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.

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The allotment 

You can’t relive your life through your children and shouldn’t try.

It’s daddy’s First Law of Keeping your Sanity.

1. Push an adolescent too hard in one direction and they’ll surely end up going the opposite way.

And it’s not the 1970s anyway.

My son’s childhood experiences bear as much relevance to mine as an ironing board does to German measles.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t try and give them a little nudge now and again.

I grew up in a farming environment. There were no other kids within miles of our remote house on the top of a hill.

There were fewer attractions to being indoors then and less fear of what was outside.

My brother and I would often disappear into the fields and barns which served as our hideouts in the early morning and often not appear back until it was feeding time at night.

Nobody sent out any search parties.

Our currency was mud.

Mud seeping over the tops of our wellies, marrying together the bruises on our legs.

Imprinting itself so deep in the lines of our hands and fingers that you wondered if it would ever come off.

There were always animals about, or crops growing in a nearby field.

You ate blackberries straight off the bush.

One of my earliest childhood memories is walking through the fields with my uncle as he carried a shotgun, blasting crows out of the sky to keep them from the crops.

I missed the party on the day of my First Holy Communion because I was driving a tractor for my da.

As I said, it’s not the 1970s anymore.

My son grows up in a world of suburban comfort, filled with experiences designed to assist his development.

Even though he’s an only child he has so much contact with his young peers that he may soon need a PA just to organise his social schedule.

He has shown no interest in the provenance of food.

And why would he in a world dominated by giant supermarkets and plastic wrappers? Where blood and offal are thought of as something which belongs in a horror film, rather than the natural order of life.

He can sit on the sofa munching sausages while he watches Peppa Pig without any obvious sign of awkwardness.

I’ve taken him to an open farm a couple of times.

But when I ask him what’s his favourite bit he inevitably responds ‘the bouncy castle’.

I really don’t think he’s getting the authentic experience.

So I was a little unsure this week when I tried him with a new adventure.

The allotment.

I’m very lucky in that my da has his own allotment. He is virtually self-sufficient in fruit and veg with plenty left over for me.

But in order to get my son to the allotment we first have to go to my Da’s house.

And that means the distraction of Uncle Giggie’s computer.

It’s easy enough to get my boy excited about going to what is essentially a big field. It’s just about judging how long you have before the novelty wears off.

The day is dull and damp.

I put his wellies on.

Wellies today are no longer black. They’re bright colours with cartoon characters emblazoned on the sides.

The day when my son came to me crying and said ‘Daddy, there’s mud on my wellies!’ was, I think, the day when I realised the world had moved on and left me behind.

We arrive at the field. My da, me, uncle Giggie and my son.

A quick game of hide and seek breaks the ice for him.

Then we’re at the plot.

I know the trick.

Get him involved. Get him to take ownership.

He helps my da to pull cauliflowers, beetroots and corguettes. To cut rhubarb.

We get him to hold the fork and turn over some soft soil, unearthing a hoarde of little white potatoes.

We pretend we can’t seem them and he gets excited as he finds spud after spud, glistening in the mud like shiny smooth stones on the seabed.

It’s a lightbulb moment. Realising that the food he eats comes from the ground.

Potato waffles don’t just grow ready-made. There’s a natural process to it all.

But he’s young and there’s only so much you can push on him at a time. This is all alien to him.

Soon he’s whimpering quietly. Then a little louder.

‘Daddy, when can I play on uncle Giggie’s computer?’

There’s no point forcing it beyond that.

We take him to the water tank to wash his hands.

It’s an old plastic tub with a drainpipe catching the rain and running into it.

As his hands are being cleaned he looks at my Da.

‘Granda, is this how you did it in the olden days?’

Soon we’re back at my Da’s house and he’s upstairs with Giggie.

There’s nothing he shows as much enthusiasm for as the computer and nothing can keep him quiet for as long.

I get the feeling I could leave the house and nip off on an excursion to London, return, and he’d still be sitting in the same place playing the same game.

Do I wish he showed that sort of interest in the allotment and the veg?

Yeah, maybe a little.

But the world’s a different place now and he’s much more likely to make his way in the world with computers than he is by getting his hands dirty.

Besides while he’s up there it gives me a chance to do a little bit of food prep.

Spuds are scrubbed. Carrots peeled and chopped. Beetroot the same. Peas popped.

I’ll boil the hard veg and then roast them with some herbs and vinegar.

I’ll fry the corguettes lightly and then add peas and egg for an omelette.

From the ground to the plate in a matter of hours.

The way it should be.

I’m content because I’ve given my son a little nibble of the natural world of food.

Now the next challenge is to try and get him to eat some of it.

13

Ward 12. The Dark (part 2)

I watch the clock on the wall.

The second hand never tires, never goes fast enough.

I’ve been doing this for some time.

It’s my thing. I used to watch the clock in school, in work, at home, on holiday.

And like so many other parts of my mind, there’s not another person on this earth who knows that I do it.

It’s a technique.

Not one I’ve been taught. Something I’ve developed myself over the years.

I count the hours down. The minutes. The seconds.

Counting them down until another day’s over.

I suppose the idea is that when I’m thinking about time I can’t think about anything else.

No two things can occupy the same space.

It’s a way of keeping me from the worst excesses of myself. The thoughts that terrify me.

I have a phrase also.

Something I’ve been saying for years.

Over and over.

Under my breath.

‘Just let me get through this day. Just let me get through this day.’

It’s a false comfort. A trick played on my own brain.

The next day is seldom better. Usually worse.

And the nights are worst of all.

That’s when the fear is most intense, the edges of doubt at their sharpest.

You pray for sleep. Sometimes it comes. Sometimes it doesn’t.

I watch the clock.

There’s some comfort in knowing that every day, no matter how black, can’t outlast the clock.

I need that comfort more than ever now.

I’m in a strange place. In a place I could never have imagined I would end up.

I always assumed I’d be dead before I saw the corridors of a hospital.

I’m in Ward 12.

I didn’t sleep much last night, just enough to confuse me when I woke.

As always I looked for my son first thing. My tiny infant son. But he wasn’t here today.

Instead I’m in a shabby room. Paint peeling off a the walls, tattered fading curtains, pillows limp and flat like a burst balloon.

The room looked like it had been forgotten about. A forgotten room for forgotten people.

The first day was the worst. I saw a doctor. Another doctor. I wouldn’t open up to them.

A nurse took blood from my arm and gave me some tablets.

Then I walk through the ward.

I go to the door which takes you back to the outside world. You need a code to leave.

I don’t have it.

I’m a prisoner here. For the first time in my adult life I don’t have the right to come and go as I please.

I need a signature on a piece of paper to leave this place.

I walk to the other side of the ward. There are other people up and down the corridor but I barely register them.

There’s a little room at the end, almost like a conservatory. A couple of bookshelves.

It’s empty.

I decide this will be my place.

I sit in the armchair and wait.

I don’t know what I’m waiting for or how long it will take.

I watch the clock. I watch the raindrops on the window.

The fat drop explodes on the glass and then runs down the pane like a tear.

Like a tear.

I have so many emotions now. But most of all I’m angry.

Angry at myself for not holding it together. Angry at others for putting me in here. Angry at my cowardice that I allowed this to happen.

A nurse spoke to me this morning, gave me an induction. Told me about all the things they do here.

Like a holiday camp.

But I didn’t listen. I’ve no intention of taking part in any of their activities.

I just sit here watching the clock and the rain and waiting for something to happen.

Eventually I get hungry. I’ve been sitting in the same spot for hours.

I find my way to the canteen. It smells of burnt fat.

I pick the food that looks least likely to kill me in the short term and find a quiet corner.

I don’t even lift my head to see who else is about.

And then an extraordinary thing happens.

A large man with black hair and a red, round nose, sits opposite me. One by one a few other men drift to the table.

I look up, unsure what’s going on.

Then the large man holds out a giant hand, more like a paw. He has watery, kind eyes.

I don’t think I’ve offered my hand but he takes it anyway.

He tells me his name and introduces a few of the others. He asks mine.

‘Uh, I’m Jonny.’

‘We’re all very pleased to meet you Jonny. The first day’s the worst. But we all stick together and we’ll help you get through it ok.’

But it’s not fear I’m feeling now. It’s deep shame.

I had completely dehumanised these people. I thought I was too good to be in here with them.

But the same rules of kindness and compassion apply inside the ward as outside.

I learn that just because you’re damaged doesn’t mean you still can’t do a good thing. Still try to help someone else.

It all gets a little bit easier from here.

Just a little bit.

And the hours begin to turn like a spinning wheel.

I’m kept in the single room by myself for just a couple of nights before I’m moved into a larger, even more dilapidated area.

At first I think this must be progress.

There are four beds in this new room. One is empty. Two younger men and myself.

Curtains so thin you can see right through them separate the beds.

In the far corner is a scrawny boy with long ginger hair. He’s probably early 20s and he cries all the time.

Right through the night, behind his little curtain, the sobs never stop.

Often I hear him on the phone. He’s whispering, but there are no secrets in here.

‘Mum, please get me out of here. Please mum, I swear I won’t do anything, please mum, please….’

It’s the most desperate and heartbreaking sound I’ve ever heard.

Our other roommate is even younger, I guess barely out of his teens, if at all. He rarely ever makes a sound.

He is short and stocky, scars on his arms. His hair is coal black and his eyes are too. I don’t think I’ve ever looked into eyes likes this before. Eyes in which you can’t see anything.

His feet never seem to leave the ground when he walks. It’s more of a shuffle and his slippers squeak against the floor.

On my first night in the room I’m awoken by him thumping a shoe against the window.

It’s not an escape attempt.

He’s just doing it.

Some medics calm him down and bring him back to his bed. Less than six feet from mine.

I feel the beginning of a panic attack. The sweating, the racing heart, the uncontrollable disturbing thoughts.

My face is at the very edge of the pillow. I’m gripping the thin blanket so tight that my nails dig into my palms through its material.

Spasms of despair are coming out of my stomach and I fight to push them back down.

I don’t understand how this place is supposed to be helping me.

There are perhaps 20 patients on the ward.

It’s mostly men but there are a couple of women.

There’s one woman who walks up and down the corridor all day in her slippers.

That’s all she does.

Walking up and down.

She never looks at me.

Some of the patients are like me, just in for a few days. For a rest.

But there are those who’ve been here for a long time.

There’s one elderly gentleman, always smartly dressed. Never without a tie.

I get the impression that he hasn’t left this ward in years. It’s his protection against a scary world.

While I’m here he is told that he is to be moved to a geriatric ward.

He falls to pieces. We’re in the canteen when we hear his wails.

We move to see what is happening and catch a glimpse of him trying to run. Being held and comforted by a nurse.

His clothes are pulled and disheveled. His face is purple.

There is fear on his face like I’ve never seen.

It’s the first time I’ve seen his tie not straight.

There are lots of activities. I suppose they’re supposed to heal us but really they’re just a way to pass the time.

We do relaxation. Sitting in a room listening to soothing music while a woman reads slowly to us in a mellifluous voice.

We play games. Word association games. Games with cards. We’re given writing tasks.

Sometimes they allow us outside for a walk to the local garage to buy sweets or cigarettes. Accompanied of course.

On the Friday they throw a little party. The staff put buns and sausage rolls on plates and lay them out on a long table in the canteen.

A startlingly handsome woman with a guitar arrives to sing to us.

We gather in a circle around her and it begins.

She strums and floats out a song about a train. She sings a bit and then we have to respond.

‘And the train just keeps rolling on!’

This goes on. Some are too timid to do much more than mouth the words, others throw themselves into it with energy. I think I’m in the latter group.

‘And the train just keeps rolling on!’

Then we’re given instruments and we form a little orchestra. I’ve got a wooden stick which rattles.

She plays another song and we rattle and shake along to it.

One of the patients, beside me, bursts into tears and is taken back to his bed.

My phone rings and I quickly answer without thinking, so as not to interrupt the song.

It’s a friend of mine. One of Northern Ireland’s best known and respected journalists. Calling to discuss a story.

I’ve forgotten that there’s an outside world. Work.

I’ve forgotten nobody knows I’m in here.

He must hear the music. I can sense the confusion in his voice.

‘Uh, is everything ok Jonny?’

‘Yeah, it’s a bit difficult to talk now mate. I’m going to have to get back to you.’

Soon the music finishes. Some of the patients move off to eat the buns, but a few of us stay behind.

Our music teacher chats to us. Then she gets us to sit in a circle on the floor and we play a new game.

It’s a rhythm game. It involves clapping our hands and clicking a plastic cup off the floor. It’s hypnotic and pleasing. It seems like we could play this game for a very long time.

Later I help the nurses to clean up. Then I sit on a long windowsill and watch the heavy orange sun begin to sink.

The wind contains the first harsh hint of winter and the leaves are starting to brown and crisp at the edges.

Some of them have already fallen and are blowing around a small paved yard.

One of the nurses comes to talk to me. I can’t stop telling her about my wife and son. I show her pictures. She shows me pictures of her two little girls, her face opening with pride.

Suddenly I’m surprised by the late hour.

I realise I haven’t looked at the clock all day.

Each patient is assigned a psychiatrist. I meet mine that night.

He’s serious, scholarly and sympathetic all at once.

He’s keen to get me home. But also cautious.

Again the weight of having to make the right decision.

It’s not that he thinks I’m better, he just has to consider what’s the best environment to heal.

He orders me not to even think about work.

He talks to my wife. It’s not just about me. He needs to know that she’s comfortable with having me back at the house.

I’m almost afraid to get my hopes up as he reads endless reports and scratches his nose.

Then he signs a form.

And just like that I’m free again.

I quickly pack my bag and say goodbye to some of the staff and patients.

I let the handshakes linger. I’ve no idea if I’ll ever see these people again.

As I travel down the lift I can’t bear to let go of my wife’s hand. I don’t want to let go of it ever again.

I’m thinking about my son. Four months old. How I’m going to hold him in my arms. Bury my face in his neck. Feel his warmth. Smell him.

But as I walk out into the carpark there’s a familiar feeling. A little bit of the anxiety begins to return.

The truth is there’s a dangerous comfort in being inside.

In not having any responsibility. In letting someone else make all the decisions.

But that’s not life.

As I get into the car the thoughts are racing again.

It’s raining now.

Persistent and demanding.

I know that the hard work has not even begun yet.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000

0

The pirate’s hat

It had been another busy morning.

The usual wrangling over breakfast, negotiations over getting dressed and bargaining over leaving the house.

We’d ended up at the local gymnastics club where young children are allowed to play every morning in the summer holidays.

The kids are let loose and run wild in the sports hall, sort of like the plot of Lord of the Flies condensed into an hour and a half.

My son likes to chase me and mummy around the gym until we’re cornered in the pit. Then he beats us repeatedly over the head with a giant foam stick. (Foam party?)

We left sweatier and dustier than we arrived and headed to a local cafe which has a play area full of cars that kids can sit in.

My son and nephew soon commandeered two of the brightly coloured vehicles and proceeded to ram other less fortunate children while us grown-ups supped cappuccinos and nibbled on sausage rolls.

By the time we arrived home mummy and I were already spent. Just as we were having our mid-afternoon slump our boy was getting his second wind.

Randomly he decided he wanted to wear his pirate costume.

I knew straightaway that this was trouble.

I tried to distract him but his decision was fixed.

I dug out the red and blue trousers and shirt we’d bought for him a couple of Halloweens back. The costume was a little small now but still serviceable.

I dressed him and waited.

I knew the question was coming, as inevitable as Tuesday following Monday.

‘Daddy, where’s the hat?’

There we go.

‘Son, we’ve discussed this before, remember? The hat is lost. I’ve looked for it and I can’t find it. Do you understand?’

‘Just get it for me daddy.’

Clearly he didn’t understand.

The pirate hat has been missing for years. I think he wore it only once. The black fabric and skull and crossbones were a far distant memory.

Every couple of months, from somewhere in the depths of his brain, my son will remember the pirate costume which I have buried at the back of his wardrobe.

And then we have a big row about the hat.

His little mind just can’t comprehend that the object he desires cannot always be immediately produced to meet his favour.

And here we are again.

‘Daddy, I want the hat!’ his little eyes moist now.

I begin to search through boxes of toys that I’ve emptied and refilled, emptied and refilled, many times. I already know it’s not there.

‘I don’t know where it is son.’

He weeps softly for a short time. In his pirate costume.

Then.

‘Daddy, is there something else we can use as a pirate hat?’

I’m impressed, an attempt to meet me in the middle. A compromise.

I produce various hats and caps but he rejects them all as too conventional. He’s demanding I use my imagination.

‘Use something else as a hat daddy!’

Use something else as a hat! What does that even mean?

I place a cauliflower on his head. He’s interested for a moment.

But then it rolls off.

My usual tactic here is distraction

Put the telly on. Pull out another toy. Something to make him forget the pirate hat.

I start to look around for a suitable diversion.

Then a little voice in my head says something.

‘Why don’t you make a pirate’s hat?’

I chortle to myself. The audacity of it.

But it keeps gnawing away, like a rat at a rope.

‘Why don’t you make a pirate’s hat?’

Make a pirate hat? Could it really be done?

At this point I should probably give some context.

I can’t make things.

When it comes to anything remotely handy – DIY, construction, assembly, repairing, hanging – I’m utterly lost.

I’m good at the bit of looking at a problem and scratching my head. But there the talent ends.

Whatever little bit of skill I have been given with words and communication has been reverse compensated ten times over with the complete absence of any ability to use my hands in a useful task.

I just can’t make things.

Also, I lack common sense in this area.

Once, when I was at school, I gave myself a nasty burn on the hand by inexplicably grabbing a metal toasting fork while the teacher was blasting it with a welding gun.

‘You damned fool!’ he roared at me as he swiped my sizzling hand away from the glowing red metal.

That was actually one of the kinder things he ever said to me.

But this was just a pirate hat. I remember making them out of newspaper as a child.

It’ll be a giggle and something I can do with my son, I thought.

To hell with it.

‘Son, shall we make a pirate hat together?’

He’s immediately enthusiastic, but holds just a little back. As if he can’t quite believe it. Or fears I’m going to do something which leads me to a breakdown.

Soon I have newspaper all over the floor and we’re folding, taping and cutting merrily.

My first attempt resembles nothing.

The second is clearly a paper aeroplane.

A badly made paper aeroplane.

By the third go I’ve worked out the basic technique.

We make something which resembles a hat.

Except it’s huge.

Big enough to serve as a pair of Giant Haystacks’ underpants.

My son’s head disappears completely when we try it on.

But we’re on the correct route.

Another couple of attempts and we have a hat which stays on his little head.

He’s beyond excited at the process of creation. And his part in it.

And now he wants to go further.

‘Daddy, let’s paint it!’

I suggest black, but he’s set on blue with gold glitter. Unconventional for a pirate.

I hate paint. It always makes a mess, no matter how careful I try to be.

However, my hatred of it is comfortably exceeded by my feelings towards glitter.

That stuff ends up everywhere I don’t want it.

On my face. In my ears.

Between my toes.

In my bum crack.

There is no force on this earth that can contain the malevolence of glitter.

We don’t so much paint the hat as lob large volumes of blue liquid in its rough direction, hoping some stick.

My desperate pleas to go easy with the glitter are blithely ignored.

And then it’s finished.

I step back and take a look.

Just to see what we’ve done.

It’s awful.

Completely awful.

Mind-rottingly awful.

If I was religious I would say it’s the pirate hat that spewed from Satan’s bottom.

It’s the pirate’s hat that’s been through the digestive system of a gnu.

A very ill gnu.

In fact it looks more like a wizard’s hat than a pirate’s.

Some poor unfortunate drunk wizard who’s stopped for a leak in a field on the way home from the tavern and fell head-first into a sheugh.

No. It ain’t pretty.

But I’m strangely happy with it.

And my son is thrilled.

Of course he can’t wait until it dries properly and we end up with blue paint and gold glitter all over the bed clothes.

And then just as sudden, he grows bored with it.

Casting it aside, he goes off to play Buckaroo.

But that’s ok.

Of course it was rewarding to make this hat with my son.

The sense that we were doing something together, like a team.

But the greater satisfaction is that I chose the more challenging path.

I didn’t follow the easy option of just plonking him down in front of the TV.

We had a go.

Who cares that it turned out shit?

4

Uncle Jonny, let’s dance….

The first thing you see is the rollercoaster; stretching like a great ladder into the skies.

I’d never known too much about what was in Tayto Park.

I suppose I’d heard people talk about it as a place to go but just assumed it was a museum which explored the history of the potato.

As we neared the park I could see I was wrong.

I chuckled to myself, thinking ‘From this distance it almost looks like that rollercoaster is made out of wood’.

Then we pulled alongside it and I thought ‘Shit, that rollercoaster is made out of wood!’

This seemed strangely medieval to me. Had the Iron Age passed this part of the world by altogether?

We went to the ticket booth.

I did my usual thing which essentially amounts to me saying, ‘Hello, just in case you hadn’t noticed I’m a bit of a buffoon. If you could just provide me with whatever the most expensive, worst value ticket option is, then I’ll be on my way.’

We entered the park with brightly coloured wristbands newly attached and I spent a good part of the rest of the day trying to work out how many rides I would have to go on to justify the cost.

Mummy, son and I made our way to one of the playparks where we had arranged to meet my wee nephew and his parents who were going to spend the day with us.

My son asked to go on the swings. I had just paid for a wristband which gets him on every exotic ride in the park. And he wants to go on the swings.

The swings were slightly different than he was used to. There were no bars to keep him on the seat.

He started to show a bit of fear. I reassured him.

‘Son, I’m going to be right here with you and no matter what happens I’m not going to let you fall off that seat.’

He gave me a little smile of love and climbed onto the swing.

I gave him one push.

He fell off the seat.

As he gathered himself together, his face now covered in sand, he gave me a bitter look which seemed to say, ‘I’m never going to fall for your shit again.’

We played in the park for a bit. Then we saw some animals in the zoo, went to the dinosaur park and chatted with the talking tree.

Basically my son decided he wanted to visit every attraction which is free.

I could feel the wristband burning into my arm.

Eventually we got him and my nephew moving in the direction of the rides. We were rocked on a pirate ship, spun around in a bear’s teacup, bounced on the back of a frog and went up high in something which resembled a giant egg.

The kids loved it. I’m truth the adults did too.

There was the joy you get from seeing your child have fun.

But there was also the joy of remembering you’re really just a big kid yourself.

We stopped for refreshments. They sold a lot of crisps. I asked if they had any Golden Wonder.

They didn’t.

It was getting late in the day and there was only time left for one more ride.

The rest of our group headed towards the 5-D cinema experience.

But I broke off on my own. I had a date with that rollercoaster.

I’ve always had a fascination with scary rides. In truth I could have very well put the day in here on my own just being scared witless.

The roller coaster is called the Cú Chulainn. I was pleased at this nod towards history and tradition.

For the uninitiated Cú Chulainn was an ancient Irish mythical hero. He defeated all of the warrior chiefs of Ireland by challenging them to a rollercoaster ride.

The last warrior to vomit was to be proclaimed king of Ireland.

Cú Chulainn was clever as well as brave. He had secreted a rotting turnip on the seats of all of his foes and by the bottom of the first dip they had all vomited except him.

As I queued my heart swelled with pride. All the years of education were not wasted on me.

The ride itself is all about one giant climb and descent.

The car crawls into the clouds until you fear you will need an oxygen mask before hurtling towards the ground at a terrifying rate.

Why we consider such things as fun remains a mystery. But the truth is that by the time I had finished and regained the feeling in my legs, I was ready to go again.

The newest attraction in the park is some sort of Viking water ride. But as the estimated queuing time was 13 days, we decided to pass on this occasion.

A short drive brought us to our hotel on the outskirts of Dublin. A noticeboard advertised an evening kiddie disco and this seemed like an excellent way to round off what was rapidly developing into a memorable day.

So after dinner we headed towards the disco room.

It was huge.

With a carpet from the 1970s.

And absolutely empty.

The DJ seemed delighted to see us.

My son is four and my nephew two, both too young to understand they are supposed to give a damn what anyone thinks of them.

They headed straight for the dance floor.

What else was there for the adults to do but join them?

And so it was. Four adults and two young children doing crazy dancing in this huge empty room.

Soon some other children began to arrive (clearly word of my funky moves was spreading rapidly), and the room began to fill a little.

And the dancing went on and on until dark, damp stains were spreading across my shirt.

I don’t know too much about the songs that were playing. To me music pretty much ended when The Housemartins split up.

But there was one song I knew. ‘Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night,’ by the Marrowfat Peas.

By the time it was playing the dancing had morphed into some kind of chasing and tickling game.

As I lay there on that old carpet tickling my son and nephew and hearing them shriek with joy, it seemed like the perfect anthem.

We let them play as long as they could. Way past bedtime. Right until the point that exhaustion overcame them.

As mummy and I carried our son back to the bedroom, he fought to keep his eyes open and mumbled, ‘Mummy, this was the best day ever.’

And it probably was.

The next morning we were at the breakfast table. My bones and muscles were slightly regretting the exertions of the night before.

I should have known the twerking would be a step too far.

My little nephew waddled into the room, a mischievous smile on his lips, beautiful brown eyes dancing with the wonder of finding out everything in the world.

He pulled himself up into the chair opposite me.

‘Uncle Jonny, let’s dance….’

 

10

What can I do to make it better?

Let me take you back in time one week.

I had just put the finishing touches on yet another blog.

My finger hovered over the Publish button.

But I hesitated.

I made myself a cup of coffee and then went to sit in the garden for a moment.

I had called the article I had just written The Dark (Part 1). (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/08/12/the-dark-part-1/comment-page-1/#comment-203).

The reason for my doubts were clear.

The story documented just a little bit of my experiences in dealing with mental illness. It was a small insight into a tortured world of suffering and chronic self-doubt.

I had my suspicions and fears that the moment I published that article then my life would change forever.

As soon as I pressed that button then I’d for evermore be known as the guy who had the breakdown.

Was that something I really wanted to live with? Was it a bundle of sticks I was strong enough to carry?

I thought about the effect it would have on my family.

I thought about my circle of friends. It did cross my mind that some of them might not feel comfortable with me remaining within their social circle.

I assumed they would be sympathetic but might just find the stigma a little too toxic.

I thought about how people would find it hard to accept my story. How they might not believe me. How they might think I was exaggerating, that I simply wasn’t strong enough.

That I lacked the certain amount of steel or grit that a grown man needs.

My black coffee had gone cold in the mug. I noticed that it was raining. A fine drizzle. The sort you seem to get every day this summer.

I wondered how long ago the rain had started.

I went back inside.

All my thoughts had been about why I should not go public.

But it had felt good to put my story into a narrative. An easing of pressure. Like my skull had undergone a trephination.

Logic was telling me not to go on. Emotion was making me feel like I should have done it long ago.

I pressed Publish.

Then I turned off my laptop and went out for a meal with my wife and son.

I didn’t bring my phone with me. I told myself that I needed a few hours away from the blog. A bit of family time.

What I wasn’t admitting to myself was that I was scared what what the phone might be telling me.

It was late at night before I returned home.

Then I checked my account. The post had been read a decent number of times. I had a few encouraging comments from friends.

I went to bed relieved and slept well.

I don’t really understand the the digital age. I have analogue mind and can’t really get my head round how information spreads online.

But something had happened overnight. Like the ripples on the surface of a pond when you drop a pebble, my story seemed to have spread in every direction.

The usual few dozen views had somehow been transformed into thousands. Something puzzling was going on.

I had a direct message from Stephen Nolan on my phone asking if I would talk on his live radio show.

That was fine. I’ve done my share of broadcast over the years.

But then something very unexpected began to happen. Something I hadn’t prepared for.

The messages started to come. Slow at first, but then in a glut.

A handful. Dozens. And then hundreds.

Many were people who just wanted to give me their support. This moved me incredibly.

A very tiny number were from people who wanted to hurt me. This didn’t bother me at all.

Indeed it gave many of the visitors to my site a good laugh as we played with the Little Snowflake title.

My son and nephew have taken to calling me The Little Snowflake.

But the majority of the messages were from people who wanted to share their story with me.

And there was one thing that tied all of these correspondences. The same sentiment over and over.

‘You were describing exactly how I feel’. ‘It was like reading my own life story’. ‘Your experiences resonated so much with me’. ‘I’ve been through exactly the same thing’.

‘I cried when I read it because it was so familiar’.

I heard from wives who had lost their husbands to suicide. Mothers whose sons had been sectioned.

Young men who were afraid to tell their families. Young mothers weighed down by the burden of trying to be a perfect parent.

I read every single account and was moved to tears many times.

It was heartbreaking.

But it was also inspirational.

I never received a single message that was not without hope. Not without some defiance. Not without that wonderful human attribute of basic stubbornness.

A refusal to be beaten by this thing.

Many of the messages were from complete strangers. I was genuinely humbled that they felt enough trust to reach out to me.

But just as many were from people I knew, friends and acquaintances who had glided in and out of my life.

And this was even more revealing. I thought I knew these people.

Except I didn’t.

Some were people I had been envious of. People who had everything together. People who I had looked at and thought ‘I wish I could be like that.’

Except that they were just like me.

One morning I awoke to find I had received a message from a person I had not seen or heard from in over a quarter of a century.

This person was one of the most popular and confident I had ever encountered.

And now this person was telling me an account of a life lived in fear. Of depression and anxiety.

The message finished with the line.

‘What can I do to make it better?’

I was numb. I read the line again and again.

‘What can I do to make it better?’

This was several days ago but I still can’t get it out of my head.

‘What can I do to make it better?’

When I started writing this blog one month ago I made a decision that I would respond to every person who messaged me.

It seemed the least I could do if someone read my ramblings and then took the trouble to contact me.

But what I hadn’t expected was the sheer volume. Or the unvarnished emotion they contained.

One morning I awoke to discover I had 90 messages waiting for me. It took time but I got through them all.

Some good friends warned me to be careful. Not to take too much on my shoulders. The phrase ‘compassion fatigue’ was mentioned to me on more than one occasion.

But the truth was a bond had been formed. Friendships established. A conversation started which I didn’t feel I could stop.

I must admit there were times when I was asking myself, is there anyone out there who has not been touched by this blackness?

The often used statistic that one in four will suffer a mental illness in their life now seemed like a ludicrous underestimation of the problem.

All my life I had thought of myself as different than everyone else. A man apart. Trapped by the terror of my own mind.

Now it turned out that all the other people were thinking exactly the same thing.

It was almost comic in its poignancy.

All these people interacting on a daily basis, all thinking the same things, but all to afraid to say it out loud because they think the other will despise them for it.

I was reminded of GK Chesteron’s novel ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’.

The book tells the story of a undercover detective, Gabriel Syme, who infiltrates a secret anarchist council which wants to destroy order in the world.

All the members of the council are known by days of the week. Syme becomes Thursday.

As the story reaches its climax it is eventually revealed that all the other members are also undercover detectives.

They have all kept their true mission a secret from each other and this has allowed the real anarchists to operate freely.

The truth is I have no idea why mental illness has got such a grip in our society. Perhaps the evolution of our brains just can’t keep up with the pace of societal change.

But what does seem clear is that while there are still so many who feel they can’t talk openly about it, then our ability to understand will always be limited.

I don’t have the answers and I’ve referred a number of the people who have contacted me this week onto the proper agencies or advised them to seek help.

But the question from my friend keeps coming back to my mind.

What can I do to make it better?

Let’s start by talking about it.

Sharing our common experiences. Making it easier for those who come after us.

Let’s not feel that we have to hide from our own minds.

My initial feelings a week ago that I was about to do something which would change my life have been confirmed.

It is all different now.

And it’s one of the best things I ever did.

Now I’m back to where I started. Putting the finishing touches on yet another blog.

This time I have no hesitation in pressing Publish.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000

1

The haircut 

There is something momentous, almost sacred, in the cutting of a young child’s hair.

Perhaps it’s because the kid inevitably looks older with the shorn locks.

Perhaps it’s the physical act of removing something which had been part of their body since infancy.

Whatever the truth it’s a process that can easily land a daddy in a whole heap of trouble.

In DH Lawrence’s wonderful novel Sons and Lovers, Walter Morel cuts his one-year-old son William’s hair while his wife is sleeping.

When Gertrude awakes she finds her beloved son ‘cropped like a sheep’ with a ‘myriad of crescent shaped curls, like the petals of a marigold scattered in the reddening firelight.’

I don’t possess Lawrence’s eloquence but suffice to say that Mrs Morel goes native and very nearly bates the head off her husband.

Now Mr Morel is a pretty unsympathetic character, a brute who gives his life and money to alcohol rather than his family. But this is one of the rare moments when I feel some sympathy for him.

‘Yer non want ter make a wench on ‘im,’ he hopelessly pleads.

But the incident represents the beginning of the decline of the Morels’ failing marriage. Things are never quite the same.

‘He felt something final had happened.’

All over a haircut.

I remember first reading this when I was at school and thinking the passage was very strange. But now, as a daddy, the exchange makes a lot more sense.

My son has inherited the same mop of mad wavy golden hair that I had as a child. When it grows a bit and goes curly it’s a guaranteed shortcut to an ‘Aw bless’ from every old lady we meet in the street.

If I was to take the scissors to my son’s hair I suspect my wife would not show the same restraint as Mrs Morel.

In my own childhood my mother seemed unable to bear the thought of having my hair cut at all. I think she was secretly hoping that I would be a girl.

In most of the old photos I’ve got big hair. Really big hair.

I look like a miniature version of Michael Bolton.

But hair does have to be cut. To be tidied.

So I took my son to the kiddie barber today.

I usually take him because…well because I have nothing much better to do.

But even though I’m theoretically in control, mummy has already texted ahead to give our brilliant barber the instructions.

I’ve never seen the content of any of these texts but I’ve always assumed them to go something like, ‘Ignore everything daddy says.’ And quite possibly ‘Apologies in advance for him.’

I’m clearly not to be trusted with big decisions like this.

The obvious fear is that if it’s left to me my son will come home with a multi-coloured mohican, a pierced eyebrow and a Hitler moustache tattooed onto his upper lip.

The haircut itself takes no time. My son sits happily in a toy green car watching a film while the barber snips away efficiently with the scissors.

The only momentary complication is when, dampening down his hair, a tat is discovered. My son’s mop seems to have made a unilateral decision to form itself into dreadlocks.

But soon it’s finished. He looks more like a boy than a toddler now.

Snippets of his hair lie randomly sprinkled on the ground like the petals of a daisy after a little girl’s innocent game of He Loves Me. (Ha! Take that Lawrence!)

And ever the pragmatist, I decide to take the opportunity to get my hair trimmed also.

I get exactly the same treatment as my son, except I’m not allowed to sit in the green car.

I’ve never much enjoyed going to the barber. I’ve always found it a bit awkward. Not really knowing what to say to someone holding a pair of sharp scissors just inches from my throat.

But now, as I slide lazily through my forties, I’ve found two I’m completely comfortable with in the same village where I live.

I get my hair cut twice as often as my son so I alternate between the Turkish barber and the kiddie barber.

The Turk seems to enjoy my bad jokes and, even though I suspect he doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying most of the time, we get along famously.

He does weird things, like setting my ear hairs on fire. And all at no extra charge.

Every time I leave him there’s a burning smell around my head for the rest of the day.

We also bonded over the fact that we started growing a beard at the same time.

But while mine is determinedly still growing, defying fashion and public opinion, he had to shear his off after his own mum told him he looked like a member of ISIS.

The kiddie barber allows me to natter away contentedly and even makes me nice cups of coffee.

Every so often my inventive flow is momentarily interrupted when she asks a question like ‘Well, what would you like done with your hair?’

I shrug and allow her to do her stuff. The truth is she could shave a giant phallus into the back of my head and I probably wouldn’t notice.

In fact she may already have done so. I don’t look back there too often.

But I assume not. My son likes the tight-cropped effect of my newly shaved head.

He insists on touching my head sporadically for the rest of the day and wanted to go to sleep with his face against my velvety crop.

This was obviously comforting for him. Awkward for me.

The thing is my son will be starting school in a few weeks. We want him to be well turned out. To look smart.

The haircut is part of the process of transforming him from our boy into a boy.

Mrs Morel knew it. My wife knows it. And I suppose I now do too.

0

Combat sports 

I’ve always had a fascination with sports.

In the right mood and at the right time I’d happily watch anything sporty.

I’m as comfortable watching bowls, darts or sumo wrestling as I am football. A fact that has caused me to endure much derision from my friends over the years.

There’s something about the statistical nature of sport which seems to appeal to my brain. Perhaps this is why I’m so taken with US games like basketball and American football which are dominated by numbers.

I’m obsessed with the figures. Who’s done what the most times? Scored the most runs? Kicked the highest percentage of penalties? Made the most tackles? They’re all rattling about in my head somewhere.

There’s probably not too many people who trouble themselves to worrying about whether Paul Foster will ever match Alex Marshall’s record of six World Indoor Bowls titles, but that’s exactly the sort of thought which goes through my mind when I can’t sleep at night.

It’s all gloriously inconsequential and that’s the attraction for me.

The legendary football manager Bill Shankly said football was much more serious than life or death. But his tongue was firmly in his cheek. All sport is merely the gloss we put on the grey wall of life to make it more fun to look at.

People who read my blogs regularly will know that I’ve spoken before about my obsessive personality traits.

When I was a teenager I applied all my obsessive powers to the sport of boxing. I immersed myself in it.

I suppose I used it as some sort of comfort against all of the ravens which constantly circled me at that time.

I spent every penny I had amassing a huge collection of tapes of grainy black and white fights (remember this was before the Internet). I bought every book or magazine that was available.

I sat up in the middle of the night to watch fights taking place in America and I spoke passionately in defence of the sport at school debates.

At that time my mind had the capacity to store huge amounts of information and I took great pride in knowing every fact that could be gathered about every fighter.

Even though most of the knowledge has since seeped out through the ever widening holes, I can still at any moment recite in chronological order every fighter who has ever held the World Heavyweight Championship stretching back to the original Boston Strong Boy John L Sullivan.

I even fancied getting in the ring myself.

But it didn’t go well.

I’m a pacifist by nature and when you have the gloves on and the bell goes, I found that saying ‘Let’s talk about it’ didn’t get me very far.

Nowadays I don’t care so much. I still know most of the main fighters but I have nothing more than a casual fan’s interest.

In truth I’ve got a major problem with it now. I can’t watch a live fight anymore. I get too nervous. The capacity that someone could be hurt scares me too much. I’m not comfortable with witnessing the aggression.

I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say I don’t follow it anymore. I still check out the results. I might even watch the fight later when I know both men or women are safe.

I just don’t feel very good about myself when I do.

The last time I was at a live boxing event was several years ago. My friend and I were watching a Belfast fighter.

At one point during the bout the local man gained the advantage, hurting his opponent. The noise from the intoxicated crowd swelled as the opponent was battered against the ropes.

I remember my friend, a wonderfully gentle man, rising to his feet to urge the local fighter on. I did the same. Roaring him on to hurt the other man.

Later that night I felt ashamed.

Recently it’s been quite hard to avoid all the attention surrounding the upcoming crossover fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.

Mayweather, a boxing champion, will fight McGregor, a mixed martial artist, in the richest fight in combat sports history. Both men are expected to earn in excess of $100m.

Perhaps this is the point where my silent shame finally transforms itself into open disgust at the repugnance of the spectacle.

The cynicism involved in the marketing of the event is breathtaking. The trumpeting of hatred, aggression and greed as showbusiness virtues for young men to ape is now running unchecked.

The naked venom that these two men display towards each other while being cheered on by baying crowds is unsettling. Frankly I find it upsetting.

And yes, I know that much of the poison is staged and built up to increase audience interest, but doesn’t that just increase the cynicism even more?

I’m not here to tell anyone what to do or to preach. I believe entirely in freedom of expression and action within the laws.

I’m not calling for anything to be banned or even reigned in. I’ve no right to do that and frankly it’s none of my business.

Combat sports have been going on for thousands of years and will always exist. They clearly fulfil a need for some people and there’s a huge fascination with them.

My point is about my journey. How I’ve changed. Moved away from what I once loved.

Yes I do believe that the sport has changed too, for the worse, but the bigger transformation has been mine.

Maybe it’s growing old. Maybe it’s being a father. Maybe it’s the idea of trying to explain to my son in a few years why two men are being paid to shout insults at each other while others watch.

Maybe it’s my own feelings about standing on my feet cheering while one man beat another with his hands.