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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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School sports day

I’m old enough to know better but there are certain things which, as a parent, are sure to cause me a little twist of anxiety.

School sports day is one example. My wee man has not (yet) shown any aptitude for or interest in sports. I know he’s not the fastest or the strongest. He’s definitely not the most confident. And as sports day approaches, scenarios of disaster begin to gather in my mind like particles of dust in a dark corner.

What if all the noise and commotion overwhelms him? What if he gets upset because he’s not one of the best? What if the trauma makes him hate taking part in competitive games? What if? what if?

But while I’m wasting time worrying if he’s going to be ok, he’s too busy being happy to care. When I tentatively ask him about the races he keeps telling me the same thing, something they must have been taught in class.

‘It doesn’t matter where you finish daddy, as long as you have fun.’

The sun is strengthening and burning off the morning haze as we arrive at the school field. The smell of freshly cut grass intoxicates the senses. The painted white lines on the bumpy grass track are close to straight.

The children are led out by their teacher and I quickly spot my son, looking smaller in the crowd than he seemed when I had dropped him at the gates an hour earlier. Mummy and I are frantically waving until he sees us and jumps to his feet, giving us an enthusiastic little shake of his fist.

The races begin and I feel a little shot of anxiety. I keep asking my wife ‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ over and over until she’s forced to pretend she can’t hear me anymore. I worry that at the first sign of adversity I’ll invade the track like Derek Redmond’s father.

(For the uninitiated Derek Redmond was a 400m runner who collapsed after tearing his hamstring in the middle of a race at the Barcelona Olympics. Although he was in agonising pain the athlete climbed off the track and attempted to finish the race on one leg. His father, who was watching in the crowd, burst through security and onto the track, gathered his inconsolable son in his arms, and supported him all the way to the finish line while the crowd cheered. I dare any parent to watch the clip on YouTube without letting a little tear escape.)

The races get underway. My wee man is nowhere near the front of any of them. But he tries hard and he never stops smiling. He’s actually going along quite nicely in the shuttle sprint relay until he decides half-way through that it’s more fun to skip than to run. I’m expending loads of nervous energy shouting encouragement and every couple of minutes he looks over to give mummy or myself a shy wave or a thumbs up. At one point while the sound system is playing Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, I could swear he’s dancing. And he just keeps on smiling while the sun shines.

The headmaster reads out the names of all the little boys and girls who have won the races. My son is not among them but it doesn’t matter because he did it. And he loved it.

I wonder why I let myself get uptight about it. I suppose it’s because, as a parent, I know I’m sending my child off to run his own race, without me being able to help him. So much of what he’ll know from now on in life will be about competition, achieving results, trying to be the best. There will be plenty more races in his life and I’ll always worry.

As the event finishes and the parents begin to disperse I sneak over to the bench where my son is sitting patiently. I give him a quick cuddle and a fist-bump.

‘Well done buddy,’ I say, ‘you were brilliant’.

He’s still smiling as he responds.

‘Oh daddy, I told you, it doesn’t matter where you finish, as long as you have fun.’

Being a parent means being there to teach your child. But sometimes we can learn from them as well.

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The pirate ship birthday cake

You certainly can’t accuse my son of not knowing what he wants.

It was more than six months ago that he first informed me he wanted me to make him a pirate ship birthday cake for his party and his dedication to the concept has been unwavering ever since.

Which means I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. Or not. I adopted the same approach as with my tax returns of assuming that if I simply banish it from my mind it will go away. It didn’t.

The problem is I’m just not very good at baking. That’s not to say I can’t whisk together a perfectly serviceable standard birthday cake. I can also almost guarantee you that anything I bake will taste good. It’s just the aesthetic side which lets it all down.

In short, I’m utterly cack-handed at anything which requires neatness, precision, tidiness or patience, rather like an arthritic jellyfish who’s drunk twelve pints of extra strong cider trying to carry out keyhole heart surgery. An elaborate celebration cake which requires layering, cutting and decorating? I knew this pirate ship was heading for stormy seas.

But yet I insisted that I was going to have a go at something which was clearly beyond my capabilities. I could have bought or ordered an immaculate pirate ship cake. The problem was my son had asked me to make it, to do it myself. He’s just getting old enough now to be aware of my practical limitations, my complete ineptitude at DIY. Perhaps he just wanted some realisation of a mystical link between father and son, some physical evidence that daddy actually can make something. I knew I had to do it.

And so, while the rest of country was sitting down to watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding, it began. I came up with a method. It worked perfectly well – in my head.

The first bit was easy. I baked a chocolate cake in a large rectangular cake tin from an old recipe I’ve used before. When cooled I cut it into two long thin rectangles, one became the main body of the ship and the other I sliced into three parts to become the raised prow and stern.

The layering went better than expected and the cake was now starting to look ship-shape (pardon the pun). This involved the use of dowels to stabilise the cake. I bought these specially out of a baking shop although it did occur to me that a plastic straw would probably serve just as well (just remember to remove before eating!). Then I cut the front of the cake into an almost professional looking V-shape and my optimism was growing.

Before icing I tried to cover the cake with vanilla buttercream to smooth the surface before icing. This is where the inevitable decline set in. Frosting the vertical sides of the cake proved to be difficult and, at points, more of the cake seemed to be falling off than buttercream going on. The low point was when the whole prow broke off in my hand and had to be hastily stuck back on with another dowel. By now a sense of low panic was descending on me.

With the cake inexpertly frosted I tried to cover it with brown icing (which I thought would create a wood effect). But the cake was such an irregular shape that the finished task quickly developed into a patchwork of ripped and torn scraps of icing. As I attempted to smooth the icing down and I surveyed the messy criss-cross of joining lines it occurred to me that I had created the Frankenstein’s monster of pirate ship birthday cakes.

So the cake was ugly, bumpy, creased and, undoubtedly, leaning towards one side. And none of this was the slightest surprise to me. I knew my limitations and I had lived down to them perfectly.

But I did have a plan for a counterattack. When the appearance is not pleasing on the eye, then the tactic has to be to confuse the eye. With some edible glue I fastened a number of Milky Bar buttons to the cake as makeshift portholes. The lines and creases on the surface were covered with little silver candy balls which I thought would pass as metal bolts. In advance I had made gingerbread pirates and anchors which covered some of the rougher patches. As my granny used to say, to ‘take the bad look off it’.

A mast with Jolly Roger sail and flags was commandeered from my son’s toy pirate ship alongside a miniature cannon and treasure chest. I wrote a ‘Happy Birthday’ message with white chocolate. By the time some birthday candles are added hopefully the whole effect will be so busy as to disguise some of the obvious defects.

Tomorrow the cake will be presented to a room full of five-year-olds, most of whom probably won’t give it a second glance.

But I showed it to my son today. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at it for a while. Then he walked over and gave me a long, silent hug. Sometimes failure is not so bad.

The only thing left now is to work out how to slice the blasted thing.

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Planet Fun

There’s something in the name ‘Planet Fun’ which immediately appeals, something irresistible, suggestive of a hedonistic utopia which we all yearn to visit.

On the way to Belfast we’re all excited about the exotic, mysterious location we’ve been invited to.

After a short search we find Planet Fun in a derelict B&Q warehouse on the Boucher Road. Nowadays it’s called S13.

I’m here with my wife, son and little nephew and we’re given VIP bracelets as we enter on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The first attraction we visit is the Giant Wheel which soars above the city, providing stunning panoramic views for many miles in all directions. Although not if, like my wife, you refuse to open your eyes during the whole ride. I risk being thrown out of the carriage when I pretend to her that the wheel has broken down when it stops to let new passengers on while were suspended many feet up in the air.

But she gets her own back on the bumper cars, where erratic, reckless driving is rewarded and my attempts to appeal to other motorists’ sense of good manners and fairness are cruelly and repeatedly battered.

Planet Fun works for us because a large section of the theme park is devoted to young children. My son is four, my nephew three and the quieter area within the warehouse is a good foil to the frenetic excitement outside. A series of smaller rides featuring cars, trains, teacups and swings keeps them occupied for most of the afternoon while mummy and I relax with a coffee and doughnut.

One of the highlights for the younger children is the caterpillar mini-rollercoaster. On the day we visit it is temporarily disabled as repairs are carried out, which only helps to create a sense of deepening anticipation. When the ride is eventually opened to the public again scores of children dart out of the popular inflatable village to join the queue.

But the gremlins are still in the system and the rollercoaster operator has to call a mechanic to get the ride going while we sit waiting in the carriages. He does this by physically pushing the carriages along the tracks until they gain enough momentum to carry on unaided (I’ve never been mechanically minded but this seems a strange remedy to me). Once the rollercoaster is moving it comes into its own, drawing a series of shouts of delight and mock terror from its young occupants.

Our time is almost up and we let the kids pick one last ride each. My nephew goes for the mini wheel and my son for one last bashing session on the bumper cars. This just leaves me enough time to have a go on the Star Flyer, the tallest ride in the park.

We could have stayed for much longer because there’s plenty more to do but the kids were exhausted. Exhausted but delighted. All the way home from S13 they talked about their favourite rides and asked questions about when we could go back again.

When I put my son to bed I noticed he was still wearing his bracelet. I went to take it off but he insisted I leave it. It’s his reminder of the day of fun.

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The smart bracelet

I found my old watch today. It had been gathering dust in a cupboard for the last six months or so.

I say watch but it actually goes by the name of ‘smart bracelet’.

After charging the battery the only task that remained was to set the time.

So I looked at it.

I pressed it.

I swiped it.

I tapped it.

I shook it.

I scratched my head.

Then I looked at it some more.

I pressed it again.

I swiped it again.

I tapped it again.

I shook it again.

I don’t want to get too monotonous here but this cycle was repeated several times.

Until I finally concluded definitively that there is no way to change the time on a smart bracelet. If the time on the display is wrong then you’ll just have to alter the speed that our planet is spinning. A less daunting task, it seemed.

So I did what I always do when hopelessly floundering. I googled it.

The only drawback with this is that I don’t know the brand name of my smart bracelet so I had to watch several videos of American and Japanese men enthusiastically showing off the features of their new gadget until I found a device which looked like mine.

I watched a video. And discovered I was right, you can’t change the time on a smart bracelet.

What you have to do instead is ‘sync’ your smart bracelet with your mobile phone via Bluetooth.

This alien process includes downloading a health app which asked me my a) height b) weight and c) what I want to achieve.

a) not sure

b) don’t know

c) just to set the time.

I successfully downloaded the app. The time display magically corrected itself on the watch. But now the app keeps making strange requests, asking permission to do things like ‘analyse your sleep’.

I thought of a simpler time, when I was a happy schoolboy with a digital watch bought at the Lammas Fair. Setting the time was simple, you just stuck a safety pin into a little hole.

Those times are gone. These days my smart bracelet is smarter than me.

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5 great insults

There are some things you can only say to someone you really love.

With that in mind here are my five favourite insults delivered to me by my son recently.

1 ‘Daddy, if we were all put in prison then I would escape through the bars and I’d drag mummy out too but your big, fat belly would get stuck.’

2 ‘Daddy, it will be good when you die because I really like going to graveyards.’

3 ‘Daddy, can you please not sit beside me because you smell like poo.’

4 ‘Daddy, mummy does the news on TV, why do you never do anything?’

5 Screaming during a red-faced tantrum.

‘I hate you daddy! I hate you!’

Daddy looks hurt.

‘But I love you son.’

Son looks momentarily confused. Then he yells.

‘I love you and I hate you daddy!’

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In space nobody can hear you scream

The first signal that it’s a day to be endured rather than enjoyed is the weather.

I open the blinds and it looks like the world has toppled off its axis and landed in a huge bowl of rancid chicken soup. There’s no definition to the sky, it’s just a ubiquitous sickly grey. The rain is incessant, steady and merciless, like a method of torture.

It’s a holiday, Easter Monday, so there’s no school to give some parental respite. Instead we’ll have to entertain our four-year-old, although we’re already weary from the daily struggle of finding educational things to do. Over the past week he has been at the zoo, the folk museum and an open farm. All attractions which have the advantage of large open spaces where he can run around inventing his own games while I’m forced to feign interest as a woman in period costume displays the ancient craft of basket weaving.

But the weather eliminates the chance of going to any outside attraction today. I’m tempted by the thought of just plumping him down on the sofa with a big bowl of popcorn while Peter Rabbit loops on the TV, but the guilt of failing to at least try to provide him with a day he’ll remember in years to come overcomes me.

Over a hurried and unsatisfactory breakfast mummy and I settle on the planetarium. As we run to the car, my socks already dampening, I’ve got a low feeling. None of us say anything but the weather is deepening the sense of gloom as I drive along the motorway. There’s a heaviness to the day which seems to infect us all, seeping into our bones and souls. Our son is crabby and angry and weeps at a series of imagined offences.

We arrive at the planetarium in good time. The car park is full but as I drive around a vehicle pulls out and vacates a spot. Perhaps things won’t be so bad?

I ask for admission for three but the stocky woman at reception meets my inquiry with a gaze somewhere between contempt and pity.

‘Have you booked for any of our shows?’

‘Uh…no. We just thought we’d turn up.’

She sighs. All the shows are fully booked. In order to get admission today we would really have needed to book several years before my son was born. I nod like a chastised schoolboy. Then, we are told, for two quid each we can instead explore the exhibition rooms and take part in the craft activities. I quickly hand over the money and stumble inside.

But there’s a problem. It’s a wet day and most of the parents in this solar system have decided to come to the planetarium today. The exhibition and games rooms are heaving with droves of screaming children and haunted parents pretending to read boards explaining lunar exploration. The craft rooms are like an episode of Blue Peter on speed, a whirl of flashing scissors, puddles of glitter and little boys and girls with their limbs glued to tables.

This is worse than I’d feared. My little boy hates crowds and despises noise so he disappears into himself, refusing to take part in any games or activities. Experience has taught us that we just have to wait for him to come round in his own time. Experience has also taught us that this usually occurs five minutes before closing time.

There seems little else to do other than to grab a cup of coffee. So we go to the smallest and most overpopulated cafe I’ve ever sipped in, presumably set up that way so patrons can experience the discomfort of an astronaut living in the space station.

My son keeps finding new ways to fall out with me, at one point bawling because he doesn’t like the way I opened his packet of crisps. I’m continually nudged and bumped by passing customers, invariably at the exact moment when I’ve got a mug of scalding black coffee just inches from my face.

It’s all going so badly that I ask my son if he wants to leave. I offer instead to take him to an adventure playground. He ignores me. I’m not sure he’s even heard me.

But then some other family members turn up to meet us, including my son’s three-year-old cousin. Presumably the logic is if we’re going to be miserable, we might as well all be miserable together. However, having more familiar faces here does reinforce my son’s confidence and we’re ready to have another crack at the craft activities.

In one packed room children are making astronauts out of plasticine. A very kind staff member welcomes us and then proceeds to show my son how to build his own spaceman. I’m presuming she has been chosen for this job because she has some artistic talent, perhaps some Tony Hart inspired gift for making things. Then she presents us with a slab of plasticine which resembles a limp phallus, rather than an astronaut. We decide to proceed on our own.

Soon we have our own clumsily assembled spaceman and an egg carton which I pass off as a spaceship.

Then we go to the dressing up and video game room, full of models of space shuttles, telescopes and space stations. It’s fun for a bit but quickly descends into a series of tantrums, with the two cousins apparently competing to be the most pink-eyed and lachrymose.

They argue over the choice of two seemingly identical space helmets and bawl over other children spoiling the game where they burst imaginary bubbles with their feet. At one point the weeping has become so persistent that I lift my son and ask him why he’s crying.

Between sobs he responds: ‘I….can’t….remember….’

We manage to put in most of the afternoon in this way, keeping an eye on our watches, thinking about what’s a decent amount of time before we go home. When we eventually announce our departure there are more inevitable tantrums. I manage to calm my son down with gentle hugs and encouragement. Then he asks.

‘So, are we going to the adventure playground now then?’

My explanation that it’s too late for that brings another flood. His tears mix with the rain as we walk back to the car. It feels like the rain, and the tears, will never end.

We tried very hard to make it an educational day. I did learn something. One day on Mercury lasts almost 59 earth days. So does one wet day as a parent.

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Friday afternoon

Parenting, for me, is all about routine.

When you find something that works you stick with it. Yes, there are lots of new and exciting challenges, but a few faithful old familiar signposts keeps the rickety old vehicle ticking along.

And pretty soon a routine becomes something more, something automatic, almost sacred in its permanence.

So it is with our Friday afternoons. Ask my son what we do on Friday afternoon and he will unhesitatingly tell you ‘It’s McDonald’s and magazine day’.

I can’t actually remember a time anymore when I didn’t get him a McDonald’s and a magazine on a Friday. And I don’t want to.

I’ve come to believe that the whole stability of the world’s capitalist economic system may depend on my following this routine. Any divergence from it might lead to the value of stock markets collapsing, hyperinflation, rioting in the streets and widespread looting.

I just can’t risk it.

And so I find myself leading my son by the hand into the garishly coloured interior of our local McDonald’s restaurant.

My four-year-old knows independently how to order his Happy Meal on the touchscreen kiosk. He’s even able to use my debit card to make a contactless payment.

It occurs to me that this renders my role somewhere close to redundant. But I don’t let on.

We take a seat. There’s a huge photo on the wall facing us of a dark haired woman smiling as she’s about to stuff a burger into her mouth. It’s about as far away from reality as it’s possible to get. I’ve never, ever seen an adult smile in McDonald’s.

The Happy Meal arrives in its little red box. Chips, chicken nuggets and a plastic toy.

This week it’s Peter Rabbit, complete with his own carrot cannon.

I warn my son that if he fires the carrots in the restaurant he will likely lose them.

Not ten seconds later he fires the carrots off the end of the table. They skid along the floor and under a table where a scary looking man with tattoos is sitting alone.

He looks at me with tears heavy in his eyes (I mean my son, not the man with tattoos), so I have to go on my hands and knees under the table to find the toy while mumbling apologies.

And there’s something just a bit icky about being on your hands and knees on the floor of a McDonald’s. There’s something about the environment which just feels grubby.

Which is surprising because there always seems to be a team cleaning the floor.

You can accuse McDonald’s of many things but being under-staffed is not one of them. Like an army of ants the staff move around the restaurant. It’s not always clear what they are doing, but they’re definitely doing something.

I watch a young staff member with a mop as he determinedly cleans a small square of the floor. He looks around nervously to see if anyone is watching, and then cleans it again.

If you were to invent the environment least attractive for the consumption of food it would probably be something close to this. But my son, like just about every other young person, loves it so we keep going back.

Before I leave I take him to the bathroom to clean his hands. I notice there’s a sachet of ketchup in the water of the toilet bowl.

I flush the toilet but when the water settles the ketchup is still floating there.

We walk the short distance to Marks and Spencer to fulfil the second half of the routine. Buying a magazine.

There’s a huge market in over-priced kids’ magazines. I suppose I could pretend that buying them is justified as an educational reading aid. But the truth is the mag is always unread, my son just wants the plastic toy.

If I had to pick one aspect of being a parent I was not expecting it would be the abundance of plastic tat. Utterly useless cheaply made crap which is played with once and then thrown to the bottom of the toy box.

There’s probably a plastic island floating in the Arctic Ocean, populated by polar bears and seals which has been formed by discarded magazine toys.

Today my son chooses a Peppa Pig mag. He’s happy with his choice and ready to leave.

But I just can’t help myself. I look at the toy, a plastic Peppa and George and a little swing. It just seems a little lame.

I find a Chuggington magazine which has three little trains as the gift.

‘Are you sure it’s Peppa you want buddy? Look at Chugginton, three trains!’

My son thinks about it.

Then he decides he does want Chuggington. And Peppa Pig as well.

‘No, no buddy,’ I protest, ‘only one.’

He starts to bawl. Deep heavy sobs, snot dripping and tear stains on his cheek. I call it the MOAT (mother of all tantrums).

I try being firm, telling him that if he doesn’t behave he won’t get any magazine. All this does is make matters worse, the tantrum is now nuclear.

I congratulate myself quietly on my great parenting skills.

I settle on buying the Chuggington mag by using the logic that the sob he emits when I put it in the basket is slightly less than it is for Peppa.

He’s exhausted now and I gather him in my arms as we wait in the queue to pay. He keeps mumbling ‘mummy’ into my ear.

Sympathetic women around me smile and make encouraging remarks as the snot and tears creates a spreading dark stain on the shoulder of my jacket.

And that’s our Friday afternoon routine. As I write this my son is at my feet playing with the little trains. If the game lasts for more than 15 minutes I’ll consider it a fiver well spent.

There’s another routine closing in around us. He’ll fight against it to the end and I’ll welcome it like my oldest and best friend.

The routine of sleep.

PS Re-reading this post it occurs to me it is slightly gloomier than had perhaps been my intention.

Just after I published it I played Chuggington with my son. The Chuggington theme song quickly evolved into ‘Huggington’ which became a cuddling game.

Note to myself: Never forget the sheer joy of it.

It’s almost 7pm now. That’s our bedtime. Night night x