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.

4

The rugby players and the weaker kids

It’s a rough generalisation but I’ve observed that there are two attributes which help towards being an effective rugby player.

The first is to be large. The second is to be fast. The very best players seem to be those who are large and fast.

When I played rugby at school I was small and slow.

I wouldn’t say that people at the school I went to were obsessed by the game, but participating in rugby certainly came to be seen as an important factor in boosting your social standing. Those who played for the first team were allowed to wear a different coloured tie than other pupils and were generally feted and celebrated by the teachers.

This was despite the fact, which seemed glaringly obvious to me, that this preferential treatment cultivated and encouraged in some an unwarranted sense of entitlement and magnified existing character flaws.

To put it more simply, a small number of the players were bullies. But because they played rugby, much of the thuggish and loutish behaviour was tolerated or ignored. Indeed, they were often portrayed as ‘lovable rogues’.

This is not to assert or even suggest that such behaviour is typical of those who play rugby. Most of the players I knew were perfectly decent and reasonable. A couple were my friends. Our school’s outstanding player, who later won The Heineken Cup playing for Ulster, was never anything other than friendly and fair in my limited dealings with him.

But it is undoubtedly true that the few who displayed aggressive behaviour towards weaker kids were indulged. Indulged because they were good at rugby.

Neither would I wish for it to be inferred that my teachers in proper academic disciplines ever treated me with anything less than perfect fairness. That would be unfair. I have no doubt they gave their best but, in truth, I revealed very little of myself for them to work with. I was a poor student. There’s only so much you can expect a teacher to do.

I’m strangely proud that a small number of my former teachers now read this blog. I certainly never did anything to warrant their loyalty.

What I’m driving at is this. A school is a community. A community must rally around something and, in this case, it became rugby. Our team reached the final of the Schools’ Cup when I was in sixth year and it caused a minor sensation. It’s easier to rally around a successful rugby team than around the quiet kids, the ones who have trouble looking you in the eye. And nobody wants to hear about the faults of those who have driven the adventure.

In every community there are those who fall through the cracks.

I was forced to play rugby at school for three years. This was the minimum period you were expected to compete before you could give it up. I despised every moment and got nothing from it. It fractured my already brittle confidence, displayed my physical frailty in front of others and made me a target for rough treatment from stronger kids. I dreaded the double Games period every week like it was a death sentence. I was usually unable to sleep the night before rugby and would be reduced to a state of physical and mental terror before going out onto the pitch. I know that several of my peers had similar feelings of doom about being yelled at while they were standing, trembling in a muddy field. Sadly those who taught rugby seemed to have no idea how to deal with us who had little aptitude for the game other than dripping abuse and mockery in our direction. The rugby pitch was not the place for empathy.

This was done in the name of education. At the time I was firmly of the view that it was destructive and damaging. Three decades on I remain convinced of that.

Our school was relatively small so there were just enough boys in a year to make up three teams, A, B and C.

For a short time in first year I found myself (remarkably) in the A side before my limitations at the game were exposed. When it was quickly revealed that I preferred not to touch the ball, to tackle or to be tackled, I was relegated to the B side.

On one occasion I remember our B team playing against a team from Coleraine Inst (I would have been in second year at the time). We were beaten 76-0. On the minibus on the way back to school our sports teacher told us that he had been in the job for decades but had never witnessed anything so ‘disgraceful’ as our efforts. The then principal refused to read out the score at assembly the next day, such was the obvious shame.

The sad irony of the whole affair was that I was far from the worst. I actually liked sports and was a useful footballer. I just wasn’t very good at rugby. There were several kids who disliked any participative sport who were forced to compete and I can only assume it was worse for them. But in my case the only thing that three years of playing rugby achieved was to push me towards having a dread of taking part in any physical activity which had a direct competitive element. This lasted for many years. It ruined my enjoyment of other sports.

Games was timetabled for one double period each week and one session of compulsory practice after school. The basic format was some running and exercises to warm up, perhaps some passing, tackling or scrummaging drills and then a practice match.

The practice match usually consisted of the A side playing against the B side. There was an obvious flaw in this. The A side were better. Bigger, stronger, faster, fitter, nastier. They were much, much better than us.

This resulted in a series of lopsided matches which, frankly, I could see no value in. The A players pushed us aside like annoying wasps as they racked up try after try.  It certainly did nothing for our morale to be so thoroughly beaten on such a regular basis and I couldn’t see how it benefited the A side to be facing such feeble competition.

One week I actually pulled together the courage to put this point to the rugby teacher. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to mix the teams up a bit? If you had some of the better players on either side then it might make for a more even encounter?

He looked at me, a mixture of scorn and amusement in his eyes. Then he said: ‘Well if I did that then you’d never get any better, would you?’

I stared at him. I can only presume these words made some sort of sense to him within his head when he uttered them.

And so it went on. A seemingly unending series of dismal one-sided practice matches. I was on the pitch for many of them, clinging to my allocated spot on the left wing, as far away from the ball and as close to the changing rooms as I could manage.

But sometimes when you dig a batch of spuds you uncover one that’s a funny shape. There’s often that one day when, for no reason that you can identify, things are a little different. Perhaps the sun was shining. Perhaps the wind was blowing in a different direction. Perhaps the A side were missing a few players, maybe they were not properly focused on the usual procession of sacrifice.

For whatever reason on that day (I was in third year at this point), things were a bit different. The match was competitive. One of our forwards seemed to have woken from a lifelong coma and was demanding the ball and roaring straight into the A side’s pack with a previously undiscovered relish.

This one boy’s enthusiasm seemed to be spreading throughout the side. I remember we scored a fine try when the ball was worked through several pairs of hands in the back line before one of the smallest kids in the year touched down in the corner. It was hard to know what was more satisfying, seeing the unfettered joy on his face or how quickly the backs in the A side turned on each other, mouthing abuse and blame.

Even I was carried along by the shift in momentum. I threw myself into a tackle when a much bigger boy ran at me. In textbook fashion my arms snaked around his waist and then slid down towards his ankles. Unfortunately instead of falling he just kept running and I was dragged along the grass behind him like Indiana Jones in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he clings on to the speeding Nazi truck.

But despite it all we were still losing. Although only by a few points rather than the usual avalanche. I was aware that we could still win with a try and there were probably only a couple of minutes of play left.

A scrum was formed on the left side of the pitch. I was hugging the left touchline as ever. The ball was fed into the gap between the opposing packs by the A side’s scrum half.

And then something unusual happened.

The ball popped out of the opposite side of the scrum to which it had just been fed, landing just a couple of feet in front of me. For a few seconds nobody seemed to notice. I had a moment of panic. Was I even allowed to pick it up?

I grabbed the ball from the grass.

Then I ran like I was being chased by death itself.

Now I know what you’re thinking. I’m giving you a lovely story about how I scored the winning try in the dying moments of the game. Not a bit of it. It soon became clear I had nothing like the pace needed to reach the opposition line. Indeed if I was thinking anything at all in those moments it was ‘How the feck do I get rid of this fecking ball?’

As I ran I glanced back and could see two of the faster, larger A players hurtling towards me, their faces full of bad intentions. No way did they intend losing to the Bs. They were clearly going to put me down. But just behind them, I also saw a B player, red cheeked and panting, struggling to keep up.

I veered further left and waited until the two A players were right upon me, grabbing desperately at my neck. Intuitively I knew they would both want to tackle me, to impose maximum damage. Just as they collared me I hurled the ball backwards, over my shoulder.

Where, quite astonishingly, it landed right in the arms of my teammate, who now had a clear run to the opposition line to secure the most unlikely of victories.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. I hadn’t learnt very much in three years of playing rugby, but what I had learnt was that in order to score a try you must ground the ball. You have to touch it down.

As I crashed painfully to the ground under the weight of two larger, stronger boys I saw my teammate run unopposed between the opposition posts.

What happened next could be put down to panic, ignorance, excitement, defiance. I simply don’t know.

Rather than touching down the ball down, he hurled it to the ground in the manner of an American footballer celebrating a touchdown. The ball bounced straight back up again, hitting him in the face and knocking him over.

At this point the teacher blew his whistle. The A side had won. Just like they always did. We all stomped back to have a shower and get ready for the next class. It was unusually subdued in the changing room. Nobody on either team seemed to really want to talk about what had happened.

Shortly after this I was able to give up playing rugby. I felt like I had been massively unburdened, like a long-endured tumour had been removed. I remember feeling a certain levity which lasted for days. Perhaps life was worth living after all.

It’s so obvious as to be barely worth pointing out, but no child should ever be made to feel this way. To be so grounded in misery for the sake of a game.

It’s right that children should be encouraged to try as many things as possible. Give them every opportunity you can.

And it’s equally true that sometimes you have to persuade a child to persist. To get them to overcome their fears and find their potential.

But one of the surest truths of my lifetime was that I was never going to make a rugby player. The same could be said of countless other young boys of my generation. And it was surely equally obvious the desperate unhappiness that was being caused by forcing us to play.

And then for a school to build an honours system around the very practice which caused so much habitual dolour, when so many kids had already been made to feel like less than they should have been; it was…..well I’ll choose my word kindly….it was unfortunate.

My son will be going to secondary school in a few years. I hope to Christ things are better by then.

0

Mullican Towers

Sometimes the infantile mind reimagines the world to suits its own narrative.

Adults do this too, but this is a different process caused by some sort of confirmation or hindsight bias which allows facts to be changed to fit an already approved direction of thought.

When children rewrite the world it is more innocent, more charming. The subject is altered through misunderstanding or error or innocence.

And the results can often be preferable to the real thing.

When I was a young boy one of my favourite songs was by Paul McCartney. It was called Mullican Towers.

I would sing or hum the theme often. I imagined Mullican Towers to be some huge, dark stately home in Scotland. Perhaps it had once been a boarding school. Full of dusty corridors, mahogany furniture and four poster beds. Undoubtedly there was a elderly patron called Digory with wild, white hair. It was probably haunted and a suitable location for all manner of childhood adventure.

It was many years later that I finally discovered that the song Mullican Towers which I knew and loved was actually known to the rest of the world as Mull of Kintyre.

‘Ugh,’ I thought. ‘That’s actually a bit crap.’

It’s never been quite the same since. I still much prefer my version.

And so I bring you to this morning when I’m driving into Hillsborough, my son in the seat beside me providing a steady stream of commentary and illumination.

Sometimes, on the outskirts of the village, a large fish and chip lorry can be found. I imagine the chosen market are lorry drivers travelling between Belfast and Dublin.

The lorry was there today. My son was excited.

‘Daddy, the fish and chip lorry! Can we have fish and chips tonight?’

I spotted an opening. Chips are a staple of my son’s diet. But fish? This was new. It’s all relative but compared to what he usually eats, it almost sounded healthy.

‘Fish?’ I responded incredulously. ‘Are you going to eat fish?’

He rolled his eyes.

‘No daddy, I said fish and chips. I hate fish.’

I took a moment.

‘But if you’re having fish and chips then that means you’re eating fish, as well as chips.’

I could see he was getting annoyed now.

‘No daddy! Fish and chips!’

This bizarre conversation continued in this way for some minutes. Like the DUP and Sinn Fein it seemed that we had reached an impasse. And just like them, it all seemed to be falling apart over language.

I tried to find a way through it. I told my son I didn’t understand. How could he want fish and chips. But not fish?

So he walked me through it. Nobody likes fish on its own. But everyone likes chips, which are stuffed with….fish.

Fish and chips. Fish ‘n chips. Fish in chips.

‘Is that why they’re called fish in chips buddy?’ I gently inquired.

He nodded.

‘Duh daddy!’

And so it is. That’s why we’re having fish in chips for dinner tonight.

And I don’t care what anyone says, Mullican Towers will always be a far better song than Mull of Kintyre.

Duh!

5

The absolute zero

A little booklet came home in my son’s schoolbag today.

The accompanying note from the teacher said it would allow children to practice ‘the correct formation of the numerals 1-10’.

So far so good.

This practice was useful, it went on, because many children get confused between the formation of letters – which are generally clockwise – and numbers – which are often anti-clockwise.

Hmmm, I thought, I didn’t know that.

Not to suggest for a moment that this is inaccurate, merely that I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Often we do things automatically without considering the method.

And so I sat my son down and we began with zero.

The little diagram was firm and unambiguous. 0 (zero) should be formed in an anti-clockwise motion.

I explained to my son the direction in which his zero should be formed.

Then I went to show him…..and did it clockwise.

This alarmed me slightly. So I went into a room by myself and scribbled the number 1,000,000.

And each of my zeros was formed in a clockwise motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I mean I was able to master the trick of writing it the other way (after a while). But when I did it automatically it was always clockwise.

The wrong way. Apparently.

Presumably I’ve been doing it the wrong way all my life.

Maybe it’s because I’m left-handed. Or maybe I was off school on the day we learnt to form 0.

I remember kids being beaten for just about everything when I was at primary school. But never for backward 0s.

It was all slightly humbling. My first thought was what else am I doing wrong without being aware of it?

And what have I missed out on because of my defective zeros? Is this the true cause of all my bad luck and failures.

Then I went back to the beginning. Letters should be clockwise. Numerals anti-clockwise. Any divergence from that and you risk mixing them up.

Well th3t’7 6as ne76r ha99en47 t0 m3 1 t5086ht.

I entirely support learning to do things the correct way. And the advantages of learning how to communicate clearly and effectively through good written script is undeniable.

But back in the real world is there any tangible advantage to forming 0 in an anti-clockwise direction? Is there any deleterious impact by forming my 0s backwards?

I’m interested to know what people think…

2

My Struggle or Tuesday Morning or The Kitchen Door

The alarm sounds before 6am. A repellent, electronic noise.

The first thing that invades my brain is the sheer thudding normality of the day.

Get up, make breakfast, prepare my son’s school lunch, shower, dress, drive to the city, have coffee, go to work, pick up son from school, make dinner, spend the rest of the day getting jumped upon.

I stumble through the dark and, yawning and scratching, slowly descend the stairs. I turn the kitchen door handle.

Nothing happens.

I turn it again. This time I push as well.

Still nothing.

I’m still somewhere in the grey land so it takes me a moment to condense the happenings into an order my brain can understand. I’m turning the door handle. The door is not opening. That’s not right.

I stand there. In the dark.

Some time later I decide I’m going to have to do something.

I turn on the hallway light and crouch down, squinting against the glare of the bulb. The handle is moving but not opening the latch of the door. Something has clearly broken within the mechanism.

I look around. I consider calling the guy who used to live next door. You know, the guy who is handy.

It’s 6:07am. I’ll have to come up with something myself.

I walk into the living room and look out of the window. The lights are on in the house across the road. Then I walk back to the kitchen door and try the handle again.

It’s still not working. My diversionary tactic has failed.

I’m going to have to come up with something better.

There are multiple problems to be overcome.

Primarily, I’m not very good at DIY. I’m just not gifted with manual tasks.

I usually have to end up phoning my da when I’m trying to assemble the toy out of a Kinder Surprise egg.

But I do own two tool boxes. A large one (a present from my da) and a small one (a present from our mortgage company when we bought our house).

But this brings me to the second problem. My tools are in the kitchen.

The kitchen behind the kitchen door. The kitchen I currently can’t get in to.

The reality is closing around me, like trying on the nice shirt that fitted me last summer.

It seems clear that the door handle will have to be removed. Without tools.

The only other options are

• to break down the door (great expense, more DIY problems further down the line and the humiliating prospect that I won’t be able to do it),

• to smash the glass in the door and reach through (probability of me snicking a vital vein or artery),

• to go outside and then try to get in to the kitchen through an exterior window (see previous),

• to just go back to bed (attractive, but ultimately not productive).

I examine the handle with proper concentration, forcing myself to think. It’s held in place by four small screws.

An easy job to remove it if I had my screwdriver, which is in the kitchen. Or my drill, which is in the kitchen. Or even any of my large array of kitchen knives.

Which are all in the kitchen.

I look around for something I can use as an alternative screwdriver. All of my keys are too thick to fit inside the tiny, narrow ridge.

I try a couple of my son’s more robust plastic toys. Nothing can be made to fit.

I wonder if a coin might work. I look around for my wallet.

I spot it. Through the glass in the door.

Inside the kitchen.

I try using one of my fingernails. I quickly regret it.

Then I’m up the stairs. Searching in the little bathroom cabinet, in my wife’s make-up bag.

I descend triumphantly moments later with a small silver pair of nail scissors.

I begin to work at the screws of the kitchen door handle. After a few moments one of them starts to move. Just a little at first, but definite movement.

A little tremble of excitement and pleasure runs through me. I feel like Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz.

I begin to wonder how easy it would be to make a model of my own head from leftover bars of soap.

I force my mind to come back to reality, chastising myself for feeble concentration.

Soon I have loosened one of the screws enough that I can remove it with my fingers. I hold it in front of my face, gazing upon it like a long-lost archaeological wonder.

I set it aside and begin to work on the other screws.

They stubbornly refuse to budge. I spend several minutes heaving and scraping and sighing but nothing happens. I’m conscious that my wife and son are asleep upstairs. At first I’m careful  to ensure that I don’t make any noise which might wake them. But soon I’m rattling around, deliberately trying to amplify every sound  to ensure it disturbs them so they know what I’m going through. My struggle.

Soon I have to admit that this isn’t going to work. The first screw must have been already loose. I haven’t been able to shift any of the others even a micro-millimetre.

I study the nail scissors. The little blades are slightly curved at their ends. The reason for this design eludes me but it seems to be the main factor in my failure to shift the screws.

I go back upstairs to the bathroom. Now I’m on my knees in the white cabinet beneath the sink. Right at the back, pulling out items not seen by civilised eyes in years. I find two more pairs of nail scissors – rusty, dusty and resting happily in retirement. One has curved blades. The other is straight.

I go back towards the kitchen door handle thrice armed with nail scissors.

But the length of the process is disturbing me now. I already know that my favoured pattern for the day has been fatally compromised.

Because of my past experiences I prefer to work limited hours nowadays. Just enough to get a little bit of money while still keeping a decent balance in my life. It means I still have enough time to do the really important job, looking after my son.

Thus a few mornings a week I go to do some work in a little office, writing for a magazine. I’m always careful to ensure that I’m finished by lunchtime so I can be away in time to pick my son up at the school gates.

And this is what is troubling me.

I order my ‘working’ day in a certain way. I like to rise early. I drive to Belfast before rush hour because I can’t bear heavy traffic.

Then I spend an hour in a little coffee shop reading the paper, thinking and scratching down notes and ideas. It’s my little treat to myself while the rest of the world wakes up.

I don’t even like the coffee and I resent having to pay £2.70 for it. I just like the environment and the peace.

Last week I asked the staff if I could just have a glass of tap water to sit in.

They said no.

Now, today, I know I’m not going to make it to the coffee shop for my quiet time. And I’ll have to endure rush hour traffic, and be late for work, and struggle through the rest of the remaining hours to catch up to make sure I get to school on time. It’s an unpleasant prospect.

So I take the straight-bladed scissors and begin to work at another of the tiny screws. It’s a laborious and frustrating process but eventually it begins to give just a little. I have to keep readjusting the position of the scissors and of my body to get it to move a tiny, almost imperceptible amount.

The process seems interminable. The dark has given way to light before I’ve finally managed to extract all of the screws and remove the exterior of the door handle.

Now I can hear that my son is awake and moving around in the bedroom above me. Mummy is grudgingly getting ready to face the day also. I need to get this door open so they can have their breakfast.

Removing the handle has exposed a long, ugly strip of black four-sided metal.

This bolt controls the mechanism which allows the door to open. All I have to do is get it to turn.

I try to turn it, struggling to get a grip on the metal with my fingers.

It doesn’t move.

I wrap a pair of my son’s pyjama trousers, which I find lying about, around the bolt and try again to manoeuvre it anti-clockwise. Without success.

I consider pulling the bolt out of the door. But in my mind, admittedly a confused and often misguided place, this seems to be the wrong step. The bolt is the link with the other side of the door handle and to break that link would undoubtedly be fatal. Finding a method to get the door to open without the bolt in the handle would prove to be as difficult and elusive as the search for a north west passage through America to unlock the trade routes to Asia.

Surely.

Now mummy and my son have descended the stairs. He wants his breakfast. She gives me a half-confused, half-accusatory stare.

‘It’s the kitchen door handle,’ I explain. ‘It’s broken.’

I take some time to explain the process, my struggle, to her. I tell her about the options, the search for suitable tools, the different types of nail scissors, the tortuous process of removing the screws.

She nods along. Then, when I’ve finshed she says…

‘So did the handle just come off in your hand then?’

I take a voluminous inhalation.

Then I crouch down at the handle to attempt to explain the process again to my wife. To illustrate and demonstrate the very futility of it all. She bends over my shoulder.

I do love a grand dramatic gesture.

So while telling the story I throw my arms in the air to display my erupting agitation.

And I catch my wife full in the face with my blind swinging hand.

She reels away, covering her wounded head with her arms. I race after her, mumbling apologies.

I have two thoughts.

1 I hope she’s ok.

2 She seems to be milking it a bit.

I express one thought at the moment. The other I keep to myself.

When she recovers her grace mummy takes her turn in examining the door handle. I move close behind her. My previous clueless flapping around has now been replaced by a fierce determination that I’m the world’s greatest expert at replacing kitchen door handles.

She suggests pulling the bolt out of the door.

I shake my head and exhale air through my teeth at the innocence of the suggestion.

I tell her about breaking the link with the other side of the handle.

I also tell her about the search for the northwest passage through America but she seems to have stopped listening.

Then she speaks. She says that if the only other option is to break down the door, then surely our situation cannot be further injured by removing the bolt.

I think about this. The logic seems flawless. Annoyingly.

I reach down and slowly pull the bolt out of what remains of the door handle. I examine it and then slide it back into the hole.

I turn it.

And the door opens without difficulty.

I nod my head. Sagely.

‘Just as I thought,’ I mumble.

I stumble, blinking, into the kitchen. I sink to my knees and hold my arms in the air, a pose perhaps inspired by Tim Robbins when he finally escapes from Shawshank Penitentiary.

Then my wife says.

‘Can you get your son’s Coco Pops? And iron his school jumper while you’re at it?’

It’s Tuesday morning.

4

When dreams come true

It’s late.

Somewhere between 7pm and 8pm. Daddy late.

Exhaustion is seeping from my limbs like slurry leaking from a tank.

Mummy’s away in London with work today so I’ve had full parental control.

The school run, morning and afternoon. Feeding, dressing, washing, homework. Keeping him entertained. Stories, dancing, games, wrestling, singing, reading. His constant need for stimulation burning my energy until all that’s left is a thin line of hazy black smoke.

We’re in bed, covers pulled up tight to our chins. I’m probably closer to sleep than him. He’s still talking, incessantly asking questions. Always the questions. He keeps looking over to see if my eyes are still open. They are, just.

Eventually he settles, slowing down like the toy from last Christmas. His little body begins to unwind and soften.

He’s been silent for a while so I assume he’s gone. But then.

‘Daddy?’ his voice heavy and slow with the immediacy of sleep.

‘Yes son?’

‘What will we dream about tonight daddy?’

It’s a ritual of his. Usually the last question of the day before he rests. Some infantile notion that his dreams can be controlled. That our stories are of our own choosing. It gives him some comfort I suppose.

I’m spent. I don’t have much more creativity to give. I force myself to think of something.

‘Why don’t we dream that we’re two planes racing high up in the sky,’ I whisper.

There’s a short silence, as if he’s pondering the notion. I have the familiar feeling of being judged. His answer is barely audible.

‘OK daddy.’

And then he’s gone. His eyes have become dark rings. Sometimes he emits soft groans, sometimes he grinds his teeth. His mouth slightly open, yellow skin. The slightest discolouration where the vein runs along the temple. I run the back of my hand along his face, old skin against young. Rough touching smooth.

Despite my extreme state of tiredness I don’t feel that I can sleep just now. I try to read a book but the words on the page seem stale, without meaning. I put it down and just lie there. Watching him.

There’s some animation in my son beside me. He turns often in his sleep. Sometimes he reaches for me with his hand or foot, just to check I’m still there. There’s the occasional strangled giggle or whine. Light snores. I know that something’s going on in his brain and I’d love to be able to read him now. It occurs to me that this sums up parenting, trying to understand what’s going on in their heads.

Within him some sort of disparate narrative is probably being pulled together as a dream. Something which makes sense to only him, and even then only at this moment. He most likely won’t remember it in the morning. It’s probably already gone forever. Dreams can’t be captured like butterflies.

He talks often about dreams, the fleeting bits and scraps he remembers. The ideas that fill his head through the day. He often gives us a small glimpse of the scope of his imagination. The ideas, conundrums, concerns, questions, concepts. He talks about the future too,

This week he asked us ‘When I’m a daddy, who will be the mummy?’

He’s chosen his career already. He says he wants to be a doctor and a scientist. It’s noble and serious. Maybe he will. Maybe he’ll change his mind dozens of times before he gets to where he needs to be.

But my mind is tired from wondering and wandering. I settle down, letting the first stages of sleep caress me.

It’s been years since I’ve remembered any of my dreams. Perhaps my mind just doesn’t work that way anymore. I get little hints occasionally, a teasing feeling or emotion, but I can never put the mirror back together.

My brain feels worn, broken down, empty. I suppose there was a time when I had the energy to grow ideas and to order them.

Now I just watch my son. When he sleeps. When he watches the TV, chewing slowly on a biscuit. When he’s with his friends, his face flushed with joy. I’m content that he is the realisation of my ambitions. The stick that all of my dreams would be measured against.

We both sleep well.

The morning is welcome and everything seems to work. Mummy is back home and my son is excitedly telling her all his adventures from the day before. The games, the dancing, the dream about the two planes racing high up in the sky.

It’s a school day which brings its own feeling of urgency, a sense that things have to be done. But it’s also Friday and the sweetness of the weekend and the time together is close, reflecting onto all of us.

I hurriedly get my son into his uniform and coat and he doesn’t really bother to complain. I brush his hair and clean his face. I take him outside, it’s definitely winter but the weather seems more benign this morning.

I’m fiddling with the straps of the car seat when he lets out an excited yell.

‘Look daddy! Look in the sky!’

I gaze upwards. There’s a flinty blue sky and the beginning of a sunrise over the roofs of the distant houses, just a promise at this hour.

And above, two clear lines cut across the sky like the silvery trails of flat slugs. They are parallel, even, moving away. The aircraft appear tinier than toys.

My son is jumping up and down.

‘Daddy, it’s our dream! It’s our dream! Two planes racing high up in the sky!’

I lift my son into his chair, taking a few seconds to check the straps. He’s still straining his neck to watch the distant planes. It all seems to make sense to him now.

I warm the car and slowly reverse it down the driveway. But he’s still not ready to let it go.

‘You see daddy, I told you, dreams do come true.’

‘You’re right son. You’re absolutely right.’

3

Running

In 2014 Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniaki ran the New York marathon in a time of 3 hours 26 mins and 33 seconds (according to her Wikipedia page).

In 2016 I ran the Belfast marathon in a time of 3 hours 35ish minutes (my Wikipedia page seems to be down today so apologies for the lack of precision).

Yesterday Caroline Wozniaki won her first ever grand slam title at the Australian Open.

Yesterday I ate two bowls of Coco Pops, three bagels, two jumbo sausage rolls, dough sticks with garlic butter, a giant anchovy pizza, some garlic bread, twelve chocolate chip cookies and six packs of pickled onion Monster Munch which I had bought as a surprise for my son.

It was actually quite a restrained day.

I went to bed last night with the familiar mixture of feeling bloated and frustrated.

I don’t want to run a marathon again.

But at the same time I’d like to be able to go into a Chinese restaurant without the manager hurriedly announcing that the All You Can Eat buffet has just closed.

Just somewhere in the middle would be nice.

And so, with the Rocky music going through my mind, I set off this morning for my first run in more than a year.

A short jog. Nothing too dramatic, just a couple of miles to alert my long-suffering body that we’re entering a new phase. The comeback has commenced.

It started well. A decent pace, good form, regular breathing…. and then I got to the end of my driveway.

It hurt. The muscles in my legs whined in protest (‘I thought we’d seen the last of this shit’), my lungs emitted a noise not dissimilar to the mating call of an obese, asthmatic, diabetic walrus who’s just discovered there’s no fish in his local Lidl.

I started to suffer hallucinations. At one point I believed I was being chased by a giant Monster Munch. My mouth was dry and tasted of anchovy and Coco Pop. My tongue felt like velcro stuck to the inside of my cheek.

I ran a little (not as far as I’d planned), then I hobbled a little. Then I sat on the edge of the pavement and tried to thumb a lift back home.

The running top which had once hung from my lithe, thin frame was stained with sweat and clung to my heaving stomach like a tarpaulin thrown over a dinosaur egg.

I found myself wondering how good Caroline Wozniaki would be playing tennis with a bowling ball strapped to her stomach.

Eventually, mercifully, I made it home. A desperate, sweaty, steaming mess. My wife ran a bath. My son removed my socks.

It felt quite good. I might even do it again.

3

5 ways I’ve hurt myself

I suppose it’s an inevitable signal that I’m getting older.

My body just doesn’t quite react to situations in the way it used to. I’ve always been clumsy but now, it seems, my physical ability to get out of the way of myself is diminishing.

The trips, bumps and twists just seem to be more painful.

And I’m getting ever more inventive at finding new ways of injuring myself.

Here’s 5 examples

1 The bouncy castle

On Friday I was at a children’s birthday party. I told myself I would sit quietly in the corner and watch. Within minutes I was having a bouncy castle race with my son. The object of the game was to speed across the wobbly platform, scale a plastic wall and then slide down the other side to victory.

Intoxicated with the prospect of winning I was leading when I got to the top of the wall. I strained for something to hold on to, failed and toppled backwards, crashing head-first on to the bouncy castle surface.

My first thought was that I had dislocated my shoulder as pain ripped through the top of my arm.

There were several other children in the area and they clearly thought this was a game. And so, against my protestations, they began using my prostrate being as a living bouncy castle.

Some minutes later I crawled out cradling my arm. Mummy was shaking her head. My son was jumping up and down.

‘I won Daddy, I won!’

2 The ashes

It’s nice to have a real fire in the house during the harsh winter months.

The downside, of course, is the labour of cleaning and emptying the grate. A process filled with clouds of grey dust and grimy black hands.

This very morning I was standing in my pyjamas at the back door, holding a leaking dust pan and watching the rain which was being blown sideways by the wind.

The bin was about 12 feet away. I braced myself. I made a run for it.

On the second or third step I felt my feet beginning to slip.

Time seemed to slow down. I remember thinking I should be able to do something to preserve myself. But what it was I knew not.

I crashed onto my arse on the hard, wet tiles.

The ashes erupted like a mushroom cloud. Some of them blew away in the gale. More came to rest on my person, clinging to my skin and coating my hair until I looked like some diabolical ghostly vision.

I lay there, with the rain slapping across my face and pain in the lower part of my back.

I got up again.

3 The sneeze

I’ve always been a vigorous sneezer. Like an atomic explosion in my brain, when I sneeze everybody nearby tends to notice.

Maybe I’m a little self conscious about it.

Just before Christmas I was working in an office. There were two other people in the room who I did not know well.

I felt the beginnings of a sneeze, obvious, like a dark storm coming in from the sea.

I didn’t want to cause a commotion. I tried to hold it in. I tensed every muscle in my body.

The sneeze came. Muffled.

I felt a pop at the bottom of my back.

I tried to move and realised I could not. I went to stand up and discovered this could only be achieved by supporting myself against the desk.

I hadn’t wanted to cause a fuss.

I had to ask my two colleagues to help me out of the room into the kitchen area where I lay helpless on the sofa.

Some hours later I crawled like a crab to my car and somehow made it home to my welcoming bed.

It was several days before I could stand upright again.

I didn’t want to cause a commotion.

4 The cactus

I like to make up a hamper to give to my family at Christmas.

Some baked goods, a steamed pudding, maybe a jam or chutney. A photo of my son.

And a nice wee plant.

In my most recent effort I opted for a cactus. I assembled all the items in a basket in a way that I imagined might be viewed as attractive.

I carried the basket to my car and set it in the back seat.

But as I was positioning it into place I slipped slightly, lost my balance and tumbled forward.

And went face-first into the cactus.

I leapt up squealing and swearing. My face was alive and tingling with what seemed like a thousand stinging violations.

The cactus seemed fine.

I ran to the mirror. I feared there would be scores of little cactus thorns impaled on my chin which would have to be extracted.

But I’d forgotten about my beard. If there was indeed any cactus there, it was now indistinguishable from my reddish, white bristles.

It was now a part of me.

5 Cornichons

There’s too many things in my kitchen cupboards.

Rather than clearing them out I simply put new foodstuffs in there, so older jars and tubs are pushed to the back.

Until it reaches a point of critical mass.

We had people round at the house for dinner. One of the guests asked politely if there might be any mustard.

I assured him that I had some in an overhead cupboard.

I began to look, removing and shifting items, I knew the mustard was in there somewhere.

I should explain at this point that I was wearing only socks on my feet. (I had thrown my slippers onto the fire the night before because I couldn’t be bothered to go outside to get fuel from the shed).

I stood on my tiptoes, reaching over bottles and stretching my hands towards the back of the cupboard towards the elusive mustard.

And then my elbow caught a jar. A big jar. A huge, aged jar of cornichons. Big enough to satisfy all my cornichon needs for the rest of my life.

The jar toppled. It bounced off the edge of the black sideboard. And landed on my foot.

On the big toe of my left foot.

I howled, wailed, danced and roared. My toe throbbed.

I hobbled to a seat and peeled off the warm sock. My toe was a black and bloody mess, my nail shattered and shapeless. The foot seemed to be rapidly swelling.

However, I had found the mustard. I set it on the table.

My guest politely informed me that he had wanted English, not French.