NOTE TO READER
Forgive the non-linear approach, the hopscotching through time and space from one parenting episode to another. I hope what may emerge is, if not a story, then a map, of sorts. A map of fatherhood…
Week 20. Christmas.
Attentive readers will by now have noted that the final frontier has been duly conquered and my boy Leo now overnights once more with his ol’ pa after a lengthy period of daycare only. I paraphrase Captain James Tiberius Kirk and his words are not lifted lightly, as for some time in that long cold descent from autumn to winter the prospect of four-month old Leo living with me – and consequently taking up residence in two homes – seemed indeed as remote as the possibility of weekly warp-speed travel between galaxies and routine sexual congress with green-skinned alien goddesses who invariably possess a startlingly commanding grasp of the English language.
The challenge that loomed Himalayan on the horizon was not so much his being with me, as his being without mum. The logistical aspect of the puzzle – i.e. milk, was whittled away over a period of weeks. Mother’s milk was dispatched live and in person at intervals, and supplemented by expressed and frozen sachets of said milk that were ferried downhill from Streatham to Brixton, there to nestle among the herbs and the plastic trays of chicken stock cubes upon the top shelf of the freezer until called for. These would be warmed and applied to the maws of the firstborn with paternal love in the absence of Ellie. And with the addition of formula to the milk menu – gratefully received and adapted to by a compliant Leo – thus was he weaned from maternal dependence and freed to roam happily uphill and downhill between parental settlements, from one pole to the other.
The true hurdle, the one to bring the athlete head first into the cinder track but yards from the finishing tape, lay in the mind. The mind of the apprehensive single father contemplating sole responsibility in the small hours that make up the long corridor from early evening through until the light of day.
Practical advice has been taken, and ideas mooted from a variety of sources including the practice nurse at the surgery during routine vaccinations. Suggestions have ranged from the old school to the technical – an unwashed t-shirt of mum’s perhaps for olfactory reassurance, a recording of her voice on the iPhone or a photo looming large on the iPad should my twitchy finger find itself hovering indecisively over the panic button. There must be an app. At least, should Leo crash beyond reach of paternal comfort, there’s Skype, I tell myself, shelving for now any concerns re premature screen exposure. Whatever gets him through the night…
Thus far Leo has been reassuringly adaptable, relishing his frequent rotation between venues. Not in the slightest does he seem put out by falling asleep on one parent and waking on another a mile and a half away – a kind of cosy teleportation. He’ll know nothing else, we tell each other. Or tell ourselves.
Consistency is the watchword and a bedtime routine devised, rehearsed and perfected at moon base mama is to be replicated and adhered to down at dad’s basement outpost. An A4 sheet folded four ways contains the instructions, a map to guide me on a night with no compass, and the procedure couldn’t be neater – on this crumpled paper, at least. Forty-five minutes for bath time, bottle, book at bedtime, bed by 7.45. The four B’s. Then a mid-sleep bottle prepared before my head meets its pillow, midnight approx.
Leo, however, is not a five-point plan but a late summer child yet to see his first Christmas, and in his father’s mind, wracked with rookie nerves, there can be no knowing things will be alright on the night until they are.
Fittingly, ’twas the night before the night before Christmas that Leo first stayed, an early present dropped off by Ellie en route to a pre-holiday getaway. This in stark contrast to the previous year’s festive season, when we celebrated as an expectant couple, weeks from our own apocalypse as Leo lay embryonic.
With Ellie coastward bound and the plan mentally embedded, Leo and I embark upon the first stage of our own new adventure – albeit via Tesco’s, Brixton, and to top up the electricity key at the corner shop on the way back. In the supermarket the aisles are churning, no quarter given to the pappoosed parent wading against human traffic, a scrum of shoppers hurtling towards the Christmas deadline, oblivious to us as we head together into the night, abroad and on to our own new country.
Beetling home through the chill darkness I realise the master plan isn’t glitch-free, after all. We’re without the smoke alarm I’d intended to purchase, but taking him home – taking him home, I repeat to myself, I’m too happy to care, content to muse that the fates surely won’t sanction the incineration of man and child on the eve of Christmas Eve.
In the kitchen there’s no need to consult the road map. Like Luke Skywalker pushing his onboard guidance computer to one side and trusting to the force, suddenly all is clear and I know what to do. Parental autopilot – or instinct – kicks in as the new ritual is ministered without fault. The bottle is sterilised, the milk warmed, the cot mattress, pyjamas and sleeping bag gently toasted with a hot water bottle, curtains drawn and nursery lights lit, teddy bear (take a bow, Maurice Jr.) and cuddly alien (likewise, eep-eep) take up their posts – one to each top corner – as night watchmen. All due observances paid.
Bathed, dried, fed, read to, kissed, cuddled and marvelled at, kissed again, I lay him down. It’s as tender an act as I’ve undertaken in a lifetime. Asleep already, in repose he’s beatific, arms spread wide as if bestowing the gift of peace upon the night in this basement flat that’s now a home.
And all through the house, indeed, not a creature was stirring, with the exception of the father who cooked and pottered in the warmth of the kitchen, eschewing for once his beloved 6music as he savoured the new quality of peace that had settled upon the place, silent as snowfall.
I check in metronomically, of course. And it’s not anxiety that spurs me from the kitchen table to the cot at the foot of my bed, but the relative novelty of his presence at this late hour. That, and a sense of wonder. It’s not every parent that stands above the cot peering down through the soft light in a daze of bleary stupefaction, and now I wonder at those who never do. Not for the first time – nor the last – I marvel that I could have had anything at all to do with the creation of what I see below me, beauty that defeats description.
Moving to a new rhythm now, flying by wire, I rush through prepping the night-time bottle so that I can get under duvet as soon as I’m able. With the milk perched on the corner of the headboard I sink my feet down to meet their own hot water bottle and drink in the detail as I turn off the bedside light. Too thrilled to read I lie in the warmth of the darkness, hands clasped behind head, listening to the steady metre of his breath rising from just beyond the footboard.
As a child, when too excited to sleep, my mind racing from the American comics, the Doctor Who paperbacks, and the abridged classics I’d gorge myself on before lights out, I would often imagine I was on a journey through the darkness of the night. My bedroom was a cabin, and the small semi-detached in which it lay a carriage. And all the neighbours houses were carriages, and the street a night-train bound for …where? The destination was irrelevant, the adventure all, and my mind took me far and away, and down into sleep.
Tonight I’m on the move once more, my son with me, the steady cadence of my his soft breathing guiding us ever closer to the dawn. For a while I fight off the weight of slumber, aware I’m charged with precious cargo to deliver through the darkness and into day. But duty cannot keep my eyes from closing, and as he breathes in and breathes out he lulls me, and I let go as he takes me down with him to new dreams.
See you there, Leo.