“Let him through!” Zac’s new friend bellowed, standing up and bumping his head on the baggage locker above him. They’d just touched down and the passengers were desperate to get off the plane.
“Come ON,” hissed Luke, shoving Zac into the aisle. “Move!” he added to the man who’d snored through the whole flight from Istanbul.
Passengers in the front seats were stretching, glancing Zac’s way in annoyance. He looked away, embarrassed. He’d only started talking to Luke later in the flight when violent air turbulence over the Alps sent him sprawling into Luke’s lap.
“EVERYONE!” Luke’s voice cut through the pungent cabin air, “You HAVE to move - this man’s having a BABY!”
Zac dropped his laptop as the passengers turned around in surprise. A flirtatious octogenarian in seat B24 clapped her hands and nudged her neighbour, “How lovely,” she cooed loudly, “but he shouldn’t have been flying in his condition.” People shuffled back to their seats, clearing the aisle, and congratulating him.
“New Dad coming through!” someone called from behind.
Zac bent down for his laptop, shame surging to his face. The truth was, he’d only known about the baby since Tuesday, and he certainly wasn’t ready to be a new dad. Reluctance dragged at him, willing him not to get off the plane. He wished he hadn’t told Luke, but he’d had to say something after being in his lap.
Finally, he was out of the plane, into the tunnel where the fresh air caught in his lungs. He didn’t know where to go from here, but he was striding on all the same. Through doorways and checkpoints, corridors and moving stairs, bright boutiques selling sunglasses and perfume. Should he buy a present? What do you buy for a baby you’ve never met and an ex-girlfriend you hardly know?
He was lost. Zac stood still. Was he rushing to the hospital or running away? Each way he turned; the maze of the airport confused him. Looking up at the signs, he saw that he was in a departure lounge and the flight was boarding in twelve minutes. To Istanbul. He sat on a vinyl seat and scrubbed both hands over his face, stubble scratching his palms. What was he doing here? Why hadn’t he ignored the text from Rachelle? Thousands of men did that, why couldn’t he? It would’ve been easy; he could pretend the baby wasn’t his. He could board this flight and be gone.
But he couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Every kid needed a dad.
Zac rose shakily to his feet. He saw a shop selling nappies and things that only mums know about. The shop assistant was smiling, Zac wasn’t sure why. He bought a cuddly dinosaur and a teddy in a tutu. He didn’t know if the baby was a boy or a girl after all.
“Would you like them wrapped?” the assistant asked, still smiling. How do you talk and smile at the same time?
Zac stared at her. “Will it be able to unwrap it?” he asked, unsure.
“How old is Baby?”
“I don’t know yet,” Zac said stupidly.
“Let’s wrap the cuddlies anyway, Mum can help unwrap if Baby’s too young.”
Zac needed to go, he was in an altered reality where he didn’t belong, and it was frightening him. He snatched up the presents, now with enormous bows on them, one pink, one blue, and tucked them under each arm. He read the overhead signs to the baggage carousel and this time, his route unfolded clearly, each corridor leading on to the next until he entered the revolving doors and broke free into the outside world.
The hire car was parked at the top of East Street Multistorey Carpark. Zac had forgotten the odour of the urine-soaked stairs of these places - maybe it was unique to the UK? - like the green sludge on the outside walls. The sun never reached here, not that there was much sun to reach anywhere. He’d stopped at Level One to put the toys in his hold all; he didn’t want his kid playing with toys that smelt.
The traffic was slow. Brake lights and number plates filled Zac’s vision. A few years ago, he’d have known the back streets well enough to navigate out of here, but the area around the airport had been rejuvenated with smoky glass office blocks and exclusive wine bars. His sat nav kept telling him to make a U turn and it rudely ignored him when he shouted that he couldn’t. There was a new ring road to ease the traffic flow, but once on it, Zac found no way to get off. His car reached a top speed of thirty-nine miles an hour at one point, only to reach a slip lane that took him to Ikea. A dead end.
Zac considered shopping. The baby might need a changing mat or one of those mobiles that played a tune or maybe a PlayStation? That would be fun, they could play together.
But he didn’t stop. He wanted to get there, to prove to Rachelle that he wanted to be part of his baby’s life.
The sat nav gave him an alternative route out. The traffic wasn’t as dense here and after a left turn in two hundred yards and a right turn at the T junction, Zac joined the main route out of the city, turning off the sat nav with satisfaction.
With only twenty miles to go, Zac needed fuel. He pulled into Langham Services (Northbound), his knuckles tight from gripping the steering wheel. He went to the Gents, then hovered outside a florist. Should he buy Rachelle some flowers? Is that what you were supposed to do? As far as he remembered, she’d rather have vodka and coke. Turning away from the flowers, he almost walked on a child who was lying on the floor. Zac stared. Where was its’ mother? What was it doing anyway? Zac tilted his head to see that the boy was licking the floor, happily murmuring to himself.
“Hey,” said Zac gently. He didn’t want to frighten the kid, he was a New Dad now. The boy ignored him and moved towards Zac’s highly polished shoes. “Hey!” repeated Zac, more sharply. The kid wasn’t going to lick his shoes, that was disgusting. He’d polished them before the flight.
“Liam! There you are!” Zac looked up with relief as the mother came running towards him. She glared at him. “Liam, did this man hurt you?” Liam was giggling as his mum picked him up and Zac saw that his face was smeared with ice-cream and dirt.
“No, that’s not what happened,” started Zac, but the two of them had already gone. He stared after them. Were all kids like that? All dribbly and revolting? He hoped his baby was a girl. She’d play with dolls and stay clean.
Parking at the hospital was a nightmare. Each time he drove round the car park and Zac saw a space, someone else shot into it first. Who designed these things anyway? The spaces were too small for any car with more than three wheels, and he kept driving up the kerb. He’d found himself in the staff carpark at one point, and, just as he was about to park, he’d come dramatically close to running over a doctor.
“Sorry!” he’d mouthed through the windscreen, trying to look apologetic.
A woman was foraging in her handbag over in the top corner, so Zac took the quickest route to reach her, driving over the grass. He loitered next to her until she had her keys, but instead, she took a tissue from her bag and wiped her eyes. Her shoulders were shaking, and her face was grey. Zac buzzed his window down.
“Are you leaving?” he asked in his most charming voice.
The woman stared at him without understanding. He threw the car into reverse. Someone had died and he’d blundered in, thinking only of himself. And his baby girl. He had to find her.
Zac parked in front of the ticket machine. This would have to do. He wrote a note on the back of the fuel receipt and left it on the dashboard. He wasn’t going to pay when there weren’t any spaces. “HAVING A BABY” should give him a free pass.
The hospital loomed in front of him. The severe architecture and tiny windows didn’t appeal to Zac. His tastes were more modern - sleek lines and floor to ceiling windows. As he climbed the entrance steps, he saw a map on the wall. It was hard to know which ward he needed, why couldn’t one be called ‘Baby Ward’?
“Excuse me -” Zac caught the attention of a patient having a cigarette. “Where do they have babies?”
The patient, a middle-aged man with pinched-in eyes, drew on his cigarette until the end turned red and his face turned redder.
“Well,” the man chuckled, “my wife had our second in the corner shop. Came out that fast, he did. She only went for crisps.” He laughed and smoke seeped out from between his teeth.
“No, I didn’t mean…” started Zac.
The man smiled patronisingly. “Is it your first?” he asked. Zac nodded as if he’d done something wrong.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, his tone soothing. He flapped his cigarette in the direction of a separate building at right angles to the main hospital. “Over there. Careful of the guard dogs.”
“What?” Zac was terrified of dogs. “What do you mean?”
The man laughed again, finding his cigarette pack, and offering one.
“Do you need one of these?” he said. Zac shook his head. What he needed was to find his baby, his beautiful girl. The man took pity on Zac, “There’s no dogs, just a Matron.”
“Thanks,” said Zac, moving away. The man called after him, stubbing out his cigarette at the same time.
“She’s like a Pitbull. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
Zac was desperate, over the last two days he’d been trying to find the baby that had turned his life inside out. He’d travelled fifteen hundred miles to meet her, and he was dog-tired. But he was also nearly there.
Zac entered the maternity unit. It reminded him of the airport, with the same flooring and screwed down seating. There could be an arrivals board on the wall, and it wouldn’t have looked out of place. The overhead signs still weren’t much help. How was he supposed to know if he needed the Stork Suite or the Wallaby Ward? Zac looked around for some sort of indication of normal life, but there was none. There were elephants and tigers leaping two dimensionally around the walls and grinning in their mural-heaven. They had lips, Zac noticed with alarm, and the tiger had lipstick. The elephant was holding a baby in its’ trunk and balloons in its’ toes. How could it even do that?
A group of people came out of the corridor to Zac’s right. A nurse carried a car seat which engulfed the tiny baby, while the mother carried a teddy so large it flopped over her shoulders and watched Zac as they walked past and out of the door.
Zac instantly felt inadequate. With dread, he knew he should have bought a bigger teddy. His were too small, if that lady’s baby could have one like that, then his baby could have one much bigger. And prettier. That one’s face was a bit squashed on one side.
Another nurse, thankfully on her own, swept round the corner brightly. Zac looked carefully at her, he needed to make sure she wasn’t a matron. She looked smiley enough, with tidy hair, so he stepped forward, summoning up as much courage as he could.
“Hi, my baby’s here, but I don’t know where.” Zac blurted out.
The nurse smiled. “I’ll take you to the desk,” she said. “Cassie will help you.”
Cassie, it turned out, was not helpful at all. She had no sense of humour and no patience. Zac thought of the guard dogs, especially when she barked questions at him. In his whole life he’d never cried in public, but he was dangerously close now.
“Visiting times are over,” Cassie said without emotion. “Babies need quiet.”
Zac felt the last of his patience disappear into the black hole where Cassie’s had gone years before. It was replaced by fire, blistering hot as it rose out of him in a blaze of determination.
“Cassie,” he said, his voice edged sharply like a sword, “my baby is in this building. MINE. Neither you, nor anyone else, will keep me from her. I am not a visitor,” he announced loudly, “I am her father. Visiting hours are not my concern.” Zac was a Knight, charging into battle. He was strong and courageous. He was a New Dad. He marched towards the stairs.
“Sir?” he heard Cassie behind him. He didn’t turn round; he was on a mission.
“Sir?” he heard again. “Sir! It’s just down here, first on the left.”
Zac stood just inside the door. There were four beds in this ward, two empty and two occupied. Zac looked carefully at both women, hoping he wouldn’t make a mistake. He hadn’t seen Rachelle for months and was worried that he wouldn’t recognise her. At the base of one bed was a transparent cot, but the baby was with its’ mother, snuffling. Was that his baby? All crinkled and small?
At the base of the other bed was nothing. But in it, Rachelle leant against two pillows, her hair straggled around her face.
“Hello,” she said, smiling slightly.
“Hello,” Zac said, his voice catching with shyness as if he had a schoolboy crush. Rachelle patted the chair beside her bed.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said as he sat down. They were quiet for a while. There was no need to contradict her, Zac didn’t think he’d come either.
“Have you had it yet?” Zac said, glancing at the space at the end of the bed. He held his breath; he didn’t want to be there when it was born.
“Only just,” she laughed. “Fifteen minutes ago.”
Zac’s mouth went dry, and he wriggled in his seat.
“Is it ok?” he finally asked.
“I think so, he cried really loudly after he was born. They’re just checking him - I wish they’d hurry up.”
Zac had a son.
They waited together, listening to the suckling of the other baby. Zac tried not to look.
He had a son.
Just as the other baby fell asleep, the door was pushed open, and a nurse wheeled a cot in. Rachelle sat up and peered into the cot.
“Is he ok?” she asked tentatively. She was searching the nurse’s face intensely, trying to find a clue to how her baby was. Zac didn’t remember her being timid; she looked so vulnerable now, peering at the nurse for reassurance.
“He’s lovely and strong, and he needs his Mum,” the nurse said. She scooped up the baby and began laying him gently in Rachelle’s arms.
“No,” interrupted Rachelle, “he needs his dad.”
Zac felt all his confidence drain away. What if he dropped him? Or made him cry? But the nurse was giving him his son to hold, showing him how to cradle his head, and laying him in the crook of his arm.
Zac looked down, staring in awe.
“Liam, meet your Dad,” said Rachelle kindly.
Zac jolted the baby when he heard the name. Visions of another Liam shot urgently into his mind. The dirty, dribbly Liam that had licked the floor.
But his little Liam snuggled further into his arms and smelt clean. His boy wouldn’t be like that; he would be perfect. He glanced over at Rachelle who was slipping into a contented sleep.
Zac yawned. Since Tuesday, he’d been trying to reach his baby, to meet him and give him a dad. Now that he was here, he knew he’d have searched forever. And he’d give Liam not just any old dad, but the Best Dad.
He carefully bent over to pull the airport presents from his hold all. He unwrapped them gently, putting the soft dinosaur in Liam’s tiny hands and the teddy with the tutu next to Rachelle.
Zac stretched out his legs and put his head back against the chair. He’d come such a long way.