Having hastened once more through the warm night and into the cold embrace of a long leather sofa, I sense the distinction of paternal responsibility is somehow amplified by the absence of my son. As mother and child settle and become acquainted in transitional care I shuttle back and forth along the corridor of the 159 bus route, maintaining my own solitary paternal vigil as I feed myself and two newly neglected cats, sleep, shower and replenish supplies for the trip back to the ward.
I cycle in, opting to re-energise with a charge through mid-morning traffic. I leave my helmet by the door, ignoring the recent and much-publicised (and not to mention wise) counsel of Bradley Wiggins. Perverse as it seems to be reckless at this time, I need the wind in my hair more than I need the knowledge that should I be flung from the frame, my head and its contents may or may not be saved by a piece of moulded polystyrene.
On the ward we wait. The pleasure of bringing baby home is to be postponed until we can be satisfied that he has lost no more than the 10% of his body weight that any newborn can be expected to shed after birth. Ellie heads to the ground floor for fresh air, papers and tea, and I head to her vacated bed to hold him close. As he lies swaddled on my chest I’m astounded once more by the urgency in the rhythm of his breath. Each intake of breath is duly followed with an exhalation but his tiny gasps for air are without a settled pattern, and despite what any doctor may tell me I’m unable to take the next inhalation for granted. Doctors and midwives take turns to gauge his breath-per-minute rate, and the spectrum of results is bewildering – anything from 50 to 100, with between 30 and 60 considered an acceptable average. I lie still and breathe with him.
Presently he stirs and attempts to latch on to my nipple, in a vain effort to feed. I’m flattered and would dearly love to oblige but though my nurturing instincts are roused, I am clearly at a biological disadvantage. He is seeking out mammary glands that are, unfortunately for him, currently to be found in Marks and Spencer on the ground floor and I’m left to ponder on just how much of a brick wall my inability to lactate might prove to be in the coming months.
Ellie returns and I sip tea with my baby-free hand as I scan the copy of The Times that lies spread across my lap. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, predicts with some confidence that ‘people who are alive today will walk on Mars’. It’s a bold, exciting claim and looking at the infant boy I hold in the nook of my arm I wonder what progress might be made by humankind within the span of his lifetime. I doubt that any combination of talents inherited from either myself or his mother might one day help him to set foot himself on the red planet (though who can say?), but I thrill to the prospect that he might one day watch on as a contemporary makes mankind’s first giant leap since the year before my own birth. It seems the practicalities of a manned mission to Mars might rule out a return to Earth, rendering the trip a ‘one-way ticket’ for those brave enough to boldly go. ‘Many people would volunteer to live out their days on Mars,’ Sir Martin maintains. I wonder who might and whether my boy might ever bear witness to such lonely sacrifice.
Rees may be optimistic in his belief that manned exploration of (and, who knows, beyond) our solar system may once again be prioritised in the coming century. I hope his confidence isn’t misplaced, though I suspect that economics, a culture of risk-aversion and a pervasive poverty of ambition will continue to ensure that unmanned vehicles, rovers and robots carry on doing the job for some time to come. But it seems certain my new son will at least have a far greater chance than ever of living long enough to see how far we can reach. The Office for National Statistics predicts that more than a third of babies sharing my son’s birth date will live to become centenarians. Good news for the babe in my arms? How will he be in 2112? That, I fancy, will all depend on the life he leads. He’s likely to be older, and I’m sure he’ll be wiser, than I ever will, but I’m not sure I’m envious of the capacity to outlive those around you. We don’t seem particularly well-equipped as a species when it comes to forecasting or planning even decades ahead, never mind across the comparative eternity of a century. Much as I marvel at the idea that my offspring may live to see dates on their calendar that to me were dates from science fiction, I’m unable and unwilling to accommodate the thought of my newborn awaiting death a hundred years hence. I drop the thought and mentally bookmark the statistic, fully intending to bore listeners with it at some future point.
Nappy-changing punctuates the day and I swap meconium-filled nappies for fresh with happy abandon, bringing to my allotted task all the primal male pride taken in a lifetime of lighting barbecues, starting fires, and carving Sunday roasts. Or cutting umbilical cords. But as I work, cooing all the while as the warm, yeasty and comfortingly familiar smell envelopes me and binds me to him, the full extent of James’ future involvement dawns on me, and the shadow is cast once more. From a point in the near future, he and Ellie will live together as a couple. What were once fears will harden into realities. He will change nappies, just as I am changing them now. He will change my son’s nappies. The thought can no longer be avoided yet it remains elusive and surreal, a vision from a parallel universe incompatible with my reality. To all intents and purposes, my son will have an additional father.
The shadow looms, and whilst there is no palpable tension within these four walls, there is discomfort within me and the absence of tangible shared joy is troubling. Will my son thrive with them, basking in the sunshine glow of their new love? Will I toil clumsily in my efforts to connect with him, struggling gamely in my new and unwelcome status? With those thoughts I take my leave and strike home for the couch.
Before unlocking my bike and pedalling south I’m drawn to the light show on the opposite bank of the Thames. Past Olympic glories played out at intervals of four years throughout a century and more are projected onto the Gothic facade of the Palace of Westminster. I join the loose gathering of tourists and Londoners alike gathered by the waterside and watch dreams made reality and hopes shattered, ambitions fulfilled, hearts and records broken. I turn back and crane my neck, searching out the lights from the seventh floor room I’ve just left. I can’t walk away, I think to myself, I can’t leave you. And how many times will I walk away from you now, how many times must I leave you? I turn my back on hospital and spectacle both and walk on, no direction in mind.