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…