As I potter listless and alone in the kitchen, the encroaching evening brings with it some relief from the heat of the August day. The chores are ticked off one by one but the disquiet remains as a single thought cannons around my restless mind with pinball fury. I don’t know where he is. In many ways it’s a thought so fantastic that I’m happy to park it for moments at a time, concentrating instead on kneading the dough for the next loaf of bread I’m soon to give up baking, or selecting the next album to soundtrack a solitary Sunday. But in it crashes again. I don’t know where my son is. Words one might expect to hear from the over-anxious parent of a teenager in the small hours of a Saturday night, perhaps. But it’s early Sunday evening, and my son is not quite two weeks old.
My meagre two weeks’ paternity leave is coming to an end, and the last few days have been happy and full ones. The ‘new tiredness’ has proved a pleasure, indeed at times it’s almost sensual, lending a warm fuzz to the edges of my waking hours. The body cracks on and stays with the pace – it has to; the new job is unremitting, but throughout there’s a soft burr not unlike the more pleasing effects of recreational drugs once taken between outbreaks of study.
Ellie’s fatigue is a more formidable adversary, it seems, and on Wednesday I volunteer for what turns out to be a three hour round trip to Argos for a sterilization kit as she claws back lost sleep. My first meaningful foray with young Leo, then. More meaningful at least than a ten minute jaunt for gravy granules. Ghost-like once more beneath white muslin, he sleeps all the way, seduced into slumber by the engine of the 315 as the wheels on the bus go round (and round).
Queuing at the stop on our return, a young mum with toddlers passes. Intrigued by my faceless cargo, and no doubt clocking the tell-tale peeling of the newborn on Leo’s partially exposed lower legs, she lets out the reflexive ‘aaaw’. Here comes my first ‘parent chat’. ‘How old?’ I tell her to the minute. ‘Aaaah…’ Pause. ‘And how’s your wife doing?’ The assumption jars and I frown momentarily – anyone might naturally conclude that the load I bear points to the involvement, at least at some stage, of a sexual partner, but married? It seems a deliciously perverse prospect to let the beans spill, and any number of caustic retorts run amok in my thoughts. How many times will I be asked something similar, after all? And how many times will I scrabble around for the convenient lie? I turn to her, she smiles. ‘Sleeping’, I smile back through my sunglasses. ‘You know, the partners help and support is so important at this stage…’ she continues. Behind the shades, my eyes glaze over. My reserves of irony are spent, all used up in antenatal, and I will the bus to arrive…
Leo doesn’t stir until the garden gate clangs shut behind me and gravel gives way beneath my Birkenstock sandals. It seems he’s developed a homing beacon already.
Home once more, and with parents refreshed, he holds court throughout the long hot afternoon to a small throng of small cousins, all come to pay tribute. Barely a delicately-lashed eyelid is fluttered throughout, and when thoughts turn to feeding him, one young cousin dutifully sets aside his wrecking of my small record collection and disappears into the kitchen before reappearing with a bowl of cat food for baby. Fortunately, only Elton John’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy has felt the full force of the toddler’s ire…
As the cousins depart, the ‘three of us‘, inverted commas, buggy and all, head uphill for a walk. Tottering along the rim of the city’s basin, we look down through the haze at the skyline below, fretting over the new buggy’s wayward steering as we go – it’s like wrestling with a wilful supermarket trolley. We’re the picture of domesticity, and I find it impossible to wipe from my mind the disparity between what we are and what we must seem to those we pass by as we amble back to the flat. The pace is leisurely, as is the chat. We are enjoying ourselves, and for the first time I have some inkling that we, Ellie and I, will always be bound, and not necessarily uncomfortably so.
This brief passage of shared tranquility has clearly given Ellie a moment to reflect, too. Back in the flat I step up into the living room to find her on the sofa, weeping steadily into her diary. Awkward pause. It seems an old diary entry (or several old diary entries) have stirred uncomfortable memories, and an apology is blurted between sobs. After a refreshing admission that I’ve been poorly treated, and a frank appreciation of my efforts thus far, we have a conversation that’s long overdue – frankly appraising the journey thus far. Delivered from limbo with the arrival of Leo, our mutual (if not exclusive) enjoyment of him has taken us to a better place, for now.
We’re now moving through the typical stages of a divorce, but at a vastly accelerated rate. The contract between us is being renegotiated, and perhaps Leo is engendering a spirit of concordance. It’s suddenly possible for me, if i peer very closely, to catch a glimpse of a future in which even friendship with James may be attainable. I here he’s keen to meet. He has a concrete future to accelerate into – I hope for Ellie’s sake he doesn’t crash. My future, however, is far harder to see, and I’m not minded to interrupt my honeymoon with Leo just yet.
But as I sit on the step facing the corridor, and Ellie perches on the sofa’s edge facing away towards the window, I can feel all our futures edge a little closer. New players wait in the wings, awaiting their cue as we anticipate the second act. Exit stage left then, for me.
Staring out from the kitchen into the darkening garden on Sunday evening, I have no concerns regarding his wellbeing. I know he’s perfectly safe. He’s with his mum, for God’s sake. She’s ‘just gone out‘ to ‘meet friends‘. Euphemisms, of course, and not repeated here out of sarcasm, it’s just that I barely bothered to listen as Ellie prepped Leo in the buggy before heading out into the sunshine. Resignation took hold. I knew what was happening, and with whom. I knew that another day in the life of my newborn son would remain unknown to me. Maybe one day I’ll ask him. For now, I’ll get on with the dinner.