It is weird being back here, after so many years. And on the other side of it, as it were. Not that there are supposed to be sides in family counselling, but there always are aren’t there?
After all these years, sitting back in this room brings home how utterly badly I failed. The only promise I’d made to myself as a kid was to never be like my parents, and here I was inflicting the exact same traumas on my own child.
The councillor walks in, and I have to remind myself that I’m not a child this time.
“Mr Peters,” the woman says as she puts her hand out. “My name’s Rebecca.”
“Please, call me Adrian.” Despite the fact that I am a grown up, I can still hear that slightly childish tone to her voice, the condescending tilt that all adults use when they talk to kids going through a rough time. In a way it comforts me, although I remember how much it annoyed me as a child.
“Adrian,” she repeats, and treats me to a big daft grin as if I’ve achieved something wonderful. Jeez, calm down dear. “Welcome to the centre today. This is the actual meeting room, where you’ll get to spend some time with Jacob.” I’m impressed; she didn’t even glance down to check her notes for his name. “He’ll have a little chat with my colleague in another room first though, just to go over a few things-”
“I know. It’s not my first time here.” It was bad manners to interrupt, but hearing all of it explained- all while I could recall going through that process myself- just hammered home how far I’d fallen.
“Oh, really?” Now she checks the notes. “It says here that this is your first session.”
“I came here as a kid. When my parents were going through their divorce.”
“Ah, okay.” There it is. That fleeting look of understanding, as they realise I’m only here because I came from a ‘broken home’ myself. It tears me up every time I see it, and every time I send up a little prayer that Jacob will be stronger than me, and that he’ll finally break this cycle. “It must’ve changed a bit since your day.”
Fishing a bit there honestly, though at least she didn’t say ‘it must be nice to be back’. She looked damned close to saying it. “Actually, not all that much.” It doesn’t even look like you’ve given it a lick of paint, you cheap sods. That tatty Noah’s ark mural was looking dated when I was here last, and whatever you might be insinuating from ‘since your day’, I’m not that old.
“A bit of familiarity for you then,” Rebecca said with a smile.
“Yeah. I guess.” As if seeing my own son isn’t familiarity enough?
“So, when he’s had a chat with one of our councillors, Jacob will be brought in here. The pair of you will then have an hour together, and as you can see there’s plenty of games and books for you here, feel free to use whatever you want. Myself or my colleague will be present at all times, but we won’t interfere at all, unless we need to.”
That makes me bite my tongue. Unless we need to? He’s my own son, what do you think I’m going to do to him? And what could he do to me that’s worse than refusing to see me? There’s no way I can say anything, not without tearing her a new one, and I know she’s only doing her job. I settle for a nod, and look around the room as if I’m checking out what they have. All I want to do is take him to the park, to push him on the swings like we used to do, back when his mother and I still spoke, still loved each other.
“Okay. If that’s all clear, I’ll go and see how Jacob’s getting on. You can have a few minutes alone here, get yourself ready. Would you like a coffee, or anything?”
“Just a glass of water please.”
Familiar as the room is, this is the first time I’ve been properly alone in here. As a kid you never get a seconds peace at the counselling centre. There’s always an adult checking that you’re alright, trying to read you and judge what you’re thinking, and usually getting it massively wrong. Being alone here now, it finally sinks in how quiet the area is. There’s a smell as well, plastic-ky under a layer of disinfectant. Was that always there?
The meeting this evening has been playing on my mind all day, but it’s only now that I start to feel nervous. I know I’ve done nothing wrong- I was never aggressive or mean to Jacob, it’s just that his mother spun her stories and turned him against me. So why am I worried? As soon as he sees me, as soon as we talk, it’ll all be back to how it was. Won’t it?
Try as I might, I can’t help but think about when I was the kid. The meetings then hadn’t been easy, that’s for sure, and now I have to draw parallels. Like me, my father didn’t do anything majorly wrong. It’s not a crime to just be a bit useless as a parent after all, and most people get away with it by being backed up by their other half. The problems come when two equally useless parents try and raise a kid. Looking back with hindsight now I can see that my mother was just as flawed as my father.
Is that what I am, a useless parent? Sure no-one’s perfect, but I’d always thought I was at least fairly good.
“Guess I can’t say that any more,” I say to a stuff toy that I’m examining, and I’m grateful that it can’t laugh back at me, or mock my for my hubris.
So how can I make this better, how can I not put Jacob through the same pain I went through, now that it’s already gotten this far? What really annoyed me as a child was being treated as a child, no, rather as a baby. I was only ever told the bare minimum, what I needed to process what was in front of me and nothing more.
It’s almost twenty minutes before anyone comes back to the room, so I spend the time composing what I’m going to tell Jacob. Some bits I can’t explain- he’s far too young to know about the affairs, for example- but I can talk about my feelings, and how I still love him, and in a way his mother as well. A million different phrases run through my head, and as I pace the room waiting I wish I’d brought a pen and paper with me. The advice said it was best to leave my phone outside, so I can give Jacob my entire attention, but being cut off from it only makes me more agitated.
At last the door opens again. In comes Rebecca, another young woman, and ferried between them is Jacob. My heart leaps to see him, and all I want to do is gather him up and hug. But he looks so nervous and uncomfortable, and I can remember exactly what it felt like to be interrogated before being able to see your own father. Whatever you might have felt on arrival gets pushed away, and with so many grown-ups treating this person as a criminal you can’t help but think they’ve done something terribly wrong.
“Hey Jacob,” I say, doing my best to ignore the women and pretend it’s just me and him. “Do you want to come and play a game?”
Slowly- like when he first learnt to walk- he totters over to me, and thinks for a second. In the barest of whispers he asks the question I was dreading.
“Why did you go daddy?”
It breaks my heart all over again, and I crouch down to look him right in the eye. My speeches, my clever heartfelt words all bubble up as I prepare to explain the world to him. Then he looks up, with his eyes full of innocence, and the words die before they see daylight.
“It’s complicated. I’ll explain when you’re older.” And I squeeze his shoulder while I curse my cowardice. I just can’t bring myself to ruin his view of the world, not here of all places, not in this emotionless void of a public service room. “Shall we play a game?”
So we play, and spend our scant hour together, during which he opens up a bit again. The leaving is painful, as much as I want to be out of that stuffy, archaic playroom, but we set a date for the next one and I have hope again.
On the way back to my car, I resolve to call my dad. Having been through both sides now, I think I owe the man a drink, after all the grief and hate that I gave him. It’s just as terrible being on the other side, but there's no-one there to comfort you, or check that you're alright.
Now I can see though; it is not always horrible people that end up in horrible situations. Sometimes all it takes is being a little bit useless.