The latest instalment of Joe Minihane’s column on fatherhood, nature, anxiety and swimming.
After the deluge. Stratus lifted to cirrus. M and I take his bike into the front garden, the grass sodden, the yellow flowers of the rambling rose curling to brown, drooping towards autumn. He straddles the purple saddle and waddles this way and that while I sit on the damp wall, the traffic quiet, the crowds dispersed by the suddenness of the downpour. A late Sunday afternoon in August, full of the promise of a quiet beach in early lockdown. I suggest a walk and, to my surprise, M agrees. We cross at the lights, waiting patiently for the permission of the green man despite the lack of cars. On the far side, he refuses to ride his bike, instead peers through the rusty railings and looks across to the water. It is millpond calm, the shingle dotted with small groups and solo sunbathers, the tourists gone for the weekend, this sunburst gifting us the beach as we dream of it.
‘I want to go in the sea.’
‘Jeah!’ he says, with his customary ‘j for a y’ exuberance.
We cross back to the flat and I bundle towels and suncream into a bag.
‘I want to wear my super shorts,’ says M, demanding the hand me down neoprene shorts he has worn into the water on searing hot days this year. The excitement radiates from him like a force field. He asks me to carry him to the beach on my shoulders and who am I to deny him?
We find a sandy section and spread out our things. I have already swum today, under a glowering sky at daybreak, the air thick, the water warm and as clear as vodka. The rain has done little to disturb it. As Miles clambers onto my back and we wade in together, we can see the pebbles on the seabed, my neoprene shoes sliding deep into them. I am soon shoulder deep and we begin to half wade, half swim, back and forth along the shoreline. Miles lets out a sharp scream which becomes a giggle as the water laps across his tiny chest. I turn my head to look at him and he smiles back in wonder.
‘What is that?’ he says, pointing at Rampion Wind Farm. I explain.
‘There’s no wind today,’ he says, ‘They’re not moving’, he says of the turbines.
M’s curiosity has grown in recent weeks. K and I both being journalists probably doesn’t help matters, but I have grown to love his endless questions.
‘Are there sea creatures?’ he asks. ‘Back off, sea creatures’.
‘Back off’ has become his default response to the seagulls which whirl over our patch of southern English sky. He points to a juvenile bird stalking the beach, eyeing bags for food.
‘Do they swim when humans do?’
‘Not today?’ he asks.
I look around for signs of gulls in the water. There are none and so I concur.
I opt not to tell him of the common terns which dive bombed for crabs around me as summer shook off the cool of spring, or the Great Crested Grebes that used to keep me company on autumn swims at Highgate Men’s Pond. Instead we plough on. I feel his tiny legs kicking behind me, his right arm gliding through the water, the infectious warmth of his smile, despite not being able to see it properly.
He lets out a trademark chuckle. A single loud ‘Ha’ followed by three heh heh hehs. This is all I ever dreamed of from fatherhood. We are giving each other life in the place where I come to feel my own insignificance and the scale of the universe around me.
My arms grow tired and so I suggest we sit in the shallows. He is reticent and so we do a few back and forths before I pull him from my back and we take a seat where the smallest of wavelets lap at the beach. Despite taking M swimming weekly during his first year, he has grown distrustful of the water. Our last dip in the sea ended quickly when the churn of the waves meant he could not see the seabed. Today though, he allows the tiny waves to turn his growing body, the water to slide across his face, leaving his blond hair slick on his brow. We wave at our neighbours, who are enjoying an evening dip and swim by to splash us playfully.
M picks up tresses of luminous green seaweed and lets it wind through his fingers and up his forearms.
‘What is that?!’ he exclaims.
‘Seaweed, pal.’ He drops it and collects another, redder piece, much like the dried pieces we have framed on our living room wall, arty takes bought while on holiday in Lyme Regis. I feel the sea seep its way into him, knowing that one day soon we will move and this easy access, these times of Vitamin D and sunshine before bedtime, will be over. I listen to the water and bring myself back to the moment, to the plonk of large pebbles crashing the surface, the laughter, the simplicity of being a toddler.
Recent weeks have been challenging. Long tantrums, tears at the nursery door, confusion over his still new role as a big brother to E. But here, now, is something more pure. I have an acute sense this could well be an early memory for M, but push it to one side. I do not believe parenting is a series of grand gestures, rather a process of showing love in every situation, no matter how challenging. But with the salt crusting on my back and M’s teeth chattering, his fingers shrivelled due to the attentions of the English Channel, I know I will never forget this. I carry him back to our bags and check the time. A whole hour in the water, my longest swim of the year, a blissful sixty minutes between us. Towels out, clothes on, I shoulder M for the walk back home. The beach has given us this greatest gift and I offer up a small thanks as we clank through the gates, over the miniature railway track and on home.