I did something today that I’m not sure I’ve ever done before. No, not that. T hasn’t worn me down that much.
I walked up to a stranger sitting in the park with the opening line ‘Nice baby.’ Smooth, huh? On my way out of T’s office – where I had been to drop off office-warming gifts because I’m a killer girlfriend – I spotted a blonde woman sitting on the grass with her bambino. As I walked past I felt the urge to stop, swivel and approach her for a chat. Now, some people are chatty people. Some people absolutely love a little chat with a stranger in a bank queue or waiting for a drink at a bar. Some people have the mantra ‘a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet‘. Not me. My mantra is ‘a stranger is just a human that you’re likely to hate’.
At first she looked taken aback. Perhaps she also despises people encroaching on her personal space. It also didn’t help that I tried to follow up my terrible opener with ‘What a pretty girl’. It wasn’t a girl. However, on the realisation that I had a baby clipped to me, and I wasn’t trying to haggle to buy hers, she soon got chatting about development milestones and where she bought the baby’s onesie. I did ask, to be clear, she didn’t just start shouting brand names at me. As we were exchanging polite chit chat about the babies’ first rolls, I almost invited myself to join her and her well dressed sprog and then I thought ‘Clara, what the hell are you doing?! You don’t make friends with strangers. You’re English’. I quickly, and awkwardly, noticed that my imaginary bus had arrived at the imaginary bus stop and went careering off until she could no longer see me (that point happened to be the entrance of McDonalds. Okay, it happened to be the counter of McDonalds).
What came over me? Who even am I? I can’t tell you how much soul searching I did when my real bus really did arrive for the long journey back to our rental apartment. I think, having replayed the interaction in my head twenty-four times now, that I am lonely. On Sunday evening, as T and I drove with Whoopsy back from the Cotswolds, I started shaking. The car was freezing, I insisted, and rammed the heating up full blast. T looked at me as you would a person in a tutu eating a roadkill badger and promptly switched it off. As we drove it became clear that the car heating was well adjusted. It was my body that was maladjusted. T has yet to pass his driving test (city boy!) so I was the only person able to complete the drive through central London (the motivation not to spend a night in a Day’s Inn will empower you to achieve the impossible!). Once we reached his parent’s house, I made my excuses to rest, rolled myself in their most expensive cashmere blanket and fell asleep, drooling, on his mother’s brand new sofa. I can honestly say I think they love having me as a spontaneous, unplanned daughter-in-law.
No one really believes me when I’m poorly. I don’t know if its the heavily tanned make up, or the fact that I could still string a sentence together, but when we reached our rental apartment (more on that subject later), there was an outpouring of shock when the thermometer displayed a raging fever. Finally, waving the proof in my hand, I insisted Tom run me a boiling hot bath so I could sweat the fever off. I climbed into water, scalding and steaming, feeling a lovely tepid temperature engulf me and snorted paracetamol off the porcelain tub. The following day saw little improvement. The day after that, too. I cancelled my monthly NCT meet up with the eight other mother’s we learned that we had to point a baby boy’s willy down to stop him peeing out of a nappy with. The following day, now midweek, saw my furthest journey in three days – to the Thai restaurant opposite. I mean, if you’re going to start somewhere…
By Thursday I had had enough. I had a Skype interview in the afternoon and I was damned if I was going to look like I hadn’t seen daylight in seven months on camera. I felt better, and the thermometer was showing a normal temperature, so I packed a bag for baby and I and we headed to the hairdressers. Sitting in the chair, having my hair blow dried, with baby happily bouncing on the assistant’s lap, I felt rejuvenated. I felt, almost, attractive. I felt like an overachieving mother. Look at me, I thought, casually juggling motherhood and being a glamazonian warrior. Okay, I didn’t actually think that because I don’t use words like glamazonian, but you get the gist. “The poo is really not that bad” I insisted to the pregnant assistant when she probed about my baby experience so far, “You’re just so focused in on cleaning it up that you don’t have time to get grossed out“. She, another example of an unplanned pregnancy, was articulating her fears that the excessive bodily fluids of a young child would be too much for her to deal with. I shrugged it off with the veteran experience of a poo-diving sewer monster. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen – and survived.
“Um, I, um, have to go...” she babbled, and disappeared into a cloud of hairspray. Sitting Whoopsy on my lap as my last few curls were being placed, I felt a warn dampness on my leg. Not a full nappy warmth. A full pair of trousers warmth. I rushed to the bathroom (no changing mat – obvs.) and whipped Whoopsy’s pants off. Poonami is not an adequate description of what stared back at me. The poo had managed to crawl down each of his legs and was being held in only by two tight ankle hems. So I mopped him up with a packet of wet wipes, put his emergency clothes on him, wrapped up the stained ones and returned to my haircut. KIDDING. As if I have the forethought to carry emergency clothes. This kid was drenched in sloppy korma style butt sauce, but I was going to finish this goddamn haircut if it killed me. The clean up managed to remove most of the crap from Whoopsy by transferring it to the bathroom (serves them right for not having a changing mat, I say). I strapped a new nappy to his butt and returned to my seat and a very bemused hairdresser.
I don’t know what people thought when they saw me walking from the hairdressers, down the high street and to the nearest Mothercare. A beautiful young woman (shut up) with perfectly curled hair bouncing along with an almost-naked, rather shocked looking baby. The assistants at Mothercare gave me a knowing smile. Not a sympathetic, knowing smile. More of a ‘you won’t forget emergency clothes next time, will you?’ smirk. On arriving at T’s office in time for my interview, I shoved the naked baby and the brand new pants into his hands and gave him a look that immediately cut off whatever he was planning on saying.
That night, the fever returned. Out of nowhere – BAM. The shivers began. I started demanding a boiling hot bath. The thermometer was stuck repeatedly into various orifices. Once again, it suggested that I might be a chicken roasting in a fan assisted oven. I rang my mum, a former NHS GP, who insisted it was a virus and instructed me to go to bed on two paracetamol. That wasn’t good enough. I rang 111. I told them about being admitted to hospital four days after Whoopsy was born with blood poisoning. They weren’t taking any chances and marched me to urgent care at the nearest hospital, a life-size display case of human disease. The Doctor soothed me; his wife had given birth five months prior and was still suffering from a broken immune system that saw her contract every virus passing through the city. I was sent home with kind words and a referral to my GP. By the time I reached my own GP the following morning, the temperature had gone down and I was looking my usual tanned self (Cheer, MAC), ensuring the overworked Doctor despised me and my delicate feminine constitution. I was sent out with a frown and a referral to Kings College Hospital to have my blood checked.
It was whilst travelling home from the appointment that I bounded over to this poor hapless mother who just wanted a quiet hour in the sun with her son. I realised, reflecting back, that she was the only person I had spoken to – bar the Doctors and T – since Sunday evening. Five days of baby and a guy who talks to me through his laptop. There isn’t really a conclusion to this story. That was today. I’m starting to realise that an Englishman’s home can be both his castle and his prison. My prison guard, although rather cute and harmless (tell that to my vagina), is also prone to wild mood swings and unachievable demands. I count myself fortunate that it’s taken four months for any sense of loneliness to manifest and I’m also fortunate that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel since I plan to return to work in two months. However, it illuminates what a challenging and isolating journey this can be, especially for those of us who are spearheading the baby movement amongst our friends or who have done ridiculous things like Airbnb their central apartment to get a temporary taste of the suburbs. So next time you see a lone mum sitting in a park with her baby, go say hi. Unless you’re a lone man in a trench coat. Then walk right past.