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.