“You went to France and left me alone with the kid,” she said with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “Well now it’s our turn.”
Extended version of the stories, “Les Peres pour la Justice” and “A Happy Meal”
Seventeen days after the bairn showed up in the world I was the happiest man alive. She was eight pounds eleven ounces, a big baby meaning Danni had to be cut. I was there for the birth, dashed over from the shipyard, and there for the needlework. The Chinese doctor with the thread had a cold and he was breathing hard trying to sniff back the snot that was saturating his mask because he couldn’t interrupt the flow of what he was doing to blow his nose and I was sitting there worrying he’d infect us, especially the baby. She was lying sleeping like one, in her glass bed, smiling blissfully unaware and despite my viral concerns, Danni and I couldn’t stop smiling too and whispering that we’d brought something so wonderful, miraculous, to life.
After two drunken days and nights, I was back to the Infirmary with my sister because she had a car to bring them home, mother and daughter. Nervous, anxious, inexperienced and excited twenty-something new parents.
At the time I was welding on the Clyde in Govan, just about clinging onto a job Thatcher’s Eighties would surely claim. “Another wee belly to fill,” Danni said. So between shifts at the pub with the lads to wet the bairn’s head I was putting in as much OT as possible, welding the social, professional and fatherly roles together. Until with impeccable timing calamity struck and I was told the job was no more – come end of the month I’d be like the rest of the lads and the hordes of unwashed hopeless.
With Danni not working obviously we needed something quick but it wasn’t easy. Precious few new ships to sail and my severance wouldn’t last so long. So when my brother-in-law Peter said he needed a hand with a painting job I nearly tore his arm off.
“Guess who’s got some work?” I said to Danni who was giving wee Phoebe a bottle when I got home from the pub.
“Great!” she exclaimed, “Where?”
“Painting job with Pete,” I said.
“Ah that’s brilliant so it is,” she said, “But where?”
“Only temporary, but it’ll keep us going till I find something more permanent.”
“Of course but are you going to tell me where?”
“He said we should be able to string this one out for a month or so.”
“But where for Christ’s sake!?” she said, and I took a breath or two before saying the word France.
Peter’s friend of a friend of a friend called Andy from Edinburgh was one man the Eighties were being good to. He drove a fancy BMW and owned a string of properties from Edinburgh to London, and his latest acquisition was a Pyrenean chalet in some place called Les Angles near Andorra. Apparently he’d bought it so him and his wife could spent the winter there skiing, jammy bastard, and he wanted it tarting up for their first luxurious trip.
“I’ve seen the photos,” said Pete, “It looks fucking gorgeous.”
“So what will we be doing?” I asked.
“Apparently the roof wants looking at, the drains are backing up and some of the wooden structure needs replacing.”
“Sounds like a big job.”
“Maybe a month and we’ll need scaffolding. I’m taking you and a man called Ab I met in the pub. Nice enough bloke with a wonky eye but knows his way around the tools. He’s signing on and fancies a bit of moonlighting.”
“So what will I be doing?” I asked.
“The balcony’s away from the back wall in danger of coming down the mountain.”
“She’ll be comin’ down the mountain when she comes.”
“Aye. That’s where you come in with your welding tackle.”
“And then it wants repainting, inside and out, and the floor varnishing. That’s where we all come in.”
“Aye. There’s a lake at the bottom of the mountain called Lac Matemale and you can see ibex apparently.”
“Is that a fish?”
“No it’s a goat.”
“In the lake?”
“Fuck off. Do you want the job or not?”
“I want the job aye.”
“I’ll show you the plans tomorrow. Meantime you’ll have to work out how you’re going to tell Danni you’ll be leaving her and the wee bairn.”
“No sweat,” I said, and hid a while in my pint as he gave me a look.
And that night I found her giving my beautiful little Phoebe, the name we’d agreed on, a bottle and nervously broke the news.
“France!?” she said, pulling the bottle out with a plop.
And so I told her the spec, all about Pete’s friend of a friend of a friend called Andy from Edinburgh who was doing well for himself in his posh BMW and string of properties the latest of which was some holiday retreat in the Pyrenees.
“Bully for him! But France!”
“I know love, but the man’s a gold mine. Could be a lot more work if we pull this one off.”
“What about me and wee Phoebe?”
“I know I know,” I said, softly. “But the money won’t last for ever. We need to feed wee one and clothe her, they soon grow out of things my sister said, and somewhere to live. She’ll outgrow this place as quick as her clothes.”
“I know,” she said, showing signs of weakening.
“I’ll phone every day,” I said.
“And Millie said she’d come round and help and that.”
“You told your sister before you told me!”
“Only because I was nervous of telling you,” I reassured, knowing I’d jeopardised things and fearing some fire from the Irish side of her.
“What did she say?”
“She said of course she’d help you, it goes without saying. And she knows the score, we need the money.”
“Is she alright with Pete going to France?”
“No sweat at all, she said. She trusts him.”
“Are you saying I don’t trust you?”
“I’m not saying that! I know you trust me. It’s in the mountains, there’ll be bugger all else to do except work.”
“No French maidens then?”
“No French maidens I promise. Anyway apparently there are ibex.”
“What are ibex?”
And she laughed and said take over the feed because she needed a pee.
“Are you sure this fucking heap of rust will get us there?” asked Ab, giving Pete’s old DAF the once-over with the eye that could find it.
“Cheeky bastard,” said Pete, “This van’s never let me down. Get your tools in.”
Pete had got the cheapest deal possible and we were to drive to Dover for the ferry, then share the driving from Calais through Paris, down through Limoges, Toulouse and climb the Pyrenees to Les Angles. He knew the route, got it sussed, and even knew where we’d be stopping off for a beer and a bite. It was a long trip but we were ready for it, excited, three lads in a van, some money in our pockets, singing songs. Ab even had his banjo, which he couldn’t play but at least he had it. He seemed a decent bloke, bit of a joker, non-stop supplier of simplistic views of life and how to handle women. “Treat ’em mean,” he said, “Let ’em know who’s boss.” Turned out he hadn’t even told his wife he was coming for fear she’d say no. But he was tolerable except for his feet and the smelliest farts ever known to man – not what you want for a twelve-hour drive in a capsule as small as that and Pete often threatened to make him walk. But we survived it. Just.
By the time we got there I was already missing Danni and the baby, so Pete dropped me in the village of Les Angles to find a phone box. It took me ages to get through because I didn’t know you had to drop the first zero of the code till Ab put me right.
“Hiya,” I said.
“Hello you!” she said, “I can hear you so clearly.”
“Everything OK?” I said.
“Never mind me, did you get there safely?”
“I did aye,” I said, “I’ll miss you.”
“How’s my Phoebe?”
“Phoebe’s fine,” she said with a giggle, “and sleeping at last so I won’t put her on if that’s ok?”
“I’ll not spend long on because of the money and Pete wants to get started,” I said.
“No,” she said, “And tell the bugger to pay you well.”
“See you soon.”
“A month feels like ages, make it a quick one.”
“It won’t when you’re used to it. I’ll phone every day.”
“You’d better or the locks will be changed when you get back.”
“I will,” I said.
“Love you Hun,” she said.
“You too Danni.”
“And give my love to the goats.”
The chalet was a mostly timber construction carved into the cliff face and when you ventured inside it was bigger than it seemed from the outside. Downstairs there was a wee vestibule with a cupboard and toilet off, and the one large room with a log fire beyond had a kitchen niched into the corner. A large window at the far end looked out onto the most picturesque views I’ve ever known, down over the valley and to Lac Matemale which seemed like a puddle from so far. We couldn’t go out onto the balcony yet because I could already see it was coming away, and one boot trodden on the wooden decking would’ve surely sent it, and us, tumbling down the mountain. The hills beyond were snow-capped, but just outside it was mostly dry, the odd patch of white here and there among the pines where buzzards soared overhead. Up some winding stairs were two fair-sized double bedrooms and a small cove to sleep one, which Ab bagsied and we were glad on account of his flatulence. As I set down my bag and tackle, Pete was already downstairs throwing logs on the fire to get it stoked – the place was cold and needed a good airing – then he’d set about his recce of the work we were there to do.
That night though, we sat thawing by the fire, eating baguettes with French ham, drinking five-centime bottles of wine we’d grabbed in Limoges, talking, joking and listening to Ab’s farts and songs accompanied by his equally tuneless banjo. But then, before we settled merrily for the night, Pete dished out the rota, my first job being going down to the village to get some provisions before making a start on the balcony.
Which was no mean feat. Balanced precariously over the precipice, I knew I’d have to erect some scaffolding but there was hardly any footing before the big drop. But with a series of poles and ropes I managed to climb up there and, well aware of the two hundred feet below me, make a start on replacing brackets I’d welded below. It took a good three days to fix rigidly in place and Pete was pleased with the outcome, taking pictures to show his mate Andy when we got back. No mobiles in those days to Whatsapp or whatever.
“A fucking doddle,” said Ab, casting his good eye over the fruits of my labour, “I’d have that done in half the time.”
“Bollocks,” I said, “You’d spend two days looking for the fucking thing.”
And we all laughed.
The job was a sound one, the main problem being the shit-filled drains, which meant digging into hard rock outside and finding the source. At one point Pete pierced through the mains pipe and water spurted everywhere, so we had to dash down to the village and ask for a plumber who wore a wig. Reluctantly he came up the hill and gave us a hand, climbing into the sopping hole and turning the main key to shut off the supply. Guiltily I handed him a beer to keep him going and he angrily cried, “Apres le putain de boulot!” We didn’t know what it meant but it sounded rude so Ab said “Keep your hair on!” and we fell about laughing while the poor bastard got his toupee drenched.
But that was the trickiest working day, the rest was a breeze, and by the time we got round to painting we could stretch things out, stretch our legs at times, explore the couple of bars in the village and get pissed on cheap French and Spanish wine. I knew I was having the time of my life and though I missed Danni and Phoebe and kept my promise of phoning every day, it would be something I’d look back on and tell my grand-kids. And by the time it came to say goodbye to the place I felt saddened to miss its dreamy beauty, and even worse that I’d be gong back to the harsh reality of the dole.
When I returned to our little one-bed flat in Govan I found Danni waiting for me, a sign up in the window. I gave her the hardest hug of my life and asked where was baby and she was sleeping in her carry where I noticed the first tufts of orange hair from the Irish half of her mother. I wanted to pick her up and at first Danni said no she hadn’t been sleeping then caved in. I’d missed them so much and while I’d had a good time in France I was glad to be with the woman and daughter I loved the bones of.
Pete had paid me well for the work and first chance I got I asked my sister to babysit while I took Danni out for a curry, though I had a bit of a fight because she said we needed to go careful. She ate well, a veg biriani, enjoying my Pyrenean stories about the plumber in the toupee and the drains that were backing up and reeked of shit. And she was appreciating the freedom of being away from baby yet wanting to get to the phone every five minutes to check everything was OK. “Relax,” I told her, “Everything’s fine. We’re going to a club next.”
“We’re not,” she said, firmly, “I told Millie we’d be back by twelve.” And that was final, I knew it, no argument, so I squeezed her hand and said we’d be back straight after the meal and I loved her.
We were very happy Danni and I and little baby Phoebe and though I had no work lined up as yet, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I went round all the yards I knew and asked if anything was going, and even trawled the local garages to ask for welding jobs, valeting, anything. But nothing, and Danni kept saying keep trying because something was bound to come up.
When Phoebe was about one with all her teeth and toddling, it was Danni who found some cleaning work while I stayed at home. I was happy to be with baby, not self-conscious when out or walking the pushchair one-handed like other fathers did for fear of emasculation. I was happy. I loved spending time just me and baby. Now and then I used to just watch her sleeping, just for a little while. And I was happy for Danni to bring in some money, buy herself some new clothes, some independence. I couldn’t wait for her to come home though, so I could tell her all about my day with Phoebe, how she’d said Dada again, and she could tell me all about her day, cleaning for Mrs Montague and Mr Wilson who had a son called Harry who’d always drop by to check up that his dad was getting his money’s worth. Apparently he played drums in a brass band and once invited her to go and see them play but she’d said no.
“Why not?” I said.
“What do I know about brass bands?” she said.
“It’ll do you good to get out.”
So eventually she did, and got to quite like it, even talked about picking up a trumpet one day and it made me laugh.
“What’s so funny about that?” she said, “Harry said I could pick it up easily.”
“Harry would,” I said, not meaning anything by it.
Over the weeks to follow, Harry came to pick Danni up and go to see the band play as often as possible which I encouraged.
“It’s when a person stops talking about a person that you need to worry,” said Millie, and I was stupid enough to ignore her. Because it was true, in hindsight, I noticed Danni would go off to these band practices and gradually stopped mentioning Harry by name, and he wasn’t picking her up any more she’d get there under her own steam. And I thought nothing of it, till Ab saw me in the pub one night and happened to mention he saw my wife get into a bloke’s car in Evans Street round the corner from our flat. “You want to keep that one on a lead,” he said with a wink of the eye that could see me, and I told him to fuck off, my wife was sound. Till the night she told me her head had been turned.
“What did he do to you?!” I demanded to know.
“Nothing!” she said.
“What did he fucking do to you!”
“Don’t shout the baby’s crying!”
“Danni I want to know! If he’s laid a single finger on you I’ll kill him!”
“He hasn’t!” she screamed, and broke down in tears, head in hands on the settee.
I didn’t want to go and sit with her, I couldn’t, I couldn’t touch her right now, I guess for fear he had touched her I’d be touching him. That sounds weird but how else can I describe how I felt? Angry? Betrayed? Scared, definitely that. I was scared of losing her.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” she sobbed, so I sat at the table, six feet away, shaking like the bottles of baby milk in front of me, waiting for her to tell me it was over, she was in love with someone else. “Are you in love with him?”
“No,” she said, “I’m not in love with him. It was nothing at first, he was just a bloke whose father I did for, who kept coming to check for cobwebs, check I was doing my job properly I told you. And then with the band thing, again it was just an interest and yes I got to kind of like it.”
“And what about him?”
“Yes I got to quite like him too. Not in that way.”
“In what way?”
“In that way. He was just someone I saw as a friend, till the day when…”
“When what? Please Danni I want to know, I deserve to know.”
“… I looked at him and thought he was actually quite attractive.”
“And one night…”
“What? One night what?”
“He said he wanted to kiss me.”
“Outside our house?”
“No. In the car near the bandstand.”
There was a long pause that felt like an hour, and I’m still shaking, probably gone bloodless, feeling cold and dreading what was to follow.
“And did you?”
“You didn’t kiss him?”
“No I swear I didn’t!”
“But you were tempted is that it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t shout, the baby’s up!”
“I don’t care! Tell me were you tempted!”
“Yes! But I didn’t, I swear!”
I couldn’t go on with that line of enquiry, so sick was I in the stomach. I just went to the bedroom and scooped the baby up, cuddling her, crying into her blanket. When I finally got her back down I found Danni making us a cup of tea, her back to me, and saying “I won’t be going there again. To band practice. I’ll tell him.”
“No,” I said, “I will.”
And that was it. We didn’t mention it again. When I thought about it I still felt sick, but tried not to show it, let it get to me. But these things fester I guess, and it was hard. I was still unemployed and she’d be going out four days a week, cleaning, but not at Mr Wilson’s, and I was there with Phoebe, and when it wasn’t busy, when she was sleeping and I finally got to put my feet up in front of shit TV, exhausted, it kept coming back to me. I didn’t know how to control it at times. Sometimes I’d kick the wall in anger and frustration, hurt and shame. Yes shame, because what man can neglect his wife so much she gets her head turned? What kind of man was I, sitting there in front of shit TV, mixing Cow & Gate? The man who hadn’t done anything wrong, just doing his best for his wife and kid, who through no fault of his own had nothing else to do. Except drink.
Though Danni got home from work knackered, as much as possible I’d find a way of getting out to the pub, which at first she said I deserved after a busy day with the little one. But gradually the odd night out with the lads became three or four times a week, then more than that, then most nights then every night, which of course became an issue. Danni knew that deep down I was punishing her for what she had or hadn’t done, I sensed it. She didn’t say it but it was in the air, hanging there behind every conversation, every minor disagreement, everything that caused a voice to rise. If there was any room at all in that cramped little flat I sensed she’d grown to hate, there would be an elephant, and that man Harry was it.
Though Danni didn’t say much about my drinking, I know she told Millie about her concerns because Millie had a quiet word, telling me she’d no idea what was going on but something wasn’t right, and drinking wouldn’t help. But I didn’t listen, so every night when Danni came home I’d be out to the pub, sometimes even before she’d got chance to tell me about her day. That was how it was, how it had become, and how it would be for the next four years when Phoebe was ready for school.
So I hadn’t learned. And by the time Danni walked out on me and took my beautiful daughter Phoebe I was one fucked-up man. Unhappiest man in the world. She’d found herself someone new, from England some place and called George of all things. At first she was fair you know with access, I got to see Phoebe on the weekend, take her to the park, to the pictures, McDonald’s, all the things starving dads do. Then one day some time later Danni phoned to say would I mind missing one weekend because she and George were taking Phoebe to Disney Land Paris? Well I was rocked. Disney Land, a place I always wanted to take her, now she was being taken by somebody else! My instinct was to say no, fuck off, you can’t do that, take my kid out of the country without my permission, but she said it was already booked so don’t kick off. “You went to France and left me alone with the kid,” she said with an exaggerated Gallic shrug, “Well now it’s our turn.” Those were the words that cut me, that would haunt me. But then, when I calmed down, I thought what man could deny his little kid the chance of a lifetime, what man could do that? And anyway Danni said to make up for it I could have her for a whole week when they came back. So I agreed, and booked that week off work accordingly, because by then I’d managed to find something, not much but something. But that didn’t happen, I never got Phoebe for the whole week, because they never came back.
Turns out this George was some wine merchant and he’d bought a cottage in Bordeaux, and this whole Disney thing was a ruse. Oh they did go there, but what they didn’t tell me was that from Paris it was on to the south where he’d be doing the business.
It’s not easy to describe how I felt. Sick? Gutted? Betrayed? Broken-hearted? Angry? Suicidal? No, while I felt all of them, none of them can cut it, not even suicidal, none of those words can convey how a man feels when having his whole life smashed into pieces. Earlier, I used the words fucked-up and I guess that just about does it. The week I took off work turned into two and three and four and so on, till in the end the doctor signed me off for a whole three months ongoing.
The other thing that’s not easy to describe or even justify is what I did about it. I mean some say I should’ve fought tooth and nail to keep my beautiful little daughter in the country, found a lawyer, contested, what kind of man could not? And I have to admit I set about doing all these things, once I’d dried my eyes, stopped kicking walls and demanding justice, but never quite followed them through; not because I didn’t want to, more because I didn’t have the energy so broken was my body. Sure I was able to speak with Phoebe on the phone – Danni would call and put her on. Hearing her voice went some way to alleviate the pain, yet at the same time pushed the dagger further into my heart. I was even invited over to see them, and once even bought the tickets, but that week I got laid off and my world completely caved in a second time. Danni accused me of letting Phoebe down. Me? Let my beautiful Phoebe down? I’d never do that, I said, I was ill, I couldn’t make the trip, it’s breaking my heart not to see her. It was the first sign of Danni, the woman I once loved, being a changed person and I didn’t like it, it was another dagger in my heart and another one-way street towards the bottle. What I was too mad and too stupid to know was that I was getting sicker and sicker.
Then, after a bloated sixteen weeks on the booze and not much else I don’t know how it happened but I guess a light came on, when I woke up crying having dreamed of my little girl in France. I felt wretched, angry, hurt, a bile in my gut, yes all of those words, but something else was gnawing away at my consciousness – and it was seeing Phoebe laughing amid the vines, playing with her mummy, playing with other kids, going to school and picking up French. And I thought what kind of man could deny the little girl a dream of her own? Wasn’t that a better life Danni could give her there? Wasn’t that better than growing up in Glasgow, living with a daddy who was just a welder and never quite getting it together to even take her to Euro-Disney? With a father who had a drink problem? That was the light bulb that went on in my head, that made me see things including myself more clearly.
At that time the calls were still coming, but as Phoebe got older they became gradually less and less and more and more painful in a way. Yet paradoxically in conjunction my life was on the up. I quit the booze, got clean, found a new job, got a new girlfriend called Alice who had work and rented an apartment in Shawlands. Alice was good for me and for once I was good to myself. I enjoyed my job, it wasn’t much, just some welding and stuff for a private garage, but it was something and yes I liked it. With Alice’s wage (she was a bank cashier) we could afford to live OK. Not rich by any stretch, just OK. As I say, she and I were good to me, I’d found a vital lifeline and was able to actually live. We got new friends, ate well, I even started jogging for Christ’s sake. And again some men, especially the kind of men who climb pylons and buildings in protest at not seeing their kids, would knock me for this, but I admit as time wore on the pain of not seeing Phoebe got less and less. The resentment and images that once were so raw were less so. Of course I still got to speak to her, and via Alice’s computer I also got to Skype, but the thought of never seeing her again in the flesh, not being able to touch her skin, put my arm around her and squeeze her, was less and less hurtful, less and less hard as I got on with my life. That’s what some men would criticise me for, but that’s how it was. I confess.
So it was only via Skype that I saw her features change as time wore on, and it was only via Skype that she saw mine change too – much older and greyer than I should’ve been for my age, the hard times etched on my face, but still the sparkle in my eyes or so she said. And I got to watch her grow up like that, and learn how she was doing at school, how she was now fluent in French. Bonjour papa, she’d say, comment vas-tu? J’espere que vous allez bien? And I’d do my best to respond in French and struggle and she’d laugh at me and I didn’t care. Because I coped, I just about coped, with everything, for the next ten years – hearing how she was, how she was enjoying her life, hearing about her first job, hearing she’d got a boyfriend called Jean… And then, one day, hearing she was pregnant.
I don’t want to describe how it felt not to see my grandchild when it was born, not to be able to put my finger in its hand and let it gently squeeze, only to see it on a laptop screen, and anyway it felt much like it felt when Phoebe was taken away from me all those years ago. Except maybe this time isn’t wasn’t Danni’s fault, at least not directly. I say not directly because if she hadn’t taken Phoebe away in the first place, I could’ve got to see my grandchild actually born. But once again I was getting on with my life, hoping deep down or knowing it, that one day, one day, I would get to see them, Phoebe and Aline, my daughter and my grand-daughter, in the flesh.
And four years after the day I learned Phoebe was pregnant, my mobile suddenly rang. I say suddenly, don’t phones always ring suddenly? I mean they don’t take a run-up or give you a warning so you think ah my phone is going to ring or something like that. Anyway I was in the bath at the time so I jumped out and answered. And I heard Phoebe’s voice. Not from Bordeaux, not from France at all, but from Scotland, in fact from Glasgow, in fact from the Airport and would I pick them up? In fact, right now. Naked and dripping and shaking not from the cold but from shock and excitement, I said yes, sure I didn’t need telling twice.
Luckily Alice had a day off work and she said I could take the car. I asked if she wanted to come with me and though she knew I was kind of nervous I guess, and might need some support, she said it was best if I went alone. All in good time, she said, she would get to meet my daughter and grand-daughter. And then it struck me, I didn’t even know how long they were staying, or even where they were staying, or further still how long I’d have with them, today or in all. But I didn’t need to dwell on that, because Alice had said those words. My daughter and grand-daughter. I asked her to say it again. My daughter and grand-daughter.
It was less than ten miles from where we lived to the airport and I drove like a lunatic. Not because I drive like a lunatic, but because I was so nervous. I overtook badly once and got a one-finger salute from some arsehole in an Audi, and though I gave him one back I told myself to calm down, slow down. But it wasn’t easy. I was thinking how long it was since I saw her, how long it was since I touched her face, Phoebe, my beautiful daughter. I’d seen her on Alice’s laptop enough times to know what she looked like now, it would be ridiculous to say otherwise – her long red hair, her freckles, her beautiful eyes darker than usual for a redhead, in fact blue, a rarity, which helped make her the beautiful, unique girl she was, the beautiful, unique woman she now was. I’d also seen my grand-daughter, right there on Skype, darker, more like her father Jean maybe, dark eyes looking back at me and smiling so I wanted to reach into the screen and dive into them. But that wasn’t possible. Not until today.
It was a KLM flight and delayed by nearly an hour, but I didn’t care as I waited in Arrivals because though it would mean one hour less with them, as precious as every moment was, it gave me time to think what would I say? What would I do? Would I give her a huge hug? Of course I would. But who first? Phoebe? Or would I first grab hold of my grand-daughter, pick her up and throw her into the air? Finally I decided I’d let things just happen, not rehearse what to say or do, just let things happen.
And finally, there they were. I first saw Phoebe and her beautiful red hair turned gold in the concourse light, pushing a trolley full of cases with her right hand and, in her left, this toddler wearing a little hat, a little coat, little gloves and black and white pumps, taking her first tiny steps into her homeland.
So I’ll tell you what did happen, I ran towards them and pulled Phoebe away from the trolley, scooped her up in my arms and gave her the hardest kiss of my life, then almost in the same movement I crouched down to the little one and did the same to her. And then the same, twice over and twice as hard. Once again I have difficulty describing how I felt; elated? Overjoyed? The happiest man in the world? Probably all of those but definitely the last.
“Bonjour Papa,” said Phoebe.
“Bonjour ma petite Phoebe,” I said, “Et bonjour ma petite Aline!”
“En Francais Papa?” said Phoebe, “Full marks!”
“I’ve been practising,” I said.
I can’t honestly remember how long we stood there exchanging words and hugging and everything, probably ten minutes who knows? But I wouldn’t care if it were an hour, I was so desperate to look into their eyes, the blue and the black, keep hugging them, talking to them in English, French and utter shite. It didn’t matter, it just didn’t matter, because there I was, with my daughter and my grand-daughter, my beautiful daughter Phoebe now a grown woman and my little darling Aline.
“Good flight?” I said at last, “You must be starving!”
“A bit,” said Phoebe.
“Are you hungry little one?” I said.
“Oui,” said Aline, then remembering it was to be English, just nodded, and hid behind her mother’s coat.
I don’t remember much of what I said on the drive towards the city but the journey seemed to take just minutes, and it didn’t seem long before we’d found a McDonald’s in Argyle Street, ordered up and taken a seat in the window. And again I must’ve been talking eighteen to the dozen, as if packing as much as I could into the time it took to say a medium fries, so keen was I to fill in the gaps, so desperate was I to gobble them up while I had them there in front of me.
“Slow down Dad,” said Phoebe, “there’s no rush.”
“Well this morning when I talked to Alice, that’s my girlfriend….”
“… I know.”
“… it occurred to me I hadn’t even asked how long you were staying, where you were staying!”
“It’s OK dad,” she said, “We’re here for a week.”
A week! A week that felt like eternity ahead of me, a time in which to get these two beautiful people into my life.
“Have you got a hotel?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said.
“Well listen, feel free to say no if it’s too much or too soon, but I’d love it if you came to stay with us?”
“Really?” she said.
“Really,” I said, “and don’t worry about Alice because she’ll be fine with it. She’s already said.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” I confirmed, “I’ve never been more positive about anything in my life.”
“Voudrais-tu rester avec ton grand-pere ma petite cherie?”
“Oui merci,” said Aline, who by now had overcome her shyness and was greedily devouring her fries and added “I want to stay with grand-papa.”
“She has a good appetite,” I said.
“She’ll eat you out of house and home,” said Phoebe.
“I don’t care. She can have anything she wants.”
“She’s ever so bright Dad.”
“I can see that. Two languages. She’s very lucky to have a mum like you.”
“So am I,” said Phoebe, “To have a dad like you. I’ve missed you so much.”
And so that was the first meal I ever had with my grand-daughter, and the first time I’d seen my daughter in too many years that I care to mention. And I’d got them for a whole week. I couldn’t help thinking the last time I saw her was before Danni promised I could have her for a week after they’d returned from Disney Land Paris and they never came back. But I didn’t want to dwell on that. I didn’t want to dwell on anything negative, just enjoy that week, those moments, that laughter, those stories they’d tell, and lap them up and squeeze them dry for everything I could. I was the happiest man in the world having the happiest meal in his life, thinking of the week ahead of us.
But what I didn’t know yet was that it wasn’t for just a week. After the meal I drove us back to Shawlands, where Alice was waiting already with the door open, significantly a sign in the window saying welcome home Phoebe and Aline. “How did you know?” I said later, when Aline was sleeping and Phoebe taking a shower. “I just knew,” she said, and that was enough for now because all would be revealed. “Hello Aline,” she’d said to little one when they came in the door. “Did you have a nice ride on the aeroplane?” “Oui merci,” Aline said, shyly. But later they’d get on so well the two of them, the three of them, the four of us. So when Phoebe came out of the shower and got herself settled I asked how things were, sensing there was more to meet the eye than she’d told me in McDonald’s. So then she sat, while Aline still slept, and told me the whole story. She wasn’t here just for the week. She’d been fighting with Jean for a while now, and recently it became untenable so she’d moved back in with her mum and George. But all the time she was missing home, missing her daddy, the person she needed most. So she’d phoned and I was out, so spoke to Alice and told her story; would it be OK to come and stay for a while? Alice had said fine but don’t tell your dad, let’s keep it as a surprise. Hearing this I was shocked, excited but shocked. Sorry she’d fallen out with Jean, I said, but shocked and excited, and mad yet amazed at Alice for keeping this secret from me for two or three days. “I love you dad,” said Phoebe, “I wanted me and Aline to know you, fill in the missed years…. If you’ll have us.” Well I didn’t need telling twice. I’d be the happiest man alive, I said, I’d like that more than anything. “I’ll get her into school,” she said, “find a job and everything.” And I said I’d do everything possible to help and Alice chipped in the same. She’d keep in touch with her mother and George and Jean of course, by phone or Skype, but she was staying, for ever. As for me, I was the man about to fill the gaps of all those years and watch his beautiful Phoebe as a woman and a mother, and little Aline grow into a woman. And become a grand-dad proper not through Skype or on the phone, actually in the flesh. “I’ve so many stories to tell,” I said. “Well you can start right now,” she said. So I said “Why don’t we start with the one about three blokes in a van who went to the Pyrenees?” “That’d be good,” she said. And I said two things, “One I’m telling it in English, and two, before I tell you, I want to watch my grand-daughter sleeping for a little while.”