I had considered the option before. I was off sick for a while and stayed at home, watching the people pass my window with their children on the way to school. I liked to see the untroubled ones who didn’t rush. That is a way to exist, I thought. The children of these people stopped and told them about things they noticed in the street, and the people were interested as if they had never seen them before. I wanted to be that kind of parent, that kind of person.
In fact it was decided for me. When Ellie was nearly one, Sandy left me, saying it was because of the dresses – though it was never an issue before the baby was born. So I left my job and was given over to parenthood – without ever understanding the reason why it happened.
Theresa understood. Anything like that and her eyes would light up sagely, her head would nod. She could never explain it to me. But then I never understood her either. Theresa? She was my special friend. Very occasionally she was my lover. But I never understood how they drove her to the point of madness. Angels don’t do that to you. Even Theresa called them her angels.
Theresa. Now, when I want to, I find it difficult to fix her image. I cannot stand her on her own. She must always be in movement, with them. Her awe of them was unnerving. Sometimes she stared at them as if she couldn’t believe they were really there. Her hands swept their crowns so lightly they hardly felt the touch. Sometimes a kiss would follow; sometimes her thought had already wandered. What is it about the top of a child’s head that makes you gasp for breath because the love is so strong? Perhaps it is because you view them so often from above. That sight of the downy broadness confirms how small and dependent they are. Or perhaps it is something to do with the effort that broadness cost you – first to emerge from the blood and sweat. But I am not a mother, so how can I be sure of that?
Ellie and I spent and fair bit of our time in toddler groups. Toddler groups are fine, especially at first when the plainest facts about babies are worth repeating until the end of time. After a while, however, I felt drawn to this woman whose conversation stretched out beyond the cures of colic towards the strangeness of the world into which her children had been born. I had the very peculiar sense that she had no idea why they or she were in it. This woman: this Theresa. Like me, toddler groups were her refuge. And yet she was uneasy in them. You could tell that by the brightness of her, by her always smiling.
If you have never been to a toddler group you will not know about the noise. The natural wonders of the world, bereft as they are of sense of power and purpose, have nothing on a church hall full of one and two-year-olds. Sometimes I thought my head would break from the barracking; sometimes I thought my heart would explode from the massage of tiny smiles. The children are like little moons orbiting their mothers at a grabbable distance, occasionally shooting off into space where disaster is apt to follow. The planets shift more predictably, exchanging small talk at a slow succession of activity tables, catching paint pots as they fly towards the floor, extracting crayons from noses, reaching for spare pairs of trousers from their all-but-the-kitchen-sink bags. I have a bag that bulges like the best of them, although I never seem to have the right things in it. I try to emulate the motions of these heavenly bodies. They seem so well prepared, so sure of when to wipe a nose, when to put a baby down to sleep, how much to offer in response to embarrassing questions. I didn’t know there was any training on offer for this work. In fact I know there is none. But then I suppose that these mothers were all taught by their own when the boys were playing football. I didn’t play football. I didn’t learn childcare either.
Theresa says she can’t help laughing at the good mother expressions on the faces of her peers. Women wearing sharp suits ready for their afternoon shifts in banks or council offices grin like chimps at their offspring’s capers and compete for the superlative of superlatives when the sticky creations are hung up to dry. I know because I do it myself, she tells me, but there is always that sparkle in her eye that sets her apart. I spread my favours around at toddler groups. I cannot keep Theresa all to myself. I enjoy my coffee and biscuit in the company of a rich range of women: some earthy, some kind, some strident, some refined. I don’t care who I talk to: I am grateful to any and all of them. Of course, it is rare to finish a cup of coffee while it is still hot, or to finish a biscuit at all. There is always a small person to assist in case one were feeling under-stimulated at this point in the morning. But then I love the delicate way Ellie bites around the edges of my biscuit. She’ll always be all right: she knows the charms that win the world. Theresa never takes a biscuit for herself. She is still losing weight, slowly, slowly but surely, right in front of my eyes. She is fading away.
One day her youngest stood howling in the middle of the floor while Theresa was nowhere to be seen. I comforted the child while an older friend toured the back rooms. When Theresa emerged her eyes were dried but unblinking; her fingers unclenched themselves as if released from a trap; and she lifted the child to her face where she held it hard against her.
I sat quietly with her while trite phrases unpicked themselves around my tongue and nothing seemed more fitting than the silence. She felt something was due to me and passed the child into my spreading arms with an answering motion.
‘I get into states,’ she said simply and then wiped the baby’s face.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about it. It comes to us all, deary.’
She smiled quickly as I had intended, and her dry eyes grew an unsupported smile.
‘Of course, hormones differ from one mother to the next,’ I added, and that was the end of the conversation.
I knew there was something then. I didn’t know exactly what. But I saw the group leader huddled with her in a corner. After that she started seeing the doctor and taking pills. I discovered this through catching her at the chemists clutching her prescription. She wasn’t one to volunteer information in the ordinary routine of life, but she seemed to accept that friends were owed an explanation for unusual events.
She was always dismissively optimistic about her prognosis – always about to beat the bug for good. Of course, it wasn’t a bug and, of course, I didn’t understand it, however much she expected me to. I wasn’t post-natal in the same way as she was, and I didn’t understand how children could make a person miserable.
Sometimes she talked to me about it. When she did it often seemed as if ‘it’ had a body with claws and teeth. ‘It’s like a monster inside you tearing at your innards. The pain goes on and on, you can’t stop it. No-one gives you gas and air. No-one hears you scream.’ You go to bed – you cannot sleep. You reach for the phone – you cannot dial. You pace the house – you cannot find peace. That’s when the thoughts come: images of knives and pill bottles, the sound of a head smashing open like a squash on the rocks at the edge of the ocean – and then only waves smoothing the sand forever.
Other times it’s like a sloth, wound down into the silence of the branch it grips. To lift an eyelid would be to risk too much light. To raise a smile would be a betrayal of the darkness. To stretch a limb would be to move the universe.
I watched her in this latter mood trying to make a drink for the middle child while the others demanded everything else conceivable (and otherwise). She couldn’t seem to remember which was the cupboard and which the fridge, the lids would not fit on the cups, and all this in slowest motion – slowest of all the initial rise from the seat. Sometimes I wondered if she would rise at all or whether she had forgotten the original request. As I knew her better I took over the watering duty at times like this. But as I know her better still, I let her take it back. I noticed that, this first battle won, she warmed to the morning’s campaign. The more ground gained, the greater the momentum she could maintain. If she got so far as peeling the spuds or choosing the evening’s dinner from the freezer, she would begin to chatter, laugh a little, and even start to ask me questions about my much regarded yet misunderstood little life.
‘Of course you can try the blue strappy number, sweetheart. But I wasn’t eating when I bought that one. You’ll have to let it out. You sew so beautifully. What I really want to know is: why don’t you want to be a woman?’
She liked to ask me that question especially, even though in actual fact she felt no puzzlement about my condition. For her it was a deep question, drowning in irony: to want or not to want to be a woman. Something over which we have so little control. She didn’t want it to be important. Yet it occupied so much space for her. While for me – who seemed to be enslaved by it – it took up no space at all.
I have always felt that Theresa was unconvinced by my claim to indifference on the subject of gender. A man who cares for children as his raison d’etre may be a man expressing his wish to be a good father. But a man who in addition dresses as a woman after dusk – what is he expressing? It took time and accident for me to convince her that cross dressers do not usually desire a different body – nor do they desire a similar body when it comes to sex. It was the accident that convinced her of the latter.
One day I tapped on her window in the morning at a time when the baby was usually asleep. Mine had just expired in the pushchair and chose to stay unconscious. Her toddler was playing in the sandpit down the garden; her eldest was at school. Her eyes were dry like a desert longing for rain. Her thin left arm was splinted by the door frame and I felt sure, all of a sudden, that it was me she should lean against, not the false painted wood.
I don’t think she was enthused by the experience. But she was curious. She made no pretence at pleasure and looked surprised when I came. But she lay still against me for long breaths of time when we were done, and dressed with reluctance when the baby awoke. She wasn’t embarrassed and neither was I: it didn’t seem necessary. She observed that she was a bad mother for having sex when her children might interrupt. But I could see that she enjoyed the irresponsibility more than the act itself – hence no rush to repeat it. The first sin is sufficient for the purpose, although she was prepared to reinforce her status from time to time.
People talk about the strain of being with the depressed but I was not put off. My life was dedicated to a small female who thought that every day should bring a birthday party and who was prepared to drown the world in despair over the colour of a penny lolly. I was well disposed to turn myself to adult emotion: slower, deeper, stranger. It made me feel there was something more required of me than sticking plaster and surrender.
She seemed to feel better for my company over a cup of coffee. I hope that was the case, anyway. I hope I left her better rather than worse. How to tell? The problem is human beings love to act. It’s often so difficult to measure the performance against the reality. Does the performer know the one from the other in the first place? Towards the end there came a sense of urgency from Theresa that felt like the crashing of two heads. Of course she might have wanted to do this to her children. But instead she did it with these two things: reality and performance. I don’t want to behave as I should. I want to live. I don’t want to be governed by what other people think of me. I want to breath with my own lungs.
Suddenly I see her clearly, set against the dusty drop of church hall plaster. Or stamping her feet in frozen puddles at the park. Or humming to the radio in her tiny kitchen. The children are around her crawling, skipping, fighting, stretching a string of demands to the end of time.
‘Want a drink!’
‘Not orange juice!’
‘Can I have an apple?’
‘Need a wee.’
‘Alex hit me.’
‘She said I was a cunf!’
‘Can’t wait ‘til tea.’
‘Don’t like bread sticks.’
‘That’s mine, not Stephen’s.’
‘No you can’t play with it!’
It goes on. On and on. The eldest child is occasionally amenable to reason. She can grasp the meaning of the word wait and hang on to it for at least two seconds at a time. But the others! The baby screams and screams and is inconsolable. Even when the rice cake is visible in its approach towards his mouth he screams – Theresa has to help him close his jaws around it. Meanwhile the middle child is beating the floor with the remains of a Christmas robot. Theresa stoops to pick up the pieces. She knows not to get angry, anger is petrol on the flames. Ignore the rights and wrongs of the matter, just focus on survival. And if there are moments when the pressure relents, when the children are stacked in front of the television, when they are absorbed in play with friends, or when they are dozing in the garden in the summer, then these moments are a tease, fleeting and unusable, over almost before they have registered their presence, of no certain duration that would make them of use. What existence is this? This suppression of all one’s feelings of anger and frustration, this constant anxiety (even in the quiet moments) that the situation will soon slip beyond control. I am only glad that I don’t have three children – I know how difficult one can be.
And you never get a rest. Even when they go to sleep you don’t know when they’ll wake.
But, but, children see things – really see things. A cascade of water from a gutter, a sparrow pecking at the grit under a park bench, the dazzle of an adolescent’s lighter…. the moon. How many times have I seen the moon in my lifetime – and yet not seen it? But she sees it. She stops and stares, transfixed. There, the moon, round and full with a tiny slither off her shoulder, hung with pale silk, silent and adored, a few inches from the outstretched hand. Is this why we have children, to bring these things back to us: water, birds, fire, moon? We had them once, such a long time ago, and now we have the reprise. Perhaps this is our last chance. Soon our children will be at school. They will learn not to stare, not to be surprised at what they see, they will learn what the moon really is. They will lose her.
Am I lost?
In the night there is a storm. The clouds are deep grey, impenetrable, but with flash of gold beyond their edges. For storms are never dull like March weather, trailing one day to the next in continuous damp grey. Instead, they leap and gasp, one moment shafts of light – not to mention the snakes tongues and serpent tails – the next deep, deep, dark with water like molten stone tipped from great troughs in the sky. What else could make the noise that comes with it? Actually, I know the answer to that one. Ironically Ellie has slept through the whole thing. I wouldn’t want to wake her, to disturb the good pattern she has developed. But I can’t get back to sleep. I roll from side to side of my empty bed. Finally there is a new day outside the curtains, the clouds sunk down unseen in the night. Everything is darkened by grey into a half-existence. And yet there is beauty even in that. Brooding under the blankets, the weald takes a rest of shallow dreams. It does not depart entirely from the exhilaration of the night’s exposure. The green is still there; fed by the silent rain it shapes itself in competition with the hidden, cloud-smothered hills.
Breakfast done I go out with Ellie to buy some hose. After joking with the shop assistant we zip it all up in the holdall and proceed to this morning’s toddler group. I watch her idly down the grey street, feeling a kind of calm that entirely contradicts my situation. What do I think of my daughter? – she who has this free pass into the world of women? She’s such a little, flighty, blond thing. Everyone says she’s like me, God help her! She skits around with air under her feet, pursing her lips in indignation yet smiling with her eyes. To think that I am the father of this being, this woman in miniature, makes me dizzy; the world lurches around me as if I had just finished one scotch too many. It is hard to penetrate the mystery, accept the miracle – hard even if you carry the child within you and feel it burst from you – harder still when the agency is remote. I know it all happened but it is as if I wasn’t really there. And here she is, building her tower of bright bricks, stamping pink potato prints onto orange paper, playing bedtime with a family of black Duplo people (where do they get black Duplo people from? – I can never find any). A clump of yellow hair is astray. I reach to correct it but she shakes her head at me and puts her hands on her denim hips. The purple flowers around the edges of her dungarees catch the light from the barred window and bloom as I watch. Then Theresa enters with a blast of cold air from the street and Ellie runs to her at once, catching on to her deep red skirts. Everywhere around there is such noise. Such noise. Oh those skirts! How good they feel after the two-legged prison of the day. How they swish and flow.
I remember that time, the only time, when Theresa saw me dressed. Late one evening she rang my bell and waited while I peered through the peep-hole wondering whether to let her in. She pretended no reaction to my lemon yellow chiffon but I know that reaction is compulsory when you see a man in a frock. It is important to accommodate his image into some sort of sense: pantomime, debauchery, disguise. I recognise none of these, and yet I am unable to suggest an alternative. There is some sexual gratification, I confess. But this is less powerful than the other feeling, the one I struggle to describe. What is it? Something to do with safety, distance, escape. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Dressed as a woman I feel….okay. But it is an illusion.
There is an aching in me when I think of Ellie – an aching to reach her, as if she is too far away. Perhaps she is across a large room, absorbed in her play, back towards me, and I cannot move, cannot take the steps I need in order to hold her in my arms. Or perhaps she is calling to me but I can’t see where she is. In-between us are all those skirts, and all those women in them.
Another day, another toddler group. It’s become the routine, the means of passing time, my way of being in the world. Clearly, everybody is a parent of small children and spends their time this way. Small children are the only objects in the universe. But what does it do to you to be so immersed in infancy? There is a sharp tug and you are back in a forbidden place, somewhere you have been before but have been pretending never existed.
How could I have so forgotten my childhood? There it was before me as I watched my daughter play. ‘Play is children’s work,’ I read in my magazine. That’s right, I thought, children play to learn about the world, to find their way into it. But what a world! And who’s to say that children learn more through their work than they lose? I think of my daughter playing in the sand, absorbed completely in the castle she is making. That castle is time and place for her, nothing else exists. She doesn’t have an appointment in twenty minutes time (or if she does she neither knows nor cares). She isn’t worried about how far it is to walk to the shops (although she will worry about it at every step when we actually make the trip). Her task is pure. Although hysteria sets in when the castle collapses, there is no false edifice of sense to share this fragility. She does not ponder the purpose of her play. She hasn’t yet learned that you have to have one. Bless her innocence. Bless her felicity. I want mine back.
It isn’t hard to be a child. But it is so desperately hard to stay a child. To be a child you need do no more than that. But to stay a child you have to throw the tackles of the big team. They want you with them, in position, serving your purpose wherever you find your place. But how to find it? And why? Yes, really, that’s the question at bottom: why?
I can’t believe how much men miss without knowing it. There’s the things we can never do. We can carry babies in our arms only; our teats are dry; we cannot give birth. I know that most men count the last as a massive advantage over the opposite sex. But I see it as a denial of creation. Despite the evidence to the contrary, my body seems barren to me. I cannot achieve the miracle that any woman can. I am denied the pain and the triumph. I am incomplete, non-functional, I am a waste of atoms in the universe. I am a dead end. Of course this is ridiculous. I served a vital function in creating Ellie. She couldn’t have done any of it without my original contribution. If there were sections in the middle that went entirely beyond my grasp – what then? I made up for my deficiencies once I could hold my baby in my arms. I could present a bottle feed just as well as Sandy. Sandy left most of the mixing and sterilising to me in any case. Then she left. Who was the better mother then?
There are so many mysteries in this world – this is just one more. So many ambiguities – I’ve some of them too. Still, it’s not a problem, it’s a pleasure, something to look forward to each day. When I stop to consider it I am incredibly lucky. During the day I have the most fulfilling job in the world – the care of my angel – while at night I have my special indulgence, my magical tour. Everyone needs at least one foot in the real world, with a fingertip or two in their dreams. Maybe that was Theresa’s problem: no dreams to stretch her fingers to meant a corresponding lack of reality under her feet. And yet – in many ways it seemed to be her rather than me who was in touch with reality.
How could she be, taken to the edge of madness, how could she be more in touch with reality? But there it is.
I had fun with Theresa. We looked through catalogues together, cut each others’ hair, sat by riversides wondering whose child would fall in (of course mine never got close enough to the edge). When she was sociable she was amusing, when she was sad I nagged her to dress and to eat, and I enjoyed my little successes. She talked to me about her husband, as women do, and I tutted and grew angry at the right moments. Friendship is more important than love and lasts longer. But, despite itself, it is not enough. The joy of raw moments together cannot stretch across the gaps to scotch the bleeding. Lately I have made discoveries about death that are only available to those who come close to it. I know that death can seem softer than life and be more forgiving, that a route to nowhere can be a great prize, that there is a final power in each of us to grasp our fate, to vanquish our existence.
The year turns, winter comes, surprisingly it snows. The children love snow. My child, Theresa’s children – all children love snow. They run out beneath the crystal rain with their coats still undone, scarves trailing, one and a half gloved, trying to catch the flakes on their tongues. And parents like me fuss after them trying to force woolly hats onto their glowing heads, filling their slippers with snow. Then we adults retreat to the house and shiver behind the French windows, reaching reluctantly for the door catch each time a warm, round shape plunges into a drift. But Theresa doesn’t shiver. She wades out with them and shares their joyful energy, runs with them, shrieks with them. I can see her now, now that the spring sun is on the new leaves, jumping and shouting in the ghostly snow as if the summer were already here. And where am I? Still hiding behind the window in the centrally heated airlessness. My child is at the nursery and the silence chills my ears.
Will I ever understand? Will I ever understand what this is all about? A leaf is uncurling just outside the window, yellow-feathered, slight and sweet, like a tiny hand opening into an unknown gesture. Gesture of what? Friendship? Scorn? Irony? Does she love me? Do I love her? And what am I, anyway, to love or be loved? Shall I stand here and wait until the gesture comes, until I have my answer? That is not the man’s way, I know. But the ways of men have not always served me well. And how does that leave me? Foetal in the middle of the lawn. They bluster on one side and swish on the other, but they all pass me by. Isn’t there one I can grasp? Large, small, anything will do. Please don’t leave me here all alone.
Strange to say, Theresa’s getting better now. She’s seen a shrink who tells her it is quite normal to be depressed by small children. I wonder how much they pay him to come up with that? But she is looking better. She’s had her hair cut short and has put on a bit of make-up. There is colour in her cheeks and she occasionally accepts biscuits when I make her coffee. Alex and Ellie have started nursery. We get to speak more than two words together, with only the baby to interrupt us. She is soft, almost beautiful; the lines around her brown eyes enhance her smile. She wears a long, yellow dress. It’s always been dresses for Theresa – perhaps that’s why we get on so well. I want to hold her but I don’t make a move. Last time I went to bed with her it didn’t work out at all. It is as if her improvement is mirroring itself in my decline. She was suddenly so eager, but I…
And now we come to the really low bit. I’ve talked about the skirts, enthused about them, pondered them, offered what explanation I can. But I’ve not got near. It’s too hard. Suddenly I don’t want them any more. I haven’t the energy to lift them to my face. The colours are dull – yellow like sludge, pink like vomit. The materials nick and snag. They have failed me. What use is it to reach for them now? Space is closing in. My angel is away with her real mother. There is nothing to prevent the walls falling in. I walk to the cupboard under the stairs. There is a box in there. A picture of a child’s push along toy is stuck to the side. Inside I find my hose and I pull at one end so that it emerges snakelike out of the pit. Will I make it to the wood? Will I manage the deed? There’s nothing left but to try.