Back in my jaded Tinder days, I used to joke that a hot widower would be the jackpot. A man who was single through no fault of his own, no bitter ex-wife waiting in the wings to complicate matters.
And then I met Tim. An intriguing new face in the playground, he cheekily pointed out a hole in my dress, so I pointed out his flies were undone. He joked that life as a widower was one long orgy; that he was planning to become a stuntman in Las Vegas, but first he had to pick up his two girls and cook them fish fingers. The pink sparkly hair slide clipped to the hem of his rumpled shirt said it all.
By the time his daughter Amitola, six, all blue eyes and chubby cheeks, bounded out of school and jumped into his arms, I was sold. Her sister Sequoia, eight, a jumble of blonde hair and questions, followed. ‘Who are you? How do you know each other? What’s your favourite type of crisps? Can we have a playdate?’
My own two kids – whose dad I had broken up with six years before – thrust their school bags at me in wary silence.
But what at first seemed ridiculously romantic – long philosophical chats over coffee, snatching kisses after the school run – soon gave way to the real world. The first time I slept over at Tim’s, I nestled into his arms (one of them inked with a tribute to his late wife Halcyon) only to be awakened by a child screaming. ‘Yeah, she does that,’ he yawned, before rolling over and going back to sleep.
I crept into Ami’s room to find a sobbing ball of fury thrashing beneath the duvet. ‘I miss Mummy,’ she cried, punching her pillow over and over. ‘I’m not surprised,’ my voice cracked. ‘I’d miss my mummy too if she died.’ A thoughtful pause. ‘Did you know my mummy?’ ‘No, but she sounds awesome.’ She did. Photos of Hal smiled lovingly from every wall and window ledge. There were scribbled notes from her all over the place reminding Tim how to do everything from making packed lunches to stripping the beds; a poem taped to the bathroom cabinet I couldn’t read without welling up.
‘I keep trying but I can’t remember what she smells like,’ Ami whispered, gripping her teddy. It had been two years since her mother had been so cruelly wrenched from her life. I thought about Hal receiving the diagnosis that her breast cancer was terminal. This moment right now – her baby scared and alone, crying out for her in the dark... this must have been her deepest fear. I rocked Ami in my arms until she fell asleep, then slipped back into bed with Tim, feeling heartbroken and massively out of my depth.
Tim and the girls began spending more and more time at our house. Most days I felt like a cross between Maria von Trapp and Nanny McPhee, feeding four kids and doing my best to keep the peace. Instead of catching up on sleep when my two were at their dad’s, I’d invariably be up all night with Ami or fielding Sequoia’s incessant questions. So many times, I wished there was an ex-wife on the scene to share the load.
Still grieving, Tim could just about manage the domestic chores, but the emotional stuff tipped him over the edge. Ami would cry for hours whenever she so much as grazed her knee, while Sequoia was hyperactive and worryingly detached. Both just wanted to be held.
‘Do you love Daddy?’ Sequoia asked one morning as I plaited her hair for school. Tim and I caught each other’s eye. I did, and yet a guilty voice in my head whispered, ‘Get out while you still can.’ The girls were beginning to depend on me and, when I was being honest with myself, I feared I couldn’t give them what they really needed. A full-time mum.
Two years later, though, and I’m still here; doing my best. Ami is finally sleeping through the night, and Sequoia seems more in touch with her emotions, though adolescence is looming. It won’t be long before I’ll be taking her to buy her first bra, sharing the excitement of her first crush, the bewilderment of periods, sex, relationships. Milestones that are an exquisite privilege for any mum, but ones that will forever be tinged with sadness.
Because the more I grow to love the girls, the more I’d give anything for them to have their mother back, even if it meant me losing the man I love. In truth, though, Hal is always with us – in Ami’s cheeky smile, Sequoia’s free spirit, Tim’s touching stories, and my ever-expanding heart. Another member of our big, crazy family. A jackpot of sorts.