“Left holding the baby, were you?” chuckled an elderly lady at the table adjacent to ours. Her partner continued his in-depth study of the cafe’s menu, either oblivious or determined not to be drawn into conversation with yet another stranger.
I straightened slightly, from my hunched posture in front of the high chair, before responding. While I was certainly looking after David, I didn’t feel the sense of panicky abandonment which the cliche implies. I tried to communicate this subtle distinction in the language of friendly seaside discourse.
“Och, I think it’s great,” my new acquaintance continued. “Back when we were having weans, your husband wouldn’t lift a finger!”
She raised her eyebrows and nodded knowingly at a point behind me. At once, another voice piped up, another elderly lady animatedly concurring: “Oh god, no – this one still doesn’t know how to change a nappy!”
I glanced back at David, who was staring at me with the calm but curious expression of someone who thinks it’s terribly nice that you’re making new friends, but wonders why you have stopped spooning pureed apple into his mouth.
They had flanked us, I realised: the proxy-grandmother brigade. I couldn’t turn my back to one without meeting the other’s gaze. I had brought a chubby, hungry, eye-contact-making little person into their midst and they were going to exercise their ancient right to offer advice, tell me how times had changed and generally speak at us for an extended period of time. I would have to engage, or be scorned by everyone else in the establishment as ‘that kind’ of younger person.
While I had been frantically assessing our plight, both ladies had been settling into their rhythm. “My husband didn’t change a nappy for any of ours,” proxy-gran A was explaining, “or for the grandchildren! But it’s all different these days.”
I decided to bite the bullet and opined that it was just part of the job for me; it would never have occurred to me not to take my turn with nappies, baths, etc.
“If I’d done that, I’d have been a laughing stock.” Proxy-gran A’s stoic partner spoke slowly and carefully, eyes still never leaving the menu, voice dripping with contempt for the feminised whelps to whom he must needs leave the mantle of manhood.
“Oh, yes, that was just how it was!” called proxy-gran B from behind me. As I turned politely to face her, I caught sight of David’s face and immediately changed course to recommence feeding. There are few things more menacing than the features of an 8-month-old who is visibly losing patience.
“A man couldn’t help, or he’d be shunned,” she continued. “So we just had to get on with it! It’s much better now, of course – much better.”
Her own husband gave a bleak laugh.
“A laughing stock,” repeated the proxy-gran A’s partner, his intense gaze milking every last drop of meaning from the succinct descriptions on the cafe’s tariff. Reflected in those eyes, Egg and Chips took on a new and portentous meaning; grim and sinister, full of misanthropic loathing.
The proxy-grandmothers beamed at my son, oblivious to that simmering hatred. For my part, I threw that apple down David’s neck as if I was using a trebuchet.
Several things have contributed to making the last two weeks fabulous for our little family, albeit exchanges like the one above won’t make the leaderboard. Instead, I’ll give credit to the experience of taking our wee man on holiday for the first time; and even better, doing so during the Olympic Games.
Since we’re as cash-rich as any set of new parents might expect to be, we decided to repeat our extremely cost-effective babymoon and take David to Millport, on the isle of Great Cumbrae. This time we were blessed with far better weather, which opened up all sorts of possibilities to us, like allowing David to enjoy his first ferry ride as nature intended: from the deck.
Life on the open wave, etc.
In case you can’t tell, he thought that the wind in his face and the bracing sea air was bloody marvellous.
Once we reached Millport, the sun revealed a host of nice family activities which driving rain and howling winds had obscured during our last visit.
Why, of course we should take a turn along the seafront, bathed as it is in golden light!
Certainly, we should eat outside and revel in the warmth (although I should think that several minutes of audibly worrying about whether David was wearing enough sun-cream would play a pivotal role in that experience)!
Let there be no doubt, we should visit Crocodile Rock, where in accordance with tradition we will take David’s photograph!
Wandering along the promenade, I found myself becoming excited at the sight of children’s rides, trampolines and even crazy golf. Obviously, at less than a year old, David wouldn’t be partaking in any of these delights during our visit; my mind was racing ahead, though, to all the visits of the future. I suddenly understood the excitement of my parents each Christmas, as they watched us unwrap each gift, in a visceral way that I hadn’t before: anticipating David’s delight at discovering these things gave me a sense of giggly elation.
I mentioned earlier that taking our holiday in the midst of the Olympic Games had enhanced the whole affair – and I wasn’t simply asserting that to sound topical.
Perhaps my partner and I were helplessly caught up in the national euphoria which erupted with Danny Boyle’s brilliant opening ceremony – although that’s unlikely, because one of us retired to bed after 20 minutes, decrying it as ‘bollocks‘ – but the games really gripped our imagination throughout our break.
It certainly helped that as we arrived, the Athletics programme was just beginning. I’ve always found that iconic red running track the most compelling image of international sport – and London 2012 has only cemented my perception.
We picked up the thread on Friday, as Jessica Ennis was blazing an unsubtle trail through the heptathlon events. From the off, there was something about the crowd’s reaction to her that foreshadowed the excitement of the event’s closing stages. As she blasted from event record to personal best, I found myself updating the BBC sport feed on my phone during coverage of other events, eager to know as quickly as possible how ‘our Jess’ was doing.
It’s implausible how quickly we as a nation can take sporting figures to our hearts; I was no exception. On Thursday, I couldn’t have told you the name of the young lady who was gracing the games partnership banners of BP filling stations and the Team GB posters plastered across the country. By Saturday, as her final event approached, I felt as if I’d followed Jess for years.
Even as I recognise my own sporting fickleness (except in the case of football, naturally), I am happy to testify that the closing 800m race of that Women’s Heptathlon has become one of my life’s sporting highlights.
As ‘our Jess’ rounded the final bend, she lay several places behind the leader, but ahead of her nearest challenger in the points table. There was no sporting requirement to do anything but cruise professionally across the line and collect a Gold medal; sometimes, though, it’s not enough to do the safe and professional thing.
So instead, Jessica hit the turbo and overtook all her competitors on the home straight. It was a remarkable sight: all of these women had been competing for two days in a gruelling multi-discipline event, which had surely left little room for stockpiling the energy required to pull off such a superhuman manoeuvre. Instead, the necessary strength appeared to flow from the desire to create a moment which, for Jessica and for her country, would stand apart in athletic history.
If that was her goal, she achieved it handily.
More history was made that night and, in a way, it probably spoiled us. Any one of the three golds we collected on ‘super Saturday’ would have been cause for jubilation; part of me wishes they had all enjoyed their own moment in the sun. Perhaps, though, it was better to enjoy one spectacular gilded evening.
There are several reasons this febrile atmosphere of success and national unity was important to our family holiday.
For one, we all enjoyed the Games in our own way. I lapped up the athletics; my partner marvelled at the Men’s diving (no sniggering at the back, please); David, particularly, was transfixed by all manner of things throughout the fortnight. His open mouthed attention to doubles badminton, triathlon, dressage, rhythmic gymnastics or indeed anything which involved highly coordinated adults doing complicated things was total.
Beyond that, it chimed with my excited anticipation of days to come. In four years time, I’ll watch the Olympics with David and explain ahead of the 100m final just how it felt to watch Bolt run 9.69 the first time. Someday, he might take part in athletics himself (an outcome which with decisively settle the nature vs nurture debate in favour of the latter). I can’t wait to enjoy these and other things with him.
When I look back on this break, it will always be tinted with gold: for the sunshine, for the medals and for the moments we shared with our boy. Roll on next summer… more holidays and the World Championships in Moscow await!