It seems churlish on the face of it to complain that I don’t spend enough time with my son. I’m all too aware that any number of fathers will be seizing the Saturday this weekend, pushing their boys and girls back and forth in swings with pent up jollity, trying just that little bit too hard. Searching in a Happy Meal for something they can’t find, trying to buy back a bit of what’s been missing the whole week long. Meanwhile I’ve been in the thick of it. My son will be back here tomorrow night, Sunday. That’s 28 hours away but it feels like 28 days right now. Throughout much of this autumn he’s been with me more than the average three nights a week, while his mother’s home is given over to the builders. For as many as five nights in the week and most of the days around and between he’s been in my sole care. Having separated from his mother a full six months before his birth, I’ve found myself spending far more time caring for him than most fathers in a relationship might ever manage, assuming of course they cared to care. For days at a time I am, to all intents and purposes, the primary carer.
And that’s exactly why, confronted with an unexpected free Saturday, terror yawns inside me. The Google calendar I share with my ex-partner has betrayed me, a day off work for her has gone unnoticed and last night as I deleted the purple block from 9am to 6pm my heart contracted with fear. It’s now 3pm on Saturday afternoon. I’ve been to Toys’R’Us on Christmas reconnaissance and Asda for cat litter. I’m not sure what happens next. There are hours to fill, and he’s in none of them. The flat is silent, only the muffled deceleration of jets on their descent into Heathrow can be heard, metronomic on every second minute. Even the fridge has shut up. When he’s here, the flat reverbs to the two of us – the laughter and the music, the constant patois of our own devising that’s gradually giving way to ever more evolved sentences. From him, that is. I’m devolving. Even when he’s sleeping here the silence is full, a swell of peace and contentment that rolls from his room. When he’s gone it can be a howling void which no music fills.
Having tidied the flat, each of his toys now stands in its proper place, waiting dutifully on his return. They’re objects in the landscape of his febrile imagination, and increasingly mine as I lapse back into childhood with him, but now they appear little more than a series of items carefully curated for display, joyless and inanimate. Nothing, I’ve noticed over the last three years, speaks of desolation louder than a toy discarded by a child who’s elsewhere. I find I can’t enter his room. There’s simply no point, without him it’s stage scenery. Time behaves differently, as though I’ve entered another dimension. Alone at the kitchen table, hammering intermittently at the keyboard, I half expect to find an older version of myself staring back at me should I look up, like Kubrick’s astronaut in the final reel of 2001.
You get greedy for your children, I’ve noticed. I’d been dimly aware I’d change when a child arrived in my life. I’d seen it happen in other people’s lives and now it’s happened in mine, as the song goes. But I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the hunger I’d have to be with him. He’s the extent of my immediate family, of course – it’s just the two of us. But his impact has been like the Big Bang, we’re in a rapidly expanding universe of love that shows no sign of slowing. It’s a love that’s boundless, that grows and outstrips any conception of love I’d carried over from relationships. It’s like falling in love every day. So I need it every day, I need the hit. Its cold turkey this Saturday.
But it’s not just his absence that spooks me. It’s me, too. Time alone with myself is still a relative novelty. Being a parent can isolate even in the cosiest of circumstances, but in your mid-forties, out of an eleven-year relationship and out of sync with all those friends who started having kids ten years and more before, that isolation takes on a sharper dimension. You find yourself reading about loneliness within the context of health and wellbeing and suddenly you realise you know what they’re talking about. It applies to you. It’s as though you’ve been plucked from the life you knew – the one that had a constant flow of new people, the one with women in, the one where you didn’t really have to try – and dropped into a new one. With a kid. Fast forward fifteen years, all continuity gone.
I’m not sure I recognise myself when he’s not around. Even when I look in the mirror it’s as though I’m out of focus. Passing women in the street, I feel like I’ve evaporated. I’m more than I know, I think, but I could use a reminder right now. Maybe the best way to spend my time today will be to waste it. It’s something I never do, and it might just remind me that not every minute has to pay – you feel that as a single parent, with or without your child.
With or without him, I’m still a parent. I can’t switch the radar off – he’s a part of me at large, and mostly I can track him. But sometimes when I’m alone I find myself searching for other things, too. Everything I remember I was, and while I’m feeling in the dark my life as a father can suddenly seem little more than an echo.
So I’ll potter, maybe. I’ll ride into town and buy that speaker cable like I’ve been meaning to for months. I’ll listen to Tom Waits a little too loud – if anyone’s voice can fill up the space it’s his, and the wall insulation here is great. I’ll allow myself to drink beer at home. Just the one, maybe. And I’ll write about him. If it flows I’ll pick him up on the radar, and it’ll feel like he’s here again.