The memory of betrayal

I feel good in the night, when it’s dark and the house is quiet around me. I feel the gentle movements of the bedsheets as my wife breathes beside me, lost to sleep. It’s peaceful; restful. I exist in the moment.

In the night, somewhere between waking and sleep, we snuggle together as we always have. Arms and legs wrapped around each other, each seeking the physical comfort, the intimate security, of love.

When I wake in the morning, my head is empty. I lie in the warmth with my eyes closed, revelling in the stillness. I wish it could last forever.

Footsteps across the landing, little fingers scrabbling at the door, and then our children jump up and down on the bed. We smile; we laugh; enjoying the simple pleasures of each other. It’s the closest we get to heaven.

And then I become fully awake. And the memory of her betrayal floods in like ice.

Heaven withers.

I go downstairs to make breakfast, stare out at the sunshine, the clear skies of a glorious April day, and my insides twist. If there is beauty in this morning, if there is solace in this vista, my heart won’t let me feel it.

The memory is poisoning me. But I can’t stop poking the wound.

The breakfast tastes as bitter as my coffee.

So I fake a smile. Fake small talk. Fake love, fake joy, fake coping, fake life itself. And as the hours pass, I feel my face contort from the effort of holding back the grimace. Stomach knotted; gut sickened; chest tight and heart bursting.

I keep it hidden. I wait for night, when we can lie beside one another without the pressure to keep up this charade; when my thoughts return to silence, and there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow – only love and the gentle movements of the bedsheets.

The grossest of the gross

Something happened last night that almost made me vomit. Something utterly disgusting. Something that means I will never look at my dog the same way again.

The kids had finished playing in the garden, so I sent them inside, telling them to get their mother to shower the dirt off their legs and feet before bedtime. I then gathered up all the toys they’d left scattered about the lawn and went in.

The smell hit me immediately. My two-year-old is doing wonderfully well at her potty training, but she holds onto her poop for days, so when it comes it’s like an elephant has been passing through.

From five feet away, I could see the mound of yuck marinating in a yellow soup. She’d clearly done it before heading up to the shower.

Hurrying upstairs, I congratulated my daughter for using the potty, but told her she must tell us when she’s pooped so we can wipe her bottom. I then left my wife to shower them off as I headed back down to empty the potty.

Astute readers will already have guessed the next part. I stared down into a potty that now contained only urine, and immediately shouted, ‘Ozzy!’

The dog darted under the dining table and stared out at me with a guilty expression on his canine face – but he still had the audacity to lick his lips.

Eurgh! Eurgh!

‘Get outside! Get outside!’

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to cuddle him again!

The upsetting truth about superpowers

Like most people, I’ve always thought it would be cool to have superpowers. For the socially awkward, the autistic, or both, the ability to turn invisible would be a massive boon, and I can think of plenty of situations where shrinking to the size of an ant or growing to the size of a redwood tree would come in handy. Super speed, super strength, X-ray vision – who wouldn’t want those capabilities?

But unlike most people, I’ve put a little too much thought into the subject – enough to realise the little facts that make most superpowers totally impossible. Want to ruin your enjoyment of comic books and Marvel movies? Read on.

Invisibility – Susan Storm, Little Miss Incredible

Unless it’s a special suit, or the ability to bend light around you, most versions of invisibility in fiction involve the subject allowing light to pass through them. This makes perfect sense – our vision, after all, is based on light photons bouncing off objects and into our eyes, so if light doesn’t bounce off an object, you can’t see it (though you might be able to detect refraction, a la the Predator).

Unfortunately, the way our vision works has a terrible implication for the would-be invisible person. We see by detecting light photons hitting our retina at the back of our eye, so if we were invisible, and light passed through us, we’d be completely blind. So much for sneaking into the girls’ locker room!

Another downside is digestion. While we were invisible, the food we eat would not be. Nor would our urine. Or our poop. We’d be a walking diagram of our digestive system. Yuck.

And since our clothes wouldn’t be invisible either, we’d have to go everywhere naked. That might be okay for midsummer, but in the winter? When it’s raining? On gravel? Have you seen how dirty the soles of your feet get from just a few minutes walking around your garden?

So. Blind, naked, cold and gross. Not so desirable anymore, is it?

Super small and supersize – Ant-Man, the Wasp

The principles of growing really, really big or shrinking really, really small are exactly the same – you stretch or compress the empty space within and/or between our atoms. And there’s a lot of empty space to play with – if you imagine an atom is the size of the Earth, the nucleus is about the size of a football stadium. That means you could go incredibly small or incredibly big.

Trouble is, whether an ant or a skyscraper, you’ll still have the same mass, because nothing is being added and nothing is taken away. And as every good schoolboy knows, pressure equals force over area. It’s the reason a 90lb model in stiletto heels damages gym floors, but the 400lb wrestler in sneakers doesn’t.

So, if it takes around 100psi for a nail gun to drive a piece of metal into wood, imagine what would happen to a 200lb man shrunk to the size of an ant – you’d embed yourself into the floor. If you jumped in a swimming pool, even accounting for buoyancy, you’d plummet to the bottom, smash through the tiles and dig into the ground underneath. And then drown.

What about the other extreme? If you’ve ever walked in a strong wind, and felt the way it blows you about, imagine being fifty or a hundred times taller, with an exponentially larger surface area, but weighing the same. Your body would be your own sail, which might make it impossible to walk in anything other than a dead calm.

Your voice and hearing would change too. Given that vocalizations are related to the length of your larynx and your perception of sound to the size of your eadrum, if you shrank to the size of an ant, your voice would be higher than a choir boy with tight underwear, and everything you heard would be really deep and booming; whereas if you became Trump Tower, your voice would be a rumble of thunder and everything you heard would be a high-pitched mosquito whine.

When you really stop to think about it, anything other than the size you are now is a non-starter.

Super Speed – the Flash, Quicksilver

Who hasn’t wanted to whizz to the shops, grab all your groceries, and rush back home in the time it takes the kettle to boil? To dodge the rain, read a book cover-to-cover the minute before the book report is due, and catch that fly that’s been bugging you for days? Super speed could be the answer to all your problems.

Except that it creates more than it solves. When the plane accelerates down the runway and presses you back in your seat? That’s G-force. Too high a G-force, and your body starts to break. Star Trek has magical ‘inertial dampers’ to prevent the crew of the Enterprise being a red spot on the back wall every time they manoeuvre, but a person with super speed doesn’t have that. Going from a standing start to a thousand miles a second would squish your brain against the back of your skull – if, that is, your skull hadn’t already snapped off your neck.

Another problem is heat. Travelling at super speed causes super friction with the air. Worse would be the heat generated by the compression wave you create in front of you, like a spacecraft entering the atmosphere. Super speed? You’d burn to a crisp.

Also, just because you’re super fast doesn’t mean you’re super strong or super fit. Who the hell wants to run all the way to the shop and carry their own shopping home? In any case, get used to that trip, because you’ll have to eat non-stop to make up all the calories you burn.

But worst of all is the speed of perception. You couldn’t have super speed without the ability to perceive things at such speeds, and our awareness of time is directly related to our perceptions. Imagine how bored you’d get if every second felt like an hour, every hour like a day, every day a month. Imagine how hard it would be to watch a movie, listen to a song, have a conversation. After a couple of years, you’d be in a straitjacket.

Super Strength – Mr Incredible, the Hulk

Super strength is an awesome idea. Pick up a car. Swing a tank around by its gun. Unscrew every jar in the fridge. Seems like it’d be a real asset to have.

But, as Newton showed us with his Third Law of Motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Punch someone hard enough to put them through a wall, you’ll probably throw yourself through the wall behind you – that is, if you don’t punch a hole clean through their chest, because if you apply that much force to a human body, I don’t fancy your chances of keeping red goo off your hands. So supposing you’re fighting a supervillain who can take such punishment and you punch them up into the sky? You’re likely to drive yourself down into the ground.

To balance these forces, you’d also need to be super heavy, or you’d be throwing yourself all over the place. So forget ever climbing the stairs again, or sitting in a comfortable chair, or lying in a bed that isn’t triple reinforced.

Then you have the same problem as being super small – exerting a massive force over a small area. If you tried to pick up a car or a tank – supposing it doesn’t bend, break and crush – several tons of pressure would be concentrated in an area the size of your hands; they’d puncture right through. And even if you could carry it, with your normal-sized feet it’d push you down into the ground again. To be useful, super strength would also require super size, which is a different kettle of fish altogether.

But the worst part of having super strength is that you’d break everything – everything designed for humans, at least. Even with my very modest human strength, dozens of times I’ve exerted more force than the capabilities of the material to withstand. Imagine being ten or even a hundred times stronger than the strongest human – you’d break practically everything you touched.

X-Ray Vision – Superman

This one’s pretty easy to dispel. X-rays are ionizing radiation, meaning they can penetrate cell walls and damage DNA. Every time you open your eyes, you’re giving people cancer, including yourself. Not the most heroic of superpowers, is it?

Flight – Superman

Which leaves flight. If you forget about gravity, thrust, drag and lift, flight is the most plausible superpower. If you forget about gravity, thrust, drag and lift.

I’d be great at parties, wouldn’t I?

The weirdest coronavirus conspiracy: it’s 5G

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have no patience with conspiracy theories. I don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job, that the flu jab is harmful, that amber necklaces have health benefits, or MMR causes Autism. I understand why people believe conspiracy theories, but I think that at times like this, coronavirus conspiracies are especially dangerous.

Even when they’re batshit crazy.

The latest coronavirus conspiracy is so ridiculous, I can’t imagine why anyone would take it seriously, but they are, particularly when celebrities like Amanda Holden and Woody Harrelson are actively promoting it. For more than a year, conspiracists have been theorizing that 5G – the fifth generation of wireless data technology, promising download speeds at least ten times that of 4G – will release fatal amounts of radiofrequency radiation that will destroy DNA, cause cancer and premature ageing, and effectively cull most of the planet’s human population, in the same way that the 1918 Spanish flu was apparently caused by the invention of radio (!).

Yes, 5G is a doomsday weapon wielded by the New World Order so they can take over. So far, so normal.

Unfortunately, the roll out of 5G and the outbreak of coronavirus have somewhat coincided. Conspiracists claim that the first city in the world to be blanketed in 5G was – yes, you’ve guessed it – Wuhan. Proof positive that China, and Huawei, are deliberately killing people. And the multiple denials by practically every media outlet and reputable scientist in the world simply confirm it – methinks thou doth protest too much.

They’re currently torn on whether 5G is causing it by lowering our immune systems, or is somehow directly transmitting the virus into us (because that’s how biology works!), but they’re in no doubt that 5G and Covid-19 are one and the same.

The weirdest version of the conspiracy I’ve come across is that vaccines contain metal; microwaves make metal things blow up; thus 5G is going to make all the vaccinated people go BOOM!

Yikes.

This fringe belief wouldn’t be a problem on its own, if not for the fact that in the UK in recent days, people have set on fire three 5G masts and abused and assaulted phone company workers. This is when those ‘harmless’ conspiracy theories have stark real world consequences. It won’t be long before someone does something stupid, thinking they’re being heroic and saving us from our evil overlords.

So what’s the truth? Yes, 5G does emit radiation. However, like FM radios, power lines and Wi-Fi, it’s low-frequency, non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn’t have the power to break chemical bonds, penetrate cell walls or even have any known effect on biological matter. Higher frequency radiation – that above ultraviolet – is called ionizing radiation, and like X-rays and gamma rays, it can damage DNA and cause cancer. Ultimately, the power and frequency of 5G is less than light – you’re getting more radiation standing outside in the sun. Or sitting under a lightbulb. Or lighting your birthday candles.

To paraphrase GK Chesterton, it’s okay to keep an open mind, just don’t open it so far that your brain falls out.

So wash your hands, keep your distsnce, and stop getting your news from Facebook!

A coronavirus fairy tale

Once upon a time a beautiful Princess fell in love with a handsome Knight. The King set them up in one of his many castles, and within a few years they had created a family of their own, adding two Little Princesses to the Royal Gene Pool.

But one day, a terrible illness spread through the kingdom, and everyone had to stay in their homes. The Knight drew up the drawbridge and swore he would would keep his family safe.

The Princess and the Little Princesses were now stuck in the castle, and the King and Queen were very upset. The Queen went to the castle, but the Knight wouldn’t let her in. The King told the Knight that he was being ridiculous and that rules don’t apply to Royalty, but still the Knight wouldn’t let down the drawbridge.

Alas! Alack! Despite the Princess and Little Princesses being safe behind their walls, and the Knight claiming he did not want to pass on the illness to the rest of the Royal Family, it was a situation that could not be borne. After all, Princesses, and Kings and Queens for that matter, could not be expected to do as the peasants did.

And so the Princess sent messages to the King and the Queen, and the King and Queen sent messages to the Princess, and they all agreed the Knight was in fact an evil Ogre who had deceived them all these years. He had weedled his way into the Royal Family and kidnapped the Princess, and was now holding her and the Little Princesses prisoner.

So they came up with a secret plan, hoping the Ogre wouldn’t find out. When the Ogre lowered the drawbridge so the Princess and the Little Princesses could go out for their daily ‘exercise’, they would instead sneak off to the palace and play with the King and Queen.

Their only mistake was asking the Little Princesses to lie to the Ogre – unless underestimating the Ogre was also a mistake, because he knew all along, and knew this was just an illusion.

You see, the Ogre wasn’t really an Ogre – he was always a Knight. And the Princess had her own keys to the drawbridge, and could make her own decisions. He reminded the King and the Queen of the rules, and that the Princess was an adult and could come and go as she pleased, and suggested that in future they should support him through this difficult time, and not undermine him with the Princess as it was having a detrimental effect on the Little Princesses.

Little did he realise, he was actually dealing with Dragons. Dragons who would rather see the kingdom in flames than do as they were told. Dragons who would sooner have the Knight cast out of his family than relinquish their control of the Princess.

But there was one thing they forgot. In the end, the Knight always slays the Dragon.

Always.

Since the Dragons owned the castle he lived in, and the Princess sided with the Dragons, the Knight didn’t know how he would keep the Little Princesses safe. He didn’t know where they would live, or if the Princess and her Dragons would try to take them. He suspected the Dragons would claim he was really an Ogre, and use all their resources to destroy him. All he knew for sure was that this wasn’t a fairy tale, and that there was no longer any hope for a happily ever after.

It’s too early for this…

‘Daddy, daddy, I can see willies!’

What?

‘Outside, there are two men with willies!’

I leapt out of bed and ran to my daughters’ room, to find them sitting on the windowsill staring up the street.

‘Where?’ I said. ‘Show me!’

And they pointed at two men walking up the road.

Wellies,‘ I said. ‘They’re called wellies.

‘That’s what I said.’

‘It really isn’t.’

A few minutes later I was in the toilet, standing up, ready to do my business when I heard a noise behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, there were my two daughters standing about a foot behind me, peering between my legs with big grins on their faces like it was present time on Christmas morning.

What the hell are you doing?

‘We’re going to watch you wee.’

‘Why on earth would you do that?’

‘Because it’s fun,’ they said, giggling.

‘That’s just so creepy.’

‘Go on, wee. Be a good boy.’

‘For crying out loud, get out of here and leave me alone!’

Then at breakfast, I asked what they’d dreamed about.

‘I dreamed that I went for a walk through the woods to my Granny’s house,’ said my eldest. ‘I met a wolf and told him I was going to Granny’s and he went there and he gobbled Granny up into his belly.’

‘Don’t just tell me Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘No, this is what I dreamed.’

‘This is Little Red Riding Hood.’

‘But it ends different.’

‘So skip to the end.’

‘Okay. I had to get into the house, so the woodpecker -‘

-cutter.

‘The woodpecker-cutter chopped a hole in the roof and then he cut the wolf open and cut off his head and cut up his tummy and cut off his arms and then Granny came out and she was all covered in poo.’

It’s not even nine o’clock yet.

Coronavirus and my four-year-old’s fear of death

Every night when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story, kiss them, cuddle them, tell them they’re loved, turn out the light and then sit in my bedroom next door for ten minutes in case of problems. It’s a relaxing time of listening to their childish conversations drifting down the hallway while I read a book, though it can be abused, like last night when my four-year-old came into my room 90 seconds after I’d left, saying she’d had a bad dream.

‘In a minute-and-a-half, you already fell asleep, had a bad dream, woke up, climbed out of your bunk bed and came in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, it wasn’t an asleep dream, I had my eyes open.’

‘Oh. So, not a dream.’

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

Normally I’d send her back to bed with a flea in her ear, but at a time like this, I figure I have to bend the rules a bit. ‘Go on. But only for a few minutes.’

‘What are you reading?’

War and Peace. There’s no better time than right now.’

‘Can you read it to me?’

‘Not really, sweetie.’

Then my two-year-old came in and refused to leave, so last night saw me and my daughters cuddled up on the bed as I pretended to read them Tolstoy, but instead made up a story about a magic horse and the girl he befriended. I bet they can’t wait till they get to read ‘grown-up’ books now. How disappointed they’ll be!

But it was much better than the night before when things took a decidedly more morbid tone.

I was listening to their conversation as usual when the little one told the big one to go to bed. The big one must have misheard, because she said, ‘I don’t want to be dead, because when I’m dead, I won’t be alive anymore, and that’s sad.’

Nothing followed this, so I turned back to my book.

About a minute later, she appeared in my doorway her fists balled in her eyes, and sobbed, ‘I don’t want to be dead because then I won’t see you or mummy anymore!’

‘Come here,’ I said, and gave her a big cuddle. ‘Why are you thinking about dying? Is it because of the virus?’

‘Because I might get ill,’ she cried. ‘And when Aunty Sue got ill, she died and it was sad.’

‘Oh sweetheart. I’ve told you before, this virus doesn’t really affect children. The youngest person who’s died from it was a teenager. You don’t need to worry about dying because it’s not going to happen for a very long time.’

‘But what if you and mummy die? Who’ll look after me?’

‘That’s why we live in families,’ I said. ‘There’ll always be aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and friends around when we’re gone.’

‘But I won’t have a mummy and daddy anymore.’

‘No, you won’t. But by the time that happens, you might already be a mummy yourself.’

Then came the really awkward question: ‘Where do you go when you die?’

‘Where do you think we go?’

‘My friend at school, her grandpa went up into the sky. He was ill so he went there to get better, but he can’t come back.’

‘I think that’s as good an answer as any,’ I said. ‘Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Lots of people think we go to a place called heaven, a nice place above the clouds where everything’s great. Others think that when we die, we’re born again as babies with no real memory of our former lives.’

‘What do you think happens?’

‘I really don’t know,’ I said. ‘I quite like the idea of a family of souls. Every time someone in a family dies, they’re born back into that family somewhere down the line. So if I die, and then you have a baby, I’m that baby. Which makes me my own grandfather.’

‘But you can’t be my baby! You’re my daddy!’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said. ‘Whatever happens, nobody’s ever really gone. I’ll always be part of you, in your thoughts, your memories, your DNA. I will live on through you, and you will live on through your children. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. It’s sad, but it’s normal. It’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to miss people, but we have to accept it and let them go. Life is for the living.’

Then my two-year-old came in and, completely failing to read the room, pointed at my man-boobs and said, ‘Bluebell and Buttercup.’

Bluebell and Buttercup are our guinea pigs.

My eldest is worried about death. My youngest thinks I have breasts like a South American rodent. Those parenting classes never prepared me for this!