1

The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.

I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.

He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.

Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.

However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

18

Coming out

There’s a confusion in the evening October air. It’s neither mild nor bitter, the harshness of the winter has not yet fully taken hold. It’s like the weather can’t settle on a direction and is being pulled both ways. It mirrors the turmoil going on inside my head.

I’m wandering the dark sloping streets off the Stranmillis Road in Belfast, like a lost man. There’s some comfort in the anonymity of walking in the shadows.

I pass a house where there is loud music playing. Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. I see there is a group of young people having a party in the front room. Students, I assume. It pricks something deep inside me, a memory of a time before the burden of responsibility weighed me down. I keep on walking.

I spend some time like this. But time never stands still and soon I know that I have to choose a direction. I move towards the grand, imposing building that is the Lyric Theatre. As I get closer I think my steps have slowed until it feels like my feet are shuffling forward unwillingly.

I reach the point at the bottom of the steps which leads into the theatre. I peer inside. I see the crowds and the bright lights, hear the throbbing of animated laughter and the excited buzz of conversations.

I turn and flee.

I move back onto one of the dark streets, near where I have parked my car and try to control my breathing which is much too fast. I take a box of cigarettes from my pocket. I’m not really a smoker but in times of anxiety and distress my nicotine habit often returns.

I notice a slight trembling in my hands as I put the cigarette between my lips and hold the lighter up.

I’m filled with a certainty that I need to get back to my safe space. I have to go home.

The process which bought me to this place began a few weeks back.

Unexpectedly, I received an invitation to a book launch. The event was to mark the publication of Burned, a new book from the News Letter’s Political Editor Sam McBride which tells the inside story of the catastrophic failure of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme which led to the collapse of the Stormont executive and assembly. The ‘cash for ash’ scandal.

I remember staring at the invitation. In truth I was astonished to receive it. It has been several years since I’ve worked in news journalism, I know how fast that world moves, and I wondered if a mistake had been made. Was I asked along because they thought I still operated in that media world?

But I was also deeply moved. I knew and briefly worked with the author at the start of his career. We haven’t kept in touch but I’ve always admired his journalism and, occasionally, he would make a kind comment about something he read on my blog.

I determined that I should attend the event.

But as the days passed doubts and insecurities moved across my brain like locusts. It had been several years since I had attended any sort of media gathering or been in the company of journalists or any professional people.

All of my social engagements for a long time have revolved around care of my son. Visits to the park, school discos, play dates. I wasn’t sure that I even remembered the man that I once had been. I didn’t know if I’d be able to blow the dust off.

I was aware of the potential stress of attending such an event, the risk that it could be deleterious to my fragile mental health.

As the days passed the thought of attending the launch stretched high and daunting in front of me, just like the Lyric Theatre on this October evening.

But there was another reason why I tortured myself about going. It took some time for the thought to crystallise in my brain so I could properly understand it. But then I did.

I was ashamed.

Ashamed to step into an environment designed specifically to celebrate the best of journalism. I knew that I had failed wretchedly in the same profession, that mental health problems had destroyed my career. I was embarrassed to go and look former colleagues in the eye and confront this failure.

I made no decision on whether to attend until the day itself, in fact it was only when I discovered just two hours before it began that a close friend would be attending that I finally convinced myself to go.

But now, here, smoking a cigarette with an unsteady hand I know that I’ve made a terrible mistake. My car keys weigh heavily in my pocket and I’m having a conversation with myself. It’s quite pathetic. What is mundane and routine to normal people becomes like Everest in my scarred mind.

‘You can do it….you can do it…..you can do it….don’t be afraid.’

I throw the cigarette butt onto the damp tar of the road. I take a last look at the car and I move back towards the theatre. This time I don’t stop to think, to allow the fears to disable me, I go straight inside.

And, at once, I’m overcome. All of my protection has been ripped away. My brain is moving too fast for me to understand thoughts or to distinguish faces or sounds and coherency has left me.

I head straight towards the toilets and lock myself in a cubicle. I collapse onto the toilet but my capacious arse immediately sets off the automatic flushing mechanism, soaking the rear of my trousers.

I jump up and try to escape but can’t open the door. I frantically push at it for several seconds in growing panic before I realise the door opens inwards. It would all be quite comical if it weren’t so serious.

I go back upstairs. The book launch is taking place in the bar area of the Lyric and there is a huge throng of people. All of the seats are occupied so my plans to find a quiet corner in which to hide are dashed.

I don’t know quite what to do so I just stand there. Some of the people I don’t know, but I see a number of recognisable journalists, politicians and lawyers.

I make eye contact with a couple of people I’ve met over the years and smile at them. They hurriedly look away. Someone I once knew walks past and stops to shake hands. He tells me that I’m ‘looking well’ but I can see the pained pity in his eyes and he quickly moves on.

Of course, this may not be how it actually happened. It’s merely the way my mind chooses to process the information. I’m constantly fighting against the warped messages of the critical brain, telling myself that in this room full of people they are not all passing judgement on my failings.

I go to buy a copy of the book. It gives me something to do with my hands, a cover. I flick through it pretending that I’m already engrossed in the contents and hoping that nobody can see that the tremble of my fingers has now progressed to a definite shaking in the hands.

I retreat to a pillar and rest my back against it. Then, just as the event is beginning, a friend of mine arrives and stands beside me. It’s not the same friend who messaged me earlier but I’m so glad to see him. I’ve known this man for two decades and he has always treated me the same. To his eyes I’m just Jonny.

We chat and share some jokes and soon I begin to feel better. We laugh together as the host, Tim McGarry, delivers a riotous opening speech. I find myself getting drawn into the event, forgetting myself, listening intently to every word from every speaker.

There’s a contagious energy in the room which seems to be flowing through my body now, replacing the marrow inside my bones.

At the end I join the queue to get my book signed by the author. There’s a prominent politician in front of me and an environmental activist behind me and I chat to both. She talks to me about the danger of industrial scale pig farming and he talks to me of his hope that we haven’t accidentally strayed into the queue for the bar.

When I get to the front I’m expecting the author to merely sign my book and move onto the next person. There’s a long queue for him to get through.

Instead he invites me to sit beside him and talks to me, thanking me for coming along.

Then he tells me a story. Of how when he was a young, nervous journalist starting in the trade he had worked alongside me. He remembers the first ever story he wrote and how I had commissioned it, as if it were some sort of faltering origin for his later accomplishments.

He signs my book ‘To Jonny, you commissioned my first very poor piece of journalism! Sam McBride’.

I’m deeply humbled and, for a moment, fear that I may lose my composure. He knows that I’m also working on a book and tells me how much he is looking forward to reading it. We shake hands and I step away.

I move through the crowd and meet my other friend, the one who had messaged me earlier in the day. She hugs me warmly and starts to introduce me to people. Soon I’m chatting to people I’ve never met before. I’ve no real idea what I’m saying but I’m doing my best and I’m almost enjoying it.

I meet a couple of people who ask me if I’m in the market for some work. Details are exchanged.

And then I drive home. I’m definitely in a different place now although it’s nothing as corny as a complete reversal of my earlier feelings of dread. My head is still spinning and my limbs feel alien, but my overwhelming feeling is one of a pleasurable relief that I got through it.

When I get home my wife and son are already asleep but I’m much too animated to consider rest. I get into bed and begin to study Sam’s book.

Then a question pops into my mind. What was the last book I read?

To my own shame I find that I cannot remember. I pull my old Kindle out from under the bed to remind me. The red cover has been turned white with dust. I try to turn it on but there is no power, the charge has long since deserted it, a sure sign of neglect. I consider how I used to be an avid reader in my youth.

And then I begin to read Burned. The first chapter dealing with former DETI minister Jonathan Bell’s encounter with Stephen Nolan is as gripping as any thriller. It quickly becomes clear that the tome is a monumental work of reportage, combining the authority and attention to detail of an academic with the elegance and lightness of touch of a bestselling fiction writer.

I devour 150 pages before my body eventually succumbs to sleep. Unusually, I sleep through the night without waking.

In the morning I tell my wife all about the book launch, the tough parts and how I got through it. I can tell she was a bit concerned about me going but supportive of any effort which helps to integrate me back into professional society.

She asks ‘Are you glad you went along?’

‘Yes,’ I respond. ‘I really am.’

0

Exchanging pleasantries: A cautionary tale

Im not a great conversationalist.

It’s fair to say that any limited eloquence and elegance that my brain produces usually flows in the direction of my typing fingers rather than my voice box.

This is not to suggest that I’m not an adequate talker. Indeed I can bore for hours on subjects which seem inane and trivial to everyone but me.

But the particular skill of holding a conversation eludes me; of knowing when to talk, of listening to what the other person is saying, of making an appropriate response, of displaying empathy, interest and compassion.

Most conversational situations reduce me to a state of discomfort akin to a slug having a bath in salt water.

But, despite it all, I do try. I make smalltalk with my neighbours, exchange anecdotes with the parents of the other children at school, stop and chat when I meet a former work acquaintance in the street. I smile and force myself not to say stupid things. I ignore the voice in my head which tells me everyone despises me. I try not to scare the other person off.

And so today I was walking in the street with my son. I had just picked him up from school and he wanted to visit the play park.

On the way we passed a barber shop. The owner was standing out the front having a smoke. He’s not my regular barber but has cut my hair on occasion. He saw me with my son and smiled.

I stopped to say hello.

We exchanged banal pleasantries, inquiries about families and work, comments on the weather.

And then, just as the conversation began to flag, he asked my son if he would like a lolly.

My son said yes.

I stood confused for a second before the barber guided me into the shop. I found the large jar of lollies and asked my son which colour he preferred.

And then I turned. And saw that the barber had followed me into the shop and closed the door. Immediately I felt trapped and under pressure.

Then he began to prepare the barber’s chair for me and offered to take my coat. I now found myself in the awkward situation of having to decide whether to go along with it or explain to him that I had just been making smalltalk in the street, I really didn’t want my hair cut. I was just being nice.

I gave him my coat.

He guided me towards the chair.

I thought that I had better stop this before it got out of control.

And then I sat on the chair.

My son stood beside me wearing a confused expression.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t need or want a hair cut.

An idea entered my head.

‘Do you take card?’ I enquired.

‘No, I don’t have a machine.’

‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve just realised that I don’t have any cash,’ I said brightly.

‘It’s ok, there’s a cash machine in the shop next door.’

‘Ah, that’s good.’

My son was now shifting impatiently beside me.

‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, ‘but I don’t think I have time to get my hair cut just now. I’d forgotten I have an appointment I have to get to.’

The barber looked suspicious as I clambered out of his chair.

‘Well then, would tomorrow suit? In the morning?’

‘Uh….um….yeah ok.’

‘About ten?’

‘Er….that’s perfect.’

He started to write something in a book.

‘Name?’

‘Eh?’

‘Your name? For the booking.’

I seriously considered giving a false name but my brain was so scrambled all I could think of was Mr Bump.

I gave my name. My real name.

The barber happily waved me off.

‘See you in the morning then.’

I took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, did you get my lolly?’

I returned to the shop. The barber generously handed over a red lolly.

I left again and took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, where’s your coat?’

I returned to the shop again. I was sure I could see a hint of apprehension in the barber’s eye this time.

I put on my coat. My son looked up at me. It was a curious glance, one that I thought expressed his desire to be like his daddy, to learn from my wise counsel, to be firm, assertive and steadfast. Then he went back to licking his lolly.

1

Jumping off the edge

I’m in an unusual situation.

I’m high in the air, standing on top of a tall, tall, green pillar. I’m not sure exactly how far away the ground is but my son below has been diminished to a speck in my eyes.

The platform supporting me is just about wide enough to accommodate my feet. I peer down and, the truth is, I’m paralysed by fear.

My boy is jumping around on the ground far below. He keeps shouting up at me.

‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’

‘Yeah, right,’ I think.

The story that brought me here started a few days back when I received an email asking if I would bring my son to a newly opened indoor play facility.

As a (ahem) renowned blogger I get invitations like this occasionally. It sounds like a good deal but in reality I’m always a bit conflicted.

My fear is that once I go down the route of accepting freebies then the integrity of my blog is compromised. I’m expected to write something, and of course the organisers prefer me to write nice things.

But my blog operates on the basis of truth. It may not have much of a following, it makes me no money, I’ll never be mistaken for an influencer and it often feels like more trouble than it’s worth, but I keep it going for that reason, it’s a faithful account of my adventures in parenting.

Previous experiments with ‘sponsored’ blogging have usually ended badly. There was the time I was asked to write about healthy eating by a public body and then got chastised for mentioning a particular brand of breakfast cereal.

Last year I received an invitation to a visit a new adventure trail for children in a popular walking destination. We turned up at the appointed time, my son looked at the man dressed as some sort of medieval beast who was leading the trail and fled in terror, refusing to return.

I presumed this wasn’t the sort of stuff that the organisers really wanted me to write about so I just left it.

For similar reasons I’ve declined a couple of offers for advertising to appear on my site. There are plenty of other bloggers happy to accommodate this sort of material and good luck to them.

But still, ever so occasionally, the offers arrive. A while back I got invited to attend Fashion Week in Belfast. The train of logic in inviting me to this was one I could not follow and I politely declined.

And then, this week, I received the invite to come along to High Rise in Lisburn.

Quickly I was able to establish that High Rise is a new venture launched by Employers for Childcare. I began to feel more relaxed. Employers for Childcare is a social enterprise and charity and all of their profits go into their work supporting parents. Nothing I could write about this could be construed as supporting a private individual or company making money. It was a good fit so I accepted.

However, having satisfied my ethical concerns I was now left with the practical worries.

High Rise is all about climbing. The facility includes an excellent soft play area and cafe and has sensory and quiet rooms for the whole family, but the climbing area is the undoubted star of the show.

The area is large and includes a range of climbing walls and challenges for children and adults. I’ve seen climbing walls before but never anything quite like this.

And here’s the problem. My son, historically, has never really liked climbing. It’s one of the areas where I’ve seen him fall behind other children. Until recently he was too scared to attempt to ascend a tree and his efforts on the climbing frames in play parks have always been modest.

It is true that in recent months I’ve noticed him becoming bolder with challenges which involve getting his feet off the ground, but, as we were being harnessed up by the instructors, I worried that I had taken him a step too far. Many steps too far.

I had sold this day to my boy as a new adventure playground. I hadn’t said anything about climbing walls. Now, as he cowered behind me while we received our safety briefing, I could tell he was afraid.

So I kept whispering to him, ‘It’s ok buddy, daddy will be with you all the way. I’ll be right there.’

And he turned to me. I could see the fear in his eyes.

‘And will you do it too daddy? Will you go on it first?’

‘Uh…..’

It was more than I had planned but, as ever, I found myself slipping from the role of spectator to participant. Now I was harnessed up as well.

We moved into the climbing area. A dazzling, colourful display of climbing walls stretching towards a far distant ceiling. Each wall presents a different level of challenge, combined they represent a masterpiece of invention.

Some of the other children in attendance were already climbing. My son preferred to walk around for a bit first, getting his bearings. Then he selected one of the walls which looked easiest.

‘You go first daddy.’

An instructor attached me to the rope and I began to climb, slowly at first and then with more confidence. I reacquainted myself with long-forgotten muscles and discovered a few others which I did not know existed.

And then I was at the top.

So what now?

Well, the recommended option is to straighten your arms, lean back and simply let go, allowing the rope to gently bring you back to the ground.

Which sounds great when you’re in the briefing room.

But here, ten metres or more in the air and rapidly remembering that I don’t like heights, it didn’t seem quite so straightforward.

I clung tightly to the wall and considered the potential ignominy of having to be rescued.

And then I remembered why I was on that wall in the first place, to give my son the courage to have a go. I leant back, said a small prayer and released my hands from the wall.

The descent was not graceful. My son howled with laughter when I ended up on my backside on the ground. Still, it had been steady and safe and I had shown (I hoped) the way forward.

So then he had a go. First time his feet barely left the ground. Then he went a bit higher. And then a bit more.

And then he tried another wall. And another.

In truth he never got more than eight feet off the ground, but it was a start and more than I could have hoped for.

What was most important was that I could see the fear had left him. The fact that he was now chatting happily to the instructors away from me revealed that he was happy and relaxed. He seemed to enjoy the process of swinging back down to the ground and did it again and again.

And then we came to a new, even more daunting challenge.

It’s called the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and consists of a series of thin, circular, green poles which ascend in height. You walk as high as you can bear and then leap off, putting your faith in the rope attached to your harness.

For most of the session my son was too intimidated to go near the imposing structure. But, close to the end, his fear thawed until the point where he wanted to have a go.

After several attempts he was able to make it to the fifth pole before swinging happily back to the ground.

And then he said.

‘You have a go daddy.’

‘Uh, no. I’m not sure this one’s for me buddy.’

He looked at me.

‘It’s ok daddy. I’ll will be with you all the way. I’ll be right here.’

Oh balls.

Unsteadily I started to scale the steps. My son leapt with joy. After six steps I stopped and gave him the thumbs up. I hoped he would agree I had gone far enough.

‘Keep going daddy! See if you can get to the top!’

Oh balls.

I kept going higher. Soon my legs began to feel weak and my head was swimming. My son was howling with delight far below.

The step onto the highest pole was quite a stretch. My muscles ached as I ascended it with a short leap.

And then I stood, like a live version of Nelson’s Column, surveying all around me. I figured I would just stay up here forever.

And this is where I started this post. With me standing there stupefied on top of a giant green pole and my son dancing happily below.

I could hear him shouting up to me.

‘Daddy, can we come back here another day? It’s awesome!’

And then.

‘Just jump off daddy! Just jump off!’

A lot can go through your mind in a short period of time. I began to think that this is what parenting is, what being a child is, what life is. Gathering the courage to step off the edge even when the voices are telling you not to.

I put one foot out in front, where there was nothing but air.

And then I jumped…….

* Full details available at http://www.highriseni.org

0

Four bottles of gin

It’s busy in the supermarket. Saturday afternoon and the aisles are bustling with shoppers.

I select a checkout queue. My son is with me and wants to load the shopping onto the moving belt. He’s at the stage where he wants to be involved in every part of every process. He insisted on steering the trolley along the aisles and only bumped into a few people.

He starts to unload. One large bottle of gin. A second large bottle of gin. A third large bottle of gin. A fourth, smaller, bottle of gin. Then he moves on to the other items. The potato waffles and coco pops.

We have to wait while the shopper in front is being served. My son finds his voice.

‘Are you going to drink all that tonight daddy?’ he says, unhelpfully.

I picked this checkout because there was only one shopper in front, an older woman who had a small number of items.

But it’s a rookie mistake as she has divided her shopping into three lots which are to be paid for separately. Also she has vouchers which she is trying to find at the bottom of her handbag.

I wait. I may be imagining it but I think there may be the slightest raising of an eyebrow when she notices my son handling the gin bottles.

My son is impatient to get to the front of the queue. This supermarket chain is giving away cards which are used to fill an album with every ten pounds spent.

It’s a brilliant wheeze, targeting children to get parents to spend more money. At one stroke my usual practise of trying to spend as little money as possible has been reversed with my son entreating me to pile more items into the trolley so he can get more of the valuable cards.

Some of the more kindly checkout assistants hand out more packs of cards than they are supposed to and my boy has worked out that if he is with me they are more likely to be sympathetic. While we wait he practises the cute, pleading look he will use when we get to the front.

Then, finally, it is our turn. The checkout worker says hello and begins to scan my shopping. She takes hold of the first bottle of gin and struggles to remove the security tag from the bottle. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.

It’s not even good gin. It’s not one of the sophisticated designer brands which line shelves these days. It’s neither coloured nor flavoured.

In fact it’s the store’s own brand. The writing on the plain label says ‘Basics’. It’s not a good look.

The attendant passes the first bottle to me and begins to work on the second. My discomfort grows. The noise of the security tag being removed seems to echo around the whole cavernous store and I imagine that everyone is looking at me.

I’m packing shopping into a bag which I brought with me. First one bottle, then another, and another. The assistant looks at me and smiles. It’s fine, it’s nobody else’s business and no-one is worried about the contents of my shopping trolley. I start to wonder if employees are trained, or at least instructed, not to comment on the range of items which they are scanning.

Then a thought invades my head. My overactive imagination begins to believe that she knows my wife is working today and that I’m looking after my young son on my own. I have a vision of police calling at my front door because concerns have been raised that a drunk man is in charge of a young child.

I come back to reality and chastise myself for my foolishness. I continue packing. I can feel the reddening at the back of my neck.

And then I crack. Of course I crack because that’s just the way I am.

I begin to talk to her.

‘I know this doesn’t look good but I’m not drinking these.’

She smiles at me.

‘No, I don’t drink at all actually, I gave up alcohol some years ago.’

She keeps smiling and, perhaps, looks a little surprised. I go on.

‘You see I’ve got a little apple tree in my front yard, it’s a crab apple tree. Usually I make jelly but I thought I’d try something different this year.’

She scans another item. I have a sense that everyone in the shop is listening to me. There’s a voice in my head telling me to stop.

‘So I thought I’d have a go at making flavoured liqueur this year. It’s for Christmas presents. I make hampers you see.’

She nods along. My son moves behind me.

‘My wee man and me picked the apples off it this morning. It was a bumper crop, we got two-hundred and thirty four apples. I’ve measured out how much gin I need for the weight of apples I have. That’s why I’ve got the three big bottles and then smaller one….that’s the exact amount of gin I need….I don’t actually drink.’

The checkout assistant’s smile remains fixed. She passes me the last item and then responds for the first time.

‘There was a woman in here the other day. She had lots of bottles in her trolley, she said the same thing.’

I laugh and nod along, although I’m not sure why.

Then she turns to my son and asks him if he’s collecting the hero cards. He says yes and gives her the look he’s been practising. She gives him a large handful of packs of cards. Many more than he’s entitled to.

And then we leave the store. My son is clutching his packs of cards and smiling. I’m clutching my four bottles of gin and am eager to get home.

0

Only when I laugh

I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed good physical health throughout my life.

Which made it all the more unexpected when I recently injured myself.

To be clear from the start, my ailment was minor. I was playing tennis and when stretching for a shot felt a ripping, searing pain travel up the back of my right calf.

‘Oh, that can’t be good,’ I thought immediately. I tried to run the injury off and continue with the game but it became apparent quickly that I could put no weight on that leg and would have to retire.

Soon after I got home my leg started to swell. I was unable to walk that evening and had to travel up and down the stairs by sliding on my backside.

I had an instinctive feeling that I should probably get some medical attention. But I found myself in a strange in-between place. If I had fallen and broken my ankle I would have been taken straight to hospital. But I guessed I had merely torn or sprained a muscle. So what was I to do?

There was the option of going to Accident and Emergency. But previous history has informed me that this is a place only to visit when you are desperate. An A&E visit would have involved being driven into Belfast, triaged and (quite rightly) put at the bottom of the priority list and then waiting several hours and possibly throughout the night to be seen by a doctor.

Another option was to get an appointment with my GP. But again recent history in this area has not been positive. When I’ve phoned on previous occasions seeking an appointment I’ve been told there are none available. Or, to elaborate, the clinic only offers appointments for a set number of weeks in advance. They are all usually all full. As each day passes a new set of appointments open up and are immediately filled by people phoning seconds after the surgery has opened in the morning to get the prized date six weeks later.

It just didn’t seem like a likely solution.

But there was another reason which held me back from pursuing immediate medical help. The idea, in my head, that resources are scarce and that there are many more deserving cases than me. Is it really morally defensible for me to hog a valuable slot with a doctor for something as mundane as a sore leg?

It was the same feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and reluctance which prevented me for many years from seeking help for mental health issues. I waited too long. Much too long.

But, on this evening, as my leg throbbed, I tried to come up with another way. I went online and found that my local health trust had a self-referral physiotherapy service.

Even here I was cautious, not wanting to clog up a system designed for people with more serious problems. But the explanatory notes were clear in stating the service catered for muscle strains, sprains and sports injuries. I filled the form out, explaining, that at that exact moment, I was unable to walk on the leg.

I sent off the online form. Soon I received an email confirming receipt and telling me that my claim would be triaged within eight days.

So I moved on. My wife did an admirable job of bandaging my injured leg. The school run did not cease for my injury so I had a few days of hobbling up and down the main street of the little village where I live to get my boy to the school gates on time.

After a while a huge bruise appeared on my shin. The severe pain eventually gave way to a dull ache and my limp went from severe to moderate to slight.

After a couple of weeks I was able to walk in a fashion which prevented other parents on the school run having to ask me if I needed help.

I knew that I was healing but there was still part of me which thought it was worth getting a medical opinion. Even though I was walking well I knew that any more energetic stretching motion still resulted in sharp pain. Even a light jog remained out of the question and when I massaged the muscles with my fingers the ache became more pronounced. I wanted a reassurance that the healing process was following the right path and advice on how to avoid a similar injury in the future.

Then, seventeen days after I had hurt myself, I got a letter from my health trust. It contained confirmation of my referral and a reference and phone number.

I called the number and the woman at the other end gave me the first available physio appointment at my local hospital. Which was in mid-November.

I had been patient throughout the process, uncomplaining and prepared to wait my turn. But now it occurred to me that by the time I would finally get seen by a qualified professional it would be close to three months since I had hurt myself. I really wanted to be running again and back on the tennis court by then.

My wife suggested, not for the first time, that I should call the private health company to whom we pay money each month.

We’ve been covered by private health insurance for several years. Twice we have gone down this route when my son needed operations for which there were long waiting lists.

On one occasion, when my boy developed a nasty and worrying growth on the back of his neck, we took him to the GP who opened the conversation by asking us if we had private health insurance, such was the potential delay otherwise.

But, even though we paid every month for it, I had never before considered using it for myself.

This is difficult to explain. Perhaps there was some form of latent guilt about me taking a short cut when others are having to suffer and wait.

After much persuasion I made the phone call. I answered lots of questions before I was referred to a private clinic. The clinic phoned me hours later and offered me a physio session early in the morning of the next working day.

On the same day I got the phone call I received a letter from the health trust confirming my November appointment. I made a mental note to be sure to cancel this appointment.

And then, this morning, another letter dropped on the mat in my hall. I was running out of the house to fetch my son from school when I saw it. It was addressed to me and the envelope again bore the name of my local health trust. It looked the same as the letter I had received from them the day previously.

I quickly ripped it open. It contained information that I had been referred to the ear, nose and throat service in a hospital.

I was now late and had no time to examine it further. I drove away confused. How had a leg injury and a physio appointment ended up with me being referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist?

It bugged me all day until I got home and read the letter properly. Now I realised that the letter wasn’t for me at all but for my son who has the same first initial.

But it still didn’t make sense. Why was my son being referred to a hospital specialist? And why did I not know anything about it?

My wife and I searched for an answer. Then, eventually, one presented itself.

When my son was in P1, like all the children, he was examined by the school nurse. She sent a letter home in which she said she thought his hearing should be tested. She told us that she was going to write a letter to his GP about it.

I was unconcerned. I spend a lot of time with my son every day and I’m certain that there is no issue with his hearing. Having said that, if the school nurse believed that it should be checked then I had no problem in going along with it.

Then time passed. A lot of time. I never heard from the nurse again or the GP about the matter. I suppose we forgot all about it. My son continues to grow and I’m as certain now as I was then that there is no issue with his hearing.

But today, a full two years later, a letter had arrived from the health trust about the matter.

I sat down and read it again.

The letter said they had received a referral from his GP.

Then it contained this sentence.

‘We want to reassure you that you have not been overlooked, and regret that it has not been possible to give you a date for your appointment.’

The letter was accompanied by a reply form asking us if we still wanted to proceed with an appointment. There was also an addressed envelope, with no postage paid.

I was a little bemused. I thought about what was happening.

Two years just to receive a letter from the hospital informing my son that he has not been overlooked.

I hobbled up the stairs, my leg was throbbing again, but I hardly noticed it now.

1

The quiet one

I had my first conversation with my son’s new teacher today.

Actually, it couldn’t really be described as a conversation. My boy had forgotten to put his lunchbox and homework folder in his schoolbag and we had to return to the school gate to collect them. While he ran into the classroom I stood there making a stilted attempt to communicate with his teacher.

‘How’s he settling in?’ I asked, because that’s what a parent says to a teacher.

‘He’s settling really well,’ she replied automatically, giving the impression that this is the stock answer to something she gets asked a lot. And then, almost as an afterthought, she added ‘He’s very quiet.’

I felt the familiar sting of defensiveness. A lot of thoughts went through my mind, things I could say to her.

How I could tell her that he’s not in the least bit quiet or reserved, how he never stops talking and laughing, how his imagination and creativity drains my reserves of energy every day, how I’m often left dazzled and awed by the rate of his development.

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t because I have to recognise that the little boy that I see, that I spend most of my time every day with, is not the same little boy she sees. How, to her, he is just one in a room full of children. And how she can only go on what she witnesses.

So instead I just nodded my head and mumbled.

‘Aye, it takes time for him to come out of himself when he meets someone new.’

I left the encounter feeling slightly troubled that I had not expressed myself quite the way that I should have. How I should have supported him more robustly.

It is one of the running jokes among the parents on the school run about how little our children tell us of what goes on in the classroom. How on a daily basis we malign the absence of clear communication about the mysteries that occur when that bell rings.

Now a new thought occurs to me. Maybe the children are the wisest. Maybe it’s best that we are kept out of it. Perhaps there are parts of the processes of socialisation that a parent really doesn’t want to see.

Just before my chat with the teacher I had been watching my son take part in his first tennis class. I signed him up last week and then spent the time in between fretting over whether he was ready. Would he be able to mix and adapt? Rather pathetically I had even taken him into the back garden the night before and attempted to demonstrate a rudimentary forehand and backhand.

The situation today was novel. The arrangement was that the tennis teacher would pick the children up from their classroom and bring them to the all-weather pitch where small tennis nets had been erected.

I was worried about this. It was the first time ever that my little boy had not been picked up from the classroom by a family member. And no matter how many times he had assured me that he was comfortable with the arrangement, I still feared something would go wrong.

So when it came to time for tennis I found myself loitering halfway between the pitch and the classroom, as if I somehow feared that he would slip through the cracks and end up in an in-between purgatory.

I relaxed a little when I saw him among the line of children being led onto the pitch. But just a little.

The early signs were promising. He laughed during the warm-up exercises and seemed engaged by the instructions of the coaches.

It began to rain. I realised, as the drips ran down my nose, that I was the only parent who had come to watch the tennis lesson. 

When the children were split into smaller groups I noticed something unusual about my son’s appearance. Of course he had food over his jumper (like every day) and was wearing his coat inside out (as he often does) but there was something else. I noticed that he had his trousers on back to front. I was confused for a second until I remembered that today is PE and in P3 the children change themselves into their sports gear and back into uniform.

I felt a parental stab of anguish about how my boy would ever cope on his own in the big world.

The children then played a game of Stick in the Mud. As the other kids ran around manically my boy stood confused for a second. I felt the stab again. Then he seemed to grasp the point of the game and joined in. But, to my eyes, he seemed to lack the conviction and confidence of the other boys. Occasionally he would glance in my direction for reassurance.

Soon the coaches paired the children and asked them to gently throw a tennis ball towards each other and try to catch it. I winced every time the ball sailed through my son’s grasp.

Then they moved onto using little racquets to hit the ball back and forward over a low net.

I saw the boy who had been paired with my son tell him to put his racquet down. My boy, ever passive, meekly complied. Then the other boy walloped the ball to the other end of the court and sent my son scuttling after it like a ball boy.

I burned with indignation and had to fight off the urge to invade the court. Then one of the coaches saw what was happening and gently encouraged my little boy to lift up the racquet again. Soon he was happily swinging the racquet at the ball. Sometimes he made contact. On a couple of occasions he even got the ball over the net.

Each time he swung the racquet I jumped up, in the rain, on my own, and shouted encouragement, telling him that he was brilliant.

As the session drew to a close some of the other parents arrived. The children lined up and were released once more into our care. My son ran to me and I drowned him in a massive embrace. He jumped up and down.

Then he told me, with a giggle, that the zip seemed to have fallen off his trousers. Then we realised that he’d forgotten his lunchbox and homework and we had to go and see the teacher.

Soon we were driving home. I was thinking again about what the teacher said about him being quiet. He had not stopped talking to me for more than ten minutes since I picked him up.

‘Daddy,’ he blurted out excitedly. ‘I never realised tennis was so easy. I can’t wait to go back next week.’

Later in the day I thought about this. Maybe this sums up adolescence. Finding simplicity in complicated things.

It’s the other way around for the nervous parent. Everything seems arduous, every journey of development has to traverse a minefield.

He may be the quiet one, the least confident, but when, like today, I see the joy in his little face I realise that it doesn’t bother him. He’s more comfortable in his skin than I am.

I will worry about him for every second of every day for the rest of my life. That’s the role of the parent. And I’m more than happy to soak up all the trauma while he has all the fun. After all, my shoulders are bigger than his.

0

Sleep, interrupted

Getting to sleep is not a problem, it never has been. There’s usually a pleasing weariness in my mind, bones and muscles at nighttime, a satisfaction and relief that I’ve made it through another day. I might try to read but I never get more than a few pages before the words begin to swim and my drowsy eyelids become like lead. 

Then I sleep. Usually one of the last things that goes through my exhausted brain is a hope that I can make it through until the morning and the comfort of daylight.

Sometimes I do, but often I fall short.

I wake suddenly and am afraid. I’m unsure of my surroundings and am anxious for a moment that there’s an intruder in the room. There’s not, apart from the unwelcome one inside my own skull.

I sit up and check the time. I’ve been asleep for less than two hours but my previous enervation is now a distant memory. I’m utterly alert and I know that rest is far away now. My wife and son are dozing in the bed beside me. It’s so dark that I can’t see them but I’m aware of their presence, I can sense their breathing. I’m terrified.

I go through the routine. A visit to the toilet, making sure the lights are turned off in the other rooms, checking the news and sport headlines on my phone. Then I return to bed and put my head on the pillow again. I squeeze my eyes tight as if that may force sleep closer. I turn onto my back, then my side. Then my back again.

I know that the attack is not far away and I try everything I can to divert it. But the workings of the mind can flow like a great river which is impossible to divert. The thoughts come. Why am I not good enough? Why do I mess up everything I do? Wouldn’t it be better if I wasn’t here?

Then the process starts to deepen, giving substance to the abstract. I’m not making enough money. I’ve failed in my career. I’m a terrible father and husband. I can’t accomplish any task. Everyone would be happier if I wasn’t here. The conclusions are the same as before.

My breathing is irregular now, short and panicked. My guts are churning. Twisting. A physical manifestation of what goes on in my brain. There’s a tremble in my fingers under the blanket and a line of sweat on my spine. It’s the normality of this which is the most terrifying thing, the fact that every day is followed by a night.

There’s no reason I understand why existence should be so much harder in the dark, why problems are magnified and I’m infested with self-loathing. But that’s just how it is. Not always, but often. Take away the comfort of the day and its routines and I’m left naked, in this primal state. I worry that this is the real me, when the insulation of civilisation is stripped away. Pathetic and afraid. 

I turn over again and again. Towards my family, towards the ceiling, towards the wall. Hours can pass like this. If I could just sleep it would be over, but the more I will it the further away it seems. It feels like I will never sleep again.

Sometimes I might go downstairs and watch telly, or read my phone, or, like tonight, compose a story. A story about exactly what goes on in my mind after midnight. That way, when I write about it, I take back control of the narrative, remind myself that however rogue my thought processes become, they are still part of me. And I’m worth something.

Eventually I get my breathing under control. The short, hurried gasps are replaced by long sweeping inhalations and exhalations. In through the nose, out through the mouth, just like I’ve been taught. I start to fill my mind with things of my choice. Tonight I do counting, not any specific object, but just bald numbers. Counting higher and higher. I’m able to lie still now.

I’m not sure if it’s still the same night or the next morning when I eventually lose any sense of myself again. I don’t know if I’m sleeping but I must be because my mind seems empty now and my limbs feel weightless. The rest is as welcome as rain on a parched field.

It’s not very long before my son is stirring beside me. And when he’s up, that means I’m awake again. He climbs over me, eager to meet the day head on. He has no experience which tells him that such challenges should be met with caution, eased into.

I get up and make his breakfast and a cup of tea for my wife. I sit beside him while he spills Rice Krispies on the sofa. I think about what needs to be done. Get him washed and dressed. The school run. Catch up with work. Write down the story from last night about not being able to sleep. Pick him up from school. Make dinner.

There’s plenty to do. Before I begin I take a moment to myself, consider how I’m feeling about the day. Then I push ahead with it because the routine is what drives us forward. It’s inescapable.

And so is the fact that tonight, or tomorrow, or soon, I will have another sleepless night. The maggot worries will swarm all over me again. I will feel the despondency and the sense that I don’t deserve to exist anymore will be keen.

And I will suffer. And then it will pass and I will move on, as before. When the dark is at its most absolute I will keep telling myself that the next morning always comes. The sun always rises again.