Many things change when you have a small child. A simple night away in a hotel involves as much planning as the Persian king Darius’ invasion of Ancient Greece. And has a similar casualty rate. This is my memory of the first time we took our baby son for a night away. Some of it may even be true.
I’m walking in a circle, head down, staring at the carpet. The hotel bedroom carpet, thick and luxurious. The unfamiliar warm strands of the fabric caressing my bare toes. I’m stumbling blindly, somewhere between asleep and awake. Around and around.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ mummy asks, a harsh edge to her voice.
‘I’m looking for my socks.’
As soon as I say it, I know it sounds pathetically weak.
‘Never mind your fecking socks! Just go!’
It’s the first family break we’ve had since our son was born. And it’s been a disaster. We arrived at the hotel several hours earlier. The three of us. We had been planning it for weeks, just to see if we could make it through one evening away from home.
Our boy, now ten months old, was awake and bawled throughout the long drive, exhausting our supplies of stories, songs and patience.
Then, as soon as we reached our room, he fell asleep and we spent an hour sitting on the edge of the bed watching his chest go up and down.
Later, a walk around the rustic hotel grounds was abandoned when a monsoon quickly descended and blew our umbrellas inside out, the dark clouds sending us scurrying back towards reception.
Dinner was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. A proper night out with some adult conversation. When I checked in the guy at reception listed the awards that the restaurant had won and I nodded along seriously. We dressed up for the occasion, a nice frock for my wife and I ironed a shirt.
We went downstairs and were shown to a small, stuffy room, full or porcelain and brass ornaments. A stiff, elderly man invited us to have a drink before dinner and it seemed impossible to refuse.
We had put our baby in his buggy and hoped he would doze there contentedly as my wife sipped her gin and tonic.
Within minutes he had started to wail and we took turns trying to soothe him. There were a small number of other couples in the room, all older and quiet.
Everything about the room was quiet. Everything except our son who was screaming. Some of the couples looked on and smiled sympathetically. Some looked away and scowled, the strain of their neck muscles visible.
Mummy lifted him onto her shoulder and talked lovingly into his soft ear. He vomited a small stain onto her dress.
We asked the waiter if we could be fast-tracked. He was helpful without being sympathetic. We were taken to an empty dining room and reluctantly passed over the delights of starters and desserts as our son’s mood deteriorated further.
Within ten minutes I had to abandon a half-eaten fillet steak. A very good half-eaten fillet steak. Rare. Before 9pm we had fled back to our room with our son now purple with rage. Our main demand on the award winning kitchen was to ask them to warm up his bottle.
Back in the bedroom, with the king-size bed and the thick carpet, I rocked him until he finally succumbed to sleep.
I put him in the little cot and turned to ask my wife if I should order a bottle of wine, but she was also asleep, snoring lightly. I sank into the giant pillows to read my book. Soon I had also dozed off.
But now I’m being roughly shaken. An awakening so abrupt that it feels like the end of the world. Mummy is beside me holding our boy who is crying. Always crying.
‘Wake up Jonny! Wake up!’
‘He’s not well, wake up!’
I haul myself up, shifting my weight onto one elbow and rubbing my face.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’
‘Feel him, just feel him.’
She holds his screaming little globe of a head towards me and I touch his cheek with the back of my hand. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be reacting to so I take a guess.
‘He’s a bit warm,’ I offer hesitantly.
‘A bit warm? Jesus, he’s burning up!’
I touch his face again and nod slowly. My very limited experience of parenting has taught me to trust the maternal instinct. Well, I don’t really have much choice as the paternal instinct seems to be still asleep.
‘Get the Calpol,’ she orders, as she starts to loosen his clothing and dab him with a damp cloth. I stumble onto the floor and search the garishly-coloured bag for the medicine bottle.
The baby bag which is bigger than all the rest of the luggage for the trip. I’m rifling through bottles, nappies and jars and soon I realise with a creeping horror that I haven’t packed the Calpol. The magical elixir which reduces a baby’s temperature within minutes. I brace myself.
‘It’s not here. I must have forgotten to pack it.”
There’s a few seconds of silence, much worse than any noise. I can hear myself breathe.
“Well, go and get some then.”
I don’t respond. There’s nothing more to say. It’s at this point we have the conversation about my missing socks.
Then I’m out in the hotel corridor, in my bare feet. Only now do I consider the question of what time it is. I fish my phone from my pocket and check the screen. 12:43AM. I stand there uncertain of how to proceed.
Should I start to knock on random doors asking the confused dwellers if they happen to have Calpol? A drunken couple, holding each other somewhere close to upright, pass me with goofy smiles and I reject the idea. I head for the stairs.
The soles of my feet make a light squeaking sound as I head across the hard, shining black floor of the hotel foyer towards reception.
There’s a young woman in a room behind the desk and she involuntarily winces when she sees me coming. She smooths her skirt as she comes to the counter.
‘Hi, this might sound like an odd question but I don’t suppose you have any Calpol in the hotel?’
‘No we wouldn’t have anything like that,’ she responds shaking her head. Then as an afterthought she adds: ‘But you’d be surprised how many people have asked for it.”
I’m sure there’s a profound response to this but I haven’t the inclination to search for it.
‘Well, is there a shop nearby that I could go to?’
Her face brightens, as if pleased that I’ve asked an easy one.
‘No, no, no,’ she responds almost with jollity. ‘There’s nowhere open at this hour. You’ll probably have to go into the next town. Or the one beyond that.’
I’m left with a choice. Go back to the room and tell my wife I can’t find any Calpol. Or go outside into the screaming wind and rain, in my bare feet, to start driving blindly, in the middle of the night, to try and find a town which just might have a shop which is open late.
I go outside.
Within minutes I’m away from the hotel and the street lights and driving through the black countryside. The rain is attacking the windscreen in such torrents that the wipers struggle to cope and the cold pedals feel alien beneath my feet.
Ten minutes before I had been sleeping contentedly. Now I’m searching desperately in the wet night for a road sign which has any recognisable name.
I try to call my wife on my mobile. Perhaps our baby son is fine now and I can come back. It goes straight to answerphone and I drive on.
After fifteen minutes I come to a village. I drive around until I find a garage. It’s closed. I see a figure walking in the street and I pull the car to the other side of the road and lower the window.
An older man sticks his red face in the gap where the window had just been. His grey hair is wet and greasy. He smells powerfully of alcohol, a stench I’ve become much more sensitive to because I haven’t been drinking recently. He seems amiable but I worry that the threat of menace could be easily roused.
‘Do you know if there are any shops open nearby?’
‘What’s your name son?’
Inexplicably and without thinking, I tell him. He scratches his chin and looks thoughtful.
‘McCambridge? There’s no McCambridges from round here. Are you from Cushendall? What’s your Da’s first name?’
‘I’m sorry but I’m just trying to find a shop that’s open.’
He stands up and puts a hand at the base of his back, as if to support himself.
‘You’ll not be able to get any drink at this hour. You should have bought your carry-out earlier son.’
I give up on this and drive off with a quick thank you and a wave. I leave the village, aware that I’m putting yet more distance between myself and the hotel and wondering at what point I should give this search up. I try to call my wife again but there’s no signal on my phone.
I come to another town, it’s a larger settlement and this gives me fresh hope. I drive through all of the main streets until I find a garage. My spirits are initially lifted when I see the lights are on. Then they are dashed when I notice the door is locked, before they are finally restored by the existence of a night hatch.
There’s a small queue of people at the hatch. I pull over the car and join the back of the line. I can feel small damp stones sticking to the soles of my feet.
It’s well after 1AM now and the shoppers are all younger people leaving bars and buying cigarettes, crisps and sweets. The woman in front of me buys twenty Marlboro Lights and a packet of condoms.
Then it’s my turn. A short, dark-haired man with spectacles peers out at me from behind a screen, like a priest in a confessional. I get the feeling he doesn’t enjoy his job.
‘Would you have any Calpol?’
He holds my gaze for a moment, his face betraying no emotion.
‘Infant or Sixplus?’
I thrust some money into a metal shelf which is then slid through to his slide of the glass. The shelf slides back with the Calpol bottle in a little purple box. I grab it and head back to my car, limping slightly.
The whole journey, which felt traumatic just moments before, is now tinged with triumph. It all makes sense at last. Now I can return to the hotel room like the conquering hero with the Calpol, the enabler who will restore my ailing son to health.
My restored enthusiasm and anticipation means that I’m now driving much faster than before. I try to phone my wife again, to share in my glory, but I still can’t get a signal on the mobile.
Then I drive past a car with dark windows. I think immediately that it’s probably the police. My next thought is that I’m driving too fast. Then that I’ve got my phone wedged against my ear. And it’s the middle of the night. The car begins to follow me.
What happens next is hard to explain in any reasonable way. I’ve always been a careful driver and have never knowingly broken any traffic laws. I’ve had two parking tickets in my life and once had to do a speed awareness course when I was detected driving at 46mph in a 40 zone.
Perhaps it is just the panic of being in my first ever police car chase that makes me do it. There’s a little roundabout in the road ahead, with a traffic island in the middle. I go around it the wrong way, passing the island on the right-hand-side and clipping the edge of it with my back tyre. The car closes in behind me and I hear the sound of a siren.
And just for a little part of one second, just for the tiniest moment that it takes to formulate a thought, I consider not stopping.
It’s more a feeling than a thought. I’ve gone through too much shit tonight to get this Calpol to stop now.
I’ve a vision of hordes of police cars, sirens blaring, a task force pursuing me to the hotel. I’ll just manage to spoon the liquid into my sick, infant son before I’m rugby tackled, cuffed and led away.
Instead I pull over.
One officer examines the back of my car while another approaches me. I smile warmly at him as I lower the window. He doesn’t smile back.
‘What speed do you think you were doing there son?’
‘I know I was going too fast officer, but I’ve got a sick child who needs medicine.’
I hold up the bottle of Calpol. He jumps back slightly, as if concerned that I might be producing a hand grenade. Then he settles and tells me what I was doing wrong.
He checks all my documents and asks me to blow in a tube. He studies the little black device before informing me that I haven’t drunk any alcohol tonight. I consider telling him that I already knew that, but decide to hold my tongue.
I’m worrying about what I’m going to say if he asks me to get out of the car and notices that I’m not wearing any shoes or socks. But then he tells me that he is a father too and lets me go on with advice to be a bit more careful in the future.
‘When you have children,’ he says, ‘you never ever stop worrying about them.’
I continue on until I see the hotel lights and I park in the same space I vacated an hour earlier.
The same woman is at the reception desk and I smile and wave the Calpol bottle as I walk past. She stares at me without any sign of recognition or comprehension.
I let myself back into the room, which is mostly dark apart from the dim glare of a bedside lamp.
Mummy is sleeping at the very edge of the bed and the cot is pulled right beside her. One of her arms is snaking through the white wooden bars.
I check on our son. He is lying asleep on his back, his little head turned slightly to the side. I touch his face. As usual I can’t discern whether it is too hot or too cold. He seems settled so I leave him alone.
I set the Calpol on the bedside table. Then I go to the bathroom to wash my feet. Then I go back to bed.