1

Getting in a flapjack

I’m making flapjacks this afternoon. As baking goes it’s pretty low maintenance.

So I decide to get my son involved. He’s always nagging me to let him help out in the kitchen.

But I decide today’s the day when I’ll really let him help. Not just get him to pose for a picture with the wooden spoon and then send him off to watch Danger Mouse; but to truly get his hands messy.

Which is a challenge for me. The kitchen is my zone and in it I do things my way. I don’t accept help in there easily and family and friends know not to offer.

The last time I let my son loose in the kitchen he looked over the side of the mixing bowl into my chocolate cake mixture. My anxiety levels soared.

With a mischievous smile he asked if he could try a bit.

I reluctantly agreed.

Then he sneezed directly into the bowl, rendering all the contents unusable.

Today we start with me trying to explain how the scales work and allowing him to measure out the oats and butter. It’s messy and some oats spill on the floor, but nothing too traumatic.

Mixing is a different matter. Great dollops of the oaty mess spill over the sides of the bowl like waves crashing over the top of a sea defence wall.

He enjoys adding the golden syrup. Unfortunately when I tell him ‘enough’ he keeps squeezing the jar as he moves away from the bowl, leaving a sticky trail behind him like a slug.

I can feel the vein behind my left eye begin to twitch, but I force myself to keep encouraging him and praising him.

Placing the gooey mixture into the baking tray is a partial success, in that some actually goes in.

The end result which emerges from the oven is surprisingly successful, if a touch unstable because of the over-exuberant addition of too much syrup. It falls apart when we try to eat it but my son is too flushed with the success of his achievement to notice or mind.

The floor is a different matter, although in fairness the butter between my toes works as a useful magnet for attracting all the rogue oats and sugar granules.

He wants to bake something else but I gently advise him that it would be difficult to top the flapjacks. We’ll leave it for another day.

In truth I had to work very hard to let him do it without taking control myself. To let him make his own mistakes.

It occurs that me that doing kiddie things with him comes a lot easier than him doing grown-up things with me.

He enjoyed his baking experience today and will be a little bit better next time. But he’ll always do it his way, not my way.

He learnt a little bit about doing it for himself.

More importantly I learnt a little bit about letting him.

1

Miserable Monday morning

I go to bed late but I still can’t sleep. It’s too warm and I keep turning over, throwing the covers off me and trembling each time I hear a noise through the open window.

I’m up several times during the night. It never seems to get properly dark during June.

As I lie there, afraid and praying for sleep, I think about the usual things – work, money, my family. I think about the weekend just past, the glorious sunshine and the wonderful solace of being with family.

I suppose I must have eventually dropped off because the alarm terrifies and confuses me with it’s hideous metallic horn. I sit upright quickly, every sinew of my body and their connecting messages with my brain calling out desperately for more rest.

I get up quickly. I know from past experience this is best. Then I stumble downstairs holding the bannister for comfort, still somewhere between awake and asleep.

I contemplate breakfast but decide I can’t face it today. Instead I iron my son’s school uniform and stand under a tepid shower, allowing the spray to bounce off my skull, hoping it will replenish some energy.

I kiss my sleeping wife and son goodbye. The joy of the weekend just past making the separation now a little more bitter.

I drive automatically along the motorway towards the city, changing the station on the wireless several times until I give up and snap the dial off. I prefer the silence now anyway.

I park in my usual spot and walk along the road, where shops and offices are opening and people are reluctantly dragging themselves to face the new week.

I’m still not quite alert, my brain feels like wet sand and the muscles in my arms and legs scream out in protest over my insistence on moving around. My stomach is unsettled, I know I’m hungry but unable to face food.

Despite my lethargy I find myself noticing lots of detail. Two empty, crushed Guinness cans on the pavement beside the bus shelter. The arm protruding from the sleeping bag in the doorway of the church. The crow dragging the empty plastic bottle, larger than its body, across the spring grass.

I stop at the coffee shop, my usual buffer before work. The friendly Eastern European woman knows my order without having to ask and reminds me to produce my loyalty card.

‘Just two more and you get one for free’, she tells me.

I go to my usual seat and study the faces, some are regulars, some new. There’s the guy in the tweed jacket with his laptop, who I’ve long ago decided is an academic. The woman who wears the black sandals who has a different book everyday. The older woman who ties her dog to the railings outside and then picks the window seat with a clear view of it.

I check the time on my watch, working out how many minutes I’ve got before I go to work. Then I begin to count them down.

My coffee is cool enough to drink now and I start to sip at the bitter, black liquid, hoping it can restore something in me.

The weekend has never seemed further away. It’s a miserable Monday morning.

2

Never a second to myself….

That’s the thing about being a daddy.

I’m constantly on duty, forever vigilant, always on the lookout for new forms of stimulation and entertainment. I never stop worrying.

As I’m always telling people, I simply never get a second to myself….

0

Sunburn and factor 50

The sun knows no mercy.

I’m holding my son fast between my legs in a way I’ve seen farmers do with sheep they are about to shear. One of my hands is pinning his arms while the other is vainly trying to flick the lid off a plastic bottle.

My boy is squirming wildly, like a desperate young trout in a net.

‘Come on buddy, I need to get the cream on you.’

‘No daddy, I don’t like it. I don’t like it.’

‘I know you don’t son but it’s really important.’ I look into his eyes and put on my kindly, responsible father voice. ‘If I don’t let me do this you’ll get burnt and it will be really, really sore.’

He softens a little. I use the distraction to quickly move the bottle towards him and push down the button. At first nothing happens. I push it again with the same result. I reposition my arm and start pushing the button over and over. My son lifts his head to see what is happening. I’m pumping the button desperately until, when I’m just about to give up, a violent spray of sickly white liquid erupts from the nozzle and goes right into his face, and his open eyes.

He begins to scream like the demon in The Excorcist film when she’s been sprayed with holy water.

‘Ah daddy! That’s really, really sore!’

Welcome to the summer.

Acceptable parental standards have changed out of all recognition since I was a kid. This is evident in many areas of society. Corporal punishment is an obvious one, as is smoking near a child. The balance of consideration has shifted irreversibly towards juvenile welfare and we’re all better for it.

Another area which has shifted is attitudes towards exposure to the sun and a greater awareness of the dangers of it. I think it’s fair to say this simply was not on the agenda when I was running around the fields in north Antrim in the 1970s. I assume the link between sun and skin cancer was known then but it hadn’t culturally penetrated everyday life, just like the link between lung cancer and smoking was known decades before cigarettes were banned from buildings.

On one hot day every summer, when I was a youth, we’d head to the beach. I’d run around in the water and lie on the warm sand, enjoying the heat of the glass-like particles against my back. And then I’d suffer miserably for it later. Sunburn was just a thing to be endured, I don’t recall that it ever entered our heads that you could do anything to prevent it. Blistered and peeling skin was as routine as getting a cold, just something to put up with and get out of the way.

I remember my brother and I used to play a game where we’d see who could rip the biggest patch of whole skin off our boiling red backs.

As I said, it was a different time.

I’m a bit wiser now, but still prone to accident. I have remarkably pale skin, likely to burn if I walk too close to a toaster. I’ve never tanned, rather my skin knows only two shades – pallid white or lobster red. Sometimes with a dry, peeling patchwork to complete the effect.

Unfortunately I’ve been burnt countless times and I know that the pain of really bad exposure is indescribable. On one unfortunate occasion I spent a day driving a dumper truck in scorching summer weather. As the sun rose to its highest point I applied sun cream, but forgot to cover the backs of my ears. I sat there on the dumper for hours, oblivious as my ears baked in unforgiving heat. I knew something was wrong that night when the terrible pain began to take hold. But the full horror was only revealed the next morning when I woke up to find that my ears had swollen hideously, giving my face a ghastly elephantine quality. I’m not particularly vain but I did have a nervous couple of days while I waited and wondered if my ears would ever return to normal. Eventually they did.

Now, I try to be more vigilant with protecting my skin but I still make mistakes. On holidays abroad I put high factor sunblock on but often miss a spot which means when the sun disappears and I go out at night there’ll often be a bright red streak somewhere on my arms or legs, as if I’ve been branded. Once, on holiday in Tenerife, as I lay by the pool, I had to pretend to be asleep every day when the hotel’s ‘tanning expert’ walked past to avoid getting a lecture.

I know the importance of putting on sun cream but I just don’t like the physical act of doing it. I hate the sliminess of the whole process, the nauseating coconut smell and the fact that scores of dead insects immediately glue themselves to my sticky limbs, as if I’m a human fly trap. It’s like preparing yourself to leave the house but then smearing custard all over your arms and legs before you do it. From the moment I put it on I can’t wait to wash it off.

My son has inherited my pale skin and I’m ever on my guard to ensure that he doesn’t make the mistakes I have. We’ve been enjoying a period of unusually dry and sunny weather and he wants to make the most of it. It’s cruel not to let him get outdoors as much as possible which means I’m constantly chasing after him with the factor 50.

Often I get more of the wretched milky liquid on his clothes than his skin and sometimes I lather it so thick on his face that he looks like a boxer getting ready for battle with Vaseline smothered eyebrows, but at least I know I’m doing all I can to protect him from sun exposure.

As long as I don’t blind him with the sun cream in the meantime we’ll be just fine.

2

And that’s magic…

Among the infinitude of presents my son received on his recent birthday was a colourful large rectangular box.

It was one of the first items he grabbed at because it was something he’d been nagging about getting for a while – a magic set.

Now, before I disappear down one of my characteristic long, world-weary whines, I should declare at this point that it was myself who purchased this item for him. It’s the inevitable father/son dynamic, he wanted it and I did as I was told. Also it was on sale.

But even before he’d seen it I knew it was one of those toys that (I presume) all parents dread.

If I buy him a ball then there’s not much explanation required. I roll it to him and off he goes while I go for a (well deserved) sit down.

But the magic set comes with its own 250 page instruction booklet as well as a stage-by-stage explanatory DVD.

My son enthusiastically opens the box, pulls out the contents, grabs the magic wand and waves it around while mumbling some secret words.

Nothing happens.

He gazes at me mummy and I expectantly.

Mummy is fastest to react.

‘Daddy will show you how it works son.’

My spirits sink. I try to distract him with some of the other toys. But even wearing the Batman voice-changing mask which makes me sound like the Satanic demon in The Exorcist film fails to amuse. I roll a few toy cars along the floor without enthusiasm but he won’t be distracted from the prospect of magic tricks.

I grab the black and white book and start to flick through the pages, trying to find an easy starter. The message on the box says it contains 100 tricks, but I’ll settle for just one.

Eventually I fix on producing a coloured ribbon from my empty hand. Now I don’t want to be expelled from the magic circle but I will reveal that this includes wearing a garish plastic thumb which is the least convincing attempt at a prosthetic since Gazza wore a pair of fake plastic breasts after Italia ’90.

I do the trick. My son stares at me. It’s all a bit awkward. It’s certainly not David Copperfield, or even Paul Daniels.

It doesn’t get any better. The trick with water in the bottomless jug is naff and the one where I’m supposed to hide little foam rabbits in the palm of my hand is frankly embarrassing.

My boy keeps saying: ‘But they’re in your hand daddy, I can already see them in your hand.’

Throughout the tortured experience my son watches with growing impatience, making it clear that he is dissatisfied with my execution of the tricks, rather than the tricks themselves. I suppose successful magic is based around having dexterous hand skills and the ability to distract your audience from what you are really doing. In truth I would need a pretty big distraction to be good at this, perhaps something like setting the house on fire.

My son is only five but I try to explain to him that there are certain things in this world which take time and patience. Not every skill can be mastered straightaway and there is merit in learning a craft, making mistakes, having another go, getting better, and keeping at it. There are plenty of quick fixes in this world but if he wants to be a magician then he’s going to have to work at it.

He listens to every word, his little blue eyes fixed on mine. I wonder if I’ve made a little breakthrough.

Then he says.

‘OK daddy, but can I open the science kit now and can you make something blow up?’

The magic set is currently gathering dust under the bed. It will probably stay there for a long time. But some day, perhaps when we’ve run out of other things to do, it will be pulled out and we’ll give it another go. Most likely my son will never pursue the interest any further. But maybe, just maybe, he will.

By all means go and buy the magic set.

You’ll like it….not a lot…but you’ll like it.

0

School sports day

I’m old enough to know better but there are certain things which, as a parent, are sure to cause me a little twist of anxiety.

School sports day is one example. My wee man has not (yet) shown any aptitude for or interest in sports. I know he’s not the fastest or the strongest. He’s definitely not the most confident. And as sports day approaches, scenarios of disaster begin to gather in my mind like particles of dust in a dark corner.

What if all the noise and commotion overwhelms him? What if he gets upset because he’s not one of the best? What if the trauma makes him hate taking part in competitive games? What if? what if?

But while I’m wasting time worrying if he’s going to be ok, he’s too busy being happy to care. When I tentatively ask him about the races he keeps telling me the same thing, something they must have been taught in class.

‘It doesn’t matter where you finish daddy, as long as you have fun.’

The sun is strengthening and burning off the morning haze as we arrive at the school field. The smell of freshly cut grass intoxicates the senses. The painted white lines on the bumpy grass track are close to straight.

The children are led out by their teacher and I quickly spot my son, looking smaller in the crowd than he seemed when I had dropped him at the gates an hour earlier. Mummy and I are frantically waving until he sees us and jumps to his feet, giving us an enthusiastic little shake of his fist.

The races begin and I feel a little shot of anxiety. I keep asking my wife ‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ over and over until she’s forced to pretend she can’t hear me anymore. I worry that at the first sign of adversity I’ll invade the track like Derek Redmond’s father.

(For the uninitiated Derek Redmond was a 400m runner who collapsed after tearing his hamstring in the middle of a race at the Barcelona Olympics. Although he was in agonising pain the athlete climbed off the track and attempted to finish the race on one leg. His father, who was watching in the crowd, burst through security and onto the track, gathered his inconsolable son in his arms, and supported him all the way to the finish line while the crowd cheered. I dare any parent to watch the clip on YouTube without letting a little tear escape.)

The races get underway. My wee man is nowhere near the front of any of them. But he tries hard and he never stops smiling. He’s actually going along quite nicely in the shuttle sprint relay until he decides half-way through that it’s more fun to skip than to run. I’m expending loads of nervous energy shouting encouragement and every couple of minutes he looks over to give mummy or myself a shy wave or a thumbs up. At one point while the sound system is playing Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, I could swear he’s dancing. And he just keeps on smiling while the sun shines.

The headmaster reads out the names of all the little boys and girls who have won the races. My son is not among them but it doesn’t matter because he did it. And he loved it.

I wonder why I let myself get uptight about it. I suppose it’s because, as a parent, I know I’m sending my child off to run his own race, without me being able to help him. So much of what he’ll know from now on in life will be about competition, achieving results, trying to be the best. There will be plenty more races in his life and I’ll always worry.

As the event finishes and the parents begin to disperse I sneak over to the bench where my son is sitting patiently. I give him a quick cuddle and a fist-bump.

‘Well done buddy,’ I say, ‘you were brilliant’.

He’s still smiling as he responds.

‘Oh daddy, I told you, it doesn’t matter where you finish, as long as you have fun.’

Being a parent means being there to teach your child. But sometimes we can learn from them as well.

2

The pirate ship birthday cake

You certainly can’t accuse my son of not knowing what he wants.

It was more than six months ago that he first informed me he wanted me to make him a pirate ship birthday cake for his party and his dedication to the concept has been unwavering ever since.

Which means I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. Or not. I adopted the same approach as with my tax returns of assuming that if I simply banish it from my mind it will go away. It didn’t.

The problem is I’m just not very good at baking. That’s not to say I can’t whisk together a perfectly serviceable standard birthday cake. I can also almost guarantee you that anything I bake will taste good. It’s just the aesthetic side which lets it all down.

In short, I’m utterly cack-handed at anything which requires neatness, precision, tidiness or patience, rather like an arthritic jellyfish who’s drunk twelve pints of extra strong cider trying to carry out keyhole heart surgery. An elaborate celebration cake which requires layering, cutting and decorating? I knew this pirate ship was heading for stormy seas.

But yet I insisted that I was going to have a go at something which was clearly beyond my capabilities. I could have bought or ordered an immaculate pirate ship cake. The problem was my son had asked me to make it, to do it myself. He’s just getting old enough now to be aware of my practical limitations, my complete ineptitude at DIY. Perhaps he just wanted some realisation of a mystical link between father and son, some physical evidence that daddy actually can make something. I knew I had to do it.

And so, while the rest of country was sitting down to watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding, it began. I came up with a method. It worked perfectly well – in my head.

The first bit was easy. I baked a chocolate cake in a large rectangular cake tin from an old recipe I’ve used before. When cooled I cut it into two long thin rectangles, one became the main body of the ship and the other I sliced into three parts to become the raised prow and stern.

The layering went better than expected and the cake was now starting to look ship-shape (pardon the pun). This involved the use of dowels to stabilise the cake. I bought these specially out of a baking shop although it did occur to me that a plastic straw would probably serve just as well (just remember to remove before eating!). Then I cut the front of the cake into an almost professional looking V-shape and my optimism was growing.

Before icing I tried to cover the cake with vanilla buttercream to smooth the surface before icing. This is where the inevitable decline set in. Frosting the vertical sides of the cake proved to be difficult and, at points, more of the cake seemed to be falling off than buttercream going on. The low point was when the whole prow broke off in my hand and had to be hastily stuck back on with another dowel. By now a sense of low panic was descending on me.

With the cake inexpertly frosted I tried to cover it with brown icing (which I thought would create a wood effect). But the cake was such an irregular shape that the finished task quickly developed into a patchwork of ripped and torn scraps of icing. As I attempted to smooth the icing down and I surveyed the messy criss-cross of joining lines it occurred to me that I had created the Frankenstein’s monster of pirate ship birthday cakes.

So the cake was ugly, bumpy, creased and, undoubtedly, leaning towards one side. And none of this was the slightest surprise to me. I knew my limitations and I had lived down to them perfectly.

But I did have a plan for a counterattack. When the appearance is not pleasing on the eye, then the tactic has to be to confuse the eye. With some edible glue I fastened a number of Milky Bar buttons to the cake as makeshift portholes. The lines and creases on the surface were covered with little silver candy balls which I thought would pass as metal bolts. In advance I had made gingerbread pirates and anchors which covered some of the rougher patches. As my granny used to say, to ‘take the bad look off it’.

A mast with Jolly Roger sail and flags was commandeered from my son’s toy pirate ship alongside a miniature cannon and treasure chest. I wrote a ‘Happy Birthday’ message with white chocolate. By the time some birthday candles are added hopefully the whole effect will be so busy as to disguise some of the obvious defects.

Tomorrow the cake will be presented to a room full of five-year-olds, most of whom probably won’t give it a second glance.

But I showed it to my son today. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at it for a while. Then he walked over and gave me a long, silent hug. Sometimes failure is not so bad.

The only thing left now is to work out how to slice the blasted thing.