It’s closer to yesterday than today. But he’s already awake, already operating at full capacity, bouncing up and down on the bed.
‘Come on mummy and daddy, wake up! Let’s go downstairs! I’m untired! I’m untired!’
Debs and I engage in a very short war of wills. Who will react first? Of course it’s me. It’s the tiniest of movements. Perhaps only a twitch of my little toe. But it’s enough. My son leaps on top of me, writhing like an eel.
‘Daddy’s awake! Daddy’s awake!’
‘Urghhhh,’ I respond.
Now he’s sitting on my head. His little backside bouncing up and down on my skull.
‘Bounce on daddy’s head! Bounce on daddy’s head!’
‘Uh….go easy….uh…..gentle….uh,’ I try to protest but my words are muffled.
He leaps onto my chest, sticky hands reaching for my face.
‘What day is it daddy?’
I have to think.
‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’
I know what he wants me to say.
‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’
‘Yay!’ he leaps in the air, landing on my unguarded stomach.
‘Oooff,’ I protest.
He takes my face in his hands, turning it to make my eyes meet his in the half light.
‘Does that mean no school today?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘And no work either?’
‘Yay! Let’s go downstairs then.’
‘It’s still too early son.’
I glance at my wife but there’s only a shape there, head buried under the duvet. I’m on my own.
‘Please daddy,’ he pleads.
‘OK son, give me a second.’
My feet search for the floor and I pull my dressing gown around my torso. My son jumps onto my back and I amble down the stairs. I enter the living room and slouch onto the sofa.
‘Daddy, let’s play sword fights!’
‘Too early, let’s watch TV for a bit first.’
I scan through the channels until I find a cartoon about a little girl and a duck. This holds his concentration long enough for me to prepare some breakfast. Coco Pops and a strawberry smoothie. When I present the cereal to him he turns away.
‘I want chocolate, daddy.’
‘You’re not having chocolate for breakfast son.’
‘I don’t like Coco Pops.’
‘But they virtually are chocolate, they even turn the milk into chocolate.’
I raise the spoon to his mouth but it remains determinedly closed, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.
‘Come on buddy, if you try these I’ll let you have chocolate afterwards.’
He eats some breakfast. It’s a small victory but I’m not sure for whom. The duck cartoon finishes. I put on some episodes of He-Man and we engage in a sword fight which only concludes when I agree not to defend myself and allow him to bash me over the head several times with a foam light sabre. We watch more TV but soon his attention becomes patchy, which is unfortunate because it’s getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacks Castle Greyskull. He looks at me (my son, not Skeletor), demanding my full attention as always.
‘Daddy, let’s play a game.’
Reluctantly I’m pulled upright and we go in search of fresh entertainment and stimulation. We move into the other room and I’m ordered on to the floor to search under the sofa. I pull out several boxes but he’s not satisfied.
‘No daddy, keep looking, that’s not the right one.’
‘That’s all that’s under here son.’
‘No, there’s more daddy, look harder.’
I know what he’s looking for and quickly realise my efforts to hide it so far under the sofa that it will be forever forgotten have failed. I pull out the dusty box.
‘Yay! It’s Pie Face!’ he wails.
Pie Face is a simple concept. Fresh cream is piled onto a plastic hand attached to an arm on a spring. Players take turns placing their faces in the middle of a comic mask. A spinner selects a number and the player then has to turn a handle the required number of times. At a random point the spring is released and…..well, the rest is obvious.
It’s not yet dawn but James wants to play Pie Face. He dearly wants to play Pie Face. The only hitch is I don’t think I have any cream. I search the fridge, there is no cream. I look for something which might work as a substitute. I go right to the back, a place best avoided, a place of neglect. I pull out a tub of full fat soft cream cheese and check the expiry date. May 2014. I remove the lid and a cloud of noxious blue dust escapes. The smell is indescribable. I can’t play the game with this stuff, I’ll just have to tell my son.
I go into the other room. He’s waiting for me, an expectant look on his breathless, red little face. Messy golden hair and pleading blue eyes, a hint of mischief and vulnerability.
‘Did you find something so we can play the game daddy?’
I meet his little eyes which are fixed on me.
‘Yes son. Yes, I found something.’
My face is stuck in the mask. A mound of rotting, putrid yellowing cream cheese is just inches from my nose and mouth. I’m having to hold my breath but my son seems completely oblivious to the foul smell.
He has invented his own set of rules for Pie Face. Rather than having us both take turns on the mask he has me set in this position permanently. His job is to spin the arrow to select the number. I point out that if it is the same person getting the pie in the face all the time then the need for having the spinner is removed. He goes ahead regardless. He even manipulates the chosen digit with his hand. He spins the arrow and stops it at five.
‘It’s a five daddy!’
I turn the handle five times. Nothing happens. He spins it again.
‘It’s a five again daddy!’
The spring releases on the second or third turn this time. It’s a surprise even though I’m expecting it. The slimy cheese rolls slowly down my face like spittle on a wall. My son leaps and howls with delight. Then he orders me not to move while he goes to summon Debs. She has to see this. Some minutes later she arrives, all hair and yawns, to inspect my face.
He wants to play again. I pile more rotting cheese onto the hand. Then he decides he wants to video the experience and runs to get the little camera Santa gave him. I have to repeat the Pie Face experience several times until he gets the shot he wants. I think I’m on the point of being sick.
‘I think that’s enough Pie Face for now buddy.’
I’m cleaning my face, afraid I’ll never be able to rid myself of the smell, when there’s a knock on the door. I’ve still got kitchen roll in my hand as I answer. It’s one of my neighbours, an older woman. She wants to tell me there’s been a bit of a mix-up and I seem to have taken her green wheelie bin. She’s been left with my bin. I smile and try to laugh it off, after all, it’s only a bin. But the look on her face quickly betrays that this is serious. She’s as solemn as a priest and trembling slightly. I tell her she can have the bin back now.
‘You see, the problem is that your rubbish is now in our bin. Your rubbish is a lot messier than ours.’
I nod my head. Soon I’ve agreed to have her bin cleaned and returned to her on the next occasion it is emptied. I’m left with the impression that she believes I deliberately switched the bins.
‘Easy to see how it could happen,’ I offer, ‘these bins all look alike!’
She walks away shaking her head. I go to find James. Now that it is daytime he’s gone back to bed. I find him and Debs cuddled up together, watching videos and giggling conspiratorially. But now I’m fresh and want to make the best of the day.
‘Come on guys, it’s mummy and daddy and James day! Let’s not waste it in bed, let’s go have some adventures!’
There’s no evidence they’ve heard me. They’re huddled around a phone, his fingers scrolling images.
‘We can go out for some breakfast, some shopping, to the park?’
‘Alright, well…I’ll be downstairs if anyone wants me.’
I clean up the remnants of the Pie Face game. I throw the rest of the cream cheese in the bin. My neighbour’s bin. And then I wait. Getting my son and wife out of the house in the morning is hard. Like a hostage negotiation, a delicate balance of gentle persuasion, exasperation, patience, reward, false promise and constant disappointment. The processes of washing, grooming, dressing and reasoning run on and on. Our expected breakfast turns into brunch, and then lunch.
Eventually we’re in a bistro. I’m picking half-heartedly at an oily, leafy salad while my son munches on stubby chips and plays a game on my phone, which emits tinny digital sounds. Debs tells me off for taking food from his plate while he’s distracted.
I notice a dark-haired woman at a nearby table frowning in our direction. At first I think she’s also spotted me stealing some chips but instead the object of her dissatisfaction seems to be my son. I’m not entirely certain about the source of her irritation, it could be the noise of the phone or the fact that my son is engaging with an electronic device rather than another human. I look down, and then back up to see that she’s shaking her head now. Against my son’s protests I turn the volume on the phone down a little but I’m not minded to stop his game. My wife and I often take our son to eat out, wanting to make him comfortable with the social dining experience. But we also entertain him how we can. Playing a game or watching a video keeps him amused while allowing us a few minutes of grown-up chat.
My son knows how to make my phone do things I’ll never understand. He’s pressing buttons until he hears a song, something he recognises and likes. He surprises me by jumping from his chair and starting to dance, right at the side of the table as amused servers and customers walk past. There’s a few twists and shaking feet and even a move which takes him to the ground and back. The sound of his laughter dominates the restaurant. I find myself looking again at the dark-haired woman. She’s watching him but talking quietly to her dining companion. I see her eyes raise skywards and her jaw tighten. She’s grasping a paper napkin.
My son keeps laughing. He’s often shy when in public places but he feels comfortable here. He’s giving all of himself to us today. I don’t want to inconvenience or disturb other people but I won’t stop my son from dancing or laughing. I won’t apologise for him or curtail his expression. Self-consciousness will come crashing around him soon enough without my help. The woman notices me and returns a stern gaze. I smile at her. The world’s big enough for lots of different kinds of people.
After lunch it’s playtime. That means a trip to the adventure playground and its many highlights. There’s the giant slide which it took me months to coax my son to go down. Now he barely allows his bum to reach the bottom before he’s racing to climb up it again. There’s the ball pit where my son wrestles with me and always seems to lose his socks. My explorations to the bottom of the pit in search of socks have uncovered a range of strange objects too disturbing to relate here. There’s the huge climbing frame in which the woman with the big eyebrows who works here told me off for trying to get to the top. She stood there impatiently pointing at me and tapping her foot while I tried to explain that I couldn’t get down because I’d put my back out climbing the rope ladder.
But my son’s favourite item is the cannon. I gather foam balls and position the oversized ordnance to an exact position. Then I move to my location and dance around while he fires the balls at my head. I pretend I’m trying to get out of the way but the foam bounces off my skull while James jumps up and down chanting ‘This is awesome!’
Soon, however, I can see tiredness in his eyes and it’s time to go home. The three of us cuddle on the sofa watching cartoons. We’re all hungry again so I leave them to play snakes and ladders while I prepare dinner. I throw together something which resembles a spaghetti bolognese because it’s one of the few dishes which I know he likes. I want to try and make it as healthy as I can so I finely chop onions, carrots and mushrooms. It’s mummy and daddy and James day so we’re allowed dinner in front of the TV. When I present his plate he begins to bawl.
‘It’s spaghetti bolognese son, it’s your favourite.’
‘It’s alright, you don’t have to eat the onions.’
‘Or the carrots.’
‘Or the mushrooms.’
He begins to eat, watching me intently to ensure I don’t try to slip any vegetables back onto his fork. Soon it’s bath time, which brings us to the routine which my son fears and despises beyond all others. Hair washing. On worse days than this Debs and I have had to carry him bare-bummed kicking and roaring up the stairs to force him into the bath. Now though we have reached a teary accommodation. He’ll let mummy wash his hair if she does it really gently. I’m branded an inelegant buffoon and banished from the room. Indeed, if he even spots me coming up the stairs he begins to scream with alarm.
‘Daddy’s coming mummy! Don’t let him wash my hair! Don’t let him wash my hair! He’s too rough!’
Instead I prepare his bedtime treat of milk and cookies and presently Debs carries him back downstairs. His blond mop is damp and slicked back and his cheeks and arms are red. He’s wearing Superman pyjamas. He watches some more TV and munches cookies slowly while his hair dries in front of the fire. Soon pale crumbs speckle the dark carpet like little stars in space. He’s very tired now. Everyone can see it but him.
There’s the inevitable row over going to bed but his heart’s not really in it and soon he is resting his head on my shoulder while I carry him upstairs. As we get to the bathroom door he puts his arms around my neck and squeezes. No words. Just a little squeeze. I brush his teeth and clean his face and hands and then he runs to the bed, where my wife is waiting with a book, and leaps onto it like a WWE wrestler. He lies on the bed, following every word of the story, stopping Debs several times to ask questions or tell us what he already knows. I go to move beside him but I’m startled momentarily by a large furry object on my pillow. It’s one of my son’s favourite teddies. Despite theexhaustion he is delighted by my instinctive shocked reaction and begins to laugh. A little at first and then in floods until he’s giggling uncontrollably. I hold his little body which is trembling with good-humoured abandon. His laughter is so contagious that soon Debs and I are helplessly joining in. It‘s one of those rare, undefinable, irrepressible moments of parental joy when all the pressures of the world are far away and I don’t have to pretend to be cynical about everything. Eventually I compose myself and move to say goodnight to my son. He’s a little afraid of sleeping on his own so Debs usually stays with him, to help him get over. But he’s trying to delay it now, as if he’s not quite ready to let go off the day.
‘What about….’ he begins mischievously, ‘a family cuddle?’
It’s a sweet little ritual of his. He snakes an arm around our necks, pulling us to him like he’s a butterfly and we’re the wings. He holds us there. And I start to think about how happy I am at this moment, about times when I was not. Some regret over time I’ve wasted, some fear over how fast time moves, how quickly things change. A little worry over the uncertainty of the future. I force myself back into the moment and smell my boy’s neck. I put my mouth next to his ear.
‘Thank you son,’ I whisper softly.
He turns his face until it is touching mine. Then the giggles come again.
The grip of his tired arm loosens. He shifts towards mummy and they fit together as one, ready for sleep. I’m about to leave but he remembers one last thought.
‘What day is it tomorrow daddy?’
Again I have to think.
‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’
I know what he wants me to say.
‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’
His eyes are closed now, a certain, safe smile.