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.