Monthly Archives: July 2013

ALWAYS RETURNING

Weeks 9, 10, 11

It’s unorthodox, as parental routines go, but routine it is and I cling tight to the structure it offers.  Uphill, downhill, each and every day to spend three hours with my son; three hours bookended by feeds, Leo suited up like an astronaut for Extra Vehicular Activity, floating free from the mothership with dad his tether, always returning.

The daily push up Brixton Hill seems an apt metaphor for my idiosyncratic journey as a father.  Unlike Sisyphus I’ve no boulder to shoulder, but I too have little to show when I’m back down in the den with the same journey to be made the next morning, and the next after that.  Though these are no Groundhog days – I may roll back without child to the bachelor chill of the basement pad, but each stint is a three hours deposit in the experience bank, and some previously unseen aspect of the cub in the carrier is invariably brought to light.

I’ll cut up through the autumn chill, ignoring the raw certainty of winter’s approach and savouring instead the snowballing thrill of being dad to the kid I’m tumbling towards with a love sure as gravity, resisting the incline.  All the years of an unwritten future propel me towards him, and all the moments in all those years – dusk-defying kick-abouts in the park, floodlit afternoons side-by-side on plastic seats, afternoons lost in the multiplex, cheese toasties cooked between foil with an iron, bedtime reads from Dahl’s ‘Danny, Champion of the World’, wrestling with homework, night time knocks at the door and the ‘dad, …can’t sleep‘ and the clamber on up into the big bed…

Appointments are made and appointments kept; I haul him to the surgery where ‘Mr Leo John Blake’ is rudely awakened to face the music and take the vaccine. The outrage of two sizeable needles, one for each thigh, is suffered with stoic heroism, his face nevertheless a contortion of disbelief that such a fate might befall him not once but twice.  But a dad hug is all it takes to consign the needle and the memory of to the bin, and in moments sleep reclaims him.

Small steps and moments of clarity as Leo and I describe a loose orbit around the hub; an unexpected encounter with friends brings a window of opportunity – the chance to share him, to make manifest the joy, to remind yourself it’s real if only for short sweet minutes amid the pavement hustle…

Breezy reminders that land like barbs and burrow deep into your breast – that families come in all shapes and sizes now, you know, yes there are all sorts of arrangements; breezy reminders from nuclear families, the type you’re seeing everywhere now.  I walk on, choking on words well meant, as if any of this was arranged, as if this were some kind of lifestyle choice…

Through the long nights in between I listen to the shuffling of an unseen neighbour on floorboards feet from my head, the constant nocturnal rearrangement of furniture.  Three single men  living three separate lives in three separate flats piled one on the other above me – the four of us, for all our close proximity, in permanent disconnection as if cut off in a derelict apartment block in some Philip K Dick novel.

There are trips to the shops, weaving hurry-scurry through the jabber of rush hour, protective hand cupping his head as you take on the scrum disgorged from the end of the line in Brixton town.  We ride the oohs and the aahs from nostalgic mums, we clock the girlfriends’ broody elbows jabbed into boyfriends’ ribs – ‘sooo cuuuute‘ she’ll whisper as they imagine the same futures I once did.  I’m getting used to all this attention, and Leo is positively revelling in it.

And all the while the same conundrum teased out as I walk – how to look single with a baby in a carrier?  It may look admirable – the lips-pursed, good-for-you-mate smiles I’m thrown are all the proof I need of that, but it don’t look available.  It looks very much the one thing I’m not, pointing as it does to an off-stage Mrs., and who’s to know she is, in point of fact, non-existent?  Short of portable signage, I’m stumped.

And there are moments of risk and matching reward, triumphs the world will never know.  A return to the flat with the three-hour egg timer close to empty and feeding time looming, and a snap decision to fly solo.  To the kitchen with Leo strapped on still and soon to rise from slumber, and the bottle is prepped.  Unpacked and awake and tucked under one arm, I touch the bottle’s teat to his nose and he’s fooled – he thinks I’m a tit.

He’s latched on now, and though feeding with something less than his usual aplomb, he’s feeding.  And I’m not his mother.  His eyes find mine and lock on, his tiny right hand finds my free left hand and I’m crying.  Guess the b-word is no cliche after all.  We’re bonding.  Bottle downed, and with a burp and a giggle our three-hour stretch just doubled, and mum can wait.  We just bought ourselves an afternoon…

Home time for Leo beckons in due course, and cue triumphant promenade in the rain; headlights flare and strings of brake lights bunch and stretch as I dodge the puddles thrown upwards by thunderous HGVs.  The carrier strap cuts deep into my left shoulder blade and my calves rebel.  I can feel the weight dropping off of me just as I feel Leo is packing it on.  Sado-masochistic parenting, perhaps – there’s always the bus.  But each ache is proof I can do this and I each discomfort is worn like a badge of honour.

Besides, one bus fare saved is another bottle of milk.Image

‘…ARE THERE ANY MEN HERE TODAY?’

Week 9

Hike uphill under bruising skies to the old homestead, thence to escort the young master on his latest first – playgroup.  We arrive an hour late and as I’m ushered on through and into the appointed room, a semi-circle of faces turns and all eyes zero in on newbie and son.  An instant of hush which even the attendant under-ones seem compelled to observe, and a change in ambience that feels like something I could reach out and touch – it’s not quite of tumbleweed quality but enough even so to suggest I may be intruding, perhaps even breaking the spell.

The moment passes, hatted heads turn back to their poker games, the wildly off-kilter piano jangles anew, the bar resumes service and the old hubbub fills the air once more as the stranger with the papoose heads on into the saloon.  There may well be other sets of balls about the place but they’re all hairless and minuscule as yet; it appears I may already have broken the first rule of playgroup – I’m the only man in the room.

Popping Leo on a beanbag at the periphery of the action I catch a wariness in his eye and return it with a wink to mask my own, though he seems to grasp that these are uncharted waters for the both of us.  But once he’s de-jacketed and my impulse to flee momentarily mastered, I thrust the pair of us into the fray.  The fray in question being a friendly fuss of mums scattered on mats with, it would appear, an appointed (self- or otherwise) ‘spokesmum’ – Alpha mum, if you will.

Beakers of water and half-time oranges are dispensed – a distraction gratefully accepted, though already Leo is deflecting chunks of attention away from his father, for now a beached whale on a beanbag.  Alpha mum conducts the briefing and Beta dad offers up all relevant vital stats – Leo’s, not mine.  All this in between metronomic outbreaks of industrial strength cooing, throughout which Leo maintains a state of serene detachment, eyes locked all the while on mine.

Sing-a-long bookends the festivities; I’ve now ventured too far not to inflict my atonal drone on the group and I duly jump through burning hoop, serenading my captive son and imploring him to ‘wind his bobbin up’ with all the vocal assurance of a reticent sixth former standing at the back with his mates in assembly.  Back to the haven of our sack’o’beans  and as I slip Leo back into his hooded mac I sense the admiring gaggle collecting behind me and the murmurous rhubarb resumes as the group files out.

I’m entreated to return before to long – it’s Leo they want, of course, but naturally I promise I’ll do my best.  Any unease I brought to this same-sex party has by now thawed, and indeed I’ve enjoyed the company of this brood of mums I’d have even recently assumed brainwashed.  Because I’ve been lobotomised myself, of course.  Beaten senseless with a love primal and without limit.

Before making tracks I’m assured of the existence of a dads-only group, though there’s a hitch – it doesn’t exist.  Attendance is flatlining on a fat zero, and as I do the math and add this figure to the number of fathers on show here, I try not to read too much into this depressing and somehow unsurprising little statistic.  Opting instead to grant the benefit of the doubt to my fellows, I assume they are simply too hemmed in by their daily endeavours in gainful employ.  All of them.

I nod and hmm diplomatically, railing inwardly all the while at the common sense-defying absurdity of a mums-only or dads-only group – both as pointless as an uncles-only group, and as much use to me as a woollen boat.  My quest for the grail of  parent/carer-only group continues – what the hey, let’s all bring our lovers, too…

We shall return, as indeed we do the following week when our beginner’s luck runs dry.  We fail even to make sing-a-long as Leo has a brief episode that, while technically falling short of a meltdown, is enough to have me beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the outer beanbag perimeter under the watchful eyes and knowing glances of the collective – once again I’m the only dad in the village, and the panic is rising.  The charity shop hand-knitted yellow hoodie that has Leo sweet as a jar of lemon curd now seems to be made only of buttons, buttons, buttons – everything is buttons why is the whole thing made of buttons?

But for now we beat a quick circuit around the nearest park, dodging a nimble group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who, espying cute baby, descend on us much like the zombie auld ladies from Father Ted – relentless old dears in long coats and tea-cosy hats intent on fussing over Leo.

Over tea in the cafe a chance encounter with one of the the group and she doesn’t have to work me too hard to get full disclosure, or full enough to glean that I’m fathering solo.  ‘I think it’s great, what you’re doing’ she offers.  ‘Thanks’, I smile back.  ‘Really great’.  ‘Ta.’  ‘Really’.  ‘Mmm..’  ‘Well done’  ‘Thanks’.  ‘Really, well done.’  ‘OH, FUCK OFF’.  I tip back the last of the builder’s, saddle up the cub and head for the exit.  And then home again, home again, jiggedy-jig, – he to his, and me to mine.

And no, I didn’t really tell her to fuck off…

HELLO, I MUST BE GOING

Week 8

So here I stand in the fine mist of a late summer shower by Brixton Village, shiny gun grey pavement giving off the comfortingly familiar smell of freshly rained-on concrete, motherless, fatherless, partnerless, with my eight-week old son Leo sleeping on my chest, and equipped with nothing of much greater use than a half-eaten quesadilla that’s oozing hot chilli sauce down onto the watch on my left wrist.  It’s time to meet James. 

The days since I’ve left have bled one into another, each indistinguishable from the previous or next, my time with Leo allotted in chunks of three hours.  Three hours that can be very long, three hours that can be very short.  He’s been delivered to me, or I’ve taken collection – precious cargo to be refuelled at intervals by mum.   

Through the nights in between I’ve struggled to adapt to the relative novelty of a bed, suddenly unsure of where to put myself.  I shift from left to right, disorientated within the expanse of the mattress that is mine alone, without company human or feline with whom to compete for space.  Sleep is induced always and only by a late night trawl through pictures of Leo on my iPhone, but even in slumber I pitch from side to side in search of cool cotton on my cheek, bewildered by the wholly unnatural absence of my son.     

What, then, ought the form to be when meeting the man who now lives with your newborn son?  Firm handshakes all round and hi, how are yous?, before fumbling in vain hope for some kind of lingua franca – football, perhaps, eyes to floor all the while?  Just how am I to greet the guy who’s moved in and out of my home, my life, like a ghost for the duration of Ellie’s pregnancy, either hovering in the wings, or on stage while I was off?                  

For so long now, while I waited for Leo to arrive and deliver me from nowhere, James has been on the periphery of my vision – what exactly will there be to say, when the two of us finally share the same space for a minute or two?  What lines might be pre-rehearsed in his mind?

It’s a can that’s been kicked down the road long enough.  I’ve heard he’s been ‘keen to meet’ for some time now, though for my part I’ve been in no hurry to write him into the script just yet.  It’s not been a question of reticence, so much as waiting for the appropriate moment in time – and that moment could never arrive until after the birth of my first child. 

No doubt his eagerness could be put down to a desire to clear the decks and get on with his new life in my old life, but such haste could only ever seem unseemly to a new father.  And quite apart from anything else, I simply haven’t had anything to say.

We bus uphill back to the house that’s forgotten me, up the garden path without fear or anxiety.  I dig for keys I no longer own, before ringing a doorbell that still bears my name.  I’m a visitor now.

I’ve been back since, of course, to this foreign country – my own past.  From the moment I crossed back over the threshold, any sense of it being, or ever having been, was gone.  The furniture rearranged and with it our history, new props in place for the next act, the ‘love-struggle, in all its acts and scenes’, as Ted Hughes had it, now superseded with a new and different harmony.  A brief moment of confusion among the cats as I turn into the corridor and John rises to greet me.  We’d probably been one and the same in their eyes up until now, and happily interchangeable from hereon in in any case – as long as one of us is opening the cans.                      

Indeed, the obligatory firm handshake, and a nervy burst of hi-how-are-yous, but little else.  No ill feeling, though perhaps a mutual sense of uncertainty.  Just… little else. Clearly not the moment for a cup of tea and a cosy chat.  The two of us occupy our own respective space, locked into separate worlds at opposite ends of the hallway, knowing these worlds must now intersect, however alien to each other.  Two perfect strangers thrown into each others lives by an accident of timing and groping for precedents, entirely unsure of how best to proceed.

Clearly there isn’t going to be a conversation.  Or even a round of diplomatic talks.  Stifled by the incongruity of this new presence in my life – living, breathing and entirely unbidden – and suffocating on dead air, I cast about for anything, scanning the floorboards as if down there might be found the instruction manual for such a situation.  Anything to fill the void, anything…  My eyes alight on a leg brace of all things.  I snatch eagerly at the conversational gift and hear all about the now-healing fractured foot it once encased.

Already it’s time to leave, and as I reach for the door my mind is in search of the appropriate note on which to depart.  Again, nothing.  Nothing save a hello, a how are you and a good bye.  Most, most English.

A non-event then, in retrospect; the dread in the anticipation melts in the face of reality, and there is nothing to be done but get on with it – our two moons maintaining separate orbits around the same planet.  How else could it have been?  What movie scene had I expected to see played out?  What had I wanted to hear from him, this man perched on the fringes of my life and yet central to my son’s?  Whatever he had to say, I suppose – his were lines I could not write.  Instead ‘hello, how are you..?’  And on with our lives…