Sam is my little boy. He has finally drifted off to sleep. This has taken some effort on my part – three readings of Doctor Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, that rhythmic monologue of the wilful, snake-shaped creature who assertively does not like to breakfast on green eggs and ham.
I’m not complaining, though. The boy and I are fervent fans of the good Doctor and by now I’m a dab hand at acting out Green Eggs, which I know off by heart. It’s the boy’s favourite reading because the main character is his namesake.
I should get an Oscar for my performance. I could give Robert de Niro a run for his money. I cop the attitude. I put on the airs and graces and haughty accent. I don’t hold back. I give it the business. I virtually become the fussy-eater Sam. I have the gig down pat and when I really let it rip the kid chortles like there’s no tomorrow. And, as any parent can testify, there is no music on earth as sweet as the sound of your own child’s laughter.
My Sam laughed heartily before he finally drifted into the arms of Morpheus. His good humour has left me on a mellow high. I like to pretend to my wife, Angel, and even to myself sometimes, that putting the boy to bed at night is a major job of work, but if the truth be told I love doing it. I enjoy entertaining him and making him laugh and it’s my little secret that getting him off to sleep is my favourite part of the day.
So, I’m sitting at the edge of his bed, exhausted but happy, just looking at him and breathing in his smell, when my mobile phone vibrates in the pocket of my trousers. I inwardly give thanks that I’d had the foresight to put it on silent or the kid would be wide awake already. I check the caller ID. Angel. She’s been away on business and is due back tonight. I suffer a twinge of anxiety because she should be in the air right now and halfway across the Irish Sea. Her phone should be in airplane mode and she should definitely not be ringing me. I tiptoe out onto the landing and answer the call.
“Bad news,” she says. “London is fog-bound. Nothing is moving out of here tonight. I won’t make it back before tomorrow.”
I groan. “Ah, no. This can’t be happening. Not tonight, of all nights.”
I have a breakfast meeting in the morning. It’s a major presentation and a big deal for my firm. It’s scheduled for eight o’clock, which is exactly the time Creche Connection opens. I was counting on Angel to drop Sam off.
“I can’t help the weather,” she says.
“Caroline will do her nut.” Caroline is my business partner. A single woman and childless, she’s a princess and I love her but she’s a driven, ambitious woman and doesn’t take prisoners when it comes to the job.
“Give her my apologies,” says Angel. “And good luck with the presentation.”
“Thanks. We’ll need all the luck we can get.”
“Is Sam asleep?”
“He just nodded off.”
“Give him a kiss for me.”
I go downstairs. I start to call my sister’s number in the hope that she’ll take Sam for an hour in the morning and drop him to day-care, but then I remember that she’s away at a line-dancing festival in Barcelona. I scrap that idea.
I pour myself a stiff whiskey before calling Caroline. We’ve been slowly but surely building our firm for the past three years and the project we’re presenting tomorrow, if it leads to a contract, promises to provide us with a level of security that up to now we’ve only dreamt about.
She curses when I give her the news. “Don’t do this to me,” she says.
“It can’t be helped.”
“Can’t you dump the kid with someone for a half-hour for pity’s sake?”
“No can do. I’m on my own here. I’ll be there by half-eight at the latest. You can stall them, Caroline. No bother to you. Warm them up with one of those spiels you’re so good at and in no time at all I’ll arrive to make the presentation. But you’ll have to set things up. Everything is on my memory stick, which is in the top drawer of my desk.”
“God, grant me patience.”
It takes me twenty minutes to calm her down.
I have one more drink. I turn on the television and tune into Netflix. I’m working my way through Westworld. I try to concentrate on the programme but my mind keeps wandering back to the bad luck of tomorrow’s unforeseen circumstance and after ten minutes I’ve completely lost track of what’s going on in TV land.
I go to bed.
In the middle of the night my parental instincts waken me. I check my watch. Three o’clock. I cock an ear to the landing and I hear the little guy protesting in his sleep. I get out of bed, step softly into his room and sit at the edge of his bed. He’s tossing and turning, grinding his teeth and muttering in agitation. I stroke the soft spot, the soothing spot, on his temple just above his right ear and, as usual, he instantly calms down.
He opens his eyes and blinks. “Dad,” he says, groggy in the twilight word between sleep and wakefulness.
“You were having a dream,” I whisper. “Go back to sleep.”
And I give him the thumbs-up sign. It’s a thing we do, a special thing between the two of us. I started it when he began to walk on his own. When he’d stagger to his feet after falling and take a few more steps, I’d give him the sign. After a while he started giving it back and from there it grew into a habitual thing. Whenever he accomplishes a task or achieves a goal or does the right thing I give him the thumbs-up and he gives it back. Likewise, if I do something he approves of, he’ll give me the signal and I’ll give it back.
So, I give him the sign and he sleepily responds in kind. I rub his temple some more and he drifts off to sleep and I sit there for a while, watching him.
Then I go back to bed.
By a quarter past seven I’m showered, shaved and dressed to kill.
Caroline phones to make sure I’m up. “You can never be sure of anything with the parents of young children,” she says. Her voice is an octave higher than usual. I figure it’s her nerves.
“I’m up a while,” I say. “The one thing you can be sure of with the parents of young children, Caroline, is that we’ll be up early in the morning.”
“If you say so.”
“Are you all right?”
“What do you think?”
“Take a Valium.”
“I already did.” And she disconnects.
I bathe Sam, dress him and serve him breakfast – a soft-boiled egg, toasted fingers and a cup of chocolate milk.
Caroline calls again. “I can’t find your bloody memory stick. You said it was in your desk drawer.”
“Try the top drawer of the filing cabinet.”
“You’re doing my head in here.”
She grunts and curses and clatters around the office. Finally, she sighs with what sounds like a mixture of relief and exasperation.
“Is it there?” I say.
“Yes. You said it was in your desk.”
“Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Don’t you dare tell me to relax.”
“Have you got everything?”
“Everything except my partner. My heart is in my mouth.”
“Breathe into a bag. I’ll see you as soon as I can.”
Sam gives me a hug to thank me for breakfast and gets chocolate milk all over my shirt and tie. I run upstairs and change. Then I strap him into the car and we’re away. I turn on the radio and we both join in the chorus with Steve Earle as he sings about losing his heart to a Galway girl.
Mercifully, the door is open at Creche Connection. Four mothers are already departing in the familiar pantomime of guilty waves, trots to cars and revving of engines – the hurried exodus to meet the doings of the day. I walk Sam into the play room. I give him a goodbye kiss and he happily abandons me to join his friends and play with a toy wooden train in a corner.
I make my escape.
At the door I turn to look at him. He stands there with his back to me, already oblivious to my existence. He and his friends are studiously contemplating the toy train, probably figuring out the most satisfying way to wreck it.
Suddenly a strange thing happens. Out of the blue, a mighty fist of grief puts a clamp on my heart and an overwhelming sensation of sadness disables me. I can’t move. I am rooted to the floor, immobile and helpless as a beached whale, while waves of existential angst pound against the coastline of my consciousness.
Sam glances over, spots me and does a double take.
I stand there with one hand holding the door open as pure unadulterated melancholy pulses through my veins. It’s one of those moments that somehow seem to last forever and by their very existence hint at the reality of infinity.
Sam eyeballs me uncertainly. Despite my distress, I can read his mind. He’s thinking two things at the same time. He’s wondering why I’m still standing there and staring at him and he’s also hoping that I won’t go back to him and do something silly like give him an untimely hug and make a show of him in front of his friends. He looks me in the eye and his eyebrows arch quizzically.
A terrible truth surges through my consciousness. I realize that one day I will die and be separated from the boy. I may never see him again. And, worse, he will be without me. I won’t be around to entertain him, to sing along with him or stroke the soft spot on his temple and give him comfort. Despair whirls around in my head.
Then Sam does the perfect thing. He raises his right hand and gives me the thumbs-up sign. It’s absolutely the right thing to do. It connects with me immediately. The melancholy dissipates as instantly as it arrived. Dr Seuss pops into my head and complains about green eggs and ham and the words dissolve the last remnants of my existential angst. I’m back in the land of the living.
My phone rings. I put my hand in my pocket and turn it off.
I respond in kind to my boy. I give him the thumbs-up. He smiles, reassured, and turns back to his friends.
I grin. I leave the building, get into my car and go to face the day.