Iam having dinner with my old friend Ed. We are in his sister-in-law’s house. His extended family are sitting around the kitchen table too. Ed’s niece Kate whom I last met at 18 when she was 12, sits opposite me. We are eating lentil lasagne, which is much less dispiriting than it sounds.
“Did Uncle Ed dress the same when he was young as he does now?” his niece asks. I glance at Ed who is half-obscured by the table. Even from the waist up, a glance is enough. I bend down to look under the table at his legs and feet. It is doubly cheerless down there.
Truth is, his style never came from clothes but from knowing who he was. And speaking the truth. But I’m not sure how to put this. So I answer, “Yes, he looked like a deranged, dishevelled priest back then too. Only younger,” which is also true. “I’m glad you two have got to meet after all these years,” Ed says to me, “you both have a lot in common. Kate had an unplanned pregnancy at 21, like you did.”
It is an abrupt segue; if I was him, I wouldn’t want to talk about my unfortunate dungaree phase either. Kate and I chat about our unplanned pregnancies. Much ground is covered; how we managed them at the time, the pros and cons of having children young, the fertility window, voluntary childlessness, adoption, abortion. Then we talk about egg-freezing, infertility - and leaving it too late, about which I confess I know very little.
“It’s never really crossed my path,” I say, “and I’ve never had to... sort of... inhabit the consciousness of someone who left it too late.” “I had a neighbour when I was in my twenties and living in London,” says Annie, another of Ed’s nieces, “who had a fake baby.” “A fake baby?” I say. “I used to babysit for her,” she says, “it was the best job. She worked in the Albert Hall. One time I babysat, she paid me in tickets for Cirque de Soleil.” No-one blinks an eye.
“What do you mean by “fake baby?” I say.
“Dafydd,” Annie says.
“Who’s Dafydd?” I say.
“Her baby,” she says, “it was a boy.”
“It’s Welsh for David,” Ed says. So they have heard this story before.
“Dafydd the doll,” I say.
“The main thing here is that she didn’t think it was a doll,” Annie says.
“Is that the main thing here?” I wonder.
“I bumped into her in Tescos,” she says, “when I first moved into her apartment block. I bent down to look in the pram she was pushing and there it was - Dafydd.”
“She had a pram for Dafydd?” I say.
“She introduced me to him. We were up by the tills. She said, ‘he’s called Dafydd. Isn’t he beautiful?’” So I said “yes,” and cooed over him for a bit, you know.”
“No,” I say, “I don’t know.”
“The following week,” Annie continues, “she asked me to babysit, so I started babysitting for her in the evenings when she went out. She had a childminder in the day.” No-one blinks an eye.
“She employed a childminder for a doll?” I say.
“A fake baby,” she says, “they look really real and they cry and need to be fed.”
“You babysat for a fake baby?” I say.
“She was 40 and a single mum,” she says, “she needed to socialise.”
I know that empathy is all about being able to inhabit the consciousness of another person but Ed is not the only one whose style comes from knowing who he is and speaking plainly.
“Sorry,” I say, “but isn’t the main thing here the fact that this woman was mad?”
‘Truth is, his style never came from clothes but from knowing who he was