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.

1

The quiet one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So instead I just nodded my head and mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

Sleep, interrupted

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

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

Sometimes I do, but often I fall short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

Digging potatoes

This story has been under composition in my mind for some time.

Several months in fact. Right from the time my son and I planted the seed potatoes in bags of muck back in the spring.

And the narrative I’ve been mentally polishing has always been much the same. A heartwarming tale of another adventure which brings the two of us closer together. From planting and tending, through to excitedly digging the spuds, picking them from the black soil like precious stones. Him learning from me something about the sacred provenance of the food he eats. Another step in his journey towards enlightenment. The passing on of experience and wisdom from one generation to the next.

It’s a lovely story. But there’s one glaring problem. It’s a complete fantasy, riven with untruth from start to finish. And I’ve always thought that if this blog is to have any merit at all then it needs to be ruthlessly honest.

The real version is this. Months back I thought it would be a valuable experience if my boy was to get some experience in growing food that he ate. I mentioned the potato idea to him a few times but it rarely seemed to break the surface of his notice.

I bought the bags, the seeds and the soil and set it all up in the back yard. I called for him to assist me but he didn’t immediately move. I finally managed to secure about half of his attention by promising that we were going to grow chips. He stood miserably at the side of the grow bags while I tried to rouse some enthusiasm.

I showed him the seed potatoes and urged him to plant them deep in the soil.

He didn’t want to.

‘It’s ok buddy, don’t worry about getting your hands dirty.’

He gave me a look which seemed to suggest that his objection was based upon distaste, not concerns over hygiene.

‘You do it daddy.’

I sighed. Eventually we reached a compromise that he would place the seeds on the top of the dirt and then I would push them down. He did a couple and then went back to his iPad to watch Ryan’s Toy Review while I completed the job.

As the months passed I made sure the grow bags were properly watered every day and got plenty of sun. Occasionally I would mention their progress to my son, particularly when the leaves began to push out of the compost. He never asked about it once.

Today I made a large fuss over the process of emptying the bags and sifting through the soil to find the potatoes. My son promised he would help.

Then I upturned the first bag, sending a number of bugs scurrying for cover. My son retreated a few steps. I began to break up the packed soil with my hands.

‘Come on buddy, let’s get stuck in.’

He didn’t move and looked at me with scepticism.

‘You do it daddy.’

So I did, with him standing back and giving me directions when he spotted a pale potato.

In truth the harvest in the first bag was miserable. I grabbed a couple of small potatoes and held them up towards my son hopefully. They were smaller than marbles. He looked unimpressed.

Then I went to fetch the second bag. When I returned my son was gone, back to his virtual world of games and impersonal connections.

I went on. The crop in the second bag was much better, with some largish potatoes which would not have looked out of place in a grocer’s shop. I scooped up a couple and went running into the house.

‘Look buddy! Look at these potatoes!’

He was sitting with his iPad on the sofa.

‘That’s great daddy,’ he said without looking up.

And there I was. Standing uselessly with a large potato in each hand and finally getting the point. My son is not interested. He will give me the minimal amount of his attention to allow me to take the photos, begin the process, gather enough material for a blog. But his heart is not in it.

I went back to my digging a little subdued and wounded. And as I filled the basin with grubby little spuds I reasoned it out in my mind.

As a daddy I want the right to choose what my son will be interested in, to be the guiding hand in his choices. At the root of it all I want him to be a reflection of me.

But he’s not me. He’s his own person and every day his choices take him a little bit further away from me.

Perhaps some day he will be interested in growing potatoes, and classical music, and cricket, and the Muppet Christmas Carol. But he will get there at his own speed and because he has found the direction all on his own.

I can’t live my own life again through my child and I shouldn’t try. Kids go their own way and can’t simply be moulded like clay.

I’ll always shake my head in despair at the computer games that absorb his attention but I can’t compel him towards something else because I think it is of more worth. That’s just how it is.

I’m sifting through the last bag and unearthing the final few potatoes. I’m covered in a fine film of sweat and there is mud on my shorts and under my fingernails. From a slow start the little basin is now almost full. It’s close to impressive.

My son surprises me by reappearing in the garden. He walks over and peers at the haul.

‘There’s a lot there now, isn’t there daddy?’

‘Yes buddy.’

‘And can we use them to make chips tonight?’

‘Yes we can.’

‘And can we bring some down to show Granda?’

‘Of course.’

He pauses for a moment and looks again at the spuds.

‘I did really well with the potatoes, didn’t I daddy?’

‘You did buddy. You really did.’

0

(Not) In my back yard

It’s a sunny afternoon near the end of the holidays. My son and I are in the back garden and perhaps there’s a slight feeling of melancholia carried in the warm summer breeze, a regret over how fast the time passes. I probably feel it more than he does.

I’m doing something with the old lawnmower pretending not to hear him complaining about the bird poo on the seat of his blue swing. I’ve just nipped into the house to connect a plug when my son’s urgent shout brings me running back out.

‘Daddy! Daddy! Someone’s parked their car in our house!’

It takes me a few seconds to catch his meaning. He leads me to our back gate, I open the creaking wooden structure and there it is, a muddy black car parked directly across the end of our driveway, blocking access to the rear yard.

We look about for a few minutes, thinking possibly that someone is visiting us or delivering a package to our house. But nobody can be found and the conclusion is clear. The driver has blocked our gate while he or she has gone to carry out whatever their business is in our estate.

We walk around the car. I take a few photos. My son is snapping at my heels, buzzing agitatedly.

‘Daddy, they can’t park there! This is our house! Call the police!’

I’ve seen my share of residential parking disputes over the years. I had a neighbour once who, if anyone dared to park on the pavement in front of his terraced house, would emerge and roar about how long he had lived on this street and how he had earned the right to park outside his own fucking house.

I had other neighbours who, if they determined that a car had parked too close to their front door, would surround that car front and back with their own two vehicles in a pincer movement, making it close to impossible for the offending driver to drive away. It was a crude way of making a point.

I know anecdotally from family members of another man who has put nails under the tyres of cars that parked on the footpath at the end of his garden. I’m aware of another person who leaves sarcastic notes on the windscreens of cars which park anywhere near the end of her driveway.

I’ve always tried not to get involved, determined, as ever, to see both sides of the argument. After all, I have reasoned, the planet is heading for climate change apocalypse and politics has become debased and shockingly toxic, so it makes no sense to get heated over something as trivial as inconsiderate parking. That’s what I tell myself.

But now here I am, feeling my mood darken because a car has blocked my driveway. I argue internally that this is different, this car is actually on my land, blocking an entrance route. I’ve every right to bristle at the trespass. I tell myself that I’d love to give the driver a stern lecture and a poisonous glare, if only I wasn’t so profoundly petrified at the prospect of human confrontation.

And then something occurs to me. My son is angry, more angry than I am. He’s six-years-old. I know what’s happening here. He’s aping my behaviour, doing what he thinks I’ll do, and what he thinks I want him to do. But he’s six-years old and I don’t want him or me to be annoyed on this sunny afternoon, even if my instinct is telling me that I’ve every right to be.

So I sit on the swing with the bird poo and I ask him why he’s angry. He tells me it’s because the car has parked on our land, on the stones that distinguish our plot from the road outside.

Which is true. But it’s also true that I never use the back gate for access. The car, while parked inconsiderately, is causing us no material harm and perhaps it’s not worth getting steamed about.

I try to explain this to my son, telling him that we’ve no way of knowing why that car has parked there, perhaps the driver had an emergency, perhaps he did not recognise it as a entrance point. Or perhaps, I suggest, he or she did it deliberately and always make a point of parking in the most antagonistic fashion they can manage. We have no way of controlling the behaviour of others, just of ourselves. My son looks confusedly at me before he runs off to play another game.

I’ve got a news alert on my phone. It’s from the BBC and tells me that swathes of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil are burning at record rates. I put the phone back in my pocket.

It’s about an hour later when I finally get round to mowing the lawn. My son is now playing indoors and I’m clearing toys off the grass. I’ve left the back gate open, perhaps as a way of making a point.

Then I hear the crunch of footprints on stones nearby. A car door opens and an engine reluctantly growls into life.

I stand tall and, just for a moment, consider that I should go and talk to the driver. Maybe we’d have a good yarn about it, maybe he or she would apologise, I’d say it’s fine and we’d have a shared laugh at the misunderstanding. Maybe the driver would get defensive and annoyed and some relationship would be poisoned, but at least I’d have made my point.

But, as I said earlier, I’m a coward by instinct. I return to my mower and watch the car drive away in the cracks between the slats of my old garden fence. There are more clouds in the sky now than earlier and I feel the breeze on my bare forearms and see it play with the leaves at the end of the thin branches at the far side of the garden. I notice that there are blackberries on the thorny bushes, the first I’ve seen this year, a sign that summer is on the wane. I get on with cutting the grass.

2

The Chronicles of Larnia

Our story begins, as stories often do, with a long journey.

The travellers are in good spirits. That lasts until they reach the end of the driveway and the youngest asks for the first time ‘Are we nearly there yet?’

Daddy grips the steering wheel a little tighter. To ease the tension mummy puts on CD of CS Lewis stories. They tell of mystical lands, fantastic creatures and magic. Daddy’s mind begins to cast its own spell.

Some time later we come to a strange place. The road signs tell us it is known as Larne.

‘I don’t like it here,’ the son whimpers quietly in the back of the car.

‘Aha,’ retorts daddy. ‘But this is merely the gateway, the passage into our world of adventure. We are now entering the Antrim coastal route, a magical place of sweeping glens, rugged landscapes and settlements with strange names – Waterfoot, Ballintoy, Lisnagonugue. At the very far end of the kingdom is the mythical place known as Barry’s Amusements where legend has it that the deep magic casts a spell so that currency loses all value.

‘We are now entering,’ daddy exclaims proudly, ‘the kingdom of Larnia.’

A hard edge comes into his son’s voice.

‘Seriously daddy?’

Mummy rolls her eyes and watches the raindrops on the car window.

The Chronicles of Larnia encompass seven stories which cover all of our heroes’ adventures in the enchanted land.

THE MAGICIAN’S SON

The party reach the pretty ancient village of Glenarm and find the small glamping pod on the edge of a hill which is to be their home for the next two nights. It emerges that the kingdom of Larnia exists under a strange curse where it is always raining, but never summer.

Mummy and daddy concur that the views of the coast are majestic. Son prefers to play on daddy’s phone. Then son expresses alarm as he explores their quarters and finds only a small bunk bed. Daddy, however, has knowledge of the deep magic and transforms the sofa into a pullout double bed. Son gazes upon daddy with newfound respect.

THE DADDY, THE SOCKS AND THE UNDERPANTS

Daddy neglected to begin packing until two minutes before our heroes left their home. Thus, when they arrive at their quarters in Larnia he finds that he is bereft of spare socks and pants. Daddy enters a sombre introspective mood.

Rather than spend currency on replacing his garments he decides to wash and reuse what he is already wearing. Unfortunately Larnia’s harsh climate forbids the drying of clothes. Daddy has to wear wet pants and socks throughout the adventures. It brings merriment to all at first until he goes to a public toilet and realises his pants have stuck to his skin like velcro.

On the second night, during high winds, the socks and pants mysteriously disappear from the fence where daddy left them. Daddy returns home closer to nature than he left.

THE BALL AND HIS BOY

At the end of a tiring day as the party return to quarters son demands a toy is purchased for his leisure.

Daddy’s explanation that they are many miles from civilisation and that there are no toy shops or Amazon here is met with a threatening silence.

Eventually daddy finds a roadside garage, refuels and returns to the car triumphantly with a brightly-coloured plastic set containing two sticky mitts and a ball.

‘Seriously daddy?’ son says waspishly. ‘That’s the worst toy I’ve ever seen.’

Daddy is wounded.

Back at quarters mummy and daddy attempt to rouse some enthusiasm for the decrepit toy by wearing the mitts and throwing the ball between them in the drizzle.

Son is unimpressed.

Eventually he relents and agrees to take a turn with the ball. He draws his arm back….

And hurls the ball off the edge of the cliff.

There is a stunned silence.

And then he begins to wail.

‘That was my favourite toy….that was my favourite toy!’

Mummy’s attempt to bring comfort falter and son pleads with daddy.

‘You can get it back for me can’t you daddy?’

Daddy climbs over the fence and peers over the edge of the mountain and down the steep muddy slope with a lack of certainty.

‘Uh….ok son.’

He begins to slowly walk down the sheer verge. He falls on his arse and slides down the sheer verge. He feels his shoes and shorts fill with mud. The ball is located and recovered. Daddy hurls it back to the top triumphantly.

It emerges that son has already lost interest and is now playing a game on mummy’s phone. Daddy is left alone to scale the dangerous ascent back to quarters.

Overconfidence strikes him when he gets to the top and tries to leap over the fence with a single bound and ends up painfully trapped on top of the wire, with one testicle on either side.

PRINCE JAMES: THE RETURN TO LARNIA

A combination of excitement and tiredness is bringing out the worst in son and he rows constantly with mummy and daddy.

When daddy tries to reason with him he whines incessantly ‘Daddy’s not being nice to me!’ Sleeping arrangements at quarters are a vexed issue.

Daddy’s initial suggestion that he and mummy should take the double bed while son takes the bunk bed is not well received.

A compromise is reached that mummy will share the bunk with son until he falls asleep and then return to the double where daddy is resting.

Instead it is mummy who falls asleep on the bunk bed first and moments later son wanders into the room with the double and crawls in beside daddy.

Then he sprawls out across the mattress.

‘Move over daddy! No room, move over!’

Eventually daddy is forced from the double and has to go and join mummy huddled in the bunk bed while son sleeps serenely in the double.

Daddy endures a miserable troubled sleep. He eventually drops off sometime after 4:50am.

At 5am son roughly shakes him awake.

‘Time to get up daddy! Time for more adventures!’

THE VOYAGE OF THE SEAT ALTEA

The journey through the magical lands of Larnia is undertaken in daddy’s faithful old trusty vehicle. Unfortunately the car proves unequal to the task of navigating the narrow winding roads which stretch across the landscape.

During one adventure mummy notices a foul odour and smoke coming from the engine. It is agreed that engine oil and water are required.

At the nearby garage mummy instructs daddy to open the bonnet. He scratches his chin and looks puzzled.

Mummy opens the bonnet and tells daddy to insert the oil and water. He peers round the side.

‘Do you know where they’re supposed to go?’

Later on, with the noble vehicle restored to health, the party stop for dinner in the coastal village of Carnlough.

When they return to the car daddy tries to open it with the key fob.

Nothing happens.

‘Now the darned key’s not working,’ he complains bitterly. ‘I’m cursed I tell you.’

He tries to open the car door by inserting the key into the lock. The car alarm goes off. He realises this is not his car.

Our heroes flee on foot.

THE SILVER TOKENS

Eventually the mythic land of Barry’s Amusements is reached and stormed.

The legends turn out to be true. Currency has no meaning here. Notes are given over and little bags of silver tokens are handed out in return.

‘That should keep us going for the rest of the day’, daddy says hopefully.

Fifteen minutes later he is sent back to the booth to secure more of the magic silver tokens.

THE LAST BATTLE

It is still raining. In truth it never really stopped.

It is three in the morning. Mummy and son are sleeping in the double. Daddy is wide awake on the bunk writing The Chronicles of Larnia because….well because that’s just what he’s like.

We’ll be going home in a few hours.

A lot seems to have happened, much time seems to have slipped away. But when we get back it will be like not a second has passed and the world will carry on as before with work, school and routine.

Perhaps after a while, when hard logic surrounds us again, we’ll not quite believe Larnia ever existed at all.

But then some evening when we’re all together we’ll talk about it, we’ll recall the fun we had. The time daddy forgot his pants, the time son threw the ball over the cliff and daddy had to get it, the time daddy tried to get into the wrong car. We’ll remember the laughs and then all of the magic will come flooding back again.

1

Minding your bap

It starts with a message from a man who I don’t know.

He says he likes my blog and asks would I be interested in taking part in a podcast.

The problem is I don’t know what a podcast is.

But then, a couple of years ago I didn’t know what a blog was.

I send him a message asking for more information and he sends me some links. I start to watch the first episode.

I watch two men in a studio talking about mental health. In truth it’s a little robotic. But it’s also funny, direct and incredibly well-intentioned.

I watch a few more episodes. I see the two men begin to relax, to find their comfort zone and their true voices. They tackle difficult subjects in an accessible and positive way.

The podcast is called Mind Your Bap. I send a message back to this man.

‘I’d be delighted to take part.’

A few days later I’m in a studio. It’s a different studio than they had used before because people had been telling them that the sound quality on their podcasts wasn’t great. This is a radio studio from where Lisburn’s 98FM is broadcast and it is full of microphones.

There are four other people here. Robbie is a small bearded man and Marty is a large bearded man. I’m a medium bearded man so I feel immediately at home.

Sarah completes the Mind Your Bap team, doing all the camera and production work and holding the whole thing together. Michael runs the studio and quietly asks Marty not to break anything.

Michael asks Marty to tap the microphone to ensure it’s working. Then he has to show him which part of the microphone to tap.

Robbie and Marty are the unlikely duo who are the faces of Mind Your Bap. A local politician and a businessman who have come together to try and start a positive conversation about mental health.

They tell me they are Liverpool supporters. I think of great partnerships in history. Keegan and Toshack. Dalglish and Rush. Torvill and Dean. Little and Large.

We take our seats. There’s no real rehearsals or discussion about what we’ll talk about. Marty has scratched a few questions on a notebook which he shows to me. Robbie asks him if he can have a page from the book.

Then they practise the fist bump. The fist bump is a big thing on Mind Your Bap, the signature move which starts and ends every podcast. But in the new studio Robbie is at the other side of the desk. It’s agreed that Marty and I will do the fist bump.

The fist bump is is important. It’s their signature, their calling card, what they’re known for.

We start filming. We forget to do the fist bump.

The format is simple. The guys ask me to tell them about my experiences, about a life spent battling depression and anxiety.

I nod my head. Then I begin to talk.

As I said I’ve watched a few of the earlier blogs. They are often about 12 minutes long. Some of them are 20 minutes.

When I stop to take a breath Robbie tells me that we’ve been going for more than 40 minutes. And I’ve still got loads more to say. The truth is it’s been easy, comfortable and natural. Robbie and Marty let the conversation assume its own dynamic, gently nudging it in the right direction. The camaraderie is the strength of the format.

We take a break and have coffees. Marty and Robbie film a shorter piece, a promo for upcoming episodes. They agree that they will start talking after one claps his hands. Then the camera begins and they both clap their hands at the same time. Then they laugh and row gently as each claims that the hand clap was their designated task.

Then they record the promo. Robbie talks about my upcoming appearance. He mentions one of my recent blogs, the one I wrote about getting lost in a small village called Corbet. He talks about how Corbet is a metaphor for feeling lost in life. How we all have our own versions of Corbet, a place of uncertainty and fear.

I’m impressed. He’s found a depth in my writing that I didn’t know existed. I nod along sagely.

Then I’m back behind the microphone to record some more. I talk about launching my blog and writing about mental health problems. It’s honest and raw and I’m on the edge of tears a few times.

It feels like we could probably talk all day but Sarah is waving her arms frantically. We’ve gone on for so long that the batteries in the cameras are starting to fail. We have to wrap it now.

I finish the podcast by reading one of my blogs. It’s the one I wrote as a letter to myself when I was a younger man, a letter that seemed to touch a lot of people (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2019/05/17/letter-to-my-pre-parent-self/).

There’s no sound in the studio as I read other than my thick country bumpkin accent. My words are always intended to be read, I never expected to be reading them aloud. A few times I have to fight to hold my composure as I feel the emotion washing over me.

Then I finish and the silence stretches on for just a couple of seconds. I think in that silence there is a shared recognition that we have achieved something together. Out of all of the messiness and the laughter we have created something bigger than its own parts.

Then we do the fist bump.

And it’s over.

We hang around chatting for a bit, perhaps unwilling to let go of the feeling that’s been created.

But then handshakes are exchanged because we all have to go back to our own lives.

As we leave we tell each other that we’d like to meet another time, to do something together again.

I hope we do.

 

* Subscribe to Mind Your Bap on YouTube (I’ve no idea how, but I’m sure you can work it out).
* Next episode (the first one with me) is available on Thursday evening, August 15
* Follow the guys on Twitter @mindyourbap
* Follow Mind Your Bap on Facebook
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Welcome to Corbet

As summer days go this one is pretty close to perfect. The sun is bringing out the pale freckles on my son’s skin and it’s an afternoon of fun. We’re in a large playground in Banbridge and the jollity of the children playing here seems infectious.

There’s a new spirit of adventure within my boy which enables him to go on the big slides and tall climbing frames which previously he would only have gazed at longingly. Even better, he’s playing happily with his two cousins and not insisting that I follow him around every moment, climbing with him and descending the slides with him on my lap.

He’s so relaxed that I’m able to leave him happily in the care of his aunt while I go to Tesco’s and buy something for mummy’s dinner. Usually this is an agonised procession with him following me up and down the aisles, moaning about how bored he is.

Even the act of departing the park passes without complaint as I buy him an ice cream and we chat happily while walking back to the car. The amiable conversation continues as I drive from the car park, discussing what I’m going to make for dinner for when mummy gets back from work.

Getting home should be no problem. I’ve driven this route many times before, straight through Banbridge and then up the A1 towards Hillsborough. But perhaps today I’m just a little bit too relaxed, chatting so much that I’m not thinking about the journey.

Whatever it is, I drive for about ten minutes before I turn to my son and say: ‘Buddy, do you have any idea where the hell we are?’

To give some context I am famously bad at navigating. I’ve lived close to Lisburn for many years but still am unable to drive through the town centre without getting lost. Worse, I often get confused in my house in the dark at night when I wake up and have to go for a midnight pee.

Once, in a hotel, I mistakenly stumbled into a walk-in wardrobe and had difficultly finding my way out.

So here I am, I’ve clearly taken a wrong turn and now I’m driving along a rural road in Co Down trying to find anything that I recognise or a sign that will guide me to where I need to go.

Then, just as I’m beginning to lose hope, we spot a settlement. A small village.

‘Here we are buddy, here’s a little town. We’ll be able to work out where we are now.’

We pass a sign. It reads ‘Welcome to Corbet.’

I read it aloud. My son begins to laugh. There is something onomatopoeically comic and pleasing about the name. Don’t be a Corbet! You’ve dropped a Corbet! Stuck in Corbet! I don’t give a Corbet!

I’ve lived in this area for a few years but I’ve never heard of Corbet.

I look for a sign to tell me how to get home. There aren’t any. There are no people in the street. Corbet seems to be a strange, ghostly place and we pass quickly through it.

I turn off onto a smaller road and drive some more. Then I make another turn, and another. My (admittedly flawed) logic is that if I drive for long enough I’m bound to spot something I recognise.

Then we pull out onto a larger road, after another minute I see a settlement and a sign.

It reads ‘Welcome to Corbet’.

‘Fecking hell’ I whisper, but my son can’t hear me anyway because he’s laughing again. We drive through Corbet again. Still there are no people. I wonder if anyone lives here.

This time I go off in another direction. The road I’m driving on now is very narrow, just one lane and no room for passing. It’s when I notice that there is grass growing in the middle of the road that I realise I may have made a terrible mistake.

I speak to my son.

‘You know buddy, I really hope we don’t run into another vehicle on this road.’

No sooner have the words escaped my lips that a huge tractor pulling an even bigger trailer appears on the road in front of me, blocking out the sun. Both vehicles stop. The young farmer driving the tractor meets my eye.

I begin to reverse along the narrow country lane.

Which is hard.

Which probably explains why I drive the rear wheels of my car straight into a ditch.

I pull the car forward, the wheels spinning as they bump out of the trough. Then I reverse again. After what seems like several miles of retreating with my car engine squealing in protest I come to a farm entrance and am able to pull my car in so the tractor can pass.

I look at my son. He looks at me. His role model.

We drive on. A couple of miles later I see a man in a field. I stop the car and get out, waving him over. I ask if he knows the way to Hillsborough.

‘Hillsborough?’ he repeats, scratching his chin, ‘I don’t think you can get there from here.’

Despairingly I ask him if he knows the way to Dromore. He points me in a certain direction, although without confidence.

I follow his direction. I turn onto another road and see a settlement and a sign.

It reads ‘Welcome to Corbet’.

I’m a bit worried now and my usual faith in reason and logic is rapidly fracturing. I consider the possibility that Corbet doesn’t actually exist other than as an idea in my brain. It’s a Blair Witch type vision of horror that I’m condemned to repeat over and over again, each time my hopes are raised only to be shattered when I see the terrible sign ‘Welcome to Corbet’. I’m cursed to keep driving through Corbet until I’ve got a long, white beard, warning off other foolish young travellers who get lost. The Eagles ‘Hotel California’ is going round and round in my head.

‘You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!’

At this point I would probably surrender to the Corbet curse entirely if it wasn’t for the fact that I have my son beside me and he wants his dinner. I gather myself and try again, even though leaving Corbet is evidently harder than leaving the EU.

We set off again, on another road which I’ve never seen before in my life. We drive a few miles until we come to a settlement. The only really good thing I can say about this village is that it is not Corbet.

We come to a little crossroads and I finally see a road sign, causing my heart to leap.

The arrow to the left says ‘Dromore 4’

The arrow to the right says ‘Dromore 4’

I sit there. I look at my son, he shrugs his shoulders.

‘At least it’s not Corbet daddy.’

I pick one of the roads and drive for a bit until I see a sign for Dromara, which I know is close to where I live. I follow it. I find a little thatched cottage. Then I find a deli. Then I find an animal hospital. Then I find a really long wall. None of these I have ever seen before.

Then I turn a corner and somehow I’m in Hillsborough. I’m not sure of the route I took. I’m not sure it even actually exists. It felt like we were away for a long time but when he got back to the village we had not been missed. There were no search parties or police hunts. I conclude that an hour in Corbet is but a second in Hillsborough.

I’m still a touch discombobulated and confused as I pull my car into our driveway. My son gets out and falls to his knees on the tarmac, kissing the ground. Then he hugs our house. It all seems a bit melodramatic to me.

We go inside. I make dinner. Mummy comes home from work. My son tells her about Corbet. She laughs and rolls her eyes. We watch some telly. Then we go to bed.

But I can’t sleep.

At some point in the small hours my son wakes from his bed and crawls in beside us. Soon he’s snoring softly.

And then I think I hear him say something. It’s so low that I have to put my ear close to his mouth to hear the whisper. It chills me.

‘Welcome to Corbet….Welcome to Corbet.’