Here’s a story. It’s a bit sad. It’s called…
From the street, a sudden silence. I am at the back of the house, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, preparing an early dinner. I look up and stare at the door.
I hear nothing.
But there is always some noise in our road: cars passing, people talking as they walk past. The rumble of those council trucks taking a short cut to the depot.
Not now. For a few seconds there is silence. The kind of silence that makes you strain to hear the sounds it has replaced, a silence with things buried in it.
Then someone is shouting from the street.
The last time I took Jack to the supermarket it was a disaster. I had to grab him and walk out, leaving my shopping at the checkout. People stared at us as we went.
“Don’t cry, Daddy. You’ll be all right.”
I didn’t say anything, just held him tight to me as I walked to the car park. He breathed fast and light into my chest like a baby bird. His cheek was wet and slippery against mine.
I had been unloading the food onto the belt at the checkout when I noticed Jack had wandered off. I stopped and looked around. My veins filled with iced water. The air in the supermarket was too thin. Then I saw him. He ran towards me from the clothing section, holding something in each hand.
“Look Daddy,” he said. He held a pair of child’s red sandals. There was something hot and hard in my stomach.
“Look, Daddy. Sophie’s shoes.”
A sudden silence. But wasn’t there a noise just before it? I drop the knife and reach for a cloth to wipe my hands.
I walk across the kitchen. Everything outside the window is sharply defined, like in a dream or a painting. Leaves press against the glass, a rich, almost fluorescent green against the pitiless blue of the sky.
I walk quickly but it takes me an impossibly long time to cross the kitchen floor. Even today I can close my eyes and I feel as if I am still crossing it. Maybe I never reached the door. That would be good.
Jack was playing around the house. He could pass hours in fantasy games that only a three year old can understand. Today it was superheroes. He had tied a small blue towel around his shoulders to make a cape. He ran from room to room, pursuing imaginary villains.
He came into the kitchen and crawled under the table. I asked him what he was playing.
“I can’t talk to you. I’m Spiderman.”
A few minutes later I became aware that Jack had crept silently out from under the table. He squinted up at me.
“I’m Spiderman.” He brushed vaguely at the towel hanging down his back, to prove his point.
“I know. You told me.”
“And you’re Spiderman’s daddy.” Jack paused for a brief moment.
“Yes. And that means Mummy is Spiderman’s mummy. And Sophie is Spiderman’s sister.” He smiled up at me, pleased with the way he had successfully allocated everyone their proper role.
“That’s good,” I said.
“Spiderman’s sister isn’t as strong as Spiderman, is she?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“She’s not.” He squinted at me a moment longer and then nodded, satisfied that he had settled the matter. And with that he left the room, to ensure the rest of the house was free of evil villains.
Sometimes all five senses kick into a higher gear. You surprise yourself with the way you can sense things around you. Things that normally you couldn’t notice. My head is filled with a sound I can’t hear, like someone is blowing a dog whistle. Someone is screaming silently in an empty room. I know suddenly that the front door of the house is open, the door that leads out into the street.
How do I know this? I can’t see it. I haven’t heard it open. Maybe there is the faintest breeze moving through the house, bringing a breath of outside air. Or maybe a small change in the quality of sound reaching me from the street. (I can now hear two voices. Someone is shouting, although I can’t make out the words.)
I reach the kitchen door and walk through into the hall. I am not conscious of my feet on the carpet. I seem to float through the house.
Jack is in front of the door, leaning with his back against the wall. His shoulders are slumped, head bowed. He looks at me, his large brown eyes turned up from beneath his fringe. He looks sad, as if he has lost a favourite toy. And fearful, like he has broken something and he expects me to be angry.
Beyond Jack – I was right – the front door is open.
I cried when Sophie was born.
Fathers always seem to; that moment of birth bursts some membrane holding back months of anxiety and emotion. During the pregnancy it is our role to stay calm and practical. It’s the least we can do. After all, we aren’t the ones pumped full of surging hormones, are we? We aren’t prodded by doctors and scanned by bored radiographers. We don’t suffer the backache and blood pressure and piles. Nor do we have to cope with the constant residual fear that at the end of all this we will probably go through the worst pain we’ll ever experience.
So it falls to the expectant father to hold it together, to be practical and strong and silent, all the things our upbringing as boy and man taught us to do. Do extra chores around the house, get in plenty of frozen food for the days after the birth. Carry Kim’s overnight bag in from the car when we reach the hospital at two in the morning, Kim clutching my arm and bending over with the pain of another contraction.
You’ll be fine, love. Just stay calm. I’m here. Breathe like they showed us in those classes.
None of this means that fathers aren’t feeling emotion. Of course we are. How could we not? Take me. Kim and I waited so long for the baby. For years we had everything we could want. We had work and friends, and we loved them. But we needed only each other. Life stretched ahead, an endless golden road. The sky was always blue.
But, as years passed, it wasn’t enough. We never spoke of it, but we decided together that we wanted a child. I cleared out the spare room and decorated it. Kim threw her pills in the bin. But the spare room remained empty; months came and went with no pregnancy. We began the endless trek through doctors’ waiting rooms and hospitals. Our golden road became overgrown and dark.
When we got the news that Kim was pregnant at last I wanted to run into the street and shout it to the world. I wanted to wrap her in tissue paper and keep her safe for the next eight months. She would have everything she needed. No pain or worry would get near her.
And you can do it. You can keep up the strong and silent man routine for those months of pregnancy. I know, because I did, through those long months and into the long night of labour. In the hospital, I curled up and slept fitfully in a plastic chair beside Kim’s bed, as she floated away on a magic carpet of pethidin injections. I mopped her forehead with a damp flannel as she moaned under the contractions. I held her hand through the worst of the pain, even though her anguished grip threatened to break my fingers.
Just breathe like they showed us, love. You’re doing so well. Not long now.
It is hideous to see the woman you love in such pain. But what can you do? You just have to be strong for her. And so I was.
It all changes at the moment of birth. After the hours of struggle, suddenly, in a rush of blood and other fluids, another person is in the room. The baby is here.
The paediatrician takes the baby across the room, cleans it up and checks its vital signs. You hear him say ‘It’s a girl’ and something loosens inside you. Then he wraps the baby in a thin blanket and brings her to you. Suddenly you are a father and your daughter is in your arms.
When the doctor placed Sophie in my arms something cracked inside me like an eggshell, and I was flooded with emotion. I put my little finger close to her hand and she gripped it with a set of perfect tiny pink fingers, like a set of damp cotton buds. My eyes filled instantly with tears and I couldn’t speak. I wanted to talk to her but words stuck in my throat. In a dizzying rush the world receded and left me swaying in a plot of frozen space beside Kim’s bed, holding our child, wanting never to let go. I would never let anything happen to this perfect new girl. If even the smallest discomfort was to reach my child it would have to go through me first.
The silence crouches in the house. A shout from outside. A rattle as a council truck goes over a speed bump too fast as usual.
Beyond the door, sun and shadows marble the footpath. Everything else has gone blue, like the sky has fallen into the road. Then the scene adjusts itself.
The local council’s rubbish trucks are pale blue in colour and one has stopped in the road outside. The back of the truck fills the view from our front door.
I walk past Jack and step outside.
“Stay there.” My voice is thin and papery. My throat is stuffed with cotton wool.
I walk down the path. After a few steps I can see the rest of the truck. The door to the driver’s cab is open and the cab is empty. A man in a white tee shirt and jeans is standing on the road beneath the cab. He is turned away from me. He looks like he is praying. He stands with his head bowed down, his face covered by his left hand. In his right hand he is holding a mobile phone to his ear. I cannot hear what he is saying but he seems to be crying.
Behind me Jack’s voice is a sullen whisper: “I didn’t do anything.”
When Sophie was two we had a holiday in Spain. She loved the beach and the sea, both of which were new to her. She squealed with delight at the smallest breaking wave, and spluttered theatrically at the slightest trace of salt water in her mouth or eyes.
We were in the sea; me and Sophie. It was a warm October day. Thin high strands of cloud barely scratched a sky like pale blue china. The sea was an antiseptic blue. Standing in the water you could look down and see loops of sunlight ripple on the pale sand of the seabed, mottling it like the back of some kind of giant turtle. A gentle breeze carried the faint smell of salt and seaweed.
Kim sat with a book on the sand, throwing me occasional anxious glances to make sure I kept her daughter safe. Sophie’s favourite game was to run into the water with me holding her hand. She would jump from the water’s edge where there was slight dip in the level of the seabed. A big jump, swinging on my arm, would take her up to her chest in the water.
Each time we jumped in, Sophie giggled with joyful excitement. As we turned to get out for another jump Sophie clung on to my hand, shouting at me to hold tight as she scrambled up the sand and shingle through the breakers. Time after time she held tight to my hand as if terrified a wave would sweep her away. For a brief moment it seemed her only purpose in life was to cling as tightly as she could to my hand. Then she reached a point on the beach where she was sure of her footing and confident that the waves could not knock her down. Instantly she cast my hand aside and scrambled the rest of the way out of the water unaided.
This happened every time. A desperate need to hang on to Dad, followed swiftly by a renewed assertion of independence as soon as she felt safe. As I stood there in the water, it struck me that here in a small way was what parenthood was all about. You need to be there to provide the helping hand when it is needed. And you love doing it. But you have to be prepared to let go and let your child go free. It is so hard to know how to get that balance right.
The balance is constantly shifting. On that beach, in those waves, it was safe to let Sophie choose her freedom when she wanted to.
On another day, in other waves, you have to hold tighter.
The lorry is blocking the road. A white car has stopped about twenty yards beyond it. The driver’s door is open and a woman is standing in the road. Like the lorry driver, she looks like she is in church. She bends down in front of the lorry with both her hands in front of her mouth.
I move forward to the edge of the road. I don’t know if I am breathing. My chest feels like someone has wrapped metal bands around it.
The blue truck has absurdly large wheels. Underneath the corrugated rubber of the front tyre there is a piece of blue cloth. I take a step closer before I recognise the cloth. It is a towel from our linen cupboard.
The world shifts soundlessly on its axis. The street around me holds its breath and my chest clenches like a fist.
I turn back and see Jack standing in the doorway. He looks like he is about to cry. He still has a towel around his shoulders, matching the one under the truck. I look at the road again. The woman from the white car is standing upright and holding something. It is red.
It is one of Sophie’s shoes.
I have a photograph of Sophie taken when she had just turned six. She spent a couple of weeks that summer in a holiday playscheme. She travelled on a yellow school bus like those they have in American cities. It picked her up from the end of our street and brought her back at the end of the day.
Normally Kim met Sophie but one afternoon I was home early and I did it. I took a camera and snapped a picture as she got off the bus. The camera caught her as she jumped from the step of the bus onto the grass beside the road, just at the moment she saw me waiting.
In the photograph she is dressed in blue shorts and a blue T-shirt with small yellow flowers on it. She is looking straight into the camera and her face is split with the sunniest smile I ever saw. Her arms are spread wide as she rushes toward me. It is a pose of utter thoughtless abandon. Nothing can touch her. The camera caught her in the fullest flood of childhood. Nothing was impossible yet and anything that hurt could be made better in her father’s arms. Her feet are not touching the ground. Her eyes shine like precious stones.
The photo is creased at the edges. I look at it every day.
Behind Sophie the yellow bus is framed by a sky of almost impossible blue. There are no blue skies like that anymore. There is not a shred of cloud to be seen. In this photograph there never will be.
The street outside is noisy again, but the silence stayed in our house.
It deafens me, that silence.
Sometimes I can hear nothing else.