“What the actual fuck? You have got to be kidding me.”
I stared at Maddison Welsh, deliberately ignoring the dirty looks I was getting after my outburst. It was Sunday and we were in the pub garden, having lunch as we had done for the past sixty Sundays since Alfie had been born.
But this was the first time that Maddy had told me she was going to Paris.
“Come on, Hayden, you always knew I was going back to work once I finished my maternity leave. You shouldn’t be surprised about that.”
She was right. It hadn’t come as a surprise, more as a ten-ton shock.
We were both executive recruiters, who worked in a global organisation, and it wasn’t unusual for staff to get postings to other countries. I just hadn’t expected that Maddy would want to take one of them.
I pushed the vegetables around my plate, watching them wilt. “Yes, I knew that. You never mentioned Paris though.”
Maddy huffed. “Robert thought it was a great opportunity for me. He’s going out there for a while and suggested I go with him.”
“Mmm, I bet.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Robert Macmillan, the Practice Manager for our company, had been following Maddy’s career with interest, particularly after she and I split up. It wasn’t a secret that the two of them had been spending more and more time together in the recent past, and it wouldn’t come as a total shock if they outed themselves as a couple.
“It’s only for six weeks; that’s barely any time at all.”
Alfie stirred in his buggy and I looked down at him. Six weeks felt like such a long time to be away from the little one. Still, I would have to suck it up and deal with it.
“I’ll miss Alfie while you’re both away.”
Maddy went quiet and fiddled with the stem of her gin glass. “Um, no you won’t because you’ll be looking after him.”
It was as if the whole of the rest of the punters in the pub had gone quiet at the same time as Maddy spoke, her voice carrying across the air.
“Sorry, what? Did you just say I was going to be looking after him?”
Since Alfie had been born, I’d minded him barely a handful of times. The odd overnight here and there. Whole days, yes, but never longer than that. Now suddenly, six whole weeks were being thrust in my direction with no warning. I took a swig of my pint, trying to process what Maddy proposed. How the hell was I supposed to look after a baby when I had a full-time job? And no help? I couldn’t simply ask for six weeks holiday. Or could I? What with companies looking to support fathers more, and be flexible and all that. Historically, our company tended to be as flexible as an iron bar.
“Was this Robert’s suggestion too?” I had to ask. It seemed too convenient otherwise.
“He might have sown the seed.”
I bet he did.
I didn’t want to think about any other seeds he might have sown though.
“When are you going?”
“That soon?” Nothing like preparing me for the bombshell and then expecting me to accept it.
“I thought we might go back to your flat and check out what you need to do to make it Alfie-proof.”
This was already a done deal. I clearly didn’t have a say.
Not that it was anything new.
Maddy and I had been together for about fourteen months before we split up. It was the typical it’s-not-you-it’s-me conversation, when we realised we preferred hanging out with our other friends more than we did with each other. There was nothing malicious or shady about our break-up—we drifted apart.
When she contacted me three months after that with the news that she was pregnant and the baby was mine, to say it came as a shock was an understatement of massive proportions.
I was twenty-six and had a fledgling career as a superstar executive recruiter, which meant working lots of hours that reaped substantial rewards. I worked hard, I played hard. Maddy had too.
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be a father too back then.
We had the conversation about all the options, and Maddy surprised me when she said she wanted to have the baby, if I was prepared to support her. One of her friends had recently given birth and Maddy admitted she had been hit by a massive case of broodiness. I’d never seen that side of her. Like me, she enjoyed the more lavish things in life and I honestly couldn’t see her in the mother role. However, she adapted surprisingly well and her attitude had changed over the past year or so.
The decision to take off to Paris was certainly a nod back in the direction of her party-girl lifestyle.
“Hang on a minute, why can’t your mum help out?” Maddy’s mother had always been very supportive and happy to lend a hand with babysitting duties.
“I can’t rely on her every time I need help with something.”
That wasn’t totally true. There had been plenty of times when Maddy’s mother had bailed her out of some scrape she’d gotten herself into.
“Anyway, she’s going to Spain with some girlfriends and she said she wasn’t going to cancel.”
Like mother, like daughter.
I drained the rest of my pint, sensing I was beaten. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Twenty minutes later, we were back at my flat in New Cross, an up-and-coming part of southeast London. I’d gotten lucky when a three-bedroom top floor flat, in a huge Victorian house, had come onto the market. It needed work, and it had taken me almost two years, but now screamed modern simplicity. It certainly wasn’t baby friendly. Yet.
It wasn’t as if Maddy hadn’t been to the flat a million times before, but the way she was looking around it now, you’d have thought it was the first time she’d seen it. She moved around the space, throwing out suggestions.
“You’ll need to turn the office into Alfie’s room.”
“That table will need to go; it’s got sharp edges and it’s at his height.”
“Those bottles can’t stay there; what if he pulls one on top of him?”
I followed her, taking mental notes, praying I’d remember everything she said. Alfie was snoring gently in his buggy, seemingly already at home. It was going to be different having him around twenty-four-seven.
I still didn’t know what I was going to do about work.
I needed help.
When Tom came over that evening, I was no closer to a solution. I had five days to sort something out.
We were in the middle of a game of FIFA, when I couldn’t keep it a secret any longer.
“I have to look after Alfie for six weeks and I have no idea how I’m going to do it and I need to have something in place by Friday.”
The controller clattered out of his hands, allowing Harry Kane to slip in and score a goal, much like in reality.
“You have to do what?” My best friend’s face was contorted in an expression I figured I would have replicated when Maddy told me the news.
“I’m going to be a full-time dad for six weeks.”
“How the hell are you going to manage that?”
It was the exact same question I’d been asking myself all afternoon, yet I was still no closer to the answer. I only hoped that Tom would have some sensible suggestions.
“Can’t you get a nanny?”
“Too expensive and too short notice, apparently.” I’d briefly searched a couple of websites that offered that sort of service, and baulked slightly at the costs for such a short time. Plus it appeared they wouldn’t be able to supply someone quickly enough because of their rigorous checks, which obviously made sense. “I guess I’m going to have to talk to HR about taking some time off.” I didn’t relish that thought.
“Guess you’ve got to try though.” Tom turned his attention back to the game and, while I wasn’t paying attention, levelled the score.
“It’s a shame we don’t know anyone who needs a job for a few weeks.”
Tom punched me on the arm. “Hang on a minute, mate, I might just have the answer for you.”
“Who?” I screwed up my face, trying to think of who he meant. The majority of the girls in our friendship group could hardly be classed as maternal; they were more like Maddy at the height of her party days. I doubted I’d be able to persuade any of them to change nappies and burp a baby.
“Bea’s back from travelling and I don’t think she starts her new job for a while. Maybe she could help you out?”
The mention of Bea’s name hit me in the stomach.
I hadn’t seen her in about a year.
Beautiful Bea, with her long, dark, wavy hair, expressive green eyes and slender, shapely body.
But that didn’t mean I hadn’t thought about her.
I couldn’t ask for her help because I’d be in more trouble than I’d ever thought possible.
I’d had a secret crush on Tom’s younger sister for years. Not that he ever knew. Because if he did, he would probably kill me.
I couldn’t ask her for help.
“Is she good with babies?”
Tom laughed. “How the hell would I know, buddy? She’s been away for almost a year and God only knows what she got up to while she’s been gone. I reckon me and the ‘rents got the PG version.”
“Would you ask her for me?”
“I’m meeting her for a drink later. Why don’t you ask her yourself?”