When Dorothy was born, he couldn’t have been happier for him. Rob was the first of his friends, his real life-long thick-and-thin friends, to have a child. They both understood, instinctively and unspoken, that things would never quite be the same, but it was too big and important and defining a moment for anything other than celebration and support.
Liam and Rob’s relationship was underpinned by a cut and thrust banter; they shared a deep and indigenous love of whimsy, a mutual desire to give the mundane the slip. They enjoyed a sort of competitive intellectual sex, rooted in humour and dripping with inventive prowess, the kind most close male friendships thrive on. The fleshless homoeroticism that mystifies girlfriends and wives everywhere, who console themselves with mutterings about ‘bromance’, feeling threatened but trying to mask the feeling beneath dismissive ridicule.
Rob had a child, a baby daughter. Liam had to make his peace with the fact that he was now a once a fortnight outlet, a hastily grabbed bit of respite when the maelstrom of new parenthood permitted. For his part, Liam tried to assume the uncle mantle – which he wasn’t – but despite his best efforts to show interest, arrange midday boozeless meet ups, Rob remained aloof. He knew that Rob and Mirzia were shaky, in fact their relationship had come within one harsh word of shattering irreparably on countless occasions, but for some reason they stayed together. Mirzia was a cold fish. It was bad enough she couldn’t find it within herself to support Rob’s art. Far worse was the attitude of mild contempt and derision she seemed to display. A sort of eye-rolling when will the scales fall from his eyes? sneer. Sour bitch.
Rob’s relationship with Mirzia was terminal. At first the shockwaves of the split didn’t seem to reach baby Dorothy. She was 18 months and, apart from daddy not being around as much, and mummy and daddy never taking her out together, some semblance of normality abided. A mature, grownup attempt on both their parts to ensure continuity for the kid’s sake. But slowly, as Mirzia’s inner life began to disintegrate, her hatred for Rob – a corrosive acid rain – began to eat away her sense of duty, of right, of proportion, of everything.
It started with Rob being denied access. He would call round for pick ups as arranged, but Mirzia simply wouldn’t open the door. Rob suspected she was in on these occasions, and he tried to stay calm and toe the increasingly painful line she was setting him. But then, one unremarkable day, his own Hiroshima. Mirzia dropped ‘Little Boy’ when she took his little girl.
Middlesbrough was a long way away. Two trains and just over three hours. A six hour round trip every time he wanted to see his daughter. Which would have been doable, bearable, no impediment at all since he would get to spend time with his illuminating, soul-sustaining doe-eyed sweetheart, his little Squigglepig. But then Mirzia stopped answering the door.
Tribunals and family court hearings didn’t seem to spook her. If anything they made her more intransigent, even more bitter and hell-bent on snuffing out his happiness. The cruel and unusual punishment she was meting out had long since passed the point of proportionality for any of his notional ‘crimes’. Weeks turned into months, months become a year, and the absence of his daughter hit him like a bereavement. He mourned his living, laughing, lovely little girl every waking moment. As he said to Liam, jailbirds doing porridge for spousal abuse get better access to their children than him, more recourse through the courts. The message seemed horribly clear. So long as Mirzia was a fit mother, the system had no fight on behalf of the father.
Two years drifted by. Now it was Liam’s turn to experience the vertiginous symphony of joy, discovery, hope, fear, angst and love that is first time fatherhood. A girl. Poppy. A blue-eyed, heart-flooding little baby girl.
At first he felt a weird nervousness around Rob. Oddly inhibited by the prospect of talking about his little girl. Rob tried to pitch in with advice, tips, the mutual support of one who has been there, but after the first few months his interest was generally little more than a polite show. Once, when they were having an open and unfettered pow-wow about Dorothy, Rob’s long nightmare, and how Liam felt it had coloured his attitude to Poppy, Rob fixed his eye: “Would I be heartbroken if I came round your house and saw you playing with your little girl? Of course I would”. It explained everything. Sixteen months after Poppy was born and Liam’s longest and most favourite friend had fled to a parallel universe of self-preserving denial because he was still in mourning.
In time Rob moved to Bristol, leaving Liam in landlocked Derbyshire. They rarely communicated, met up a couple of times a year, still made each other laugh. But it wasn’t the same purity as before. Their relationship had been cut with something that left a bad taste, the lesser high of a drug adulterated. But there was no bad feeling. There had been several lifetimes of that already and, besides, Liam had a new, diminutive, doe-eyed best friend.