I thought I'd messed up his life, but Joe still talks to me
CJ Stone split up from his wife, lived in a commune and went off the rails. Yet somehow his son grew up unscathed
Sunday 23 May 1999
That's the trouble with memories. You never really know where they're coming from.
I have other memories too. I can see the flushed effort on his mother's face as she forced down and down to the cheerleader chants of the nursing staff. "That's it dear: push, push." I remember thinking that it looked like mighty hard work - that's why they call it labour. And one funny incident. One of the nurses handed me a glass of water. "Thanks," I said, taking a sip and setting it down on the side. The nurse gave me a curt, disbelieving look. It was only later that I realised that the water was meant for the woman on the bed, not for me.
Later I remember the surrealistic image of his head popping out from between her legs, poised in a moment of Monty Python silliness, before the rest of his body slithered out like a blood-flecked snake from its red lair. And I remember the look on his face too, like one of those Buddhist demons, all crimson fury, as if he was fuming with indignation that we had dared exorcise him to this place, when he was perfectly happy where he was.
So that was my first meeting with Joe: in the guise of a furious Buddhist demon, bright red and fuming with anger. Fortunately he's calmed down since. I'm the one who has had to learn to control my emotions.
We moved around a lot in Joe's early years. From Barton-on-Humber, in what was then South Humberside where he was born, to Bristol. From there to Whitstable in Kent. From estuary to estuary, for some reason. It's because I'm a Brummie. Brummies always have a fascination for the sea.
And, despite the moves, life developed a routine. "Who's going to look after Joe today? It's your turn to get him up." "No, it's your turn." And in the following years his mum and I drifted apart. We no longer knew whether we were together because of each other, or only because of him. I became sullen and depressed. She was much younger than I was. Maybe she longed to have her own young life back. Eventually we split up.
This is a very ordinary kind of a story, of course, and I'm sorry if you've heard it before. It is the story of the late 20th century. Where it is maybe a little different is in the situation we found ourselves in when we split. We were living in a commune. I'd had enough residual hippiedom in me to have been able to engineer this situation. So, while his mum continued her college course in London, Joe stayed with me. And - being sullen hippies, all of us - child rearing was a shared occupation. Later, again, I moved out of the commune, but the shared childcare continued. So that was how Joe was brought up, shuffling between a shared house in one part of Whitstable, my council- owned maisonette in another, and his mum's flat in London.
It's a surprise he isn't completely mad. He told me he's been counting the times he's moved. Thirteen times, he reckons, in only a few more years.
What we can thank that commune for is that Joe never felt the split like a schism in himself. He never felt like he was forced to choose between the two adults. Because there were many more adults in his life. I was only one of them. His mum was only another. So, no problem really. He could navigate his way between the emotional reefs with a certain grace. He had other people to refer to. As for his relationship to me: there was always a fierce loyalty there.
I became wild after the break-up with his mum. I was a gadabout. I took drugs. I had a lot of relationships. I think I probably broke many more than one heart. I got drunk and loud and - occasionally - unpleasant. I was headstrong and indifferent to the opinions of others. I lost a lot of friends.
And at first I resented Joe too. I kind of blamed him for the loss of the great love of my life. If only he hadn't been around, I thought, maybe we'd have been happy. Maybe we could still be together. A vain hope. But when you're in turmoil you clutch at straws.
All that began to change when we took a holiday in Tenerife. He was about six-and-a-half years old by now. This was about a year after the break- up. Joe and I shared a room. We went to bed at the same time and got up at the same time. We discussed what we'd like for lunch, and discovered we had the same tastes. Tinned octopus and other savouries. Crunchy bread and olives. We'd go to a bar in the evening and stay up late. I drank beer while he drank ginger beer. He discovered he liked staying up late, a habit he has never quite got out of. It made him feel like one of the adults. And, before we went to sleep at night, we'd discuss our favourite things on TV. He liked cartoons, of course. I told him my favourite cartoon character was Bugs Bunny, and he agreed. "What's up, Doc?" we'd say, and break into fits of giggles.
Suddenly I came to know how lucky I was. How beautiful this boy was, and how much he loved me. How much I loved him. How important he was in my life. Motherhood, I thought, was a natural thing, ordained by hormonal nature. Fatherhood, on the other hand, is a rational thing. It has to be decided.
Things came into focus. I remembered a certain look he'd given me more than once, fleeting and bashful and full of surprised admiration, and how he would run towards me with his arms open, like I was his great big teddy bear, burying himself in my beard. I've been as cuddly as any teddy bear.
After that he would watch me. He's seen me in all my turmoil. He's seen me in tears as I fall in love, and tears as I fall out of it again. He's seen me sober and practical, drunk and emotional, domesticated, wild, and absurd by turns. He's seen it all. And never once has he lost his faith in me. Never once has he allowed my madness to get in the way of our friendship.
There was a lot of criticism over the way I chose to lead my life. Joe never listened to any of it. And the only criticism I've ever listened to is Joe's. Once he told me that I was a nasty, spiteful old man. I guess I was going through a hard time again, and was taking it out on him. But those words seared into me like the kind of truth you could only get from God. You can be sure I listened to him, and that I was never nasty, spiteful or old again.
Which kind of brings us up to date. Joe is 18 years old now, and he lives with me. We share a rented house in Whitstable. He's just passed his driving test, and is currently doing his A-levels. The other people in the commune have moved away, though he keeps in contact with them. His mum still lives in London, where she pursues a successful photography career. She's married, to another photographer. We all seem to get along.
And Joe is a typical young man. Smart-casual, with a citrus-gel quiff, and a habit of wearing aftershave though he hardly needs to shave. He drives his car - a Citroen AX - with a kind of controlled insouciance, changing up the gears and accelerating at an alarming rate. He's not at all like me. He's not at all like his mum. He's not at all like the other people in the commune, though he's learnt a lot from all of us. In my case, what I've had to teach him has been mainly negative. How not to live your life. How not to mess up your relationships. He's learnt his lessons well, being self-possessed and extraordinarily loyal. It's like he has learned the courage to be ordinary.
A credit to his Old Man.
CJ Stone's book `The Last of the Hippies' is published by Faber and Faber, priced pounds 9.99.
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