Every few weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The next in our series – ‘If I Could Tell You’. Read an interview with the author, Soumya Bhattacharya, here.
You are five years old now. As I write this, hunched over my laptop (the same one on which I sent the emails from when you were born), I can see you asleep.
You thrash around a lot in your sleep these days. Perhaps you have unpleasant dreams that you cannot remember when you wake up. Which is just as well. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, with a single cry, piercing, plaintive, an ascending note that terminates abruptly: ‘Baba’. You are afraid of spiders, cockroaches, stray dogs, men with beards, the darkness. I then hug you and massage your back. You snuggle closer and fall asleep again, your head buried in the crook of my arm. I let you be there for a long time. Awake and anxious, I smell your hair.
Now, as I write this letter, I can see that you have moved over to the very edge of the bed. You are lying crooked, one arm thrown over your pillow, one leg dangling. Your hair, grown long (I have to take you for a haircut tomorrow, I have to find time, I have to force myself to get out of the house), falls in a gentle wave over your forehead. I write by the dull, blue glow of the screen. It is hard on my eyes, but I have grown somewhat used to it. I make the letters bigger (150 per cent); I enlarge the point size (eighteen). It still hurts my eyes, but only a bit. I don’t very much care. Through the heavy curtains in the room, a lozenge of light falls on the sheet. It lies across the back of your thigh, lighting up the picture of the tiger on your pyjama bottom.
I look at it. And I return to the screen. At the top left hand corner, the cursor blinks as if mocking me for staring too long at the screen. It is a silent reproach for not writing. But I must write.
The story I shall tell you in these letters is about failures. It is largely a story of hope thwarted, of promises broken. One of the reasons I wanted to write to you was to explain; but it was also to understand. Through writing, I hope to glimpse, before it is too late, some sort of pattern or structure to the random events of the past few years. Words mean more than anything else to me. Perhaps they will to you too one day when you read this.
I must get on with this. I have until daybreak, before you wake up and need to be taken to school. There isn’t much time left.
In our flat in Calcutta, there was little space. Or at least less space than your mother and I thought was adequate for a growing child. The lift, which started up (when it did at all) with a judder and a rumble, often got stuck between floors; we used it at our peril. Fortunately, its door was sliding (or grinding: it never had the smoothness and efficacy associated with anything that is supposed to slide); if it had opened outwards, it would have banged into the main door of our flat.
That door opened into our living room. It was long and narrow, not so much a room as a corridor, with two bedrooms off of it. Well, one and a half bedrooms, really. The half bedroom was yours and, despite being so small, looked invariably cheerful: your toys and books and DVDs made a happy clutter (efforts to get you to put them back on their shelves failed every night) and gave the tiny room a warmth and a colour that the other parts of the flat lacked. They made up for the crack running down through the centre of one of the walls and the plaster that had, in the monsoon before we had moved in there, begun to peel, clinging to the original brickwork in bloated clumps.
To us, you seemed no less happy in our flat than you probably would have been in Il Palazzo, the new set of apartment blocks coming up across the road with its marble floors, its balconies wider than our bedroom, its plate-glass windows running from ceiling to floor and the vines and creepers hugging its terrace, the venue of loud barbecue parties in the mild winter.
You seemed no happier than the children who lived further up, on the pavement where the lane met the main road. They lived in makeshift homes with yellow and blue tarpaulin sheets for roofs. The drama of their lives – daily squabbles, a game of football and meals (which were cooked for them in clay ovens and served to them on dented, twisted-out-of shape aluminum utensils that had once been circular) was conducted under the incurious gaze of people hurrying past. The exhaust fumes of thousands of cars smothered them in the evening rush hour. I would observe them whenever I walked past. Mostly, they seemed to be smiling.
If it’s true that we spend much of our adult lives trying to make sense of our childhoods, to look back and make the connection between how what we were then made us who we are now, how will you later remember these years in Calcutta, your years of first, rapid, change in a city that had changed so much over the years that it was unrecognizable from how I remembered it?
Shortly before you turned three, your mother and I began to talk about putting you in school. This, as every parent in India knows, is not quite as simple as it ought to be. There are many more applicants than seats in reputable private schools and for a month every year, one could always tell it was admission time by the long queues of anxious young men and women at school gates, by the traffic jams on the roads near the big schools and, glimpsed from a car or bus if one happened to be passing, the bewildered expressions of tiny children in school playgrounds, holding on to parents’ index fingers, unsure of what was supposed to come of this odd, slightly scary experience, of so much waiting, of the first exposure to pressure.
A neighbour in our quiet lane was putting his child into school too. Having lived in Calcutta all his life – and having friends and relatives who had all done the same thing before him – he looked upon this process as an ordinary rite of passage.
‘So which ones are you trying?’ he asked me cheerfully one morning when we met in the market nearby. Calcutta had now many supermarkets with their sanitized, airconditioned aisles and clingfilm-wrapped, sliced-and-diced vegetables but the old markets, where generations of men had gone to shop every morning, building generations of rapport with particular fish or vegetable or fruit sellers, refused to give up in the face of the new competition. It still was a very Bengali ritual, this setting off in the morning for fresh fish that would soon be heard sizzling in a pan of mustard oil. It conformed with the idea of masculinity the Bengali delighted in: the provider in search of daily food.
In front of us, on raised dark cement platforms made smooth by use over the years, fresh vegetables gleamed in wicker baskets. They had been sprinkled with water to make them appear fresher than they really were. The market was a huge cavernous hall, dark at all times of the day. Every stall had a light bulb, suspended from the ceiling by a very long wire, to illuminate its products. I was trying to count small change, the intractable coins refusing to emerge from the folds of my pocket, while simultaneously trying to retain balance after being jostled by a fishmonger hurtling towards his stall with a basket of fish on his head.
‘Pardon?’ I said.
‘Aren’t you putting Oishi in school? Which ones are you trying?’ he asked again.
‘Er, we’ve been thinking about it. We have not decided yet.’
‘Thinking about it?’ His outraged laugh turned into a cough. Regretfully, he stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette on a pool of water beneath the basket of vegetables.
‘You won’t decide, dada, where you put your daughter in. The schools will – whether they want to take her at all. Let me give you some advice,’ he said and lit another cigarette.
Advice is one thing that I used to get a lot of in Calcutta. You always get a lot of it. Especially if you don’t want any. The Calcuttan may not know what’s good for himself (if he did the city would not have gone into a decline for much of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s) but he always knows what’s good for you.
‘She’s three, isn’t she?’ he asked, making it sound like a reproach.
I nodded at him, smiled at the shopkeeper. I’d finally managed to disentangle the small change.
‘La Martiniere will give application forms to children who are not more than two years and four months old, you see. So that’s one top school gone.’ He waved his hand. Goodbye, top school.
‘Southern High you can still try. They have increased their capacity.’
I had heard of Southern High, knew it was a good school but had never thought of it as a hydroelectric plant.
‘Then there is Chatterjee Memorial and Calcutta Girls. Check, she may be too young for Calcutta Girls. There just aren’t enough schools, dada, what to do? The boys’ schools are fine but we don’t have boys,’ he said smiling.
He told me then of the coaching classes that he had been sending his daughter to. They were tutorials, run by former (and very often current) teachers from the nursery sections of schools, where the children were groomed in the art of answering questions that were likely to be asked and taught how to conduct themselves in interviews.
‘Arrey, it’s a tough world,’ my neighbour said, stooping slightly to give me a reassuring slap on the back. ‘One school will ask her only her name. Another will ask her to identify animals or birds or fruits or vegetables from a picture book. The teachers know which school has what style, what they want. Valuable tips they give, dada. How will a child cope if she doesn’t get tuition?’
‘Do they have tutorials for parents too?’ I asked.
‘Yes, good point. The parents all ask questions at the end of each class. I know, my wife always does. But I’m giving you sound advice. You are already late. Pick up the forms today.’ And with a shuddering cough that convulsed his spry frame, he disappeared in the direction of the fresh stall, the empty plastic bags that he had got from home especially to put the fish in billowing on either side of him like grimy sails.
‘We are already too late. We should pick up the forms today,’ I told your mother once I had returned home.
She looked up from her chopping board, the new knife poised over circular chunks of beet. She was slicing them thinner. The beets were so red that they looked as though they might bleed.
‘That sounds like something I told you ten days back,’ said. ‘You didn’t seem too concerned then.’
‘Yes, I wasn’t aware of the fact that it might turn out to be so difficult.’
‘And how has awareness dawned this morning? Surely nothing to do with the fact that I have been asking you to do this for ages?’
I felt like saying that I could do without the sarcasm, but I knew better than to snap. Your mother and I saw the matter of your school differently. She wanted you to go to a fine school, one that people (though we didn’t really know that many) would see as a badge of privilege. I thought it didn’t matter.
She believed that a good school would shape you, help you turn out better, make you the right sort of friends. As far as I was concerned, you could go anywhere and it wouldn’t make a difference. I didn’t think much of Calcutta’s schools. I felt that if you really had it in you, had any talent at all for anything, you’d make good one day. It would show, no matter which school you happened to attend. I’d gone to a posh, private school, said to be one of the best in India, with exacting standards in studies and sport. And look at how things had turned out with me.
I’d rather that you remained at home for at least another year and carried on with your eclectic education in popular culture. Because I loved popular music and because, from when you were a year old, I had sensed that I wouldn’t be able to listen to any if I didn’t have you on my side, I had told you stories about rock stars while playing their music to you, shown you their pictures, taking care to make up and weave in father-child motifs into the stories: how Bono always took his children to his gigs; how proud Kurt Cobain was of his little girl, Frances.
While your mother and I were talking, you were lying on your stomach on the floor, a couple of feet away from us. Your legs were raised from your knees, your head tilted at an angle. Your hands were still so small that it was hard to tell from this distance that you had knuckles. You were colouring in a picture with a new set of felt-tipped pens. A girl in an orange swimsuit beneath an impossibly low sky. There were black squiggles that suggested crows, and flowers, their petals huge and bulbous, perched on top of tiny spindly stems. I couldn’t see much of your face because your hair, unbraided, fell over it. I looked and looked at you.
You would never be the same again as you were at that particular instant. A father’s life is split between the joy of watching his child and the anxiety for the passing of each moment. Every single thing that you ever did every day, was unique, unrepeatable. Not one of those moments would come back again, in quite the same way. Each was lost no sooner than it happened. When I looked at you like this – self-absorbed, unaware of being so closely watched – I was frightened by the impermanence of it all.
Your going to school was another of those irreversible things. It meant to me the end of something. I wasn’t quite sure what that was.
‘I’ll go tomorrow morning,’ I said, ‘and see if I can pick up the form from Southern High.’
‘Sudden Aye, Sudden Aye, what’s that?’ You suddenly looked up from your picture, flung your felt-tipped pen aside and came towards me. You could go from complete repose to non-stop action in less than a second. If you were a car, your pick-up would be up there with the best in the world.
‘It’s a school, shona. You may go there.’
‘School, school. Will there be pictures at school?’ You wriggled your hands into the sleeves of my loose T-shirt.
‘Of course. As many pictures as you want.’
‘Yes, some of that too, I’m sure.’
‘Can I listen to Bono at school?’
‘That we’ll have to find out,’ I said.
‘Phone first and find out when they are giving out the forms,’ your mother said. ‘You’ll probably have to stand in a fine queue a couple of hours before they start.’ The beets were done. Your mother was tossing them all into a pot. They landed with clangs – and then muted thuds as the pile began to grow.
As it turned out, your mother went to pick up the forms. Not just from Southern High but also from Chatterjee Memorial. I was busy trying out literary voices. I did that often, like someone shopping for clothes. The novel I thought I was writing was stuck. I didn’t know if I had my material. I didn’t know if I could ever find my voice. How did one do that? Did it come one day, unbidden? And did one know when it had?
At this stage I was writing a sentence, a paragraph, at most half a page, and then throwing it all away. I knew what I was doing was no good but had no idea if I would ever be able to do anything any good. My models (Philip Roth, Julian Barnes, V.S. Naipaul) were lofty; this made my efforts seem pathetic and inadequate.
I sensed sometimes that I was too much of an ingénue, that all the lessons I learnt through my close reading of writers I admired never showed up in what I wrote myself. But what could I do? I had staked too much on this endeavour. Returning would have been as tedious as going over. I see now that it may have been better to have abandoned the ambition. Perhaps things would have turned out differently then. But we never know, do we?
So I ended up every day, after the few lines on a page which I balled up and threw away, with a feeling of thwarted hope that coloured the rest of the evening, of misguided resentment against those who could call themselves writers.
So many people get published. Why can’t I?
But I am getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s return to how it went with your school.
‘Do you think you can go?’ I asked your mother, the cursor blinking in the middle of a sentence. I had written three. I had been at it for two hours.
‘Did you phone ahead?’ she asked.
I hadn’t. Well, I had but the office was shut and I’d got a recorded message. I had just thought I’d go and find out. And now that I thought I was getting ahead with my writing (it always seemed like getting ahead for a while and then like hitting a wall – every day), I couldn’t bear to.
I don’t know how your mother actually bore this, how she had the patience. I sometimes think she exhausted so much of her patience on me that she ended up being short with you.
‘No, I’d just thought I’d go.’
She looked at me, looked at the screen, at the unlit cigarette that I was trying to keep myself from smoking, and turned towards the wardrobe to get out her clothes.
‘Will you give her lunch then? I don’t know how long it will take.’
‘I love you,’ I said as she closed the door behind her. I don’t think she quite heard.
It took about four hours. She stood in a queue for three. The school authorities stopped giving out forms in the middle, during a lunch break, and resumed forty minutes afterwards. She stood there with the trams clattering along Gurusaday Road, the ice cream vendor coming and going as classes broke for lunch, and waited, parched in the fierce noon sun, unable to leave her spot for a moment lest someone else edged ahead of her. There was no sense of propriety in queues, no sense of fairness or courtesy.
There weren’t many forms, there were restrictions, the school wanted to limit the number of children it considered, other parents were saying, and so there would be many, who were at the back of the queue, who would return after waiting for hours without a form. She didn’t want to lose her place just because she wanted a drink of water on a scorching day.
The other school was not much easier. Well, it was, only a bit. It took her two hours to get a form this time. She returned triumphant, the form secure in her bag, her face red from the sun and the wait and the anxiety, burst into the room in which I sat trying to write, and said: ‘They’ll soon let us know when they’ll call us for the interviews.’
We were called a fortnight later. Southern High refused to call it an interview; they said it was merely an interaction between the children and their parents and a couple of teachers. We had taught you to not speak out of turn and to speak up if you were asked anything. (I was always going on at you to speak softly. And you did, mostly.)
The bleach-chlorine stench with which I associated my own school days was overpowering in the main hall. We were led to a classroom. The children had left – the interaction had been scheduled for three p.m., after school hours but the time when most of the three-year-old hopefuls who had turned up would have been having their afternoon nap. They sat, yawning and scratching their heads, slightly baffled, slightly apprehensive at this first crucial occasion in their lives when they had to prove themselves. We sat, all of us, in little plastic chairs meant for the children. The black board had ‘cat’, ‘bat’ and other three-letter words ending in ‘at’ written on it. A teacher turned up to say that it would take a while, that she was sorry things would get a little late, and did a roll call from a list of names she carreid with her of all the parents present. ‘The head teacher is there,’ she said in an awed whisper that hoped to make us understand just how seriously the school was taking the process of selection. ‘She has cancelled all her afternoon classes to do this,’ she said and jerked her head towards the room in which the interaction was supposed to take place.
You rubbed yourself against my knees. The single fan suspended from the middle of the ceiling desultorily dissipated the hot afternoon air. At the back of the class, where we sat, we needed to fan ourselves with a newspaper. I could see from the window what had once been a playground; now it was covered with rubble, with slabs of cement and mortar and bricks. The school was adding stories, expanding. That is why it had, as my neighbour told me, increased capacity.
‘How do children reach up to that board?’ you asked.
‘They don’t. The teacher writes on it.’
‘So where do the children here write?’
‘In their exercise books,’ I said.
‘Do the mothers wait in class?’
‘Janina, I have no idea.’ I looked at my watch.
Your mother was twisting her wedding band around.
Finally, they ushered us in. We sat on low benches without backrests. On the table in front of us, its wood chipped, someone had chiselled, Love Ramesh till I die.
‘This is not an interview,’ the head teacher said. ‘I want to emphasize that. This is only a happy occasion to meet all you parents and these lovely children.’ The corners of her mouth were turned upward in the simulation of a smile. The pallu of her cotton sari was starched and stiff. How often did she have to do this, I wondered. And would she rather have been taking the classes she had cancelled? Or would she just have cancelled the classes and gone home?
‘See, the purpose of all of us getting together here is to have a brief chat,’ she said. Getting together? Surely, she knew that people had stood in a queue for hours for the privilege of ‘getting together’? She sounded like an HR executive who was kindly trying to give an employee the sack. ‘We don’t want to choose from all these lovely children. So it’s just down to luck. It’s like putting their names into a hat and drawing some out. Will you please ask the children to come and play here if they like?’
They had set up a corner of the class as a play area, with soft balls and puzzles and papers and crayons. The parents nudged their children towards it. You trotted off, halting for a moment midway to throw in our direction a shy half-smile. Some of the children simply refused to move. They were waiting to be asked questions. A mother shoved her son, hard.
‘Now, now,’ the head teacher said, ‘please let them be if they don’t want to go.’ She didn’t miss a thing.
She then spoke separately with each set of parents. Which schools had they tried, what did they expect from the school which school did they attend, did they have any other children, how old were they and. She turned to us nearly at the end.
‘So, er, Mr…’ she looked at the list in front of her and found my name, ‘why are you keen that your, um…’ she looked around to check but couldn’t really tell.
‘Girl, my little girl,’ I helped her out.
‘Yes, girl,’ she seemed put off by this interruption, ‘your girl goes to Southern High?’
‘Oh, well, I am not really. I mean, I am but not, you know, dead keen or something. It’s just that the school is very close to where we live. And I think children shouldn’t be subjected to the torture of long car or bus rides to school.’
‘Ah, I see. Quite. And were there no other…?’
‘Yes, but this was the closest. Absolutely.’
‘Thank you.’ She moved on to the next parent.
‘You really didn’t have to say that, you know,’ your mother said once we were outside.
‘Baba, pinwheel,’ you said, gesturing towards a man selling pinwheels at the corner of the road. ‘There, there. Look at it spinning. We’ll switch on the fan once we are home and it will spin and spin. Right?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I said as we headed off toward the pinwheel-man.
‘Said what?’ I asked your mother.
‘All that stuff about close to home. I mean, you could have at least tried to seem a little more eager.’
‘What difference does it make?’ I asked. ‘Did you hear that fat bloke in the pinstripe? Gosh, it seemed as though he had been paid to write a publicity release for the school. Ooof. And what I said was true, wasn’t it?’
‘Next time, I’d hope you’ll be a little more economical with the truth.’ Your mother turned away and looked out of the window of the taxi, turning her face towards the heat which cannoned towards us through the windows.
You were standing on the seat on my side, holding your pinwheel out of the window. It turned, and stopped, and then turned again, sluggishly, in the reluctant breeze.
The Chatterjee Memorial interview (they were unapologetic, they didn’t pretend that it was an interaction) was two days later. By the time we arrived (again after the junior school was over for the day, again in the middle of an enervating afternoon) you seemed quite at ease with the process.
‘Will there be toys and crayons too?’ you asked.
‘Not sure,’ I said, trying to find exactly where we were supposed to wait.
‘And will the boy in the red shirt who was pushing me last time be here today?’
‘He pushes very hard. If he’s here today, I’ll push him harder.’
‘There will be no need for that,’ I said hastily. ‘There will only be girls here today.’
‘Because this is a girls’ school. Only girls come here. Can you see any boys around in the playground?’
‘Will I come to this school or go to that school? They had red chairs.’
‘Let’s see. We shall know soon enough.’
There was no proper area in which to wait. The interviews were being held in a classroom on the first floor, up a winding staircase with clippings from newspapers that remarked upon the school’s achievements pasted to the wall. The banisters were old; a couple of the railings were missing. We made you walk between us, well away from the railings, as we climbed up.
The classroom was off a wide verandah. All the parents were crammed in here. There was no place to sit. One of the men, his collar unbuttoned, seemed extraordinarily flustered. He had clearly come to meet this critical appointment in the middle of a busy working day. He was speaking on his mobile as he paced up and down. The sky was bleached of colour. Huge neem and peepul trees in the playground, their tops green cupolas, cast pools of shadow on the verandah. We tried to fit ourselves into those inadequate patches to keep cool. Parents kept going in and emerging from the classroom at regular intervals. You had gone quiet. I wondered if you were a little stunned by the heat.
Our turn came after about half an hour. Your mother squeezed my hand as we went through. It was dark inside the class, the shutters had all been drawn and the stale air, circulated by a couple of fans, seemed like a relief after the wait outside. A teacher called you away to a corner of the class where she sat you down at a table. On the other side of the table was another teacher.
Your mother and I sat opposite the lady who had ushered us in. She looked at our application form and asked us if we had any other children.
‘I mean, if you have a boy. This is a girls’ school, as you know.’
‘No, no,’ your mother said quickly before I could speak, ‘she is our only one.’ You mother dabbed at the beads of sweat forming on her brow.
‘It’s awfully hot outside,’ the teacher said. ‘I’m sorry. It must be hard for the child. And for you.’ She smiled kindly.
‘And why would you rather that your child attended this school?’
‘We’ve heard very good things about it. Our close friend’s daughter studies here. And so did my aunt, many years ago.’
‘And, er, just one thing,’ she said, studying the form again. ‘What exactly do you do?’ She was looking at me. ‘You’ve kept the "Occupation" column vacant by mistake.’
I held her gaze. ‘I am a writer,’ I said.
‘A writer?’ She seemed to be having trouble deciding whether to be dubious or respectful.
‘Yes, yes, a writer.’
‘That will be all, thank you,’ she said, and scraped back her chair.
On the way home, we tried to find out what they had asked you.
‘Colouring. They gave me new crayons,’ you said.
‘They showed me animals, toy animals, tiny ones. They gave me an elephant. They asked what it was.’ You nodded, pleased at the memory.
‘So what did you say?’
You looked at me, your eyes clear and untroubled, and replied in a tone that suggested that I really should have known better than to ask you that. ‘I told them it was an elephant.’
Four days later, we found out that you had got admission in both schools. We chose Southern High. It was the closest to home.
The school run was a new experience. I drove you to school every day, your mother picked you up. On some days, you barely spoke, half-asleep almost, the usual flood of words dammed up until we were in the very final stretch of the ride. And then they burst forth as I parked.
On other days, you were excited, excitable, barely able to contain yourself as you wriggled around with the safety belt clasped across your front.
‘Baba, that cow has orange horns.’
‘Um, yes,’ I said, crawling in second gear, swearing under my breath at the driver trying to cut into the lane from the right.
‘Are you angry, Baba?’
‘No, no, I’m sorry. What’s that about the cow?’ At the set of traffic lights further up the road, it had turned green. But the traffic remained resolutely at a standstill. A rickshaw (those hand-pulled ones, do you remember them?) had made a U-turn in the middle of the road, the cars behind it had all backed up and the policemen was sauntering towards the rickshaw-puller, taking his time, prolonging his awareness of the sense of power he had over all of us, knowing that unless he waved us on, none of us could move an inch.
I looked at my watch. We were getting late.
‘Why does that cow have orange horns?’ you asked. It was unusual for you to not have been distracted after a few moments (I was expecting questions about why the car wasn’t yet moving), so clearly the subject fascinated you.
I couldn’t see the cow. It must have walked off.
‘So that it can protect itself against people who might want to do it any harm.’ We were moving again.
‘If it had blue horns, would people find it easier to harm it?’
‘Jaanina, no idea, I’ll have to find out later.’ This was the last resort, I had conceded defeat.
‘Will you find out before I come home from school?’
‘Sure.’ I was fairly certain that you would forget about this by the time you were back from school.
On some days, you wanted to listen to music. Then there would be a ten-minute delay before setting off for school because you insisted that you chose what we played and then find the tape yourself from the stacks and stacks we had in the car. Mostly, you seemed to remember where each one was. On most occasions, you knew exactly what you wanted to listen to. You usually knew your own mind well. However inconvenient that was to us sometimes, I have to confess that I quite admired that. I hardly seemed to know my own mind. How did you? Were all children like that?
Soon enough, we worked out our own ritual of saying goodbye to each other. You would come skipping along from the car towards the school gate, hanging on to my index finger, half a step ahead of me. When we would get to the gates, I’d pass you your bottle of water, which you would hang around your neck like an oversized necklace. You would adjust the straps of your satchel and stand very still (a rare thing for you). I would kneel down, my face level with yours. We would look at each other, unblinking, for a moment.
Then it would go like this. I would kiss you on one cheek and say, ‘Be good’, then kiss you on the other cheek and say, ‘Have fun’; and you would kiss me back, one cheek for me to say ‘Enjoy yourself’ and then on the other for me to say, ‘Speak soon.’ It took all of four seconds.
You were still not so self-conscious as to mind being kissed by your father as your friends streamed in through the gates and often turned to look at you. Not for much longer, I always told myself when I saw someone looking. It will be over soon, without warning. And I would hug to myself these few moments at the start of the day, these moments that in their occurrence signalled their imminent passing.
You would finally set off towards class. On your way (I always remained on my knees till you had disappeared), you would stop, turn around and wave. Almost every time I waved back at you, I felt that familiar stab of irrational panic and anxiety. What if I never saw you again? What if I died on the way back? What if something terrible happened to you at school? What if the teacher was unmindful (God knows she had enough on her hands with all of you), the gatekeeper was unmindful and you wandered out? What if this was the last time I ever saw you?
Ridiculous, I know you’ll say but there you are.
We talk a lot about how our lives are never the same once we have children. It’s all true but for me, more than anything else, the most critical change was this: being a father made me feel continually vulnerable, something I had never ever felt before.