Monthly Archives: December 2012

THE DAYS RUN AWAY…

Day ?

The twenty-four hours that make up the day are stretched and warped now, bent out of any previously recognisable shape. A new and unfamiliar routine, and the accompanying (though not altogether unpleasant) fatigue have entirely altered my perception of the passage of time. The body clock is reset, then reset again before any suitable adjustments can be made, and then reset again. And again. The overall effect is not unlike that of jet lag, and I’m unsure where I’ve landed. We are now on Leo time. Leo time is not dissimilar to the disorientating sequence of days and nights between Christmas and New Year, when Christmas Day has fallen on a week day. Fridays feel like Mondays, Tuesdays are Sundays, each day bleeds into the next…

Without our noticing, mid-nappy change, what remains of Leo’s cord has dropped away, and with it his last connection to life in the womb. It stinks. Like any loved-up new parent, I’ve rapidly developed a deep and abiding familiarity and fondness for my son’s smell. I regularly dive headlong into the yeasty fug of a soiled nappy, and am more than happy to do so, but this is a bridge too far – Leo’s discarded umbilical hums, and so is deftly lifted by its now redundant plastic hospital clip and consigned to the bin, where it belongs. Let’s be clear, souvenirs are all fine and dandy, but mine will be curated from photos, outgrown items of clothing, forsaken toys and other sundry artefacts. Not anatomical leftovers – though I’ve no doubt there are parents out there whose infatuation has them box and label whatever dropped off baby’s belly button for future reference. They probably fricasseed the placenta, too. I don’t question the nutritional value, just the highly dubious over-enthusiasm bordering on cannibalism.

So another small but not insignificant landmark along Leo’s way, and the parents rejoice. Just not with each other. Before Leo’s birth the thought of being a single parent brought with it fear of the unknown. But as with all fears – fear of the dark, say, – there’s nothing there, as we discover when we switch on the light. The arrival of Leo has had just such an effect, banishing all my forebodings and replacing them with concrete realities to be reckoned with.

Some of those realities are grim. I’d expected to feel isolated and unsupported during the difficult moments, and was not disappointed. The surprise problem, however, was the joy. With the arrival of a newborn, joy is what it’s all about. Without a partner, where is the joy? It’s there, of course, and you feel it; it’s natural. But it remains internalised; there is no outlet because it cannot be shared. And so the greatest difficulty facing the single parent, it seems to me, is not being unable to share the problems, but being unable to share the joy. It’s an unwelcome and untimely restriction.

Insomnia, cabin fever, isolation and restlessness of mind prove an unsettling cocktail and I feel the need to reach out and reacquaint myself with the world beyond the doorstep. Time then to make my own debut excursion with Leo, so I get him in harness before draping a square of white muslin over his head so that he’ll be suitably protected from the UV bucketing down from the August sun. Flip-flopping along hot concrete, it must look as though Casper the friendly ghost is leading the way… Our destination? No picnic on the common, no rendezvous, nothing quite so thrilling. No, we’ve run out of Bisto granules at home so the two of us head uphill to the nearest convenience store. One small step…

Outlandish, but for now still necessary, the daily routine continues unabated and though there’s some comfort in the domestic rhythm, relaxation comes only with the night. Then, it’s the two of us – myself and Leo, naturally. Lounge becomes den, and it’s all lads together. Reluctant still to sleep, and in truth disinclined to put him down, I keep Leo tilted side-on atop my chest. Knowing full well that within weeks my nights with him will be at an end (albeit temporarily), I resolve to stretch things out to the max – a kind of father/son slumber party, if you will. Nothing more stimulating than TV and an ale, of course, and I settle back to take in a BBC music documentary or two. Three episodes and three hours of ‘Punk Britannia’ later and my eyelids fight the good fight, but to no avail.

My eyes snap open and I’m awake. It’s now dark and I have the curious, dream-like sensation of having let something slip from my grasp before the most nauseating sound announces itself beneath me. It’s the solid dull ‘thunk’ you might expect to be made by a ripe melon as it impacts on hard ground. The air is torn from my lungs, my heart is a fist of muscle punching a hole through my ribcage, and I can hear the words OH GOD echoing back at me from the walls. It’s me that screamed them.

Throwing off the covers and reaching out for the light I can already hear Ellie’s bare feet thumping down the floorboards. I’m dimly aware of a darting movement made by I’m not sure what as something arrows along the floor towards the kitchen. Lights up, but no light thrown on the situation. ‘What? What is it?’ Ellie is in front of me and there’s fear in her face, and in my mind the pieces finally fall into place. Memory returns, the gaps are filled. Of course. I took him back to the bedroom, I put him down to sleep in his cot. I tucked him in. I came back to the sofa to sleep. I didn’t let myself fall asleep as my son lay on top of me. He didn’t fall head first to the wooden floor. It was the cat, who’d clambered onto me as I dozed. No doubt he landed feet first.

The cat stares expectantly from the kitchen step. Leo lies sleeping in his cot. The fist of my heart unclenches. It’s four or five in the morning, I don’t know. In the unseemly light we look at each other. There’s relief, but no laughter. I’ve never felt so afraid as in that moment. She turns and heads for her bed. I throw myself back on the sofa and listen to the traffic outside as it builds slowly towards its morning peak. Tuesday bleeds into Wednesday. Or Thursday into Friday. I don’t know.

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SUNDAY MORNING

Day 8

Post-apocalypse, I see in the dawn alone. Eyes wide open after a few fitful hours snatched throughout the heat of the August night, I stare up at the white expanse of the ceiling, hands knitted together behind my head.

I’m on intimate terms with this ceiling. I once spent days, days that felt like weeks, straining every sinew to remove from it a dense hide of textured surface coating (most likely asbestos-based) named ‘Artex’. Morning after morning I mounted the step ladder to face my nemesis, armed only with spatula in one hand and heat gun in the other, and, of course, suitably industrial language. Untouched it seemed since long before my birth, the ceiling had remained clad with its viscous mantle – gummy, gritty and unyielding, and once to be found overhead in living rooms the land over. Until our arrival, that is.

We planned, we designed, we knocked through and reconfigured the space. We painted and wallpapered it, we furnished it and lit it. We made a home. We lounged in it, cooked in it and ate in it. We laughed and made love and occasionally rowed in it. We planned to have kids in it. How peculiar, then, how surreal, that the three of us (and I use the word us in its loosest possible sense) should now lie dispersed about the flat in separate beds (again, in my case, I use the word bed in its loosest possible sense). Leo occupies his Moses basket for reasons quite obvious, sweetly oblivious to the schism he’s been born into.

Years of feathering the nest for this. Countless trips to Ikea, innumerable meatballs consumed with mash, gravy and that nice Swedish jam, sitting above the customer car park by the twin towers of the old Croydon power station, hundreds if not thousands of pounds earned and spent, and all for this. And just as the old place finally becomes a home in the truest sense, I am to leave. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so serious, though I can’t fail to see the irony – if that’s what it is. We talk all the time of irony when in fact all we mean is coincidence. And perhaps that’s all this really is. Bad timing.

As I lie here deferring the day, admiring my handiwork, Leo’s meltdown plays on a loop at the back of my mind. These, then, are the salad days of my career as a parent – each up counterbalanced with a down, as one might expect. It’s a cliche to frame it all in terms of triumph and disaster, not too mention hyperbolic. Yet context is all, and whilst I’m sure most fathers new to the job might happily dismiss the downs, surmising rightly that they come with the territory, I’m inclined to think a little differently. The territory I find myself in is a little more rugged, after all, and requires careful negotiation.

Every parent, every father, will make mistakes, but for me the stakes are high. Putting aside Mum and Leo for the moment, there are two of us here – just never in the same place at the same time. I’m still unsure as to how to define the third party, waiting in the wings – my son’s mother’s new partner? Or something more than that – a ‘stepfather’? I know the answer to this question already, but admitting it to myself is something else again. The absurdity of it is staggering, never mind the pain and the outrage. That my son has another man in his life, and has had since before his life is beyond surreal, and remains to me indigestible.

Paranoid ramblings aside, the immutable fact remains – James is there, and the presence of two men in Leo’s life will inevitably bring with it comparisons and ultimately even choices. So my every failing will be fraught with a new and different danger. Even without the threat of competition, failure as a parent is felt keenly. We assume we will be different when we become parents, that at the moment it happens we are somehow transformed, and indeed much does fall away. Old insecurities are shed, and a new focus frees you. But fallibilities remain and new insecurities take root. You just learn not to show them.

Footsteps in the hallway, and I’m freed from my new paranoias by Leo as he’s plopped into my lap. Breakfast in front of the TV, Leo feeding on Ellie as I pass her toast and tea. Funny, how routine even the strangest of domestic arrangements can become. This Sunday morning runs as smoothly as the five hundred-odd before it. The kitchen is tidied to the accompanying burble of Desert Island Discs, and turns are taken in the bathroom (no overlapping, of course). Only we no longer love each other. And we have a baby.

Lunchtime approaches and I’m back in the kitchen, once the heart of our little home, baking bread as if there’s no tomorrow (because it’s more convenient to think that there isn’t), with Leo strapped to my chest. Ellie appears, and decides she’ll be taking him down to the common for an hour or two, ‘just to get out’. ‘And…?,’ I wonder to myself. I’m not fooled. I know who’ll be at the common. Would I appreciate a more direct line of conversation? A more truthful tack? Hard to say, and easier perhaps that we play it this way for now. We both know, and we both know we know. What’s to be gained by saying it out loud? You play your part, I’ll play mine.

So I lunch alone, chewing on the knowledge that my son’s first excursion is being taken without me. Of course there will be countless more to be taken with me, but the life of a parent is signposted with such firsts, and to miss even one seems unjust. Not for the first or last time, I note with dread that I may not be there for the first steps, or hear the first words. So many of us miss them in any case, and for so many reasons, but to know that someone else might have the privilege of witnessing your child take a significant step into the next chapter of his life is so much salt to the wound.

I put the kettle on. Tea for one.

WHITE HEAT, WHITE NOISE

Day 7

Ok, so this is hard. I’m on my own now, it’s my turn. Ellie has decamped for the high street and I’m pacing the bedroom. I say ‘on my own’. In fact I’m not. Far from it. I’m holding, or holding on to, six writhing pounds of infant outrage. And I say pacing the bedroom, but I’m soon pacing the bedroom, marching up and down the corridor, and alternating rapidly betwen clockwise and anti-clockwise circuits of the living room and kitchen before returning to pace the bedroom once more. It’s a series of manoeuvres repeated mechanically over and over as if in the vain hope that I might enlarge the space, or even find a way out. There simply isn’t enough flat to pace around, the walls are shrinking in on me, and I’d head straight out to the garden if I wasn’t foolish enough to be afraid of drawing unwanted attention to my rudimentary parenting skills.

But I am alone here. Leo is in his space, filling it fast with lungful upon lungful of white noise, and I’m in mine, filling it with my own interior monologue. If you’re a parent, you might know the one, it goes shitIdon’tknowwhatthefuckI’mdoinghelpfuckwhatdoyouwantpleasehelpplease – ElliepleasecomehomeshitwhatamIdoingwrongIdon’tknowwhattodopleasestopcryingplease… Quite isolating, this, as experiences go. When the support of a loving partner can be counted on, that acute sense of isolation is no doubt offset by the sure and certain knowledge that the cavalry comes riding over the hillside in the final reel. When the word loving has been ripped from the sentence, however, then the light at the end of the tunnel quickly recedes. You’re on your own.
In time I’ll find I can manage this. I’m yet to appreciate the full sensitivities of a baby’s vast array of antennae, not realising that my incipient panic feeds his, that my quickening heart rate is upping his ante. But on this hot Saturday in August, as he jerks spasmodically in my clammy embrace, it’s like dancing on the edge of a volcano. We’re locked into a mutual panic-fest that draws us ever closer to the abyss, each and every second twisted, distorted and stretched out to an hour.
No midwife forewarned me of this. I’m sure of it. I know because I paid attention. In fact I was class swot, hand forever raised in inquiry, always a new question forming in my mind as the last tumbled from my excited lips – Ooh, sir, me, sir! I didn’t sit head in tea; uncertain, uncomfortable, and somehow unwilling, like some partners torn from the relative safety of the Friday afternoon office. No, I was there. No class prepared me for this lonely cataclysm.
Leo is taking me down to Chinatown and as I wither in the white heat of his first meltdown, I’m still able to note with surprise that I’m not frustrated, angry, or even annoyed, as I might previously have guessed. Instead I’m wracked with guilt as I wilt before a whole new cosmos of misery. His distress tears into me and my failure to relieve it has me on my knees. The sure and certain knowledge that I’m making it worse, that I am now indeed the architect of his pain, kills me.
Still and all as I flail, I don’t, won’t reach out for the lifeline. For reasons unknown to me (determination, perhaps – I hope not obstinacy), I leave Ellie to return in her own time. Which she does. It’s all very simple, of course. He needs to feed and I lack mammary glands. No need for a milkless father to go hard on himself. But as I hand him over and retreat back down the corridor, inadequacy bites.
Too fatigued to care, I suspend my blockade on the bedroom and flop on the old brass bed. I close my eyes to the late afternoon light, panic loosens its grip and my galloping heart eases to a canter. I wish for the oblivion of sleep. It doesn’t come. Instead I’m cut loose, cast adrift, and pray to fevered waking dreams.
I’m running down metropolitan streets devoid of all life, human or otherwise, criss-crossing desperately through the barren grid of a city unknown. The skyscrapered canyons I toil down are familiar to me somehow, and have the disconcerting air of a stage set – I’m downtown, scuttling around the memory of a hundred Hollywood blockbusters. The ground beneath my feet judders to a distant beat. I stop and turn. In the near distance Leo lurks behind me, and his progress is relentless. He is upright on his feet, dressed only in his nappy, and he is eighty storeys tall. He is laughing. Gleefully he bears down upon me and I’m darting between his feet as chunks of masonry rain down. He’s tearing down the set.
My eyes open. It’s still light.