by Craig Aitchison
Sometimes the only solution is to get in the car and drive. That’s what I tell myself, like it’s the start of a road movie, like I’m pushing my shades on and driving off in a cool car with the top down along dusty highways where I’ll fall in love and find myself. But I’m not. I’m driving round the streets a wee bit trying to get my damn son to go to sleep. To stop him wailing his head off every time we lay him in his cot. To get some peace.
We’ve tried everything else. Laura’s fed him—milk and some homemade soup. Bad idea—it only seemed to give him energy. Then she rocked him, singing lullabies. ‘Rock-a-bye baby.’ Another bad idea—instead of getting sleepy, Hamish started giggling and Laura gave me a look because I turned that one into a silly game when I let him drop a bit before catching him.
She tried a story but all that did was wind him up. And listening to how that caterpillar ate everything made me hungry. Not that I was craving apples and plums at half two in the morning. I was missing the things that I stopped eating when Laura first got pregnant to show solidarity, the things I thought I’d be allowed when the baby appeared but were still forbidden. A chocolate cake like that greedy little bastard caterpillar. A doner kebab, a pizza or bag of chips maybe. And a couple of pints. Then I could just roll up in a cocoon and transform myself into a big fucking butterfly that could fly away. That’d be nice.
Laura hands Hamish to me and he looks up, gurgling and laughing. ‘You try,’ she says and heads to the bedroom.
And though I’ve got work in the morning, though all I want to do is sleep, though I’ve vowed to stop doing this, I bundle him into a jumper, suit and hat and carry him out to the car. I strap him into his car seat and pop in his dummy. If Laura had her way, the dummy would be on Hamish’s banned list too—increased risk of middle-ear infections, dental difficulties, all that shit. For now, I’m winning that particular debate. I mean, we need it for nights like this. Desperate times and all that.
When I start the car, the engine sounds loud in the quiet cul-de-sac. The old folk on one side will likely comment about it in the morning. Ears like fucking bats when it suits them that pair, though other times you have to shout at them to exchange pleasantries about the weather.
The streets are nearly empty except for a couple of taxis, someone walking a Jack Russell. Why does their dog need walking at this time? Soon, when we’re out of the town, away from the streetlights, I start to relax a bit. I’ve always liked driving, the way that the actions are almost sub-conscious, like while one part of your brain is busy with the steering wheel, gears and pedals another part can just drift.
I wish I could see Hamish in the rear-view mirror mind. It’s meant to let me see him in the smaller mirror attached to his car seat but that’s gone skewwhiff and all it shows is the door. I strain to hear a change in his breathing, a snore even—please Christ, a snore, but I hear nothing over the sound of the engine. Maybe that’s a good sign.
Then a lorry comes towards us lit up like Blackpool. Seriously, the whole cab’s blue and purple and you can see in the cab the driver’s got soft toys and one of those dreamcatcher things. Whatever gets you through the night, mate.
But from the back seat comes a wee gurgle—the bright lights have woken him I’m sure. So I turn off the main road to the single track road. It’s darker here and there are no other cars about. Should help Hamish sleep; let’s just hope I don’t drop off too.
I’m so tired. I mean, I used to think I was tired before he came, but it was nothing like this. I’m exhausted, constantly.
Not that I can complain to Laura. Especially now that she’s back at work but still breast-feeding morning and night. Part-time admittedly, but that was a decision we made together. It’s for the best. The best for Hamish that is, not for our finances.
I love the wee man. Of course I do. There’s times he does something—not much mind, he’s not even one yet, a smile maybe or an attempt at a word—and I feel like my feet lift off the ground, like I’m floating. But I struggle with this tiredness. Christ, there’s times at work I want to put my head on the desk and fall asleep. I could. Even with the noise of the office, with Fat John sitting across from me spilling biscuit crumbs down his front and Marie from accounts laughing like a fucking peacock, I could lay my head down and get a good nine hours. It wouldn’t make any difference either; a few emails would go unanswered, a delivery would arrive a day late, but nothing that mattered.
Maybe that’s another bit of wisdom I’ve learned from fatherhood. After a few drinks one night, my mate Dave, proud father of three angelic girls, told me that fatherhood gave you perspective. What he didn’t say was that perspective made you painfully aware of the fact that most of your life was a colossal waste of time.
I look at the petrol gauge. Quarter of a tank and I don’t think I’ll be up in time to get petrol on the way to work tomorrow, so after a few more minutes driving up the quiet road, I park in a layby. The bin is overflowing with McDonald’s rubbish and, behind, there’s a dark wood.
He must be sleeping now. I turn off the engine and sit for a minute, listening to the click of the car cooling. Then I open the door and step out, leaving it open so it doesn’t bang. I peer in the back window. It’s that dark it’s hard to see in past my reflection. He’s cuddled down inside his cosy suit so I can’t see his eyes. Surely he’s away now. Surely.
But I need to check so I open the back door, easing it open as slowly, as quietly as I can, not wide open, just enough so that I can lean my head in close to him and I hear his gentle breathing and let out a sigh. I’ve done it, he’s asleep. Then he looks up.
‘Goor,’ or something he gargles at me; I nearly jump back into the bin.
Fuck. He’s still not sleeping.
He smiles up at me; his wee hat’s over one eye and his coat covers one cheek but I swear it’s a cheeky smile. ‘Goor.’
I look around at the road, at the fields on the other side, then up at the stars and the bright crescent moon. There’s a gap in the fence that leads into the woods. I can see what looks like a path leading between the trees. The baby carrier is lying on the back seat. Worth a try, I think. I’ve tried everything else. I pick up the carrier and strap it around me.
His eyes are full of expectation as I lift him and drop him into the carrier so that he faces towards me. I close the door. ‘Let’s see if we can find a Gruffalo.’ Though maybe I shouldn’t say that; the way tonight is going we might run into one of those fuckers—purple prickles, orange eyes, black tongue, the works.
I turn on the torch on my phone and step into the woods meaning to walk for a while, enough to get a breath of air. Maybe the heat of my body, the rhythm of walking, my heartbeat, will help him sleep. And I decide to talk to him, let him hear my voice so I start to recite my own wee version of The Gruffalo:
‘A dad took a walk through the deep dark wood,
if Hamish went to sleep that would be really good.’
The path I saw doesn’t last long, probably just worn by folk getting out of their cars for a piss or whatever else folk get up to in a layby, but I keep walking. There’s a crunch beneath my feet—acorns, something like that. I don’t know the names of trees or plants, that kind of stuff. I should learn, try to cultivate a love of nature in my son. I don’t have that to pass on, though I’m sure an in-depth knowledge of Radiohead and the films of the Coen brothers is just as useful.
There is the sound of an owl, although I’m sure I read somewhere that it’s two owls—one making the ‘twit’, another replying ‘twoo,’ the two sounds almost merging into one. Is that right? Or am I making stuff up now?
‘Where are you going to pissed off dad?
Come and have a drink in my treetop pad.’
The only other sound is the wind in the trees. It sounds like a roar far away and I stand there waiting for a strong breeze to hit me, but it dies to a murmur and the ferns around me nod gently. The torch on my phone goes off and I look at the screen. Low battery. I look back the way I’ve come, eyes adjusting to the dark. I could find my way all right, I ate my carrots. We’ll be okay.
Maybe Laura is messaging, worried about us. Who am I kidding? She’ll be fast asleep, glad of the rest, oblivious to our adventure. I switch off the phone in case I need those four percent later.
‘They walked some more till the Gruffalo said,
Go to sleep little man, rest your wee head.’
I stop and lean against a tree, listening for the sound of Hamish’s breathing and then I hear it under the rustle of the trees—a peaceful wheeze. He’s sleeping. At last.
For a second I’m scared to move but, as I stand there, a flake of bark comes away in my hand and I let it crumble in my fingers. I’m so tired. I lean against the tree and then slide down it until I’m sitting on the ground with my back leaning against the trunk.
I breathe deeply through my nose. The smell of damp soil and sap mixes with Hamish’s smell, all fresh and pink-smelling.
‘All was quiet in the deep dark wood.
The boy went to sleep and the dad felt good.’
I gather up some stuff from the ground and study it. Little seeds shaped like propeller blades. Helicopters we called them when we were kids. I let one fall and it twists and turns as it falls to the ground. ‘Sycamore,’ I whisper then pick up another and let it fall.
And as I let this one fall, a bird starts to sing, softly at first, a few high bright notes. Then a different bird begins, its notes curling and shaping themselves around the first. And an insistent, repetitive note pushes through, like a needle through cloth bringing detail in another colour. I can’t name a single bird and can’t see them in the still dark. It doesn’t matter—it’s like they’re summoning the new day, calling it into being. I close my eyes and savour the rich abstract tapestry in my head.
Hamish is warm against me.
Craig Aitchison has an MLitt in Creative Writing from Stirling University. His poetry has appeared in The Eildon Tree magazine and the Stanza poetry map of Scotland. His writing in Scots has been shortlisted for the Wigtown Poetry Prize and this year he won both first and second prize in the Scots Language Short Story competition. He has had fiction published by Crowvus Press, Northwords Now, Southlight, Pushing Out the Boat and Wyldblood.