2

Great quotes reworked

It is often observed that everything in your world changes once viewed through the prism of parenthood. With this in mind I have been forced to update or change the context of several of my favourite historical and literary quotes to reflect my current reality……

‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. And, that the exact moment I sit down for dinner my son will say ‘Daddy, I need a poo’.’

Reflecting upon the first occasion that his son slept past 6am and pondering how many years before he can enjoy a proper lie-in again

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at a sliced banana which has been hidden down the back of the sofa.’

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a middle-aged man in possession of an energetic five-year-old, must be in want of an alcoholic drink.’

‘You can do anything, but not everything. And nothing useful at all while your child is awake.’

‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. The daddy closes the window and pulls the curtains.’

‘Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just watch CBeebies quietly while I have a lie down.’

‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways to trying to get my son to eat carrot that don’t work.’

Reflecting upon a tantrum while trying to persuade his son to allow him to wash his hair

‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’

‘The secret of getting ahead is daycare.’

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death my right to say Shut up!’

‘Those who do not remember the past breakfasts are condemned to have a bowl of Rice Krispies tipped over their head.’

‘The man who is swimming against the stream knows that his son has peed in the pool.’

‘I came, I saw, I asked mummy to take over.’

‘You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because your son is bouncing on top of your head.’

‘That which does not kill us makes us yearn for the summer holidays to be over.’

‘Parenting is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get but you can be sure it will melt all over his fingers and end up on the good carpet.’

1

Gwen and the art of motorcar maintenance

I drive a shitty old car.

It’s not my preferred state of affairs. If I found myself in a superior pecuniary state I would no doubt invest in a stretch Cadillac, painted bright pink with gold-plated wheel trims and my autograph emblazoned on the side panels in sparkling glitter.

But it is not so. Society has decried that the little contribution I make should be remunerated just about handsomely enough that I can keep my rusty old car on the road.

And that’s what I do. Just about.

But running a car is like raising a child, as the years pass the costs soar and the amount of co-operation you receive dwindles. That, and the occasional discovery of bits of old crisps in unexpected crevices of both.

My old motor has long since been paid off, it’s got north of 100,000 miles on the clock and, I suppose I’ll keep on driving it until one or other of us conks out.

I know nothing about the maintenance of cars so I pay £10 a month to the RAC. This, at least, gives me the security that when a mechanical malfunction occurs I can be both rescued and patronised by one of their tutting mechanics.

But lately the list of various parts of my car which have stopped working has grown too long to be ignored and I have been forced to book it into the dealer for repairs.

Now, I know that mechanically-minded readers may already be hyper-ventilating at the prospect – and the cost – of booking the car into the dealer.

When it comes to cars everyone has good advice about someone who can do it cheaper. A friend of a friend who will fix your car up in his back yard if you pass him 40 Benson and Hedges and a tin to Pedigree Chum for his pet Doberman.

But my logic is this. When I’m getting my car serviced or ready for MOT I try to find an independent garage who will do it for an amount less than the Greek national debt.

But now my car needs parts and it seems to make sense to bring it back to source. The people who actually have a link to those who make the car that I drive.

Plus I drive my son everywhere in my motor. I’d rather know that the parts are solid and reliable – and not ripped off a child’s discarded tricycle in the scrapyard.

So I find myself dialling the number of the dealer.

A woman answers on the third ring. She is friendly and forward. She tells me her name is Gwen and insists on calling me Mr McCambridge.

I tell her that I need some work done on my car. She asks me for the number plate. This rather catches me out and I have to put Gwen on hold while I scramble outside and scrawl the digits on the back of my hand. When I return and pass over the information I can hear an exhalation of breath at the other end of the line.

‘Your car is out of warranty Mr McCambridge,’ Gwen says.

I already know this.

The word warranty derives from the Anglo-Norman French word garantie, which was an ancient legal term denoting a covenant annexed to a conveyance of property, in which the vendor affirmed the security of the title.

I believe my car pre-dates even this usage.

I tell this to Gwen (well, excluding the bit about the origin of the word warranty).

She responds: ‘Well, in that case you’re liable for a charge of £80 an hour while our mechanics carry out the exploration and investigation phase on your car.’

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I’m already beginning to sense I’ve made a mistake and am about to overstretch myself financially. On the other I quite like the phrase exploration and investigation phase, there’s a bit of Scott of the Antarctic and a hint of Sherlock Holmes about it. It’s quite grand, almost noble. I book my car into the dealer for the following week.

Over the coming days I receive two phone calls from Gwen. Each time she reminds me about my appointment.

On both occasions she also asks ‘And you are aware you are out of warranty and liable for a charge of £80 an hour while our mechanics carry out the exploration and investigation phase on your car?’

The proper response to this inquiry would seem to be ‘Yes, I am aware because, as you will no doubt recall, it was you yourself who told me.’ But I don’t want to spoil the mood so I let it go.

The afternoon before my car is due to go in I receive a text message by way of a last reminder. Again it mentions the exploration and investigation phase. My earlier enthusiasm for the term is now beginning to dissipate.

The morning dawns and I drive my creaking, leaking, squeaking old car to the dealer. Because it is a dealer, the service garage is next to the new car showroom and I have to walk past the impossibly bronzed and suited salesman who wears insincerity like aftershave. He pulls off the rare feat of simultaneously chewing gum determinedly while also exposing a full set of brilliant white teeth.

The salesman beams in my direction until he realises that I’m walking past the showroom to the garage, then his smile disappears as suddenly as small fish being thrown back into the sea from a trawler.

I walk into the service reception. A young woman walks to the counter, her name badge tells me she is Gwen.

I’m tempted to jump right in with ‘After all we’ve been through it’s great to finally meet’ but her blank expression disarms me and I settle for a simple introduction.

At this point it emerges that Gwen has lost the sheet of paper where last week she wrote down the list of problems I want fixed on my car. So I go over it again.

The conversation goes something like this.

Me: The automatic window on the front passenger side is not working. It maybe needs a new motor

Gwen: Uh-huh

Me: The remote keypad is locking but not unlocking the car, it probably just needs reprogrammed.

Gwen: Uh-huh

Me: There’s a little switch broken on the interior light, perhaps it needs a new part.

Gwen: Uh-huh

Gwen then reminds me again about the £80 an hour exploration and investigation phase fee before leading me outside to inspect the vehicle. Protocol dictates that, with myself as a witness, she makes a note of all the imperfections, bumps, scrapes and bruises already on the car. So I don’t come back later and claim they’ve wrecked it.

Half-way through the task Gwen has to return to the office to get a second sheet of paper.

Gwen then asks if I need a lift home and I accept. A cheery mechanic in overalls called Ken drives me up the road.

Soon we hit some morning traffic and Ken begins to tell me his philosophies on the meaning of our existence. This basically consists of him saying Sure we’re only here for a short time so you might as well enjoy it, over and over.

I can’t fault his enthusiasm, or his ethos, but somehow as I’m sitting in this strange car in traffic listening to Ken talk, I’m just not feeling it.

I give Ken the name of the road where I live and he assures me he knows it well. Indeed he then spends five minutes telling me about specific traffic issues where I live.

We come to the end of my street. I point left. Ken drives straight on. Eventually, after realising his error, he turns around in a neighbouring estate.

And then I’m home. I make a mug of coffee and sit down to do some work, opening my laptop. At just this moment my phone rings.

It is Gwen. It is not yet half an hour since she waved me off from the carpark.

‘Mr McCambridge, I just wanted to inform you that we have now completed the exploration and investigation phase on your car.’

I raise an eyebrow, archly. I lower it again and concede that it is a wasted gesture when I’m speaking on the phone.

Then we have a conversation which goes something like this.

Gwen: The automatic window on the front passenger side is not working. It needs a new motor

Me: Uh-huh

Gwen: The remote keypad is locking but not unlocking the car, it needs reprogrammed.

Me: Uh-huh

Gwen: There’s a little switch broken on the interior light, it needs a new part.

Me: Uh-huh.

I can’t help feeling that it all sounds strangely familiar. Then I realise an awkward silence has descended. Eventually I manage to blurt out some words.

‘Well are you going to do the work then?’

‘Do you want us to go ahead and do the work Mr McCambridge?’

At this point I feel myself dragged towards saying No it’s actually a hobby of mine to pay garages to tell me what I already know is wrong with my car and then not get the work done. But I’m inherently a nice guy so I settle for a simple ‘Yes’.

Gwen starts to tell me the price of all of the parts required but my head starts to swim around this point so I can’t give a verbatim account.

Then she goes on.

‘Of course we’ll have to order the parts in.’

‘And how long will that take?’

Gwen laughs cyclically, perhaps surprised by the naivety of my query.

‘Ah well, Mr McCambridge, it might be a few days, it might be longer. You never quite know. We’ll have to get back to you on that.’

‘So I might as well come and get my car now then?’

‘Yes, your car is waiting for you.’

Then I attempt to lighten the mood.

‘Well at least I won’t have to pay any money out today then.’

‘Yes,’ Gwen responds. And then, almost as an afterthought ‘Apart from the £80 exploration and investigation phase fee of course.’

I set off on foot to retrieve my car. The dealer is about two miles from my house and, in fairness, Gwen did offer to send Ken to pick me up, but I just felt the time would pass quicker if I was walking.

Half an hour later I’m back in the service reception. Gwen hands me my key. I hand her my bank card. My car still has the broken keypad, window and light. I know exactly what needs done, just as I did before I dropped the car off. In fact the only material difference from earlier in the morning is that I’m now £80 worse off. The car will be fixed though, at some undetermined point in the future.

Gwen follows me into the carpark. The last thing she says before I drive off is ‘I’ll be in touch.’

I have no doubt of it.

0

Shopping

He cursed his own idiocy.

It had been madness to come to the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon.

After all, the shop was open 24 hours, he could easily have come at 1am when the only people here would be the shelf stackers and those inspecting items in the Reduced section.

But here he was, each nudge and jostle adding to his stress levels, prompting thoughts that took him closer towards being a person he didn’t like.

He’d already had an awkward encounter with a young assistant who looked at him with a puzzled expression when he’d asked if the spuds for sale were Earlies.

Then there had been the row with the aggressive young woman over the last pre-prepared cottage pie in the meals-for-one section.

The bitterness of her parting words stayed with him like a curse. Well, I hope ye choke on it….

Now, as he gingerly manoeuvred his trolley, he was looking for an escape route, the quickest way to get his shopping and flee back to the refuge of his home.

But the queues at each checkout were so long that it was difficult to see where they ended. They all seemed to criss-cross and overlap, until it became a sea of confused and bored people.

Then, he spotted it. A checkout with just one shopper. A shopper who seemed close to being ready to leave.

The till was marked No alcohol, which probably explained the lack of Saturday shoppers flocking towards it. But, no matter, he wasn’t buying alcohol today.

With new determination he began to force his trolley towards the checkout, striking another trolley with a young child on board and sending it spinning like a crashed car in a bad cop film.

He reached the till and thumped the Next customer bar onto the belt with a satisfying slap. He congratulated himself for the decisiveness of his actions as he unpacked the cartons of yogurt, tins of beans and the guacamole-inspired dip.

In front of him was an elderly woman. The young checkout assistant was finishing packing the customer’s items into Bags for Life.

The woman opened her small, black purse. She stared into it for some time, apparently totally unaware and unconcerned about her surroundings.

The young checkout assistant met his eyes. Then she glanced at her watch and waited.

Eventually the woman started to take sheets of white paper from the purse, setting them out individually on the flat area.

At first he thought it was five or ten pound notes, but then he saw they were too white, closer to the appearance of receipts.

Eventually the woman had created a pile of little sheets of white paper big enough to choke a camel.

Then at last she looked up, to the checkout assistant and her face opened into a wide smile.

‘ Hello dearie, I’ve got some vouchers that I want to use up.’

Then she turned to him, that same smile, utterly without cynicism.

‘I hope you’re not in too much of a rush, love.’

1

Beating Barney

I’ve never been very good at sports.

As a dedicated fan of most games and sporting events I suppose I’ve always had a little stab of regret that I’ve never found a discipline that I can excel at.

I used to be a half-decent runner when I was younger and thinner. I was also a reasonably skilful football player in my teens, but my attempts at playing for a junior team as a schoolboy were cut short when I was regularly overwhelmed by the physicality and aggression of bigger and stronger peers. Miserably hugging the left touchline of the pitch I was reduced to a state of terror by the piercing yells of I’ll break your fucking legs McCambridge (and that was from the players on my own team).

The truth is that I never possessed the size, speed, co-ordination or basic competitive spirit which would make me proficient in any game.

And yet I have achieved one sporting triumph which I will remember with pride for as long as I still possess my memories and ability to reason. A result which defies all logic, which is so unlikely and freakish that it can only be described as truly astonishing.

The year was 2011 and the sport was darts (yes I know some people don’t think it is a sport). All of the best players in the world of arrows had come to Northern Ireland for the Premier League. For the uninitiated the Premier League is a hugely successful roadshow event which tours arenas in the UK, including the Odyssey in Belfast. Staggering amounts of beer are consumed as thousands of raucous fans cheer wildly at players who are so far away that they appear as distant specks on the stage. It is big, big business.

In that year, ahead of the Odyssey appearance, the organisers staged a small promotional event at the old House of Sport building in Belfast.

In attendance was Raymond van Barneveld, affectionately known to fans around the world as ‘Barney’. Barney is probably the most popular darts player in history and one of the very best. He is a five time world champion and in 2007 won the most famous darts match ever played when he beat the legendary Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in an epic world final.

Barney is also one of the nicest men it is possible to meet, generous with his time and utterly without ego. He is a national hero in his native Netherlands, where there is none of the snobbishness which some people still have towards darts in the UK.

On this occasion the organisers wanted Barney to play a few short challenge legs against local fans and personalities. They had run into trouble finding a journalist prepared to face him and, knowing that I was a darts fan, a local PR company asked if I would step in.

I enthusiastically agreed.

There was just one problem, and one that I did not disclose when I was asked to compete. I am rubbish at darts. Utterly terrible. Since my childhood I’ve always had a fascination with the game but it never transferred to any aptitude at the oche.

It is true that I spent hours hurling darts at boards in my younger years but I would regularly miss 20 or 30 consecutive shots at double one. I was nowhere near good enough to be even a bad pub team darts player. I was really that inept.

And by the time I agreed to face Barney I probably hasn’t thrown a dart in a couple of years. All the undeniable factors pointed to it being a massacre, rather than a match. I would have as good a chance of knocking out Carl Frampton, nut-megging Lionel Messi or outsprinting Usain Bolt as beating Barney on a dart board.

Undeterred, I set out for the House of Sport feeling strangely optimistic. I remember texting my brother, another darts fanatic, to tell him that I thought I was going to win.

But all of my positive thoughts rapidly evaporated when I arrived at the venue. A crowd of around 100 Barney fans had turned up to see their hero and I was immediately paralysed by nerves. After introducing myself I was invited to take a couple of practice throws. Standing at the front of the small crowd my legs and arms felt alien and I was unable to even hit the board.

Now the relationship between darts and alcohol is well known. I’m not much of a drinker, but, stupefied by the situation I found myself in, I quickly made my way to the refreshments table and downed a full bottle of wine quicker than I had ever done before in my life. It was the only way that I could control my nerves.

Then the event began. Barney was to play a leg of 501 against against three game local challengers. For a professional, a leg of darts can pass in a few quick minutes. It wasn’t a proper match, just a fun challenge. Not to be taken seriously. Except by myself.

The list of victims were the then Lord Mayor of Belfast Pat Convery, Irish rugby international Stephen Ferris and me.

The Lord Mayor was up first and, bizarrely, played while wearing the mayoral chain. He was there only in a ceremonial capacity and clearly did not know one end of a dart from the other. On his first three darts he hit the board once.

But any thoughts that Barney would go easy, based on the low standard of the opposition, were quickly set aside when on his first turn he scored a maximum 180. Fans had turned up to see him and he obviously felt a responsibility to play properly.

The Lord Mayor was swatted aside in a few moments before Ferris came to the oche. The rugby player was clearly a decent amateur, playing at a standard way above my own. But still Barney beat him handily without breaking sweat.

Then I was invited to the oche. Barney was relaxed and enjoying himself by now. We chatted for a few moments before he invited me to throw first.

I attempted to calm myself and adopted a darting pose. I threw my first arrow. It sailed high over the top of the board, impaling itself on a thin strip of rubber which had been erected to protect the wall. No score. My second dart went even higher, missing the protective strip altogether and impaling itself in the plaster. I took a moment, composed myself again and threw my third dart into the middle of the single 20 bed. I was delighted.

At this point I can only assume that Barney had already decided I was not to be taken seriously because his own standard fell well below what I expected and he threw some mediocre scores. Still, within a couple of turns I was more than 100 points behind and he was well on his way to victory.

I think it was on my third visit that I hit a treble 20 and two singles for a score of 100. This was as good as it ever gets for me and I was thrilled that I had at least shown Barney and the small crowd that I had some level of competency. Idiotically I pumped my arms in the air and Barney laughed gallantly. On my next turn I hit 86 which kept me in touch.

Then Barney moved to finish the leg and the match on his next turn. He left himself 32 and with his third dart aimed at double 16. His throw was true and the arrow bent the thin wire of the double bed. But it was on the wrong side of the wire. It could not have been any closer, but it was on the wrong side of the wire. I was to have another turn.

What happened next is so truly bizarre and unlikely that every single second of it is still stark in my memory, as if chipped there in solid stone. All I can say is that this is exactly how it happened.

The scorer told me I needed 90 to win. I had never checked out a score this high in my life. I know I never will again. I stepped up to the line.

Now, there are several ways to check out 90. The conventional route is to go treble 18, double 18. The flash route is to go for bullseye (50) and then tops (40). What happened next was neither conventional nor flash.

Barney was having fun and urged me to go for the bull. I was hardly likely to ignore the five time world champion so I went for it…and threw possibly the worst dart in history. The bullseye is right in the middle of the board. My dart sailed into the middle of the treble 17. In darting terms I wasn’t even in the right continent.

However, treble 17 is 51 and some quick subtraction told me I was now left with 39. I still had a chance. My darting brain told me that if I could hit single 7 I would have a shot at double 16 to win.

I aimed at single 7…..and my dart flew into the treble 7.

This was now approaching a level of high farce and I was so confused and disorientated that I could no longer compute what my score was. Barney, generous as ever, stepped in and whispered in my ear that I had 18 left.

It took me several seconds to locate the 9 bed in the board. I steadied myself and, without thinking about it, released my last dart.

In that tiny moment all the planets were aligned and all the gods of misery and bad luck had nipped out for a fag break. The arrow soared like Poseidon’s trident….straight into the middle of the double 9 bed. Nobody, not even Barney, could have thrown it better.

There was a moment of stunned confusion before the crowd realised what had happened. I had won, I had somehow beaten Barney. I had thrown one of the worst checkouts ever and managed to beat one of the best players ever. There was a smattering of applause and laughter from the spectators.

The photograph at the top of this blog is one of my favourites and was taken just seconds after I had thrown the winning dart. The expressions on the two faces tell it all. Mine is of delighted and embarrassed incredulity, Barney’s is of amused astonishment. He almost seems to be saying Hang on, I thought you were crap.

Barney was charitable with his time and posed for photographs with me afterwards. The truth is that over a short single leg a very bad darts players can beat a very good darts player with a little bit of luck. But I was a very, very bad darts player and I had beaten a very, very good darts player.

At the time I was working in the Belfast Telegraph and I wrote a little story about the experience for the paper. It created a few small ripples and I was invited onto radio a couple of times to recount the tale, which I happily did.

My feat also secured an invitation to the VIP box at the Odyssey to watch the Premier League the following night. For once I could actually see the players and their darts hitting the board without having to strain my eyes to glimpse the big screen while being covered in beer by excited fans all around.

The Belfast Telegraph artist was commissioned to draw a cartoon. It depicted me returning to work, after beating Barney, only to discover that Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor had been drafted in to occupy my desk and do my job while I was off throwing darts. It was a nice touch and I still have the original drawing.

It’s several years later but I have never been involved in another darting match or even thrown a dart at a board since. There didn’t seem much point because I know it never gets any better than what happened that day in the House of Sport.

But I did have one more encounter with Barney. A couple of years later I travelled to Wolverhampton to watch a darts tournament. I was standing outside a bar when I noticed Barney walking past. I quickly intercepted him and mentioned our clash in Belfast.

He clearly had no memory of the incident or idea who I was but was, as always, friendly and happy to talk.

It was not surprising that he didn’t remember the incident. After all he has thrown countless darts and will have played thousands of these little challenge matches. Doubtless there will be other amateurs who struck lucky and got the better of him over a single leg. Although perhaps not many quite as useless as me.

But what means little or nothing to one participant can mean a lot to the other. Just for a few moments on a rainy afternoon in Belfast years ago I knew what it felt like to beat a world champion. That’s good enough for me.

0

Family and the ring pull

The house is quiet. Unusually so. My wife is at work and my son, my regular companion and sparring partner, is visiting his grandparents.

I use the free time to catch up with work, moving at pace to squeeze tasks which have been hanging over me for days into a few spare hours. I keep going, automatically, until the long to-do list has been thinned out to a state which is manageable, not too daunting.

I sit back and realise that I’m hungry. It’s afternoon and I haven’t eaten yet today. I move into the kitchen and check the cupboards, without enthusiasm or vigour. There’s not much there. The acrid smell of yesterday’s burnt toast hangs around the room like an uninvited guest who just doesn’t take the hint that you want to go to bed. I decide to go for a walk.

The day is grey and blustery, with the occasional short burst of sunshine – just long enough for a seed of optimism to plant in my stomach, before it disappears. I walk along the country road, studying the splats of dried chewing gum and the flies crawling over a hardened dog turd on the dark asphalt of the footpath.

Then I spot a metallic glint on the ground. I move towards it and lean over. It’s an old-fashioned ring pull. A glimpse back into my youth when the small circles and detachable strips of metal from the top of aluminium cans were as ubiquitous as the dog poo and the chewing gum. I have a fuzzy recollection of an anti-litter campaign when I was at primary school which involved all of the pupils picking up as many ring pulls from the ground as we could manage. I remember going into class carrying a plastic bag which was bulging with the items.

I bend over to take a photograph of the ring pull on the footpath. I’m not sure why, perhaps it has stirred some juvenile memory or an emotion from another time. The ring pull is surprisingly clean and has not sunk into the tarmac. It can be easily moved with the end of my shoe, which suggests it has come to rest on this spot only recently.

One of my neighbours walks past just as I’m crouched, capturing the image of the ground. She casts a quizzical look and I hurriedly stand upright. I search desperately for a good conversation opener and Look, I’ve found an old ring pull just seems weird.

In the end I mumble something about it being a Quare drying day. My neighbour nods and hurries on as I feel my cheeks begin to redden.

I continue to walk but, annoyingly, my mind is not quite ready to leave the ring pull behind just yet. I estimate that detachable ring pulls were phased out from cans of fizzy drinks and beers in the mid 1980s in favour of a more environmentally friendly design. This means that the most likely scenario is that this ring pull has been lying around as waste somewhere for the best part of three decades. Perhaps swept into the dark corners for years before a curious dog or magpie dislodged then discarded it on the footpath for me to discover. I’m fascinated by the persistence of the object, how it can casually re-emerge after such a stretch of time. Countries, civilisations and economic systems have tottered and collapsed in those decades but the tenacious ring pull is still here.

Eventually I realise that I’ve walked for several miles, much further than I had planned. My feet are sore and I’m still hungry, the ache in my stomach weakening my limbs and suffocating fresh thought from my mind. I head towards the village.

There’s another physical force at work as well. I need the bathroom. I walk up the steep hill and soon begin to regret that I choose to wear jeans rather than shorts. There’s a thin film of sweat on my back and stomach and it feels like rolls of sticky tape have been tightly wound around my legs. There is dampness in the spaces between my toes.

Eventually I find a public toilet. Usually I try to avoid facilities such as this but my need, on this occasion, is urgent. I keep my mouth tight closed as I enter the dank, stale room. The toilet bowl reminds me of the scene where Ewan McGregor goes for a swim at the start of Trainspotting. I roll toilet paper around my hand and move forward tentatively to raise the seat.

But I have forgotten the pair of sunglasses that are hanging from the neck of my shirt. Sunglasses which I left there earlier when I was still optimistic for a sunny day. As I lean forward the glasses slip off the front of my shirt and drop, with an almost soundless splash, into the toilet bowl.

I stand there staring. I have an urge to leave the glasses and flee, but this seems like a socially irresponsible action, the sort of thing I would scowl others for. Eventually I bite down on my own pride and thrust my right hand into the bowl, snatching the glasses quickly like a bear grabbing a salmon and then hastily retreating.

I discard the sunglasses into the bin and then spend several minutes scrubbing my right hand while simultaneously making a mental note that it can never again be used for any useful task for the rest of my life.

Soon I’m away from the toilet and I find a cafe. I order and eat a sandwich (with my left hand), and the food begins to make me feel more comfortable.

I relax in my chair, sipping coffee and pondering that I spend way too much of my time and money eating out. All at once I realise that I miss my wife and son.

It’s not that I’m lonely or even bored. It’s fine being on your own but it all just seems so much more fun when you have someone to share your stories with.

My son is having a sleepover tonight but I’m already looking forward to the big hug I’ll get when I pick him up tomorrow. Then I’ll put him in the car seat beside me and tell him all about the sunglasses and the toilet. I know he’ll laugh helplessly and his little cheeks will turn red with delight. Then as soon as I finish he’ll bark Daddy, tell me again and I’ll have to go over the same story, again and again until he is satisfied. He will laugh on each occasion, as if hearing it for the first time, and listen intently to each word, pulling me up if I change the smallest detail between versions or tell it slightly differently.

I finish my coffee and pay my bill. As I’m leaving the cafe I decide to book a table in a restaurant for my wife and I tonight. There’s no particular occasion, just the opportunity to sit down together and have a proper conversation.

We’ll face each other across the table, open a bottle of wine and hold hands. Our eyes will meet….and then I’ll begin to tell her all about the ring pull.

1

Capturing the moment

A lovely afternoon spent at Barry’s amusements in Portrush,

After initial misgivings our son is persuaded onto the water chute ride by mummy.

The joy on their faces tells the story better than words ever can.

Daddy has just one job. Capture the happy expressions on video as a reminder of a memorable day.

How hard could it be?

0

The death of The Dark Hedges

When I was a child the local newspaper which was always in my house was the Coleraine Chronicle, a great smudged beast of a broadsheet which seemed to come in multiple sections and featured countless black and white photographs of serious men in flat caps and wellies ploughing fields.

For many, many years a column called ‘Watt’s About’ appeared in The Chronicle. It was penned by legendary north Antrim troubadour John Watt, popularly known as ‘The Singing Farmer’. A larger than life character who roamed the local towns and villages making friends and writing songs about the environment he knew.

The premise of Watt’s column was that he would weave his way around the countryside on a vintage Massey Ferguson 135 tractor encountering well-known characters along the way and relating his adventures to the readers.

My memory is notoriously unreliable but, to the best of my recollection, the column often started with the words ‘I happened to be passing…..’

It was clearly hokum, but pleasing nonetheless, the idea that all of these ‘yarns’ were being communicated purely by chance to this wandering minstrel. It is my earliest memory of journalism and it still makes me smile.

So in tribute to John Watt….

I happened to be passing The Dark Hedges near the lovely little village of Stranocum this morning.

The Dark Hedges will be familiar to viewers of Game of Thrones and regular readers of my blog (roughly the same size of audience I assume).

Last year I wrote about The Dark Hedges (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/11/04/the-dark-hedges-and-aunt-rosetta/), the haunting, ancient beech trees which captivate visitors from around the world. I related how, long before Game of Thrones made the road famous, my great, great aunt Rosetta McCambridge, ran a shop at the site.

I wanted to know more and the answers duly arrived. Renowned local journalist Lyle McMullan was able to tell me that the shop closed in 1971 because dear old Rosetta, then in her 90s, was unable to cope with the new decimal currency. Her photograph featured on page one of the Belfast Telegraph a full 30 years before my name made it onto the front of the same paper.

Another correspondent told me how she had grown up calling the area ‘McCambridge Corner’.

So, as I said, I happened to be passing (ahem) The Dark Hedges this morning when I decided to stop for a look. Despite growing up less than two miles from the road I had not been there in several years.

It was before 10am on a Monday morning but already a crowd of roughly 100 people had gathered at the trees. I heard American and Australian accents and speakers of French, Spanish and what I assumed was Japanese.

There are now signs which forbid cars from traveling on the road lined by the Dark Hedges trees but, curiously for what is now marketed as an international tourist attraction, no advice for motorists on where they actually can park.

The trees themselves remain an impressive and daunting sight. But looking at something which used to be so familiar for the first time in years, I was left with the impression that it is not as stirring as it once was.

For a start, a small number of the trees have fallen, finally defeated by years of being battered by strong winds. I expected this. More of a surprise was the state of those still standing. Most seemed to have lost major branches, with only ragged stumps protruding like broken teeth. I’m far from an expert on trees but several of the grand old beeches looked like they were also on the verge of toppling.

The overall effect from distance is changed. The branches once joined together to create an eerie patchwork above the road. Now, it is pocked by imperfections and holes.

Perhaps this is all to be expected. The trees are old, and like all living things, they will eventually die. Natural conditions have taken a heavy toll on The Dark Hedges.

But I was also left wondering if unnatural forces are at work here as well. I stayed at the road for no more than ten minutes but, while I was there, I saw six cars drive through along the route. The signs which prevent traffic are clearly not enforced, and therefore impotent. To take the trouble to ban traffic and then allow it to proceed unmolested seems to be some form of tokenism.

Worse followed. I saw two separate groups of youths who were attempting to climb the trees. My instinct was to be annoyed at the action, but, as there are no signs or personnel to forbid it, then why would they not?

It’s hardly scientific but if this ten minutes early on a Monday morning is replicated across the weeks, months and years, then cars will be driving through the Dark Hedges and pedestrians climbing them on an almost constant basis.

Of course you could argue that cars were on the Dark Hedges road for many decades and the trees were often scaled without mishap before now. That is true, but the volume of visitors to the site now has grown to a level which could never have been anticipated. And that must have an impact.

I left very quickly with a feeling of unease, a feeling that what was once constant was now in flux. A sense that a lot of change has occurred in a short period of time, a persistent doubt that the will is there to do anything to stop the steady destruction of one of the most strikingly beautiful natural formations in the local environment.

Yes, I happened to be passing. I wish I hadn’t.