Thursday, 29 March 2012

Changing for Good

I have a new partner. At first my daughter wasn’t sure what to think about my newfound happiness. ‘She won’t want to go out with you,’ she told me suspiciously. ‘She’s younger than you.’ When it turned out she did want to go out with me, my daughter approached each new stage in our relationship with the same degree of scepticism. She was very uncertain that she’d want to stay over, then highly doubtful that she’d ever want to move in.

Nevertheless she was welcoming and generous-spirited as ever, and probably secretly quite relieved that it wasn’t going to be just her and me anymore. Although not everything’s changed - we often still sit around together in our pyjamas in front of the television, when we should probably be doing something more useful.

My new partner and I are getting married soon. When I told my daughter the news she was quiet for a while, but in the end she came and put her arms around me. And we’re going to have a baby too. I asked my daughter what she thought about having a brother or a sister and she said she wasn’t keen. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because you might spend more time with them than me,’ she said, ‘and love them more.’ I told her that of course I wouldn’t love them any more than I love her. That there was plenty of love to go around in my world. And once again she flung her arms around my neck and hugged me tightly.

And as I hugged her back, feeling the comfort of having her in my arms as always, I realised that what I hadn’t told her was that I wouldn’t be having another baby if I hadn’t loved every single moment of having her as my daughter.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Animal Magic

There have been some more changes.

We have a hamster now. Bubbles. My daughter had been asking for one for a while. I’d been saying no for a while. But in the end I gave in on her birthday. Since she doesn’t have a brother or sister I realised it would be a good thing for her to have a pet to care for. I smuggled a cage into the house in a rubbish bag, then wood shavings, feed, water bottle. Then Bubbles, the night before her birthday.

The next day, when she’d unwrapped the cage and hugged me and said through the smiles that it was the best present she’d ever had, the questions started.
‘What does he eat?’
‘A seed mix,’ I replied, pointing to an as-yet-unwrapped present.
‘How long will he live?’
‘Oh, not that long,’ I told her out of a desire to soften the shock of his eventual death. ‘Just a couple of years probably.’
‘Oh,’ she said, looking thoughtful. ‘And daddy...’
‘Yes?’
‘Where does he poo?’
I smiled. ‘In the cage. We’ll have to clean it out – you’ll have to clean it out.’
She looked up at me, her nose wrinkled in disgust.

It’s three months later and she does clean the cage now, wearing a clothes-peg on her nose to keep out the smell.
We are at the breakfast table eating cornflakes and she’s telling me about a poem she has written at school.
'What would you say if you were writing a poem about Bubbles?' I ask.
She thinks for a moment. ‘I’d say that every morning when I come downstairs and see him, my heart fills with happiness…’ she says, smiling, ‘… because he’s not dead yet.’
I choke on my spoonful of cornflakes and start laughing.
‘What daddy?’ she asks and I learn something more about the mind of a child.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Up Up and Away

I am in the playground with my daughter. I stand watching while she climbs up the rope structure to the top before standing in the crow’s nest waving. Shielding my eyes against the sun I wave back with my other hand. Very good I mouth. I’m impressed. It’s a long way up and I know I’d be feeling a little sick up there and worrying about the journey back down.

Journeys are like that; they can seem more frightening in advance than they end up being. I think of all the playgrounds I’ve watched my daughter play in; all the different versions of her. The toddler; the schoolgirl; and now the confident seven-year old with a lop-sided smile which can make me gulp. I’d never have been able to imagine it all that time ago. It would have seemed an impossibly long way away.

My daughter nimbly climbs down and we walk home through the park, past a field where a hot-air balloon is taking off. We watch hand-in-hand in silence as the blower sends rasping gusts of hot air into the mouth of the canopy and it quivers and taughtens. When it is ready to leave, the ropes are released and the smiling customers rise slowly into the sky, waving, at whom I don’t know. We wave back until their faces are no longer visible. Until we’re waving at nothing.

My daughter’s very excited and bounces up and down, saying how much she’d like to go for a balloon ride. I tell her I’m not so sure; it’s a long way up. ‘Ohhh,’ she says and I have that feeling that I’ve let her down. Like I do in those moments when she’s sad, just before she goes to sleep, when things can seem dark and difficult and she misses the people she loves.

The moment of disappointment over, she grasps my hand and we head for home.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Moving On

Sometimes things change little by little. Sometimes you turn around and everything is different. My daughter has two bedrooms now, in two houses. I tell her she is lucky, that it means more toys, more things to do, more excitement. But she wants one bedroom. She wants her mummy and daddy to be together.

I am making dinner in the kitchen when I hear a noise near the front door and stop chopping, trying to listen above the music. There it is again: a shout, perhaps Saturday drinkers passing by. I go into the hallway to listen. As I get to the staircase I hear a voice coming through the letterbox shouting I Love You Daddy. The sound echoes in the space, then the letterbox rattles shut and I smile.

By the time I get the door open my daughter has reached the corner of the street, but when I shout to her she turns and smiles at me. The familiar smile, stretching wide, turning her cheeks into two doughy balls. She runs back and hugs me, her mother watching in the background.

I know I will see her next week, but all the same it is strange to see her like this. It is the time of day I used to make her tea. Now she’s somewhere else. Now I don’t even know what she’s doing. She runs upstairs and re-appears with a spotty dog from her bed. I love you too, I say. Bye daddy, she says as she disappears past me. Things used to be different. But different doesn’t have to mean better, I tell myself.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Running Away to the Circus

The circus has come to town. Me, I haven’t been since I was eight, and a fire-eating clown scared me half to death. It’s an event here though, and when I find discount ticket vouchers at the local café I ask my daughter if she’d like to go.

‘Of course, daddy,’ she says, looking at me as if scarcely able to believe that my forty-odd years haven’t equipped me to come to such conclusions on my own. ‘It’s bunny’s birthday. It’ll be a special treat for her.’

Saturday comes and my daughter arrives downstairs in the morning with bunny.

‘How do you know it’s bunny’s birthday?’ I ask, as I pour her a bowl of some cereal which is more-or-less just a packet of sugar-lumps.

‘It says on her bottom. Look,’ she says, tipping bunny up and showing me a label with a date of birth printed on it.

‘Oh yes,’ I say. ‘She’s six, like you.’
‘I’ve made her a card and a cake,’ my daughter says, rummaging in her book bag and pulling out a card with a picture of a cake on the front and a cardboard cake, which she stands next to it on the table. ‘Happy birthday,’ she says, hugging bunny. ‘I made you a card and we’re going to the circus later. I bet you’ve been looking forward to it for ages.’

At the circus I buy my daughter some candyfloss and we sit inside the Big Top amid the smell of sweat and damp tarpaulins. My daughter finishes eating and puts bunny on her lap to enjoy the view. I’m half-scared to death again, this time by the gymnastics of the trapeze artists high up in the canopy. But as the show goes on I begin to enjoy it.

At the end we walk out and I ask my daughter what she thought of it all.

‘Good,’ she says, as she does when I pick her up after school.
‘Oh,’ I say, disappointed.
‘Don’t worry daddy, bunny liked it. That's what's important.’

I smile and put my hand on my daughter's head, wondering when I’ll ever go to the circus again.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Way Things Are

It is over a year since I wrote here about my daughter. How has she changed? I ask myself. Her legs are longer, her hair darker, her shoe-size 13 ½; to my mind she looks like a teenager.

We’re having a cup of tea. She drinks tea now, with two sugars. I knock my cup against the table, spilling some of it onto the carpet.

‘Don’t worry daddy, just use Vanish,’ my daughter says. 'It washes four times whiter. Just sprinkle it on and the carpet will be fragrant.’

She watches adverts featuring attractive mums with shiny, white smiles now. I laugh and think how much she's changed.

‘Do you remember when we used to go to the Model Village and Bunny World ?’ I ask her.
‘Yes daddy, of course.’
‘Your favourite thing at the Model Village was the chocolate,’ I say, smiling at the thought.
‘Chocolate? It still is,’ she says, looking surprised.
I smile and ask her 'What are you writing ?’

She shows me a Barbie print-out on which she’s written in pink felt-tip:

My Fashion Tips: if you are going out then where a dress. If you want boys to love you where pretty things. Skirts are realy fashionable this summer try one on!

‘That’s good,’ I tell her.
Maybe it's something in my expression, maybe something within her that makes her say ‘Don’t worry daddy, I don’t want boys to love me.’

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Love letters

“Daddy” says my daughter, coming up behind the sofa and leaning over towards me. “Can I have a piece of paper please?”

I give her a sheet and she goes away to her room.

A little later she re-appears and hands the paper back saying “Look, I’ve done this for my friend.”

I take it and find in amazement that it is filled with writing. Something strange has happened recently: my daughter now reads to me the books I used to read to her. She trips through the words using the same intonations I used to. And then there’s the writing. Some of the words are familiar, others not. But it’s undeniably writing.

It says:

I’ve got 46 stickers I countid them on Tuesday 2009 17th the 17.03.09 March. Yor my best frend. I hoap you have a sooper holoday and Il tri and get my mummy to have a play date

Love from Xxxxx


I congratulate her on her efforts. She smiles broadly back, but suddenly I don’t see the straight-backed girl with fraying pigtails and biscuity mouth in front of me. Instead I see the baby I fed with milk from a tiny bottle and rocked to sleep in an attic bedroom five years earlier. I can’t remember any of the countless tiny moments in between and I can’t begin to understand how the change has happened.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Reality TV #2

It’s dark outside; inside the windows are laced with moisture and the radiators are groaning with the effort of heating the space around them. I am sitting on the sofa with my computer on my lap. Although I no longer go to an office I still have to get up early to work. Sometimes when I tiptoe downstairs a floorboard creaks and my daughter squeaks and half-awakes from dreams of princesses and monsters.

Between key-taps I watch a man and a woman in the glow of the television. Like me, they are sitting on a sofa. They repeat smiling interviews with uncomfortable guests over the course of the morning. The talk is of strikes, economic crisis, financial bail-outs. Then there is a feature about shoppers, then a weather forecaster standing in a snowy garden.

My daughter comes downstairs and heads over to where I’m sitting. I say hello and she sits down against the arm of the sofa with her thumb in her mouth. I switch over to a children’s channel and bright cartoon figures jump from the screen.

I am poring over my computer, tapping and flicking my eyeline up towards the screen every so often to see what I’ve written. I change a spelling here and there, red lines underscore words the computer doesn’t understand. My daughter narrates the plot of the programme she is watching but I am only half-paying attention, grumpily grunting as I scour the financial world for interest. The figures at the bottom of my screen tell me my deadline is fast approaching. Suddenly my daughter’s voice drops and I look up.

“Daddy… you’re not even listening to me.” She reproaches me tearfully.

I look at her, my fingers poised over the keyboard, images of financial ruin on the computer screen. And I realise, suddenly, that it’s not important. The world my daughter lives in: the cartoons, the good-natured babble – that’s the important one.

I lean over, give her a kiss and put my arm around her.

“Ok” I say, looking at the television “Tell me what’s happening”.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Reality TV

I am sitting under the comforting low-light of a table-lamp, while in the corner of the room the television sparkles. My daughter is sitting tight against the sofa-arm, knees drawn up to her chest, thumb in mouth. Her eyes are fixed to the screen as a dancer sweeps from corner to corner in perfect princess circles. I am next to her, arm around her shoulders, also lost in TV half-life. Brucie smiles in the LCD brightness, performing with comforting, barely-remembered ease. My daughter reaches her hand towards me. “Daddy, I like holding hands with you.” she says. I smile and squeeze her fingers tightly.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“I wish Bruce was your daddy and then he could come and make jokes and we could all laugh.”

“Me too” I say, smiling again. I can’t begin to know how to reply to her sometimes. She’d like me to have a father and she’s a little disturbed that I no longer have one. If I think hard I can remember life in flannel pyjamas too. Small things are big, big things don’t exist and everything is simple.

“Daddy…” she says

“Yes?”

“Maybe you can ask for Christmas.”

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Space and Time

The seagulls followed us home. I watch in the playground as they skid overhead yelping and flapping. Then they are gone. I wonder why they were here, where they are going.

My daughter slams into me and hugs my legs, her face pressed sideways and arms spread wide. I try to enjoy these moments. I know you must. But still time leaches through me. As I hug her in return I can feel it escaping between my arms.

I have a new feeling now, in the playground. I stand watching my daughter as she jumps up and down climbing frames, remembering the early faltering steps, the clutching at the handrail, the worried looks back. Then I would loiter nearby, ready to catch her if she fell, now I hardly need to pay attention.

My daughter sees me looking upwards and follows my gaze.

“Can birds touch the sky daddy?”

Her questions have become more tricky. She throws queries out and expects a neatly packaged response. It takes more knowledge than I have to do it properly. People write books on these sorts of things. I tell her something about air and wings.

“Oh.” she says, seriously. Then her little lop-sided smile returns. “Pretend I’m a fairy, daddy.”

I pretend and she whirls around the playground in her fairy world. A little girl about eighteen months old stands watching her in fascination, the way my daughter used to look at the older girls. My daughter skips around her, stops, smiles and moves on. When we leave the playground I say to her

“That little girl is the same age as you were when I started looking after you. What do you think about that?”

“Hmm” she says. “Can I have an ice cream?”

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Devon Dreams

I am standing with my daughter on Baggy Point in the thin sunshine which comes after a squall. I grip her hand more tightly than usual as we look into the frothing water below, where the rock has fallen away from the cliff in dense slices. Gulls wheel and mewl and flap against the sheer edge. The scale is so unfamiliar it is hard to get into perspective. I gaze into the distance towards other land masses over silent seas. I remember when it was my hand that was held firmly and I felt and saw for the first time. Memories haunt me. It’s so long ago and I don’t know how that's happened. So suddenly. And now here I am, creating ghosts for my daughter.

She looks across the grassy space to the bay and gets out her little binoculars. She peers intently into them and squeals “Everything is so close!” and giggles. Squeal, giggle squeal, giggle. Looking towards where the boats are moored she says “Daddy…”

“Yes?”

“Are those buoys or girls?”

I start to explain but I can’t make her understand the spellings and the pronunciation and anyway it doesn’t matter. “Buoys.” I say. “They’re all buoys.”

She thinks for a moment and then says. “What do you do if you want to have a cup of tea on a boat?”

“Well, some of them have tiny kitchens.” I reply.

“Are they as small as an ant?”

I smile. Perspective is a difficult thing up here in this strange rocky world. As the wind gets up I suggest we go and get some hot chocolate. My daughter’s eyes sparkle and a memory starts to form.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Moving

I am surrounded by packing boxes. They spill their contents like urban rubbish bins. We filled them up in one life and now we’re unpacking them in a different one. Without the packing cases I’d move on more easily. It’s really only all this stuff that attaches us to the past. I have driven along our old road and looked at the houses where the people opposite live. People whose lives I have known, although I have not known them; who no doubt casually observed ours too. They’re usually not at home when I pass by. I wonder what they think of the change that has happened opposite them. Do they think about it at all? Have they noticed?

I see a little bit of grey material underneath the top layer of one of the boxes and give it a tug. Up it comes from the depths as though a lucky dip win. It is my daughter’s old coat, a little crumpled, very small. The label says age 2. Three buttons are aligned each side of its double-breasted front. On each the smiley face on a luminous sticker grins out. Already I have difficulty remembering where they came from. I think they were given out each time we went to a little toddlers' art group. Placed there perfunctorily by the kind lady who ran it, but well-loved by my daughter. Now I remember. A different time. A different place. I suddenly feel a keen sense of change; of loss. But of course we haven’t lost anything. Just time. I want to wrap my daughter up in her little coat and transport us back to those days, simply because we can never return.

My daughter wanders into the room and comes towards me. “What are you doing daddy?” she asks.

“Just unpacking” I say.

“That’s my coat!” she exclaims “Oh! Look at all the little faces.”

I smile.

“Daddy...” She says. “Do you think the little boys and girls in my old school miss me?”

“I’m sure they do” I tell her supportively. “Do you miss them?”

“Uh, well, not really” she says. “I like my new friends more.”

I smile again and put my arm around her shoulders. Then I fold up the coat and put it into the bottom of a drawer.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Christmas Spirit

I am upstairs tapping at the computer. My daughter is nearby, sitting on the carpet. She has collected a number of her toys and dolls around her and is gesticulating and talking in a hushed voice. I turn my head slightly and listen as she leans close to one of the dolls. She is talking to her about bedtimes and eating tea and being good. She strokes a dress here and pats some hair into place there. I can just hear what she is saying but not every word. I love to watch her caring for all her little inanimate toys.

“Who are they?” I ask, pointing to some dolls near her.

“They are my children.”

“And those too?”

“No, those two are having a playdate” she says. “They’re both boys. That one’s a bit older though, because he was born on Christmas Day.”

“Oh, like Jesus?” I ask.

“No daddy” she says, smiling indulgently. “He’s called Tom.”

She tucks them up under a little blanket. They look loved and cared for and somehow happier than usual. I thought my daughter had an imaginary sister. In fact she has a whole extended family.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Giving Thanks

I am waiting outside the school gates for my daughter. Four wheel drives hug the pavement, mothers chat and laugh. I have perfected my timing so that I arrive as the children come out, so that I don't need to stand around uncomfortably, not being talked to.

My daughter emerges wearing a cardboard hat, with something dangling from the front. Like one of those American joke caps with the hand and the hammer. It turns out I'm not far wrong. It’s Thanksgiving, my daughter informs me (I would never have known) and they have been constructing headwear all day, with the help of some American mums. It’s a magnificent effort, boasting a spring-loaded turkey head at the front and multi-coloured feather-tail arrangement behind. We set off for home on the Tube and people smile, elderly ladies come up and exchange a few words with my daughter at every opportunity. I seem to have a lot in common with elderly ladies nowadays.

As we enter the Tube my daughter asks what I’ve got for her to eat. I usually give her a little chocolate for the trip home. When I tell her it’s a chocolate fish she suddenly jumps up and down, her hat waving around like a gobbling turkey.
“I don't want a fish.” she shouts. “I want a lolly.”
I tell her she won’t get anything at all if she doesn’t behave herself, which sends her into an even worse tantrum. She jumps up and down on the platform, snot spraying around her face like a New York fire hydrant.
“Right, that’s it, you're not getting anything” I tell her.

She is now too upset to do anything. We sit down and wait for the train. I am stony-faced, she whimpers like a small dog. But I stay firm. We don't talk.

I get her home with a firm grip and the odd command. When we arrive I suggest an apology is in order.
“Sorry daddy.” She says. Then she adds “I want to say something else daddy. It’s not sorry.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“I want to say thank you” she replies.
“For what?”
“For making my food and giving me a bath” she says.

It’s little short of a miracle I think to myself. I ask her why she thought of telling me that.
“I didn't” she says. “My teacher told me to. It’s Thanksgiving. I told you.”

Monday, 12 November 2007

Running Away

We have run away from nursery school for a few days. It’s the week after half-term and at Westonbirt Arboretum the leaves are a delicate palette of yellows, ochres and browns. An insistent breeze is blowing them in a stream of whirls and spirals. My daughter runs from leaf-fall to leaf-fall with her arms outstretched trying to catch them as they jag around her open palms. She laughs and spins round on the spot, and the elderly people watching her laugh too.

When the wind dies, she stands beneath a huge oak and bends back her head to look right to the top. She blows to dislodge the leaves, puffing out her reddening cheeks and putting all her force into her breaths. Disappointed at the effect she puts her hands on her hips and looks at the tree accusingly.

Going from tree to tree she picks at the ground like a magpie, making a collection of leaves, pinecones, acorns. “Here are some things to put in your study” she says to me. “You can look at them and they can remind you of autumn, and you don’t throw them away. Ever.”

I put them in my pocket and stoop down and kiss her hair, which smells a little of baby, a little of shampoo, a little of her.

“Thank you. I will” I say, putting the handful in my pocket.

A few days later, when I am at home again I put my hand in my coat pocket and feel the dry bundle beneath my fingers. I pull it out and discover the leaves have been fired in crisp shades of brown and red.

I put them on my desk and I do look at them. And I won’t throw them away. Ever.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Injury Time

I am at work. My half day a week in an office. Young people, older bosses, a pregnant woman I see and imagine the weeks, months, years ahead. I talk to her occasionally: she spends a lot of time waiting for lifts and coming and going and leaning and puffing out her cheeks. I don’t want to tell her too much of course, so I just tell her my wife was the same. She wouldn’t know I had a child if I didn’t tell her that. The office is one of the few places I have no link to childcare. I am not a stay at home dad there.

I sit at a computer, clicking buttons, looking at newspapers, listening to the things the young people (really young, scarcely in their twenties) say to each other. It brings back memories. I don’t know what they think of the bearded, long-haired man who passes among them for a few hours a week. (Thank you to Sebastien Chabal, by the way, for making the image respectable, attractive even.) I sometimes rejoice in the lack of expectation, the lack of interest; sometimes I want to stand up and shout “I used to work on trading floors, wear suits, transact deals, shout into telephones, entertain in restaurants. I used to be someone else…

My mobile phone rings. It’s my daughter’s school. She has fallen over and has “a small hole” in her head. I finish my work at ten times the usual speed (I’d like to know how to do that) and head for the nearby hospital. On the roads, nobody seems to understand I’m in a rush and cars loiter and arc lazily. When I arrive finally, she is sitting on her teacher’s lap, draped in a blanket as they wait to be seen. She seems dazed. I hug her and take a look at the cut. It looks as though she has been caught by a stray stud in a ruck. Her teacher tells me how loud the thump was when her head hit the floor, which is not something I really want to recap.

I take over and after a while we see the doctor, who refers us to a nurse, who glues her head back together. The hairwash holiday she will be having brings a watery smile to her lips. “I didn’t cry.” she tells me. I ask why not. “I wanted the doctor to say I was very brave.” she replies. I stroke the left side of her head. “It’s alright to cry.” I tell her.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Imaginings

My daughter has an imaginary sister called Charlotte. She comes and goes, but she is always there. Much like a real sister I suppose. She generally arrives when other people are talking about their own siblings. Along with another hairline crack in my heart.

This is what it is like to fail your child. To feel you have failed them, anyway. The sense parents have when their child falls downstairs behind a turned back, or is bullied by faceless tormentors at school. It is a melancholic stab, a powerless ache accompanied by the throb of guilt. To begin with I tried not to mention Charlotte, for fear of encouraging the fantasy. But recently, since she (both of them) are a bit older and wiser, I decided to ask for a bit of information about her. She lives with her mummy and daddy - she has different parents - a little way away and is older than my daughter. She helps out when my daughter is feeling lonely or out-siblinged, which really amounts to the same thing.

I think I suggested that she wasn’t a real sister at some point. “No, I know she’s not real” my daughter replied and cuddled closer on the sofa.

When it is time for bed, I ask her to take her clothes off herself and then put on her pyjamas. “Hmmph. I can’t do everything daddy”, she says.

That’s true. Sometimes you need a little help from someone nearby, and sometimes, perhaps, you need a little bit more than that.

“Will you do some computering daddy, before you go downstairs?”, she says, when it’s time to go to sleep. “I want you to look after me.”

I kiss her cheek and she whirls around onto her side, flinging an arm casually around my neck.

I go next door, amused that the mouse-clicking made by writing about her, is a comfort to her. One day when she is too old for mouse-clicking, the words might be a comfort to her too, I hope.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Princess and the Palace

One sunny afternoon after nursery I take my daughter to Kensington Palace. We drive past it every day in the car and I have seen the bouquets through the trees. A decade ago I went to have a look at the reef of flowers circling the palace and took a swim in the sadness. Before marriage, before children. I could have stayed forever surrounded by such melancholy.

I had asked my daughter if she wanted to see the Princess’s Palace. She shot back her “yes” so fast that it made me smile. What could interest her more than a trip to a princess’s palace? “Which princess?” she asked. “The princess who died ten years ago. I replied. “What happened?” “She died in a car crash.” I said. “I think it’s right to tell the truth about these things. You can’t go wrong telling the truth. It’s when you don’t that the trouble starts. I have no problem telling my daughter about death. There’s only one I couldn't tell her about. And that’s probably just because I can’t yet face the chronology of life myself.

The sun bears down on us as we park near to the park gate and walk in. It is a little like approaching a palace. All paths lead there. It looms as you walk among the trees. We stand looking at the pictures and the flowers for a while and are then drawn through the open gates.

“So the princess died and everyone put flowers on the railings so they could get happy again?” my daughter asks. “Yes” I say. I find she often puts things better than I can.

I cheat, taking her to the shop rather than paying the money to go on the tour. She is fascinated by the jewellery on offer, the pictures of the princess in her tiaras. We argue when I won’t buy her a princess doll. It’s a rule I have not to buy something at every place we go to.

I think she is a bit disappointed overall; expected something more. Certainly a toy. Once she has got over her sulk she asks “Did the princess have a fairy godmother?”

“I don’t think so” I say, “Not a fairy one anyway”.

She looks dispirited for a moment and then brightens and runs off into the shade of the trees.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Real Life

Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. They lived in a castle in a kingdom in a land far away. One day they decided to have a child and sure enough the queen soon had a little baby princess and everyone was very happy. And they called the princess Princess Pink

We are enjoying the last days of the holidays, without papers and television news updates, in the watery heat of the summer’s end. I look out from my favourite vantage point above the back garden. My wife is reading at the green metal table, while my daughter plays next to her in the paddling pool, sunlight flickering on its silvery surface. The hosepipe lies nearby. Earlier I had pointed out a rainbow in the fine spray, sliding into the flowerbed. “Look, there it is! Can you see it?” “In real life is there a rainbow?” my daughter asked. She is very keen to work out what is real and what is not nowadays. “Yes, in real life I said. “Oh yes! I see it!” she replied, beaming.

But soon the queen became ill and the king was sad and all the subjects were sad too. The finest physicians in the land tried to find a cure but they couldn’t. So the king took care of Princess Pink. And in return she slept in a little basket next to him every night and kept the sadness away.

I’m not near enough to smell the sun lotion, but I can sense it. The splashing and the singing and the giggling I can hear. I look at her playing and I can see she’s happy, or at least not unhappy. But I worry she’ll not be as happy later, on her own. It doesn’t matter now, of course. To everyone else it might seem that a brother or sister could come along. Many of her friends have them already. But it is unlikely to happen. I know that. And I hope she won’t mind. I’ll explain one day and I know she’ll understand. As for me, later on in the day she makes me happier than she could ever know. Just by lying there asleep against me, story books scattered on the floor, her light breathing matching mine.

In the end, a clever wizard came to the kingdom and he found the cure for the queen. She returned to live with the king and Princess Pink in their castle and got better over the years until she was the same old happy queen. But the king never forgot what Princess Pink did for him and he always tried to keep the sadness away for her too.

Monday, 13 August 2007

HappySad

It’s bedtime, in fact past bedtime, as usual, and my daughter lies in her little bed beneath her little duvet with little fairies embroidered on it. I have kissed her good night and moved next door to the room with the computer. There is a bit of rustling and then I hear her voice, clear and steady.

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!

Slowly, then quickly …

If you’re happy and you know it, andyoureallywanttoshowit,ifyou’rehappyandyouknowitclapyourhands!

Verse after verse of clapping hands, stamping feet, being happy.

Does it mean she’s happy? I think so. I’d like to think so. Does she know what happiness is? Do any of us? Is feeling loved happiness? Knowing someone else you love feels loved? I know that I am happy, listening to her at that moment.

Did the sad boy in the photo sing contentedly to himself as he fell asleep at night? I hope he did, at one time. I asked my mother who he was and she said she thought he was her half-brother. You can imagine he might have been a little sad, if you know the story. You can imagine she might have been sad if you know the story. Her father, one moment here, the next on a different continent. Then with a different family. There was a lot of sadness around, in those days. You were lucky if you weren’t gripped by it. You took happiness where you could find it; in small things, in minor, everyday, joys.

The singing has tailed off into thumb-sucking. A couple of moments later I peer through the doorway and her thumb has slipped from her lips. Her head is in profile, as if in silent communication with the gaggle of soft toys. The pillow is splashed by her milky-coffee curls. She looks content, serene; asleep in her little, happy, world.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Family Gold

A few years ago my great aunt gave me a little black and white photograph, in a mottled brass frame. It shows a boy in dungarees, about three or four years old, standing with his hands to his face, looking contemplative and a little sad and lonely. Yes, that’s me, I thought when she handed it over. I wondered where and when it was taken and treasured this little link to my past. A few years later my mother told me that it wasn’t in fact me, but a relation. “I didn’t want to tell you before” she said, and seeing that I looked downcast “I thought you might be a little upset”. That’s how secrets start, I thought. But in fact it’s a bit of a relief. There’s something about the child all alone with that worried look. I wonder what happened to him and if he still has that expression.

My great aunt was Polish and lived in a creaky house in Fulham, long after her husband, an artist who had survived time in a gulag, had died. I used to stay there from time to time when I was between flats. In a little self-contained apartment downstairs that had a 1960s kitchen with formica cabinets, a fridge that smelled of fridge and a cooker with a grill pan that slotted in at the top. I would go upstairs to eat with her and sit in her own little kitchen while she told me about her past and how much I looked like her brother. She was in her seventies then but she seemed much younger, and we chatted like friends. She would offer me gin and tonic in a grimy glass and cheese straws from a big square tin that were probably as old as their container. I would wander around the studio containing all my great uncle’s paintings, creaking across the shiny parquet floor and leaning down to look at the sun-faded spines of his old books, layered on shelves.

Eventually she became ill and moved somewhere she could be looked after. The house was sold and is probably a banker’s palace now, with slate bathrooms and recessed lighting. Although she died before my daughter was born, shortly before her death she gave me the gold coin she had brought with her when she first came to this country as a refugee. It was her emergency money, and she had carried it deep in her clothing. She told me it was for my daughter. Wrapped in a little cloth it still shines warmly, the eagle gazing out imperiously and proudly.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Sammy Shrimp

It’s an old-fashioned holiday: cloudless skies, constant, lazy, heat, while at home the skies are crumbling into huge slabs of rain.

We are sitting next to an umbrella by the pool, my daughter and I. My wife is inside the villa, sleeping perhaps, or doing something unremarkable. It’s easy when you’re away for little things to expand to fill great chunks of holiday time. It is all perfect, apart from the road the other side of the hedge, but I don’t mind that as much as my wife or our friends do. We have just emerged from the shiny coolness of the water and I lie steaming in the sun with my head and shoulders propped up, while my daughter sits in the shade with her knees drawn to her chin, wrapped in a towel. I put my hand absent-mindedly on her head and feel the warmth below my palm. She smiles and puts her hand on mine. Just her and me under the umbrella. Stillness around us. The breeze and the rustle of palm leaves. I am in my own world of heat and memories and she is in her own. But our worlds overlap. Is that what makes for a happy childhood I wonder? Not too much togetherness, not too much separation.

In the evening we go to dinner in the old town. We find a restaurant on the beach, where the children can run on the sand while we sample a range of wines of different hues. The giant prawns are the hit of the night. Not least with my daughter who wraps a discarded head in a napkin and christens it Sammy Shrimp. Sammy accompanies her everywhere for the rest of the evening. She looks at him adoringly. And I think he feels the same about her too.

On the way home in the taxi I am vaguely wondering what the pungent smell is and realise it is Sammy. I remove him from my sleeping daughter’s grasp and when we arrive home I toss him in the bin.

The next morning my daughter wakes up and asks simultaneously “Where’s Sammy Shrimp?”
“Er, he’s gone to back to see all his other shrimp friends” I say.
She looks crestfallen.
“But I love him.” She says, lips quivering and tears squeezing their way out.
We hug her and reassure her, as if a beloved pet has had to be put down.
She soon recovers but I fervently hope she doesn’t decide to look inside the rubbish bin.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Theatre Land

We go to a friend’s for dinner on Friday night. The next day, early, it’s my daughter’s end of term performance. My wife and I spend so long reminding each other not to drink too much that we end up drinking all night. Consequently we are both slightly dazed on Saturday morning. In the car on the way there my daughter suddenly breaks into our conversation to say “I’m a bit nervous”. We both hesitate. We tell her she’ll be fine. We tell her not to be nervous. We tell her everybody gets nervous. As ever we tell her a lot of stuff. She considers our advice for a few seconds and it seems to do the trick.

At the theatre, cars are double and treble parked and everyone is smarter than me. I’ve selected a t-shirt with a surfing motif and my usual jeans and trainers. While my daughter shakes the head’s hand enthusiastically I cringe a little and try to move through the door as rapidly as possible. I hate school. Even someone else’s. I recently remembered how I used to tick the days off, literally, when I was young. I still have the school diaries with neat little biro marks. When I left school I started to tick less, but then I started working and the ticking started again in earnest, accompanied by new little sums, indicating how much time I needed to continue before I could stop. As I worked longer the sums got more complex, until seventeen years after starting work and thirty five years after starting school I finally started out on my own.

We say hello to a few people. It makes me feel ill seeing all these weektime people at the weekend in chinos and jackets. I meet the Japanese expat’s husband, who shakes my hand formally. He seems to be wearing a suit made entirely from chino. To fit in, I suppose. I look at his wife smiling uncertainly and wish I was somewhere else. I remember a story she told me at the farm park. She said she wasn’t looking forward to going back to Tokyo in a year’s time. I asked her why. “Because here my husband comes home from work at 10pm.” Perhaps she doesn’t like her husband, I thought. Seeing my confusion she added “In Japan he sleeps in the office. On a couch. He doesn’t come home during the week.” I look at her husband and wonder whether I dislike him or feel sorry for him.

The curtain goes up. We are sitting way up near the back, where I like it. But I realize now that we can’t see my daughter. And she can’t see us either. The little row of children, of whom my daughter is one, scan the audience desperately trying to locate their parents. We wave but we’re too far away. The spotlight is on them. For a moment I think my daughter is going to struggle to her feet and burst into tears. And perhaps stick her finger up her nostril for good measure too. But she doesn’t. She calmly takes the hand of the girl next to her, mutters something soothing to her and they all clamber to their feet like 50 stone men, the way the young do. There is a pause for the music to start, then they execute a word perfect rendition of their song. Flashes burst around us. A thousand different versions play on LCD screens. I was prepared to be proud of a nose-picker, but what I’ve just seen makes me even more proud.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Play Acting

My daughter has been rehearsing at home for the end of term play.

“Together we will garden! Together we will garden!” she sings, whirling her arms around introductorily.
“Dig the soyul! Dig the soyul!” she continues, swooping expansively with an imaginary spade.
“All day long…” She collapses to the floor, dragging the back of her hand across her brow.

I clap supportively, but am interrupted by more verses about stones and weeds.

Based on her last effort, at Christmas, I don’t hold out much hope for the actual performance. She spent the majority of the Nativity with her finger up her nose, sniffling unhappily while her classmates belted out the festive numbers.

Coming back from nursery I lean across to strap her into her seat. She grabs the seatbelt and says “No, I’ll do it.” She says this a lot nowadays. She marches into the loo and closes the door, behind her. “I can do it!”. She wants to prepare her own meals. “No daddy, I’ll do it.” What happened to the dribbling incompetent who needed everything to be done for her? That’s over already. That's me, soon.

From the back of the car my daughter tells me about the dress rehearsal at school. “There are curtains, but you can’t open them with your hands.” “Mmm, difficult” I say, distracted by suicidal tourists on Gloucester Road. It’s like Beachy Head around there. They step off the kerb and rely on me to save them. I think they must have notes in their pockets explaining to their families why they came to a busy street in central London to end it all.

“Yes it’s tricky daddy.”
“I’m sure."
"Daddy."
"Yes?"
“XXXX hurts my feelings
“What” I ask, peering into the rear view mirror.
“She says I’m naughty, but I’m not naughty”
I came across this girl at the farm park. She is naughty. Whatever she is told to do she does the opposite.
“No, you’re a good girl.”
“But she’s still my friend. The children at school are all my friends. All the children in the world are my friends. Even when they’re naughty. Even XXXX is my friend.”
I feel like stopping the car, unstrapping my daughter and hugging her tightly there on the pavement, among the pigeons and the dog poo and the suicidal tourists. Instead I mutter reassuringly and pull away from the lights.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Mere Complexities

…All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
W B Yeats

In the playground at the farm park my daughter effortfully drags herself across the rope bridge and then jumps down and turns back towards the line of ashen-faced children behind her. Standing next to them she shouts “Come on, you can do it!” like an army sergeant at an assault course. “Well done” she says as they make their way down one by one, while I fish off those too scared to move. There are older children than her pushing and fighting and plunging in front of others, and she’s stepping back and encouraging people. It makes me want to weep for myself and my craven self-indulgence and sell all my possessions and become a Buddhist. Well, maybe weep anyway.

It comes from my wife, this stubborn streak of niceness. What I saw twenty years ago in my wife I am now seeing all over again in my daughter. I had forgotten about it one way or another, and it’s a treat to be reminded. It’s not the only thing of course. I see my wife in a turn of the foot here, a wrinkle of the eyebrow there. I see my father too. When my daughter shrugs it is as if there’s a thumbprint on her genetic code that means like a stuck CD she replicates his shoulders to ears flinch time after time. On other occasions I turn round and find myself caught in my sister’s or mother’s gaze. I treasure all these little parts of other people and I want to find more. My daughter sometimes catches me looking at her and grins, lopsidedly, like me.

My father had lung problems and heart problems by the end. His body just gave out. If he had been a car you wouldn’t have wanted to open up the bonnet. You’d have just carried on sticking in the leaded and hoping. He knew, but he didn’t want the doctors to confirm it. I imagined them telling him to cut out the drinking and pack in the smoking. They might as well have told him to go easy on the breathing. He couldn’t really see the point of life a lot of the time. Sometimes I can understand that, sometimes though I think he didn’t search the most obvious places. I look at my daughter and see the glimpses of others that make time less lost.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Farmed Out

I have been dreading it since my daughter’s nursery teacher casually invited me on the outing to the farm park. “We don’t get many men” she told me. I could believe that, judging by the crisp-suited fathers I see prodding their children through classroom doors then sprinting in relief for the tube. “Yes that’ll be fine” I said, airily waving at an imaginary diary, every page of which stretched blank into the future.

So I rise ludicrously early and take my daughter and her packed lunch to nursery. In the rush-hour bus I am squeezed speechless, as we hurtle through the streets like an out-of-control carousel. Like everywhere else in London it is full of men in suits, mums, pushchairs, children in uniforms, builders, people with bags.

I drift down into the tube station with my daughter, ancient urges suddenly propelling me towards the Metro dispenser; a strange parody of the two years ago me. There’s pushing and rushing all around us. Everyone seems desperate in some way. To get to somewhere or from somewhere. Or away from something. The tube workers bristle with the tension of rush-hour problems.

At nursery there is an assortment of mothers perfectly prepared for a shopping trip to the West End, in heels, sunglasses, casual, but unmistakably designer, clothes. I say hello in my pretend relaxed way. I’m ok at this stuff after two years. The two years ago me would have shrieked inwardly, and maybe outwardly, and felt like running away. My daughter is a great help in this. She comes and chats to me when I am running short of amiable claptrap. It helps tremendously.

When it is time to board the coach I say hello to the male driver. Engrossed in his copy of the Sun, he doesn’t pick up on my cry for help and carries on fiddling with his sunglasses. I realize I’m on my own. I end up sitting next to a French boy who looks at me as only a Frenchman can, when he discovers I am neither French nor his mother. I want to scream at him “LOOK AT ME! I AM SUFFERING FOR ALL MEN! I. AM. YOU!” Instead I busy myself looking at roads and waving at my daughter when she gets bored with her neighbour.

At the farm park the mums totter around, desperately looking for somewhere to spend their money. A £3.99 fluffy cat in the farm gift shop proves popular. It allows them at least to get out their purses and take off their sunglasses. Outside they stand around in groups, chatting like they’re in a bar, only breaking off their conversations to catch a falling body. They look at me with distaste. One of them is complaining loudly that she can’t get coffee served to her at the goat enclosure. I chat to the more eccentric mums. The Japanese expat, the arty mum picking her way through the sheep turds in her designer wedges. This keeps me going between frantic shuttling from toilet to playground. Toilet to picnic area. Toilet to sheep pens.

Frankly, it’s six hours of hell. But then at last we’re back on the coach heading home. I’ve been to the toilet countless times, I have sheep turds smeared all over my trousers. The only thing I have eaten all day is a quarter of my daughter’s ham sandwich and I have two four year olds kicking me in the small of my back through the seat.

My daughter is asleep by this time. But suddenly one of the designer women talks to me! I lean forward to listen. “Oh dear” she says, gesturing at the figure dozing next to me. I raise my eyebrows. “She isn’t going to sleep later. Her mother won’t be happy.” I smile and look out of the window, seeing nothing. Everything is a blur. I think for a moment I am going to cry.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Friday's Child

My daughter is downstairs in the bath. I can hear her giggling as my wife plays with her. The laughter floats up like birdsong. Bang, thump, giggle. Now she’s out of the bath and she’s talking, although I can’t quite hear what she’s saying.

My wife got home late from work and was getting ready to give her a bath, when she said “I want daddy to give me a bath, I love him more than you”. I felt uncomfortable; my wife a little heartbroken. This all started a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure if it means the balance has shifted too far, or if it’s a natural reaction to the at-home parent. But it is a difficult problem to solve. How can you advise who to love?

It all goes silent. Suddenly the day of swimming, nursery, TV, shopping, collapses in on top of her and she is a crumpled heap on the floor with her thumb in her mouth and a towel round her, wanting to be cradled and cooed to, like a baby. I can imagine my wife holding her and kissing her damp forehead through the comma curls.

Now they’re next door in her bedroom. There’s laughing again and my wife is joking with her and my daughter says “You’re pulling my leg”, which is a useful phrase to know in our house. My wife tries to persuade her to go downstairs and brush her teeth. More giggling. She gives up and tickles her instead.

Tickle.
Giggle.
“Again!”

Tickle.
Giggle.
“Again!”

Eventually they go back down to the bathroom and she brushes her teeth. Then it’s my turn to read stories. She sniffles a little. Earlier she said to me, sniffling, “Daddy, one of my noses (sic) can’t sniff. Look!” I peered forward thinking she was going to sniff in, but instead she blew out through her nose, covering my face in a fine spray of snot.

Now she is in bed, eyes closed, circled by soft toys like a portrait in oil. She usually asks for more milk at this point, but since she is usually asleep by the time I come back, I no longer come back. Tonight she says. “You don’t normally bring the milk, do you daddy?” I grin guiltily and wonder when she started noticing.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

In the Night Garden

In the Night Garden is my latest fascination. Igglepiggle? Ninky Nonk? Makka Pakka? It’s disturbingly close to madness. But as soon as the music starts I am entranced. I think I like it even more than my daughter does and glance anxiously at my watch when it gets to six o’clock. That recurring, hypnotic tune. The haunting counterpoint of musical boxes, lullabies and nursery rhymes. The other-worldliness. I have absolutely no idea what is going on and I do drift away in the middle, but I fear missing the magical end-titles. I want to go to bed then myself and fly away into a childhood dreamland. Its makers say it is a "magical picture book place that exists between waking and sleeping". It’s that alright. I don’t think there’s anything that more successfully conveys what it is to be a child.

My daughter waves her hands, conducting the opening theme and we have conversations like:

“Look, Makka Pakka!”

“No, it’s Igglepiggle!”

“That’s the Pinky Ponk!”

“It’s the Ninky Nonk!”

“No it’s the Pinky Ponk.!”

“Shhhhhhh!”

“I like this bit.”

“No, daddy, this is my favourite programme. If you want to watch something, you have to watch a grown up programme.”

“Can’t it can be both our favourites?”

“No daddy. Oh! It’s finishing already. It’s so short!”

My daughter is slap-bang in the middle pages of the magical picture book. She is still open and trusting and lacking in artifice. She assumes everyone’s motivation is pure. I was telling her about how they put the road back after roadworks. “You mean so everyone can go on the pavement again and have a nice walk?” she replied. Everything works out for the best in her world.

She whispers confidentially to me about absolutely nothing. “Daddy I love Coco Pops Mega Munchers”. Other times she tickles my ear with an indecipherable “Whissoowissoowiss….”

She says “Oh God!” and then puts her hand to her mouth in shocked yet smiling embarrassment.

She breaks her food in half unasked and gives me a piece for myself.

It’s a lovely world and if alarming strangeness like In the Night Garden can help me enter it for a few minutes, then I am grateful.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Secrets and Lies

Two days before Father’s Day, my daughter handed me the card she had made for me at nursery.



“Shhh! It’s a secret.” She said, putting her finger to her lips. “I can’t tell anyone about it.”

“Oh…”

“And I can’t tell you about it.”

“Really…”

“And you can’t tell anyone about it. Not even yourself.”

What is a lie if not the big brother of the secret? My daughter is just as poor at both. I ask her if she has eaten all her fruit at nursery. “Er, no daddy.” She says.

“What did you do with it?”

“I threw it in the bin” she admits, a little shamefaced.

I grin and tousle her hair, feeling the lack of a fib is far more important than the actual deed.

I can see the temptation to lie emerging though. Three and a half years without one is a long time. More than I’ve managed. This morning when I saw the buttery toast my wife had made for her sitting on the plate-with-piggies-on-it, I asked “Did you lick off all the jam?” She hesitated and then confirmed that was the case; but I could have sworn I’d seen her first blush. Or perhaps it was just the strawberry.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Sleepyheads

After school my daughter and I stop off at the park. We sit in the shadow of the Albert Memorial sucking Fabs and chatting. I learn an awful lot over lollipops. Today she tells me how PC Turtle came to visit her nursery.

“What did he do?” I asked, unsure if she was telling me about a book or something real.

“He talked to us about strangers.”

“What did he say?”

“You don’t talk to them.”

“Very good. Anything else?”

“If you tell somebody, they’ll run away.”

At first I wonder if this is all a bit too much at three and a half. But then I realise we’ve already had the same conversation. I don’t really think she understands what a stranger is though, if she did she wouldn’t speak to anyone at all.

On the way back home she falls asleep, with her legs daintily crossed and her hand under her chin. We gently squeak to a halt (the silent Prius parking means the manoeuvre is all clanking and swishing). I carefully lift her out of her seat. Perhaps a little too carefully. After I’ve gone a few steps she raises her head suddenly and sings loudly

“I like to move it, move it….”

“What?” I ask, open-mouthed.

“It’s from Madagascar ,daddy.”

We bought the DVD a few months ago and haven’t watched it since then. Don’t ask me why or how it came into her mind at that moment.

“IS it?” I laugh. She laughs. We both laugh.

After lunch it’s my turn. I close my eyes, sitting on the sofa, while children’s programmes play. Music threads its way through my consciousness as I drift in and out of sleep. Nothing I can quite put my finger on, but flashes of youth, summer, the days before marriage and children.

Daylight crashes back in, accompanied by a hard jab in my leg

“Wake up daddy.”

“What?” I yawn.

“I don’t want you to be asleep.”

“Why?”

“We need to watch together.”

I watch, as an insane-looking presenter fashions a snowflake out of talcum powder and a doily.

“Now, concentrate daddy” advises my daughter.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Bunny Redux

We’re on our way to Bunny World for the start of the summer season. Gilbert O’Sullivan is playing in the car, just like he always does. He’s reliable like that.

It's over now
you've had your fun


It seems it’s not just me. Or maybe I’ve been listening to him too much (some would say any O’Sullivan is too much). Is it the move? Is it age? Will I be like this forever now? Or just while my daughter is growing up? Is this what being a parent is?

..that much easier to be gone

One way to mask all this is to sit in an office doing something you don’t care about but which occupies most of your time. Not me, I’m off to Bunny World.

We arrive, my daughter drooping in her seat like a thirsty flower. I wake her up and she totters towards the turnstile with her thumb in her mouth and her hand in mine. We buy our tickets and bag of feed (one bag only allowed today, as the animals ‘might not be hungry’). We move through to the play area outside and the mums everywhere. I had forgotten the mums everywhere. They cluster. They chat. They laugh. I like mums as much as the next stay at home dad. But it’s always a shock. They watch me, I think. Well you would. A hairy guy with a girl in a bunny mask. It’s amazing to think I used to sit in an office pretending to be interested in computer screens and telephones. While the mums were all at Bunny World. I had no idea.

A few weeks ago at the Cotswold Farm Park there was a maze with questions and answers, one of which sent you down a dead end, the other onto the next question. I got half of them wrong, sending us careering down cul-de-sacs and having to squeeze back past annoyed parents and children. I feel like that nowadays. I’m a little lost. But it’s ok. It’s better than the charts and meetings and suits and all the stuff I could never work out the meaning of. I know now. There isn’t one.

My daughter runs to the swings, feet flapping and arms whirring. “Chase me daddy, chase me…”

Monday, 11 June 2007

Normal Service

It’s Monday and my daughter is in a bad mood. My wife was up early and did the pink-cup-with-cats-on-it and the chocolate-cereal-in-a-bowl. I arrive downstairs and say hello and then fetch the pink-brush-with-fairies-on-it. I brush my daughter’s hair as gently as I can.

“OWWWW-EERRR!!!”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t you think her white dress looks lovely?” says my wife from the other side of the room.

“Yes”, I say “Very pretty”.

“No, don’t talk about me” says my daughter grumpily, ramming her finger up her nose.

“Why not?” asks my wife, smiling gently.

“Now you’re laughing at me” she says.

My wife is about to say something. I say “No we’re not”, and stroke my daughter's hair, since I’m sitting closer.

We both watch her silently. It reminds me of the other times she has shown signs of growing up; adult traits appearing suddenly like shoots. I think you have to nurture these. It is easy to miss them as life rumbles past. If you trample on them each re-growth is more difficult. One moment you’re changing a nappy, the next they’re buying you a drink. It all happens more quickly than you’re prepared for.

I’m in a bad mood too, I realize, as I make my way through London traffic like a wave through mud. Pedestrians try to throw themselves under my wheels, roads are mysteriously closed off, inside other vehicles faces are clenched and set. I lose my temper with a minicab which veers into my lane and a schoolboy who is walking along the middle of the road, hooting grumpily and at length. In the end I drop my daughter off at nursery and my wife at the tube station.

Later I am at home, typing and listening to the radio. The Daily Service is on. It’s somehow become my favourite programme. I don’t really listen much to the spoken parts, I have to admit; but the music speaks calmly and poignantly. I may choose to ignore the message but I can’t resist the beauty of the telling.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Yesterday

The day is as still and limpid as a summer holiday; the skyline framed in azure like a painting. Time has slowed down, as it does in the sun, but for us time is running out fast. I set out for Portobello Road in the sunshine, thinking about how short our time here might be. I walk the familiar stretch of pavement, and emerge from shade into sunlight, next to the postbox with flaking paint, its royal crest ringed by black marker-pen tag. Beside my shadow, plant shapes tint the paving stones. I feel the heat on my skin.

A little further on, among tall trees, stands the imposing church, an abandoned street-cleaner’s cart outside. Branches sway in the breeze, mocking its immobility. The bells chime midday as an elderly couple pass by, pushing a shopping-cart effortfully. I move on, past the window of Mario’s shoe repair shop, through which he leers, like a murderous chimney-sweep. Opposite, a couple sit at a table outside the bar, drinking from pint glasses; smiling and talking, just out of earshot. I want to hear what they are saying, to get a shot of youth and certainty. If only for a few strides. On the corner of Portobello Road a black man with greying curls is playing a single steel drum with a removed yet faintly good-natured look. Yesterday… the metal resonates across the street.

Around the corner a man is sitting on a fold-up chair on the pavement in the shadow of a coffee shop, face turned towards the sky. People look as if they’re not quite prepared for the heat and are in hats, coats, t-shirts. Another man sits with his trousers hitched up, facing the road in an aggressive pose. The warmth has quietened the stall-holders, with only the fruit and veg man shouting and cursing as usual. He’s even angrier in the heat.

I’m not half the man I used to be… the drummer drums.

The market twists up and away. I used to push my daughter down this road from her first nursery. I would point out the big brown teapot hanging above the antiques shop. My daughter would marvel. I would laugh. I had already forgotten that. Soon we will forget other things about our lives here.

Oh, I believe in yesterday... beats the metal drum behind me.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Job Satisfaction

I am contacted (deluged with emails) by a firm with an overly self-conscious website and a name involving the letter e that makes it sound like a crack-den run by internet entrepreneurs. They want to come round and assist in the great pretence that we live in a grand residence with modern fittings and a back yard that is in fact an urban garden. “All our photos are retouched” they proudly boast. Their powers of deception even extend to the elements. “We can 'improve' the weather considerably” they gush. “WE. ARE. ALL-POWERFUL!” I expect Beelzebub to turn up on our doorstep but instead it is a young Spanish woman, who engagingly makes fun of our run-down surroundings. I like people like her. She cares enough to do a good job but is relaxed enough not to take it seriously. Is that an appropriate comment for the internet crack-heads’ ‘client satisfaction survey’ I wonder.

Apart from the photographer it is otherwise a return to corporate life. Agents call me, I call back. I end up listening to a recorded agent telling me how successful and professional the firm is; skills which obviously don’t extend to anyone answering their own telephone. “Hello. Sorryshe’sonthephone. CanItakeamessage?” I imagine a room full of manic youngsters in suits, waving their arms around, telephones clamped to both ears. That’s probably what they want me to think. They’re probably standing round the water-cooler talking about their weekends.

While the photographer is fish-eyeing and digitally-enhancing, the first viewing arrives. They trip over the photographer’s bag and look askance at the enormous pile of crap placed out of view of her camera. Making their excuses they sprint out as soon as is possible. It’s like running a small business, selling a house nowadays. I haven’t got round to filling in my money-laundering form yet. Later another agent comes round to “familarise” herself with something. Me? The house? The crap? I hadn’t been able to hear on the phone against the baying in the background. She asks me if I’m renting the house. “No, I’m just hairy” I reply. I tell her my daughter is having a nap upstairs and she backs away, visibly shocked. I can see in her eyes that she is already considering this job a challenge too far.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Moving

The doorbell rings somewhere above me, on the first floor (it’s a design fault). Outside, between the pub and the wheelie-bin stands a smartly-dressed estate agent, with the look of someone who has come to claim a prize, or is here to sell me something I don’t yet realize I don’t want.

I take him around the house, or rather up and down the house. It’s a sunny day and it looks nice; everything looks nice on a day like today. We tramp up the staircase, exchanging pleasantries, inasmuch as a smartly-dressed businessman and a hairy childcarer can trade their thoughts. We soon find ourselves standing in uncomfortable proximity at the top of the house.

“This is the room with the damp” I say, not adding that it was the room in which I rocked my daughter to sleep through her first dark winter. We move downstairs. “There’s a crack in this wall some people might notice” I point out, not mentioning the Boxing Day we once spent here giggling through games of charades with family and friends, during our only ever London Christmas.

I end up apologetically pointing out deficiencies all around the house. It’s lucky he’s not here on a viewing. At the end of our small journey together he sits me down. Suddenly he looks as if he’s going to give me bad news about a relative. I grip the table.

Instead he gives me a valuation which seems faintly ridiculous and I release my hold on the corner. I had been wavering over selling but this helps with the decision. Let someone younger than us enjoy the house and its charms. I’m sure they will come to love the damp patches, peeling wallpaper, cracking paint and dirty carpets as much as we do. More likely they will rip out our life and insert a shiny new one of their own.

He leaves me with all sorts of promises and an information pack. I decide to sit my daughter down in turn and talk her through moving. She sits silently for a moment then says quietly “I don’t want to leave my toys…” I tell her we can take them with us. She looks unconvinced. “But how do we carry them?” I tell her about the big lorry. “But we can’t take the toaster or the clock can we?” I tell her we can. “But who’s going to water the plants?” They come with us too, I say. I explain that it’s only big things that are left behind. “But what about the stairs?” she asks. “How will we go up if we don’t take the stairs with us?”

That’s not the least of our problems, it turns out. We also won’t know the way to various people’s houses if we move somewhere else. We will have a new address to remember. There are other complications. I enjoy her growing appreciation of the concept and talking her through it all find myself more and more convinced about what we are doing. I feel almost as if we have moved to our new life already.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Morning Glory

“DaDDYYYYY!!” comes the cry. “What IS it?” I ask grumpily. It’s not early, but it is morning.

I continue trudging upstairs with the pink-cup-with-cats –on-it full of milk and turn left into the living-room.

“Daddy. Look!” exclaims my daughter, surprisingly brightly, considering there is vomit on the sofa, vomit on the floor and vomit all over her and her nightie. It looks like an ectoplasmic explosion.

“Oh poor you…” I stammer. I fall to my knees and open my arms, but then think better of it.

I go and fetch the kitchen roll. (Douglas Adams was wrong: the most useful item in the universe is a roll of recycled kitchen paper.) I wipe up the semi-digested grapes and pasta, pull her nightie over her head and then put her in the bath as I used to do when she was a milk regurgitator. After she is washed and dressed I finish up the cleaning process, using a fork to dig out all the lumps from the weave of the sofa, and plenty of wet cloth arm-work. It is somehow reassuring to return to the simple days of babycare.

Later my wife emails me: Thanks for cleaning everything up. You are a true stay at home dad!

That’s nice: recognition. That’ll keep me going for a while. I may be two years into the job, but somehow I feel that it’s only now I’m passing my probation

My daughter sits on the dry end of the sofa, watching Big Cook Little Cook with a look of mild disgust. She refuses my optimistic offer of breakfast, but sips the water I have given her.

She complains that she still has a tummy ache. I reach over and rub her stomach solicitously, gladly wiping away the hurt. She shifts a little. “Is the rubbing making it better?” I ask. She looks uncomfortable, and after a pause replies “No daddy”.

It used to be that the tummy rubbing made her feel better; now it seems mainly to be for my benefit.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Bank Holiday

My daughter is on her knees next to the sofa, fringe hanging over her book as she sings a little song to her soft penguin. Rain spears resolutely past the windows outside. Inside, my wife and I are bickering. Me because its half term, her because she’s back at work tomorrow. It’s the usual holiday problem. I am leaving the childcare to my wife a bit too much and she wants to spend the time together. My wife and daughter tend to gang up on me. It’s not their fault. They love being together. But there’s an exclusivity to it. “I want mummy” my daughter wails when mummy’s at work and she is tired or has barked a knee. “Mummyyy!!” is the call first thing in the morning. When I’m telling her off she wrinkles her face and puts an arm out towards mummy. “But she was sticking her fork into the table!” I say. “Oh well” my wife says. “It’s a bank holiday”.

Since it’s a bank holiday I drive hundreds of miles to Hay on Wye to meet one of my literary heroes, Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. If only he knew the risks I had taken to be there. It is a beautiful journey in the sunshine but in the rain the motorways are deathly skidpans – water lies everywhere and the car wobbles when it hits. I acquaplane crazily from lane to lane. My wipers don’t seem to have a high enough speed to cope.

At Hay everywhere is muddy and everyone walks around with the Guardian and Guardian festival bags. I’m in the Eggers queue, near the front, because I know how to loiter just before the authors arrive. What do I say? “It’s my favourite book!” No, it’s not my favourite after all. It’s one of my favourites, along with the Nabokovs and the DeLillos and the Faulkners and the Prousts. But “It’s one of my favourite books” sounds slightly begrudging. “I’m a writer too, and...” NO! It’s just journalism and a blog.

In the end I smile and say please and thank you and he looks up after signing the book with an absent-minded “Thank you” of his own, as his agent leans down and whispers in his ear, clandestinely. I trudge out of the tent into the wind and mud and buy a punnet of strawberries from a bedgraggled farmer in wellingtons, pleased to find someone who looks more miserable than me. Inside Dave Eggers is grinning at the next customer, warm and desired and with the prospect of a nice meal in the authors’ tent with attentive agents and publishers.

I walk to my car in the charity car park, veering sideways in the wind, Guardian bag flapping, wondering just where it all went so right for him.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Men Only

I’ve traced the dip back further, to the weekend.

My wife and daughter are away on a joint sleepover the other side of town and I’m in a West London pool bar. Smoke swirls in the air. The windows in the roof show that it is still light outside, but in here it is dark. Men stand around pool tables with cigarettes dangling from their teeth; a few women with big belts and small t-shirts bend over tables unsteadily, inexpertly prodding cues.

It’s a place I used to come to a lot ten years ago. I was pretty good at pool in those days. But more importantly I walked around like I was a regular and went to the gym and had a career with prospects and a life stretching away into the future. Now it’s a terrain as unfamiliar to me as Saturday mornings in the playground. I stand with friends, gripping a pool cue in one hand and a pint of Guinness in the other, trying to remember the rules of the game. Have I been here since my daughter was born? I’m not sure. Probably not. I’ve walked past a lot. Around me men pad purposefully and look like they have plans. It’s all so familiar, but so unfamiliar. Like looking through someone else’s glasses. I’m not experiencing what I expected to.

I vaguely suspected that I was somewhere past my peak. But I wasn’t as painfully aware that the rot had set in. I’m worried about bumping into the players at the neighbouring tables and skip away trailing apologies. “Don’t hit me, I’ve got a daughter!” Is it because I’m more aware of mortality nowadays? Of risk? The truth, I’m coming to realize, is that I’m just not used to men anymore. Men in the office, men in bars. Men shouting above the music and jostling and guffawing and pouring drinks down their throats. Childcare doesn’t have much of that to it. In fact it’s mostly the opposite. It’s helping and responding and standing back and watching. I think I’m only just beginning to understand the full implication of taking it on.

As it happens I play quite well, pulling off some shots I can’t remember being able to play in the first place. Then it's back to my place for poker and pizzas. I seem to be getting the hang of it.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Hitting a Dip

I’ve had a bit of a mid-week lull. It started with my last post. I started thinking about the working dads and suddenly I wanted to have it all. I wanted to be out there wearing a shirt and confidently swapping banter and actually opening my bank statements, for goodness sake. And that sent me spiraling morosely downwards.

Then yesterday, after I had finished my one day’s paid work a week (which finishes next week), I took my daughter to the local playground again in an attempt to de-programme her from CBeebies. She’d been watching for too long with the glazed air that you have when your boss is telling you about his new marketing strategy or you’ve just woken up at 3am in front of a quiz show with the remnants of a cheese toastie in your lap. The trouble is I have to finish off after she’s come home from nursery, so I sit upstairs in the grip of guilt and corporate news, as she sits downstairs crunching party rings and watching Lazytown (again) then SMarteenies then Bobinogs then Numberjacks etc…

Anyway we get to the park and it’s the usual 5.30 selection of mums dads and kids. Not the weekend variety; low key. A couple of blokes reading newspapers, a mum helping her toddler walk. Kids of different ages expertly swinging around the garish equipment and bouncing on the rubberized trampoline that is the ground in play areas nowadays. There are also two boys, bigger than the rest. About 10-ish probably. They’re booting a football around, but that happens, and even though it’s patently too small a space to do that in, people let it go. Then the ball gets booted in our direction and hits me as I am bouncing my daughter on the see-saw. The boy near to me looks worried and I say:

“Look it’s really not a good idea to kick the ball here.”
“Why?”
“There are small children around.”
“Where?”
I start pointing and then he grins in an immensely irritating way.
He’s 10-ish and he’s taking the piss out of me!
“We’re going anyway” he says smugly.
“Good.” I say.
“What?” he says menacingly.
Now he’s threatening me!
“Good” I say, more uncertainly, having never been menaced by a 10 year old before. Not since I was 10, anyway.
I win the staring battle, not unsurprisingly since I’m twice his height and he exits with his friend, muttering about “dissing” and mentioning brothers or dads. I have visions of relations sprinting into the playground armed with knives and guns.

And on top of that, it may or may not be coincidental but since my wife gave up smoking on Saturday (well done her) we have been arguing constantly. By text, by email and then when she gets home in person:

“Well I wish I’d never ...”
“Well I wish you hadn’t either.”
“Is that how you feel?”
“Is that how you feel?”
“Well if that’s how you feel …”
“Doesn’t it look like it?”
“Well I will, then.”
“Well do …”
“Do you want me to?”
“Do you?
“Right …”
Pause.
“What do you want for supper?”

I hope to recover my poise soon and post some emotive descriptions of countryside flowers.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Playground Games

On Saturday my wife was away for the morning so my daughter and I found ourselves on our own. It was a novel experience, since she usually takes my daughter shopping or goes for a coffee with her, like a lot of working dads who take over for a while.

Left to our own devices we watched TV, got dressed late and had bacon and egg muffins for brunch. Then we went to the playground. But I had forgotten about the Saturday morning dads. When men speak loudly to their children is it because they assume some deficiency on their part or is it because they want you to hear them? They commentate LOUDLY on what they are doing:

“Hey RUFUS! You’re going up the SLIDE! That’s IT, now you’re sliding DOWN! WHEEE!!!!!!!!”

“Yes Georgina. On the SEE-SAW! YES!! UP AND DOWN!!!”

Actually women do this as well sometimes. I remember activity groups when my daughter was a toddler. The mums would sit next to their child advising them on paper-sticking and playdough moulding in LOUD, CAPABLE VOICES. It was like they were speaking to my daughter too, and I think she was a little confused about getting advice on crinkly crepe when she had a handful of pink string. To be heard I would have had to talk at the same volume and we would have ended up bellowing across each other ridiculously. It’s a defensive reaction, of course. In the playgroups I was a surprising and somewhat threatening presence and I think they felt the need to emphasize their credentials.

It’s the same with the men in the playground. Men fresh from the office, still with a heightened sense of performance. They want everyone to see them doing good work. There was a whole bunch of them, charging around, chasing their screaming children and bellowing at the tops of their voices. I tiptoed around the edge, cowering and trying to avoid flying limbs. My daughter nipped to and fro in her usual unpredictable way, being hurdled by six foot men in shorts. Did I ever behave like that? Maybe, but it’s difficult to know now. I don’t really compete anymore, since there’s noone to compete with. I am just there.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Two of a kind

On holiday at the kitchen table over a hand of poker I am chatting with my brother-in-law. Old albums play on the i-pod, docked into speakers. Half empty wineglasses on the table in front of us contain red from the last available bottle in the house. Empty bottles cluster around the rubbish bin. Everyone else has gone to bed and someone shouts at us to turn the music down. We grin at each other, like much younger men. We used to talk a lot, in West London pubs mainly. Then work took the place of conversation. I went to work abroad; he started out in his career. I’ve mentioned the blog and he says, jokingly, that he’s ‘Never at home dad’. We laugh. But it is a more poignant comment than it seems on the surface. I imagine he’d like a lot more time at home and a lot less in the office. But he is good at doing both. I was never very good at doing both. A lot of men aren’t very good at doing both. They get caught up in work and lose touch with life at home. It’s a kind of addiction. They tell themselves that they need to do it for the money. But of course it becomes about standing and achievement and seniority and bonuses and image.

I see these men at the weekend, stiff and formal, thinking of other things. The evening routine. The morning commute. They push their pushchairs with the same grim expression. Heft their backpacks with narrow-eyed concentration. It’s not easy to separate different parts of your life. My wife comes home and after a few minutes is our daughter’s mummy, as if she hasn’t been in an office all day. When it was me, I found it difficult to turn into daddy. A drink after work with a colleague or friend was easier. Those dads have their weekend smiles, but I have today’s smiles and tomorrow’s as well.

I have a full house too. Grinning, I scoop my chips towards me.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Little Things

Ridiculous, isn’t it, how the little things occupy so much of your time. Some represent more than is apparent. Like the small globe in front of me, a gift from my daughter, containing purple and pink glitter and a picture of us in the misty chill of winter. But then there are the bills to be opened, emails to be sent, appointments to be arranged. Scouring pads to be bought. While around you people are getting sick, going missing, moving away, getting married, having babies.

I’m not quite sure where blogging belongs in all this. It brings with it problems of its own: template selection, etiquette, comments, quality of writing. And one of the biggest difficulties of all: keeping track of all the blogs. I’ve solved the problem by getting myself a ‘feed reader’. It took me a day to download (upload?) all the blogs onto it, but now it appears to work by sorcery. Every so often a little box pops up telling me that Wife in the North or Drunk Mummy have completed another small work of art.

Nevertheless it’s a little thing. Yesterday I was looking after my daughter and her friend, who were sitting on my head as I made my way through 100 of the world’s favourite nursery rhymes. Suddenly three fire engines lurched round the corner followed by an ambulance. Sirens whined, blue lights whirred, people arrived at windows clutching babies and looking on with fearful expressions. I opened the door and craned around the door jamb to see thick black smoke gushing out of the basement two houses along, across a small alleyway. Firemen in purple suits jumped dramatically from their vehicles, unfurling hoses and spinning taps. A couple of them ran down the steps into the basement and emerged a while later, panting, faces smeared with soot. It wasn’t like watching a fire on the news. It was real and urgent and frightening.

Although people with children were stopping to watch I didn’t want my daughter or her friend to look on so I closed the door. It seemed to be under control, but we carried on downstairs, just in case. Eventually I started cooking tea: browning chicken and boiling vegetables, listening to the girls chatting.

”Do you like pink or yellow?”
“Pink!”
“I like pink too!”
“Do you like pink fish, by any chance?”
“Actually I do.”
“I do too.”
“I’m going to be Sophie.”
“No,
I’m going to be Sophie.”
“No, you can be Amy.”
“Oh.”
“But in the next game you can be Sophie.”
“Oh, alright.”


I have all but forgotten about the activity outside. The doorbell rings. Seeing it is the friend’s father I open the door and exclaim brightly “Burnt the toast again!”
Suddenly I see the look of horror on his face. “I came round the corner and I thought…”

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Happy Endings

Waiting for coffee in the café at Fremington Quay I had a sharp sense of finality, of leaving behind, that reminded me of other occasions I couldn’t quite place. The windows were laced with steam, and an elderly man with uneven stubble in baggy trousers and a fishing jumper drilled holes in the wooden door, fixing something. Staff passed between the till and the kitchen. There was a calmness that I knew I would miss. As I watched the workman Mr Bojangles played quietly somewhere above:

I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes;
With silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants…


That’s the problem with holidays. You have to come back. Back to the grey and the rain. But city grey and rain is not the same as country grey and rain. When I listened to the cockerel crowing at the farm I was sure it sounded different in the rain. Or was it just me?

As he spoke right out
He talked of life, he talked of life,
He laugh-slapped his leg a step.


We arrive back in London, push open the grimy front door and pile all the bags in the kitchen. My wife sits on a chair looking unhappy to be back. Our daughter sits on her lap, thumb in mouth, gazing across the room. I sit down too. I feel completely certain that we are all thinking different things, but share a sadness that we will be going our separate ways in the week ahead: work, nursery, home.

Later when my daughter is brushing her teeth she realizes that she no longer needs the plastic step that has been accompanying her around the bathroom for the past few months. She is overjoyed. I am not convinced. I’m not sure I’m ready for all these endings.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Time To Go

It’s the last day of our holiday and it’s still raining. We visit Baggy Point, a rocky outcrop reaching into the roaring wind and surf. Fighting our way through the gale we flex our umbrellas against the whipping rain and come to a bench near the promontory. Surrounded by heather and gorse it looks onto the cliff edge, which is lined with grass and dotted with pink thrift. Beyond, the sea and sky are sandwiched together in different shades of grey. I look at the bench and see a small metal plaque with some lines engraved in it. Leaning close I can just make out the words:

Rest here beloved in your new life
As oft you did with me when in the old
The majesty and power of which you are now part
And I will come and ease my aching heart


Underneath this plaque is another, marking the death of the writer some ten years after his wife. I hope there was someone to comfort him in the years between. I hope he had children and that they visit this spot and sit on the bench in kinder weather, thinking about them both. That’s what I’d like to imagine, anyway.

We turn towards town and I brace myself against the gusting wind, gripping my daughter’s hand tightly.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Rain, Rain...

Ever since I mentioned that it was sunny in Saunton it has been raining. Blankets of rain. Vertical, horizontal and perpendicular rain. Rain that splashes up off the ground and meets rain coming the other way. But not wanting to be confined indoors to television, or table tennis or even the swimming pool, we have carried on as before. Locals have become used to our cagouled figures passing by, hoods tightened against the wet, determined to continue with our holiday schedule.

When we arrive at the bicycle hire shop, children in three coats each, adults wiping rain out of their eyes so that they can see the way ahead, it is so wet that the owner hasn’t even opened for business. We have to make an emergency call to him for equipment.

Kitted out, we cycle along the Tarka Trail through wheeling squalls and blustery showers. My daughter is behind me in a covered trailer, so is for the most part dry. Occasionally I shout backwards into the gale to find out whether she has succumbed to hypothermia yet. We lose some as we go along, but the core of the party reaches Instow, turns round and wearily cycles back on soggy saddles, clicking grimly through the gears, against the same blurred background. In the end the weather lifts a little and I open the front of the trailer so my daughter can see her surroundings. “Are you ok?” I shout over my shoulder as usual. “Yes daddy but I’m a bit wet” comes the reply. I’ve been cycling in the rain for an hour and a half, I think, and you complain about a little drizzle? “Never mind, we’ll be back in a minute” I shout.

We arrive back at the cycle shop and the owner comes out. “Oh dear” he says, looking at my daughter. “Oh dear” he repeats.

I look round. Everyone looks round. Not being a frequent bike rider these days I have forgotten about the spray thrown up by the back wheel, most of which has found its way onto her face. She looks like she has been on night manoeuvres. Peering out from under the mud she says accusingly “I told you I was a bit wet.”

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Stranded

More than the sweeping hills and clifftops, the coves and sandy beaches which stretch away endlessly, it is the boats that I have noticed since we have been here. In nearby Fremington Quay the track winds along next to an undulating pill, boats stranded in repose, a trickle of seawater carving its way through the sandbanks. Past a wreck lying on its side, rotten timbers jutting like ribs. Soon the trickle broadens and the sea comes into view, and a dredger, a long, rusty suction pipe resting along its length, ensign fluttering weakly in the breeze. Further along at Instow the smell of brine is stronger. Cranes circle the harbour and the masts of the brightly-coloured sailboats are gathered like cocktail sticks in sausages. Soft clinking blows in across the sand.

I feel a little like these beached boats, slightly ragged and waiting, lopsided, for the tide to come and lift them. Other people’s roles seem to be clearer than mine. Men are professional, or they are retired; not chasing round rooms with shark arms or preparing for the 3pm Family splash session.

It is a new world of etiquettes. What is the correct way to listen and respond to details of other people’s professional lives in this world? I am currently pitched at the level of an uncle who was in business himself many years ago. Au fait enough with the world of commerce to prompt a couple of interested questions. But I am quickly slipping towards the territory of a great aunt who responds with a “Well that’s all very nice deary. Would you like a cup of tea?” The old world is becoming hazier and hazier. And since noone understands what I am doing they don’t ask about me it. Which is a shame, since it is now that I would like a bit of interest. Still, I prefer this world – it is gentler and less populated and suits my rhthyms and cadences.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Devon Cream

It was £259 for the boiler. The boiler repair man turned up, nosed around a bit (mainly to make me feel better about the £259 I think) and then pressed a magic button on the underside of the unit. Everything immediately sprang into operation. It’s a great sound, the “wummpphhh!!” of gas re-igniting and the promise of effective radiators and hot water. Tempered by the cost of the resuscitation of course. I was left wishing I’d put more effort into solving the problem myself.

What stopped me spending the rest of the day sitting on the kitchen floor with my head in my hands was the knowledge that we were going to Devon for a few days around the bank holiday. It’s an annual jamboree with my wife’s parents and brother and his family.

The trip down was cold and grey until Somerset. Then suddenly there was warmth and teatime sunshine. As the clouds rolled away in clotted cream heaps, a plane dived high above the hills ahead of us like a shooting star. Finally we reached Devon and the winding gravelled road to the farm and neighbouring cottages.

Near our cottage is the computer room, where I sit at one of those all-in-one-seat-and-picnic-table constructions. Next to a playground containing no fewer than 4 trampolines (it’s a new playground trend). Outside the trees are rattling urgently in the wind, sounding like waves breaking onto a sandy coastline, or a band of zealous tambourine players. Sunlight filters through the leaves, creating a kaleidoscope. We knew it would be sunny, as my mother in law had confidently announced that morning. “If there is enough blue to make a sailor’s trousers, it will be a sunny day”. The row of trees means I can’t see the girls bouncing high and elegantly on the trampolines behind them. They are screaming so loudly I am almost tempted to go round there and see if they are alright.

My daughter is so happy with her beloved cousins and it is reciprocated. “I love you” she calls happily towards the younger one as she moves nearly out of earshot. ”I love yoouuu…” the answer comes floating back on a warm gust.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Room at the Top

Every day seems bluer and sunnier. I opened the window in my daughter’s bedroom this morning and my gaze was drawn to the sky, backlit blue and criss-crossed by a geometry of vapour threads. Below, the white stucco reflected sunlight like a Greek hilltop village.

This has been my daughter's room since she was born. Before that it was the least important room in the house: a spare bedroom for our occasional guests, containing a wrought-iron bed, a wooden chair and little else. In the months leading up to her birth I banged together flat-packed MDF into a cot, shelf and changing table and by the time our daughter came back with us it had become the most important room. I don’t spend much time in it anymore. In the early months I spent a lot of time there – time I can’t even recall now - sitting in the dark, rocking her gently and hoping desperately for sleep. Now the cot and changing table have given way to book shelves and a bed and her favourite pink toys. And my time is limited to a couple of stories at bedtime.

Since my sister gave birth a couple of weeks ago I have become an uncle as well as a father. Seeing her baby has made me think of those times. My daughter pulled some photos out the other day showing me with dark hair and beard, looking a lot more than three and a half years younger. Few hints yet of the grey to come. Our daughter grins when we point to her baby self and tell her that it’s her. I think she thinks we are joking. Or maybe just deluded. I can see what she means though, since it all seems so long ago. I’m absurdly nostalgic. I could sit for weeks looking at one photograph if left alone long enough. I feel nostalgic about people, places, even objects … and myself. I have great affection for my younger self. So innocent and unknowing. I’d like to have been able to put an avuncular arm around myself and say there wasn’t anything to worry about. I’d get through. The early years are very short. You’ll be alright. Just stick with it. It might even be useful advice for my daughter one day.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Boiling Over

Our hot water isn’t hot any more. It happened a couple of days ago but until the tank ran out we didn’t realise what was going on. Time then to reach for the well-thumbed directory of exorbitant London tradesmen. How much will it cost us this time? Somewhere between £200 and £300 if past experience is anything to go by. Just what type of person are these charges pitched at? The sort who don’t blink at spending half a million on a place to rest their heads between trips to the office I suppose. So I went to the gym to have a shower. While I was there I had a sauna too. So much more relaxing without the workout that should go before it. Gym membership is another ridiculous cost. Several hundred pounds a year to take my daughter swimming and have a shower when the boiler breaks. Mind you, compared to the cost of mending the boiler that’s quite good value.

Perhaps I should go on a DIY course. I should definitely be better at DIY with our cashflow situation as it is. I do what I can. I really do. But it's not just the DIY. There are other aspects of being a parent I just don’t seem to be able to get to grips with, no matter how much I might want to. Among these are:

Bag-packing.

It’s not so much that I forget to take my daughter's bag with us on trips and playdates, but that I don’t think of packing it in the first place.

Craft.

I was recently at a friend’s house admiring the intricate tiaras made of silver foil and little stick people she had fashioned from sparkly pipecleaners with her daughter. It’s just not me.

Baking.

I cook. But I don’t bake. Cupcakes are a mystery to me.

Shopping.

Spending half an hour choosing a fairy toothrush with my daughter like my wife does is beyond me. I just don’t have the patience. “How about this one? It’s pink.” is about my limit.

Mutual hairbrushing.

It seems to come so easily to mums. If my daughter wields the hairbrush in my direction I begin to feel a bit funny. “Great. Thanks. That’s enough!

Nursing.

I kiss it better, of course. But extended sympathy for minor ailments doesn’t come easily. If she’s really sick I do leap into action though.

Imaginary play.

A bit of it is good. “Look, this is a pretend ice cream. Yes. Strawberry, Mmm.” That’s fine for a while, but eventually I just have to go on to something more…real. Like a newspaper.

Haircare.

I’m a shampoo man. Conditioner I don’t understand. Also, I never seem to dry my daughter’s hair enough for my wife’s tastes.

Milk.

I’m forever forgetting to buy milk when only a thin meniscus remains in the two pint bottle. (And quite often I find I haven’t bought any food either. Luckily I’m quite good at creating dishes from the contents of the food cupboard.)

Clothes.

I tend to leave my daughter’s discarded clothes (bath, bedtime etc) where they are taken off, meaning to pick them up later. Strangely, whenever I return someone else has already removed them…

Saying “I love you”.

Isn’t it about showing not telling? No? Well, I’m working on it.