Friday, 2 December 2016


My marriage came with a free child, which wasn't a problem, but was not a scenario I'd foreseen. I'd just have to do my best and play it by ear, I decided.

It hasn't all been easy, although to be fair neither has it been anything like so difficult as I might have anticipated had I given it more thought. He was seven when Bess and I got married and is now thirteen. Sometimes he's a pain in the arse, other times he's fine - as you might expect, so you just have to get on with it.

Possibly more aggravating was the distant susurrus of expectation from newly acquired relatives for whom Junior was our precious boy. Even before I'd crossed the Atlantic, one opined that I might be a paedophile eager to get my clammy hands on the child; because were I some sort of kiddy-fiddler, that's obviously what I would do - marry an unsuspecting American so I can bag me one of those green cards and get my Jimmy Savile on in the land of the free. Another newly acquired relative took demonstrative issue when I failed to show at some screeching kid-filled event at the local country club, a birthday with our precious boy in attendance. I'd been in America for a week. I was about to get married and I had left behind everything I had known since birth. I was knocked sideways by the intense Texas heat, felt ill and still shell-shocked, and I didn't feel like hanging out with small, screaming children on that one particular occasion so I stayed home.

That man had better get his priorities straightened out, the relative testily informed my wife, apparently so as to showcase the extent of her devotion to our precious boy. These days I get on fine with the woman, but I haven't forgotten. People tend to reveal their true colours before they know you.

I always imagined one major difficulty with being a stepfather would be my apparently replacing an existing father, which I haven't attempted on the grounds that his dad is still very much around, in the picture, and we all get on just fine. The scene where the child slams the door and screams you're not even my real dad is yet to happen. Strangest of all, he seems to think I'm great, which is partially because I'm exotic - coming from England and all that - and because I know about Doctor Who - although I'm doing my best to discourage him on that score - and he appreciates the sense of security I apparently bring. I qualify all of this as strange, because the information derives from conversations with his mother as she brings him back from school. It's taken him a couple of years to get into the habit of communicating directly with me, not because he's rude so much as that he is burdened with a combination of shyness and extraordinarily narrow focus. Bess has pointed out how I'm the one person in his life who doesn't dote upon him, or regard him as our precious boy by sheer dint of familial genetics, or necessarily at all. My favour therefore has some currency and he knows it. When he's rude or he screws up, I'm generally quite happy to tell him so in as much detail as seems necessary, addressing him as I would an adult because I don't do baby-talk; and on some level he responds to this.

Children need boundaries, as they say.

Over the years we've had rough patches, mainly characterised by uneaten food left to go off in his room, toilets full of poo either unflushed, or flushed by a method entailing operation of the handle followed by running away as quickly as possible without checking whether the disturbingly verdant ten-inch floater has held its ground. Other misdemeanours mostly come down to basic manners and continued failure to do something which he has been asked to do over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

'Look, it's not even like we ask you to mow the lawn or take out the trash, or even to do anything at all,' I'll begin in preface to the usual speech about full glasses of tea left perched precariously above electrical sockets. He will stare at me as I state my case, usually with the look of a rabbit caught in headlights, and even as I speak I wonder whether he's taking any of it in or whether it's more like a dog reacting to a harsh tone of voice when it's been caught taking a dump on the rug.

As the years have passed, it seems he has begun to take at least some of it in, and his communication has developed sufficiently for me to be able to tell that he at least doesn't mean to piss me off; which is nice because I like to be able to think well of him, and I don't enjoy pointing out that he's screwed up any more than he enjoys it. These days, we can almost have something that sounds a bit like a conversation, even laughing at each other's jokes, or some of them; and while I doubt I'll ever regard him as our precious boy because I'm just not that much of a walking Hallmark card, I feel protective towards him and I want him to be happy.

Now it's the weekend and Bess and I are taking him to the cinema to see Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. He's read the books and has been gagging to see the big screen adaptation. It's a Tim Burton film, but stepfatherhood is sometimes about making sacrifices, about meeting others half way. Junior has a reputation of talking through films. It's worse when they're on television because he gets to move around, jumping up and down, describing what we've all just seen on the screen with our own eyes.

'It's like,' he yelps, completing the sentence with dramatic gestures so as to illustrate Loki fighting the Incredible Hulk, and we know that this is exactly what it's like because we're still trying to watch the fucking film.

'If you're going to talk through this,' I tell him as we enter the cinema, 'and explain everything that's about to happen or has just happened, could you sit on the other side of your mother and do it quietly?' I ask him.

'Sure,' he says, then barely utters a word for the next couple of hours; and surprisingly I find myself enjoying the film even though it's by Tim Burton.

The boy lets loose in the car on the way home, going into ludicrous and slightly sniffy detail regarding all the changes which have been made during transition from page to screen. He obviously enjoyed the film, but it was different to the books. Much of his communication takes the form of lists prefaced with let me see, then whatever he wants to share reeled off with the verbal equivalent of bullet points, and he's really going to town this time.

I find myself feeling strangely proud, which is almost a first, because not only has he recognised a book as the more authoritative form of a story but, as I realise, he has actually read the thing and taken it in. This has been a bone of minor contention, specifically how much I hear about the kid's supposed love of reading contrasting with my own experience, which is mostly him in his room laying on his back tapping the screen of his iPad with a finger all evening, occasionally calling out to have a bowl of chips conveyed to him. His supposed reading - I have noted with some suspicion - always seems to occur off-screen; but now I'm at last hearing him talk about a book, and in the sort of detail which suggests it's something he actively enjoys rather than being just a chore.

He's been with his father for most of the weekend, during which time I've made a six-foot bookcase with seven shelves for his room. We picked him up from his father's house and took him straight to the cinema, so the bookcase is a surprise.

His mother has asked me to make him a bookcase on and off for the last couple of years, but I've never quite got around to it, partially wanting first to see some evidence that he's capable of putting stuff on a shelf rather than just dropping things on the floor then stepping over them for the next two years; but I've eventually caved in because carpentry is good exercise and what harm can it do? Bess and I have collected what we can from the rubbish tip that is his room, set it all on the shelving, and now we can see the floor.

Junior sits on the bed staring at the book case.

'One thing,' I say.

'Yes?' He sounds nervous.

'It's your room and it's your bookcase, but if for whatever reason I see bits of wood carved out of it because you were bored, I will become unhappy.'


This is a karaoke version of an exchange from about a year ago. Large plastic cereal containers, which should never have found their way into his room in the first place, had sections of the red plastic tab by which one removes the lid snipped off for no reason at all. Even as vandalism it seemed so weird and pointless that I felt ridiculous having to bring it up.

'Do you think he likes the bookcase?' I ask my wife, because I can't tell. Sometimes the boy is too inscrutable for his own good.

'Oh yes,' she tells me. 'He's very pleased with it.'

It feels like we've turned a corner.

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