the stars, a glimpse of the miraculous helps light the way…

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