Do you have a thing that is shared between just you and your offspring? I’m not talking about family time all together, but when it’s just you, and your child or children?
While Alice was still going to nursery school, she was not a full-time attendee. I was not in full-time employment either, so it made sense for me to look after her for one day a week. Sarah was working full-time, and our financial situation meant that it would be practical for me to be primary carer for at least one full day a week. Thanks to that boring adult-stuff called “a job”, I didn’t get much Alice-time in the first two years of her life, she and I needed to connect. We got on fine, we just weren’t as tight as we could have been. This needed to be rectified, and time was flowing by in a strong current.
If you have read this blog thus far, you will know that I am not the best Dad when it comes to wacky fun. Going to the park, and playing on all the things with my kid, does not come naturally to me. I have a bad back. I’m unfit. I don’t run around. I don’t really feel I’m getting to know my kid whilst building Lego things (because I invariably take over), or through dressing-up games and imaginative play (I get bored of having rules constantly changed by a three-year-old in her squeaky and inarticulate voice), or through painting (can’t), or play-dough (won’t), or by baking fairy cakes together (hot, dangerous, don’t know how, etc).
Amazing Dads in adverts do these things. In my experience, Dads in real life tend to be less imaginative, and more prone to waving the child away when they become tiresome.
I wasn’t just going to do the housework and shove my kid in front of the TV in order to shut her up (I mean, I did that a bit, I just didn’t want to make a full day of it). What I wanted to do was hang out with my kid, get to know her, going out somewhere. Exploring. Going on missions into the countryside. Learning about stuff. Having conversations. Castles. Aquariums. Museums. Birdwatching.
“Boring Daddy. Booooooring. You are boooooooring” is what other kids might say. And some adults would say that too. And even maybe society in general. Kids don’t like that sort of thing. Museums are fusty and dull. No three-year-old could go birdwatching.
You know what? Shut up, you cunts, it was brilliant. So brilliant that it became a thing that just Alice and I did.
We call them “Daddy-Daughter Days”. OK, so we were excluding Sarah a bit (I think coming home to find that Alice and I had developed private jokes, or had enjoyed a shared experience while she was out working would make her a bit jealous from time to time), but Alice and I needed to do this.
So Alice and I got out of the house. Usually it was (at most) an hour’s drive from home. We went to the zoos in the area (although not our local one run by creationists, I’ve firmly avoided that one), the aquariums, the local museums. We went to beaches, and forests, and we went riding on steam railways. We went to out-of-season fairgrounds. We went to Neolithic sites. We went to mazes. We went to Roman remains. We went to places Sarah would normally hate – a car museum for example, or even the War Museum full of combat aircraft (a particular success, despite the loud fighter jets from the nearby airbase, and the wax dummies that rather freaked Alice out).
We went to local landmarks and nearby villages. We would stop in pretty little tea-rooms for cakes, tea, and bottled pop. We would go on picnics. Alice and I learned that on rainy days, the boot of our estate car was a cosy alternative to sitting in the downpour. We could close it up, and look at the view, even through the rain. Alice is the only child of her age I’ve ever met who appreciates a good landscape. We even have our own, failsafe, Daddy-Daughter picnic spot – a remote viewpoint that looks out over a wide expanse of gorgeous British countryside. In the winter, it is bleak and forbidding, with dramatic scenery and towering skies. In the summer, there are wild flowers in the hedgerow, and there are skylarks above us, with their dancing flight and melodious trilling.
We bonded. And by ‘bonding’, I don’t mean getting drunk and talking about nostalgic TV programmes, we properly bonded as a father and daughter should. We got to know each other as people. She told me stuff, and I told her stuff. We talked a lot. We talked about stuff that didn’t matter, small talk stuff. Sometimes we talked about massive issues. Sometimes I had to be careful not to talk in great detail about politics or history, and I had to tailor it to the way she saw the world. Sometimes we confided in each other – nothing too adult, but at least Alice knows what used to scare me as a child. Sometimes we debated things, like the time we discussed the difference between graffiti and advertising. Sometimes we discussed racism or sexism, but at a level that was appropriate. Sometimes I would teach her about stuff. Sometimes, she would teach me.
Sometimes we argued. Sometimes things got so heated, there were tears. Sometimes Alice misbehaved and I had to be the disciplinarian while we were out. This was when I really cut my teeth as a father. I had to learn on the job, I had no backup. Sometimes, I misbehaved. Some of our Daddy-Daughter Days were unmitigated disasters, and we come home in foul tempers with one another. But those days were rare.
We listened to a lot of music together. We ate a lot of picnics. We laughed a lot. I’ve spent hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds on these days out together. Every penny was worth it.
She’s getting older now, and we don’t have the weekly opportunities to do this. Sometimes we intend to go on a Daddy-Daughter Day, and the plans fall through. I can never be sure of how Alice takes this, sometimes she just shrugs, or indicates that she’s not bothered if we don’t go out. I am, however, usually heartbroken at the thought of our day being called off. But as Alice gets older, the possibilities of these days expand. She has, this year, been birdwatching with me on a few occasions, to the point that she will sit with me quietly in a hide for some considerable length of time and spot birds through a pair of binoculars. This year, she saw her first Bittern, which made her very pleased. Small kids can’t do birdwatching? Bollocks. They can. We’ve done it.
We still do them, at least once every school holiday. If Sarah is off work, she gets some time to herself, and Alice and I usually stumble home at tea-time, with picnic trash to bin, and a gabbled account of the day. It benefits everyone: Alice and I get our shared experience, we have a lot of fun, and Sarah gets a well-earned day to herself.
So here’s what happened this last Monday. It was a teacher-training day in school. Sarah got up at the hated alarm, while Alice and I emerged 45 mins later. We eventually got dressed. The man came to fix the boiler after Sarah went to work, and Alice and I decided to go out. Conditions for Daddy-Daughter Day was perfect. The weather was foggy and eerie. Where to go?
The park? Nah, I said, too close (privately thinking: Too full of other people, all shouting. Ugh.) The zoo? Nope, did that recently. The swan sanctuary! Always a winner, but again, we went not that long ago.
The mysterious caves? It’s a bit expensive, and we have just had an expensive half-term break. The museum? Not on a super foggy day like this! What do you feel like doing?
“I feel like a forest,” said Alice. I feel like a picnic, said I. Our usual picnic place? There’s a forest near there. “Let’s go!” she said. I should take the camera. Where is it? I can’t find it. Nah, I’ll leave it this time.
It took over an hour to get to our picnic spot. I asked Alice what she wanted for Christmas this year. She replied that she wanted a brother. Oh boy. I tried to explain why that would be difficult. We had an argument on the way. Alice, for some reason, refused to tell me the name of a kids’ TV programme she was talking about, and I got insistent – partly because I wanted to understand her refusal to tell me, and partly because curiosity burned at me. Not great parenting on my part. We got shouty with each other. Eventually she told me what it was (Team Umizoomi). I told her she was being a bit ridiculous for not telling me. We sulked a bit. We made up.
We got there, and it was incredible. In the past, we’ve seen the view from there in glorious sunshine, rain, a howling gale, even snow. One winter, acres of the farmland beneath us glinted with flooded fields. This time was very different. The sky above us was a deep blue, but the countryside view was hidden by a roiling mass of fog. We could see the topside of the clouds. It was like we were in a plane.
“Are we going to Spain right now?” asked Alice, in wonder at the sight. I knew I should’ve brought the camera. I saw something like this when I was your age, I said to her. I was on holiday in Ireland. It was 1983, more than 30 years ago now. We came over a mountain pass, and the bay below was covered in cloud. It looked like cotton wool.
“Wow! This looks more like candy-floss!”
We ate our lunch in the boot of the car. The viewpoint always has a couple of cars parked alongside us with (usually elderly) couples looking at the view whilst eating sandwiches. After we ate, we walked down the hill a little way. As we watched, the mist began to rise towards us. The blue sky above was darkened. The rolling, pulsing mass enveloped the trees a couple of hundred yards away, the hillside on our right was cloaked in a white sheet. The wall of the fog moved steadily closer in total silence. Alice thought it was exciting. I thought it was incredibly sinister.
We could see the mist as a physical barrier. The clouds, as a giant wave, reared up over us. I knew I should’ve brought the camera. The wall was edging towards where we stood. 100 yards away. 50 yards. Another tree vanished. Should we run away? Then the bush 20 yards away. I could see the boundary of the mist creeping towards us. And then it hit us. Did you feel that? I gasped.
“It was like a Dementor breathing on me!” squealed Alice, obsessed with all things Potter.
Where’s the car? I said (I could still see its shape, now diffused behind us). Alice and I scampered towards it. “It’s all around us”, she said. And then I told her how and why dangerous fog can be if you’re on a mountain all by yourself.
“But it’s OK, God will protect us”, she said. Yeah, but I don’t believe in God, I said. I believe in warm clothing and being very careful. Let’s go to the forest now.
We drove only a few miles, and disturbed a flock of fieldfares that had probably only just arrived as migrants from Scandinavia. Look at them, Alice! That’s a birdwatching tick for the book! And look there, that’s an old pub that was famous for serving a weird food.
“What food is it?”
They call it wallfish.
“Wallfish? Are there fish that live in walls??”
Nope, it’s actually not a fish.
“What is it, then?”
“Eurgh!!! SNAILS?? Eating SNAILS??”
They’re surprisingly nice with garlic butter.
The forest was a dark conifer plantation, open to walkers. There were signs warning us that forest rangers were doing some management, and that some paths would be closed. In the distance, I heard the rumbling of chainsaws. Alice, you choose the path.
“That one, Daddy, I think there are werewolves that way.”
Oh, isn’t that scary?
“No, I want to meet them!”
The sky was still blue up here. The fog hadn’t reached this far onto the hillside. The sun, early November sun, was spiriting its way through red and amber deciduous leaves, but barely penetrating the thick conifers. Every so often, the sun would find a way through, and gorgeous beams of autumn light shone through. Wow, Alice, look at them.
“They’re beautiful!” she exclaimed, awestruck. “I can see fairies dancing in the light!”
Do you know what they’re called, these beams of sunlight? I call them ‘Fingers of God’.
“But you said you don’t believe in God.”
Yeah, but it’s a great name. Do you know what they’re really called?
“No, I don’t”, she said.
They’re called ‘crepuscular rays’.
“Crespec…crepsclery…”, she said. “CresPUSclear!”
I laughed. Cre-pus-cu-lar!
“CrePUSCULAR! They’re CREPUSCULAR, Daddy!”
And then, for the next 20 or so minutes, she managed to get ‘crepuscular rays’ into almost every sentence: “They’re beautiful crepuscular rays, Daddy. Oooh, look at that crepuscular ray! That’s a really lovely crepuscular ray right there, Daddy.”
Her voice rang out around the forest. The chainsaws throbbed and snarled in the distance.
“I don’t want to go down that path, Daddy. I can hear the bears roaring.”
Let’s go this way.
“Yes, Daddy, there are lovely CREPUSCULAR RAYS that way!”
We deviated from the main route. We were not on a gravelled path, but a little track through the trees. It was muddy. I was wearing boots that were not protection from the thick muddy puddles. Alice was in her wellingtons and led me through the squelch and the dirt. The conifers parted for a moment, and a glade of trees opened up. The Fingers of God streamed down.
Stand there for a moment, I asked her. Alice scampered on to an illuminated spot on the forest floor. Look back at me, I said. A golden ray caught her tousled hair. For a moment she froze looking at me, and she smiled, forever six years old, gaps in her front teeth, a halo around her head burned into my memory forever. No God here, just wonder and amazement. I knew I should’ve brought the camera.
I think we need to head back now.
“No Daddy! Five more minutes, pleeeease!”
OK five more minutes.
“Let’s go that way”
It’s too muddy for me.
“I’ll guide you!”
OK then. And then we walked on, with her occasionally saying helpful things like “step there… that bit’s muddy… watch out for that… ugh! This bit’s all sticky”.
(The bottom of my trousers got filthy in the end).
We got back to the car safe and sound. Alice telling me this was a brilliant Daddy Daughter Day. We need to go home and cook for Mummy. “Awwww! Five! More! Minutes!”
We drove back through intermittent banks of fog. I put on a compilation CD I made for Alice. We sang along to Best Day of My Life by American Authors, which I’m a bit so-so about, but Alice learned it in school assemblies, and she loves it. We played it again and again, and sang along.
We eventually got home to a mended boiler, and a mountain of washing up for me to do. Sarah got home a while later.
“What did you get up to today?”, she asked. We drove out! Alice wouldn’t tell me about the name of a TV show and we had an argument about it! We had a picnic! We saw a bank of fog! It ate the trees! And then we saw a flock of fieldfares! And then we went to a forest! And we saw…what was it? “Cresp…crepsclear…crePUSCULAR rays!” And we went home!
“Sounds good. Did you take photos?”
“You should’ve taken the camera.”
I don’t need money for being a Dad. I get paid in memories. This is my parenting treat. It is my reward for the boring bits of parenting, the school runs and the homework, and the naughty corners, and the shopping trips with a tired and fractious child, and the never-ceasing Frozen and CBeebies, and the singing, and the I’m-NOT-TIRED-and-I-don’t-WANT-to-SLEEPs. I’ll take this day, and add it to the list of others we’ve done. It’s my salary.
This one was particularly good. Why? Well, we haven’t had one for a few months. We went to a special place that is special to just the two of us. We saw it in a way we’d never seen it before: A view that I hope Alice will remember for always, much as I did at the same age, with the prog-rock-album-cover cotton-wool clouds over the mountains of Ireland. We had an adventure in the trees. Alice looking back at me from a shaft of golden light in a forest glade, the whole of Autumn’s magic all around her.
That was a Daddy-Daughter Day, and now I’m back to work, and she’s at school, and maybe it’s the last one to have before the Christmas holidays. I’ll take it, though. I’ll keep it in the special box in my mind, reserved for the most gorgeous moments in my life. It’s mine and hers. Me and Alice, Daddy and Daughter.