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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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The thin of it (politics)

It’s early evening. Mummy is upstairs putting our son to bed and I’m having some precious relaxation time. I’m sprawled on the sofa, balancing an extra large bag of chocolate raisins on my stomach while watching re-runs of the masterful political satire The Thick Of It.

Then I hear the crunch of footsteps on the ground outside our front window, just behind where I’m lying. I freeze, a chocolate raisin pinched between two fingers just an inch from my open mouth. I live in a semi-detached home with a little front garden. The only people who walk directly past my front window are postmen or people delivering unwanted junk leaflets; in other words those taking a short cut between my next door neighbour’s front door and mine.

I hear the sound of an object being roughly shoved through my letterbox and then footsteps walking away. I relax.

Later I’m roused from my stupor by the need to carry out a task (fetching another bag of chocolate raisins) and decide to check what junk literature has penetrated my front door. It’s a political leaflet, introducing me to my local DUP candidate for the forthcoming local government elections. There are photos of a young man on both sides of the leaflet. In one he is sitting beside MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. The young candidate is wearing a tortured, forced smile. The sort of smile that is familiar to me every time I pose for a photo.

(‘Just smile Jonny.’

‘I am smiling.

‘No, I mean a natural smile, like you’d do in real life.’

‘This is natural, this is how I smile.’

‘Really?….Jesus.’)

I read the leaflet. It is light on relevant detail, containing not a single word on policy or proposal. In fact, reading over the text the only thing I can ascertain that the DUP seems to be in favour of is the incorrect use of punctuation.

The following day another leaflet arrives, garish yellow, the colour of The Alliance Party. This one is presented as ‘Your local council update’ from a sitting Alliance councillor, although I’ve no recollection of receiving any previous such updates from him.

This leaflet is heavier on detail. There’s a photo of the councillor picking up litter, and another of him putting bottles into a recycling bank. All very worthy. Disturbingly there’s also a photo of a mucky red bin with a sign which reads ‘Clean it up! No litter please’ next to the image of a headless dog. I’m often annoyed by dog fouling but cannot support the decapitation of innocent animals as a deterrent.

I put the Alliance leaflet on the windowsill in the kitchen next to the DUP one. I’ll keep all the leaflets I receive together and take them out nearer to election day to have a proper read.

I expect to get lots of leaflets. But I’m less confident that I’ll get many, few or any knocks on my door.

I make this point because I’ve long noticed an inconsistency in local politics. In many years of covering elections as a journalist I’ve never yet met a candidate who didn’t tell me that they have ‘knocked on thousands of doors’. Indeed most answers to media questions at election time are prefaced by ‘Well, what we’re hearing on the doorsteps is….’

But despite this nobody knocks on my door. Indeed in more than a quarter of a century of being eligible to vote, and having lived at a variety of addresses, I’ve only ever had my door knocked by a political canvasser once.

This was a young woman who told me she was canvassing on behalf of then Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea. I asked her a question which she met with a frown and a puzzled expression. She then told me she would have to find Basil, who was in another street, ask him and then come back to my door with the answer. She never returned. I desperately hope she is still not wandering the streets looking for Basil in the mistaken belief that he’s still an MLA.

Some of my friends have told me that their door has never been knocked while for others it is a rarity. But it does happen. One former colleague informed me that he opened his door on one occasion to find a well known Sinn Fein MLA on his step.

‘Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house?’ the politician asked.

On being told that there were none, the politician thanked him politely and left.

Which started me thinking on the pointlessness of the encounter. Presumably the value of a political doorstep, if there is any, is to attempt to persuade or change minds, not to reassure yourself with those who are already converted to the argument? Are there any Sinn Fein voters in the house should really be the closing gambit, rather than the opening. And what did he intend to do if he found Sinn Fein voters there? Engage in a communal, self-congratulatory hug?

I know another family who invited a UKIP candidate into their home for a cup of tea and some Rich Tea biscuits. They are strongly pro-European but felt desperately sorry for the unfortunate candidate who told them he had spent the day being verbally abused and chased from front doors.

Which hints at how traumatic the experience can be for those carrying out the knocking. I was acquainted with one political candidate who told me he lived in fear of rapping doors at a previous election lest he got asked a question he didn’t know the answer to.

On one such occasion he was quizzed by a grumpy householder ‘What’s your policy on people breaking into homes?’

After some moments of flustered incoherent mumbling he finally responded ‘Uh, well, we’re against that.’

I suspect (completely without proof) that most politicians, like people in general, take the easier route more often than not. Stick the leaflet through the door and move on to the next house. It’s just less painful for all. Perhaps just knock on the doors where you know you’re going to get a good reception.

After all I really believe that caught off guard at my front door, wearing my Superman pyjamas, is not when I’m likely to engage in my best political discourse. Rather, I’m so socially awkward and eager to avoid confrontation that I’m likely to agree to any old nonsense just to get them to go away.

‘We’re strongly in favour of the compulsory force-feeding of Ready Brek to fishermen and the nationalisation of geese.’

‘You’ve certainly got my vote. Bye now.’

Probably the very act of writing this blog ensures that my door will be knocked repeatedly by politicians between now and election day. Perhaps I should desist.

 

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The letter

I was moving through my house today when I noticed the outline of a small figure outside my front door.

I saw what looked like a card being shoved through the letterbox. As it was Sunday I knew it couldn’t be the postman and assumed that it must be a private circular or flier being delivered offering gutter cleaning or dog walking services.

But when I lifted the small brown object I quickly noticed this was something different. It was a proper, old fashioned envelope, the sort you might imagine your grandparents once used.

There was an intricate gold design on the interior of the envelope and what seemed to be a grand coat of arms or crest bearing Latin words on the rear.

Inside was a stiff sheet of high quality writing paper bearing the same symbol with the Latin writing (I was later informed that it is actually the crest for Hogwarts out of the Harry Potter stories).

The formality and majesty of the stationary was belied by the writing on the front and inside. It was obviously a young child’s hand. A missive had been tentatively started on one side only to be abandoned for a new effort overleaf.

The letter was addressed on the envelope to three names – my wife, my son and myself.

I began to read. This is what the letter said….

‘Dear Jonny

Can you please kick back my purple smiley face ball. I accidently kicked it into your back gargen.’

The letter was signed ‘Yours sincerly’ and named.

Next door to me lives a happy frizzy-haired girl, just a year or two older than my son. She had delivered the letter.

Promptly the ball was retrieved and I hand-delivered it to the beaming child. Her mother told me that she had volunteered to knock on our door to get the ball back but the little girl insisted on writing a letter.

‘I didn’t want to discourage her,’ she told me.

I nodded along. More than that, the letter made my day.

Later I tried to think when was the last time I received a letter. I get mail every day – an incessant series of impersonal statements, bills, appointments and unwanted offers for credit cards.

But an actual letter? Something that someone has taken the time to sit down and write by hand? I honestly can’t remember. Probably several years ago.

My whole life is dominated by communication – texts, emails, articles, social media and (God forbid) blogs. But the method of communication which requires extra effort and which can reveal most about the identity and personality of the author is virtually extinct from my life.

And as I sat and re-read over the letter the little girl had taken the time to write and deliver through my front door, I couldn’t help but think that I’m a wee bit poorer because of that.

Life is engineered to be full of short-cuts. But there’s still much appreciation to be found in sometimes taking the long way round.

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The suicide cartoon

After a prolonged period of breathless play my son and I settled down on the sofa to watch some TV this morning.

I was in a nostalgic mood and decided to search for The Flintstones on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It wasn’t available but instead Amazon suggested we try Scooby Doo. After a couple of episodes of watching those pesky kids foiling diabolical plots the streaming service recommended we try Tom and Jerry. So we did.

It’s been decades since I watched this animation but the basic premise is understood; a cartoon mouse and cat will attempt to unleash all manner of violence onto one another. Its gory slapstick is brilliantly satirised in the Itchy and Scratchy characters in The Simpsons.

I try to be careful about the mass media my son consumes but, I suppose, this sort of violence is accepted because it is so obviously cartoonish and over the top. At the very least I can present it as the sort of TV I used to watch when I was a kid.

Then the episode began. And this is what happened.

It started with a deflated and weeping Tom sitting on railway tracks while Jerry watches him from a bridge high above. Jerry then becomes the narrator and relates a sad story. Tom’s descent began after a female cat moved in next door. All his attempts to woo this obviously foxy feline are unsuccessful. He spends all his money on her but she rejects his advances in favour of another, more wealthy rival cat. Tom hits the bottle (milk) until we see him broken in the desperate state on the railway track.

All Jerry’s attempts to rouse Tom from his stupor are unsuccessful. Then, in a final twist, Jerry produces a photo of the female object of his own affections. But when he looks sideways he sees his sweetheart in a marriage car with another mouse.

Now Jerry is also crushed. He descends onto the railway track where Tom moves aside to make room for him and the two main characters sit there weeping on the rafters while sound of a train can be heard coming closer behind them.

And then the credits run. That’s it.

I was now in a slight daze. My son had not quite followed all the intricacies of the plot and was asking ‘Why are they sitting on the track daddy?’ I mumbled some sort of diversionary response and began to fumble with the remote control.

But another episode had already started and Tom and Jerry were alive and well. Suicide could not cause them to perish any more than being electrocuted, shot or chopped into small bits.

Which started me thinking, had I any right to be surprised by the suicide cartoon storyline? I’d already accepted that attempted murder, mutilation and torture were semi-acceptable subject matter for a children’s cartoon. And was it really such a leap from that to suicide being treated in such a glib way for juvenile entertainment? And did I really want to be that preachy parent complaining about content when I’ve spent so much of my life refusing to believe in censorship?

But the truth is that I was deeply troubled by what I had watched and by the potential message it sends to an impressionable young mind. This was clearly dealing with dark issues, albeit in a comic way. Dark issues that I’d prefer my son not be introduced to until he is able to understand their complexity and to be sure that what he is watching is being handled responsibly. After all you can’t really put a message at the end of an episode of Tom and Jerry stating ‘If you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme….’

I fumbled some more with the buttons on the remote control, trying to find an alternative programme to watch. Eventually my son looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, can we just put YouTube on instead?’

That’s Youtube where parents are being constantly urged to monitor the suitability of content that their children are watching. Where concerns over the availability of material which encourages self-harming are whipped up into hysterical media scare stories. I read this week about a parent who has two children who have been left unable to sleep at night after being terrified by stories of the Momo challenge. The following day the BBC reported that fact-checkers claimed that Momo is a hoax.

As a parent it’s really easy to be confused.

And though I’m often queasy about YouTube my child has yet to be exposed to anything there which disturbed me quite so much as the Tom and Jerry episode we watched today.

As ever I suppose the best you can do is to be vigilant in all directions and to use your common-sense to deal with situations as they arise. And once you have gone through this filter, trust your child’s ability to process and rationalise the information they view.

I don’t believe that my wee man has been adversely affected by watching that one episode of Tom and Jerry. But I still don’t think we’ll be watching it again. And I wouldn’t recommend it for any other child. In fairness, this cartoon was made a long time ago, but it’s still available at the click of a button.

Tom and Jerry – they don’t make them like that any more.

Thank Christ.

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Mummy, daddy and James day

It’s closer to yesterday than today. But he’s already awake, already operating at full capacity, bouncing up and down on the bed.

‘Come on mummy and daddy, wake up! Let’s go downstairs! I’m untired! I’m untired!’

Debs and I engage in a very short war of wills. Who will react first? Of course it’s me. It’s the tiniest of movements. Perhaps only a twitch of my little toe. But it’s enough. My son leaps on top of me, writhing like an eel.

‘Daddy’s awake! Daddy’s awake!’

‘Urghhhh,’ I respond.

Now he’s sitting on my head. His little backside bouncing up and down on my skull.

‘Bounce on daddy’s head! Bounce on daddy’s head!’

‘Uh….go easy….uh…..gentle….uh,’ I try to protest but my words are muffled.

He leaps onto my chest, sticky hands reaching for my face.

‘What day is it daddy?’

I have to think.

‘Uh…it’s Saturday.’

‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’

I know what he wants me to say.

‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’

‘Yay!’ he leaps in the air, landing on my unguarded stomach.

‘Oooff,’ I protest.

He takes my face in his hands, turning it to make my eyes meet his in the half light.

‘Does that mean no school today?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘And no work either?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Yay! Let’s go downstairs then.’

‘It’s still too early son.’

I glance at my wife but there’s only a shape there, head buried under the duvet. I’m on my own.

‘Please daddy,’ he pleads.

‘OK son, give me a second.’

My feet search for the floor and I pull my dressing gown around my torso. My son jumps onto my back and I amble down the stairs. I enter the living room and slouch onto the sofa.

‘Daddy, let’s play sword fights!’

‘Too early, let’s watch TV for a bit first.’

I scan through the channels until I find a cartoon about a little girl and a duck. This holds his concentration long enough for me to prepare some breakfast. Coco Pops and a strawberry smoothie. When I present the cereal to him he turns away.

‘I want chocolate, daddy.’

‘You’re not having chocolate for breakfast son.’

‘I don’t like Coco Pops.’

‘But they virtually are chocolate, they even turn the milk into chocolate.’

I raise the spoon to his mouth but it remains determinedly closed, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.

‘Come on buddy, if you try these I’ll let you have chocolate afterwards.’

He eats some breakfast. It’s a small victory but I’m not sure for whom. The duck cartoon finishes. I put on some episodes of He-Man and we engage in a sword fight which only concludes when I agree not to defend myself and allow him to bash me over the head several times with a foam light sabre. We watch more TV but soon his attention becomes patchy, which is unfortunate because it’s getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacks Castle Greyskull. He looks at me (my son, not Skeletor), demanding my full attention as always.

‘Daddy, let’s play a game.’

Reluctantly I’m pulled upright and we go in search of fresh entertainment and stimulation. We move into the other room and I’m ordered on to the floor to search under the sofa. I pull out several boxes but he’s not satisfied.

‘No daddy, keep looking, that’s not the right one.’

‘That’s all that’s under here son.’

‘No, there’s more daddy, look harder.’

I know what he’s looking for and quickly realise my efforts to hide it so far under the sofa that it will be forever forgotten have failed. I pull out the dusty box.

‘Yay! It’s Pie Face!’ he wails.

Pie Face is a simple concept. Fresh cream is piled onto a plastic hand attached to an arm on a spring. Players take turns placing their faces in the middle of a comic mask. A spinner selects a number and the player then has to turn a handle the required number of times. At a random point the spring is released and…..well, the rest is obvious.

It’s not yet dawn but James wants to play Pie Face. He dearly wants to play Pie Face. The only hitch is I don’t think I have any cream. I search the fridge, there is no cream. I look for something which might work as a substitute. I go right to the back, a place best avoided, a place of neglect. I pull out a tub of full fat soft cream cheese and check the expiry date. May 2014. I remove the lid and a cloud of noxious blue dust escapes. The smell is indescribable. I can’t play the game with this stuff, I’ll just have to tell my son.

I go into the other room. He’s waiting for me, an expectant look on his breathless, red little face. Messy golden hair and pleading blue eyes, a hint of mischief and vulnerability.

‘Did you find something so we can play the game daddy?’

I meet his little eyes which are fixed on me.

‘Yes son. Yes, I found something.’

My face is stuck in the mask. A mound of rotting, putrid yellowing cream cheese is just inches from my nose and mouth. I’m having to hold my breath but my son seems completely oblivious to the foul smell.

He has invented his own set of rules for Pie Face. Rather than having us both take turns on the mask he has me set in this position permanently. His job is to spin the arrow to select the number. I point out that if it is the same person getting the pie in the face all the time then the need for having the spinner is removed. He goes ahead regardless. He even manipulates the chosen digit with his hand. He spins the arrow and stops it at five.

‘It’s a five daddy!’

I turn the handle five times. Nothing happens. He spins it again.

‘It’s a five again daddy!’

The spring releases on the second or third turn this time. It’s a surprise even though I’m expecting it. The slimy cheese rolls slowly down my face like spittle on a wall. My son leaps and howls with delight. Then he orders me not to move while he goes to summon Debs. She has to see this. Some minutes later she arrives, all hair and yawns, to inspect my face.

He wants to play again. I pile more rotting cheese onto the hand. Then he decides he wants to video the experience and runs to get the little camera Santa gave him. I have to repeat the Pie Face experience several times until he gets the shot he wants. I think I’m on the point of being sick.

‘I think that’s enough Pie Face for now buddy.’

I’m cleaning my face, afraid I’ll never be able to rid myself of the smell, when there’s a knock on the door. I’ve still got kitchen roll in my hand as I answer. It’s one of my neighbours, an older woman. She wants to tell me there’s been a bit of a mix-up and I seem to have taken her green wheelie bin. She’s been left with my bin. I smile and try to laugh it off, after all, it’s only a bin. But the look on her face quickly betrays that this is serious. She’s as solemn as a priest and trembling slightly. I tell her she can have the bin back now.

‘You see, the problem is that your rubbish is now in our bin. Your rubbish is a lot messier than ours.’

I nod my head. Soon I’ve agreed to have her bin cleaned and returned to her on the next occasion it is emptied. I’m left with the impression that she believes I deliberately switched the bins.

‘Easy to see how it could happen,’ I offer, ‘these bins all look alike!’

She walks away shaking her head. I go to find James. Now that it is daytime he’s gone back to bed. I find him and Debs cuddled up together, watching videos and giggling conspiratorially. But now I’m fresh and want to make the best of the day.

‘Come on guys, it’s mummy and daddy and James day! Let’s not waste it in bed, let’s go have some adventures!’

There’s no evidence they’ve heard me. They’re huddled around a phone, his fingers scrolling images.

‘We can go out for some breakfast, some shopping, to the park?’

Nothing.

‘Alright, well…I’ll be downstairs if anyone wants me.’

I clean up the remnants of the Pie Face game. I throw the rest of the cream cheese in the bin. My neighbour’s bin. And then I wait. Getting my son and wife out of the house in the morning is hard. Like a hostage negotiation, a delicate balance of gentle persuasion, exasperation, patience, reward, false promise and constant disappointment. The processes of washing, grooming, dressing and reasoning run on and on. Our expected breakfast turns into brunch, and then lunch.

Eventually we’re in a bistro. I’m picking half-heartedly at an oily, leafy salad while my son munches on stubby chips and plays a game on my phone, which emits tinny digital sounds. Debs tells me off for taking food from his plate while he’s distracted.

I notice a dark-haired woman at a nearby table frowning in our direction. At first I think she’s also spotted me stealing some chips but instead the object of her dissatisfaction seems to be my son. I’m not entirely certain about the source of her irritation, it could be the noise of the phone or the fact that my son is engaging with an electronic device rather than another human. I look down, and then back up to see that she’s shaking her head now. Against my son’s protests I turn the volume on the phone down a little but I’m not minded to stop his game. My wife and I often take our son to eat out, wanting to make him comfortable with the social dining experience. But we also entertain him how we can. Playing a game or watching a video keeps him amused while allowing us a few minutes of grown-up chat.

My son knows how to make my phone do things I’ll never understand. He’s pressing buttons until he hears a song, something he recognises and likes. He surprises me by jumping from his chair and starting to dance, right at the side of the table as amused servers and customers walk past. There’s a few twists and shaking feet and even a move which takes him to the ground and back. The sound of his laughter dominates the restaurant. I find myself looking again at the dark-haired woman. She’s watching him but talking quietly to her dining companion. I see her eyes raise skywards and her jaw tighten. She’s grasping a paper napkin.

My son keeps laughing. He’s often shy when in public places but he feels comfortable here. He’s giving all of himself to us today. I don’t want to inconvenience or disturb other people but I won’t stop my son from dancing or laughing. I won’t apologise for him or curtail his expression. Self-consciousness will come crashing around him soon enough without my help. The woman notices me and returns a stern gaze. I smile at her. The world’s big enough for lots of different kinds of people.

After lunch it’s playtime. That means a trip to the adventure playground and its many highlights. There’s the giant slide which it took me months to coax my son to go down. Now he barely allows his bum to reach the bottom before he’s racing to climb up it again. There’s the ball pit where my son wrestles with me and always seems to lose his socks. My explorations to the bottom of the pit in search of socks have uncovered a range of strange objects too disturbing to relate here. There’s the huge climbing frame in which the woman with the big eyebrows who works here told me off for trying to get to the top. She stood there impatiently pointing at me and tapping her foot while I tried to explain that I couldn’t get down because I’d put my back out climbing the rope ladder.

But my son’s favourite item is the cannon. I gather foam balls and position the oversized ordnance to an exact position. Then I move to my location and dance around while he fires the balls at my head. I pretend I’m trying to get out of the way but the foam bounces off my skull while James jumps up and down chanting ‘This is awesome!’

Soon, however, I can see tiredness in his eyes and it’s time to go home. The three of us cuddle on the sofa watching cartoons. We’re all hungry again so I leave them to play snakes and ladders while I prepare dinner. I throw together something which resembles a spaghetti bolognese because it’s one of the few dishes which I know he likes. I want to try and make it as healthy as I can so I finely chop onions, carrots and mushrooms. It’s mummy and daddy and James day so we’re allowed dinner in front of the TV. When I present his plate he begins to bawl.

‘It’s spaghetti bolognese son, it’s your favourite.’

‘Waaah!’

‘It’s alright, you don’t have to eat the onions.’

‘Waaah!’

‘Or the carrots.’

‘Waaah!’

‘Or the mushrooms.’

He begins to eat, watching me intently to ensure I don’t try to slip any vegetables back onto his fork. Soon it’s bath time, which brings us to the routine which my son fears and despises beyond all others. Hair washing. On worse days than this Debs and I have had to carry him bare-bummed kicking and roaring up the stairs to force him into the bath. Now though we have reached a teary accommodation. He’ll let mummy wash his hair if she does it really gently. I’m branded an inelegant buffoon and banished from the room. Indeed, if he even spots me coming up the stairs he begins to scream with alarm.

‘Daddy’s coming mummy! Don’t let him wash my hair! Don’t let him wash my hair! He’s too rough!’

Instead I prepare his bedtime treat of milk and cookies and presently Debs carries him back downstairs. His blond mop is damp and slicked back and his cheeks and arms are red. He’s wearing Superman pyjamas. He watches some more TV and munches cookies slowly while his hair dries in front of the fire. Soon pale crumbs speckle the dark carpet like little stars in space. He’s very tired now. Everyone can see it but him.

There’s the inevitable row over going to bed but his heart’s not really in it and soon he is resting his head on my shoulder while I carry him upstairs. As we get to the bathroom door he puts his arms around my neck and squeezes. No words. Just a little squeeze. I brush his teeth and clean his face and hands and then he runs to the bed, where my wife is waiting with a book, and leaps onto it like a WWE wrestler. He lies on the bed, following every word of the story, stopping Debs several times to ask questions or tell us what he already knows. I go to move beside him but I’m startled momentarily by a large furry object on my pillow. It’s one of my son’s favourite teddies. Despite theexhaustion he is delighted by my instinctive shocked reaction and begins to laugh. A little at first and then in floods until he’s giggling uncontrollably. I hold his little body which is trembling with good-humoured abandon. His laughter is so contagious that soon Debs and I are helplessly joining in. It‘s one of those rare, undefinable, irrepressible moments of parental joy when all the pressures of the world are far away and I don’t have to pretend to be cynical about everything. Eventually I compose myself and move to say goodnight to my son. He’s a little afraid of sleeping on his own so Debs usually stays with him, to help him get over. But he’s trying to delay it now, as if he’s not quite ready to let go off the day.

‘What about….’ he begins mischievously, ‘a family cuddle?’

It’s a sweet little ritual of his. He snakes an arm around our necks, pulling us to him like he’s a butterfly and we’re the wings. He holds us there. And I start to think about how happy I am at this moment, about times when I was not. Some regret over time I’ve wasted, some fear over how fast time moves, how quickly things change. A little worry over the uncertainty of the future. I force myself back into the moment and smell my boy’s neck. I put my mouth next to his ear.

‘Thank you son,’ I whisper softly.

He turns his face until it is touching mine. Then the giggles come again.

‘Silly daddy.’

The grip of his tired arm loosens. He shifts towards mummy and they fit together as one, ready for sleep. I’m about to leave but he remembers one last thought.

‘What day is it tomorrow daddy?’

Again I have to think.

‘Uh…it’s Sunday.’

‘But what does that mean? What other day is it?’

I know what he wants me to say.

‘It’s mummy and daddy and James day son.’

His eyes are closed now, a certain, safe smile.

 

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Mid-term break

I’m slipping deeper into the tiredness as if it were a warm, soapy bath.

Lying on the sofa, I’m about to experience the forbidden indulgence of an afternoon nap. Like the magic Turkish Delight from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, once it is experienced it can never be forgotten.

There’s the beginning of a dream. No clarity has emerged from the narrative yet, it’s more just feelings at this stage, fluid and smooth like liquid metal. I imagine I’m smiling.

But then….

But then an intruder smashes into the scene. There are hands on my face. Sticky hands. My beard is being yanked.

‘Wake up daddy! Wake up!’

‘Uh? Uh?’

‘You fell asleep daddy. We’re supposed to be playing.’

The little hands are pulling my eyelids open. The first thing I see is a Coco Pop stuck to the elbow of his jumper.

The water in this bath has suddenly gone cold and spilled all over the floor. And I’ve got my big toe stuck in the water tap.

I’m pulled upright. PJ Masks is on the TV.

‘Daddy, you said you’d play with me.’

‘I have been buddy. We’ve been playing for the last seven hours.’

 

It’s the first day of mid-term break. Just the first day and already I’ve exhausted my creative store of role playing scenarios. We’ve been pirates, adventurers, policemen, ninjas and knights. We’ve had a sword fight which ended ingloriously when I was struck with a light sabre in the testicles. We’ve spent an hour searching toy boxes for the Darth Vader figure (‘No daddy, it’s the other Darth Vader toy I wanted!’). We’ve been to the park where we played a game which involved climbing a muddy hill to rescue crystal dragon eggs. We’ve completed a wooden obstacle course (my son clambered over the obstacles while I had to walk alongside humming the Indiana Jones theme tune). We’ve fed the ducks at the pond and bought an ice cream against my protestations that it’s the middle of February. We’ve argued over the ice cream after my son claimed that I was stealing the strawberry sauce while I reasoned that I was just licking it to stop it melting. We’ve been to the diner for lunch and argued over whether he should eat pasta or chips. We’ve argued after he accused me of stealing some of his chips. We’ve played storytelling in the car when I had to extemporise a narrative about a fire breathing dragon getting killed by a tiny mouse. We’ve played wrestling (he was Big Daddy, I was Giant Haystacks. He won). We’ve done some colouring-in, played a game on my phone and read a couple of story books.

And now we’re watching TV. This was my idea because I thought at least it was an action we could pursue without me becoming physically or mentally involved (and perhaps even allow for a nap). But watching TV with my son is an interactive experience. We have to assume the characters and act out the plot as it plays before us.

‘I’m Cat Boy daddy. Who do you want to be?’

‘Uh….I’ll be Omelette.’

‘It’s Owlette daddy, not Omelette. Duh!’

I’m pretending to fly across the living room floor while simultaneously battling some masked baddie. My son watches me throughout, ever eager to find fault (‘Higher Daddy! Higher!’).

‘After we finish this daddy we can play the treasure hunt game. And then after that we can play the game where I throw you off the bed.’

I can’t think of anything to say so I just nod along. I also have to get to the shop and to think about his dinner and bath. And to get some professional work done. And maybe even write a blog.

Mummy is due home from work in four and a half hours. That’s two-hundred and seventy minutes. Or sixteen thousand two hundred seconds.

It’s the first day of mid-term break. Just six more days to go.

0

Epic daddy fail

Quite deliberately I’ve never pushed my son into supporting any sports team that pulls at my affections.

As always, I prefer him to find his own way. He may come around to an interest in competitive games at some point. But, if he does, he can develop his own illogical tribal preferences.

Having said that there is an undeniable charm in the potential of him having some shared interests as his daddy.

So it was pleasing when he recently expressed a desire to watch a football match on the television alongside me. The delight was only slightly diluted by the transparency of his actions being a ploy to get out of going to bed.

The game was Manchester United v Arsenal in the FA Cup and he asked me who I wanted to win. When I said Man Utd he concurred that he wanted them to win as well. That was nice.

Watching the match was an unusual experience. His mind wandered often. At one point he argued with me that there were actually three teams playing in the game.

At another point he asked me if Spurs were playing too. When I replied no he said, ‘That’s because they’re off playing rugby tonight.’

As I said, unusual.

But I suppose you have to start somewhere.

So when he came home from school this week and asked me to play football with him I was happy to comply.

The game was fun and the fact that he insisted that it was in the rules that he was allowed to tackle me with a mop was only a minor irritant.

Then he asked me to watch while he kicked the ball as hard as he could. He shot the ball firmly with his right foot. Then he did it again.

I was impressed.

Infused by the spirit of progress I tried to pass on some of my wisdom.

‘You know buddy, really good footballers are able to kick with both feet.’

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then he asked me to pass him the ball.

He made a clumsy, ungainly attempt at a kick but missed the ball.

Then he tried it again….and fell over.

He tried it one more time, and fell over again, this time landing with a thump which looked and sounded painful.

As he rose I could see the tears coming into his eyes but I was confused about how his ability to kick the ball had deserted him so suddenly.

‘What are you doing buddy?’

‘It’s your fault daddy!’ he snapped back angrily. ‘You said good players kick with both feet.’

And then I realised.

‘Yes buddy, but I didn’t mean at the same time….’

0

Retail Therapy

He hadn’t intended to go into the grocers. The hanging carrots, bunched together like fat, dirty fingers appealed to him in only the most abstract way. The sort of thing he might buy if he was closer to the person he pretended to be. The person who planned healthy meals in advance and bought fresh, organic ingredients. The person who always had a lemon in his kitchen. Not the person who was constantly trying to catch up with order by buying ready-meals from the 24 hour garage.

It was the fuel on the footpath out the front which made him hesitate. The bags of coal, logs and sticks. The peat. He loved the way that peat smelt on his fingers, how it brought back memories of being on the moss as a child. The funny shaped spade and the piles of freshly-cut earth drying in the sun.

It had been a cold start to the year. Mornings when the frost layered the ground like a ubiquitous spider’s web. Perhaps it was caused by some latent ancestral memory but now he only ever felt the house was properly warm when he lit the fire. The radiator was fine to hold the chill back but it didn’t have the raw, urgent energy and power of the rising flames in the grate.

He didn’t even mind the work that went with it. The scraping and brushing, removing the ashes and leaving them beside the back door in the little tin bucket until they were cool enough for the plastic bin. The art of building the fire, layering the sticks with air between them so they could breathe. Do it properly and there’s no need for firelighters or newspaper. Brushing the dark, silky soot out of the chimney. The black grit which stayed under his nails even after he’d washed his hands.

He ran his hand over the surface of a bag of logs as if he was examining a prize cow. He liked the rough, uneven feel of the bark under his hand. He thought about a story he had heard recently on the news, something he half remembered about how damaging it was to the environment to burn wood. There was a statistic he was trying to locate, like searching for keys in a deep pocket. Was it that timber is made up of seventy percent water? Or was he mixing that up with the fact that seventy percent of the planet is covered by water? It troubled him that he could not bring order to his mind.

Then he entered the shop. It was darker than he expected and the piles of produce in trays at every wall made the space seem small, as if the walls were closing in. There were no other customers. The counter was in the centre of the shop and behind it a grey-haired woman was writing something on a notepad. He approached the counter but she didn’t raise her gaze, keeping her concentration on the words and digits she was scribbling.

He stood there awkwardly, wondering for a moment if she had failed to notice him and if he should make a throaty noise to announce his presence. Then she looked up. No words, just the slightest rise in her eyebrows. He felt she was not pleased to see him. Like an intruder.

He knew exactly what he was going to say but stumbled over the first few words under the intensity of her glare.

‘Um, well, uh, could I have a bag of your logs please?’

She studied him with barely concealed frustration. He had the familiar feeling of being in the wrong place, as if he was interrupting something more pressing with his presence. He could feel his cheeks and neck redden and hated that he was impotent to control this external display of shame.

Then, eventually, she spoke.

‘We don’t have any logs at the minute.’ And then a second later. ‘We’re waiting on the man coming with more.’

She lowered her gaze once more.

He nodded along, dreading any adversarial situation. He knew from experience that little misunderstandings or disagreements tended to incubate and swell into something much greater and darker in the oven of his mind.

He tried to laugh, to bring some levity. Then he looked out the window as if to escape from a situation that was threatening to suffocate him.

‘Well,’ he tittered idiotically, ‘I think there might be a couple of bags left out there.’ Then, almost as an apology, ‘I’ll just take the one if that’s ok.’

She considered him again. Then she shook her head sadly and exhaled a deep sigh which spoke of much more than the availability of a bag of timber. She walked silently past him and out of the shop. Every twitch of muscle in her body seemed like an unbearable effort.

He watched her through the front window of the shop. She bent a little and moved to where the fuel was piled until he could see her no longer. Standing alone in the shop he became aware of his own body, how useless his arms seemed hanging by his side. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, where to put them. He felt, perhaps, that he should run away.

Then the woman returned. He tried a desperate smile but she would not meet his gaze. She resumed her position behind the counter and thumped some buttons on an ancient cash register harder than was necessary.

She still did not look at him as she spoke.

‘That’s three pounds fifty.’