The last day of school

The touch of the sun nudges me awake. I check my watch. It’s not yet 5am.

The first surprise is that I’m alone in the bed. I would have expected one, or possibly two others, to be beside me.

I suspect immediately that mummy has gone to check on our son in his room last night, disturbed him and ended up in his bed. I have a hazy memory of an old horror movie where, if the characters sat too close to the television, they got dragged into the screen. It’s sort of like that.

I sit upright and force the tiredness out of my muscles. Because of the complications of balancing domestic and employment existences, I know this is my best time to get some work done. Two or three hours in front of the computer before the rest of the house stirs takes the pressure off me for the rest of the day.

My mind is fresh and I work productively. It’s close to seven before I hear my son shuffling into my little office. He’s still sleepy and climbs into my lap and rests his head against my chest.

‘Do you remember what today is buddy?’ I enquire gently.

‘It’s the last day of school daddy.’

I take him downstairs and prepare breakfast. Then I bring a cup of tea up to mummy, who is stretching after a night spent hunched in a child’s bunk bed.

The sun burns powerfully already, despite the early hour. It’s Friday and it’s the beginning of the summer holidays. I consider that we’ve all earned the right to be a bit more relaxed this morning.

I consider that thought. Then reality crashes around me.

Summer means hay fever season and my son is particularly prone to the condition. Without constant medication his eyes itch and swell and he sneezes uncontrollably.

The potential misery would be enough to make anyone comply with the medicinal routine, one might think. My son is not that one.

I struggle, just like every other morning to get the medicine into him. He holds his jawbone determinedly shut and no amount of persuasion, temptation, coercion or physical intervention can prise it open.

The eye drops application is even worse. I have to restrain him in a wrestling-style hold while mummy aims the drops from a height and hopes they land somewhere in the general direction of his eyes.

Eyes, which, of course, are tightly closed.

While this is being done his screams seem to come from the depths of hell itself. The notice reminds me of the wails of the Nazi soldiers at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the ark is open and the spirits within enact their terrible revenge.

And then we move on to dressing.

My boy is six-years-old and perfectly capable of dressing himself. Indeed that’s what he does on most occasions. It’s just that, like most other things in his life, dressing has become elevated to a ritual and an adventure. We have to go through a series of steps, and it all takes time. It has to have circumstance.

It begins with mummy at the top of the stairs and me at the bottom. I then have to shout up to her, announcing that our son is coming up to get dressed and she has to react ecstatically. If either of us get a single word wrong on the script then we’re sternly told off and the procession must begin again from the start.

Then he goes upstairs and eludes mummy for as long as he can while she chases after him with a hairbrush, socks and a pair of pants.

During this all I remain downstairs. This is not borne of cowardice or lethargy. I know, from painful experience, that if I interfere and try to hurry the process it leads to a huge tantrum and more delay.

So I wait. And after fifteen minutes he descends the stairs in his little uniform.

Then I get a text message on my phone.

It is from my son’s school.

It is reminding us to bring in £2 for charity because it is non-uniform day.

Non-uniform day.

Oh balls.

When I announce the news my son replies brightly: ‘Yes, I knew about that!’

And once more we’re back at the beginning of the process of me announcing his ascension of the stairs for the dressing ritual.

As he gets dressed for a second time I consider how close I came to bringing him to school dressed in his uniform on non-uniform day and the associated disgrace.

The truth is that I live in constant parental dread of missing a memo.

The school used to send a letter home on a Friday containing important information, but they have now discontinued that in favour of electronic communication. But, while the environment has benefited, I now feel constantly like I’m outside the loop.

I fear the day when I turn up at school with him in shorts and t-shirt having missed the important note about his class having a one-day trip to the North Pole.

He descends the stairs again, dressed casually. Now we’re a little late and I’ve got an extra complication. I need to find £2. I check my wallet. I’ve got 13p.

‘Do you have £2?’ I shout up to mummy.

But she’s already in the shower and can’t hear. I search through various compartments of my wallet, among loyalty cards and receipts and uncover a dusty old £5 note. I calculate how long it will take me to stop at the shop on the way to school to get change.

‘Come on buddy, we’re going to have to stop at the shop and we’re already late. Let’s get moving!’

At this point my son emerges from the living room smiling and holding a plastic bag filled with key rings.

‘Daddy, can you attach these key rings to my schoolbag?’

‘What now?’

‘Yes now.”

My has a particular talent for finding the most random objects and pursuing the most unlikely directions of thought at the least appropriate moment. If he was on the battlefield, at the moment his comrades were charging the enemy with swords drawn he’d have stopped and decided it was the exact right time to make an origami swan.

I spend five minutes attaching key rings to his schoolbag.

‘Now, can we go?’

Well, as it turns out, no. Because he has two key rings which look like Captain America’s shield and he decides now is the moment to discuss their relative merit.

‘Which of the two do you think is more like the real Captain America’s shield?’ he asks.

‘Neither because Captain America and his shield don’t fecking well exist!’ I don’t say.

Then, finally we’re in the car and driving towards the village. But I’ve still got it in my mind that I need to produce the £2 for the non-uniform charity donation. I go into the local shop, grab a bag of crisps, and produce my tattered old fiver. The young man with the beard on the other side of the counter stares at me dolefully.

‘I can’t accept that.’

‘What? What d’you mean?’

‘That’s an old five pound note. They’ve been replaced by the plastic ones. That’s not legal tender anymore.’

‘What? When did this happen?’

He strokes his beard and looks wistfully into the distance.

‘Maybe three years ago.’

I’m left holding the note uselessly before I have to retreat. Luckily the shop has an ATM and I’m able to withdraw a £20 note to buy the bag of crisps I don’t want just so I can pay the £2 charity donation.

I present the £20 to the bearded youth.

‘You wouldn’t have anything smaller?’

Minutes later we’re walking towards the school gates. Now my son is excitedly telling me about how he’s a big boy because he’s going into P3 now. He meets one of his little friends on the way, a girl who has been in his class since nursery. He takes comfort in the familiarity and is soon chatting happily. The kids pose for photographs together because it is their last day of school. Then I give him a quick cuddle and he walks through the gates.


And, like every other day, I stand there and watch him. I notice how, unlike many of the other children he doesn’t take the most direct route but instead stays close to the large metal fence, as if gaining comfort from it.

He’s gone perhaps ten yards when he turns at looks for me the first time. I meet his eyes, smile and wave. He waves back. I want him to know I’m still here.

He walks a little further before he turns again. He gives me a shy little thumbs up and I blow a kiss towards him. He shakes his head.

He walks further, close to the point where I have to strain my neck to see him. He turns for a final time, waving. He’s about to go off in one direction, an exciting new direction, but he always wants to be sure that the comfort of the old direction remains close behind.

Then he steps around the corner and I can’t see him anymore. I walk back towards my car and head for home.


Tales of the unexpected

This week I met a woman who had a large and prominent tattoo on her forearm. She showed it to me. The text said ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’.

When I asked her about it she told me she had it done because when she was younger it was the the name of her favourite Bob Marley song.

Then I pointed out gently that ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ is actually a Bobby McFerrin song and she replied bitterly: ‘Yes, I know that now!’

For a moment she looked not at all happy, perhaps even a little worried. She looked at her tattoo sadly, then back at me and we both began to laugh.

The point, I suppose, is that things don’t always work out the way you expect. And that a lack of planning and research can lead to unexpected results later on.

Which made me think of my honeymoon a decade ago. My wife organised most of the locations and bookings, and everything ran smoothly. I organised two parts, which didn’t.

My first input was organising a night in a five star hotel on the Calabrian coast in Italy. 

The building and its surroundings, perched high on the edge of a cliff rising from the sea, were stunning. It was easily the most luxurious place where I had ever stayed and we expected to slip easily into its opulence like it was a warm, soapy bath.

But it didn’t quite turn out that way. The hotel, although architecturally magnificent, was close to empty and desperately soulless. The staff were stiff to the point of being comic. The dinner in its restaurant, which we had been anticipating for days, was the worst of our whole honeymoon, a series of plates of mess and confusion.

The following morning we arrived on the sunny patio at the edge of the mountain where they served breakfast. I ordered an omelette, perhaps thinking that at least that was one dish the kitchen could not foul up.

The omelette quickly arrived and, not having had a good dinner the evening before, I attacked it keenly. At this moment a wasp descended onto my plate. I waved it away. Then another wasp appeared. And another. Soon a whole swarm of wasps were buzzing around my golden omelette and I had risen from my chair, aiming a series of swings at empty air in growing agitation.

It now became clear to me why the few other guests staying at the hotel were breakfasting inside. 

Eventually, having given up on breakfast, but unwilling to admit defeat with dignity, I lifted my plate and hurled the omelette off the edge of the cliff, yelling ‘If you want it that bad, just fecking take it!’ as it plummeted towards the Tyrrhenian Sea with a hoarde of angry bees in pursuit.

As we packed later that day to move onto the next location my wife quizzed me on how much research I had done into the hotel. The answer, of course, was none.

As I said there were two parts of the honeymoon which I organised. That was the good part.

A week later we were due to fly from Sicily to Athens to continue our break. I organised the flights and was able to save some money by making a booking which included changing flights in Naples.

I had already made a serious error by failing to realise that there were two airports on Sicily. And the one where we had to get an early morning flight was 120 miles away from our hotel. This meant having to rise almost before we’d gone to bed to get a hugely expensive car transfer while my wife scowled at me between yawns.

When we reached the airport our bags were checked in all the way to Athens and we began to relax. I think it was only when the small plane was on the runway that I considered how little time there would be between us landing in Naples and the next flight to Athens taking off.

Of course once the time conundrum was in my head I couldn’t shift it and fretted the whole way through the flight that we were going to miss our connection.

At the time our plane arrived in Naples it was already past the hour when check-in for our next flight was supposed to close. We rushed past a surprised Italian air stewardess in a red uniform at the top of the steps and headed for the terminal.

There was a long queue at arrivals and we had to elbow and push our way past several grumpy tourists just to get into the main body of the airport.

We went to the check-in desk. It had closed. I pleaded and argued with the receptionist to let us through. Eventually she did unwillingly.

Then there was a long queue at security. Taking my wife by the hand we forced our way through it, mumbling apologies and half-explanations. When we got to the front of the queue they didn’t want to let us go any further because the flight had already closed. I argued and pleaded with the staff and they eventually relented.

This brought us to the departure gate which was deserted. I found an attendant and told her we needed to get through. She told us the bus to the flight had gone 15 minutes ago and it was already fully boarded. Once more I argued and pleaded and, astonishingly, she finally agreed to summon another bus just to take my wife and I to the plane.

It was only as we were being driven across the tarmac that I remembered about our luggage. I had to accept if we made the flight to Athens then the luggage would be left behind and we’d have to make some later arrangement to get it sent on. This was not how I had imagined our dream honeymoon.

Then the bus pulled up at the plane, which was about to close its doors. It was a small plane and seemed familiar. Then I saw the surprised Italian air stewardess in a red uniform at the top of the steps and realisation began to dawn.

It was exactly the same plane I had dragged my wife off less than half an hour ago to take her on a crazed and panicked journey through Naples airport. The surprise of the air stewardess was probably explained by the fact that we were never meant to get off the plane. Our luggage was safely stowed in the hold below, destined for Athens.

We took our seats. The same ones we had vacated a short time before. Then we flew towards Greece. Not much was said. It might surprise you to learn that I’m still married ten years on.

When we talk about our honeymoon now the bits that I cocked up are always recounted fondly. It is often the case that the memory of things which go wrong lingers around longer than what proceeds as expected.

The most memorable holiday we ever had was backpacking around Eastern Europe and Italy several years before we were married. Everything went wrong on that occasion.

We missed our outwards flight and spent a drunken night in Luton airport.

Our accommodation in Split was an exact replica of Nelson Mandela House from Only Fools and Horses.

We got lost at night in Budapest and spent hours wandering the streets.

I almost drowned in the public baths in the same city.

Our feet swelled up to elephantine proportions through too much walking.

Our bus travelling to Dubrovnik crashed.

I almost fell off the back of the train travelling to Sarajevo.

My feet got soaked multiple times and when I had to remove my shoes at a mosque the smell of my socks disgraced me.

Our Italian accommodation, which was supposed to be in central Rome, was about 50 miles from the city.

The same accommodation turned out to be a metal box with no windows which was crawling with ants.

That night I got so drunk that I missed the bed when I went to lie down.

The hotel we moved to in Rome the next day put us in a room which smelt of dead cat. The hotel only agreed to move us after my wife burst into tears at reception, pleading that she couldn’t take any more.

I couldn’t make the pharmacy assistant understand my ailment so had to present my swollen bare foot for inspection on the chemist counter.

My wife and I had a huge row after I failed to flag down a taxi amid 150,000 delirious Romans who had just attended a free Billy Joel concert in front of the Coliseum.

My wife packed 18 pairs of shoes as well as a hair dryer and straighteners into her backpack which she then asked me to carry.

All that, and more, happened on one single holiday. And that’s the one we most often talk about. And will likely be the one I remember when everything else has faded into fuzziness. The adversity, when resisted, brings us closer together.

As Bob Marley almost said…don’t worry, be happy.



The night away, the police chase and the hunt for Calpol

Many things change when you have a small child. A simple night away in a hotel involves as much planning as the Persian king Darius’ invasion of Ancient Greece. And has a similar casualty rate. This is my memory of the first time we took our baby son for a night away. Some of it may even be true. 


I’m walking in a circle, head down, staring at the carpet. The hotel bedroom carpet, thick and luxurious. The unfamiliar warm strands of the fabric caressing my bare toes. I’m stumbling blindly, somewhere between asleep and awake. Around and around.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ mummy asks, a harsh edge to her voice.

‘I’m looking for my socks.’

As soon as I say it, I know it sounds pathetically weak.

‘Never mind your fecking socks! Just go!’

It’s the first family break we’ve had since our son was born. And it’s been a disaster. We arrived at the hotel several hours earlier. The three of us. We had been planning it for weeks, just to see if we could make it through one evening away from home.

Our boy, now ten months old, was awake and bawled throughout the long drive, exhausting our supplies of stories, songs and patience.

Then, as soon as we reached our room, he fell asleep and we spent an hour sitting on the edge of the bed watching his chest go up and down.

Later, a walk around the rustic hotel grounds was abandoned when a monsoon quickly descended and blew our umbrellas inside out, the dark clouds sending us scurrying back towards reception.

Dinner was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. A proper night out with some adult conversation. When I checked in the guy at reception listed the awards that the restaurant had won and I nodded along seriously. We dressed up for the occasion, a nice frock for my wife and I ironed a shirt.

We went downstairs and were shown to a small, stuffy room, full or porcelain and brass ornaments. A stiff, elderly man invited us to have a drink before dinner and it seemed impossible to refuse.

We had put our baby in his buggy and hoped he would doze there contentedly as my wife sipped her gin and tonic.

He didn’t.

Within minutes he had started to wail and we took turns trying to soothe him. There were a small number of other couples in the room, all older and quiet.

Everything about the room was quiet. Everything except our son who was screaming. Some of the couples looked on and smiled sympathetically. Some looked away and scowled, the strain of their neck muscles visible. 

Mummy lifted him onto her shoulder and talked lovingly into his soft ear. He vomited a small stain onto her dress.

We asked the waiter if we could be fast-tracked. He was helpful without being sympathetic. We were taken to an empty dining room and reluctantly passed over the delights of starters and desserts as our son’s mood deteriorated further.

Within ten minutes I had to abandon a half-eaten fillet steak. A very good half-eaten fillet steak. Rare. Before 9pm we had fled back to our room with our son now purple with rage. Our main demand on the award winning kitchen was to ask them to warm up his bottle.

Back in the bedroom, with the king-size bed and the thick carpet, I rocked him until he finally succumbed to sleep.

I put him in the little cot and turned to ask my wife if I should order a bottle of wine, but she was also asleep, snoring lightly. I sank into the giant pillows to read my book. Soon I had also dozed off.

But now I’m being roughly shaken. An awakening so abrupt that it feels like the end of the world. Mummy is beside me holding our boy who is crying. Always crying.

‘Wake up Jonny! Wake up!’


He’s not well, wake up!’

I haul myself up, shifting my weight onto one elbow and rubbing my face.

‘What is it? What’s happened?’

‘Feel him, just feel him.’

She holds his screaming little globe of a head towards me and I touch his cheek with the back of my hand. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be reacting to so I take a guess.

‘He’s a bit warm,’ I offer hesitantly.

‘A bit warm? Jesus, he’s burning up!’

I touch his face again and nod slowly. My very limited experience of parenting has taught me to trust the maternal instinct. Well, I don’t really have much choice as the paternal instinct seems to be still asleep.

‘Get the Calpol,’ she orders, as she starts to loosen his clothing and dab him with a damp cloth. I stumble onto the floor and search the garishly-coloured bag for the medicine bottle.

The baby bag which is bigger than all the rest of the luggage for the trip. I’m rifling through bottles, nappies and jars and soon I realise with a creeping horror that I haven’t packed the Calpol. The magical elixir which reduces a baby’s temperature within minutes. I brace myself.

‘It’s not here. I must have forgotten to pack it.”

There’s a few seconds of silence, much worse than any noise. I can hear myself breathe.

“Well, go and get some then.”

I don’t respond. There’s nothing more to say. It’s at this point we have the conversation about my missing socks.

Then I’m out in the hotel corridor, in my bare feet. Only now do I consider the question of what time it is. I fish my phone from my pocket and check the screen. 12:43AM. I stand there uncertain of how to proceed.

Should I start to knock on random doors asking the confused dwellers if they happen to have Calpol? A drunken couple, holding each other somewhere close to upright, pass me with goofy smiles and I reject the idea. I head for the stairs.

The soles of my feet make a light squeaking sound as I head across the hard, shining black floor of the hotel foyer towards reception.

There’s a young woman in a room behind the desk and she involuntarily winces when she sees me coming. She smooths her skirt as she comes to the counter.

‘Hi, this might sound like an odd question but I don’t suppose you have any Calpol in the hotel?’

‘No we wouldn’t have anything like that,’ she responds shaking her head. Then as an afterthought she adds: ‘But you’d be surprised how many people have asked for it.”

I’m sure there’s a profound response to this but I haven’t the inclination to search for it.

‘Well, is there a shop nearby that I could go to?’

Her face brightens, as if pleased that I’ve asked an easy one.

‘No, no, no,’ she responds almost with jollity. ‘There’s nowhere open at this hour. You’ll probably have to go into the next town. Or the one beyond that.’

I’m left with a choice. Go back to the room and tell my wife I can’t find any Calpol. Or go outside into the screaming wind and rain, in my bare feet, to start driving blindly, in the middle of the night, to try and find a town which just might have a shop which is open late.

I go outside.

Within minutes I’m away from the hotel and the street lights and driving through the black countryside. The rain is attacking the windscreen in such torrents that the wipers struggle to cope and the cold pedals feel alien beneath my feet.

Ten minutes before I had been sleeping contentedly. Now I’m searching desperately in the wet night for a road sign which has any recognisable name.

I try to call my wife on my mobile. Perhaps our baby son is fine now and I can come back. It goes straight to answerphone and I drive on.

After fifteen minutes I come to a village. I drive around until I find a garage. It’s closed. I see a figure walking in the street and I pull the car to the other side of the road and lower the window.

‘Excuse me….’

An older man sticks his red face in the gap where the window had just been. His grey hair is wet and greasy. He smells powerfully of alcohol, a stench I’ve become much more sensitive to because I haven’t been drinking recently. He seems amiable but I worry that the threat of menace could be easily roused.

‘Do you know if there are any shops open nearby?’

‘What’s your name son?’

Inexplicably and without thinking, I tell him. He scratches his chin and looks thoughtful.

‘McCambridge? There’s no McCambridges from round here. Are you from Cushendall? What’s your Da’s first name?’

‘I’m sorry but I’m just trying to find a shop that’s open.’

He stands up and puts a hand at the base of his back, as if to support himself.

‘You’ll not be able to get any drink at this hour. You should have bought your carry-out earlier son.’

I give up on this and drive off with a quick thank you and a wave. I leave the village, aware that I’m putting yet more distance between myself and the hotel and wondering at what point I should give this search up. I try to call my wife again but there’s no signal on my phone.

I come to another town, it’s a larger settlement and this gives me fresh hope. I drive through all of the main streets until I find a garage. My spirits are initially lifted when I see the lights are on. Then they are dashed when I notice the door is locked, before they are finally restored by the existence of a night hatch.

There’s a small queue of people at the hatch. I pull over the car and join the back of the line. I can feel small damp stones sticking to the soles of my feet.  

It’s well after 1AM now and the shoppers are all younger people leaving bars and buying cigarettes, crisps and sweets. The woman in front of me buys twenty Marlboro Lights and a packet of condoms.

Then it’s my turn. A short, dark-haired man with spectacles peers out at me from behind a screen, like a priest in a confessional. I get the feeling he doesn’t enjoy his job.

‘Would you have any Calpol?’

He holds my gaze for a moment, his face betraying no emotion.

‘Infant or Sixplus?’

‘Infant please.’

I thrust some money into a metal shelf which is then slid through to his slide of the glass. The shelf slides back with the Calpol bottle in a little purple box. I grab it and head back to my car, limping slightly.

The whole journey, which felt traumatic just moments before, is now tinged with triumph. It all makes sense at last. Now I can return to the hotel room like the conquering hero with the Calpol, the enabler who will restore my ailing son to health.

My restored enthusiasm and anticipation means that I’m now driving much faster than before. I try to phone my wife again, to share in my glory, but I still can’t get a signal on the mobile.

Then I drive past a car with dark windows. I think immediately that it’s probably the police. My next thought is that I’m driving too fast. Then that I’ve got my phone wedged against my ear. And it’s the middle of the night. The car begins to follow me.

What happens next is hard to explain in any reasonable way. I’ve always been a careful driver and have never knowingly broken any traffic laws. I’ve had two parking tickets in my life and once had to do a speed awareness course when I was detected driving at 46mph in a 40 zone.

Perhaps it is just the panic of being in my first ever police car chase that makes me do it. There’s a little roundabout in the road ahead, with a traffic island in the middle. I go around it the wrong way, passing the island on the right-hand-side and clipping the edge of it with my back tyre. The car closes in behind me and I hear the sound of a siren.

And just for a little part of one second, just for the tiniest moment that it takes to formulate a thought, I consider not stopping.

It’s more a feeling than a thought. I’ve gone through too much shit tonight to get this Calpol to stop now.

I’ve a vision of hordes of police cars, sirens blaring, a task force pursuing me to the hotel. I’ll just manage to spoon the liquid into my sick, infant son before I’m rugby tackled, cuffed and led away.

Instead I pull over.

One officer examines the back of my car while another approaches me. I smile warmly at him as I lower the window. He doesn’t smile back.

‘What speed do you think you were doing there son?’

‘I know I was going too fast officer, but I’ve got a sick child who needs medicine.’

I hold up the bottle of Calpol. He jumps back slightly, as if concerned that I might be producing a hand grenade. Then he settles and tells me what I was doing wrong.

He checks all my documents and asks me to blow in a tube. He studies the little black device before informing me that I haven’t drunk any alcohol tonight. I consider telling him that I already knew that, but decide to hold my tongue.

I’m worrying about what I’m going to say if he asks me to get out of the car and notices that I’m not wearing any shoes or socks. But then he tells me that he is a father too and lets me go on with advice to be a bit more careful in the future.

‘When you have children,’ he says, ‘you never ever stop worrying about them.’

I continue on until I see the hotel lights and I park in the same space I vacated an hour earlier. 

The same woman is at the reception desk and I smile and wave the Calpol bottle as I walk past. She stares at me without any sign of recognition or comprehension.

I let myself back into the room, which is mostly dark apart from the dim glare of a bedside lamp. 

Mummy is sleeping at the very edge of the bed and the cot is pulled right beside her. One of her arms is snaking through the white wooden bars.

I check on our son. He is lying asleep on his back, his little head turned slightly to the side. I touch his face. As usual I can’t discern whether it is too hot or too cold. He seems settled so I leave him alone.

I set the Calpol on the bedside table. Then I go to the bathroom to wash my feet. Then I go back to bed.


Creating, catastrophising and the cake

I stare at the birthday cake that I have spent the last several hours baking, cutting, icing and assembling.

My son is going through a superhero phase and wanted his party cake to reflect that. I’ve tried my best and made a square chocolate cake covered with frosting and little superhero models perched on top.

Now that I’ve finished I consider what I have produced. I turn the cake and study it from all sides. The conclusion is obvious. It is terrible. Utterly pathetic and an embarrassment. All I can see are flaws. The parts which are lopsided, the bits where the icing is rough. Cracks, holes and imperfections everywhere.

I think of the last couple of children’s birthday parties I have been to in recent weeks. The immaculate cakes which the proud parents presented. How can I embarrass my son and myself by presenting this disaster of a creation?

I sit at the kitchen table and fight off some low feelings. I’m almost overcome by the urge to throw the whole cake in the bin. I steady myself by gripping a corner of the table. I take a moment, and then I call my son. He enters the room. My hand trembles slightly.

‘Buddy, here’s the birthday cake. What do you think?’

His little mouth falls open.

‘Wow! Wow daddy, that is so awesome!’

‘Is it ok? You’re not disappointed?’

‘It’s the best cake ever daddy!’

Then I call my wife. She is similarly enthusiastic and gives me a congratulatory hug.

I take a photo of the chocolate creation on my phone. I think about it for a while and then I post it onto social media. Within minutes I get a number of likes and comments from people complimenting me on the cake.

The cake which I nearly threw in the bin just minutes before.

It would be reasonable for anyone reading this post to ask why I posted a pic of the cake to a public forum if I was really so unhappy with it.

I could answer that I wanted to advertise the fact that it was my son’s birthday.

Or perhaps the weaker part of me was just fishing for praise, searching for people to tell me how well I had done, to shore up my crumbling confidence. There’s likely some truth in that.

And maybe there’s a part of me that was genuinely curious to know what other people saw when they looked at that cake. I was intrigued by how we can have such wildly different reactions to viewing the same thing. How what can seem blatantly obvious to me doesn’t present itself in the same form to the next person.

I’ve been here before. Many, many times. Once, just hours before my son’s christening party, I binned an elaborate cake that I had spent two days creating. I was convinced it was a disaster although other people kept trying to reassuring me that it was fine.

And it goes much wider. Often I have given large parts of my time and creative effort to writing stories and narratives. Stories which I have then abandoned or destroyed because I became convinced they were without merit.

I spent a year writing a novel when I was much younger. When I finished and surveyed what I had done I became so despondent that I erased the whole work. Not another person read a single word of that novel, or ever will.

The greatest challenge I have as a blogger is getting these posts past my harshly critical mind. Everything I have ever written on this forum I have tortured myself about publishing. The voices which tell me that it is not good enough, that I am embarrassing myself, are never quiet.

Often I compose a post then work myself into a state about publishing it. Sometimes I don’t publish at all. If I do, I then spend hours nervously waiting for the opprobrium which I’ve convinced myself must come in my direction.

Once, when I was a schoolboy, I was shortlisted as a finalist in a poetry competition. I was invited to the awards ceremony where the work of all the finalists was read out. Rather than being able to enjoy the occasion I squirmed with embarrassment because it was obvious to me that my poem was of a much lower standard than all the other entrants. At the end of the evening, after hours of suffering miserably, I was announced as the winner of the competition. 

Look even deeper still. I’m convinced my handwriting is an ugly, illegible scrawl while everyone else pens with an elegant hand. My mind believes my house to be always messy and untidy while everyone else I ever visit lives in organised bliss.

A couple of months back I planted grass seeds in my back yard with the ambition of growing a patch of lawn. Now I spend time every day studying the green growth, fretting over why my grass is inferior to every other lawn in our estate.

The conclusion is clear. My brain tells me if am involved in the process then it will be without worth. If I make it then it will be shit. That is how I see things.

But seeing things a certain way does not necessarily bring me to reality. Let’s go back to the cake and try to rationalise it. I’m no baker and I make one birthday cake a year for my son. With my limited skills I have produced a cake which is not perfect but probably far from a disgrace. It is not as bad as I first feared. And the cakes that the other parents produced for their children’s parties recently are undoubtedly not as perfect as my brain has remembered.

My son and wife were delighted with the final product. So were several social media friends. While there may be an element of some people merely being nice, the broader conclusion must be that the cake is not terrible.

Certainly not so bad as my brain tried to persuade me when I almost threw it in the bin.

Which leads to the assumption that I can’t trust what my brain is telling me.

Which is scary. Scary when everything I know, all my actions and thoughts, my version of reality, are determined by what goes on in my head. In other words, if I can’t trust my brain, what can I trust?

If this sounds slightly woolly or abstract, let me give this example. I’ve written before about how I looked in the mirror when I was very thin and all I could see was someone who needed to lose more weight (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/03/food-weight-and-the-obsessive-personality/).

The truth is that the capacity of the brain for self-deception and error is remarkable. Many of the memories in my head will be distortions, or in some cases inventions. Decisions I make will be based on assumptions rather than evidence and my views and instincts will be fed by pre-existing prejudices.

Add into this mix a character affected by low esteem, anxiety and depression and the potential for distortion is magnified.

Catastrophising is the term used used to describe a thought process where an individual thinks the worst possible outcome from every situation. I send a friend a message, they don’t respond immediately and I assume it is because that person now hates me.

And it is very difficult to change my own way of thinking. Difficult to break down the processes, to try and learn to separate emotion from thought, instinct from evidence. Difficult not to believe that every thought which pops into my head is an inalienable truth. Difficult not to get trapped in that vicious cycle of negative thoughts. Difficult to admit error and frailty.

I suspect I am not that different from many other people in having problems admitting when I have got it wrong. That my version of reality is not absolute. When I argue with my wife or son the stubborn part of my brain will insist that I am always right. How often do I admit that I am wrong?

So today we will host my son’s birthday party. He will hopefully have a wonderful time with his friends. My cake will be produced and he will blow out the candles and blush under the attention. I will sit in the corner smiling and making smalltalk with the other parents. The voice will be in my head telling me that everyone is laughing at me, thinking that I am a poor father, a lesser being, because I produced this monstrosity. Thinking that as soon as I’m out of the room everyone is talking about me, concluding that I’m just not good enough.

I will fight against it, urging my brain to consider it rationally. All these people are going about their own lives. They are not talking about my cake. They are not talking about me.

And at some point today I will go back and read what I have written here. As ever I will be flushed with shame and self-loathing over the inanity of what I have produced. I will be filled with the sense of waste over more time spent and nothing useful to show. The voice will tell me that I dare not publish, that the world will be laughing at me, pointing a mocking finger at my inadequacies.

And I will fight against this too. I will tell myself over and over that I have something useful to say, that my views are worth hearing. That if I am going to say anything at all then it must be utterly honest.

And then I will dig my nails into the palms of my hands, my head will swim with waves of anxiety and I will try to convince myself to publish…..


Letter to my pre-parent self


Dear Jonny

Knowing you, as I do, I’m sure you will be rather chuffed to receive a written letter. It may be hard to imagine but this form of communication will become rare in your future years. It is all instant and impersonal these days – texts, emails and social media. I’ve no doubt you would love me to tell you that you will get the hang of it all but we both know what you are like with technology.

I imagine you will have many questions about me and that’s ok. I don’t have time here to answer them all now but maybe we could keep talking and work it all out as we go? I’d like that a lot. I will settle now for telling you that I’ve been asked to write this letter because I do a bit of blogging these days. I know you won’t yet understand what that means and, even if I explain it, you wouldn’t believe it.

Of course the first question is which pre-parent era Jonny should I be addressing this letter to? Should it be the scared kid who used wit and humour to cover up crippling fear? The successful journalist who lost his way in a ruthless profession? No. I’m thinking of the day when you might need a letter from me the most. That day, in your early twenties, when you just couldn’t see the point anymore and decided it was too hard to go on. I don’t need to go into specifics, we both know the day I’m talking about.

Now I suppose you are hoping that I will tell you that it’s all going to be ok. That it gets easier. That you work it all out at some point and reach that place of serenity and peace that you have always dreamed about. The problem is Jonny, and I’m actually crying for you as I write this, but it doesn’t. The truth is that it will always be this hard for you. The fear and anxiety, the suffocation of depression will always be there. I’m so, so sorry to have to tell you this but that’s just the way your mind works.

And I’m sorry for another reason. Sorry that I didn’t know back then how to be kinder to you, to have any useful way of helping you. Sorry that I was so hard on you all the time. I’m afraid I just didn’t know how to love you and that will always be my deepest regret.

But there is something that I really want you to know. That you will have a family all of your own someday. You will meet a wonderful girl and get married. It will take a lot of time but you will eventually admit to her what goes on in your head. And guess what? She will still love you anyway and you will realise how many years were wasted keeping it all wrapped up.

And then there is your son, the reason why I am writing to you today. Your beautiful little boy who will change everything the first time you hold his writhing little body in your arms and he peers angrily at you. Get used to that look, you are going to see a lot more of it over the years. 

You will learn together and both stumble repeatedly along the way. You will at times be crushed by the awe-inspiring responsibility of trying to raise and shape another human being. In some ways it will take you further away from normal society because you never quite shake that early wide-eyed amazement of what you are doing. You never lose that desire to go up to total strangers in the street, grab them and yell ‘Look at my son! Isn’t he just wonderful?’ When people ask you what you do your first answer will always be the same. ‘I’m a father’.

But there will be many more bad days. I’m afraid to tell you this but some of them will be worse than you have yet known. The biggest challenges are still to come. But here is the thing you really need to remember. When they come you will have your family to help you through them. When it is really bad you are not alone. When the night is at its deepest there will be three in the bed and there will always be arms stretching out to hold you in the dark. I suppose it is what you and I have always been searching for. A reason for it all. It is home.

The problem with writing letters is knowing how to finish, finding a neat way of summing up all that has gone before. How about this? You will have a family that you love. They will also love you. But more importantly, because of them, you will learn to love yourself.

Take care Jonny. I love you so much. I’m sorry it took me so many years to say it.

Jonny xx

(This letter first appeared on the Mums NI website http://www.mumsni.com)



Our wee routine

There’s something different about a Saturday morning.

It’s nothing tangible, just a feeling, a sense, a lightness in your being and touch. And, I think, it’s universal, affecting adults and kids.

Without any planning my son and I have developed our wee Saturday morning routine. We wake early, lounge around for a couple of hours and then, at exactly 8:45am, we head to our favourite little cafe in the village.

It’s usually the two of us because mummy is either working, at a fitness class or just fancies a lie-in. Sometimes she meets us there later and completes the circle.

But my son and I like to arrive just as the front door is being unlocked. I hold his hand and we always go to the same table and sit in the same spot. The waitress brings us menus and chats for a moment or two about the weather. Then I’ll read aloud all the items on the kids’ breakfast menu and he’ll always pick the same thing – two rounds of toast and two sausages. I’ll agonise over whether to have a bowl of porridge or a fry. Sometimes I’m good, sometimes I’m not. 

The cafe is nothing fancy and is probably not even the best in our village. But it’s where we feel most comfortable and where the sound system plays 1980s anthems first thing on a Saturday morning. My son and I both call it ‘Rumbly Tumbly’s cafe’ and always will.

And then there’s the coffee. I can ask for it black and within a few seconds the waitress will pour a filter coffee from a glass jug. It comes in a little, smart, white cup, not a chalice big enough to bathe a kitten. And when I finish the waitress comes over and fills it again from the jug, at no extra cost.

Although I spend a lot of time in coffee shops the truth is that much of the explosion of choice, variety and style in contemporary coffee culture leaves me bored. I just want some hot water filtered through some ground up roasted coffee beans. I want it to be comforting – not rich, intense, aromatic, smooth, luxurious, frothed, silky, clean, discerning, invigorating, distinct or indulgent.

When I see guys wearing T-shirts with ‘Barista’ on the back wrestling with large silver machines I’m often tempted to intervene by suggesting that it would save us all a lot of time if they just kept a jar of Mellow Birds on the counter for people like me.

In our wee cafe when the waitress brings my filter coffee there is always a little chocolate on the side of the saucer. I make a big show of peeling off the silver paper and manoeuvring the sweet towards my mouth only for my son to pinch it at the last moment. Sometimes the waitress spots our game and slips me another chocolate. Then my son pinches that as well.

As we’re always first in our food will arrive quickly. I butter his toast and then he begins to nibble on the crust while playing a game on my phone. The toast comes from a square white pan loaf, which my son loves. The sausages are not award-winning or premium and they don’t contain herbs or spices. They’re just sausages, and my son loves them.

I’m a fast eater while my son prefers to graze leisurely so I’m usually finished my fry/porridge while he’s still on the first few bites of toast. So I sit back, relax and watch him, his eyes fixed determinedly on my phone. Often I’m moved to ruffle his hair or give him a quick cuddle and he pushes me away without looking.

Sometimes I’ll sing along to the songs being played, altering the lyrics to suit our situation. Spandau Ballet’s Gold becomes ‘You are bold!’ and Tina’s Turner’s Simply the Best becomes ‘You’re simply a pest!’ And Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark has evolved into ‘We’re just prancing in the park’.

Sometimes other diners give me a confused look. My boy gives no indication that he ever hears me sing at all.

And then, some time later, I’ll pay the bill and then we’ll head off and do something else. Our Saturdays are all different, but they start much the same.

And that’s it, that’s our wee routine. Perhaps it’s so mundane as to be hardly worth recording at all. After all, when I look back on my most memorable achievements in life the Saturday morning cafe visit is unlikely to feature prominently.

But then again, sometimes maybe it is worth making a virtue out of the unremarkable. Our routines are little signposts of stability in the middle of waves of confusion and uncertainty.

Life can be like choosing a coffee. There are always exciting concoctions on offer, new ways of putting it together, boundaries to be explored and different varieties to try. But sometimes, on a Saturday morning, you just need a black filter.

My son gets to do a lot of things. In his young life he has been exposed to a dizzying variety of choices and challenges which were never available to me.

But still, every week, he always asks me if we’re going to the cafe on the Saturday.

Like the past Friday night when he cuddled up beside me in bed.

‘It’s Saturday tomorrow, isn’t it daddy?’

‘Yes it is buddy.’

‘Does that mean we can go to our wee cafe?’

‘Yes it does buddy.’

‘And we’ll be the first ones there, won’t we?’

‘Yes we will buddy.’

‘And we’ll sit at our table?’

‘Yes we will buddy.’

‘And you’ll read out all the things on the menu, won’t you daddy?’

‘Yes I will buddy.’

‘And I’ll pick the sausage and toast?’

‘Yes you will buddy.’

‘And can I play on your phone?’

‘Yes you can buddy.’

‘And you’ll pretend to eat the little chocolate?’

‘Yes I will buddy.’

‘But I’ll steal it off you?’

‘Yes you will buddy.’

His little face is creased in thought for a second.

‘And will you sing the silly songs daddy?’

‘Do you want me to?’

‘Yes, it’s funny.’

‘Then that’s fine buddy. I’ll sing the silly songs.’

And then he closes his eyes and goes to sleep, a contented little smile upon his face.