The Sunday Times

Sunday July 4 1999

The advantage of your wife walking out is that you learn how to be a father, says Cosmo Landesman

Learning the hard way: when Julie Burchill left home, Cosmo Landesman and his son Jack struggled to come to terms with a life together alone
Picture: Simon Townsley

How I lost a wife and gained a loving son

One day in April 1995 I woke up and realised that something strange had happened to me: I had become a single parent. That was the year my wife, Julie Burchill, decided to take a walk on the wild side and never come back home. Overnight I went from happily married husband to home-alone dad with our eight-year-old son Jack to look after.

It took a while for my new status to sink in. Single parents, I had assumed, were women in council flats struggling to get by on welfare, not middle-class males like me.

But then, I didn't know any men who were bringing children up on their own. They must have existed, but you never saw or read about them, even though fatherhood had become a hot media topic. In the mid-1990s, babies were chic fashion accessories for advertisers, and films featuring men with babies were all the rage, but there were no single fathers in sight.

This week, however, Tony Parsons's brilliant new novel Man and Boy is published. It's the moving and funny tale of Harry Silver, a television producer, who becomes a single parent when his wife walks out on him after discovering Harry's infidelity.

The book, written by the father of my son's half-brother (Tony was Julie's first husband), will strike a chord with everybody who has suffered from what I'd called Dad Anxiety. This is the worry that you're not really up to the task of being a good dad. And I don't mean dealing with the practical side of parenthood. For contrary to the Hollywood image of men as innocent incompetents, dealing with nappies, bottles and crying babies is really no big deal.

Dad Anxiety is about not knowing what it means to be a good father. Most men discover it about the time their children are in the lower reaches of adolescence. But my wife wasn't even pregnant - actually, she wasn't even my wife - before I was having anxiety attacks. And it got worse after Jack was born in 1986. In an age when masculinity was under attack, what was I to teach my son about how to be a man? What were the kind of moral codes he would need to live by?

Julie was not sympathetic to my state. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Jack is only six weeks old, you moron!"

I may have had many doubts about fatherhood; but I also had a fantasy about my future life as a dad. My father had been one of those pot-smoking hippie dads who are a boy's best friend. So when I grew up, I longed to be one of those strong and silent types with a shed in the garden. And Jack would be my devoted assistant, carrying "dad's tool box" around the house as I performed miraculous feats of DIY. We'd go to football on Saturday, fishing on Sunday and I'd show him how to fix that puncture on his bike.

But Jack never wanted to do all those father-son things. People talk a lot about the changing nature of parenthood, but what is forgotten is that childhood has also changed. Kids such as Jack no longer automatically learn how to play football and get into mischief with their mates.

When I was young the streets were the place where the action was. Now, with computers, videos and high-tech games, being in your bedroom is no longer second best to being out on your bike.

So instead of bonding with his dad, by the time he was seven Jack was bonding with his mum. She had something I couldn't compete with - a Nintendo video console and a capacity to play video games for hours on end.

I hated playing them, and was determined to win Jack back. I remember one sunny day going into the living room with my latest plan for bonding: a basketball.

"Hey, Jack, what do you say we go to the park and throw a few hoops?" I said, bouncing my brand new bribe.

He and Julie were sitting in front of the television utterly wrapped up in a video game of Super Mario Brothers. Neither one looked around. They just let rip with a scolding cry of, "Not now - we're busy."

I felt jealous of her and a bit of an outsider in my own home. She was brilliant with Jack. No matter how much she drank the night before, she would be up to make sure he had breakfast and was ready for me to take him to school. It wasn't easy being a dad with a mum like that. She could earn more money than I could, but she couldn't clean a dish or cook a meal to save our lives. And while she had many wonderful qualities, Julie believed there were only two ways of doing things: her way and no way. Consequently I had to fight for my right to wear the apron in our home.

Then she left me. At first I was sad, then it occurred to me - I've lost a wife, but I have the chance to gain a son. This was the moment to be the superdad of my dreams without any interference from old bossy boots Burchill. From now on me and Jack would do everything together.

I'd teach him how to cook; he'd teach me to zap space monsters like his mum used to. And we would sit down and have proper meals, with the television off, thank you. I'd fill the place with the smells of pies and pastry instead of takeaway curries and M&S dishes.

But first I had to explain to Jack that his mother wouldn't be living with us any more. He would visit her on weekends. "Think of this as a new, fun way of life. You'll have two homes and you and me will have a chance to get close and spend time together. It will be great," I said, trying to make the best out of what, for him, was a nightmare situation.

So here was my first test as a novice single dad - helping Jack to adjust to the unadjustable.

In the first weeks of her departure I did everything I could to make up for his mum's absence. I would feed him and make sure he had clean clothes for school; I would read to him at night and tell him 3,000 times a day how much I loved him.

I was careful never to let him see my sadness. Like the superdads of old, I would be strong and endure. I would protect and provide. I could and would do anything for him, but I couldn't stop that terrible noise that came into our lives and made living in our flat so unbearable - it was the silence of her absence. It usually struck around dinner time. I'd come in with a specially cooked supper and a specially prepared smile, and soon we'd be sitting in silence.

Within two weeks of her departure Jack's brave little face began to show the signs of the strain. He acquired a series of nervous tics and twitches. His eyes would blink rapidly while he'd flick his head back and forth and side to side like someone with brain damage. He would gnaw on his lips and sigh. One day I said to him: "Jack, I think we need to talk. Is everything all right?"

"Yeah dad, everything is fine," he said looking down at his food. But I could tell he was going through hell. Eventually he said to me: "Dad, I don't like this new life of ours."

I heard that and knew that, if I didn't get a grip on myself, I would break down and weep. I had to be the strong single father whose shoulder Jack could cry on - and not the other way round.

"I know you miss your mum and things around here are far from perfect. But let's give it a chance. Things will get better, wait and see." And here I did my best to smile and then I gave him a confident thumbs-up sign. I looked at him and saw a little boy with a mop of blond hair, his eyes blinking like mad, his head jerking left and right. Jack put on this sad imitation of a smile and said: "Okay dad, let's give our new life a go. I know it will be great."

And then he raised his little thumb at me.

"Excuse me, Jack, I've got an apple pie in the oven I need to check on." I bolted from the room but before I made it to the safety of the kitchen I broke down and wept. He found me, superdad, in the hallway on the floor, a heaving wreck of tears. At first he was embarrassed. This was the first time he'd seen me weep, a terrible moment in any boy's life. And for a second his face stopped twitching, and that's when his tears started. He came and stood by me, not knowing what to do.

I wanted to apologise for being so weak and pathetic. Through the tears I started to babble on about what a failure I was as a dad. Suddenly I went silent and he said: "Dad, I've got some really bad news for you." Oh Christ, I thought, he wants to go live with his mother. I've lost him.

"What is it, Jack?" I said.

"Your pie is burning - I can smell it."

That night we ate burnt apple pie with ice-cream and watched the Simpsons on television. It made us laugh. For the first time since I'd become a single parent, Jack and I were having a laugh together.

It was then that I realised that I had not only lost my wife but my dream of being one of those strong superdads, too.

But so what? I had, at last, gained a son.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.