Sitting in the front room staring at the Mac, I can just about catch the frosting of my breath from the corner of one eye, and I suspect it may be cold enough to hang meat in here. My son Leo, meanwhile, is fast asleep in his cot at the foot of my bed in the back room. And, of course, he’s feeling the full benefit of the ideal temperature at which the bedroom is kept over night. Financial readjustments are already making it hard for me to justify heating any room not occupied by the light of my life. Heat is money, and its spent on my son.
Back in the icebox I’m trawling through a monumental wall of pictures, put in mind as I do so of the statistic you may have heard quoted recently, to the effect that 95% of all photos ever taken have been taken in the last five years. Or something like that – it’s a kind of a shaggy dog stat, I suppose. Who’s counting, but in any case, we get – pardon the pun – the picture.
Looking at this bank of images, I’m beginning to wonder if 95% of all photos ever taken are in fact pictures of Leo taken by me on my iPhone over the last 16 and a half months. Spread across the wide screen before me are hundreds of little Leos, in all his myriad outfits, throughout each season of the year, in states of undress and occasional distress, and in nearly all of them beaming.
These are a mere sample of the photos I’ve taken of him since his birth, some sixteen months ago. That’s 1,429 and counting – an average of 2.6 for each day of his life thus far. ‘Take one a day’ gushed my fellow fathers, and indeed the habit is now deeply ingrained – albeit somewhat to my surprise.
Nearly each and every one is a selfie, of sorts. Virtually no-one else appears in any of these shots bar Leo in the starring role and myself in support – often literally. As a visual metaphor for our lives together, that’s pretty much perfect. This is the extent of the prematurely fractured family, after all, the nucleus rent asunder – just the two of us… There is, of course, the occasional cameo – the visiting relative, the friend passing through – and the cast of extras from various playgroups. But in the main we’re the leads in this show.
The photographic record began on day one. In fact, it began much earlier, but we’ll come to that… On that day, a day which I still feel compelled to call the proudest and happiest of my life despite the events and circumstances that overshadowed it, Ellie naturally featured heavily in the photo shoot, too. The very first picture of Leo, taken moments after he’d slipped out onto the hospital bed – a shockingly skinny rag doll, red raw and too quiet by far – is a beautiful one. His pink face wrinkled as if the eldest in the room, topped with a white cap and eyes tight shut, a stranger in a strange new land, perched atop mum in blind search of his first feed.
A more naturally beautiful scene you’d be hard pushed to conjure, and yet how I’ve wished in the darker moments since – the times when I can’t find it in me to look back with unalloyed joy – to crop it, to excise her from it just as I had been exiled from my own paternal destiny. I never have, of course, it would be an abject act of miserly vandalism, a kind of small theft from all of us. Should Leo ever wish to rewind that far, if he can ever stomach viewing the vast shot-by-shot testament to his life I’ll have constructed by the time he shows any interest, he and his mum shall remain together and unedited.
But the life in montage shall of course be largely for my benefit alone. Ever since my early insistence on keeping and digitising the freeze frames from the scans, the compulsion to chronicle has grown. When we first saw those spectral little kicks inside her and let rip synchronised and involuntary gasps as we reflexively clasped hands despite it all, there was a kick inside me, too. Whatever the difficulties, a kind of freedom settled on me then. The black and white portrait fluctuating before me, to the accompanying gallop of his heartbeat, had me in its thrall. Love at first sight, inarguably, and all cares swept before it.
So what drives me is not so much the urge to capture or distil. There’s been enough recent research and general guff on the deleterious effect our urge to snap has on our future memory. By now we’ve all been at the gig where we’re distracted by the sea of raised handsets floating between us and the stage, we’ve seen tourists robotically snap exhibits they’re not even looking at. It’s a truly modern folly. We’re not allowing for memory, but rather feeding a hard drive we may never even refer to. No, what drives me is a kind of disbelief – a) that I’m actually a father, and b) that I’m actually the father of this beautiful boy.
I’d always wanted children. Of my own, that is. Overcoming indifference towards other people’s had nearly always been something of a conscious effort until Leo’s arrival. Bizarrely, I’d fantasised about being a parent even as a pre-pubescent, though when I watch kids with dolls I realise that’s perhaps not such an outlandish notion as it may at first seem. But I never quite believed that it would actually happen and now that it has, it’s as if I need constant photographic affirmation of the fact before my heretic eyes. And thanks to Steve Jobs, I’m now affirming on a daily basis. The true purpose of the iPhone, evidently, is to whip it out from your jeans pocket and show off your first born to enthusiastic, tolerant, or despairing friends whenever words fail. Which, I find, they do.
It’s the stuff of a thousand dad blogs, the big before and after story. From lad to dad. From dating to mating, and from mating to doting. The reluctance with kids that gives way to selfless adoration, as our hero stumbles upon hitherto hidden internal dimensions hitherto hidden and unguessed at. I, too, passed the parcel when it headed my way. Now the parcel’s mine. And I can barely let go.
I’d been similarly indifferent to the life photographic, both the taking of and the being in. Landscapes were routinely committed to film on my travels, and my ex would regularly point out, with some justification, that she featured less than heavily in my work behind the lens. The plea to ‘take a photo’ could freeze the blood coursing through my veins. Why halt the flow in the effort to capture it?
And yet here I am, a snap-happy daddy, a serial offender. Author of a monolithic visual record of a quite remarkable presence, a smile in 99% of its constituent shots. Each one texted between separated parents forms a bridge of sorts, and though I can only guess what Leo might ultimately make of two distinct collections, I can have no regrets. That, or I’m addicted.
But for all my marvelling at my progeny, I suspect the reasons behind my photographic rigour are quite prosaic. And perhaps a little sad. As yet, it’s still just the two of us. There’s no-one else there, no pillow talk, no comfort in shared joy or amazement. And in the absence of anything approaching a conventional family life, my guess is that I just need to prove it’s all real.
Because there are days and nights, long ones when he’s not around and I’m listless and unbalanced, when suddenly I’m a ghost haunting my own life and I need reminding I’m a dad. And I find myself staring at the Mac…
ADDENDUM (PICTURES OF HER)
There’s another wall of photos. The one I never look at. A bank of images from another life, a life as distant to me now as starlight from a far-off galaxy. The life before Leo. And what to do with these? I’ve snipped away judiciously, editing my past, whittling away but retaining the core. A decade of memories are still largely intact, and I haven’t the heart to consign them to the trash.
Some corner of me may be clinging on yet, but the stay of execution is for Leo’s benefit. It’s occurred to me more than once that he’ll have no direct experience of, nor memory of, his parents as a unit. Right now we’re doing well to be in the same room. Indeed the notion of the two of us ever having been intimate may well seem as surreal as the moon landings to him, little more than a curiosity of history.
If he asks, he’ll be answered, and the memory bank will be opened for him. He’ll see where he came from. I’ll pick some nice ones, some sunshine and smiley ones, and he’ll see that, whatever the subsequent course of our personal histories, he came from a good place. He came from love.
ADDENDUM (THE DARK SIDE OF THE MAC)
There’s another side to this Mac. Once a shared computer, it’s now my own little digital fiefdom but her half remains intact if unvisited. And there lies another wall of images yet. Time now to clean these up. These are shots not meant for my eyes. Pictures of Leo, mere days in the world and still adjusting to it, lying on the bare chest of Ellie’s partner James. His first trip outdoors since emerging from the maternity ward. It’s only the second time I’ve felt able to confront these images, and on this occasion they’re to be deleted. If only I could delete the feeling that curdles inside me.
But on this occasion Leo is with me. He’s almost 18 months now, and we’re seeing out a rainy day indoors. And from the toy-littered floor he raises his head. And he sees these images. And he says “da-dee”. And my heart stops. And it’s not happening. “Da-dee”. And in panic I hoik him up onto my lap. And this time I bring up pictures of me. His dad. “Da-dee! Da-dee!” The knot in my heart unties, I breathe a little steadier. I tell myself it’s just a word after all, an incantation of his. But hasn’t there been some kind of visual association here?
An inconvenient truth would be the correct euphemism here. Until Leo’s old enough for conversation, and perhaps past then, I am perhaps destined to be one part of a kind of composite dad, albeit the dominant part.
I click and drag James with Leo, and drop him in the trash. I pull the plug. Someone else’s memories. Pictures. Just pictures.