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.’



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.


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.


Heavy breathing

The phone rings.

An unknown number. Probably not a good sign.

Also I’m still in my sick bed. Not on top form, not at my best. I’m not ready to face society yet.

But then again it might be important. Perhaps someone wanting to ask if I was ever mis-sold PPI.

I answer, testing the limits of my pestilent throat, chest and lungs.

‘Hello?’ I bark, sounding a bit Barry White, but without the soul.

A female voice, pleasant but professional, non-threatening but direct. She works for the BBC. She wants to know if I’ll go on the radio tonight.

Regular readers know this happens quite a lot. In my niche as a daddy blogger I’m regularly asked to contribute to parenting debates. It feeds my fanciful idea of myself as a raconteur.

Usually I agree to go on. I like the experience, the profile and the feeling that someone might be interested in my views.

But there are two problems today

1 The subject for the debate is children using social media. Does it have a negative impact on their development? My boy is only four so this is one parenting worry which is still years away and which I haven’t troubled myself to worry about yet. Plus I’m barely literate on social media myself.

2 I fear I may be dead before Evening Extra broadcasts tonight. Or massively reduced. The flu is continuing its Blitzkreig attack on my body, scattering my defensive systems and crushing my feeble resistance. It is the flu without end. Health seems nothing more than an old friend who has now moved on to better things and now ignores my text messages. Every time I feel that I may have begun the process of recovery the flu discovers a new part of my anatomy to devastate.  Lately when people ask me if I’m feeling better I’ve tended to respond: ‘Maybe a little but now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

So I’m reluctant. But I’m also too nice. I tell the BBC woman that I’m probably not the best person. I suggest she finds someone better suited (and healthier). But I say if she’s stuck then to phone me back and I’ll go on.

Half an hour later she phones me back.

They’re stuck.

I agree to go on.

But it will have to be done over the phone. I’m not well enough to travel to the studio this time.

I make a mental note that I’ll have to do some research on the subject so my ignorance is not exposed to the whole country.

But first I need to rest. I lay my aching head on the pillow. Please just make the pain go away…..

The phone rings.

Waking me from a deep and troubled sleep. An unknown number.

‘Hello?’ I feebly answer.

‘Hi Jonny, thanks for agreeing to do this, you’ll be on live with Seamus in just a few seconds, just after this interview finishes.’


I hear the calm and authoritative voice of Seamus McKee, one of my favourite broadcasters. He’s talking to some doctor about winter pressures on the health service. I have to stop myself from jumping in with ‘you don’t know the bloody half of it!’

But now he moves on. A new report has highlighted the dangers of young children using too much social media. What can parents do? What can schools do? He knows just the person to ask.

There’s a school principal in the studio. He talks about the issue with competence, he’s calm, reasoned and proportionate.

Then Seamus turns to me.

He asks me a gentle question. And off I go.

When I’m a bit nervous or panicked sometimes I talk too much. Words pouring out quicker than my brain can process their meaning. This is such an occasion. Within seconds I think I have reduced the subject of children using social media to the biggest danger facing humans since The Black Death.

The teacher comes back in and says something sensible. Then I come back and say something daft. It’s all a bit awkward and mericifully, Seamus soon brings the debate to an end.

I go back to bed. I try not to think too much about what has just happened.

At some point later in the night I inch my way downstairs, a shivering mess of snot and germs.

My wife is home now. She tells me she missed me on the radio and wants to listen back to it.

I have a rule.

Never listen back to myself.

That way I can maintain the fabrication in my mind that I’m a great narrator of anecdotes, a modern day Peter Ustinov sprinkling my wit and wisdom like a child feeding crumbs to the ducks.

But if I hear myself the illusion is destroyed. I’m reminded of the uncomfortable truth.

That I’m really just a great big culchie.

I’m like the guy who turned up at the BBC for an interview and then mistakenly ended up in the studio live on the news.

I end up on The Nolan Show or Good Morning Ulster or Evening Extra when really I’m supposed to be on Farmgate talking about the price of limousine bulls and what a bad year it’s been for potatoes.

But I’m in a weakened state and my wife insists that we listen back on the BBC iPlayer.

As she goes online I warn her that it probably wasn’t my best performance.

But, it turns out, there’s something else going on which I hadn’t counted on. Something which I was completely oblivious to as it occurred.

As Seamus is interviewing the teacher there’s a noise in the background. Faint at first, but then more prominent until it becomes quite diverting.

It’s hard to place it at the beginning. It’s like the noise of an inexpert cello player roughly scraping the bow across the strings. It’s ugly.

The noise goes away when I talk. Then it comes back when I finish.

And now I realise.

It’s the sound of my breathing. My congested, mucus-filled lungs amplified for the whole of the world to hear. And then reproduced on iPlayer for anyone who missed it first time around.

I sound like Darth Vader. When Seamus asked me about the role of parents in monitoring children on social media I could really have responded: ‘No Seamus, I am your father.’

I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. After all I didn’t really want to go on in the first place.

And people forget things really quickly.

As long as nobody does anything to draw attention to it. Something stupid like writing a blog…..


The Christmas flu

There’s something inevitable about getting the flu at Christmas.

Just like a repeat of Love Actually. It comes around in December, you do everything you can to avoid it, you end up giving in and then feel angry afterwards about all of the wasted time.

I placed a curse on myself this year by looking forward to the holidays too much. The present shopping was done early and well. The baking was successful enough that I didn’t have to pretend that my mince pies were some ironic gesture against consumerist perfection.

And I was in my own house, where I’m most comfortable.

And where my son introduces every bug, infection and contagion he picks up at that breeding ground of disease some refer to as school.

I give him food, clothes, toys, emotional stability, love and the benefits of my experience and wisdom. He gives me the fecking flu.

And just to avoid confusion, it’s the real thing this time. Not the usual ‘man’ version which strikes me every few weeks, lays me low for an hour or two but then conveniently scarpers when it’s feeding time.

No, this is the real thing. Endless days in bed watching repeats of Dallas. Shivering, coughing, sweating, spluttering, aching, excreting, barking, wheezing, snotting, moaning, sweating, throbbing, wailing, suffering. It’s the ‘I almost had to put an appeal on social media to get someone to come round to take me to the toilet’ flu.

My wife and son fell first while I admirably marched on with the Christmas preparations.

The Santa experience was enjoyable, if a little more subdued than usual, as my boy battled bravely against a raging temperature.

I spent hours in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner. I could feel the malign symptoms coming on but, like the climate change denier, refused to accept the overwhelming evidence.

I fed all the family, pulled the crackers, refilled the wine glasses, set the pudding on fire (by intent), exchanged embraces, smiled, waved goodbye, closed the door and…..crawled into bed.

I had just enough strength to Google ‘Winter flu 2017’ where the first two articles were entitled ‘Should I worry?’ and ‘Should we fear the worst?’ ‘Yes! Yes!’ I heard myself call. I read an article from some professor of molecular virology which said that this flu virus had come all the way from Australia and was in a bad mood.

I went on to read a few articles from the Daily Mail and Daily Express which said, essentially, that the flu was going to kill every living thing on earth (although I do accept I may have passed over into delirium by this point).

Christmas night was spent trying vainly to master techniques I used to be quite good at – sleeping, moving, breathing. Snot bunged up my nose like an inexperienced and over-enthusiastic glue-sniffer. I lay there miserably for hours suffering uncontrollable bouts of shivering and throbbing muscle pain (and not in a good way).

The morning brought little relief. My head felt like it had been put through a cycle of the washing machine without fabric conditioner. A journey of even a few steps felt like an expedition to the Antarctic. I eventually made it to the bathroom only to find that fecker Amundsen had got there 33 days previously and hadn’t bothered to flush the toilet.

But I had greater worries ahead. I needed supplies. My emergency stores of Lemsips were exhausted and I found the Calpol just wasn’t doing it for me.

I would have to leave the house.

More, I would have to leave the house and go to the shopping centre in the middle of Boxing Day sales.

Somehow I hauled myself upright and pulled on some old clothes. I stumbled outside like a baby antelope taking his first steps and began to defrost the car.

I saw a neighbour approach.

I tried to hide but there was no spot for refuge. I attempted to blend in to the colour of my car.

‘Hi Jonny! Did you have a lovely Christmas?’


‘Aye, and did the wee man enjoy it?’

‘Um…I think so.’

‘It’s all really for the kids now, isn’t it?’


‘It’s all got so commercial now, hasn’t it?’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘Well that’s it all as far away as ever now.’


‘So, are you heading out?’

‘Just to the chemist, I’ve got the flu.’

‘Yeah, I thought you weren’t looking too good there. When you’ve got the flu you really know you’ve got the flu.’


‘There’s a lot of it going round.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘You know what you need? Some echinacea.’


‘Make sure and keep wrapped up. And drink plenty of fluids.’

‘OK, thanks.’

Never has a windscreen taken so long to defrost.

But eventually I’m driving around the shopping centre car park searching for a spot. I win a game of chicken with an old woman as we both dart towards the last remaining space (I’m beyond caring and civility).

The crowds are formidable. It might be merely a reflection of my mood but the jollity of the pre-Christmas shopper seems absent now. There’s something more mercenary and ruthless about the sales shopper. There’s a ‘get out of my way’ look in too many eyes.

I find the Boots store but by now I’m overcome with a desperate desire to get back to my bed. I grab a basket and blindly empty a shelf-full of cough and flu remedies into it.

The front of the queue is like a distant mirage.

My nose is running uncontrollably so I have to grab a box of tissues from a shelf and bung my nostrils shut like a leaky dam.

I get to the counter. The assistant is matronly and peers at me over her glasses. I’m shivering, red-eyed, shrunken and with bits of paper protruding from my nose. I feel like I should be holding a bell.

‘Are these items for you sir?’ she asks.

‘No, they’re for fecking Lord Lucan!’ I have to try very hard to stop myself from bellowing.

‘You know you can’t take this with this. They’ve both got paracetamol’ she adds, pointing to two boxes.

Of course I can take that with that. What, I presume, she means is that I should not take this with this. But it hardly seems the moment for pedantry.

‘OK,’ I whimper.

I throw notes at her and flee the store. I don’t remember very much about getting home but I must have made it safely because I woke up this morning, still shivering, with bottles and boxes strewn around me like a heroin addict’s dirty needles.

I’m still in bed. I intend to stay here for some time.


The InSantatity Clause

It’s an elf I see first.

He’s bigger than me.

Tall and heavyset, dressed in garish green and red. Fake plastic ears. His beer-belly alone must weigh more than my son.

There’s a little bit of tension around, crackling in the air like static on a woolly jumper.

It’s the sort of tension that only parents giving their children a special day out can bring.

We’re in a queue waiting for the Polar Express, a little train that will bring us to visit Santa. Well, that’s the plan anyway. This evening, after looking forward to the event for weeks, my son has decided he doesn’t want to see Santa.

Mummy and I exchange quick, worried glances. Eyes which seem to say why do we keep putting ourselves through it. We’ve had tantrums at the theatre, petulance at the pantomime and now suffering at Santa’s grotto.

I’ve made sure to get us here early so we can be first in the queue. But small children keep jumping in front. I look for their parents but they’re indifferent and oblivious and I’m not sure what else to do about the injustice. It strikes me that if I start a row with a toddler about pushing in I might not come out of it very well.

On one side a little girl is trying to push me over the chain which separates us from the road. On the other a mother is holding her infant boy at the level of my ear and he screams relentlessly. I stare into the night.

The creaking train begins to approach. It’s actually has wheels and runs on the road rather than rails but I’m in no mood for pedantry. My son is both excited and horrified, alternating between yelling ‘It’s coming! It’s coming!’ and ‘I don’t want to see Santa!’

I take him into my arms to reassure him. The only way I can get him to see Santa is by telling him he doesn’t have to see Santa.

‘We’ll just go on the train buddy, you don’t have to see Santa. You don’t have to see Santa.’

Another oversized elf addresses my son as we board.

‘Are you looking forward to seeing Santa?’

I cut off his whimpering protests and meet his alarmed eyes with more whispers.

‘She’s just joking son. You really don’t have to see Santa.’

The train pulls away.

The driver yells: ‘Who’s excited about seeing Santa?’

And the thing is I know my son is excited. Really excited. He’s been talking about this evening since we booked it. He just gets a little spooked by the emotion and chilled by the crowd and the noise. It’s the process of finding some stabilisation between not making him do something he doesn’t want to do, but helping him to do something that he really does. It’s tricky.

But he relaxes as the train chugs and meanders around the hotel grounds. We even get a couple of stanzas of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer before I feel his little body stiffen again.

The porter meets us at the hotel doors.

‘Are you looking forward to seeing Santa?’

And then another two giant elves in the foyer give us our instructions. These include skipping, holding our hands up and chanting. Parents are not excluded.

As the more excitable of the two leads us down a dimly lit corridor she shrieks: ‘Who’s looking forward to seeing Santa?’

The children yell encouragement. My boy buries his head in mummy’s shoulder.

But first we have an encounter with Mrs Claus. Or rather we don’t. We talk gently to our boy while she puts on a puppet show for the others.

Then there’s a carousel ride which my son seems to enjoy. An elf with a guitar plays Jingle Bells and I think I can see my son’s lips moving.

Now it’s time for the grotto. The elf at the black curtain senses my boy’s nervousness and talks soothingly to him. He walks in slowly grasping mummy’s hand and mine.

And now he’s face to face with Santa. There’s an awkward moment when I’m waiting for the tears.

‘And what’s your name?’ Santa asks.

I answer for him. ‘This is James.’

‘And what would you like me to bring you James?’

I’m about to answer again. But then I hear a little, clear voice.

‘I would like a Supersoaker 2000 Santa. And I also want a red light sabre out of Star Wars and a blue light sabre out of Star Wars. And I want an electric guitar, and a Paw Patroller. And some surprises.’

I realise my son is not holding my hand now. Instead he seems to be having a discussion with Santa about who is the coolest character in Star Wars.

Then he poses joyfully beside Santa for a picture.

The photographer clicks, gazes at his camera and mumbles.

‘First time. That doesn’t happen very often.’

Santa patiently and kindly talks some more to my son, giving no impression at all that he may have done this already several hundred times today.

When we do leave the grotto my son is properly skipping, as if aware that he’s accomplished something. He won’t stop talking about Santa. Mummy and I tell him that we’re very proud of him.

He decorates a gingerbread man and does some colouring in. He mostly stays inside the lines.

After refreshments the experience ends with a surprise. A mini rollercoaster has been erected in the hotel grounds.

As I lead my son towards it I can sense him getting afraid again. He starts to look for an excuse.

‘Daddy, I don’t think I’m big enough to go on this.’

I squeeze his hand.

‘Oh, you are buddy and you’ll love it. You’ve been so brave today. And daddy’s going to be right there with you.’

As the little car speeds around the red metal track my son howls with joy and excitement.

‘Daddy! I want to go on it again! I want to go on it again! This is the best ever!’

It’s all about ups and downs.


The Challenge concludes

And so, the end is nigh.

After three weeks The Challenge draws to its painful and inevitable conclusion.

For those who don’t remember (or care), I’d agreed to be an ambassador for Safefood’s START campaign. It encourages participants to instigate one ‘healthy start’ into their routine on a daily basis. Changing one thing about our diet and sticking with it. They call it the ‘daily win’. The philosophy is that big results begin with little changes.

It started with me experimenting with healthier breakfasts. My son’s Coco Pops were exchanged for the now infamous organic puffed rice cereal (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/09/the-challenge/).

It continued with the introduction of a daily walk into the family routine (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/16/the-challenge-ii-with-video/).

And now it’s done. I won’t pretend that it’s been easy. We’ve had a surfeit of rows and, yes, I did end up with a bowl of organic puffed rice cereal over my head at one point. As the semi skimmed milk dripped from my nose I did wonder why I was bothering.

It’s very hard to change a routine. None of us ever have the time to do all the things we want and we all fall too quickly back into the lazy old habits. Eating the same food, not being active enough.

But we’ve stuck with the concept gamely. At the very least it’s part of the conversation now. It’s on my son’s radar.

Today I was shovelling a slice of apple pie into my mouth. My son stopped me.

‘Daddy, why are you always eating treats? You have to eat healthily.’

True, he was eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal at the time, but you take one step at a time.

So the next question is what do I do now that it’s over?

I’m in the process of running myself a goose fat bath when I hesitate. Maybe now that I’ve started this thing is it not worth sticking with it? Maybe the little steps will grow into great strides for my son if I keep pushing the healthy eating and active lifestyle message?

There has to be a balance. After all, he’s four years old. He’ll always want his treats and will gorge on chocolate if I allow it. I just have to try and balance it with fresh fruit, milk, the odd rice cake smuggled into his lunchbox instead of a biscuit.

And the message is starting to get through. I noticed in the news last week that Kellogg’s Ireland has announced it is to reduce the amount of sugar in its cereals. The firm says sugar in Coco Pops will come down by 40% next year – from 30g per 100g to 17g.

This announcement was made just days after I wrote about how I was replacing Coco Pops with the organic puffed rice cereal.


I’ll let you decide.