0

Age against the machine

We’ve been stuck in the house all morning. All three of us swamped by the cold, a seemingly never-ending alternation between being bunged up and dribbling.

Too much time cooped up together inevitably leads to irritation and tantrums so mummy and I decide we have to get the wee man outside.

It’s a bleak midwinter day. We load the car and head towards the city. The long lines of Christmas shopper traffic dissuades us from the retail centre so instead we skirt around the edges.

We find ourselves in the east and mummy suggests a visit CS to Lewis Square. This is a good idea because my boy has recently been reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and it’s nice to be able to tell him that there’s a local origin to that word of magic.

The square is deserted, save for a youth doing tricks on a bike and two others who may, or may not, have ingested illegal substances.

My son enjoys touring the statues and murals, putting images to the concepts that have only existed in his head until now. He’s dazzled by the size and majesty of the Aslan sculpture.

We’re happy to let him wander round and explore, but have to gently guide him away when one of the youths begins to relieve himself against a tree.

The days are short in December but there’s still a little daylight left so we head off in search of more adventure. This time I come up with the idea. Let’s go to the play park in the Stormont estate. We’ve never been to this facility before but lots of parents have enthusiastically spoken of its virtues.

But when we reach the site we find only a building site, piles of mud and diggers. The park is undergoing major refurbishment and is closed for months.

We walk around the estate for a while but it feels like the engine has run out of steam and soon we head for home.

Back in the car a running joke soon develops, instigated by my boy.

‘Imagine silly daddy bringing us to a play park which isn’t even open!’

I’m happy to go along with it. After all, that’s my allocated parental role. The good natured, bumbling oaf of a daddy who tries hard but gets it wrong most of the time. When we play Home Alone I’m always given the role of the dopey robber and find myself tripping and falling all over the house while my clever and devious son escapes my clutches.

And that’s just fine.

On the way home we stop at the motorway service station. My boy is always a picky eater but his cold has escalated this trait. A sausage roll is one of the few things I can think of that he’s likely to eat without complaint.

We sit in the dining area, wiping crumbs off the table as he nibbles a giant sausage roll and mummy and I sip tepid coffees.

But the respite is short. Soon he’s bored again and looking for more fun. My coffee is rancid anyway so I rise to the challenge and lead him away to the play area.

There’s a mechanised superhero ride, the sort you put a pound in and then watch it go round slowly. I suggest my boy might like a go.

But when I lift him in he’s almost too big too fit in the car. Then he’s embarrassed by how slowly the  car moves. It’s clearly designed for a much smaller child.

Silly daddy has got it wrong again. Forgetting that his son is growing and developing every day, and what worked once now just seems infantile and feeble.

Then we spot the claw machine in the corner. He’s immediately drawn to the bright colours and flashing lights. He circles the glass case and then spots a Minecraft teddy attached to a ten pound note. He’s been playing a lot of Minecraft recently.

‘Daddy, let’s get the Minecraft teddy!’

I immediately try to lessen his hopes. Of course we’ll have a go but these machines are designed so you never win, I tell him. You can’t beat the machine. The parental lesson, I’ve already decided, is that you can’t always get everything that you want.

A pound gives you three goes and I slip a couple of coins into the machine. There’s one button which moves the grabbing claw backwards and one which moves it to the side.

We both have a few goes. On a couple of occasions I get close, grabbing the teddy and lifting it slightly before it falls again, like a bird that’s been shot out of the sky.

I tell him again that this is how the machine is designed, so it tempts you into thinking you’ve got a chance. You can’t beat the machine.

Then he has another idea.

‘Get mummy! Mummy will be able to get the Minecraft teddy!’

And so mummy is summoned from her cup of tea. But, by the time we get back to the machine, a young girl is playing. We watch her for a few minutes, inserting coin after coin, lifting the brightly coloured teddies only for them to drop again.

Soon she gives up and gives me a little resigned shrug as she walks away. She understands now that you can’t beat the machine. It’s part of growing up.

Then mummy has a go, but fares no better. She’s in the process of telling our son that the teddies never come out when I decide to have one last go. I put in the last pound coin in my wallet.

On the first two attempts I get close, lifting the Minecraft teddy and bringing yelps of excitement from my son, before it inevitably falls back into the mess of cuddly toys and notes, leaving him deflated.

There’s nothing perceptibly different about my last go. I do exactly the same as before, positioning the claw above the brown teddy and then hitting the button.

Again the teddy is hauled into the air. But this time it’s different. Perhaps there’s just a little bit of Christmas magic in the air because this time the claw holds fast. The dangling teddy is moved across the surface before being dropped into a hole from where it can be retrieved.

My son jumps up and down, mummy does a little dance, I punch the air. At my age I really should know better. Then my boy gives me a really big cuddle.

He grasps his new toy close and casually casts the ten pound note aside. In truth it may be the ugliest teddy I’ve ever seen but that doesn’t seem important now.

As we drive home our conversation is animated and, just for a little while, the day doesn’t seem quite so bleak and our colds don’t seem quite so debilitating.

Even at my age I can still learn new things. Sometimes you can beat the machine. And sometimes, just sometimes, silly old daddy isn’t quite so silly after all.

 

Merry Christmas everyone xxxx

1

Muppet Christmas Carol

I’ll begin with an embarrassing confession; something I usually don’t tell other adults.

It relates to revealing my favourite film. While I love much of Scorsese’s and Tarantino’s work, neither has produced a movie that I know so well that each line of dialogue is as familiar as the expressions on my son’s face.

Instead the picture which has a permanent presence within my psyche is the Muppet Christmas Carol, a loose adaptation of the classic old fable. The basic premise is the same, but with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and The Great Gonzo added in.

I can’t even really make the excuse that it’s a film that I’ve carried with me since childhood as a precious memory. The Muppet Christmas Carol was released in 1992, by which time I was already eighteen and should really have known better.

The best explanation I can offer is that the film combines two of my great loves – Dickens’ Christmas morality tale and the Muppets, whose comedy I think I appreciate better as an adult than I ever did as a youth.

Add in a moving performance from Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge and a soundtrack full of catchy tunes and it is close to being the perfect festive film.

And one that I’ve watched countless times without ever feeling that my day would be better spent doing more productive things.

Naturally, as a considerate father, I wanted to pass on the joys of this family film to my young son (as well as giving me good cover to watch it again).

But, for the last few years, he has remained stubbornly resistant to its charms. All of my attempts at luring him into a viewing have been met with apathy and a request to put Ryan’s Toy Review on instead.

Two years ago I even booked the family into a special Christmas screening in a cinema only for my wee man to defiantly refuse to enter the theatre, preferring to sit in the foyer eating popcorn and playing with my phone.

But this year, finally, a breakthrough.

After playing him one of the songs and explaining the plot, my son agreed to watch. I have the movie downloaded on my laptop and we cuddled up together as he got his first experience of the three Christmas ghosts.

It’s fair to say that he was quickly hooked.

A couple of hours later he asked to watch it again.

So we did.

And then in the evening he asked to watch it again.

So we did.

And then the following morning he awoke me in bed shortly after 5am, shaking me roughly by the shoulder.

‘Daddy, daddy, put it on.’

‘Uhhhhhh?

‘Daddy, put it on?’

‘Put what on? What bloody time is it?’

‘Put the Muppet film on daddy. Let’s watch it.’

So we did.

Later in the day we had to undertake a car journey, which always raises the challenge of keeping an active five-year-old occupied and amused.

I asked my son if he wanted a story.

‘Tell me the Muppet story daddy.’

So I began to give a rough sketch of the plot. But he quickly stopped me.

‘No daddy, do it properly, right from the start.’

And so the next hour passed with me trying to give a detailed recital of the full script of the Muppet Christmas Carol, complete with the full array of character voices and tuneless performances of all the songs – One More Sleep Till Christmas, Marley and Marley, It Feels Like Christmas, When Love Is Gone and Thankful Heart.

At the points when I couldn’t remember the correct lyrics I had to extemporise with my own substitutions.

Soon it became apparent that my wee man, with his spongelike adolescent brain, now knows the film better than I do, as he corrected me several times when I skipped scenes or forgot lines of dialogue. Over and over he kept telling me to do it again until I got it right.

The phrase which came to my mind as I considered his years of previous indifference to the film was….be careful what you wish for.

Now I’ve been forced to ask myself whether, like the festive reveller who has over-indulged on turkey and sherry, I’ve finally had more than my fill of the Muppet Christmas Carol?

After all, how many times can I reasonably be expected to laugh when my son runs up and yells: ‘Daddy! It’s Old Fozziwig’s rubber chicken factory!’ into my ear?

But while there may be a feeling of overexposure at this moment, I know that the next time my son cuddles up beside me and asks me to put the Muppets on, I will readily comply.

The truth is I’m delighted that he’s grown to love something that has been such a favourite of mine over the years. It gives me a little opening into his world, something that is inclusive, something that we can do together. It’s that level of contact which I’m always searching for as a parent. The feeling that we’re in it together.

If he wants to watch the film six times a day then that’s just grand.

In the spirit of true Christmas excess, I can always make room for a bit more.

 

1

Waiting for Santa

Many things in the world seemed much simpler when I was a young child.

Christmas, for example, brought predictable delights. I knew that I would get one new toy. I knew it was the only time of the year when there would be good films on the telly. I knew there would be sweets and chocolates in the house. And I knew what I was letting myself in for when I went to see Santa.

The Santa’s grotto was a concept which began in American department stores before spreading across the Atlantic to London, then Belfast and eventually to the remote countryside where I grew up.

I have sketchy memories of my parents driving me and my brothers to the Tower Centre in Ballymena to see Santa Claus. And of being alarmed when he spoke to me in a thick Ulster Scots brogue.

But, the point is, the process was simple. You went to a shopping centre, you waited in a long queue, you were taken in to see a man wearing an ill-fitting white beard, you got a Polaroid photograph and a cheap plastic gift and then you went home again.

But, at some point between me being a kid and becoming a daddy, the simple has become complicated; what was once clear is now cloudy. People have decided that to get an edge they just have to try a lot harder.

This elaboration is best explained through some of the complicated things I’ve witnessed over the past few years at various Santa’s grottos.

I’ve seen Santa abseiling down a wall. I’ve seen Santa climbing down a custom-made chimney to make a grand entrance. I’ve seen live reindeers and working model villages. I’ve been at a Santa experience which began with a ride on a train and ended with a ride on a rollercoaster. I’ve been to another where Santa was on the train. I’ve seen winter wonderlands, ice rinks, arts and crafts, market stalls, snow slides and carousels. They are always described as a magical experience.

Some of it has worked. Some of it has not. A lot of it is based around what grown-ups think kids will like.

I don’t know, but I suspect when he’s older the only part my boy will remember will be the precious couple of moments he spent on Santa’s knee. The rest will melt away as quickly as a Christmas snowfall.

 

There’s a large group of us, parents and children. A woman dressed as an elf ushers us through an area which has been decorated like a Victorian shop. She tells us this is The Old Curiosity Shop. I’m minded to say that I think she’s read the wrong Dickens book, but I don’t like to draw attention to myself.

Then we’re led to a larger room, which, we are informed, is Santa’s Workshop. The brochure describes this as a ‘magical experience’. Of course.

This room has several more young women dressed as elves. None of them are elfin but they are cheerful and ready to entertain the children.

There are numerous games and craft activities here and the children are guided towards them. One large elf thrusts a sheet of paper into my hand. She tells me that letters have been hidden around the room and we have to find them to reveal the word. No reward or lure is offered as to why I might want to do this, but I’m keen not to appear contrary so quietly concur.

Mummy, my son and I spend a few minutes searching for the letters. Soon it is clear that the mystery word is RUDOLPH. But, on the paper, the spaces for the R and the U have been inserted in the wrong order and the L seems to have fallen off the wall. So what I’m left with is URDO_PH. I fold the sheet of paper and put it in my pocket.

The process is this. Every few minutes a bell rings and an elf with a microphone reads out the name of a child who is invited to see if he/she is on the naughty or nice list before they are taken into a sealed area to see Santa before emerging soon after clutching a toy and a photo.

Now, for the first time, I begin to consider the logistics of this. There are a lot of children here and they can only be processed one at a time. I have a passing thought about how long this will all take but quickly push it from my mind.

We play with the games and look up expectantly every time the bell rings. We have fun playing Jenga and Connect Four. Then we design some Christmas cards. Then we use little beads to make replica candy canes. Then we write a letter to Santa. Then we come up with a Christmas wish to hang onto the tree. 

All the while the bell keeps ringing and we keep looking up. But it’s never my son’s name which is called.

There is a large illuminated clock attached to the far wall which is supposed to show how many sleeps are left until Christmas. But it has broken down and an engineer with a tool kit is working at the large hands.

We’ve been here now for more than an hour and have exhausted all the games provided so my son has begun to invent his own diversions which involve me chasing him around an over-sized toadstool.

The large crowd has now thinned as children and parents leave when they finish with Santa. We fall into sympathetic conversation with another couple, comparing stories of how long we’ve been waiting. I show the mother the eight candy canes my son has assembled, but she tops this by producing the thirty-six Christmas cards her daughter has designed while they’ve waited.

The bell rings several more times and we always look up. But it is never my son’s name which is called. My wife and I keep glancing at each other and whispering ‘We can’t be last, can we?’

By now there are almost no children left. Santa’s Workshop, when full of children and elves is fun and festive. Santa’s Workshop, when empty….well it’s just a bit creepy.

Eventually a young woman dressed in period costume takes pity on us. She tells us she is Mrs Claus and wants to read us a story. We gather around her rocking chair and she recites a yarn about a naughty elf.

Then the story is over. We sit on the floor gazing at her expectantly. She produces a basket which contains, we are told, some of Rudolph’s fur. I’m a little disturbed by the revelation but let it go. Then Mrs Claus shows us a jar containing North Pole snow. She searches around at her feet for other trinkets.

We sit on the floor gazing at her expectantly. The bell rings. We look up. Mrs Claus looks up. It is not my son’s name. Mrs Claus meets my eye and I think I see a pleading in her expression. I shrug my shoulders.

Then, suddenly, Mrs Claus stands up and announces that she has to go. I watch her walk to the other side of the room.

Now there are just two families left in the workshop, us and one other. If the huge clock on the wall was working it would reveal that we’ve now been waiting for two hours. An elf is vacuuming fake snow off the carpet.

The bell rings. It is not my son’s name which is announced. The other family scamper towards Santa and we’re left on our own.

My son, who has been patient, stoic and wonderful throughout, suggests one last chasing game and I pursue him around a Christmas tree. While I’m doing this I notice one of the elves approach my wife and ask her my son’s name. It emerges he hasn’t been put on their naughty or nice list. An administrative oversight means he’s not on any bloody list at all.

The elves rectify the mistake and the next time the bell rings my son’s name is called out.

He’s beside me and I see a little tremble run through his body when he hears his name, like he’s been struck by a tiny electric shock.

We approach the grotto and an elf looks for his name on the nice list. It’s right there. The ink is still wet.

Then they tell him to make a wish and close his eyes. As he does this we’re sprayed by fake snow which smells like screenwash.

Then we’re brought behind a curtain into a darker room where Santa sits on his throne. I’m thinking that this older man has seen countless children today, and this is his last appointment before he cracks open a bottle of Scotch. But despite the repetition of the process Santa is kind, compassionate and patient. He also has a real beard and doesn’t speak with an Ulster Scots brogue.

He takes time to talk to my son, realising that the boy is shy and a little daunted.

I’m a desperately proud daddy as my wee man finds his voice to tell Santa his name and age and what he wants for Christmas. He even puts on a timid little smile for the photograph.

Then we’re out and he’s proudly clutching a bag containing a gift. All of the elves have lined up in procession to wave him off and I know he feels special.

My boy told Santa he wanted Avengers superhero toys for Christmas. He rips open the bag before we have reached the door and discovers…an Avenger superhero toy inside.

My son looks at mummy and me almost incredulously.

‘But how did Santa know what I wanted, mummy and daddy?’

‘Santa’s magic buddy….Santa’s magic.’

Some things change over the years. Some things stay the same.

0

Holding the line

We’re late today.

Late in the general sense that we’re always late. Always chasing a version of ourselves in a vain attempt to reach an elusive place where we have space to relax. Like trying to grasp mist in your hand.

But we’re also late in a particular sense. Late because my son and I cuddled together in bed while it was dark and cold outside listening to the songs from the Muppet Christmas Carol when we could have been easing ourselves into the day.

And now there’s not enough time. The wee man has to be prepared for school on time and mummy and I both need to get to work on time. There are the rituals of breakfast, play, washing, play, teeth brushing, play and dressing. And then some play. There’s really not enough time.

But somehow, just like every other morning, we’re on the cusp of making it work, impossibly squaring the circle. I’m ticking the tasks off a mental list while counting down the minutes and thinking that we might just keep mayhem in the box for one more morning. There’s an end in sight.

And then my son speaks.

‘Daddy, where’s my magic wand?’

Yesterday, on his return from school, my son told me that some of his friends had brought homemade cardboard wands to school. He wanted one too. No, he needed one, demanded it.

So, like the considerate parent I try to be, I sat down with him and we created a wand from a leftover cereal box. He was happy with the end result and his part in creating it and went to bed a little happier last night knowing that he would not be left out of some playground game.

And now he has remembered the wand. And wants it.

And now I don’t have a fecking clue where it is.

I do a quick search of the kitchen and living room, moving toys and upending piles of paper. Inexplicably the magic wand cannot be found.

My son is beginning to get agitated and my game offering that ‘It must have been so magic that it has made itself disappear’ is met with a scornful ‘You’ll have to do better than that’ look.

I can see the beginnings of tears in his eyes.

‘Daddy I need the magic wand. I won’t be able to play hideandseekchasiesmagicwizard without it.’

I offer several solutions. I point out that he possesses multiple toy wands. There’s the wand in his magic set, the jangling Ben and Holly wand, the glowing stick we got at the fireworks display, the dragon wand and several others rattling around his many toy boxes.

But it’s no good. It has to be a cardboard wand. It has to match the ones that the other children have.

I promise him that I’ll make him a wand as soon as we get home from school, and that it will be ten times better than the one from before.

But he knows that the game is only relevant today. By Monday the other kids will likely have discarded the idea like an empty crisp packet.

He looks at me.

‘Daddy, can you please make me another wand now?’

I look at the clock. There wasn’t enough time before. Now the box of mayhem is bursting at the sides and the contents spilling onto the floor.

Plus I sense that we’ve reached an important moment. The brain is an astonishing organ which can calculate countless thoughts in mere seconds. Now I’m thinking it’s time to take a stand.

It’s time to teach a lesson that you can’t always have everything that you want. There’s a responsibility to looking after your own possessions. The process of time is linear and has to be respected. You can’t keep forcing the boundaries further and further.

These are the lessons that depriving him of the wand may teach him. Maybe it will be the making of his character. Some day he might even thank me for it.

As I said, it’s an important moment.

He looks at me again. The hurt is evident in his eyes, the desperate pleading for me to make it better. I know, at this instant, for right or wrong, the wand is the most important thing in his life.

Aw crap.

Crap, crap, crap.

‘Right,’ I say briskly. ‘Go up to mummy and get washed and dressed and I’ll do the wand.’

As he climbs the stairs I hear him shout ‘Make sure it’s exactly the same as the one from yesterday daddy.’

Now I’m moving with some urgency. While yesterday I had an empty cereal box, now I’m having to remove contents from containers.

My first attempt is with a Weetabix box but I have to abandon it when I realise that the cardboard inside is dark brown rather than grey and therefore not suitable for colouring. I make a mental note about avoiding Weetabix in the future as I rip the Coco Pops bag from the yellow box.

But I’m too fast and careless and succeed only in scattering little dark rice puffs all over the kitchen floor, so that they crunch under my feet like dead insects. I’ll have to vacuum, but that can wait.

I wrestle with scissors and sketch the shape before decorating with stars, colouring and cutting out. I set the wand before me. In truth it looks naff.

But my son comes down the stairs and inspects it. He is happy and waves it around, casting imaginary spells where I’m turned into a frog. Or, in another instance, into poo.

I put his shoes on the wrong feet. Mummy rights that wrong and then we’re off in the car. As I drop him at the school gates he is happily clutching his wand as he strolls away to meet the challenges of another day.

Though the working hours I think a lot about my capitulation. About my inability to hold the line of discipline. What will the consequences of it be? That’s a question that will be answered on another day.

Later I’m at the school gates again to pick up my son. He looks joyful as he trots towards me. I notice, with some surprise, that he is still clutching the amateurish wand that I made so quickly this morning. I wonder if he’s been holding it all day.

Excitedly he starts to babble about playing hideandseekchasiesmagicwizard. How much fun it was. It becomes clear that my son has had a very good day and that the wand played some part in helping him towards that outcome.

Now, I think, I’m beginning to sense my earlier mistake. Having the wand wasn’t about just gaining another possession, about always wanting more and more and not understanding value or limits.

It was a simple strip of cardboard from a cereal box. It took me five minutes to make but it facilitated some burgeoning playground sense of community and belonging. A feeling of comfort.

It’s the least I could do to help with that.

Sometimes kids spot the important things much quicker than adults.

0

The man in the black Porsche

I believe the phrase first world problems is used to describe relatively trivial matters which annoy us.

An example might be getting stuck in traffic, a problem which is quite acute near my son’s school.

The roads network around the building is inadequate to cope with the volume of cars which gather at pick-up and drop-off times. This can lead to temporary gridlock and potentially delay a planned arrival at work or for a meeting.

Viewed through the spectrum of the daily pressure many of us put on ourselves to be at certain places at certain times, just such a little crunch can be magnified into a significant irritant.

Personally I always try to park some distance from the school. This serves the dual purpose of keeping me away from the very worst of the traffic and getting my son into a habit of taking some exercise before his lessons begin.

A dogged drizzle fell as I walked my son through the school gates this morning. I cuddled him to say goodbye and then stood, as I always do, at the edge of the playground watching until he disappeared around the corner.

Then I began to stroll back towards my car. I was relaxed as I had no work duties or other commitments to distract or divert today. As I turned the corner from the school gates onto the main road I noticed that the familiar snarl-up of traffic had begun.

And then I saw this happen.

A car which was turning from the road into the school yard paused to allow a group of children and adults to cross in front. There was a very young girl in this group and it took her mother just a few seconds longer to guide the child across the road.

This led to the car having to wait. As did the car behind it. And the one behind that, which was a black Porsche.

As I dandered along the pavement I was rudely ripped from my early morning daydreams by a loud and angry blast of a car horn.

The noise had been caused by the driver of the black Porsche, which was now just a few feet from where I was standing.

So I paused and watched for a moment. I watched the driver, a respectably dressed middle aged man, repeatedly shake his head and wave his arm before sounding another loud blast of his horn.

Then, as the bottleneck began to thin and he was able to move forward, he sounded one last long blast of the horn as he passed the school gates. Presumably a final defiant gesture of frustration at being delayed.

I would guess that the whole episode passed in little more than a minute.

It is impossible to know exactly what were the motivations of the Porsche driver. Perhaps he was late for the most important meeting of his life or was on his way to a medical emergency. Possibly his ability to be somewhere at a certain time may lead to some unknown factor which would greatly enhance his life or others. Maybe.

Equally there is no way of knowing, from my imperfect vantage point, what he could see ahead of him on that road. He may have been unaware of the little girl crossing the road. To my eye it seemed that he was directing his anger at the driver two in front and his/her decision to stop to allow people to pass in front of the line of cars.

It’s probably fair to guess that at that moment the driver of the black Porsche believed he was utterly justified in his actions. We’re all human and we all think we’re right all the time. It’s one of our biggest weaknesses.

I, as an observer, was naturally annoyed at what seemed to be an ugly demonstration of vulgar and aggressive behaviour. I told my wife when I got home and we both shook our heads in exasperation.

And then I thought about it some more.

And I began to think about how many times I’ve got angry at being stuck in traffic. How I perhaps never took the time to consider that there may be a good reason why I’m being delayed for a few minutes.

I thought about how many times I’ve allowed the pressures of work to make me act in a way which was not fair to others. About how many times I’ve allowed the demands of time and place to change my personality for the worse.

I thought about how many times I may have snapped at my wife or son because some small particular thing had not gone the way that I wanted.

I thought about the unending capacity of our own minds to make us forget what is really important and to become fixated on the trivial.

And then I thought about what other people would think if they could stop to watch me in just such a moment, just like I stopped to watch the man in the black Porsche. About how my unshakeable conviction that I was right would be countered by others shaking their heads in exasperation.

None of which, of course, means that I’ll be one bit better in the future. I’ll still be impatient, grumpy, unreasonable, cranky and unfair. And I’ll always be certain I’m right.

But maybe, just maybe, the next time I get into a mood I’ll pause to ask myself a question. If I could stop and watch myself, just like I stopped and watched the man in the black Porsche, how impressed would I be?

 

6

Andy’s Belfast Christmas Adventures

There’s a certain level of fame where only one name is required for immediate recognition.

Like Madonna, or Beyoncé.

Or, in the world of of kids’ TV, Andy.

For any readers who don’t have young children I should explain that Andy is a constant presence on CBeebies, and therefore on my television screen. A whole genre of programmes has been created around his floppy hat wearing explorer character (Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures/Prehistoric Adventures/Wild Adventures/Safari Adventures). He also sings in his own rock band and seems to have a strange talent for making mummies go weak-kneed.

My wee man adores Andy and many of the extemporised games he plays involves him imagining himself as the adventurer, getting in and out of exciting scrapes as he squeals with delight: ‘Time to go on a dinosaur adventure!’

As a parent it might be expected that there would be a particular level of ennui towards such a ubiquitous force in my son’s cultural experience. But it’s not so with curly-locked Andy; it’s simply impossible to dislike him.

So, when it was announced that Andy Day (for that is his full name) was coming to Belfast for the Christmas lights switch-on, there was nothing to do but get tickets.

Or, at least, that would have been the case if I had actually been able to get tickets.

They were made available online by the council to the public at 9am on a Monday morning and within minutes had all been allocated while I was still trying to remember the password for my laptop.

Of course a seasoned and resourceful blogger like myself was unlikely to allow such a petty hiccup to frustrate my attempts to enable my son to see his favourite TV character.

I thought hard about what I would do. Then I thought some more. Then I made a cup of coffee before having another think.

Then my wife, a respected journalist, phoned me and told me that she had gone ahead and got press tickets from the lovely people at Belfast City Council.

I nodded my head slowly in approval. I knew that I’d think of something.

 

We’re standing in front of the large stage in front of the City Hall. The number of people is beginning to swell rapidly. I’ve got mixed feelings. It’s fair to say that my five-year-old has a poor record in attending public events. He doesn’t like large crowds and is easily disturbed by loud noise. I’ve lost count of the number of carefully prepared family outings that we’ve had to abandon in misery and frustration because he has become upset and afraid of the din and commotion.

And now, as the density of spectators thickens the throng, I’m worried that it’s only a matter of times before my wee man gets spooked and we have to retreat to the car, excitement once more tempered by reality.

But it doesn’t happen.

There’s something different in the air tonight. It’s a beautiful, dry, clear evening in Belfast and the city centre has put on its best face. Christmas music is playing and it’s easy to forget that it’s still only the middle of November. It’s an evening to leave cynicism at home.

I begin to relax as it becomes clear my son is actually enjoying himself. He’s singing along to the tunes, dancing on the road and playing games only he understands. When the official  entertainment begins he demands to be lifted to have a better view of the action on the colourful stage.

My little boy insisted on bringing along a large toy dinosaur, ignoring my practical pleas for him to leave it in the car. When Andy comes to the stage he immediately launches into a series of dino raps and my wee man serenely waves his T-Rex high above his head, vindicated that he knew better than daddy. Better than everyone.

I don’t see that much of Andy’s performance because I’m watching my son’s face. He is transfixed with a particular sense of delight which can’t be faked. He absolutely gets what is going on. Just at this time, at this age, on this night, it all makes sense to him.

I watch his smile. That’s my memory of the night.

As Andy coaxes the crowd into a series of growls and roars mummy and I take turns holding our son. Physically we’re both beginning to flag. My back is beginning to fail and her heels are making her feet ache. But my son is effervescent, with enough contagious energy to sustain us all.

Soon it’s time to switch on the Christmas lights. We all bellow out the countdown from ten and, a moment after we reach zero, the tree, City Hall and surrounding streets become a kaleidoscope of dazzling illumination. Andy returns to the stage with Fireman Sam, Paw Patrol and the Lord Mayor to dance along to Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. A machine is blowing out fake snow which lands lightly on my boy’s face.

We wave a distant goodbye to Andy. We’ve got quite a long walk back to the car.

My son has a particular trait. When he’s happy he bounces as he moves, up and down, as if all the forces of fun within him simply can’t be contained.

As we walk down Royal Avenue tonight, past the ashy shell of the old Primark building, mummy is limping and I’m shuffling. But my boy is bouncing as he walks. Up and down. Up and down.

And he’s singing also, with a wonderful disregard for who is nearby and what they might think.

 

We’re home now and it’s very late as I write this. In truth I could have waited until the morning and, with a fresher mind, produced a more polished version.

But I felt moved to record my thoughts while they were still dancing around my skull. To get the immediacy of it across. To remember it exactly as it happened.

To remember the look on my son’s face when he saw Andy.

1

Meeting the Parkrunners

It’s another cold Saturday morning and I’m running slowly across a muddy sports field.

A faster runner passes me. Large clumps of dirt fly up from the back of his heels as he sprints through, one almost colliding with my face. Soon the other runner is not much more than a speck in the distance.

As I turn a sharp corner one of the volunteers wearing a fluorescent jacket yells encouragement. ‘Come on! It’s all downhill from here!’

A tall runner beside me manages to utter some words of comfort in my direction.

‘Well, that’s good to know at least.’

About thirty seconds later we hit a sharp incline. It’s short, but makes the muscles in my calves burn.

As I amble towards the finish line there are various thoughts in my head. Why do I do this? Why the feck do I do this? Jesus, I really wish I was dead.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this is what I do for fun and relaxation.

I cross the line and another volunteer hands me a little plastic token and some words of congratulation.

It’s another cold Saturday morning and I’m at another Parkrun.

Today I’m doing the Queen’s Parkrun in Belfast. I’ve actually done this run before but they’ve recently changed the course so I wanted to have another look.

I trudge towards the pavilion and hand my barcode and token to yet another volunteer who records my place.

She smiles warmly and says: ‘Well, what did you make of that then Jonathan?’

I’m briefly stunned that this complete stranger knows my name. For the smallest of moments a pleasing thought runs through my mind that my fame as a Parkrunner carries all before me.

Then I realise that she is just reading my name off my barcode and trying to be nice.

Then I remember that I really ought to say something in response. That’s how it works.

I try to say ‘It was very hard. Too many bends.’

But what actually comes out between gasps is ‘Hardmanybendy.’

She smiles again as she hands back my barcode. I swipe sweat away from my face.

The greatest attraction of Queen’s as a Parkrun venue is the facilities. At most other Parkruns you have to gather in a park, exposed to the elements. At Queen’s there is a large, modern and bright pavilion so you can delay going out to run in the rain until the latest possible moment.

The pavilion also serves as the spot for a post run coffee and chat. Dozens gather there to compare times or catch up on their anecdotes from the office during the past week. There’s a warm buzz of good-natured conversation, well earned after a hard run.

I take a cup of cold water from a table. There are maybe fifty people gathered in the room. I move away from them all to a bench at the far wall and take a seat.

I watch the other runners come in and leave. Groups are forming and I’m content to watch rather than participate. I’m overcome with that familiar feeling, one that has been with me throughout my life, that every person in the room knows each other, apart from me.

Then a man walks towards me. I pretend to be staring at my cup and take a couple of sips. He stands close by.

‘Good to get the run out of the way early in the day.’

‘Aye’, I respond, deploying the full scale of my raconteurial talents.

The man sits beside me now. He is older than me, perhaps by twenty years. His hair is white but his body wiry. He has serious eyes. While I am breathless he is completely measured.

And then he begins to talk to me about the run. I tell him that Wallace Parkrun is my home course and he is familiar with it. In fact, he is familiar with all the Parkruns in Northern Ireland, having completed every single course. This gives me the opportunity to tell him about my current challenge to run all the Parkruns and he listens with patient interest.

Then we compare notes on some of the courses we have both completed, which ones are the fastest, the hilliest, the most picturesque.

Today I’m wearing a Belfast Marathon T-shirt. I got it when I finished the marathon in 2016. Perhaps I’m hoping that my new companion will notice it and realise that I was once a decent runner.

‘Do you do any other running?’ I ask. ‘Anything long distance?’

‘I like to do ultra marathons. Doing 150 mile runs is a good challenge for me.’

‘Oh,’ I say.

We talk like this for a few more minutes. I don’t know what my new friend’s name is, or even what he does for a living but it was pleasant just to connect over a chat about running.

That’s one of the many benefits of the Parkrun. You always meet someone to have a chat to. Yes, even someone as antisocial as me.

Soon it’s time for me to leave the pavilion and I say goodbye to my new friend. He offers me his hand.

‘Are you running back to Lisburn now?’ he asks.

‘Uh no, I think I’ll just take the car.’

‘Right, well maybe I’ll see you at Wallace Parkrun sometime.’

Yes, maybe you will.