How James came to be...
A.P. Atkinson (Jack)
5 years ago this weekend, something terrible happened. It was a dark day, a day of screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth. My son, James was born, and it also quite hurt his mother, apparently.
He blinked his way into the world with a slightly confused, and a little bit annoyed, look on his face and then he slowly worked to utterly take over my life.
What could make a man who literally rode away from his home country on a motorcycle stuffed with every single thing he owned, suddenly change his entire life philosophy and end up being a dad? Sadly, the answer is a useless Chinese condom, but the question is actually more complicated than you might think.
Let me explain…
I was living with his mother, Saiem. We had a pretty good relationship. I had met her soon after arriving in Cambodia and we had got together fairly quickly. We were a couple other couples wanted to be. Without exaggeration, my friends and colleagues asked where I could meet a trustworthy, loyal and smart partner like her and her friends wanted a man that wouldn’t cheat on them.
People wanted to be like me, instead of holding me up as an example of what not to do, or using me to frighten children into eating vegetables. It was a new experience for me.
We had a lot of fun, we went out all the time and we went away a lot. We took a motorcycle tour around Thailand and Cambodia, we went to Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kampot and other tourist spots. I built up a motorcycle rental company with a friend and, with her help, we were known as the best in town.
Life was good.
We had arguments, and plenty of them, but the relationship was essentially solid. I had always made it clear that I didn’t want kids and told her not to get pregnant. It wasn’t an uncommon trick and I wanted to make it quite clear I was aware of it.
Then, one fateful day she had a nasty case of thrush. The medication didn’t make it go away so she went back to the doctor a second time.
She came back with a funny look on her face, a sort of mixture of mild concern and blind, bewildered panic. She announced that it wasn’t thrush at all, it was a small parasitic growth taking root inside of her, that was threatening to destroy everything I cared about… which was basically just my dog.
She told me not to worry, she’d already lined up an appointment to get rid of it.
I just laughed. We had been careful and we hadn’t even been together much that month. She’d been in the province with her family for several weeks, around the time she was meant to be most fertile, so I didn’t think there was any way she could possibly be pregnant. I sent her to get a test, which proved that thinking really isn’t my strong suit.
She peed on a stick and the instructions said that if she was pregnant, it would change colour slowly. It changed colour almost instantly, sealing my fate and giving me that slight sinking feeling you might get if you were chained to a pipe in the engine-room of the Titanic as an iceberg thoroughly ruined your day.
She was flapping about like a fish on a chopping-board and I calmly asked her if she wanted to keep it. Her whole demeanour changed, her face lit up into a grin and she relaxed enough to start actually making the tiniest amount of sense.
We talked it through and I established the rules. I worked and she didn’t, although she helped out with the business and occasionally worked on and off at salons, and dreamed one day of owning her own. I explained that the bulk of the work would have to be done by her, I was getting a bit too old for all this but would help out when I could. She promised it would make a minimal impact on my life.
We already had a dog, I didn’t see how it would be all that different.
I told my parents and family and there were amused and surprised. I knew it would be a boy since I’m the first-born son of the first-born son in my family and that goes back for many hundreds of years. It seems my family only has one working testicle and producing girls is beyond our abilities. Getting them to date us is hard enough…
The pregnancy went without a single issue. She was oddly nervous about the blood test but everything came back normal, she was healthy and James developed absolutely perfectly.
The only minor snag was the birth. James was large, very large. His cranial measurements were literally off the chart. On his first scan, they measured the circumference of his skull and said that he would be smart, he had a very large brain. I can’t tell you what a relief that was. He needed my brains and his mother’s looks, if it came back the other way round he’d be cleaning pub toilets in Glasgow for a living.
By the time he was born, his head was huge. I measured it and compared it to what was considered normal and it was about 2cm off the end of the big end of the chart. In short, there was no way he was coming out of her without a fight and a C-section was our only option. Medical advice agreed with us, and it was what she wanted too.
We decided to have him in Takeo, her home town. Due to the fact she would be having minor, but significant, surgery, it made sense her for her to stay there with her parents for at least a few weeks to recover while I went back to work. We didn’t know quite what to expect in terms of how quickly she would recover, you can never tell with something like this.
The day finally came to pop him out. By then, she was as big as a house and wore a gigantic red tent with arm-sleeves stitched to the side. We stayed at a guest house next to the hospital. I commented, quite correctly but probably in the least welcome way possible, that she looked like a walking version of a big ketchup dispenser, the kind that are shaped like a tomato. The guesthouse managed to lower the bar. As she was signing in, barely able to move her arms across her enormous belly to pick up a pen, they asked her with a straight face, ‘Are you a prostitute?’
“Is that what I look like?” she asked back calmly.
Things are different in Takeo.
The hospital was so bad that I asked if she wanted to give up on it and head back to Phnom Penh. She wanted to continue but it was a daunting place. For $1000 we got a small green prison-cell with a metal bed-frame chained to the wall. The surgery was far more unpleasant.
I insisted on waiting outside while they did the deed. I was told most fathers wait in their rooms but I politely ignored them. On reflection, I might not have been terribly polite.
They wheeled her in and the doctor followed. He had scrubbed up already and was checking messages on his phone, but only handling it with the tips of his fingers. Safety first, after all. Instead of erecting a surgical tent, they just threw a towel over her face and sliced her open with an array of garden-tools.
This wasn’t a day I enjoyed.
After only a few minutes of me fearing the worst, they brought out a pink little blob with a curious expression on his face. I finally got to meet my son.
There is no comparison between the reality of your child and the pictures you get from a scan. On the ultrasound he looked vaguely like the Grand Canyon, or perhaps a really large pile of small sausages.
The next few days were a bit of a blur really. It was just endless small details and enforced captivity. It was good practice for the ‘covid-years’, now that I am able to look back at it fondly.
At first, I didn’t really bond with him as strongly as I thought I should. Sure, I was a dad and I cared for him immediately but there was never that automatic primal connection that mothers get with their offspring.
I talked with Seth, who had recently become a father himself, and he assured me this was not uncommon. While mothers connect at an instinctive level, fathers tend to grow more attached over time as the baby asserts its personality and they get used to the idea of having all their hopes and dreams violently ripped away.
I did some research into this, just in case there was something wrong with me and found that there probably was, but this wasn’t a sign of it.
At first we were very happy. As predicted, it wasn’t really much different to having a dog. We now had a new thing to care for, a responsibility and a new reason to focus on the future. But, I had always been a careful, organised person and this wasn’t the crushingly destructive thing it sometimes is on people.
Saiem was a good mother at first. After a few months of settling in, her mum came to stay with us and we went for a coffee, the first time we had been away from James since he was born. She broke down in tears, saying how she must be a terrible mother for leaving her son. I laughed and reminded her that her own mother had successfully raised 6 children and that our own son was already asleep and likely would be for several hours.
But then, it all started to go spectacularly wrong.
Saiem started to change. At first, there were problems with the house-keeping money. She always needed more and more money for food, and there never was any food in the house. I tried metering the money in different ways, giving it to her monthly and then weekly, giving her varying responsibilities about how to spend it but nothing worked, she was just always asking for more, no matter how much I gave her.
Then there started being problems with the rent. The landlord suddenly wanted a deposit and then more money, and then threw us out altogether. None of it made sense unless she hadn’t been paying him the money I gave her.
I gave her money to buy her mother a television and later discovered she’d kept the money and lied about it. This sort of things became common.
We argued a lot, and she was becoming more aggressive as well as lazier. At one point she hadn’t cleaned the house in a week and unwashed plates were piling up. I was already taking the clothes to the laundry, to save her the job, and was helping out where I could. When confronted by it, she did clean up and seemed proud of herself for doing so but then the problem started right back up again.
To put this in context, when we first got together we lived in a serviced apartment and she refused to let the cleaners in, and tidied up the place herself, did all the cooking and looked after us really well. This really wasn’t the same person.
James was stable. I made sure we never argued in front of him. He was a very easy child, never causing any trouble, never screaming, never even crying. Luckily, he was the baby you hope you’re going to get, he was smart, happy and emotionally balanced.
We moved to a new place and I drew a line under it. We made a new start, I told her. But, within a few months, it had got even worse. Her behaviour was increasingly bizarre and we argued constantly.
By then, my savings had gone. She had burned through whatever money I had and I had even lost my rental business. We had invested in a property deal, buying up a piece of land, and that had turned out to be a scam, clearing out my last $10k. We were now broke and had moved into a new house with an even higher rent than before.
We had one last fight and broke up. James was staying with his grandparents that weekend and she left, with me wondering just exactly what the hell was going on.
The landlord came down asking for additional money, she hadn’t paid the full rent when we moved in and a few days later, money-lenders came looking for. They tried to demand I paid her debts and threatened me with violence. A little violence might have been quite welcome at that point but they declined to follow through. I never heard from them again.
I didn’t see her for a few weeks and then her friend brought her round and left her with me. She couldn’t move, could barely speak and was making very little sense. They told me no hospital would take her and as soon as they could, they left.
Inside the house, she told me she was on drugs.
We had suspected it for a long time and, to be honest, it broke me. Hearing that was a blow that took me to the lowest point I had reached since I left England.
I tried to manage her fever and keep her alive through the night. She soiled herself constantly, I spent the whole night mopping up faeces and urine and trying to lower her temperature and keep her taking enough fluids to survive.
Hospitals wouldn’t take a drug addict and there was no money left to take her to one, in any case. I was down to my last few dollars, she had seen to that.
She hallucinated all night, telling me all sorts of things, such as my father had walked down through the ceiling to talk to her and two girls had come and stolen all the balls out of my fridge. She was utterly incoherent.
At work the next day I dosed myself up on coffee to get through. I casually mentioned to my supervisor how bad things were and she told my coldly that, ‘I shouldn’t bring my problems to work.’ That callous comment made me realise just how utterly alone I really was.
Every day I expected to go home and find her dead in bed. Every day I didn’t.
Slowly, over the course of a week, she recovered somewhat. Eventually she was able to hold a conversation. She denied being on drugs, but what drug-addict doesn’t?
She went back to the province and relapsed almost immediately. One heated argument with her sister put her in hospital. Blood tests proved that she actually hadn’t been on drugs at all, which was confusing but a massive relief. It seemed that it was just another hallucination, she had heard someone say it and had believed it was true.
This went on for months. She got so sick that I was told she was going to die, they didn’t expect her to last the night. Blood-test after blood test failed to get to the bottom of it.
One day she was visiting with James. She was laying on the sofa and he pointed angrily at her and said, ‘I’m angry because of you’ to her. Then he broke down in tears, hugged her and kept saying, ‘please, Mummy, don’t die.’
It killed me inside that he understood enough of what was going on to have to deal with this at his age. It really wasn’t fair.
Even in this state, when she managed to speak, she always said the same thing, ‘look after James, don’t leave him in the province.’ No matter how bad she got, she never fully forgot she was a mother first. For that reason, I never completely lost respect for her and decided to do what had to be done. In the end, I knew that I was going to have to fix this myself.
I got her one last test and got the results myself. I went online and I learned how to read the tests properly and got in touch with anyone I could find with a medical background. I came to the conclusion that she had a thyroid imbalance, and found it was a common issue in Cambodia due to a lack of natural iodine in the soil. It was often triggered by childbirth, which is exactly what seemed to have happened.
I then had to work out what medication to prescribe, source it and work out the dosage myself. I could easily have killed her but I had no choice. If I did nothing, she was dead anyway and James would grow up without a mother. He had already dealt with enough.
I found the drugs she needed and got them to her. After a few days, they started to work, after a few weeks, she started to get better. It took months but she slowly responded and recovered somewhat from taking them.
She was never the same again, she had changed from what happened but at least James had a mother now.
Saiem moved on pretty quickly but that suited me, I would never look at her the same way again. I visited James as often as I could and paid for him to begin going to school. She told me she had found a boyfriend. I thought she was joking at first, but it turned out to be true. She was worried about telling me, wondering how I would react.
It was like a weight had been lifted. For the first time, someone else was helping. He was sending her money and giving her support, something nobody in my family had offered to do. I wasn’t doing this completely alone anymore.
We carried on with the situation but she was increasingly unreliable. She would arrange to bring him and cancel at the last minute and did so constantly. The effect it had on me wasn’t great. I managed to not miss a single day of work and kept a veneer of cheerfulness and remained professional. Inside, I was struggling to keep going.
Back in England, I had been diagnosed with suicidal depression. It had got bad enough that I chose to leave the country. I didn’t want to take medication so I came up with my own solution, and it had been a solution that worked. It wasn’t working anymore.
During the week I had my job, my students and my colleagues. At weekends, my life fell apart.
James seemed to be dealing with it a lot better than I was. He missed me, certainly but he was coping. I knew he wanted to stay with me, and see his ‘daddy’ more often but he seemed fine. When I did see him, I made the most of every moment. It certainly gave him a fun time, but I knew he needed a solid, more permanent connection to his father. Kids like having fun, but they need discipline, they need assurances that they’re loved and wanted and I wasn’t able to remind him of that every day.
After a while, she announced that her boyfriend was going to be paying for her to come and live in Phnom Penh. She looked at flats but never found anything she liked. She was always wanting more, he paid for a gym, she wanted a swimming-pool. I waited, but it never happened. It would have been ideal, but it never came to pass.
Around this point, I met Aya, whom I eventually was lucky enough to marry. Things slowly started to settle down and my life began to find some kind of equilibrium.
One Christmas James stayed over. As they packed up to leave, he said to his grandmother, ‘Shall we just stay here to live?’ It was what I wanted, and was working towards. I knew the situation wasn’t going to stabilise until he came to live with me.
Then, covid happened.
Schools shut down and we had to teach from home, our wages cut to well below half of the usual rate. There wasn’t a dollar to spare and we struggled to make ends meet.
I made the horrible decision to leave James in the province. For the most part, he was happy there, he spent the afternoons running around playing with his friends and he was surrounded by family that loved him. All I could offer was a place to sleep where he would constantly be told to be quiet. There was no real choice in the short-term.
It meant I was able to see him barely once a month but I just about managed to make it work.
He was relatively well looked-after although they gave him energy drinks, which pulled the enamel off his top teeth, leaving them permanently damaged. There is nothing dentists can do except let them drop out, so he’s stuck with that. Otherwise, everything about him was fine, he was healthy and happy.
Finally, a few months ago, his mother announced she was living in Phnom Penh. I got in touch and asked where she was staying and tried to arrange meeting up so I could see James. Of course, he was still in the province.
I met her to find out what was going on. She had no plans to bring him and her boyfriend had stopped sending money. She was in town looking for work. It was finally time.
Aya and I discussed it and decided he was going to come to live with us.
We took him away for a weekend and discussed it with him. On the first day I got him to put his shoes on and he asked if I was taking him back to Takeo. He looked very sad.
His Engish was still very poor so Aya helped me. We sat him on the bed and asked him what he wanted. He told us he wanted to come and live with me but acted like he knew it wasn’t going to happen. We explained that we were going to get him in 2 weeks and bring him to our house. It took several tries to get him to understand, he just couldn’t get it into his head.
We finally seemed to connect with him and the countdown began. His mother was going to bring him but let us down at the last minute. The next week I just went and got him myself, Aya helped with arranging the transport.
I don’t think there has ever been a happier child. It was like everything he had ever wanted was actually happening for him at last.
He settled in well. It was a shock to the system for Aya, she had never been a parent before, although she’s helped out with her nephews. She quickly discovered it’s very much not the same thing.
He had never slept alone and now has his own room. He was hesitant about it at first but took to it fairly well. I decorated it with pictures of super-heroes, Spiderman-bedding and various toys. I wanted him to see it and know he was finally home and in a place he was welcome and wanted.
James is five this weekend. His English is coming along well. He understands what’s said to him and manages to get his message across. He’s a very intelligent young man with a lively, inquiring mind.
Some of his behaviour is incredibly basic. He tends to throw rubbish on the floor, for instance, but we’re gradually training that out of him.
Aya is doing her best to be a mum to him. She’s still a little awkward from a lack of experience but James loves her to bits. He’s slipped up more times than I can remember and called her ‘mum’, which is the highest compliment a child could ever give.
He’s where he belongs now. He’s a child I never wanted but I have never, and will never, make him feel like he isn’t wanted now.
I’m quite happy for him to know that I never wanted children so he understands how special he is in changing my mind about all that.
He’s quite simply the best mistake I ever made.
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