‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
At the coffee station, enlightenment – twinkly-eyed tips from greenhorn grandfather to greenhorn father. With his bony hand on my bony shoulder, he fixes me with the steely glint of wisdom earned through long years of experience and leans in for his close-up. Captive to him for this instant, I’m brash young hothead to his Jedi master. He takes, and allows himself to enjoy, a slight but distinctly pregnant pause before telling me all I’ll ever need to know for the road ahead. ‘Bond as much as you can in the early days. It will establish the pattern for life…’
Ah, the b-word again. A sage injunction; well intended and accepted with all due grace, but on this early autumn morning as palatable as the limp excuse for a brew that I’m nursing in its disposable cup. Because I’m not doing the bonding with Leo this weekend. Someone else is. And if only it were just his mum.
I no longer live with my son. We’d drawn up our road map, an exit strategy – I was to leave at the end of September, by which time Leo would be just shy of two months. And as I rolled downhill into bachelor den, through the temporarily revolving door and into hearth and home would enter Ellie’s new partner. A plan conceived by sensible adults and executed with the upmost responsibility, up to a point. That point was reached a week ago, and left an aftertaste distinctly more disagreeable than the plastic tang of this tepid tea.
‘Oh yes, it’s all perfectly amicable,’ I’ve smiled time and again just lately – my smile-on-demand smile button worn thinner with every use. Still a perplexing thing to hear yourself say as a new parent, but perfectly true nonetheless. It has been amicable and we’ve done well for it to be so, but maintaining friendly terms through stark necessity brings a gently oppressive and relentless strain all its own. It’s not so much a lie or the playing out of a fiction, as a game of politics played out at home. Coalition breakdown on the domestic front, and with so much to be salvaged.
For a brief, isolated spell, in the surreal suspension of time afforded by the fuzzy fatigue of paternity leave, it appeared we might even succeed in choreographing a dignified exit for pater familias. The wounded bear would limp off stage right, heart bludgeoned to a bruised and bloodied pulp but with honour intact, face saved. Meanwhile, a divorced couple, we carried on playing mummies and daddies like kids in a wendy house – for just how long could that flimsy fiction withstand the unremitting subtext of a brutal real life story?
We’d even talked of how difficult the day might prove for Ellie, sensibly discussing where best she might put herself while I extricated myself for good. And yet when the time came, we even managed lunch. The jacket potatoes, quiche, tea and cake shared at a local cafe between four of us – myself and joined by my friend Simon, Leo dandling contentedly on one lap after another. In the hours before and after, under Simon’s cool and steady direction, this dad’s life was hefted, taped up in unsteady stacks of brown cardboard, into the care of man and van for the short haul down to Brixton.
We’d brought the day forward by a couple of weeks, unable to find the stamina to dig in for the finish line we’d drawn for ourselves. And it was me that blinked first, buckling under the strain of the suffocating isolation, sending us careening headlong in the dead of night into our final confrontation, the only face to face row that was ever to take place, to my shame, in Leo’s presence.
That night the nine month contract was torn up. With Leo now among us I was cut adrift from any pre-imagined purpose under this roof and rendered surplus to requirements, with Ellie’s life ‘on hold’ for so long as I remained. It was a conflict that saw me escape for the stillness of the pre-dawn street, deranged with despair, a shattered light switch left dangling in my wake. A mortgage jointly held on the flat behind me and keys in my hand for the lifeless shell of another a mile away, and yet to all intents and purposes rootless – a life in pieces, and a son sitting in the middle of it.
I’d read of one separated father’s surprise that suicide is not a more common outcome. I’d agreed. And as I stood trembling by the derelict dairy yard in the sodium glow of soft amber streetlights, rooted to the spot and with no idea what was to come next, the darkest question awaited its answer. The road had run out beneath my feet, no question. But for all the clamour that echoed inside, another road had started. It had started weeks back on the sixth floor of St Thomas’, and I now had to find a way of joining it.
Time stood still, I stood still, unable to find any forward momentum yet knowing that I had to. Then back through the door and around to the sofa – my bed of nails for month on month – to call through to a sister, a Samaritan for the night, to tell her it was the end, and to hear there could be a beginning yet. Then daylight…
A week can be a long time in the unravelling of a decade-long partnership, long enough to bring with it sense and reason, clarity and civility, and some acknowledgement of the passing of an epoch. And so it was to prove. As the autumn shadows lengthened I picked up the bike from the old homestead, posted the keys through the door and heard the hard jangle as they hit the doormat, saying goodbye to all that. Goodbye, for now, to Leo. Goodbye to the cats, the music, the long easy silences, the pouring over the Sunday papers and the perfect roast chickens, the crap dancing (mine) in the kitchen, the guessing the price watching Antiques Roadshow. Goodbye to us.
And now here I am, a father without a country, far away and so close. A thirty-five minute walk uphill from my son. At the end of the world and beached upon a new sofa, but with the luxury at least of being able to pull it out into something like the shape of a bed.
I lie waiting for sleep, as my colleague’s words of watercooler wisdom return to ricochet round a mind hollowed out by fatigue and fear of the future. ‘Bond as much as you can‘ – his words echo in movie melodrama fashion, like the voice of Obi Wan Kenobi from out of thin air – ‘…establish the pattern for life.’
It’s midnight, and outside the unfamiliar sounds of new neighbours on a new street – inside these four new walls, the musty and unfamiliar smell of someone else’s old life. The day sheds from me slowly, my eyes wide open long into the night…