One Day, Page 31David Nicholls
His brain gradually empties of work, of falafel wraps and oaty squares, and he starts to feel hopeful for the evening; perhaps he’ll acquire that state of peaceful inactivity that is the nirvana of the exhausted parent. He pushes the butt deep into a pile of sand, retrieves Jasmine, tip-toes quietly up the stairs to her room and pulls down the blackout blinds. Like a master safe-cracker, he is going to change her nappy without waking her up.
As soon as he lays her on the changing mat she wakes and starts to cry again, that awful rasping cry. Breathing through his mouth, he changes her as quickly and efficiently as he can. Part of the positive press about having a baby was how inoffensive baby poo was, how poo and wee lost their taint and became, if not fun, at least innocuous. His sister had even claimed that you could ‘eat it on toast’, so benign and fragrant was this ‘poo’.
Even so, you wouldn’t want it underneath your fingernails and with the arrival of formula and solids it has taken on a decidedly more adult quality. Little Jasmine has produced what looks like a half-pound of peanut butter, which she has somehow contrived to smear up her back. With his head a little fuzzy from the wine on an empty stomach, he scoops and scrapes it up as best he can with half a pack of baby wipes and, when these run out, the edge of his one-day travelcard. He crams the still warm bundle into a chemical-smelling nappy bag, which he drops into a pedal bin, noting queasily that there is condensation on the lid. Jasmine cries throughout. When she is finally fresh and clean he scoops her up and holds her against his shoulder, bouncing on his toes until his calves ache and miraculously she is quiet again.
He crosses to the cot and lays her down, and she starts to scream. He picks her up and she is silent. Lays her down, she screams. He is aware of a pattern but it seems so unreasonable, so plain wrong, for her to demand so much when his spring rolls are getting cold, the wine is standing open and this small room smells so richly of hot poo. The phrase ‘unconditional love’ has been thrown around a lot, but right now he feels like imposing some conditions. ‘Come on, Jas, play fair, be nice. Daddy’s been up since five, remember?’ She is quiet once again, her breath warm and steady against his neck, and so he tries once more to lay her down, taking it slowly, an absurd limbo dance, shifting imperceptibly from the vertical to the horizontal. He still wears the macho baby harness, and now imagines himself a bomb disposal expert; gently, gently, gently.
She starts to cry again.
He closes the door regardless and trots downstairs. Got to be tough. Got to be ruthless, that’s what the books say. If she had some language, he’d be able to explain: Jasmine, it is necessary for both of us to have some private time. He eats in front of the television, but is once again struck by how hard it is to ignore a baby screaming. Controlled crying they call it, but he has lost control and wants to cry and starts to feel a Victorian indignation towards his wife – what kind of irresponsible harlot leaves a baby with his father? How dare she? He turns up the television and goes to pour another glass of wine, but is surprised to find the bottle empty.
Never mind. There is no parenting problem in the world that can’t be solved by throwing milk at it. He makes some more formula, then climbs upstairs, his head a little fuzzy, blood ringing in his ears. The fierce little face softens as he places the milk bottle into her hands, but then she is screaming again, a ferocious wail as he sees that he has forgotten to screw the lid on the bottle and now warm formula has flooded out and soaked the bedclothes, the mattress, is in her eyes and up her nose, and she’s screaming now, really screaming, and why shouldn’t she scream, given that daddy has snuck into her room and flung half a pint of warm milk in her face. Panicked, he grabs a muslin square, finding instead her best cashmere cardigan on a pile of clean washing, and wipes off the excess clots of formula from her hair and out of her eyes, kissing her all the time, cursing himself – ‘idiot idiot idiot sorry sorry sorry’ – and with the other arm beginning the process of changing her formula-sodden bedding, her clothes, her nappy, flinging it all in a pile on the floor. Now he’s relieved she isn’t able to talk. ‘Look at you, you idiot,’ she would say, ‘can’t even look after a baby.’ Back downstairs he makes more formula with one hand then carries her upstairs, feeding her in the darkened room until once again her head is on his shoulder, she is calm, is sleeping.
He closes the door silently then tip-toes down the bare wooden stairs, a burglar in his own home. In the kitchen the second bottle of wine sits open. He pours another glass.
It’s nearly ten now. He tries to watch the television, this thing called Big Brother, but he can’t understand what he’s meant to be looking at and feels a curmudgeonly, old-timer’s disapproval for the state of the TV industry. ‘I don’t understand,’ he says aloud. He puts on some music, a compilation designed to make your home feel like the lobby of a European boutique hotel, and tries to read Sylvie’s discarded magazine, but even that’s beyond him now. He puts the games console on, but neither Metal Gear Solid, nor Quake nor Doom, not even Tomb Raider at its highest level brings him any peace. He needs some adult human company, conversation from someone who doesn’t just scream and whimper and sleep. He picks up his phone. He is frankly drunk now, and with drunkenness has come the old compulsion: to say something stupid to an attractive woman.
Stephanie Shaw has a new breast pump. Top of the range, Finnish, it whirrs and chugs under her t-shirt like a small outboard motor as they sit on the sofa and try and watch Big Brother.
Emma had been led to believe that tonight would be a dinner party, but having made it to Whitechapel she has found that Stephanie and Adam are too exhausted to cook; hope she doesn’t mind. Instead they sit and watch the television and chat, while the breast pump whirrs and chugs away, giving the living room the atmosphere of a milking shed. Another big night in the life of a Godmother.
There are conversations Emma no longer wants to have and they all concern babies. The first few were novel enough, and yes, there was something intriguing, funny and touching about seeing your friends’ features blended and fused in miniature like that. And of course there is always joy in witnessing the joy of others.
But not that much joy, and this year it seems that every time she leaves the house some new infant is being jammed in her face. She feels the same dread as when someone produces a brick-sized pile of their holiday snaps: great that you had a nice time, but what’s it got to do with me? To this end, Emma has a fascinated-face that she puts on when a friend tells her about the miseries of labour, what drugs were used, whether they caved and went for the epidural, the agony, the joy.
But there’s nothing transferable about the miracle of childbirth, or parenthood in general. Emma doesn’t want to talk about the strain of broken sleep; hadn’t they heard rumours of this in advance? Neither does she want to have to remark on the baby’s smile, or how it started off looking like the mother but now looks like the father or started off looking like the father but now has the mother’s mouth. And what is this obsession with the size of the hands, the tiny little hands with the tiny, tiny fingernails, when in a way it’s big hands that would be more remarkable. ‘Look at baby’s massive great flapping hands!’ Now that would be worth talking about.
‘I’m falling asleep,’ says Adam, Stephanie’s husband, from the armchair, his head supported by his fist.
‘Maybe I should go,’ says Emma.
‘No! Stay!’ says Stephanie, but doesn’t provide a reason.
Emma eats another Kettle Chip. What has happened to her friends? They used to be funny and fun-loving, gregarious and interesting, but far too many evenings have been spent like this with pasty, irritable hollow-eyed couples in smelly rooms, expressing wonder that baby is getting bigger with time, rather than smaller. She is tired of squealing in delight when she sees a baby crawl, as if this was a completely unexpected development, this ‘crawling’. What were they expecting, flight? She is indifferent to the smell of a baby’s head. She tried it once, and it smelt like the back of a watchstrap.
phone rings in her bag. She picks it up and glances at Dexter’s name but doesn’t bother answering. No, she doesn’t want to go all the way from Whitechapel to Richmond to watch him blowing raspberries on little Jasmine’s belly. She is particularly bored by this, her male friends performing their New Young Dad act: harassed but good-tempered, weary but modern in their regulation jacket with jeans, paunchy in their ribbed tops with that proud, self-regarding little look they give as they toss junior in the air. Bold pioneers, the first men in the history of the world to get a little wee on their corduroy, a little vomit in their hair.
Of course, she can’t say any of this out loud. There’s something unnatural about a woman finding babies or, more specifically, conversation about babies, boring. They’ll think she’s bitter, jealous, lonely. But she’s also bored of everybody telling her how lucky she is, what with all that sleep and all that freedom and spare time, the ability to go on dates or head off to Paris at a moment’s notice. It sounds like they’re consoling her, and she resents this and feels patronised by it. It’s not like she’s even going to Paris! In particular, she is bored of jokes about the biological clock, from her friends, her family, in films and on TV. The most idiotic, witless word in the English language is ‘singleton’, followed closely by ‘chocoholic’, and she refuses to be part of any Sunday supplement lifestyle phenomenon. Yes, she understands the debate, the practical imperatives, but it’s a situation entirely out of her control. And yes, occasionally she tries to picture herself in a blue hospital gown, sweaty and in agony, but the face of the man holding her hand remains stubbornly blurred, and it’s a fantasy she chooses not to dwell on.
When it happens, if it happens, she will adore the child, remark on its tiny hands and even the smell of its scrofulous little head. She will debate epidurals, lack of sleep, colic, whatever the hell that is. One day she might even bring herself to coo at a pair of booties. But in the meantime she’s going to keep her distance, and stay calm and serene and above it all. Having said that, the first one to call her Aunty Emma gets a punch in the face.
Stephanie has finished expressing and is showing her breast milk to Adam, holding it up to the light like a fine wine. It’s a great little breast pump, they all agree.
‘My turn next!’ says Emma, but no-one laughs and right on cue the baby wakes upstairs.
‘What someone needs to invent,’ says Adam, ‘is a chloroformed baby wipe.’
Stephanie sighs and trudges out, and Emma decides she will definitely head home soon. She can stay up late, work on the manuscript. The phone buzzes again. A message from Dexter, asking her to schlep out to Surrey to keep him company.
She turns the phone off.
‘ . . . I know it’s a long way, it’s just I think I might be suffering from post-natal depression. Get in a cab, I’ll pay. Sylvie’s not here! Not that it makes any difference, I know, but . . . there’s a spare bedroom, if you wanted to stay over. Anyway, call me if you get this. Bye.’ He hesitates, says another ‘Bye’ and hangs up. A pointless message. He blinks and shakes his head, and pours more wine. Scrolling through the phone’s address book, he comes to S for Suki Mobile.
Initially there is no reply, and he finds himself relieved, because after all what good can come of it, the phone-call to an old girlfriend? He’s about to hang up, when suddenly he hears the distinctive bellow.
‘Hey there!’ He dusts off his presenter’s smile.
‘WHO IS THIS?’ She’s shouting over the sound of a party, a restaurant perhaps.
‘Make some noise!’
‘WHAT? WHO IS THIS?’
‘You have to guess!’
‘WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU . . .’
‘I said “guess who?” . . .’
‘I CAN’T HEAR YOU, WHO IS THIS?’
‘You have to guess!’
‘I SAID YOU HAVE TO . . .’ The game has become exhausting, so he just says ‘It’s Dexter!’
There’s a moment’s pause.
‘Dexter? Dexter Mayhew?’
‘How many Dexters do you know, Suki?’
‘No, I know which Dexter, I’m just, like . . . WAHEY, DEXTER! Hello, Dexter! Hold on . . .’ He hears the scrape of a chair and imagines eyes following her, intrigued, as she leaves the restaurant table and walks into a corridor. ‘So how are you, Dexter?’
‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m just, you know, phoning to say I saw you tonight on the telly, and it got me thinking about old times, and I thought I’d phone and say Hi. You looked great by the way. On TV. And I like the show. Great format.’ Great format? You clown. ‘So. How are you, Suki?’
‘Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine.’
‘You’re everywhere! You’re doing really well! Really!’
‘Thank you. Thanks.’
There’s a silence. Dexter’s thumb caresses the off button. Hang up. Pretend the line’s gone down. Hang up, hang up, hang up . . .
‘It’s been, what, five years, Dex!’
‘I know, I was thinking about you just now, because I saw you on TV. And you looked great by the way. And how are you?’ Don’t say that, you’ve said that already. Concentrate! ‘I mean, where are you? It’s very noisy . . .’
‘A restaurant. I’m having dinner, with some mates.’
‘Anyone I know?’
‘Don’t think so. They’re kind of new friends.’
New friends. Could that be hostility? ‘Right. Okay.’
‘So. Where are you, Dexter?’
‘Oh, I’m at home.’
‘Home? On a Saturday night? That’s not like you!’
‘Well, you know . . .’ and he’s about to tell her that he’s married, has a kid, lives in the suburbs, but feels that this might serve to underline the sheer futility of the phone-call, so instead stays silent. The pause goes on for some time. He notices that there’s an epaulette of snot on the cotton sweater he once wore to Pacha, and he has become aware of the new scent on his fingertips, an unholy cocktail of nappy sacks and prawn crackers.
Suki speaks. ‘So, main course has just arrived . . .’
‘Okay, well, anyway, I was just thinking about old times, and thinking it would be nice to see you! You know for lunch or a drink or something . . .’
The background music fades as if Suki has stepped into some private corner. In a hardened voice she says, ‘You know what, Dexter? I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’
‘I mean I haven’t seen you for five years now, and I think when that happens there’s usually a reason, don’t you?’
‘I just thought—’
‘I mean it’s not as if you were ever that nice to me, never that interested, you were off your face most of the time—’
‘Oh, that’s not true!’
‘You weren’t even faithful to me, for fuck’s sake, you were usually off fucking some runner or waitress or whatever so I don’t know where you get off now, phoning up like we’re old pals and getting nostalgic about “old times”, our golden six months that were, quite frankly, pretty shitty for me.’
‘Alright, Suki, you’ve made your point.’
‘And anyway I’m with another guy, a really, really nice guy, and I’m very happy. In fact he’s waiting for me right now.’
‘Fine! So go! GO!’ Upstairs, Jasmine starts to cry, with embarrassment perhaps.
‘You can’t just get pissed-up and phone out of the blue and expect me—’
‘I’m not, I only, Jesus, okay, fine, forget it!’ Jasmine’s howl is echoing down the bare wooden stairs.
‘What’s that noise?’
‘It’s a baby.’
‘My baby. I have a daughter. A baby daughter. Seven months old.’
There’s a silence, just long enough for Dexter to visibly wither, then Suki says:
‘Then why the hell are you asking me out?’
‘Just. You know. A friendly drink.’
sp; ‘I have friends,’ says Suki, very quietly. ‘I think you’d better go and see to your daughter, don’t you Dex?’ and she hangs up.
For a while he just sits and listens to the dead line. Eventually he lowers the phone, stares at it, then shakes his head vigorously as if he has just been slapped. He has been slapped.
‘Well, that went well,’ he murmurs.
Address Book, Edit Contact, Delete Contact. ‘Are you sure you want to delete Suki Mobile?’ asks the phone. Fuck me, yes, yes, delete her, yes! He jabs at the buttons. Contact Deleted says the phone, but it’s not enough; Contact Eradicated, Contact Vaporised, that’s what he needs. Jasmine’s crying is reaching the peak of its first cycle, so he stands suddenly and hurls the phone against the wall where it leaves a black scratch mark on the Farrow and Ball. He throws it again to leave a second.
Cursing Suki, cursing himself for being so stupid, he makes up a small bottle of milk, screws the lid on tight, puts it in his pocket, grabs the wine then runs up the stairs towards Jasmine’s cry, an awful hoarse rasping sound now that seems to tear at the back of her throat. He bursts into the room.
‘For fuck’s sake, Jasmine, just shut up, will you?!’ he shouts, instantly clapping his hand to his mouth with shame as he sees her sitting up in the cot, eyes wide in distress. Scooping her up, he sits with his back against the wall, absorbing her cries into his chest, then lays her in his lap, strokes her forehead with great tenderness, and when this doesn’t work he starts to gently stroke the back of her head. Isn’t there meant to be some secret pressure spot that you rub with your thumb? He circles the palm of her hand as it clenches and unclenches angrily. Nothing helps, his big fat fingers trying this, fumbling with that, nothing working. Perhaps she’s not well, he thinks, or perhaps he is just not her mother. Useless father, useless husband, useless boyfriend, useless son.