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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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Shopping

He cursed his own idiocy.

It had been madness to come to the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon.

After all, the shop was open 24 hours, he could easily have come at 1am when the only people here would be the shelf stackers and those inspecting items in the Reduced section.

But here he was, each nudge and jostle adding to his stress levels, prompting thoughts that took him closer towards being a person he didn’t like.

He’d already had an awkward encounter with a young assistant who looked at him with a puzzled expression when he’d asked if the spuds for sale were Earlies.

Then there had been the row with the aggressive young woman over the last pre-prepared cottage pie in the meals-for-one section.

The bitterness of her parting words stayed with him like a curse. Well, I hope ye choke on it….

Now, as he gingerly manoeuvred his trolley, he was looking for an escape route, the quickest way to get his shopping and flee back to the refuge of his home.

But the queues at each checkout were so long that it was difficult to see where they ended. They all seemed to criss-cross and overlap, until it became a sea of confused and bored people.

Then, he spotted it. A checkout with just one shopper. A shopper who seemed close to being ready to leave.

The till was marked No alcohol, which probably explained the lack of Saturday shoppers flocking towards it. But, no matter, he wasn’t buying alcohol today.

With new determination he began to force his trolley towards the checkout, striking another trolley with a young child on board and sending it spinning like a crashed car in a bad cop film.

He reached the till and thumped the Next customer bar onto the belt with a satisfying slap. He congratulated himself for the decisiveness of his actions as he unpacked the cartons of yogurt, tins of beans and the guacamole-inspired dip.

In front of him was an elderly woman. The young checkout assistant was finishing packing the customer’s items into Bags for Life.

The woman opened her small, black purse. She stared into it for some time, apparently totally unaware and unconcerned about her surroundings.

The young checkout assistant met his eyes. Then she glanced at her watch and waited.

Eventually the woman started to take sheets of white paper from the purse, setting them out individually on the flat area.

At first he thought it was five or ten pound notes, but then he saw they were too white, closer to the appearance of receipts.

Eventually the woman had created a pile of little sheets of white paper big enough to choke a camel.

Then at last she looked up, to the checkout assistant and her face opened into a wide smile.

‘ Hello dearie, I’ve got some vouchers that I want to use up.’

Then she turned to him, that same smile, utterly without cynicism.

‘I hope you’re not in too much of a rush, love.’

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Beating Barney

I’ve never been very good at sports.

As a dedicated fan of most games and sporting events I suppose I’ve always had a little stab of regret that I’ve never found a discipline that I can excel at.

I used to be a half-decent runner when I was younger and thinner. I was also a reasonably skilful football player in my teens, but my attempts at playing for a junior team as a schoolboy were cut short when I was regularly overwhelmed by the physicality and aggression of bigger and stronger peers. Miserably hugging the left touchline of the pitch I was reduced to a state of terror by the piercing yells of I’ll break your fucking legs McCambridge (and that was from the players on my own team).

The truth is that I never possessed the size, speed, co-ordination or basic competitive spirit which would make me proficient in any game.

And yet I have achieved one sporting triumph which I will remember with pride for as long as I still possess my memories and ability to reason. A result which defies all logic, which is so unlikely and freakish that it can only be described as truly astonishing.

The year was 2011 and the sport was darts (yes I know some people don’t think it is a sport). All of the best players in the world of arrows had come to Northern Ireland for the Premier League. For the uninitiated the Premier League is a hugely successful roadshow event which tours arenas in the UK, including the Odyssey in Belfast. Staggering amounts of beer are consumed as thousands of raucous fans cheer wildly at players who are so far away that they appear as distant specks on the stage. It is big, big business.

In that year, ahead of the Odyssey appearance, the organisers staged a small promotional event at the old House of Sport building in Belfast.

In attendance was Raymond van Barneveld, affectionately known to fans around the world as ‘Barney’. Barney is probably the most popular darts player in history and one of the very best. He is a five time world champion and in 2007 won the most famous darts match ever played when he beat the legendary Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in an epic world final.

Barney is also one of the nicest men it is possible to meet, generous with his time and utterly without ego. He is a national hero in his native Netherlands, where there is none of the snobbishness which some people still have towards darts in the UK.

On this occasion the organisers wanted Barney to play a few short challenge legs against local fans and personalities. They had run into trouble finding a journalist prepared to face him and, knowing that I was a darts fan, a local PR company asked if I would step in.

I enthusiastically agreed.

There was just one problem, and one that I did not disclose when I was asked to compete. I am rubbish at darts. Utterly terrible. Since my childhood I’ve always had a fascination with the game but it never transferred to any aptitude at the oche.

It is true that I spent hours hurling darts at boards in my younger years but I would regularly miss 20 or 30 consecutive shots at double one. I was nowhere near good enough to be even a bad pub team darts player. I was really that inept.

And by the time I agreed to face Barney I probably hasn’t thrown a dart in a couple of years. All the undeniable factors pointed to it being a massacre, rather than a match. I would have as good a chance of knocking out Carl Frampton, nut-megging Lionel Messi or outsprinting Usain Bolt as beating Barney on a dart board.

Undeterred, I set out for the House of Sport feeling strangely optimistic. I remember texting my brother, another darts fanatic, to tell him that I thought I was going to win.

But all of my positive thoughts rapidly evaporated when I arrived at the venue. A crowd of around 100 Barney fans had turned up to see their hero and I was immediately paralysed by nerves. After introducing myself I was invited to take a couple of practice throws. Standing at the front of the small crowd my legs and arms felt alien and I was unable to even hit the board.

Now the relationship between darts and alcohol is well known. I’m not much of a drinker, but, stupefied by the situation I found myself in, I quickly made my way to the refreshments table and downed a full bottle of wine quicker than I had ever done before in my life. It was the only way that I could control my nerves.

Then the event began. Barney was to play a leg of 501 against against three game local challengers. For a professional, a leg of darts can pass in a few quick minutes. It wasn’t a proper match, just a fun challenge. Not to be taken seriously. Except by myself.

The list of victims were the then Lord Mayor of Belfast Pat Convery, Irish rugby international Stephen Ferris and me.

The Lord Mayor was up first and, bizarrely, played while wearing the mayoral chain. He was there only in a ceremonial capacity and clearly did not know one end of a dart from the other. On his first three darts he hit the board once.

But any thoughts that Barney would go easy, based on the low standard of the opposition, were quickly set aside when on his first turn he scored a maximum 180. Fans had turned up to see him and he obviously felt a responsibility to play properly.

The Lord Mayor was swatted aside in a few moments before Ferris came to the oche. The rugby player was clearly a decent amateur, playing at a standard way above my own. But still Barney beat him handily without breaking sweat.

Then I was invited to the oche. Barney was relaxed and enjoying himself by now. We chatted for a few moments before he invited me to throw first.

I attempted to calm myself and adopted a darting pose. I threw my first arrow. It sailed high over the top of the board, impaling itself on a thin strip of rubber which had been erected to protect the wall. No score. My second dart went even higher, missing the protective strip altogether and impaling itself in the plaster. I took a moment, composed myself again and threw my third dart into the middle of the single 20 bed. I was delighted.

At this point I can only assume that Barney had already decided I was not to be taken seriously because his own standard fell well below what I expected and he threw some mediocre scores. Still, within a couple of turns I was more than 100 points behind and he was well on his way to victory.

I think it was on my third visit that I hit a treble 20 and two singles for a score of 100. This was as good as it ever gets for me and I was thrilled that I had at least shown Barney and the small crowd that I had some level of competency. Idiotically I pumped my arms in the air and Barney laughed gallantly. On my next turn I hit 86 which kept me in touch.

Then Barney moved to finish the leg and the match on his next turn. He left himself 32 and with his third dart aimed at double 16. His throw was true and the arrow bent the thin wire of the double bed. But it was on the wrong side of the wire. It could not have been any closer, but it was on the wrong side of the wire. I was to have another turn.

What happened next is so truly bizarre and unlikely that every single second of it is still stark in my memory, as if chipped there in solid stone. All I can say is that this is exactly how it happened.

The scorer told me I needed 90 to win. I had never checked out a score this high in my life. I know I never will again. I stepped up to the line.

Now, there are several ways to check out 90. The conventional route is to go treble 18, double 18. The flash route is to go for bullseye (50) and then tops (40). What happened next was neither conventional nor flash.

Barney was having fun and urged me to go for the bull. I was hardly likely to ignore the five time world champion so I went for it…and threw possibly the worst dart in history. The bullseye is right in the middle of the board. My dart sailed into the middle of the treble 17. In darting terms I wasn’t even in the right continent.

However, treble 17 is 51 and some quick subtraction told me I was now left with 39. I still had a chance. My darting brain told me that if I could hit single 7 I would have a shot at double 16 to win.

I aimed at single 7…..and my dart flew into the treble 7.

This was now approaching a level of high farce and I was so confused and disorientated that I could no longer compute what my score was. Barney, generous as ever, stepped in and whispered in my ear that I had 18 left.

It took me several seconds to locate the 9 bed in the board. I steadied myself and, without thinking about it, released my last dart.

In that tiny moment all the planets were aligned and all the gods of misery and bad luck had nipped out for a fag break. The arrow soared like Poseidon’s trident….straight into the middle of the double 9 bed. Nobody, not even Barney, could have thrown it better.

There was a moment of stunned confusion before the crowd realised what had happened. I had won, I had somehow beaten Barney. I had thrown one of the worst checkouts ever and managed to beat one of the best players ever. There was a smattering of applause and laughter from the spectators.

The photograph at the top of this blog is one of my favourites and was taken just seconds after I had thrown the winning dart. The expressions on the two faces tell it all. Mine is of delighted and embarrassed incredulity, Barney’s is of amused astonishment. He almost seems to be saying Hang on, I thought you were crap.

Barney was charitable with his time and posed for photographs with me afterwards. The truth is that over a short single leg a very bad darts players can beat a very good darts player with a little bit of luck. But I was a very, very bad darts player and I had beaten a very, very good darts player.

At the time I was working in the Belfast Telegraph and I wrote a little story about the experience for the paper. It created a few small ripples and I was invited onto radio a couple of times to recount the tale, which I happily did.

My feat also secured an invitation to the VIP box at the Odyssey to watch the Premier League the following night. For once I could actually see the players and their darts hitting the board without having to strain my eyes to glimpse the big screen while being covered in beer by excited fans all around.

The Belfast Telegraph artist was commissioned to draw a cartoon. It depicted me returning to work, after beating Barney, only to discover that Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor had been drafted in to occupy my desk and do my job while I was off throwing darts. It was a nice touch and I still have the original drawing.

It’s several years later but I have never been involved in another darting match or even thrown a dart at a board since. There didn’t seem much point because I know it never gets any better than what happened that day in the House of Sport.

But I did have one more encounter with Barney. A couple of years later I travelled to Wolverhampton to watch a darts tournament. I was standing outside a bar when I noticed Barney walking past. I quickly intercepted him and mentioned our clash in Belfast.

He clearly had no memory of the incident or idea who I was but was, as always, friendly and happy to talk.

It was not surprising that he didn’t remember the incident. After all he has thrown countless darts and will have played thousands of these little challenge matches. Doubtless there will be other amateurs who struck lucky and got the better of him over a single leg. Although perhaps not many quite as useless as me.

But what means little or nothing to one participant can mean a lot to the other. Just for a few moments on a rainy afternoon in Belfast years ago I knew what it felt like to beat a world champion. That’s good enough for me.

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Family and the ring pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Capturing the moment

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

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

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

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

How hard could it be?

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The death of The Dark Hedges

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

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

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

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

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

So in tribute to John Watt….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting the pieces back together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19

Falling to pieces (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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