In my memories, the warmth subsided, shadows stretching across the play enclosure with the sky above shifting to a deeper blue, the transition in hue on the western horizon, into a myriad of peaches, pinks and purples, just becoming visible over the tops of the trees. The ambient noise of the young crowd ebbed to a mere chatter, the congestion clearing from rush-hour to only a few, scrambling across the apparatus as their mothers took regular checks to scan their watches.
He was back on the familiar, secluded, far less dilapidated bench, holding Claire in his lap, suppressing a yawn of his own as she wavered on the verge of sleep. But no, she wasn’t ready just yet. He stretched his back as she stirred, sitting up in his lap to look back into his eyes.
“All of Mum’s shouting, when she came back in, really late last night. What she said. Is she really leaving?”
The scene started to take on a watery blur, breaking eye contact to stare at a stray wood chip on the slide. “I’m, afraid so, dear…”
Claire sniffed, her own eyes still fixed on his face, glazing over with moisture at the memory of just what it meant, what had been said. “But- doesn’t she love us any more?”
It was all too much. The last blurred slit of vision turned into darkness, his eyes squeezed shut to allow the free flow of tears down his cheeks. “Claire, your Mummy loves you with all her heart. It might not seem like it at times…”
“Like that time she got angry and tore Mr Fluff’s head off?”
“…Times like that, yes. But she does still love you, and that’ll never change. Never. It’s just that- She just, doesn’t love me any more. Can’t, bring herself to love me. Not any more...”
“I still love you Daddy.”
His chest, his heart, swelled until it felt his ribcage was on the verge of bursting open, the emotion choking him, constricting him… Barely able to breathe, he nodded, bowing his head to rest in her hair. “I, love you, too, Claire. More than, anything else in the world…”
“I promise Daddy, we’ll always stay together…”
Claire reached forwards, pressing herself against his chest to stretch her arms around as far as they could possibly go, her hands straining to lock onto each other in the small of his back. Hesitantly, he brought his quivering hands down from her head to do the same. Both of them sat together, each grasping the other in their arms, an unspoken vow that whatever happened, they would always love each other, they would never let each other go.
But her mother, Dinah, had had other ideas. When she left, she’d dragged my hysterical daughter out through that door with her, swearing that we’d never be allowed to see each other again. And with what she knew, what she’d found out about me- I knew then, straight away, that I had no hope of either convincing her to let me see our daughter again or of going through the authorities to gain access. It didn’t matter how much I loved my daughter, or how much my daughter loved me- it only made things worse. I had no choice but to prostrate myself to her demands, surrendering Claire to her.
I would never see my daughter again, and she would never see her father again- not even to say goodbye. I’ve never stopped grieving- my heart has never healed, and it never will. But I can’t blame Dinah for that. The only person who I can blame for that is myself. Either way- if it had ensured that Claire would never know the truth about her father, or if her mother had already taken little Claire’s innocence away by telling her anyway- then it was better this way. Easier. The right thing to do.
Her violent and abusive mother was still her mother, and I was- her father. A man; and not a normal man, no matter how hard I’d tried to be. I knew by then that I was who I was, what I was, and that I would never be able to change it. No matter how much I hate myself for being this way, regardless of how carefully and adeptly I repress my urges and keep them locked up inside, I will never be able to purge myself of this curse. I was, am, always have been, and always will be- a man who loves children.