I am the bitch of somebody who barely reaches my knees. Somebody I had a hand in making. Somebody who, as his mother announced seconds after his birth – she might have still been a bit away with the fairies at that point, I’m genuinely amazed no one has thought to pump gas and air into Ibiza clubs – looks like a sun-dried tomato version of me. “That’s what I get for procreating with a ginger,” she half sobbed, half giggled. “At least we’ll never lose him on a dark night.”
She has a point there. And given that, I’m reliably informed, it will be nothing but darkness here in matter of weeks, this is a good thing. If ‘losing him on a dark night’ can be ticked off my list of worries, it just leaves maiming, traumatising, inadvertently starving him and leaving him with lifelong daddy issues. Nae bother.
When we first decided that Tess would take the dream job she’d been offered in Stockholm, and I’d come over all ‘when in Sweden’ and do the stay-at-home-dad thing, I wavered between envisioning wacky mishaps of the sort that seem to happen to hapless men in detergent adverts, and actual terror that he would come to harm in my care. I ran out and took a paediatric first aid course, which soothed those nightmares a bit – and ended up with a kind of stoic determination that it will all work out, because it has to.
That said, the inadvertently starving him one is looking fairly possible at the moment, given that he took one look at the porridge I lovingly cooked for his breakfast and started to howl.
“Alfie,” I reply with a bright grin that I’m fairly sure makes me look as though I’m high, “you love porridge. Porridge is super.”
Super? When did I start talking like an Enid Blyton book?
“Noooooooo…” comes the wail of anguish, and I take a moment to hope that there are no neighbours listening and concluding I’m chopping his toes off or something. Though come to think of it, there is a kid crying somewhere in the building, so someone else is having as fun of a morning as me.
“What about a banana?” I ask, knowing it’s a mistake. Never negotiate with terrorists, and never negotiate with toddlers.
Sure enough, it’s then that the porridge is merrily tossed on the floor, where it globs onto the manky Linoleum that gives this kitchen such pizazz. I’ve always been under the impression that Swedes are all ridiculously stylish and live in clutter-free show homes of minimalist chic, but this flat, to put it bluntly, is a dump.
To be fair, it’s a far cry from our London shoebox, with its huge rooms and high ceilings and elaborately tiled chimney-fireplace things. It reminds me a bit of the once-grand mansions in the West End of Glasgow that have been turned into student digs and left to rot in the stentch of burned toast and bongs. It’s got this sort of faded, tragic glamour; Norma Desmond in flat form. The kitchen and bathroom haven’t been updated since the year dot – last night it took me the best part of an hour to get the ancient stove working – but more than that, there’s just this general air of neglect. Like you can sense, palpably, that no one has given a monkey’s about the place in years. I suppose that’s the way with rental properties.
“That’s a bit rubbish,” I say with a cheerfulness that doesn’t remotely convince Alfie, or me. “We’ll have to throw it in the bin now, won’t we?”
“My porridge!” he howls. “Not throw it in bin!”
“But it’s been on the floor, it’s dirty. You can’t eat it now.”
I decide to leave the porridge on the floor for now, distract him with some crayons and start frantically fumbling through kitchen cabinets, searching desperately for something – anything – that might be deemed acceptable as breakfast. There’s nothing to be found but a slightly sticky array of condiments presumably left by other tenants and I vaguely recall that I meant to get some shopping in yesterday but never quite got around to it.
I know I’m in zero position to judge, but if only that kid next door would give it a rest for a moment, I could think straight. It’s cried, more-or-less around the clock, since we arrived two days ago. At least I think it has, Tess hasn’t seemed to notice when she’s been home. Last night, after I jumped out of bed for the umpteenth time thinking it was Alfie and Tess hadn’t even stirred, I started to wonder if the sound has just got stuck in my head now, like an eighties hit you only know one line of.
“Alfie, do you hear that baby crying?”
“Baby crying,” he repeats, though I’ve no idea whether he’s confirming or is just parroting my words back to me. I remember that I’m asking someone who violently opposes the concept of shoes to confirm that I’m not going crazy.
“‘Mon pal,” I say with a flash of inspiration. “We’re going out for breakfast. Me and you, a man-date.”
“Man-date,” he says with a giggle, and the Battle of the Porridge is over. Now for the Battle of the Shoes.