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

Joseph was born some time in the early hours of 15 September 1980. It was 1.30 in the morning. Or at least I think it was. I have a clear visual recollection of the clock on the delivery room wall - one of those standard, circular hospital clocks with clean black figures and hands - and it reads just after 1.30am. I can even see the slim, red second-hand ticking round. It's just that I can't be sure whether it's a real clock or not. I may have made it up.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links