Stacey pauses at the top, eyeing the dirty streaks on the faded metal of the slide, her mother’s warnings about germs floating in her mind.
I slide my sleeve over my hand, give the slide a vigorous wipe and tell her it’s okay now. She nods solemnly then goes down, her arms stiff by her sides, a formal posture. At the bottom she stands and looks round, uncertain in the unfamiliar surroundings.
“Maybe we could go into that little house?” I suggest. “You could make us a cup of tea.”
“And a biscuit?”
“Sure, why not?”
“A chocolate biscuit?”
“A double-triple-chocolate biscuit with chocolate ice cream on top,” The jollity sounds obviously false in my ears but Stacey grins widely and drags me to the small wooden hut. How much does she understand?
Inside, Stacey bustles around, putting kettles on, fetching tea bags, mugs and sugar, her lips moving with a constant running commentary. I squeeze myself between the bench and the table, lowering my head beneath the gum-encrusted ceiling. Obscene graffiti crams the table top.
“Look, Daddy, a heart,” she exclaims. “What do those words say?”
I follow her finger. “It says, ‘Gemma Davies loves to… play on the slide’.”
She senses the hesitation and looks at me carefully. I muster what I hope is a guileless smile. So hard to tell her even the smallest lie.
“I like to play on the slide.” She frowns. “But you shouldn’t write on the table, should you, Daddy?”
“No, that’s right.” I bite back the urge to add, “Good girl.” Rebecca and I have discussed this. Praise the action, not the child. She’s not a good girl or a naughty girl, she’s just a girl.
Rebecca reads out passages from the parenting books, points out discussions in the online mother and baby forums, relates incidents and talks with other mums at children’s centres and play groups. Examples of what works and what doesn’t. What works but for the wrong reasons. Being child-led, being an attached parent, naughty steps versus time-out zones.
The ideas and phrases slide in and out of my comprehension, while Rebecca tries again to explain, the urgency clear in her tone, preparing me for tests I have no hope of passing but which I have no choice but to take. My mind reaches automatically for the redundant get-out clause: mothers’ brains are built for thinking about this stuff, fathers’ brains for the practicalities. I recall my childish pride at fixing the DVD player.
I look up through the window of the little house where a small square of the hospital is visible. However long we have is hopelessly inadequate for the amount I have to learn. The day-to-day clothing, feeding, bathing, trying to have fun is exhausting already. Putting her hair in pigtails defeats me. I shrink away from the distant but all too real future and the questions a teenage girl should be able to ask her mother.
“Sorry, honey, what?”
“Here’s your tea. I put four sugars in it. There you go,” She places the invisible cup delicately on the table. “How many biscuits would you like?”
For a moment, the sudden lump in my throat stops me speaking. The tears are coming and I swipe roughly at my eyes.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?”
“Nothing. It was just a fly, went in my eye.”
“Cheeky fly. Shoo fly, shoo.” She chases the imaginary fly out of the door. “There, it’s gone now, Daddy.”
“Thanks, Stace,” I ruffle her hair. “We should be heading back soon. See if the doctors have finished with Mummy.”
“But we have to drink our tea first, Daddy.”
“Sorry, yes, and eat our biscuits.”
“Be careful, your tea is hot. Let me blow on it for you. There you go, you can drink it now.”
I take a sip and for a moment I can actually feel the sweet tea flow down my throat. I drain the cup and set it back on the table with a satisfied, “Aaah.”
“Was that nice, Daddy?”
“Yes, thank you, it was lovely.”
“Let’s have our biscuits and go back and see Mummy. I’ve saved a extra big one for Mummy to make her feel better. Let’s go, Daddy, come on.”
She grabs my hand and pulls me back into the sunshine and we run together across the grass.