The parenting curve, though gradual and not without interruption, remains upward in trajectory.
To the markets of the East End on this fine late autumn morning for a spot of nest-feathering, inasmuch as the bachelor den can claim nest status. Deliverance from the familial home has been a jolt and I savour and curse my newfound freedom in equal measure – I find it has an aftertaste. This peculiar strain of freedom comes in batches, parcels of hours to be filled until I’m a father once more. Though of course, I’m always plugged in – it’s 24/7 with or without him, as I’ve fast discovered, even if the deal as it stands is technically closer to 06/7 on a fat day, 03/7 on the slim ones. And in all those remaining hours not taken up with thin sleep, the sense of what’s missing, in exile from my son and annexed from any sense of purpose, is entire and ceaselessly gnaws at my composure.
But in the interests of sanity, and of homemaking, I’ve heaved myself east in search of kitchenware and a decent bacon sandwich. The latter comes first, accompanied by a double hit of builder-strength, orange-hued, polystyrene-enhanced tea. As I eat I’m careful to keep the happy units at the periphery of my vision. I know they’re there – the newborns strapped tight to bosom while dad applies bacon sarnie to face, the bonny babes in carriers clasped to over-bearded hipster dads. Nuclear units, a minimum of three atoms fused together by an electron field of love. They’re everywhere. I’m unsure how much it would hurt to look, to take a peep at the the parallel universe of the family.
So I keep my eyes to myself, or at least on my breakfast, aware all the while of the enduring strangeness of this. How outlandish to be but weeks a parent and to so studiously avoid the sight of the similarly-blessed because I have no means to relate to them. And who among them could guess that I’m father to a two-month old son who lies miles to the south stirring in the Sunday morning bed between, for all I know, his mother and another – the nucleus of another unit altogether?
So I walk a steady line through this Sunday morning, an invisible dad, not looking for anything in anyone’s eyes, and return south with a plastic rug, a onesie covered in cowboys and cacti, and a wooden letter ‘L’, having discovered the Leo discount. The Leo discount is easily applied, simply by falling into conversation with entrepreneurial single mums running kiddie boutiques and casually disclosing my own status, illuminating matters with cute snaps on the iPhone. 10% off at checkout, as long as I promise to bring him along next time.
Leo makes his scheduled appearance as the day wears on and reverts to autumnal type. I spend our first thirty minutes together falling headfirst once more into the overcompensation trap – too cheery by half, like a dying comic straining for audience approval – and waiting for things to go wrong. A self-fulfilling prophesy waiting to happen. I saddle up with a fed and playful baby and head to the park, and sure enough find myself strapped tight to a grumpy old man before I’ve put barely a block between us and the flat.
It’s the absence of any apparent reason that fosters the panic that rises like bile. Surely not hungry after half an hour? Was mum’s milk enough? No sign of sleep, so my guess is over-tired. I push on and up the pace, hoping a change in tempo will buy him some zeds. It pays off, but only to a degree. Sleep remains elusive for Leo as he zones out in the meantime and we head into the no man’s land of the park, halfway from me and halfway to her – the Neutral Zone.
Deep into the zone the situation worsens. Leo is bent on fulfilling the prophesy, rousing himself to a state of epic disgruntlement, gorging on the kernel of fear in my chest. Not for him, this walk in the park. We’re caught between the bottle at my flat and the bosom at home, the milk I don’t have and the milk she does, and both are by now a good mile off. Equidistant from either solution I succumb to the dither and after a moment’s potentially catastrophic delay I strike uphill for mother, fearing an apocalypse in the enclosure of my own flat.
Panic propels me to my former home, the frantic pace causing us both to overheat in our respective knitwear. Leo writhes and howls as darkness descends, calmed only momentarily by the hypnotic sodium glow of the streetlights that hove rhythmically in and out of view over my shoulder. Cresting the hill drenched in sweat I give way to gravity and let Leo’s wriggling mass drag us downhill to the flat. I’ve phoned ahead and Ellie is at the door as I crunch up the path, everything Leo needs.
This is a capitulation for me, a first since moving out and I’m disconsolate on handover, able only to mutter “see you Tuesday, then” as I turn on my heel and head for the gate. Between Leo’s subsiding yammering, all the sounds and smells of a Sunday evening domesticity assail me – the metric chop-chop of vegetables, the busy rattle of saucepan lids. My name is still on the mortgage here, and I can’t get away quickly enough.
No longer fused to my progeny, the temperature eases somewhat on the incline home and I opt for the scenic route and a moment or two’s reflection. Two hours clocked up at the dad factory, and one of them a step back. Rallying myself with the thought of two steps forward next time round, I put in a quick text for an update. Milk was indeed the issue, a top up required sooner than anticipated. So note to self – don’t leave home without a bottle.
And just as I’m going another round with the demon self-pity – staring a points defeat in the face – a pair of headlights rushes me and suddenly I’m running to make the kerb. A hulking emergency recovery truck has torn into the quiet side road I’m crossing at speeds more appropriate to the final round of qualifying at Monaco. Stunned from reverie I turn back, agape. Not a good move. The vehicle comes to a juddering, chain-jangling halt and from the cab, to my dismay, emerges another hulking mass. As the driver lurches towards me I fumble for the phrase that’ll take the heat off, coming across as polite as C-3PO and nearly as ingratiating as I draw his attention the not inconsiderable jeopardy his spectacularly laissez-faire attitude to driving has placed me in. Again, not a good move. Just as it’s dawning on me that there isn’t a good move he breaks swiftly back to the door of his cab and back to me again, full of purpose and all of it bad. He’s a good head taller than my six feet and on inch, and nearly the same across. And he’s got a twelve inch screwdriver fused to the inside of his fist. He’s advising me ‘not to fuck with him,’ which is ok as it’s highly unlikely, and he’s also promising to kill me. Which is not ok. I’m conscious of only two things; the fact that I can’t move, and my son’s face. I hear myself saying that I’m sorry, and can even hear the word please coming from my lips. And even as I hear it I’m angry at myself for uttering it.
For an instant out of time it’s impossible to gauge the true temperature of the situation; I can just about read a stand-off in a movie, but life’s little set-to’s have yielded even less to interpretation in my mercifully limited experience of them. My feet rediscover the memory of movement and one of them edges back. At the same moment he lowers his weapon of choice and stalks back to his workplace. He pulls away at twice the speed he arrived at, clearly intent on finding someone who will fuck with him.
I carry on down the scenic route, refusing to cry. That works for a couple of blocks. Back in the Stygian gloom of the flat I leave the lights off and slump on the sofa, still shaken. I try to forget, try not to see it for what it is – an isolated freakshow of an incident, and not some karmic metaphor for where I’ve got to. I call through to Ellie, asking simply for a photo of my boy. Within seconds he’s there by jpeg, a rectangle of light in the shadow. Clipped into his bouncy chair and hooded in green, eyes alight and beautifully nonplussed. Still brand new. I kiss the screen and reach for the light.