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.