“Just this one favour and I promise I won’t ask you for anything ever again,” I plead for the third time, guzzling my coffee so I don’t have to meet my dad’s stern expression.
“Son, the last time I looked after Annabelle, she threw up all over my beard.” He frowns. “Do you know how long it took to get the smell out of it?” his voice rises as he notices my smirk.
“Look, I’m sorry. But I’m exhausted, Dad. I need a break.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my granddaughter but this isn’t what she needs.”
“Just take her for two days.”
“What, so you can meet ladies and bring them back to an empty flat?”
“What’s wrong with having some fun?”
“Because you’re a father now,” he says crisply.
I run my fingers through my hair, exasperated. “I never asked to be one.”
He leans closer to me over the table. Behind his black-rimmed glasses, his blue eyes, with flecks of green around the iris, laser through me. The fact is, you are one. Well, where’s Annabelle’s mother? Doesn’t she have a duty to her daughter? She ran away, she took the easy road, the path with no responsibility, and now here I am, stuck with the responsibility that I’m not ready for. I can’t father a child. I can barely hold down a job still.
“No one’s ready to be a parent,” Dad says, relaxing back into a slouch.
“Doesn’t mean you should run off and abandon your child.” I peer down at Annabelle in her red pushchair. Amidst the bustle of the high street, she still manages to close those delicate lids of hers. I wonder whether she’s dreaming, what she’s dreaming of. Her pale skin is tinted red at the cheeks, and her blonde hair falls over her small ears. Her mum’s ears.
“You do know why she left?”
“She didn’t want to be a mother,” I answer.
“She had a weak heart,” he says, looking down at his rough hands.
“You can say that again.”
“If she stayed and something happened…if she fell while looking after Annabelle, if she had an accident…” His sunken eyes glitter with tears. With his finger and thumb, he strokes his thick white beard. “She couldn’t cope. She was scared she might die while looking after Annabelle. She was depressed, son.”
“But there’s medicine…the doctors could help her…” my voice weakens. “She was depressed?” A belting cry from Annabelle cuts through my surprise.
“Hey, princess.” I unstrap her from the pushchair and lift her into my arms. “Don’t cry.” Her fierce green eyes sparkle as her face screws with sadness. I sing her a lullaby until she calms down. “Why didn’t she tell me she was depressed?”
He shrugs. “I don’t think she could admit it out loud.”
For the first time since her mum left, Annabelle locks her soft, chubby arms around my neck, and suddenly I don’t feel exasperated anymore.
Dad chuckles as I sip my coffee. “You might want a napkin.”
I peer behind my back and see the remnants of Annabelle’s gratitude.