Two weeks’ token paternity leave have come to an end and the coalface beckons once more. As I freewheel downhill and take a right into the main artery to thread through clots and clusters of cars, buses and HGVs towards the West End I make a mental note to hurry along and start a second family sharpish so that I can benefit from any impending Nordic-influenced liberalisation of parental leave. Fourteen days to forge a bond seems scant for any man when a newborn’s senses are so underdeveloped he or she can barely see as far as the wall or distinguish one face from another. That’s quality time in inverted commas.
Nine hours later and eight hours richer I slog back uphill through late summer rain to stand dripping wet and disbelieving in a cottage kitchen that seems to shrink a little each time I return to it. The unwelcome and unyielding presence of a third party in what was formerly known as my family life, and historically my love life, has had a way of sharpening my hitherto dormant faculties for detection, but I barely need them to know that James has been here. It appears the surest passage to his heart traces much the same route as to mine or any other male’s – a direct line to the stomach. And the evidence of a long afternoon of leisurely grazing lies all around. Nothing on the hob for pater, and no leftovers in the fridge. I’m glad.
Ellie tarries in the corridor for the time it takes to say goodnight and turns to head to her quarters, leaving Leo to my care as we head into the night. Perhaps it’s moral outrage tempered with self-pity that has me reach for the puritanical simplicity of a can of baked beans – a hair shirt in a tin. Perhaps it’s because there are mere minutes before Leo will be actively hunting his next meal.
Feeding Leo still retains the ineffable – it’s no smaller a miracle now to lock eyes and gaze down into an endless corridor of beauty as he clamps down on sterilised rubber. And yet all the while thoughts unbidden career ceaselessly around the tired and empty spaces of my mind like pigeons trapped in the rafters of an abandoned warehouse. The honeymoon is most definitely over, and the end of this chapter – in which our protagonist heads for the exit – is upon us. I don’t live here anymore, I just work here, and now all I want is my son and my life back. And a good, firm mattress.
As for Ellie and I, we’re back in the waiting time now and the silent, moment by moment struggle for things to say, or things not to say, begins again. We’re walking a tightrope of civility, me ever mindful of the fatal outburst that will send us tumbling into the void, and slowly choking on those very feelings held in check…
And yet life goes on, it’s business as usual – baby on board. As the hours become smaller I clock off and negotiate the dimly lit corridor, softly padding through no man’s land from my territory into hers with Leo in arms, his lung-power belying his insubstantial weight. As ever, I feel unable to stay – how strange, how sad to feel I’m intruding on a scene of intimacy as my son breast feeds – so I sign off my special delivery and head back to the clammy embrace of the sofa.
My mind hurtles through the darkness, pushing sleep ever further away, and a faint and persistent impulse grows. I’m drawn to the bedroom and find a clearly exhausted Ellie asleep with Leo sated in her arms, and both far to close to the edge of the bed. A deft scoop and Leo is soon resting in his Moses basket, and I head back to lie restless in the front room.
Night turns into day and, alone again, my mind seeks diversion. Turning to the papers online I scan through a celebrity questionnaire and my eyes alight on one answer – “my kids. I think kids deliver on all the romantic stuff love only promises. I am in love every day.” A quick glance up to the question, “who, or what, is the greatest love of your life?” How hard it suddenly is to imagine romantic love, now it’s gone. Just as it was once impossible to imagine being single in the comfort of a long-term relationship, romance now seems a dream from which I’ve awoken – nothing more than a hypothesis, a theory. Ellie’s views on the matter are no doubt admirably different.
From where I’m standing it’s already clear that my own love for Leo, however binding and intoxicating, will not be enough in the end. It cannot exist in a vacuum, it cannot be all there is for me, lest it collapse under its own weight like a dying star as I scrabble around for happiness in a thousand kickarounds, burger buns and story times. So there will need to be someone else, for Leo’s sake as much as for mine if he’s to avoid his certain fate as son of gooseberry dad.
Though an attractive enough concept still, romantic love had once been an article of faith for me. That sense of destination, the it-had-to-be-you trajectory of life absorbed through the heartache and hope of a hundred Hollywood movies, was bullet-proof. Now I feel like the child post-Santa, and I’m inclined to bracket romantic love alongside religion – I suspect it’s there for those, or perhaps even in those, who believe. And I remain resolutely agnostic. Which at least means I’m open to reviewing new evidence if and when it should present itself…
Early evening brings Leo back to me and he’s strapped on as I prepare the evening meal. George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass soundtracks the fading of the light and with the evening touched by autumn, the mood is crepuscular. My remaining evenings here can now be counted, and there’s a mounting sense that Ellie is doing just that. And all the while, the same phrase undercuts the harmony of the music as it worms away in my ear – you’ll always be his dad. But as I serve I’m scrambling for its meaning.