I wrote this when our girls were a bit younger, and the first part more or less describes one of my nights – though there were many similar ones. The commute after always made it a little more painful.
“Wha.. what time is it?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get them, I need to get up soon anyway.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled as she drifted back to sleep. She could ignore the babies crying now that I was awake.
I looked at the alarm clock again, and then did a double take, it wasn’t five o’clock, it was three. This felt like one of those days.
If I was lucky it would only be one of them. I was lucky, so far. Mercey was screeching like a banshee but Clemmy was still snoring gently. It amazed me that they could sleep through a racket which actually hurt my head, but they’d never woken each other up.
Mercey had woken because of her nappy. Somehow she’d taken the healthy white milk we’d fed her, and turned it into a yellowy brown toxic sludge, which it was my unenviable duty to dispose of. I thought of waking Helen, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep with all the screeching anyway. When they were first born they’d been passive during nappy changes, now it was wriggle central. Normally I could control it, but in the blurry morning I failed. First she got hold of the nappy, and managed to drag it back over her, spilling its contents everywhere. Then, to cap it off, she peed all over the mat.
“Mercey my love, that wasn’t at all helpful now was it.”
She just stared at me. I wondered if she was laughing on the inside.
It took me twenty minutes to clean her, put a new nappy and baby grow on and get her settled with a bottle of milk. The milk was cheating, but I was really hoping she’d nod off again and I could grab another hour of sleep. Mercey, full name Mercedes Suzanne Harvey, was such a delight most of the time, none more so than immediately after a night time feed. She smiled and put her arms out for a cuddle. I held her in my arms, and wallowed in the joy of being a father, and with such a lovely little girl. She was tired, and didn’t fuss when I put her pack down. I looked over at Clemmy, still snoozing away, and I gently closed the door and walked back to bed.
My head had literally just touched the pillow when there was another banshee scream. I could have sworn Mercey was sleepy. Perhaps I’d rushed her? I needed to get to her before she went ballistic. Helen didn’t even grunt as I assured her all was under control and headed back to the baby. Except it wasn’t Mercey, it was Clemmy. Mercey was already sleeping quite happily. Clemmy’s nappy was if anything worse than Mercey’s. She didn’t pull the nappy away, which was good, but she did pee at just the wrong time, drenching the new nappy, her clothes and my arm as I tried, vainly, to control the flow. She too was happy when she had finished her milk.
“Clementine Julia Harvey, you are a pretty little girl, but it’s now sleepy time,” I whispered to her as I held her. Unfortunately, she disagreed. Whenever I put her down in her cot she started to cry, and cranked up the volume if I didn’t respond immediately. I knew I should let her cry for a bit, but it was so hard. The cries rasping across my nerves. I tried to explain to her why she needed to go to sleep.
“Clemmy darling, Daddy has to go to work today. It’s a big day as he’s meeting the boss to present next year’s budget, and he could really do with another hour’s sleep.”
Talking about myself in the third person was one of the many things I’d sworn never to do.
Perhaps the desperation in my voice got through, because she calmed down and even let me put her in the cot. She looked up at me again and then rolled over, and was asleep before I put the light out. I checked on Mercey, she was still asleep, and I crept back to bed.
As I was about to slip into bed, the thought of resting my heading beguiling me, a loud screech filled the room. I stared about in bewilderment until I realised it was my alarm. Clemmy had taken all my remaining sleep time. I have to admit, part of me wanted to go downstairs and wake her up and keep her awake so she could see. I didn’t, not just because I’m not that cruel, and it would be self defeating as a tired Clemmy is not something I’d wish on anyone. It was also because I really did have a big meeting and I needed to get going.
I washed and showered in a zombie like state. Kissed Helen goodbye, not that she noticed as she was still enjoying her precious sleep before the morning feed and the beginning of the daily circus. Somehow, despite having woken up so early I was running late. Early morning traffic, something I’d always felt was an oxymoron, conspired to slow me down, and then the carpark was nearly full and I was forced to park miles from the station. I ran to the ticket machine. They’d recently put ticket barriers in so there was no longer the option to just jump on the train and buy a ticket, and I’d been caught out by that a couple of times.
As I neared the ticket machine a woman who was heading in that direction saw me and cut across my path. She then ambled to the machine. I wondered if I should push past her, after all I had my card and knew the dance so would be very quick. She got to the machine before the devil on my shoulder had won the argument. Our machines are not as slow as they used to be. Which is to say that they’ve replaced the clockwork with steam; but if you do the right things they take slightly less than a minute. I know, I’ve timed it. The woman did not know the dance, and managed to push the wrong buttons, put her card in at the wrong time which cause the whole transaction to cancel, and generally did her best to wind me up. She eventually got her tickets and ambled off, and it was my turn. Fifty-five seconds later I was heading for the barriers. As I got through my train pulled away.
The guard nodded sympathetically at me, “Some days,” he said. I managed a weak smile before heading to the coffee place. I might as well grab one while I waited the half hour for the next train. The problem with living out in the sticks was that, well, I was out in the sticks. Transport was infrequent, people were slow, and there was an almost continuous smell of manure in the air. I mean it was a lovely laid back lifestyle.
They of course did not have decaf coffee, apparently they’d just run out. The man smiled an apology, “Some days.” Yes. I just wondered why every day was turning into one of them. So I had the hot chocolate, which would at least warm me.
We were the end of the line, which meant the train usually sat waiting for the next departure, which at this time of year meant a warm place to stay. Unfortunately it was delayed so I had to hang out on the platform, trying my best to get cover from the wind by leaning against the wall. The autumn breeze was tricky and vicious though, and kept finding me. In my rush to get out of the house I’d forgotten my coat, and the house was just far enough away that I couldn’t definitely get there and back before the next train.
Oh dear lord, I thought to myself. It was Doug, in one of his Bertie Wooster moods.
“Hi Doug, how are you.”
“Damned tired if you must know. Had to get up before the sparrows today, got a big meeting up in the Big Smoke you see.”
Doug was some kind of City person. Lawyer possibly. He had told me, but I’d managed to forget.
“It is rather early I agree. You in for the whole day?”
“Oh no old chap, got lunch at the club, then back out for a quick round of golf with the father-in-law, got to keep the old man happy.”
If he’d been any more of a stereotype I’d have had to kill him. I shook my head at him.
“Please Doug, not today.”
“Sorry mate, what’s up, you look like death.”
“Got a meeting with Higgins today.”
“Oh right. Well if it makes you feel any better I really have meetings all day, not even a break for lunch, and there is a very faint hope I might get out before midnight. We’re allegedly signing today.”
“Thanks Doug, that does make me feel a little better.” It didn’t really, but at least he was trying. We’d gone to school together, but then he’d gone to a different, ok I’ll admit, better, university, and ended up a high flyer. I’d somehow ended up in the middle. Of everything, and it would appear an ever widening lake of poo.
“Cheer up, the weekend is only five working days away!”
Before I could think of a suitable reply the train had pulled in.
“See you sometime soon,” said Doug as he headed to the first class carriage. Just as he got to the door, he turned and said, “Toodle pip!” before laughing and getting in. Really, I could kill him sometimes.
I got on to the train, and headed for my favourite seat. It had extra leg room and a table for my laptop. Somehow, despite the fact that there’d been almost no one else on the platform, someone had taken my seat, and my second favourite too. I stared for a moment before sighing and heading towards one of the other seats. I’d arrive in London with back ache at the very least, but it was, just, better than standing.
My hour long train journey consisted of the usual joys. A large, and yet bony, man sat next to me and felt that he should have three quarters of my seat as well. He read a broadsheet newspaper and managed to cover half my laptop screen, and it was only after a few coughs and a couple of bumps that he moved across enough to allow me to continue to breathe. Then we had the loud and chirpy couple who had to share how great their lives were with the whole carriage. By the time I got to London I was desperate to get out of the terrible little box. Even if meant that I had to get the tube.
The tube ride was normal. By which I mean, crowded, smelly and unpleasant, but in a comforting London way. I arrived at work, fifteen minutes late, and with just five minutes to prepare for my meeting.
There was a note on my desk from my boss, “Come as soon as you get in!” Oh dear. As I got to his office his secretary looked at me sympathetically and said, “He wanted to move you forward half an hour to fit in a call with Asia. He’s on the call now, but based on his expression it isn’t going well.”
I sat, like a naughty school boy, on the chair outside his office. I never understood how they could make these chairs so uncomfortable. It was as if there was a special factory, somewhere in China probably, where they forced their designers to make torture chairs, and if there was the hint of comfort in them the designer would be taken outside and probably forced to sit in someone else’s bad chair so he’d get the idea.
Damn he was grumpy. His secretary gave me another sympathetic smile as I followed him in. He pointed at the table.
“Don’t want to hear excuses. Tell me about next year.”
Excuses? Oh for being late. Right. I took a breath and started to give him my spiel on the departments future. We’d had a tough year, but we knew what we had to do, we were concentrating on quality, and we were going to invest in some new senior designers.
I was getting in to my pitch when I noticed his glower, and then he shook his head.
“No, no, no. You just don’t get it. Hopkins warned me, but I didn’t believe him.”
What? Hopkins, he was my number two. A bit young for the position, and wet behind the ears, but I had hopes of moulding him in a year or two. Why would he be talking to Higgins?
“I’m sorry sir, I don’t understand.”
“No Harvey, you don’t understand. The world has changed. Haven’t you noticed the recession? We’ve been in it for three years!”
“Yes sir, I have, which is why I think we should concentrate on the clients who want quality, they’ll stick with us.”
“We make a loss on every one of those clients! Sure, we used to make a profit, but with the time your team puts in, and the discounts we’ve had to give.”
“I did say the discounts…”
“Don’t interrupt me!” His voice was vicious. “If we’d not given discounts we’d have lost more clients. They’re the ones who pay us you know.”
I realised that there wasn’t anything I could say.
“Well, what are you going to do Harvey?”
“I don’t know sir, I guess I could look at the numbers again, maybe cut some of the hiring…”
He put his head in his hands.
“Look, Harvey, this world,” he indicated the office, I think, “is no longer the same. You don’t fit in to the new world.”
“In the olden days I’d tell you I expected your resignation, but we aren’t allowed to do it that way anymore. I’ll speak to HR, and they’ll get on to you later today. Hopkins will help you pack up.”
I just stood there gaping. He shook my hand, wished my luck and more or less pushed me out of his office.
I went back to my own office, much smaller than my boss’s, but still an office, a space of my own, and closing the door, I sat down. I stared at the screen, unable to comprehend what had just happened. I stayed in that number state for weeks. The HR interview, redundancy package and everything else just flowed over me. I nodded, smiled even and signed whatever I was given, and started my gardening leave. Helen and I spoke, I’m sure of it, but I don’t really know what about. I even failed to enjoy my time with the twins, though fortunately they were too young to notice my distraction and seemed to view it as a further excuse to climb all over me.
Despite my fug I was counting the days till our money ran out. With my redundancy I could pay off our cards, which I thought would give us some space, but with what Helen earned as a primary school assistant, we couldn’t afford the bills, let alone the mortgage. I had to get a job.
I told myself it would be easy to get a new job. I told myself I’d never get a new job. The excuses came and went, and I just sat, staring at the TV until the twins cried, or Helen really pushed me. Eventually, with just weeks of money left I went to a recruitment consultant.
“Look mate, with your experience getting you a new gig is going to be easy.”
The shiny suited specimen in front of me had assured me that he was the best, that he cared about his clients, and that he had connections in all the right places. All I could think was that he looked about twelve, and that if he was my best hope, then perhaps I was in real trouble.
“Course mate, you can trust me. We’ll have to tweak your CV a bit.”
He paused, and said, “I also need to be honest with you. You’re not going to be getting a pay increase. If you were still in a job, then sure easy, but as you’ve been out of one for a few months I just won’t be able to swing it.”
I hadn’t even considered an increase. Suddenly I perked up a bit, if I could get a job at my old salary then we’d actually be ahead of the game, because all our card debts were now gone.
“Great, well I’m eager to get going.” And I was.
The first place I interviewed seemed to think I wanted a junior position. I soon disabused them of that notion, and they politely said they had nothing at my level. This was repeated a few times, until I realised that my shiny suited friend was just sending me to anything remotely covered by my CV and wasn’t even checking the level. We had some words. He apologised, said he was just finding the level and he’d sort me out. He was so thick skinned it was almost impressive.
Several more pointless interviews followed. Some were at my level, but they seemed to think I wouldn’t fit in, or that I lacked commercial experience. I explained about the importance of good service and craftsmanship. I came to recognise the slightly condescending expression which presaged rejection. One of them even tried to tell me that in this new world there wasn’t time for that, people just wanted enough to get by. I argued and told him that it was short termism and would cost more in the longer term. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Most of them know they won’t be there in the long term, one way or another.”
They were right, I didn’t fit in. My fug returned.
Then I thought that maybe I could go it alone. A small scale company, dedicated to doing it properly. I would need some capital to keep me going for the first year or so while I got started, but I could see it, soon I’d be raking in the cash, stealing customers from my old firm. I went to a bank. They asked for a business plan. I gave them one. They didn’t laugh, but I think they were close. They tore it apart, nicely, and asked me to do it again. I did, but the numbers still didn’t add up for them. They tried to tell me that to make it work I needed to do more marketing, but that would mean less time for making the product, which meant either I had to charge more, or do a poor job. In the end I couldn’t get them to buy into it. The next bank were even less interested. I hit a new low.
“What is this!” I shouted, pointing at the large Amazon package.
Helen looked up, frowning at my volume.
“Shush, the girls are, finally, asleep.”
I didn’t care. I repeated my demand.
“It’s a present for the girls. They are going to be one next week.”
“Helen, I’ve told you, we can’t afford it. We can’t afford anything!”
The argument raged for a while. It ended with Helen almost screaming at me.
“I am doing everything I can, I’m even doing extra shifts, but as you have said to me oh so many times, I’ll never earn enough. Well then, you need to suck it in. You’re not a manager any more. You don’t have an office. You are nothing! If you don’t get a job soon we’ll have to sell the house, and then we’ll have nothing. Get a job. Anything. Otherwise I’m leaving.”
She stalked off, in tears, to try and comfort the girls who had woken up sometime during our fight.
I was beside myself. Who was she to say that to me? I had been supporting the family for years. Earning the money while she indulged herself with part time jobs and suchlike. I seethed. I had to get out.
I walked in to our little town. One street of shops, a couple of supermarkets and a farmers’ market every other Wednesday. The most exciting thing to happen recently had been the arrival of the Costa Coffee shop. By the time I got to the Costa my anger had drained completely and I realised what a fool I had been. I looked in to the window, almost pressing my nose to the glass like a boy at a sweet shop. I couldn’t afford a coffee.
I walked around for most of the afternoon, and a plan formed in my mind. I was going to get us out of our hole. First I had to apologise to Helen.
I got back home to the usual chaos, and inbetween changing nappies, feeding, bathing and bedtime I managed to grovel my way into forgiveness. It always amazed my how the babies could suck up time, but we’d become much better at having syncopated conversations while looking after them.
“So the plan is this. We sell the house. I get a temporary job until that’s done, and then I’ll start my own firm using our money instead of owing the bank. I’ll show them that craftsmanship is still needed.”
She looked at me and then hugged me. “It’s so good to have you back. It’s been dreadful living with a zombie these past months.”
“ A zombie? Like in Thriller.”
“Ha, no, not with your Dad dancing style!”
I laughed. It felt good to have a plan.
Helen rang the estate agency the next day, and I rang the temp agency. The estate agent came right round, a bad sign in retrospect as they clearly hadn’t anything to do. They hummed and harred and eventually gave us a price which would pay off our mortgage and give us a little profit. Enough to pay for rent for a year, and give me the capital to start a firm. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more, but it was still going to set us free.
The temp agency found me some work, and while it wasn’t enough on its own to pay the mortgage it would give us a bit more time. I even applied to work shifts at Costa.
The weeks passed. My temp work was mind-numbingly dull, and serving coffee wasn’t much more interesting. The girls were teething so sleep was a rare luxury, and Helen was back at school which meant that we were juggling the child care. Worse, we’d had one person to view the house and their only feedback had been that the rooms were the wrong shape. Really.
I was exhausted, and the money was still dripping away. We got the estate agent back to ask why the house wasn’t selling. It took them an hour to say it, but it came down to price. They wanted us to drop it, by twenty percent. They were certain they could sell at that. My heart sank. At that price we’d barely cover the mortgage, let alone have any left to live on or invest in my company. I almost screamed at them to get out, but managed to hold on long enough to see them to the door.
“Oh darling. It’s going to be alright.”
Helen’s words were the final straw. It wasn’t going to be alright. We were drowning and there was nothing going to save us. The anger began to bubble in me and I knew I had to get away. I just ran out of the door.
I walked and walked. The whole mess bearing down on me. It was all my fault. If I’d been more flexible at work. If we hadn’t built up so much debt. If. If. If. I found myself in a park, walking round, crying and repeating if again and again. I had been stretched too far, and had now finally snapped. I didn’t know if I’d ever get better again.
Someone bumped into me. I mumbled and staggered away.
“Watch out you imbecile!”
My anger flared and I turned, ready to launch myself at whoever it was. I’d had enough of the world pushing me about. As I stalked towards the man, he said, “Oh it’s you Harvey. Haven’t seen you for a while.”
It was Doug. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I was about to turn away when he peered at me.
“I say old chap, are you ok?”
Clearly I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure if I could cope with him, especially if he was about to Bertie Wooster me again.
Realising that I wasn’t going to answer he grabbed my arm and started marching me along the path. “I know just what you need old man.”
Apathy had followed the burst of anger, and I let him guide me. All the way to the pub. He dumped me in a corner and bought me a pint.
“Now, old boy. Spill.”
I think he was hoping to get a smile out of me, but I had no smiles left. Instead I took a large gulp of stout and started to talk. Two pints and an hour of rant later I came to a shuddering halt. It felt so good to talk to someone.
He frowned at me and said, “So let me get this straight. You care too much about doing your job properly to get a proper job. You have a wonderful wife, and two little girls who need you. You’ve more or less run out of cash, and you’re trying to sell your house into the worst property market in a generation.”
I tried to argue with him, but the drain of telling my story, and the affect of the alcohol meant I all I managed as, “Not really.”
“Yes, really.” He frowned. “Look, I’m not promising anything, but, I think I might be able to help you. Or at least help you help yourself. If you’re willing to try.”
Pandora’s final curse fluttered in my heart again, could Doug save me?
“First we need another drink, and then we’ll get you back home to your wife and delightful little urchins. I’m sure she’ll be worrying about you.”
Helen accepted the shambling wreck I’d become from Doug, who promised to call in a day or two.
He was as good as his word. He called me in and laid out his proposal. At first I didn’t quite understand, and then I was unsure it would work, but he promised me it would. He offered to invest for a fifty-fifty share of the profits, and said he’d find our first customers. He talked wistfully about maybe giving up the commute and working locally, or even retiring, if we could pull it off.
That’s how we started our business. We had a rocky first year, but Doug was true to his word and covered the costs, and now we’re making enough for me to cover the mortgage and even buy the girls, including Helen, the occasional treat. We’re still not making enough that Doug can afford to retire, but we’re about to hire another member of staff which is a great sign. I’ve been very clear with Doug that I will not have anyone onboard who doesn’t have the right work ethic. He just nodded and said, “Same old Harvey.” But he agreed.
What exactly do we do? We train fathers. Not something that anyone thought would be required, but it’s amazing how many people come to us.
The problem is, you don’t get a manual when a baby is born, and there’s so much aimed at training mothers that fathers get left out. Doug had a whole group of mates who were absolutely petrified about their impending, or in some cases recent, fatherhood. When they found out that they could talk to someone, a man, who would give them help and advice, they jumped at the chance. More importantly, they were willing to pay for it.
They had found that their wives were too distracted to be of any help, and none of the other women involved in the child care industry seemed to care that much about the father. The man is barely acknowledged, perhaps getting some advice, but often just being told to remember what the woman has been told, to be repeated later if required.
I have two lovely daughters, and have learned many of the lessons the hard way. Having twins meant that we always both had to be involved and it’s given me an insight that I am happy to share. I’ve distilled it into a set of tips and tricks, and I’ve trained my assistants, who are fathers themselves, so that I’m confident they understand the job, and can teach our clients.
We take the new fathers through it all step by step, and show them how the little things make all the difference. My clients appreciate the attention to detail, and they want to learn. Our marketing is all word of mouth, often the wives of our customers tell their friends, and we even get the occasional repeat customer. The majority of my time is spent actually helping people. It is deeply fulfilling in a way my old job never quite managed.
I even have my own office, even if it’s really just the spare room.