I’d taken to coming to the swings in the early mornings, when there weren’t many people about, to breathe some cleansing air into my hangovers. I tried to recapture that feeling from childhood when a swing could feel like the very definition of freedom.
The girl’s hair was tied in a ponytail that floated up and down as she whooshed through the air in a trance of pleasure. Something made me slow to a stop and go for a closer look at this girl with my hair. I stood, watching her, not too close. Then she looked up at me and I froze. I don’t know for how long I stood staring at her. I did the maths: She must have been about six or seven. No more than eight. Which meant …
Eight years ago I’d been in the same park with Cathy. I was 27, trying to be an artist but basically on the dole. As we walked around the lake she announced, with shy pride, that she was pregnant. I made the decision immediately. Or rather my fear made it for me.
“We can’t have a baby,” I blurted. “You must get an abortion.”
Cathy stopped walking and glared at me as if seeing me for the first time.
“My God,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re so feckless!”
She spat the word as if it were a curse.
“In that case,” I said, “I’m hardly ready to be a father, am I?”
I begged her to have the abortion, at one point actually sinking to my knees in a grim parody of a man proposing marriage. She slumped on a bench overlooking the lake as I grovelled in the dirt. She covered her face with her palms. When she looked at me again there was a new resilience in her eyes.
“Fine. I’ll do it by myself. We’ll be better off without you.”
I think that was the moment I realised how much I loved her, a deep admiration that I’ve never felt before or since, perhaps never will again.
She walked away. I hurried after her and she shouted over her shoulder, “Don’t follow me!”
I never saw Cathy again. But I’d just seen her face in the face of this child. Our child. My child. The girl was returning my stare, not wary, just curious. She had Cathy’s full lips, my wide forehead. My eyes.
“Can I help you?”
I turned and saw a man, about my age, holding an ice cream. He was smart, fit-looking with a trim beard and clear blue eyes. He would have seen a scruffy unemployed type with hair that was too long for his dried-out, smoker’s face, a potential paedophile, or at least someone contemptibly feckless.
The girl had hopped off the swing and was now standing beside this man, tugging his coat, licking her ice cream. He tousled her hair, but his gaze remained fixed on me. It was now or never.
“Actually, I think you can help me,” I said. “Look, can we get a coffee?” If I could get him talking …
He frowned. “Do I know you?”
I stepped towards him. “Look at my face,” I said, “my hair. And now look at your daughter.”
The man whitened and sagged as if someone had slipped a dagger between his ribs.
“Daddy!” The girl was gripping his leg now, nervous, perhaps sensing her father’s distress. Except he wasn’t her father, and he knew it.
The need in the girl’s voice seemed to give him strength. He swept her up in his arms, hugging her protectively. Then he turned and hurried to the car park. I went after him.
The man got the girl into a gleaming estate car, strapped her in and slammed the door. Then he strode towards me, stopped and stared. In his eyes I saw a passion unique to filial love; he’d kill me if he had to.
“Don’t follow me,” he said.
As the car pulled away I waved impotently at the girl’s ginger head, hoping to catch the eye of my child one last time. But I was eight years too late.