I wouldn’t be waking up in the same house as them in the morning.
Their mum and I had split after 18 years of marriage and I was moving out.
It was their front door now. Not mine anymore. Not ours.
They smiled. Bless them, they smiled. As if I was off to work and would be back later. As if it was just another day.
I drove away, pulled up as soon as I was out of sight and cried. Sobbed like I hadn’t since I was a child.
Then I went to the nearby chip shop, exchanged pleasantries with the woman behind the counter like my world wasn’t falling apart, took my meal to my new place just a mile away and cried again.
That was more than three years ago. I’ve survived. Yet something is always missing, that feeling of completion when you’re within the same four walls as your family. You have no idea how deep that runs until it is no longer there.
Tom is 18 now, Ben 16. Boys when I left, young men now, still living in the house I left. My ex has built a new life they seem happy with. I see Ben all the time, Tom not enough. That’s just how it’s worked out. They stay over regularly. They seem amazingly well adjusted. Neither of them know it, but their company got me though the darkest hours.
Father’s Day is hard, a sharp, uncaring dig in the ribs from the calendar that you messed it up and your sons are from a broken home. The cards they give me will go on each side of the mantelpiece, bookending photographs of them when they were younger and their dad felt more fulfilled. Their presents will be drunk. They know they can’t go wrong with beer!
The chips that October 13 2014 evening were never eaten. It was my first night in a flat, chosen because it was only two minutes’ drive from the family home, and all my comfort blankets were missing. Books still boxed up. No Sky. No internet. No boys ... No boys. I felt physically sick, metaphorically lost.
It had been spirit-sapping, humiliating almost, packing belongings into cardboard boxes. But, vividly, I remember buying a vintage bread-bin on eBay in readiness for the move and was pathetically pleased it was better than the one I was leaving behind.
Crazy that such a little thing mattered given the enormity of what was happening. I’m sure it was just a part of coping. Today, it’s a bit more battered than it used to be but still going. There’s a lot of me in that 1950s enamel container.
There were more tears, too many tears, in the months after leaving. I cried at films, I came over all emotional in supermarkets. I grew sick of it, sick of me. I even filled up when I was out running. Several times in those early days, lost in thought, I ran back to my old house by mistake.
Initially, the kids came round every evening and we found pleasure in simple stuff. They had their iPads and iPhones, but we played Monopoly, dominoes, Scrabble. Lots of Scrabble. We joked and argued and enjoyed every second. We had less time together but made more of it.
Bit by bit, they saved me.
We get on. We’re pals. My relationship with them is stronger than when I left. But a lot of absent dads will say that. It’s another part of coping. In truth, you lose so much of your paternal influence. They take exams they forget to tell you about, careers are discussed when you’re not there. Less father, more big brother.
“I feel like I’m just making the best of a bad job,” I once told my closest friend. “Mate,” he replied. “That’s all you can do.”
At first, I couldn’t look at family photos capturing happier times. Now I can. But I find myself peering into my former wife’s eyes in search of sadness I was unaware of at the time. What we once had seems less and less real.
As I pulled the car away that first night, I knew full well my future was going to be very different. What I didn’t realise was how much I would have to rewrite my past.
One of her parting shots - I think she was jealous of the bread-bin - had been that she’d been happy 60 per cent of the time.
Her words have lost their power to hurt now, but another man’s car on the drive of my old marital home does the job instead.
He moved in several months ago. A solid, decent bloke, someone I respect, someone the boys like. Life moves on, so do people. I get that, and driving away when I drop off my lads doesn’t sting quite like it did that October.
Yet, from my fleeting view from the road, with images flickering on the lounge TV, with lamps casting a glow on pictures and prints that remain from my time there, an outsider looks in on his own family.
You don’t have kids in the hope that one day they’ll live with someone else.
Anyway, it’s Father’s Day on Sunday. The boys will be round with sweet, hand-written, jokey messages in their cards and bottles of Budweiser and we’ll do our best to make the most of a bad job.
The eldest shares my dedication to Rotherham United and we’ve travelled the country in support of the Millers. The youngest and I play guitar together, watch a million movies, talk Dylan, Cash and Nirvana.
They might not have developed those passions without me. Maybe Dad does still have a role to play. And I hope their mum has found the missing 40 per cent.
Nowaways, Scrabble is largely confined to the cupboard.
But I’ve still got a collection of old scrawled scorecards kept by Tom when he was on a winning streak, and the sight of that familiar green box will always be a reminder of the greatest gift those two boys ever gave me.
Seven letters, triple-word importance.