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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.

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Family and the ring pull

The house is quiet. Unusually so. My wife is at work and my son, my regular companion and sparring partner, is visiting his grandparents.

I use the free time to catch up with work, moving at pace to squeeze tasks which have been hanging over me for days into a few spare hours. I keep going, automatically, until the long to-do list has been thinned out to a state which is manageable, not too daunting.

I sit back and realise that I’m hungry. It’s afternoon and I haven’t eaten yet today. I move into the kitchen and check the cupboards, without enthusiasm or vigour. There’s not much there. The acrid smell of yesterday’s burnt toast hangs around the room like an uninvited guest who just doesn’t take the hint that you want to go to bed. I decide to go for a walk.

The day is grey and blustery, with the occasional short burst of sunshine – just long enough for a seed of optimism to plant in my stomach, before it disappears. I walk along the country road, studying the splats of dried chewing gum and the flies crawling over a hardened dog turd on the dark asphalt of the footpath.

Then I spot a metallic glint on the ground. I move towards it and lean over. It’s an old-fashioned ring pull. A glimpse back into my youth when the small circles and detachable strips of metal from the top of aluminium cans were as ubiquitous as the dog poo and the chewing gum. I have a fuzzy recollection of an anti-litter campaign when I was at primary school which involved all of the pupils picking up as many ring pulls from the ground as we could manage. I remember going into class carrying a plastic bag which was bulging with the items.

I bend over to take a photograph of the ring pull on the footpath. I’m not sure why, perhaps it has stirred some juvenile memory or an emotion from another time. The ring pull is surprisingly clean and has not sunk into the tarmac. It can be easily moved with the end of my shoe, which suggests it has come to rest on this spot only recently.

One of my neighbours walks past just as I’m crouched, capturing the image of the ground. She casts a quizzical look and I hurriedly stand upright. I search desperately for a good conversation opener and Look, I’ve found an old ring pull just seems weird.

In the end I mumble something about it being a Quare drying day. My neighbour nods and hurries on as I feel my cheeks begin to redden.

I continue to walk but, annoyingly, my mind is not quite ready to leave the ring pull behind just yet. I estimate that detachable ring pulls were phased out from cans of fizzy drinks and beers in the mid 1980s in favour of a more environmentally friendly design. This means that the most likely scenario is that this ring pull has been lying around as waste somewhere for the best part of three decades. Perhaps swept into the dark corners for years before a curious dog or magpie dislodged then discarded it on the footpath for me to discover. I’m fascinated by the persistence of the object, how it can casually re-emerge after such a stretch of time. Countries, civilisations and economic systems have tottered and collapsed in those decades but the tenacious ring pull is still here.

Eventually I realise that I’ve walked for several miles, much further than I had planned. My feet are sore and I’m still hungry, the ache in my stomach weakening my limbs and suffocating fresh thought from my mind. I head towards the village.

There’s another physical force at work as well. I need the bathroom. I walk up the steep hill and soon begin to regret that I choose to wear jeans rather than shorts. There’s a thin film of sweat on my back and stomach and it feels like rolls of sticky tape have been tightly wound around my legs. There is dampness in the spaces between my toes.

Eventually I find a public toilet. Usually I try to avoid facilities such as this but my need, on this occasion, is urgent. I keep my mouth tight closed as I enter the dank, stale room. The toilet bowl reminds me of the scene where Ewan McGregor goes for a swim at the start of Trainspotting. I roll toilet paper around my hand and move forward tentatively to raise the seat.

But I have forgotten the pair of sunglasses that are hanging from the neck of my shirt. Sunglasses which I left there earlier when I was still optimistic for a sunny day. As I lean forward the glasses slip off the front of my shirt and drop, with an almost soundless splash, into the toilet bowl.

I stand there staring. I have an urge to leave the glasses and flee, but this seems like a socially irresponsible action, the sort of thing I would scowl others for. Eventually I bite down on my own pride and thrust my right hand into the bowl, snatching the glasses quickly like a bear grabbing a salmon and then hastily retreating.

I discard the sunglasses into the bin and then spend several minutes scrubbing my right hand while simultaneously making a mental note that it can never again be used for any useful task for the rest of my life.

Soon I’m away from the toilet and I find a cafe. I order and eat a sandwich (with my left hand), and the food begins to make me feel more comfortable.

I relax in my chair, sipping coffee and pondering that I spend way too much of my time and money eating out. All at once I realise that I miss my wife and son.

It’s not that I’m lonely or even bored. It’s fine being on your own but it all just seems so much more fun when you have someone to share your stories with.

My son is having a sleepover tonight but I’m already looking forward to the big hug I’ll get when I pick him up tomorrow. Then I’ll put him in the car seat beside me and tell him all about the sunglasses and the toilet. I know he’ll laugh helplessly and his little cheeks will turn red with delight. Then as soon as I finish he’ll bark Daddy, tell me again and I’ll have to go over the same story, again and again until he is satisfied. He will laugh on each occasion, as if hearing it for the first time, and listen intently to each word, pulling me up if I change the smallest detail between versions or tell it slightly differently.

I finish my coffee and pay my bill. As I’m leaving the cafe I decide to book a table in a restaurant for my wife and I tonight. There’s no particular occasion, just the opportunity to sit down together and have a proper conversation.

We’ll face each other across the table, open a bottle of wine and hold hands. Our eyes will meet….and then I’ll begin to tell her all about the ring pull.

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Capturing the moment

A lovely afternoon spent at Barry’s amusements in Portrush,

After initial misgivings our son is persuaded onto the water chute ride by mummy.

The joy on their faces tells the story better than words ever can.

Daddy has just one job. Capture the happy expressions on video as a reminder of a memorable day.

How hard could it be?

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The death of The Dark Hedges

When I was a child the local newspaper which was always in my house was the Coleraine Chronicle, a great smudged beast of a broadsheet which seemed to come in multiple sections and featured countless black and white photographs of serious men in flat caps and wellies ploughing fields.

For many, many years a column called ‘Watt’s About’ appeared in The Chronicle. It was penned by legendary north Antrim troubadour John Watt, popularly known as ‘The Singing Farmer’. A larger than life character who roamed the local towns and villages making friends and writing songs about the environment he knew.

The premise of Watt’s column was that he would weave his way around the countryside on a vintage Massey Ferguson 135 tractor encountering well-known characters along the way and relating his adventures to the readers.

My memory is notoriously unreliable but, to the best of my recollection, the column often started with the words ‘I happened to be passing…..’

It was clearly hokum, but pleasing nonetheless, the idea that all of these ‘yarns’ were being communicated purely by chance to this wandering minstrel. It is my earliest memory of journalism and it still makes me smile.

So in tribute to John Watt….

I happened to be passing The Dark Hedges near the lovely little village of Stranocum this morning.

The Dark Hedges will be familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones and regular readers of my blog (roughly the same size of audience I assume).

Last year I wrote about The Dark Hedges (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/04/the-dark-hedges-and-aunt-rosetta/), the haunting, ancient beech trees which captivate visitors from around the world. I related how, long before Game of Thrones made the road famous, my great, great aunt Rosetta McCambridge, ran a shop at the site.

I wanted to know more and the answers duly arrived. Renowned local journalist Lyle McMullan was able to tell me that the shop closed in 1971 because dear old Rosetta, then in her 90s, was unable to cope with the new decimal currency. Her photograph featured on page one of the Belfast Telegraph a full 30 years before my name made it onto the front of the same paper.

Another correspondent told me how she had grown up calling the area ‘McCambridge Corner’.

So, as I said, I happened to be passing (ahem) The Dark Hedges this morning when I decided to stop for a look. Despite growing up less than two miles from the road I had not been there in several years.

It was before 10am on a Monday morning but already a crowd of roughly 100 people had gathered at the trees. I heard American and Australian accents and speakers of French, Spanish and what I assumed was Japanese.

There are now signs which forbid cars from traveling on the road lined by the Dark Hedges trees but, curiously for what is now marketed as an international tourist attraction, no advice for motorists on where they actually can park.

The trees themselves remain an impressive and daunting sight. But looking at something which used to be so familiar for the first time in years, I was left with the impression that it is not as stirring as it once was.

For a start, a small number of the trees have fallen, finally defeated by years of being battered by strong winds. I expected this. More of a surprise was the state of those still standing. Most seemed to have lost major branches, with only ragged stumps protruding like broken teeth. I’m far from an expert on trees but several of the grand old beeches looked like they were also on the verge of toppling.

The overall effect from distance is changed. The branches once joined together to create an eerie patchwork above the road. Now, it is pocked by imperfections and holes.

Perhaps this is all to be expected. The trees are old, and like all living things, they will eventually die. Natural conditions have taken a heavy toll on The Dark Hedges.

But I was also left wondering if unnatural forces are at work here as well. I stayed at the road for no more than ten minutes but, while I was there, I saw six cars drive through along the route. The signs which prevent traffic are clearly not enforced, and therefore impotent. To take the trouble to ban traffic and then allow it to proceed unmolested seems to be some form of tokenism.

Worse followed. I saw two separate groups of youths who were attempting to climb the trees. My instinct was to be annoyed at the action, but, as there are no signs or personnel to forbid it, then why would they not?

It’s hardly scientific but if this ten minutes early on a Monday morning is replicated across the weeks, months and years, then cars will be driving through the Dark Hedges and pedestrians climbing them on an almost constant basis.

Of course you could argue that cars were on the Dark Hedges road for many decades and the trees were often scaled without mishap before now. That is true, but the volume of visitors to the site now has grown to a level which could never have been anticipated. And that must have an impact.

I left very quickly with a feeling of unease, a feeling that what was once constant was now in flux. A sense that a lot of change has occurred in a short period of time, a persistent doubt that the will is there to do anything to stop the steady destruction of one of the most strikingly beautiful natural formations in the local environment.

Yes, I happened to be passing. I wish I hadn’t.

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Putting the pieces back together

We’re on the sea, somewhere between Ballycastle and Rathlin Island, when the weather changes. I can’t describe a definite point when this happens, it just slips smoothly over us. At one point the waters are calm and we’re congratulating ourselves on the wise decision to wear shorts and T-shirts, but soon it’s windy and cold and we’re pulling on jumpers and fleeing from the exposed upper deck of the little ferry.

It’s Sunday on Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island, and we head straight for the play park. My wife and I take turns pushing our son high on the swings. Then I rock the seesaw fast so that he’s half-delighted, half-terrified. While he’s moving up and down haphazardly he yelps ‘Daddy, stop! I’m scared’, but as soon as the movement ceases he pleads for me to do it again.

It reminds me how fine the line is between being afraid and something else and I think briefly about the anxiety I’ve been suffering this week. I wrote about it in a previous blog (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2018/08/02/falling-to-pieces-again/). Since I published the post I’ve been comforted and astonished by the outpouring of goodwill and empathy which has flowed in my direction. Some from family, some from friends, most from people whom I’ve never met. Don’t believe those who try and insist that human nature is instinctively cruel and unsympathetic, that’s not my experience.

I’m a lot better today, otherwise I wouldn’t even be able to countenance a family outing. There is still anxiety, nesting in my chest and refusing to go away, but I’ve got it under some sort of control.

I never pretend to have all, or even any, of the answers but a day out in a place I love with the people I love seems to give me as good a chance of some peace as anything.

So here we are on Rathlin, just for a few hours, so we try to do lots of things for a short time. A spell in the park, a walk on the rocky beach with the grey sand and the rusty anchor, a dander along the narrow road which winds up the hill away from the bay.

Rathlin is a curious mix of old and new, the charm of a community cut off from society combined with the recent realisation of the tourism potential of the site. Now you see rotting wooden fishing boats alongside brightly coloured jet-skis. There is much new development on the island but also many ancient cars and tractors covered with a layer of light dust which have not been disturbed in years. It’s the only place where I’ve a car with a floral window box growing happily attached to the door.

There are fat, lazy seals lying stretched out near the port. A pleasing cafe sells very bad coffee balanced out by very good cake. There’s an abundance of sea and land birds. The rare, nostalgic call of the corncrake has been heard on the island recently, although the shy bird is hardly likely to put in an appearance while my son is noisily snapping around my heels complaining that his legs are tired and begging to be lifted.

Like I said, we squeeze a lot into a short period of time and there’s a pleasing weariness in our limbs as we sit on a large rock and wait for the ferry to slide into the harbour to bring us back to the mainland. When you watch it at sea from afar it seems barely to be moving at all. I’m in no rush.

As I sit here on the dark rock I realise that my anxiety has gone. For the first time in six days I become aware the spasms of tension coursing from my stomach to my chest have stopped. I’m completely relaxed and content. For now anyway.

I try to think about it, to recollect the exact moment when the fear left me and the world seemed to become benign once more. But I can’t do it. It’s so gradual and intuitive that the change slips over me without being noticed. Just like the weather on the stretch of water between Ballycastle and Rathlin.

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Falling to pieces (again)

It’s the middle of the day and I’m lying on top of the bed, curled up as if I’m a foetus in the womb. It’s a defensive position which is not working. Fear is all over me like a rash.

To be specific I feel it in my chest and stomach, spasms of anxiety which rise out of my gut and seep into my limbs. I watch my hands tremble. It’s like I’ve taken a bad drug and I just can’t get it out of my system.

I’m terrified that someone might call at the door, or send an email or a text. I can hear my mobile buzzing in the next room and the noise unnerves me even more. I just can’t deal with human contact now. I’m not really capable of rational thought either, emotions are crushing any attempt at logic. But, as I bury my head in the pillow, there’s the beginning of an attempt at understanding. A question. How have I ended up back here again?

It’s been some time since I’ve written about mental health issues on this blog. That’s been quite deliberate. This forum was never set up as a voyeuristic glimpse into the workings of a troubled mind. Rather it’s a medium for me to write about what is currently going on in my life and I’ve been enjoying a long period of stability and contentment. Enjoying the responsibilities of looking after my young son.

For more than a year I’ve felt my old confidence and authority flooding back. I’ve been able to take on more professional tasks and balanced them with domestic duties. I’ve been sleeping and eating properly and even found myself looking towards the future with hope. Making plans. Perhaps I put too much faith in my defences and assumed that the road would always be straight and flat. Just this morning I was thinking it was going to be a very good day.

So what happened? Well, it’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was merely the tone of voice of someone at the other end of the phone? Maybe a plan that did not turn out quite as I’d hoped? Possibly just a change in the weather?

The point is not the trigger, but the reaction. And how drastically out of proportion it is, how easily I can be destabilised. How the mud that other people are able to shake off without a second thought when it is thrown by life sticks to me and burns deep into my skin.

And it all falls apart from there, the old demons rushing back into the vacuum and paralysing me with terror, attacking again and again until soon I’ve got no idea what set them off in the first place. I just have to try to cope today, not to ask why.

I attempt to distract myself with work but the words on the flickering white computer screen are swimming and I can’t find order in them today. Plus I feel worse when I’m sitting upright, the weight on my chest is like an ache that won’t go away. The crippling anxiety sends dizzying, multiple thoughts crashing around the interior of my brain at a frightening speed. I feel out of control and I need to move elsewhere in the search for relief.

I try to make a coffee but this only reinforces the scale of the tremble in my hands as I pour the boiling water from the kettle. I can’t bear to look at them and I walk into the back yard. The house and garden are quiet, my son is staying with family members for a few hours, ironically a well-intentioned attempt to give me some peace and quiet to work.

Toys are scattered in the little paved area at the back of my house. There’s a brightly coloured basketball and plastic hoop at the top of a thick pole, a set designed for young children to learn the basics of the game. I lift the ball and begin to bounce it on the hard tiles. There’s something pleasing in the dull hollow repetitive smack of plastic on stone. Then I throw it towards the hoop. I miss. I recover the ball and try again. Once more I miss. My shaking hands are not helping but soon I’ve got myself into a rhythm of throwing. And missing.

I invent a game where I challenge myself to get better. I take ten throws and see how many times I can score a basket. Three at first, then four, then six and eventually seven. I try for what seems like a long time but seven seems to be my limit. I’m certainly not Michael Jordan but as I line up each throw the outcome takes on an importance in my mind beyond that of the NBA championship.

It begins to rain but I keep going until the drops of precipitation are mixed with my perspiration. Hundreds of times I take the little plastic ball and hurl it towards the hoop. Until. Until eventually I score eight and, rather pathetically, in the rain and in the middle of a sea of toys, I clench my fist and let out a deep gasp of satisfaction.

I go back inside, noticing for the first time that the tremble in my hands has disappeared. But I’m not naive enough to think I’ve been able to cure myself with a game of basketball. Within minutes I can feel the anxiety beginning to return like the persistent crow who won’t leave the crops alone. I know from my experience that an episode like this will take several days to overcome.

I go to pick up my son. With him I have to use every part of my knowledge and guile to disguise that there is anything wrong, determined to keep my inadequacies hidden. We play an imaginary, improvised game where he is a superhero and I’m a villain. This ends with him repeatedly banging me over the head with a foam replica of Thor’s hammer. It’s such a clunky metaphor for the day that I’m enduring that I start laughing, each thump on the skull pushing me further into a state of helpless mirth.

Soon it’s time to make dinner and I force myself to concentrate on the task. Then my wife comes home from work. I’ve already told her I’m suffering and she brings me a little present, a turquoise armband bearing the word HOPE in white letters. It’s a distraction tool, something to remind me that there’s always a better day coming soon. It also works on the level of providing the comfort of just knowing that there are people who care about me.

The truth is that the armband will not change my life. Nor will playing a basketball game in the rain or getting bumped on the head by Thor’s hammer. But together it’s just about enough to get me through the day.

In the evening the blanket of anxiety is still over me, making it difficult to concentrate on the TV or to unwind and slow my breathing enough to be able to sleep. The truth is that it will probably be like this for a while. And then it will pass and I’ll return to my state of easy contentment, wondering why I allowed myself to get into such a state in the first place. I’ve been through it before and come out the other side. That’s just the way it is and there’s no room for complacency in this battle.

So I do what I usually do, which is to write about it. Not as some sort of cry for help or to present myself as a suitable subject for pity. But rather because that’s just what I do, whether it’s a good day or bad, trying to meet it face to face with the same level of honesty. That’s the point of the bog, striving to make sense out of all the confusion and mess.

I’ll write another post soon, hopefully it will be a bit brighter, filled with my characteristic bad jokes. But there will inevitably be another blog to be written about depression and anxiety. It might be next week, or in six months or six years. We’ll see.

But when it comes I’ll meet it head on and do whatever I have to do to cope. My brain puts me in this position, but it’s also what I have to use to get me out of it. Plus I have my wonderful wife and son to help me. And, just in case I ever forget, I just need to look at my arm to remind myself that there is always HOPE.

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Ryan’s Toy Review

My little boy wakes early this morning. He rubs his tired blue eyes, looks around and smiles at me. Then he crawls across the bed into my waiting arms. He puts his mouth to my ear and whispers.

‘Daddy, can you put Ryan on?’

It’s a vague request but one that I, and every other parent in the developed world will instantly recognise. It’s time for the most jarring five words in the English language.

‘Welcomes to Ryan’s Toy Review!’ (that’s not a typo, that’s really the way he says it).

First, for the uninitiated, some background. Ryan is a cute little American boy who launched his own YouTube channel in 2015 (presumably with some help). The premise is simple – the videos show him playing with an array of toys. Sounds annoying but harmless? Well, people said that about Donald Trump once. According to Wikipedia Ryan is now earning close to $1m dollars a month and has been viewed more than 23 billion times. His Ryan’s World brand has seven spin-off channels and he features in his own cartoon and now even has his own toy range (there’s a special place in hell reserved for Combo Panda).

A review from Ryan can make or break the prospects of a corporation’s new game, figure or gadget.

Where once he just played with toys now kids can watch him eat, exercise or provide commentary on video games. Most details of his daily life are now broadcast. Ryan has the third most viewed You Tube channel of all time. He is seven-years-old.

As his videos started to become insanely successful, Ryan’s mother and father quickly started to make regular appearances, throwing themselves into zany tasks while wearing ‘you can’t judge us, we’re milliionaires because of this!’ expressions on their faces. Apparently mum has quit her job as a chemistry teacher and actually tries to convince that she’s having fun. Dad however, lumbers around firing water pistols while looking as happy as a sea-lion that’s been told there’s no such thing as tuna flavoured ice-cream.

As a parent I’m tolerant of most things which exist in the juvenile world. Ryan, it has to be remembered, despite his ubiquitous profile, is still just a little boy. But, I must confess, the naked, untrammelled commercialisation of the brand makes me squeamish. My son watches it for entertainment, but there is always something for sale and the patter is never subtle. That’s the world we live in. It’s difficult to put the cork back on the bottle of rampant capitalism and possibly pointless to complain about it.

Buy I can’t deny Ryan’s success. His videos are one of the few things that my son will give his entire, undivided attention towards. We had a fight this morning which ended with him in tears because I wouldn’t let him take the iPad into the bathroom so he could watch Ryan while sitting on the toilet. Rather than go without, he eventually decided he didn’t need the toilet anymore.

Perhaps that’s the reason for the success of the You Tube generation. They realised quicker than others that young minds are just as happy to watch someone else take part in an activity than to do it themselves. Outsource it all.

I’ve forced myself to watch a few Ryan videos. They’re not well made and possess no wit or compelling narrative. Watching Ryan and his father playing a video game together while giggling conspiratorially is an experience I find utterly inane and excruciating. I imagine anyone watching me interact with my own son would express the same sentiments.

But it doesn’t matter what I think. Ryan’s Toy Review has a hold over my son.

So now I decide to do something different. Rather than judging harshly through my adult eyes, I should try to understand through his. I cuddle alongside my son as his eyes bore a hole in the little iPad screen. I put my arm around him and try to watch.

‘Why buddy,’ I begin, ‘do you like Ryan so much?’

At first he doesn’t react. I’m not sure he’s heard me. I try again.

‘Hey buddy, I was just wondering if you could tell me why you like Ryan so much.’

This time he fires a severe glance in my direction, eyes burning with indignation.

‘Shush daddy! Can’t you see I’m watching this?’

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The duck pond

As a general rule I find in life that it’s best not to overcomplicate things.

Thus, on a lazy Sunday morning, with mummy away for the weekend, I decide to stick with what I know works. Taking my wee man to the lake to feed the ducks and enjoy a gentle summer stroll.

The lake is one of our favourite places, a haven for walkers who circumnavigate the large pond with dogs at the end of leads in one hand and little purple plastic bags full of excrement in the other. We don’t have a dog but we do have an abundance of stale bread and bagels slightly past their use by date.

We arrive to find an array of rather nasty looking dark-grey geese patrolling the entrance to the lake like nightclub bouncers. I hide the bread behind my back and my son begins to lose his nerve. We both agree to approach the water from a side entrance where we can slip in without the geese asking us for ID.

But while the front of the lake has a convenient clearing, the side path is populated by many trees blocking easy access to the water. I manoeuvre myself as close to the edge as I can get while maintaining solid footing and lob a lump of bread towards the pond. It lands on the high branch of a  large tree and remains wedged there.

My son looks at me blankly.

I’m appalled by the sense of waste and decide to try and dislodge the bread by throwing more lumps of bread in its direction. Half a loaf later and I still haven’t moved the original bit of bread, but several more are now wedged in the branches.

I look around and notice a small crowd of people has gathered to watch me. My son has wandered away and seems to be pretending that another man is his daddy. And a flock of ducks are waiting impatiently in the water.

We walk a little further around the pond until we find a better spot. I check with my son that he still has the stale bread I’ve given him. He doesn’t. When I inquire it emerges that he’s eaten it. I mentally begin to prepare myself for the question from my wife when she gets home about what I fed our son while she was away.

As we lob more bread into the water I notice that most of it is being snatched by aggressive seagulls, bold geese and the larger and faster ducks. I spot a small, sad duck, the runt of the group, at the periphery who is being crowded out of the feeding frenzy. I feel sorry for it, perhaps finding some kinship and empathy in the familiar difficulty of fitting in with the popular crowd.

I hatch my plan and wait until he’s floated off on his own. I move into the longer grass to get close. Then I hurl a solid piece of stale crust flat and hard in its direction, almost as if I was skimming a stone.

I want the bread to get to him before any larger birds can move it.

Instead the rock-like lump of crust wallops the tiny duck hard on the head. It swims around vacantly while a seagull swoops down and gobbles the bread. The little duck seems confused and I find myself looking for signs of permanent brain damage.

I decide we’d better move on.

As we cross the little tin bridge my son notices a green blanket on the surface of the water and asks me about it. It could be algae, spawn or some other form of pond growth. I’ve no idea but I opt for saying that it’s algae.

My son tells me, ‘It looks like that time I was sick.’

I have to admit I can see what he means.

As our walk nears its end our stash of shop-bought bread has been exhausted. Instead I turn to the gluten-free superfood seed loaf that I baked myself. I’m heartbroken to be throwing it away but have to admit that human demand for my home-baked bread was slim.

Here there’s a flock of hungry swans. They’re so ravenous that they look like they might eat each other. I break off small bits of the dense loaf and throw it into the water where they are swimming.

The swans circle the bread, poking at it with their beaks. Then, after a moment, they begin to swim away.

One gives me a look which seems to say ‘Nah, you’re alright mate.’

At first I’m a little hurt but I soon come round to the wisdom of the swans’ logic. Bread thrown into the water floats. My home-baked loaf bobs about for a second or two before sinking to the bottom like a liner hit by a torpedo.

We play adventure games in the woods for a while. When my son asks to be carried I decide it’s time to go home. We’re both flushed with the exercise and looking forward to enjoying the rest of the day.

As I said, it’s best not to overcomplicate things.