A while back my daughter asked me, ‘Is there a video of me being born?’ I laughed, and said that even if we’d had the camcorder then, I would have struggled to get sign-off from the principal actor. Aside from a few photographs, the day went unrecorded except in memory, where the magnitude of the event runs up hard against pain, anxiety and lack of sleep, to speak just of what her father experienced. But it was a nice piece of inference on my daughter’s part; she has been using the hand-held camera a lot lately, and knows there is footage I shot when she was much younger. So I told her that I had in fact written something about her birth not long before, and that maybe when she was older she would be interested to read it, in the absence of video evidence. I thought I would try it out here first.
I was out shopping for Christmas presents when your mother went into labour. When I got home she was sitting on the floor with her back against the side of the bed. She almost never shouts at me, but she did then, exasperated by my overlong absence, though I knew that it was born of anxiety and nervous excitement, rather than true anger. And in any case, when we rang the hospital, they were reluctant for her to come in yet.
Once she was admitted later that evening, the long hours – a whole day’s worth of them – passed like no other long hours have passed before or since. A heightened state of waiting, marked by minor developments, moments of concern, waves of pain. Gas and air and an epidural. The birth plan went out the window, an impractical ideal. The simple truth is that obstetricians know what to do in any given situation, and their arguments carry both urgency and the weight of countless practical repetitions. So labour ended and your life began in theatre, with activity just short of taking you out via the tummy. I was invited to wear scrubs and sit where I could hold your mother’s hand. It must have been a quiet time on the labour ward because with us there were about a dozen health professionals, led by a friendly and charismatic obstetrician with wiry grey hair and sideburns, an auspicious sign from my point of view, and one which I suspect influenced me to grow my own early in your life (though the effort shaving became may also have had something to do with that).
Against his advice, I stood up to see you born. It had seemed traumatic as labour went along but then you were out, bloody and pink; the elation we both felt made the trauma seems so much less traumatic. The obstetrician announced the time – 16:58. Tuesday’s child. Despite being ventoused and clamped with forceps, you were pink and perfect and – I can’t resist using such an old-fashioned word – bonny. I have a dreamlike memory of being given you swaddled to take over to the paediatrician to check you for APGAR (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration); pink as you were, you scored high. Certainly I looked into your seemingly astonished and certainly astonishing face moments after you were born, and my recollection is that it was as I carried you across to the paediatrician that I spoke your name for the first time, even though your mother and I had not yet agreed it. But the moment I saw you, it was obvious to me that you were who you were. Obvious too that you were beautiful. In the weeks ahead, everyone would say so, from midwives to passing shoppers in the supermarket; and once a health visitor added, ‘of course we say that to every parent, but she really is a beautiful baby’.
On the maternity wing, a student midwife took the first photo of the three of us together, and I took one of you being weighed in: 3.548 kg. I can even tell you that you were 50 cm long. We heard you cough for the first time, and saw your tiny tongue appear. You looked bewildered, as you had every right to be. You tried out your first grouchy frowns beneath your bloodied mass of hair, for yes, like me you were born with a full head of it. Your fat little lips almost arranged themselves into some distant relative of a smile. Your eyes were immediately questing, your thighs pudgy and your knees strong. You had a dimple where I do. Every time we looked at you in those early weeks we saw another face emerging out of your blooming cheeks. You were a barrister clutching the imaginary lapels of your baby-grow and addressing the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. A little Buddha or the last Emperor. In nappy alone, a sumo wrestler, or a miniature heavyweight boxer. A Mafia don. Winston Churchill. Friar Tuck. Benny Hill, leading us a merry dance. But beautiful versions of all of those large personalities. At times you seemed to be playing an imaginary theremin, or perhaps a double bass, with swoops of your tiny hands. Or you were a conductor whose emotions were rioting carefully across your face in time with the swishing of your imaginary baton. Oh, the faces you pulled. Maire Antoinette, dismissing the hoi polloi. Frank Sinatra singing ‘My way’. Vic Reeves’ impersonation of a club singer, crooning out of the side of his mouth. But when you had been well fed, and hadn’t a care in the world, then what you most resembled was a cat.
The period a few hours after your birth is dreamlike in my memory. Remember, I hadn’t slept for more than thirty-six hours. Perhaps that’s why instead of driving home, I have what seems a puzzling memory of catching a bus, a London bus wanly lit in the way London buses are, rumbling and bouncing and lulling me as it moved through a magical neon-lit world which in reality was for the most part suburban housing – twenties mock Tudor and thirties terraces and semi-detacheds – lining the ceaseless rumble of the main road.
At home I must have had something to eat. I strongly suspect I drank a bottle of beer, perhaps two. I certainly turned on the radio to listen to John Peel, wanting music and to share the moment with someone, even though I would never have gone so far as to email the DJ to let him know about this momentous event in the life of one of his longtime listeners. That night Peelie played a whole host of songs which gave me the uncanny sense that somehow he nevertheless knew what was going on in my life: ‘I love your mum’ by the 7-10 Splits, Cosy Cosy’s ‘About a boy, about a girl’, ‘How the angels fly in’ by the group in session that night, extreme metal outfit Anaal Nathrakh, ‘Darlin’’ by Frankie Miller, sweet Gene Vincent’s ‘Baby blue’, and even ‘Clappin’’ by a group called Bus.
On your 18th birthday – to which you are now halfway – I’m going to give you these words, and together with them, a recording of that show, if I can find one, and if not, then as many of the songs as I can trace compiled together in the order they were played. Against my better judgment, I might even throw in that week’s number one: ‘Changes’ by Kelly and Ozzy Osbourne.
Photo of the Milky Way and the Sagittarius constellation by Terrence Dickinson via Hubble.