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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.

 

0

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.’

2

The operation and the scaredy cat

My wife and I often share an affectionate joke that our young son seems to be a ‘scaredy cat’.

It’s born of the fact that he seems to be afraid of much of the world around him – afraid of the dark, afraid of riding his bike without stabilisers, afraid of trying anything new. Afraid of the richness of his own imagination and the possibilities it creates.

As parents we always strive to meet these challenges with love, good humour and support. Reassuring and gently nudging him in the right direction while reminding him that we are always there in the background.

One of the manifestations of this fear has been an unwillingness to participate in any extra-curricular activities, to join any of the classes that could broaden his social base and strengthen his confidence.

But recently we had a breakthrough when mummy introduced him to a martial arts class which he loves. Now most days begin with him asking if it’s the day for ‘ninja school’.

Like all seemingly insurmountable problems, you succeed by chipping away at it a little day by day.

 

 

Some months back we noticed a small lump on the back of his neck, like a wound that hadn’t healed properly.

We monitored it for a couple of weeks but the condition seemed to be worsening, rather than improving. It was often bloody and looked painful, although he assured us it was not.

Eventually we took him to the doctor. The GP wasn’t sure and referred my son to a specialist. The consultant identified the lump as a granuloma. We were told that while the benign growth was not serious, it would need to be surgically removed and tested.

And so this week we arrived at the children’s hospital for the scheduled appointment. The doctor who was due to carry out the tiny surgery was kind and full of empathy. He was also, it seemed, a little surprised by a referral for a procedure to be carried out under local anaesthetic on a child who was only five years old. He told us that a general anaesthetic would be more normal for someone as young as our son. The logic being, presumably, that you’re not quite sure how such a young boy would react to being awake while something is being cut off his body.

At one point the doctor disappeared briefly to talk to one of his colleagues. The discussion, I later surmised, was him raising the possibility that he might need some assistance because of the age of our son.

Then he told us about the small risks involved and my wife signed the consent forms. My son had been quiet up to this point. I put this down to some natural fear on his part.

We were then taken to another room and my son was asked to sit on a bed. I had brought along my iPad to distract him and he played happily on it while the operation began.

I watched as the doctor twice inserted a needle, containing anaesthetic, into my son’s neck. He didn’t make a sound but I noticed a little tightening of his features. But when my wife and I asked him if it was sore he simply smiled.

‘It’s ok mummy and daddy, it doesn’t hurt at all.’

He continued playing his game while the doctor worked at the back of his neck with a scalpel, first cutting off the growth and then scraping away several further layers of skin to make sure the whole object was removed.

Undoubtedly the anaesthetic had deadened most of the pain but, it might be assumed, the very process of feeling a knife cut into your neck may be enough to cause alarm and fear. My son didn’t move or demonstrate the slightest hint of worry.

At this point the other consultant, the one the first doctor had spoken to about requiring assistance, entered the room to ask if any help was needed. Our doctor simply smiled and pointed to my son.

‘Look at him, he’s incredible. We’re just fine here.’

Finally the wound had to be cauterised so a glowing stick was held against my son’s neck to seal the wound with burning heat. Again he didn’t move a muscle.

Afterwards the nurses and doctor was effusive in their praise for our little boy. The doctor then told us he was the youngest child he had ever carried out such an operation on using local anaesthetic. He said we were lucky to have such a brave son.

Then we went to buy a toy and get a McDonald’s. As my son munched chips and played with his new action figures I kept asking him how come he wasn’t afraid? He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to the Happy Meal.

Later that night both my wife and I were exhausted because we had exerted so much mental energy on the day. There was the small worry about the operation but a much greater worry about about how our son would cope with the operation. As it turned out, he was the only one who was not a scaredy cat.

As I lay unable to sleep in bed that night I tried to make sense of it all. How could this be the same boy who howls in fear when mummy goes to cut his toenails? Had he merely been putting on a brave face or was he genuinely immune to any concern about having a knife inserted into his neck? I’ll probably never know for sure.

What is clear though is that courage can be measured in many different ways. No doubt there will be further occasions when my son scares himself by inventing one of his spooky stories or when he sees a spider.

But when it really mattered he was the bravest of us all.

1

Why I shouldn’t be allowed out alone

The frost has created a white film which clings onto the car windscreen, thick like the hide of a wild animal. I watch patiently as the demister thaws the edges, a process so gradual that seems without end. I think about the brief conversation I had with my wife before I left the house moments ago.

‘Where do you have to go to?’

‘Dublin.’

‘Yes, I know that, but where in Dublin?’

‘I dunno….just Dublin,’ I answered with a shrug.

Eventually I pull out onto the main road and begin the drive south. The truth is that the world is a lot smaller than it used to be and a trip to Dublin should really be as routine as popping to the shop for a pint of milk. But it never seems like that inside my mind.

Last night I had an anxious sleep, interrupted with unpleasant memories of previous trips south. The troublesome toll booth, finding myself at the cash desk before I realise I’ve no Euros. Or the occasion when I went to the pre-paid lane by mistake and ended up stuck between a barrier in front which refused to rise and a line of inpatient drivers behind.

Then there are the mysteries of the city centre traffic. The occasions when I’ve spent hours transversing the dizzying warren of roads in a growing panic searching for some elusive location or my car being surrounded by swarms of lycra-clad cyclists to the point where I’m afraid to change lanes lest I ingloriously unseat one. Almost invariably the trips end with a van driver sounding their horn and shaking their head.

Today, I’m heading to the city to carry out an interview for a magazine article and I have to find the office where my subject works. I’ve given myself plenty of time and everything is going smoothly. I’ve made the obligatory stop at the Applegreen service station for a coffee and a pastry and I’ve counted out the toll booth money in advance. I’ve programmed the location’s address into the sat nav on my phone and I turn the directions on as I near the city. This trip, I have decided, is going to be the one which cures my phobia about driving in Dublin.

Just a few miles from the city the sat nav buzzes into life. The calm, authoritative voice telling me to take the M50 exit off the M1 motorway. I move into the far left lane and manoeuvre as instructed.

Then, after a moment, the sat nav fires another instruction.

‘After exiting the M1 stay in the right hand lane towards the R139 and take the second exit at the roundabout towards Malahide.’

In truth he could have told me this a bit earlier because I’m now wedged into the far left lane in morning rush hour traffic and can’t get across to get to the lane which takes me towards the roundabout. Instead I find I’m trapped on the M50.

At once my brain seems to turn into blancmange and I’m infested by fears I’m going to be boxed in against my will in traffic, until I end up in Cork or Galway or some other such place.

The sat nav now senses a problem and the voice is there again.

‘Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn.’

I let this go the first couple of times. Then again….

‘Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn.’

‘I can’t make a fecking U-turn!’ I roar defiantly. ‘I’m in the middle of the fecking M50 you knob!’

The sat nav must be suitably chastened because he does not repeat the instruction again. Instead he finds an alternative route which involves me coming off at the next roundabout and doubling back on my route.

I glance at my watch. Before getting lost I was on course to be comfortably early. I’m still on schedule to make the interview on time, but I can afford no more mistakes.

The sat nav guides me to a huge industrial estate in the middle of several other huge industrial estates on the edge of Dublin. Every building seems to be modern and stylish, and all are without signs to aid easy identification.

The sat nav triumphantly chirps ‘You have reached your destination,’ before going back to sleep.

But in reality I’m just on a road in my car staring at multiple red brick buildings, vainly trying to find a name or number.

I slow my car down to a crawl to have a proper look. The roads are narrow and I notice that a large white van is looming in my rear view mirror. As my pace decreases he begins to angrily sound his horn, forcing me to pull away again.

I take a left turn to allow the van to pass, but it also turns left. Then I take a right. The van turns right. I try another left. The van turns left.

I slow down again to attempt to get my bearings. The van sounds his horn even louder. Eventually I manage to pull onto the footpath. As the van passes me I give a weak wave as a gesture of reconciliation and apology. The driver makes a wanker gesture with his hand in my direction.

I look around and realise I’m lost again. There’s nothing else but to wake up the sat nav again to try and get back to my original location. I’m sure I can detect a hint of surprise in its voice.

We have another argument as I drive off and it keeps repeating ‘Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn.’

Some minutes later, and after stopping several people to ask for directions, I’ve found the right building. I glance again nervously at my watch, I’ll just about make it on time if I can get a parking space quickly.

But there are none to be found. I drive up and down narrow streets looking in increasing exasperation without success for any space in which I can wedge my ancient, battered car. Moreover, every lamppost and building has a sign attached warning that vehicles will be clamped or towed away if they are illegally parked.

I’m close to desperate when I spot an arrow-shaped sign which reads ‘Retail parking.’ I follow the arrow, which takes me to another arrow, and then another, before I finally pull up outside what seems to be a multi-storey carpark. My car enters the cavernous building.

It’s all narrow lanes on the ground floor and, surprisingly, there are only a small number of parking spaces, all of which are occupied. My watch now tells me I’m going to be late so when I see the ramp which leads up to the next floor I head straight for it.

But it’s desperately narrow, barely any wider than my car. I have to make several turns and adjustments just to get the vehicle square in line with the ramp. As I ascend, glancing nervously in my wing mirrors, I’m muttering ‘How the feck do they expect people to get their cars up here?’

The first thing I see at the top is a large green cross. It takes the smallest of moments to recognise this as the sign for a pharmacist, only slightly longer for me to think ‘Funny having a chemist in the middle of the carpark’ and another moment to realise I’ve gone badly wrong.

I’ve driven my old car right up to the pedestrianised shopping concourse. Several startled shoppers stop to stare. One old woman makes an urgent stop gesture. I wave and smile in a way which I hope conveys the message ‘My gifts lie in other areas.’

My next problem is getting back down. There’s no room to turn or manoeuvre so I have to begin reversing my car back down the narrow ramp. This would be a test of my dexterous driving skills on any day, but now my arms and legs feel like they’re full of water and I can sense my face is flushed like a beetroot. Somehow I get back to ground level, drive out of the carpark and find a space nearby. There’s a sign warning that cars will be clamped and I’ve no idea if I’m parked legally but I’m too late to be worry about it now.

I run to the office and circle it curiously, looking for the entrance. I see a man leave through a glass door and head straight for it. I’m hurrying as I go to push through the door, only to realise too late that it is secured with an electronic lock and my face slams straight into the resistant glass.

A security guard on the other side wears a neutral expression as he points out the revolving door, less than six feet away. As I’m about to enter the building I notice there are four empty parking spaces at the front door and a little sign which says ‘Visitors’.

I sign in at the front desk, just a few minutes late. My interview subject meets me with a handshake and smile.

‘Did you have any trouble finding us?’

‘No. No trouble at all.’