Wednesday, June 12, 2019

THIRD (tie) — Heartbeat

 By Simon Botten

A brief exploration of fatherhood, fears, hopes and memories.

What’s left of the daylight slides, filtered, through the blinds and touches your small,
pale face.
I shake the dog and it starts up. You close your eyes.
Ten minutes.

Emma has succumbed to her craving and reluctantly headed out to the Vietnamese
corner shop. This is our first time alone since the hospital, and on that occasion a nurse had been only a call away, the knowledge of which had shored up my first steps, past corridor walls decorated with framed photos of model mothers posed with model babies, ridiculous as the cherubs in Renaissance paintings, looking as unnatural as I, perhaps naturally, felt.

    That was six weeks ago. Forty-five days to be precise, so heading for seven. I look
down at your form, still so tiny, in the cot, blanket folded round you like some fluffy
tortilla. What thoughts are running through your head, I wonder, and realize I’m
doing so out loud, though keeping the words quiet, little more than breathed.

Emma had been surprised when I’d told her you were dreaming. How can he dream
when he can barely see? she’d asked. And I’d told her that I figured consciousness
must come packaged with the subconscious. Not that I’m much when it comes to
science. But I could imagine dreams filled with milk causing that smile to spread across
your cheeks. A Milky Way of gigantic bottles and teats floating around, coming to greet a tiny mouth opened in ecstacy. Black space stretching, white milk flowing; no colour required on the heavenly glide.

I sit down on the bed by your cot, wincing as it creaks. Continue watching you, constant as the battery-charged beats emitted by the dog at your side. Dutch technology, probably made in China; two lullabies and a heartbeat mimicking that heard in the womb. I call him Twinkle, on account of the little star. He coaxes you to sleep and comforts when you
start crying; amazing what they can do nowadays, when they put their minds to it.

Sounds drift up from the street, through the open window. I hear the baby downstairs
screaming its teeth into the world. In the distance an ambulance siren rips out of the
murmur of early-evening traffic. Could be an emergency, or just a driver in a hurry to end
their shift and head for a beer.  Emma will be rushing to choose something sweet from the packed shelves of the cramped corner shop, no doubt worrying about all that might be going wrong in her absence. Your face remains smooth, untroubled by it all.

In my mind’s eye, I see myself here, a vision I would have scoffed at just months ago; weeks even. True, I’m not reduced to the kind of baby-talk some parents indulge in -
imagining their offspring wishing they had the ability to put into words the thought ‘what
in hell are you on about – speak properly, damn it!’ - but still, I am talking to you and you
are asleep and only if I write down what I’m saying will you ever know about it.

I tell you I’ll always do my best for you, or at least try to do my best. And how there will
be difficulties coming, but if you drink your milk and grow strong you’ll be able to deal
with them one by one, starting with the teething currently afflicting the baby downstairs.                                      

I check my watch. Emma’s only been gone five minutes. The heartbeats continue; I guess
Twinkle’s batteries will need changing again soon.

People say you look like me. Which is fine, but I hope you won’t follow all my footsteps.
         Thoughts drift. To the old photograph. A rare family snap taken on a clear summer’s day
at the beach. Malta is written on the back, but the date has faded. I’m there with my
parents. Golden blonde hair highlighted by the sunlight, staring toward the sea;
three, maybe four years old. On my left, my mother, looking extremely fashionable in
dark sunglasses, is attempting to entertain me with a red plastic shovel. My father is
on my right, his arm behind me, as if supporting me as I sit. He’s looking down at me,
not at the camera or whoever took the photo. He might be saying something to me, or
listening to what I say. He’s wearing a pair of  swimming trunks that are a brighter red than the plastic shovel, brighter than any clothes I can recall him wearing. His hair is
tousled, suggesting he might just have had a dip in the water. He must have been on
leave from the Navy, probably after three or more months away at sea. By the length of his hair, he must also have been approaching the end of that break, no doubt with a trip to the barber’s planned  before returning to uniform. I was too young to remember anything of this holiday. It may have been a trip visiting friends made when we’d lived on the island, when my father’s ship had been based there.  My mother was always very sociable, so there would have been people to meet. Now it’s too late to ask any questions, and there’s nothing written down to answer them.

It is the man in uniform, shoulders back, standing straight, hair always well-combed, handsome, polite, but always reserved who comes to mind. What was he thinking, as he  sat there on the sand with the son he so rarely saw, the son who now can’t
recall ever feeling the support of his hand? Perhaps he felt the space that had
grown in those months away,  understood the time could not be reclaimed, and wished he could have been around for longer, to witness and experience the changes taking place in his absence; to find himself changed, able to share emotions, aspirations, concerns, possibly even secrets. Or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.

A car door slams on Malta. Jolted back, a long way from the sea, in a small flat in a landlocked country in the heart of Europe, darkness has almost fallen outside and I’m a father again.
You still sleep peacefully, oblivious to the world and its troubles; innocent.

Twinkle’s heartbeat continues, but its’ ten-minute run must be almost over. Any moment now I expect to hear Emma’s key turn in the lock. She’ll come in, one chocolate bar already half-eaten, expecting the worst, and be relieved to find all her fears unfounded.

 The rest of the future can wait. Whatever happens, I’ll never have enough time with you. Yeah, I wrote that. And, I’m not afraid to admit, occasionally I’m moved to tears.
          I wish you could see me now.

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