It had not been a relaxing Sunday to begin with. We were woken by the sound of the toilet backing up, so I'd already spent a lovely morning literally up to my elbow in raw sewage. That and a trip to Tesco had consumed the whole morning. Still, Alex was in his bouncy chair, listening to the dehumidifier and Nicola and I were getting ready to bake a tasty cake.
Then Alex screamed.
This wasn't just a normal scream. This was every negative emotion - fear, loss, loneliness, pain, sadness and horror - bundled up into a single, primal, soul-piercing howl. It was utterly, utterly horrible. I could no more ignore it than I could ignore someone driving spikes into my heart. It was a good thing neither Nicola nor I were holding anything fragile at the time, given how fast we dropped everything and ran to Alex.
The screams continued and continued. Nothing seemed to help. Stripping off clothes made no difference. Hugs and kisses just brought his mouth closer to our ears. Tickles and changes of position might as well have not happened for all the difference they made. We lasted maybe a minute before phoning my dad.
"OK, obvious things first," he said, dropping instantly into medic mode. "Are any of his fingers, toes or penis caught in anything?"
"Is he hot to the touch or blotchy?"
"Check his backside. Is there anything abnormal?"
"I don't know, he's clenching it too tight for me to see."
"That's fine, that rules out what could be wrong there. Any other lumps, bumps or hot bits?"
"In that case, he's probably fine." (Phew!) "When babies suddenly scream like that, if they're not hot to the touch, it's almost always anger and never illness. Try some sort of diversion."
We diverted Alex by feeding him. (Hey, he is a Bell after all.) He calmed down almost instantly. Nicola and I calmed down much less quickly. After his feed, I took him out for a walk in the pram, in an effort to get him to drop off to sleep. After a minute or two's squalling, he dropped off. I walked and walked, afraid to stop in case he woke up and began that terrible screaming again. After an hour or so, I returned home. Alex was still asleep in the pram, but that horrible worry was still with me. Mindless TV, a bubble bath with a book, nothing helped. I couldn't get that scream out of my head.
I can't really describe how I felt. The best I can manage was that it was like returning to the state I was in just after he came home. A cold, terrible responsibility settled upon me. I couldn't take any joy in his smiles, as each one seemed to just prolong the inevitable moment when he would cry again, reducing me to an impotent bystander. Only it was worse, as I was aware of what I'd lost. Gone was the easy confidence. Gone was the delight in holding him, or tickling his hands. I looked at him and I saw the most important thing in the world, and also a thing that I couldn't comfort. A thing I was not worthy of being in charge of. I felt like an imposter. In the end, I broke down into tears in the kitchen with Nicola and Alex doing their best to calm me down.
Nicola took charge and told me to do whatever would help. All I could think of was being away from the terrifying bundle of love that was Alex. I felt like I was abandoning Nicola, and abandoning Alex too. It didn't stop me from going to bed with a book though. After a few minutes, I fell asleep and slept through until morning.