Part 12: He joined the party in unprecedented times

In the afternoon we snooze inside a barricade of cool patio shade, a solid no-neck bouncer safeguarding Frank from the wavy heat. Like two cats curled, spooning toasty fur that has retained the sun, dreaming of long, lazy days. Days that meld and scramble in fact and order. Reggae floats over the back brick, beats against hot pegged fabric. The hum of neighbours on all sides feels like Spain. An empty sky. Everyone is grounded, everyone is home. A novel is propped open by a stained frothy, chocolate-dusted mug. Salsa drenched nachos ooze with cheese and icy condensation droplets run down a bottle of beer. The house is a tip but who cares, who is coming to tea? Sleep deprivation feels like the Ibiza brand, soaked in afterglow and daytime naps. When there is nothing in the world to do, feeling sleepy doesn’t feel so bad. No one has anywhere to go. We have one objective; Keep Frank Happy. Plants grow slow and we notice the buds pop open. No expectations of the day, we attempt to achieve nothing beyond our primary goal. A holiday spent hopped-up on that loved-up feeling. The three of us. We Keep Frank happy. It is all we want to do.

To the subject of having a baby in lockdown, there are two opposing reaction camps. “OMG you POOR THING, I feel so, so bad for you. You are literally A HERO. I can’t believe you went through that all on your own, not being able to see anyone, it must have been terrible!” To this I nod, soak in the superwoman comparison. A humble sigh. In some ways it was tricky, (and I am cautious not to take away from anyone’s taxing or tough experience with a newborn, both in lockdown or without). Maybe it’s because everything I read in pregnancy fed the niggling angst I already had that this was going to be REALLY FUCKING HARD. That I wasn’t ready. That it would BREAK ME. Maybe I could never envision the overwhelming love because I had never given enough thought to what it could really feel like. I anticipate the worst.

Wednesday 18th March. Clifford’s physical structure, usually so sturdy even in its compact form deflated, flattened into a crumpled mass on the stairs. A defeated boy. I deposit both arms around the shrunken heap and we cry into each other’s shoulders for a long noiseless moment. Clifford’s company was temporarily laying him off to save the business from going under. An alarming number of events were being cancelled. Everywhere another. And another. I wouldn’t believe it about Glastonbury. Couldn’t. It was a dream, a nightmare. One of their most lucrative jobs. The AV company had already been forced to let all their freelancers go, scaling down to the skeleton staff. We thought this bag of bones crew could ride it through. But then, like so many others, they couldn’t. The timing was incredible.

Friday 20th March. A video WhatsApp call concludes my final day at work before maternity leave. Pregnant women are, seemingly out of nowhere, abruptly added to the Covid-19 “high risk” category and I am not allowed back inside the drama school where I work. Hurried preparations are undertaken for all of the vocational theatre arts teaching to go online. The operations staff scramble frantically to get all staff set up for working from home. Auditions (my job), involving big events where hundreds of candidates’ audition at the same time, are reimagined as digital YouTube submissions… nearly one thousand of them! I continue to go to my appointments, moved into the hospital as doctors surgeries shut their doors. I walk down deserted corridors akin to 28 days later, an unnerving, intimidating calmness before the storm, as the UK holds their breath, waiting to see whether the NHS will cope.

When the Government announced its furlough scheme we held our breathe. We searched the fine print between the drippy-blonde bumbling, waiting for the sucker-punch that would reveal how the Tories were stitching us up, again. Before Covid Clifford was to take the standard two weeks paternity leave, unpaid as he hadn’t been on PAYE quite long enough to claim it from the Government. “OMG how lovely to have that time just for you and Clifford with baby Frank! It’s so rare! It will have done him so much good. This is the perfect time!” The other response to having a baby in lockdown. Keep Frank Happy. It was unthinkable that Clifford could be off work for so long, paid at 80%. Remarkable. Unprecedented. These are not normal times. Frank is oblivious to how uncommon this is, just ecstatic that his Dad is home. The bond is tight, the foundation strong.

Monday 23rd March. We go into national lockdown. Clifford is home but so is everybody else. We are in isolation. Everyone in quarantine and because of this we are connected. A world shut indoors. With a pregnancy that came out of nowhere, in a life that did not seem conventionally ready for a child, I worry about missing out. I don’t find caring for a baby hard, I understand that it can be but what I find challenging is the amount of patience you need, putting every plan for yourself on hold. I have lived a selfish life. However, in this adjustment of bowing out from the party temporarily, of taking a turn away from the dance floor to sit on the sofa, I was suddenly not alone.

Friday 27th March. Frank is born. Bringing home a baby is scary AS FUCK. MY friend had a health visitor come everyday to her house for ten days after the birth (that’s how they do in Scotland!) We were told to trust our instincts but felt like we had none. Especially when it came to breastfeeding. Neither of us had any experience with newborns, or babies full stop. The midwife phoned but it wasn’t the same. Does he look yellow? Is he meant to be making that mad throaty noise? Do you think he’s putting on enough weight? (Ha-ha.) But we did it. We learnt. And then, slowly, we learnt to trust ourselves. There are things I’m more confident in because of this, because I found my own way, and there are things, like taking him out and about, that I am not.

Everyone is kept away. The Birth of Frank, hotly anticipated, is marked by video calls. The first grandchild on both sides. My mums dream much more than it ever was mine. Our families are wrecked but hold it together for us, shield us from their tears. A sturdy stream of cards and presents pour from our postman’s gloves, materialising almost daily against the outside wall. Frank should have been getting more attention, but he was getting it all. According to experts it is best for babies to spend their time with just two parents in the beginning, for bonding. He was in our arms 24/7. I never thought about what it would feel like to have someone else there to hold him. We have our moments. I’ve never spent so much time with Clifford, never spent so much time with any one person. He is no God. He pisses me off while I’m writing this and I snap, “Watch it or I’ll write you in as a wanker.” He laughs and replies, “I’m expecting it, to be honest.”

Saturday 18th May. Franks Naming Day. It crawls into view. It fades into the past. If I’d been told about what was to follow when I was pregnant, I would never have believed it. What do you mean I won’t be able to hug and see my mum after I’ve given birth? What do you mean no one will meet my baby for two months? What do you mean we’ll stay isolated in our home just us three? What do you mean I’ll have the most intense sugar cravings of my life and not be able to get a cream egg because it’s not essential shopping? What do you mean I’ll get no home support of any kind? What are you on?! Are you MAD?

Sunday 17th May. Seven weeks and two days after Frank is born. He is introduced to both families for the first time. We social distance with each separately. We stay outside. No one holds him. It’s bizarre. Built up to mad anticipation. We sit on warm spring grass. Butterflies dance. Frank wears a shirt, tiny stitched boats sailing across stripy rivers. I chew the edge of my nail. We are uneasy, we worry about accepting a caring cup of tea. Five days later we hear about Dominic Cummings. Boris Johnson says, “you should have been using your initiative!” WHAT THE ACTUAL WHAT NOW? Boris had a baby in lockdown too. Has his family been through the same as ours?

I receive a lesson on the different parts to my laptop charger and a lecture on how to coil and store it correctly… Clifford needs to go back to work. This is not a normal time, but this was never going to be a normal time for me. Frank doesn’t know that it is unusual for people to wear a mask, to stay away. People have and are suffering. We walked past a boy on a roof who was threatening to jump. I just feel lucky. Through these uncertain times we have a source of pure joy on tap, making very real worry dull and slightly fade. We don’t know what will happen. A lot of things are fucked. A lot of people are screwed. Frankie gives us this look like he knows what’s up. He’ll sort the whole sorry mess out. Front line of the revolution.