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.

3

The Easter egg conundrum

I have always thought you can tell a lot about a person’s character through their approach to Easter eggs.

It is my considered view that, in broad terms, society can be divided into two groups – those who eat their Easter eggs, and those who keep their Easter eggs. It might not be a surprise to discover that I fall definitively into the former category.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Aside from the religious significance of Easter, for a young boy growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s or 80s, this holiday was pretty much all about the chocolate.

I am aware that there are other egg-themed activities that apparently exist – some people paint eggs, some families roll eggs, some individuals hide eggs and then encourage children to find them.

To be completely clear, I did none of these things, nor did I ever meet another child of my generation who did. Our Easter tradition, simple and direct as it was, consisted of being given lots of foil-wrapped chocolate eggs encased in colourful cardboard boxes, and then eating them (the eggs, not the boxes).

The Easter Bunny was not, to the best of my knowledge, a popular concept in north Antrim either. There was no Santa-esque pretence of rewarding children who were good or obedient with a present from the folkloric rabbit. Your family bought you Easter eggs. That was how it worked.

There was also a raffle in primary school at Easter time. Eggs of various sizes were offered as prizes. The top prize was always a monster-size chocolate egg resting in a basket and surrounded with straw. This scale and style of confectionary, to someone from my sheltered background, seemed impossibly exotic.

The problem was that I never won anything. It might not be an exaggeration to state that much of my pessimistic outlook on life and the world around me was shaped by my consistent lack of success in the Easter raffle. Year after year I got my hopes up. There were multiple prizes and only so many boys in the school. I had usually bought a few tickets. Surely, my name would eventually be drawn. It never happened.

In P7 I decided that I was going to be proactive about changing my luck. I spent all of my pocket money over several weeks on tickets. I scraped together every penny that I could find to ensure that there were more tickets in the hat with my name on them than any other boy in the school. I might not win the monster egg, but I was determined that I was going to win something.

The boys gathered, chattering excitedly, in the school dining hall for the raffle. A dizzying selection of chocolate eggs of varying weight and circumference were displayed proudly on a table on the little stage. The draw was made. I won a Cadbury’s Creme Egg.

Let’s move on from those obvious mental scars and consider the ritual of waking up on Easter Sunday. The egg from my parents would be ripped open and devoured well before 9am. We would then visit relatives where a haul of perhaps another half dozen eggs would be gathered. By the end of Easter Sunday more than half of these would be gone. After that, there was no expectation or possibility that any chocolate eggs would be left beyond Easter Monday.

But this was not the way it was for all children. I had some friends who liked to keep their Easter eggs to ‘make them last’. This practice consisted of opening the confectionary and breaking off a small square. Several hours later they might return for another meagre portion. Considering it was usual for a child to receive multiple eggs, this approach could lead to the treats being stretched out over several weeks.

To be clear, I am not advocating my approach as superior to the other. My habit was clearly not sensible and can be characterised as a series of incidents where I would make myself sick on chocolate, wait until the effects had worn off, and then go and make myself sick all over again.

It was simply that I could not understand the temperament, character, personality or restraint of those who had access to chocolate but were able to follow the path of temperance. These people, while of the same species as me, were clearly driven by different forces.

Such was my desperation for chocolate that once I had finished my eggs, I would very quickly move on to those of people around me given the chance. I remember visiting a cousin who proudly liked to display her undisturbed Easter eggs in their boxes. While she was out of the room, I carefully opened the packaging of one egg, removed a substantial chunk and then replaced the foil and the box so that my theft would not be immediately discovered.

Now, as a parent, my supposed role is that of buying rather than eating the Easter eggs. The problem is that my infatuation with sugar has barely dimmed over the years.

Moreover, my son falls firmly into the category of liking to make his eggs last. He certainly enjoys chocolate, but he will consume a sensible amount and is prepared to wait until he asks for more. In fact, he often seems to take as much pleasure from looking at his collection of eggs in their grand boxes as he does from eating them.

Which brings me at last to the point (yes, there is one). As I write these words there are, not six feet away from me, six Easter eggs on the kitchen counter. They all belong to my son.

In the scale of parental sins, I am not sure where eating your child’s Easter eggs ranks, but it must be pretty high. I am doing everything that I can to resist, but the chocolate is calling for me. Surely he won’t mind if I just have a little nibble….. 

1

After 1085 days, Covid finally catches up with me

According to the website of the World Health Organisation, the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak was declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, just months after the virus was first discovered in Wuhan, China.

As I remember from the beginning, we all referred to it as the coronavirus until the WHO gave it the name Covid-19, which quickly passed into common usage.

What happened next is carved deep enough into our collective memories that it needs no repetition here. Like most others I hunkered down with my family, attempted to obey often fluid and confusing social distancing rules, and waited for my turn to become infected, as it seemed I inevitably would. I recall thinking that when I contracted the virus, I would write about it in this column as a means of helping to raise awareness of the effects.

I remember keenly that early anxiety over the spread of Covid, as it seemed to be inching geographically closer. First there were rumours that someone I knew had it, then a friend on WhatsApp was infected and recovering at home in bed, then several friends, kids at my son’s school, extended family and finally close family.

Covid arrived at our house in December 2021, just in time to wipe out all our plans for that Christmas. My son was infected first. I got the news of his positive test while I was in the car on the M1 driving to a job where I was to interview then First and deputy First Ministers Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill. My participation in the job was quickly abandoned as I had to drive straight home to begin isolation. A few days later my wife tested positive also.

But the strange thing was that the virus somehow refused to settle on me. The opportunities were clearly there. My son, while infected and bored at being unable to leave the house, was my constant companion. During those long days of social isolation, he hugged me, jumped on me, climbed on my head and often sneezed over me. Still, I avoided infection.

I lost count of the number of times I was tested by having swabs stuffed up my nose until they made my eyes water. The results always came back negative. There was the drive-through testing centre which we had to visit every time someone in my son’s class became infected. There was the large walk-in testing centre which was erected in a car park in Lisburn where I was on first name terms with some of the staff.

When I was travelling to the US with work, I needed a negative test on the morning I was due to fly before I was allowed to check-in. When I was holidaying on a cruise ship, I required a recent negative test result to be displayed on my phone before I was permitted to board the walkway which took me towards the giant liner.

As the pandemic progressed, I went through boxes and boxes of home testing kits, following the instructions carefully and putting four drops of solution into the little white plastic box. It was always negative – one line rather than two.

It got to the point where I think that almost everybody I knew had contracted Covid at some point over the last three years – except for me. It wasn’t clear whether this was caused by judicious caution on my part, sheer luck or simply the fact that I don’t have many friends. I had certainly been exposed to the virus, was there some hidden reason why I had not become infected?

I began to read about people who seemed to be naturally resistant. Scientists were seeking them out so they could study those who appeared to be genetically immune to Covid, in the belief that they may hold the secret to keeping the rest of the population safe from future pandemics.

I started to wonder if I fitted into this group and whether I should come forward and volunteer myself as a member of the resistance? Should I allow samples of my blood to be taken, stored and experimented on for the good of all mankind? It seemed a weighty responsibility.

Last week I was tired. This in itself was not remarkable, I am always tired. I have been tired for all of my adult life. It can be difficult to distinguish between an exhaustion which signifies something might be wrong and my general state of being. 

But this fatigue seemed to be particularly acute. My limbs were heavy and felt as if they had been stuffed with straw, like a scarecrow. When I awoke it seemed to be an almost insurmountable effort just to haul myself upright.

I told my wife. She immediately suggested that I test myself for Covid. This surprised me because, like most others, the virus, had now been put to the back of my mind. Moreover, the stock of free home testing kits given to us during the worst of the pandemic were gone. I hadn’t expected to need more.

My wife went to the chemist and bought a box of tests. I, once more, went through the process of sticking the little swab up my nose. Once more it was negative – one line rather than two. I shrugged my shoulders and went to bed to try to restore energy.

The next morning I felt worse, the hours of sleep succeeding only in deepening the wretched exhaustion. In addition, I could now feel the onset of unpleasant flu-like symptoms. My throat felt as if an intruder had two hands around it and was consistently applying more pressure. My wife exhorted me to do another test, I argued that there was no point as it was always negative. She persisted and I relented.

I did the test again. This time, very clearly there were two lines. Now it was my turn to insist upon another test. My schedule was busy, and I simply felt that I couldn’t afford to get the virus. The second test, and then a third, relayed positive results – two lines rather than one.

At my wife’s insistence I went back to bed. I looked up the date the pandemic was declared. Almost three year ago. After 1085 days, Covid-19 has finally caught up with me.

2

Trouble staying awake

It is Friday evening and I am lounging comfortably on the sofa. My son is asleep and the bitter memories of the working week are already beginning to drift away towards a hazy, distant horizon. My wife and I are settling down to watch a film on the telly.

There is a period thriller starring Christian Bale which we have been promising each other we would watch for some time, and now, with no need for an early start the next morning, seems to be the perfect opportunity.

However, it quickly becomes clear we have made a slight miscalculation. The film is rather more challenging than I had anticipated. It is a murder mystery with multiple plot twists and diversions thrown up to send the viewer off in the wrong direction. The plot is heavy and complicated and a couple of times I have to stop and rewind, just to ensure that I am properly following each development. It is harder work than I had imagined for lazy weekend viewing.

However, in film, as in everything else, the more you put into it, the greater the reward. I have invested my energy and what passes for my intellectual rigour into this. I have become engrossed in the story and, as the suspense builds, I am expecting a satisfying conclusion followed by the chat when I will tell my wife that I had it all figured out from the very beginning.

I refill the wine glasses as the tale starts to near its conclusion, mentally recapping on what I know, what I think I know, and a plausible list of possible offenders about to be unmasked. I sit up straight as the pace quickens towards its dramatic conclusion. And then….

And then I fall asleep.

I wake up some time later, still sitting upright on the sofa but with saliva drooling down my chin. My wife is now watching an entirely different programme.

‘What…what happened?’ I splutter. ‘What about the film?’

‘Oh, that finished about an hour ago.’

‘But, but, but…why didn’t you wake me?’

‘You looked so peaceful it seemed a shame to disturb you.’

I make some terse inquiries about how the movie ended before I retire to bed upstairs.

The anecdote described here reveals a concern over the inevitably creeping presence of a new and unwanted sign of ageing – the inability to stay awake when I want to.

This is a phenomenon I have been aware of from youth when I used to witness my dad falling asleep while sitting in his chair. It was simply impossible for him to watch any TV programme for a protracted period of time without dozing off. After a few minutes his head would begin to nod forward slowly like an obedient dog and his eyes would gradually close. Occasionally he would sit upright with a start, waking suddenly, but it was a temporary reprieve. Once the process of dozing off had begun there was no going back.

I used to watch this fascinated as a child. I simply could not comprehend how it was possible to fall asleep while sitting in a vertical position. It seemed to me as difficult a task to achieve as playing a Beethoven piano sonata while wearing oven gloves. No matter how tired I became, how often I would yawn, I could sit up for as long as I wanted without succumbing to sleep.

When I did sleep it had to be in bed, and even that often proved be a challenge. My relationship with rest was always complicated and troubled and I suffered at various points in my life from crippling bouts of insomnia. Occasionally, doctors have prescribed medication to help me sleep, but it never seemed to make much difference. Countless hours of my life have been spent fretting and catastrophising lying awake in the darkest part of the night while those around me slept soundly.

And now, compounding the issue of not being able to sleep when I want to, is the new difficulty of being unable to stop myself sleeping when I don’t want to.

My routine of late-night TV viewing has already been significantly curtailed through my inability to get through an hour of screen time before my head starts to drop.

Reading is even more difficult. Previously, I would have devoured several books a month. Now, I am struggling to make it through several pages a month. I simply cannot stay awake for enough time to gain any momentum in a novel.

I am a member of a WhatsApp group which includes a few friends with a shared love of reading. This is one conversation from last week.

Friend: What are you reading now Jonny?

Me: Mythos by Stephen Fry. I started it in October.

Friend: Oh, is it any good?

Me: Too early to say. I’m only 14 pages in.

And the malaise is spreading. A few times I have found myself dropping off when playing with my son. Once we were in the middle of a race in Mario Kart on his Nintendo when he shouted at me for snoozing. On another occasion I dozed off while supposedly supervising him doing his homework. On this occasion he was rather less prompt in waking me.

Last weekend we were sitting on the floor playing a game of chess. At one point I seemed to be in a strong position, only to succumb to a short nap and then wake to discover that I had lost my queen, two knights, a rook, a bishop and three pawns.

I do worry about where it will all end. Will I fall asleep some afternoon during a conversation with my boss? Will I be against a deadline on some major breaking news story only to awake several hours later with my face stuck to the keyboard with saliva?

These are worrying signs. I usually write this column late at night when everyone else in the house has retired. Often, I write it on my laptop while lying in bed. On more than one occasion I have fallen asleep when writing it (perhaps those who read it will emphasise?).

As it stands, I am simply trying to get to the end before I zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

0

Remembering an old friend, gone far, far too soon

I was walking through the thick crowd of mourners at a funeral when I saw on the other side of the road a man who looked uncomfortable wearing a suit. He was nodding in my direction.

The individual made his way through the throng, grabbed my arm and addressed me by name. I was at a disadvantage in that while I was sure I should know who he was, I didn’t immediately recognise him. 

I stammered as I tried to cover my foolishness and embarrassment, but my face must have given the game away because the man immediately realised my predicament and seemed delighted by it. He began to laugh. It was the warmth of the mischievous smile which gave it away.

‘Brian’, I said. ‘Brian Hutton’.

That meeting of two journalists last October, was on an occasion of almost unbearable sadness. We were in Creeslough to cover the final funerals for the victims of the terrible explosion which had devastated the tiny Co Donegal village. However, even on that most sombre of days, meeting Brian was enough to bring a chink of warmth into my heart. We had not seen each other for the best part of two decades and quickly agreed to grab a coffee.

I first met Brian Hutton in the early years of this millennium when we were reporters at the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. I had been the youngest male journalist in the Belfast newsroom until Brian, a proud Londonderry man, arrived. Being of a similar age and unmarried, we began to socialise together. I remember that he didn’t know a lot of people in the city and we enjoyed a few evenings laughing over pints in the Duke of York bar.

Brian loved to go for long walks (a pursuit I was happy to join him in) as well as to swim in the sea (in which I was happy not to join him). He also loved to eat and I loved to cook, so I made dinner for him a few times. He seemed completely intrigued when he discovered that I baked my own bread and I remember one evening he watched captivated as I kneaded dough as if it was a practice of some mystical importance. When I made loaves, I would often bake an extra one and then wrap it in tinfoil for Brian.

The passing of time means that most of the details of the time I spent working or socialising with Brian Hutton have faded. What I do remember is the shared laughter and his insatiable desire to absorb all the details of a good story. He would listen intently when you told him a yarn or an anecdote, sucking in the details like they were oxygen.

He was also dedicated to his work. On one evening shift he was sent to cover a riot in the Ardoyne area of Belfast. He must have got too close because he ended up injured and was taken to the emergency department of a local hospital, becoming the subject of the story rather than the author.

I suppose over a period of about a year we became friends. If things had kept going in that direction, we may have become very close friends, but I sensed from early on Brian’s restlessness. He seemed to quickly outgrow Belfast and wanted a new challenge. After little more than a year working alongside me, he left the paper in search of different opportunities. We shared a last few pints before his departure and said all the usual things about staying in touch. I have no doubt that we both meant it.

Brian went to work as a reporter in Dublin. I saw his byline in countless newspapers covering major news events over the ensuing years. Perhaps as some sort of acknowledgement of the time we had spent together, I always took an extra few minutes to read a story when I knew he had written it.

And then, on that cold and windy day in Creeslough, he was again sitting across the table from me in a little café. It was far from ideal circumstances for blowing the dust off an old friendship. We were both undoubtedly affected by the surfeit of human suffering we were in the middle of, and both likely felt weighed down by the responsibility of having to file copy from the funerals. I know that I am not the best company when I have imminent work commitments which must be met.

But, despite it all, we chatted warmly for about half an hour. There were a few ‘d’ye remember the day when…’ tales exchanged. We tried to work out the amount of years it had been since we had last spoken and commented on how careless we had been in letting the acquaintance lapse. We talked about adventures in parenthood and how our lives had changed since becoming fathers. I sensed immediately how devoted he was to his young daughter.

I studied the now middle-aged man who sat across from me. The hair was slightly longer than I remembered. There was more weight around the neck and middle and lines at the edges of his features. However, the sense of mischief in the eyes was undiminished, the kindness and love of hearing the details of human experience remained. I felt better for seeing him.

We exchanged numbers before we parted and said that we would make a point of meeting again. I have no doubt that we both meant it.

It was just two months later, in the final hours of 2022, that I got a message informing me that Brian Hutton had died. I was with family to celebrate the end of the year. After I got the message, I retreated to a quiet room as I attempted to absorb the information. I shared the details with my wife and we both sat silently.

Perhaps there was a selfishness in the shock. I have known a few people who have died, but not from my own generation, not someone I had worked and shared so much common experience with. Brian was younger than me.

‘It’s too soon,’ I mumbled to my wife. ‘Far, far too soon.’

There was nothing else to say. 

2

Embracing a new year…and a new coffee machine

I own an old coffee machine.

To give an idea of the vintage, it has been in my possession for roughly twice as long as my son has been alive – and on his next birthday he will reach double figures. I bought it second-hand when I was a young man in my 20s.

The method is simple. There is a little filter on the top into which I place ground coffee. Then I add water and fresh coffee drips into the clear jug below.

I like black coffee with no sugar and have never developed much of a taste for instant brands. I would estimate that I have used the old machine to make thousands of cups of the bitter, steaming black liquid over the years. I drink a coffee first thing after I wake, another around mid-morning, another at lunch and maybe one in the afternoon. I try to avoid coffee at night because I have enough trouble sleeping. I have few ambitions left in life, but one is certainly to just once more get through a night’s rest without having to rise to go to the toilet.

I would freely admit that the old coffee maker is not a thing of beauty. It is large and clunky with a garish silver and black exterior which looks like it belongs to another time. It takes up a lot of space on the kitchen counter and my wife complains incessantly about how ugly it is. When we have visitors, she insists that I hide it.

It is also high maintenance. After each use I have to remove several parts to be rinsed and washed. This has to be done a number of times every day. The wet ground coffee is messy stuff which has a troubling habit of spilling out when I’m cleaning the machine and ending on the floor like the droppings of a prolific mouse.

And, like myself, the machine is starting to show its age. It doesn’t do things quite the way it once did. Sometimes it makes a gurgling noise and emits steam, but no coffee appears. When this happens, I turn it off and on and hit it with several hearty slaps until normality is restored. The coffee does not taste exactly the way it once did, certainly it is unrecognisable from what it served in cafes.

The situation deteriorated further a few months back when I dropped the plastic jug while removing it from the dishwasher. Part of the black handle snapped off and a long crack spread across the surface. My wife assumed that this would put the machine beyond use, but she underestimated my persistence.

I began to stuff the area around the machine with kitchen roll because black coffee now leaked slowly from the crack in the jug. Moreover, because the handle was no longer intact, I had to use oven gloves to hold the jug when I poured the boiling liquid (please do not try this at home!) Worse, because the fall had snapped off part of the lip of the jug, it meant that every time I tried to pour a cup the majority of the coffee would end up on the counter, the floor or over my trousers. Every time I wanted a cup, I had to produce about three times as much coffee as I needed. My wife despaired, but still I went on.

And then, on one black and frosty morning in December, my machine stopped producing hot coffee. I went through the usual torturous routine only to discover that the end product was freezing cold. I tried again and the result was the same. I endured the processes of turning it on and off and walloping it with my hand, but nothing worked. I had to admit the sad reality – it was dead.

‘There’s something wrong with this flipping coffee machine!’ I shouted upstairs to my wife. She did not respond, although I had a strong suspicion that she had heard what I said. I went to the front room and sat on the sofa in the dark, sadly contemplating the rest of my life without coffee. I might have cried a little.

On Christmas morning there were two brightly wrapped presents for me under the tree from my wife and son. I eagerly ripped them open to discover one contained a new coffee machine, and the other coffee capsules.

I eyed the machine suspiciously. It was not the same as the old one. It was smaller and this device worked through the insertion of the little capsules, rather than ground coffee. Furthermore, the instructions said it made Americano, cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate and multiple other drinks. Sniffily, I set the box aside and put my mind to other tasks.

Later in the day I set the machine up on the counter. I had to admit it looked better, being more compact, shinier and sleeker. But the instructions seemed to run to several hundred pages and were mostly indecipherable. I left it again.

I didn’t sleep well that night, tortured by dreams of my old machine. I rose disturbingly early on St Stephen’s morning and headed determinedly for the kitchen. I had braced myself for an ordeal but discovered instead that the new machine was simple to use. It was also much more practical and cleaner. But the most compelling point was the coffee, I had to admit it was far superior.

As I sat at the kitchen table contentedly sipping the black liquid, I went through a process of self-reflection. I thought about how my stubbornness and inability to change had ensured that I had held onto the old machine for years longer than was surely sensible. I shuddered at how annoying my habits must be for those who live with me.

I fear change, but often it turns out that change can make things better. This seemed like a useful lesson to take on board at the start of a new year. I ran excitedly upstairs to my wife who was sleeping.

‘Wake up! Wake up! I’ve figured out the new coffee machine! It’s awesome!’

‘Go away!’

‘Come on, get up! I can offer you Americano, cappuccino, latte, hot chocolate….’

‘Go away, let me sleep!’ she protested, pulling the duvet over her head. 

0

Gathering around the tree in the bleak midwinter

The evening is crisp. The clouds cannot entirely cover the brilliant illumination of the moon. To the delight of my son, our cold breath is visible in the night air.

As the car engine reluctantly grumbles into life, I fiddle with the dial on the radio. I know that even on my ancient vehicle there is the facility to automatically store the channels I like to listen to. But still I am drawn to doing it manually.

I find something I like and turn the volume up slightly. Not quite in tune, I mumble the words of the familiar old carol under my breath.

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan

Earth stood hard as iron

Water like a stone.

I don’t get much further as my son complains about my choice of music. He wants to listen to something electronic on mummy’s phone. I smile indulgently and click the radio back to silent.

It is a short drive to the centre of the village. The same drive that we undertake every morning on the way to school. I am still humming the melody composed by Holst as the car crawls up the hill.

We are early and I’m half expecting us to be the first to arrive at the Christmas tree. Instead, as I drive past, I see that a small crowd has already gathered and a brass band is playing. I drive on a bit, passing a few empty parking spaces and pretending not to hear the playful protests of my wife and son. On a bitter but dry Sunday night, it is a shame not to have a short walk.

As we dander back down the hill I see the little bakery has stayed open late, offering free hot chocolate for under 12s. We enter and order steaming drinks and a cookie iced to look like a reindeer for my boy. My wife chats briefly with the shop owner.

By the time we get to the tree, several hundred people are there. The crowd is bigger than I had expected. I think about how, due to Covid, this is the first time in three years we have been able to hold this event. Perhaps we appreciate it a little bit more now.

A woman hands out little books with the words of carols. I remove my gloves and take one. I brought the gloves to protect my hands against the harsh winter chill, but I can’t turn the pages or take photos on my phone when I’m wearing them. They become just one more unwelcome thing to carry.

I study the handsome large tree with the oversized golden baubles in the little clearing in front of the crowd. The brass band, now playing Away in a Manger, are seated to the side. Some children run around the tree and we exchange greetings with other parents.

Take away the Covid years, and this is an annual tradition. I think about how I stood in much the same spot when my son was still in a buggy. Another year when mummy carried him sleeping through the ceremony. Another when he sat high on my shoulders to get a better view of the tree. Another when he rolled his eyes and complained throughout that he was bored.

Now, he is standing almost as tall as his daddy. I put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he turns around and gives me a quizzical stare.

A brief prayer service begins. There are clergy here from the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Catholic churches. I have a slight feeling of being an imposter, in that I do not follow any faith. I comfort myself with the sense of welcoming which comes from being within a crowd. Messages of concern are expressed for those who are struggling to cope this winter. This is a sentiment which is common, I hope, to those with faith and without.

Then the carols begin. I open the little white book and begin to belt out the lyrics of Once in Royal David’s City as a giant tuba honks beside me.

I have always had complex feelings of insecurity about my own voice and a fear of singing in public. I have been known to lip-sync during renditions of Happy Birthday at parties. Perhaps now, close to 50, I have reached a point where I just don’t care anymore. I summon the notes from somewhere deep inside my lungs and project them high into the cold night air.

I notice that the louder I sing, the more it seems to amuse my son. This encourages me to increase the volume even more. Soon he is opening his mouth wide and waving his arms in a comic impression of an opera singer as he mimics my enthusiasm.

My lusty efforts continue through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night. By the time we reach Mendelssohn’s Hark! The Herald Angels Sing I believe I am rivalling the deep blasts of the tuba.

The mayor comes to the microphone to herald the lighting of the Christmas tree. He leads the children in a countdown from five. When he reaches zero nothing happens and there is mirth within the crowd. The mayor begins another countdown, this time from 10. Eventually the tree is illuminated to cheers and applause. The shimmering vertical lines of white lights sparkle like tiny, distant stars.

The brass band comes to life again, this time with a more playful feel. They play Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I notice that my son is bouncing up and down in time to the melodies. I try to capture some footage of him on my phone, but he quickly notices, and I have to put the mobile back in my pocket.

The service finishes and the crowd quickly disperses. A small queue has formed outside the bakery. I hear a couple of men enquiring of each other about the score of the England match.

We walk up the hill towards our car. The air on this night in the bleak midwinter retains its harsh bite, but we all feel just a bit warmer now.