Thirty-four days and thirty three nights along the way and a small milestone passed by the roadside – Leo and I, home alone. Another first in a time of firsts, a lone landmark of no small note for now though doubtless to be supplanted in time by a forest thick with first-time memories. Ellie is Sundaying in the general area – precise location undisclosed – and won’t range beyond a thirty minute radius of a panic button I have no intention of pressing.
We amble downhill to the high street in the warm welcome glow of an Indian summer’s sun, Leo bobbing head-to-chest beneath his white muslin like a cartoon ghost. He takes the siesta option, leaving me to mosey around undisturbed as I gather together the ingredients for a bachelor supper before sauntering back to the flat formerly known as ‘home’. And that, as they say, is where my troubles began…
Halfway uphill he rouses, hunger his alarm call. I know that only a bottle of expressed milk will dampen the slow-burning volcano of anguish that’s strapped to my breast, and I know that bottle lies on a kitchen counter-top long minutes from here. I may look the picture of modern metrosexual fatherhood on an afternoon jaunt as I flip-flop uphill with eight pounds worth of prize accessory strapped into the carrier and a few more pounds besides of veg poking out the top of the tote bag, but my pulse rate is going through 0-60 in seconds as Leo’s crying gives way to screaming. I’m pounding concrete now, flashing the well-rehearsed toothless ah-the-joys-of-fatherhood-eh? smile to passers-by, staving off the demon panic all the while.
We’re locked together in a downward spiral, hurtling earthwards as I fumble for the ripcord of a parachute that isn’t there. My chocolate smooth patter of reassurance has melted into futile gibbering fuelled by the frictionless acceleration of the knotted muscle punching out from my chest. We hit the hot gravel of the garden path, home and I’m speaking in tongues. He’s feeding off my fear when he should be feeding on her milk as we burst out of the sunshine and through the doorway into the cool shade of the kitchen and the grail of the prepped bottle.
Bottle duly applied to mouth and with the injustice of his hunger easing and my fear and loathing receding, a fragile equilibrium is restored. And then shattered.
As phase one of feeding ends we regroup, readjust and settle in for phase two, only for any fragmentary illusion of peace to be splintered again by the soft clip of the clasp of my watch against the tender nape of his neck. This volcano is no longer dormant, Leo refuses the bottle and I’m sent hurtling back into new territory, the two of us careering to the point of no return. To use the time-worn parental jargon, this is meltdown…
We’re the only two people on the planet now, locked together in the reactor core, seconds dissolving into minutes. Fatigue and hunger crash together like matter and anti-matter, and the fabric of Leo’s universe rent asunder – unable to feed, unable to sleep and beyond consolation. In the vice of my arms he thrashes and flails, writhing in spastic stop-motion like a Harryhausen animatronic, the two of us dancing out a choreography of catastrophe.
Nothing save his own exhaustion will bring this runaway train of distress to a halt, and it’s a small miracle to be twenty minutes in before I reach for the phone. Tempted momentarily to dial the emergency services, I hail Ellie instead and push the panic button down. Hard. She’s a thick chunk of minutes away, minutes that drag like long months as she races home distraught.
With Ellie in the building and some semblance of harmony restored, I beat a hasty retreat to the shade of the decking and sit trembling on the garden bench – gooseberry in my own family, blinded by tears and the misery of abject failure, terrorised by his torment – my inability to alleviate it, and my contribution to it.
A cuckolded dad playing out time in the garden of his old life, unable for one single moment to see the commonplace in an episode of no unmanageable consequence. Within minutes Leo is back in my embrace, full of the milk of maternal kindness and all the chemical comforts it brings, dry-eyed and wide-eyed, face open as if to say ‘what?’, and a smile to erase any shadow of memory. As if nothing ever happened…