Cam didn’t like walking in the woods anymore. Actually, he hated it. Since Toby was born, he’d developed a bit of a gut. And a bit of a flabby chest. And his arms, legs, back, neck—they developed a bit of chunk too. When he’s honest with himself, he declares it as a joke—“Not everyone can say they earned 100 pounds for no work at all!”—but it’s anything but funny. That hundred pounds meant he could no longer climb the stairs without stopping to catch his breath, or have a comfortable bath. That hundred pounds made his knees feel like they were gonna snap in half each time he put some weight on them. That hundred pounds, the hundred pounds that came almost exclusively from chain fast-food restaurants and gallons of fizzy drink, added up to him hating walking in the woods, despite the beaming smile on his son’s face as he danced through the bluebells and told himself stories of fairies and monsters.
Toby was the spitting image of Cam—pre fat gain, of course. He had golden hair that trailed into little curls around his ears and shined white in the light of the sun, a button nose that pointed ever-so-slightly up to the sky, and squeezable, squidgable cheeks that, when pinched, forced uncontrollable giggles from him. He was the stereotype gleeful kid, with a cuteness factor plus ten.
“Careful mate,” he said as Toby neared a rogue patch of nettles, “they’ll hurt ya.” By then it was too late, and as any parent knows, there’s no teaching a child before he’s learned for himself. Cam watched his arm bury itself in the nettles up to the elbow and pull out just as fast—if not faster—along a sequence of screams and cries that frightened the birds off their overhead perches.
The next five minutes were dedicated exclusively to calming him down, cycling through each technique in sequence until one showed some sign of progress. Tickling, that was a no-no. Swing-swing, that didn’t work. Real tears—not the crocodile kind—were streaming by the time Cam managed to console him. He rocked him slowly up and down, left and right, a few haphazard sniffles where Toby’s breath struggled to returned to normal.
The boy needed his mummy. Cam wasn’t cut out to be dad, mum, best friend, and all in between. He wasn’t sure anyone was, not really. He was the kind of father to come home after a long day, get the kids all excited before bed—have their happy hour, as Claire called it—and then relax in front of the box with Claires head in his lap, stroking her hair as she dozed off.
God how he wished he could have her back. Sure, they argued, and they argued hard. But they loved each other even harder.
Cam thought back to one evening a year or so before. It was around five, but the winter darkness had already claimed the night. He remembers that day well because It was so cold out in the yard, and one of the younger lads had turned up wrapped in multiple different layers. It looked like he had doubled in size overnight! The boys bantered him heavy that day, and every day beyond that until the sun felt brave enough to peek its head out again. That boy though, the boy with all the layers, was the only one of them to not go off sick all winter. Each day, no matter what, he turned up to lug wood and brick, mix mortar and dig dig dig.
Claire had had a rough day too. It was written all over her face the second he stepped through the door, muddy boots traipsing in dirt behind him. Not his proudest moment. She blasted him the second she laid eyes on those brown pools where the slush had defrosted off his soles, and rightfully so, it was mindless.
After Cam and Toby’s happy hour, they all sat to eat dinner together as they always did, but the air was blue that night. Hardly a word spoken between them, the tension thick like smoke. Claire barely stopped to swallow her last bite before she had whipped Toby out his seat and got him tucked up in bed.
Cam stayed downstairs and took the plates through to the kitchen. His thinking was that he’d do the washing up, whip round all the toys in the living room, and light some candles around the bath so they could share one. Right?
Claire stomped down the stairs and blanked him on her way past into the kitchen. Cam stood with Toby’s little doll in his hands, the one he pushed along in his cousins secondhand toy pram. He followed her through to the kitchen, where she stood still at the sink, staring out the window.
“What’s up with you?” He asked, coming up behind her and taking her in his arms.
She shook him off and turned to face him. “What’s up with me, Cam, really? What’s up with you? I spend all day keeping Toby happy, tidying up behind him, doing all the cooking, take him for his bath, put him to bed, listen to him moan, and cry, and scream, and giggle, and bang his blocks on the floor to the same songs playing on repeat all day long. And then you come home, have your little happy hour with him, and you’re best friend all of a sudden. Job done, TV time. You’ve had such a hard day right?”
They argued then. Where Cam should’ve listened, he felt the misplaced need to fight his case. He had had a hard day. And if he didn’t have his fun time with Toby, when would he? He was out all day. He was sorry about the mud on the floor, but the ground was soaking wet outside and he didn’t want to bring wet feet through the house. The back and forth went from the kitchen, to the front room, back into the kitchen, out into the garden for a cigarette, and finally back in to the living room, that stupid doll dangling from its leg in Cam’s hand all the while.
“Claire, I’m not saying I have it any harder than you. You chose the hardest job in the world. I know for a fact I couldn’t do it.”
“Well you seem to think you can just throw all his toys in the corner and that’s that.”
“No I—“ Claire snatched the doll from his hand then, and chucked it into the pile of toys beside the tv unit to demonstrate. Where Cam didn’t let go of the leg, it tore straight from the body. Now a dolls leg dangled from Cam’s hand, and a legless doll—that had seen better days—rested atop a pile of assorted toys with a foolish, lifeless grin fixed on its face. Claire couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could Cam.
In a few short seconds, they had gone from arguing to giggling like children, one of the rare hilarities of parenthood. One of the moments that put everything in perspective. They made up, they made love, and they fell asleep in each other’s arms with a smile on their faces.
Cam could remember each separate feature of her face. Each curve, each angle, each expression.. Sometimes, while he was cleaning, or working, or grocery shopping, he’d have brief flashes of memory, where he’d see her as clear as anyone still living. He’d drift away into the good times—the best times—and the hard times.
He saw her now, out in the middle of the woods with the sun shining through her. Gently rocking Toby back and forth with her beside him, her hand on his, whispering in his ear. “You’re doing good, Cam. Hang in there.”