Lessons Learned: A Letter to My Lads

A letter to my lads,

It takes time.

Maybe longer than you want it to.

But trust me, you’ll find the real you eventually and it’ll change your life.

It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter what people think but we both know that it does. What’s more important is working out who the right people are. That’ll take time too.

There are rights and wrongs and you’ll know deep down what they are. But that doesn’t apply to everything in life. There’s not always a right answer. Trust yourself to make the right decisions for you.

Don’t spend your life wishing you were doing something else or wishing you were with someone else. If it’s not working be honest and move on. You owe it to yourself to be happy.

No-one lives in blacks and whites. You’ll live in shades of colour. In shades of blues, reds, greens, yellows. Embrace it. Be prepared to be wrong and prepared to learn.

If you mess up, try not to let yourself wallow, take your bumps and bruises and learn from it.

It’s a cliché but misery really does love company. Negativity will drain you of your life, look for the positives no matter the situation.

Apologise if you’re in the wrong, especially with someone you care about and respect.

Manners don’t cost anything. Please and thanks go a long way.

Live in the moment and be present wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. It might never happen again.

It’s OK to think something one day then think something different a day, a week, a month or a year later. Perspectives change. Life changes you.

Make time for the things you love. No matter what anyone thinks, if you love them, that’s all that matters.

It’s hard not to question yourself and you may not realise you’ve been right all along until years later. That’s OK.

Be honest. With yourself and to others, you’ll sleep better at night.

Look after your Mum. She carried you in her body for 9 months. She spends her life running about after us all. Tell her you love her.

Treat people with respect but don’t ever be afraid to stand up for yourself, no matter who is speaking to you.

Regardless of how much money you earn in life, the most important currency you have is your time. Use it on things and people you care about the most.

Be proactive with your health. You’ve only got one body and one brain. Looking after yourself is underrated.

When someone is speaking, try not to pre-empt what they’re going to say, just listen to them. You might learn something.

Don’t judge someone based on what someone else thinks about them. Make your own mind up.

If someone asks you to keep something between you and them, respect them and yourself enough to do it.

Drink water.

It’s 100% OK to talk about your feelings. Please do it.

Remember, Mum and Dad don’t know everything! We’ve never been parents before, everything we did isn’t the right way and you’ll learn what’s right for you and your family.

You’ll probably not appreciate us fully until you have kids of your own. That’s OK. Just know, we love you and think about you every minute of every day.

The Morning Of

The soft wetness against my lips was heavenly. Those big beautiful red lips were intoxicating.

It was the first time I’d been kissed like that in years. I disappeared into a divine trance as her hard, sandpapery tongue ran across my face. Wait a minute? Sandpapery? Tongue? All across my face?

“Albert!!”

I sprang up from my pillow and wiped the dog drool away from my face, the dampness disappearing but that horrible slippery feeling never quite coming away.

I squinted through a blur of tiredness at my 5 year old black labrador, Albert, sitting bright eyed by the side of my bed looking at me with expectation in his eyes. His tongue lay lazily on his open mouth, half hanging out like a beach bum sleeping on a hammock. They say dogs are intelligent animals but when Albert would look at me like this I had pause to question that theory.

His tail was going mad, helicoptering it’s way round and round and up and down behind him. I patted him on the head, giving him what he craved to prevent him taking off towards the ceiling. “OK mate, I’ll get up, I’ll get up” I grumbled. With that he hopped up on the bed in celebration and begun to cyclone his way around me. I grabbed his legs and we had our customary morning wrestle.

I’d had Albert since he was a puppy, in fact I picked him up the same day I got the keys to my place. It was a culture shock for me, to say the least. I’d gone from living with my Mum who catered to my every need to living in my first flat with a new roommate who liked nothing more than to cock a leg and pee on the floor and chew on the corner of walls. With being so concentrated on Albie, I think it helped me settle into life on my own. Or at least the life of washings, ironing and homemade cooking. Whatever I had, he had. None of that nonsensical stuff you read on the internet, how could I possibly sit and tuck into a steak whilst my boy sat and stared at me pushing pedigree chum around a bowl. Nope, Albie was my equal and I made sure he was treated that way.

Only thing I couldn’t tolerate though was sleeping together. I didn’t mind at first, he didn’t stink, he didn’t shed a lot of hair. Nope, the problem was that Albie would steal the covers from you in the middle of the night. I’d wake shivering, freezing cold. I’d look over and see him satisfyingly sound asleep rolled up in the covers like a hot dog. So with much regret we went together and picked him out his own giant dog bed to get comfy in. After this, the rude awakening I’d received this morning had become the norm. It was like his stomach had an automatic timer set to go off at 6am. I didn’t mind, if my boy was hungry, he’d get his breakfast and I’d let him out into the garden for a sniff and the toilet. I could head back upstairs for another snooze then we’d head out a run.

Albie is my best mate. He’s my running partner, my guy to watch Netflix with, my dining companion, my football buddy and my therapist rolled into one. I genuinely believe when I look into his eyes and chat to him that he knows what I’m saying. His tail goes like the clappers when I get his Arsenal shirt out before a big game. Sometimes when I tell him for the millionth time about Julia from my work does he let out a fart and walk away? Yes. But not everyone’s perfect. My boy’s as close as it gets.

He flew down the stairs in front of me and bumped the kitchen door open with his nose. He marched straight over to the fridge and looked up. “I know where the food’s kept mate” I said to him, laughing. He just wagged his tail and looked at me hopefully. “Right, what are we on today?” I pulled some chicken sausages out the fridge and threw them onto the gas grill. I clicked on the coffee machine and collapsed onto my kitchen couch whilst I waited for the sausages to cook. Albie ambled over and lay over my feet, keeping them cosy.

As the grill alerted me the sausages were ready, I popped some leftover rice into the microwave and waited. Albie, sat at my side, keeping a keen eye on me as if I may somehow forget that this was his breakfast I was making. I emptied the tub of rice into his bowl and pulled the sausages from the grill. By this point Albie’s drool was dripping on each side like a couple of large vampire-dog fangs protruding from his mouth. “Jeez, lick your lips mate” I said to him. One quick smack of his tongue and the drool disappeared. I laughed and ruffled his coat.

I chopped the sausages and added them to the rice. I pulled some fresh orange juice from the fridge and poured myself some. Albie nudged me again with his head, as if it would have been possible that I’d again forgotten that this food in the dog bowl was for him. “It’s cooling down you maniac” I laughed at him. “You’d burn your tongue!” His tail began to helicopter again as he turned and hopped up on his bench at the table.

I laid the bowl down in front of him and he stared a hole through me waiting on the command. “OK mate” I said and he began scoffing it down. I slumped back down on the couch and slowly began to sip on the orange juice. I popped on some music through my kitchen’s Bluetooth speakers and began to plan our morning run. We were due to do 10km this morning, hence the chicken sausages for him. I was due to run a half marathon only a month from now and my training partner was doing an excellent job of keeping up with my progress.

Run planned, I popped my phone down just in time for Albie to lick his bowl clean of any morsel of food. He lapped himself up a long drink of water and trotted towards the back door. I hopped up from the couch and let him out the back door into our grassed and fenced-off back garden. I left the door ajar for him as he disappeared out and tidied away the dishes from his breakfast into the dishwasher. After that I plonked myself back down, ready to go back upstairs for another hours sleep. After a few minutes of aimless scrolling I realised that Albie hadn’t come back in so I got up and wandered over to the back door. I assumed the kids from next door were out and he was playing up to them, licking them through the fence, an activity they all seemed to revel in.

Instead he was stood bolt still, his back to me, facing towards the bottom of the garden. I couldn’t see past him to see what he was looking at. If anything, it looked like he was stood staring at the fence at the bottom of the garden. “Albie?” I shouted out to him. “In you come mate, I want another sleep.” But he didn’t move. It was then that I noticed that his tail was rigidly tucked between his legs. A horrible feeling came over me and a shiver took over my whole body. I grabbed my shoes and closed the back door behind me, making my way onto the grass. As I approached him from behind I could see he was shaking. His whole body looked like it was vibrating. “Albie?” I asked and he let out a little moan. I touched his body and he flinched, baring his teeth at me and growling, his hair on his back stood on end like a spiky mohican. I fell onto my backside away from him. “Albie?” I asked him “it’s OK mate, it’s me.” His ears flopped backwards and he threw himself between my legs curling himself up in a little ball. “It’s OK mate, it’s OK.” I reassured him. He stayed there, curled up as small as he could make himself, it reminded me of him as a puppy when he would curl up on my lap and crash out after a little wrestle.

As I looked towards the bottom of the garden where he’d been stood, I could see that there was some disturbance in the grass. In fact, as I stood up I could see that there wasn’t just a disturbance, there was quite a large area of my grass missing. On further inspection there had been a large, rectangular hole dug out of my grass. “What the…” I muttered under my breath. I looked down to see Albie almost clinging behind my left leg, his tail still tucked up behind him. “It’s OK mate” I said to him, giving him a pat on the head. His scared eyes looked back up at me, suggesting that this was very far from OK and could we just head back upstairs to bed now.

The hole was maybe 4 foot long and around 2 foot wide. It had been clinically dug with sharp, straight edges around it. I stood at the edge and looked in, Albie whined at the top of his lungs. It was a deep hole. But not so deep that I couldn’t see inside it. Maybe 6 or so feet down into the earth, lay something I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing. I dropped to my knees to get a closer look, Albie’s whines turned to scared barks. He began tugging at my shorts, almost succeeding in pulling me away. “Enough!” I snapped at him and he dropped the material from his mouth. Turning and lying down on the grass a foot or so away from me.

I dropped back down to my knees and peered into the dark hole. Perfectly placed at the bottom of this hole which had appeared in my garden seemingly out of nowhere was a small shiny, brown, mahogany coffin. It had gold seals along the sides which shined way more than they had any right to at 6am on a dark winters morning. They glistened at me as I peered closer and closer. On a plaque placed on the middle of it was a name in fancy, calligraphy-type writing. I squinted my eyes to try to make it out but was none the wiser. I grabbed my phone out my pocket and tapped on the torch function. I shone it down into the hole and got a better look at the writing on the plaque. Just as I began to get a better look at it a loud thud came from the box. Albie jumped up from his safe spot on the grass and took off into the house. My heart flew up through my rib cage into my throat and I screamed. I looked up to see curtains ruffling in the windows at the houses either side of me, I laughed and waved up at them, trying to convince them, and me, that everything was OK. I succeeded with one as both neighbours waved politely and disappeared from the windows.

Returning to the edge of the grave, because that’s what this was right? A grave. I kneeled back down and shone my torch back down in the hole. As I did the coffin began to slowly creak a little on one side. After more horrible, aggressive thudding which rattled their way right through my body the coffin began to slowly open. On seeing this I toppled forward, unsuccessfully clutching out at the grass as I fell, head first past it. In the time of the small drop I grimaced, setting my teeth together, bracing myself for the impact of the coffin, but it never came.

The Beautiful Game & The Mental Struggle

“Hi boss – yeah, no….no….we lost it.”

It was the 23rd of October, part of the way through the first half of the season. Things had been going great for me professionally, I was scoring goals for fun and at home we were so excited to be expecting another baby.

It was our second time experiencing the 12 week scan, with our other little one nearly 2, but it never seemed less surreal. A lubricated, sterile appliance giving you a window in to see the little life you’ve created together. Except this time there was no-one occupying our window. There was no euphoric feeling of excitement and love. It was emptiness. “I knew it, I knew something wasn’t right” she said, slumping her head down in anguish. We held eachother as the midwife cleaned her up and helped her off the bed.

We were in shock. The next hour or so was a whirlwind of talking heads telling us what was best for us.

We went home that night, switched off all the lights and slept. And that was how it felt for the next few months. Dark rooms, quietness, sobbing, staring into space.

The boss was excellent, he told the press I’d injured myself and would be out for a couple months. I was so lucky I had such an understanding man in my life. Compassion was his middle name. I suppose looking back I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was.

3 days into the New Year I was awoke by my phone buzzing on the bedside table. Confused we both dived out of bed and made for the kids room until we realised the source.

It was the boss. “Sorry son, I know it’s late. I’ve got some news and I don’t want you to read it on the internet or get a text from one of your mates hearing it in the chippy” Half asleep or not, I knew it couldn’t be good after the long pause and deep breath. “We’ve had a bid for you, a big one. Big boss is saying it’s too good to turn down.”

So that was it. I was out the door. I didn’t really want to leave but having chatted things through with my wife and having seen the figure I was being offered a week to play a sport I loved, it was a no brainer. Look at it as a great opportunity to further my career whilst cementing our families future, I thought.

Things started out well. Although I was adapting to a new style of playing, I wasn’t the only one. The team had brought in another big name signing at the same time. We quickly gelled which made settling in all the easier.

After a month or two, whilst racking up some decent results with some decent performances, I felt myself becoming frustrated. I’d been successful as a main target man and goalscorer when they’d bought me but they’d started playing me on the wing, instead putting this new fella up top. A flamboyant signing with a reputation for the controversial. Pink hair, ambiguous sexuality and a massive following online. A marketers dream. Maybe shirt sales were more important than results.

I would sit at night watching film of myself, watching film of the top players in the league, trying desperately to improve myself. It wasn’t long before the media were questioning the price tag they’d paid for me, not to mention the sly digs from supposed team mates on social media. Footballers aren’t the smartest bunch, it’s not hard to decipher who the thinly veiled song lyrics were targeted at.

It was at this time that I approached the new gaffer. I let him know that I was struggling to adapt to this new position and the new style of play. That we’d lost a baby the previous year and I was feeling overwhelmed. I asked for some time off.

“Time…off?!” he shouted in broken English. He began to laugh and slid a piece of paper under my nose with the remaining fixtures of the season on it. “You score goals, we win games and then…..time off.” With that he smiled, nodded his head and walked out, leaving me sat at the table, my head in my hands.

I finished the season, then had to pull out of the 4 international games over the summer. I was gutted, but completely run down. I spoke with my old boss a lot over the summer, he was great, giving me some encouragement and even having the respect for me just to leave the air quiet when I asked if the chairman would bring me back. “We’ll see mate” he would say.

Injuries kept racking up once the season began again after the summer. Little niggles were keeping me out week by week and very quietly I became relegated to a substitute role.

It was during this time that I witnessed the gaffer walk through the changing rooms after a game, stopping to say something to my mate who had joined at the same time as I had, emerging from the showers. Things looked to be getting heated between them when suddenly the gaffer grabbed a boot and rattled it on the guys bare toes. The room fell silent as we all looked on, stunned. Nothing further was said and the gaffer just walked on through the changing room as if nothing had happened.

The guy never returned for a month. The press had a field day of course but nothing came out about it. I think everyone was too scared to even saying anything. “Not worth jeopardising that wage, mate” said one teammate to me. Was it not?

By the end of 2017 I spoke to a sports psychologist recommended by my old boss. He said they’d helped him when he’d been going through a particularly tough time and he had no doubt they’d get me back on the pitch feeling my old self again. He was right. They helped me to put in steps to challenge the worries I had. I was working harder in training, I was back on the pitch, scoring goals and creating chances. I felt like my old self again.

But, not for long.

It started with a little thing, I think I got a kick on the shin during a game, it hurt but you got these kinds of things every game. It wasn’t until I realised I’d been sat in the changing room after a game poking and prodding at it until I was the only one left in the room. I was still in full kit, bar my shinpads and boots.

From there, it was a mole on my face, a shaky hand after chopping some vegetables, sore legs after training, sore legs after missing training, sore heads, migraines, swollen glands. Each day brought a new ailment. The medical staff would shake their heads and exchange glances as I would walk in with a new imaginary complaint.

Before long I was sat in front of the gaffer again. He was shaking his head, grunting and grumbling looking at a sheet of paper raised in front of him.

“If…you can’t play…” he said to me, in his best South American broken English “…then you don’t mean anything….to me.” Charming. With that he got up and moved to the door, he turned to look at me “Listen!” he belts out pointing his fingers into his ears “you get better….you play….you score. It’s good. You don’t. You go.” And with that, the door was slammed shut.

I couldn’t bring myself to keep going to the clubs medical team, I felt like I’d burned my bridges there. I was surprised they didn’t have a poster up of me with ‘Boy Who Cries Wolf’ emblazoned across it.

So, I called up my old boss and asked to speak to the medical team there. As usual, he was as gracious as ever, he didn’t even question it and made me an appointment. I was prescribed some medication to help me deal with the phantom injuries, recommended a counsellor to talk to and given some breathing exercises to do. It worked wonders. I wasn’t cured by any means, but I did stop feeling like I was going mad.

Beginning to feel like my old self and having not played consistently in sometime between being injured and being dropped I decided to ask to leave, look for a fresh start. Rather than have another fun filled grunt-off with the gaffer, I decided to speak straight to the chairman. It wasn’t a decision I’d taken lightly, as I sat outside his office like a naughty schoolboy, my stomach was in knots thinking about what I was going to say.

“Leave?” he snarled, his top lipped curled so hard it was practically inside out. He giggled to himself. “Leave?!”. Nope. You owe this club, my friend.” He weaselled at me. “You owe us performances and you owe us goals. You’ve got a contract and you’ll be here until it expires, I don’t care what imaginary thing is wrong with you next. Get out. The next time I see you it better be on that pitch”

It wasn’t too long after this, following a string of bad results, that a new manager came in. It’s fair to say I wasn’t gutted to see my old mate, the wordsmith, given the boot.

The new guy seemed reasonable. He was meeting with all the playing staff one-to-one to get a handle on everybody. Smart, I thought. I didn’t want to string him along so I told him straight out I wanted away. Unfortunately, after the January transfer window came and went with no bids for me (or so they said) I agreed to see things out until the end of the season the following summer.

Easier said than done.

By March I was going out of my mind. I was being played in midfield, we were underperforming and being visited by Mr Chairman after every match to be told in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t achieve a top 4 league position then the club’s future would be at stake. No pressure then. It was at this point that I decided to talk to the new gaffer again to tell him about my struggles. That I was still unhappy, I hated playing in midfield and I told him about the support I’d been getting privately. I didn’t get the response I was hoping for:

“Listen pal, you’re playing a pivotal role in this team, you understand? I’m putting my neck on the line every week playing you and you’re in here saying you’re struggling with your feelings or something? If you leave, we don’t make top 4. OK? Simple as that. If that’s everything then I’ve places to be.”

I’d had enough, by this point I wasn’t even bothered if I got fired, I just wanted out. As I walked to the car park I flicked my phone out my pocket and opened twitter:

We’re told society wants men to talk about mental health. They want men to open up. But really, nobody wants to hear it. #hadenough #fireme

I switched my phone off, cranked up the music in my car and drove home, my head in a raging fire of bliss. I spent the rest of the night playing board games with my wife and kid and watching Netflix. Just as I was heading up to bed my wife flicked on the 24/7 sports channel, front and centre was the gaffer stood at the front door of his home, his face illuminated in flashes by the hundreds of photographers surrounding him.

“Any statement by any of our players on social media does not reflect the views of our football club. We take the matter of mental health incredibly seriously and we wish all our players and anyone associated with our club to be treated with dignity and respect. Thank you all.”

I barely slept that night. I flitted between anger, regret, resentment but the common theme was worry. Despite the temptation, my phone stayed off, I couldn’t bring myself to switch it on and become immersed in the inevitable circus. Instead I ate and watched game footage of myself. It helped.

Pale as a ghost and cranky with about 50 minutes of sleep in me I made my way into the training ground the next morning. Hood up, I avoided the press as I jogged past them, straight into the training complex. I was met at the door by the gaffer, stern faced, waiting on me. “My office” he spat.

Tail between my legs I slumped down in front of him. “Listen” he started, surprisingly softly. “I want to apologise, I said things I shouldn’t have and I reacted inappropriately. Can we try to get things back on track here?”

I couldn’t believe it. Dumbstruck I nodded “Yeah, course gaffer” I managed. “All I want is to win games and play where I can be most effective. I want to win here”

He smiled, a big puffy rosy cheeked smile. “It’s what we all want son” he said. I smiled, nodded then got up from the chair. He patted me on the back as I left. Just then, a thought hit me. “Uh, gaffer” I asked as I popped my head back in “will you be putting out any press release or making any reference online to this? It feels like it might make a good story, you know about mental health and all that?” The smile disappeared, the rosy cheeks drained to a pale grey snarl. “No.”

The same day I was contacted by a players union representative. Most guys tend to shun them and are wary about being seen to work with them. It can be easy for you to be portrayed as a bit of a problem child for clubs once you get involved with them so although in the back of my mind I knew I should be cautious, I was also still reeling from the gaffer’s change in tone about trying to publically reconcile.

They laid it on thick. It was what I wanted to hear. “You want out? we can help you, we know what you’ve been going through, we’ve helped other guys just like you.” They gave me examples, guys I knew, good guys with their heads screwed on. They privately wrote to the club on my behalf. The club reacted exactly how I thought they would and denied any knowledge of any issues I was having.

Another weekend of no football, I was privately suspended by the club until the end of my contract. They’d had enough of me. In the back of my mind, I knew they were playing games, but that didn’t stop me spending that weekend as stressed as I’ve ever been at their denial of my issues.

Come the end of the season the club website publishes a review of each players season, in previous seasons it had described me as a “goal machine” and “world class striker”. This season’s said the following:

Sadly off the field distractions resulted in a reduction in quality this year. Wherever he ends up next season he should work on remembering he’s not the only player on the team and not the only human on the planet.

We wish him all the best.

Nothing really shocked me anymore. Against my better judgement I tweeted a link to it with the following:

I’ve worked hard to try to better myself over the last 3 seasons but the lack of respect I’ve been afforded is disappointing. People want to talk about treating eachother with respect but when it comes down to it, all that matters to them is winning games. We’re all pawns in the chairman’s little game of chess. To him it doesn’t matter if it’s me or the next guy. That’s fine. But I came from a team where the people pulling on the shirt matter. The fans care. The staff care. You become a part of the fabric of the club. Not just a plaything for a 60 year old toddler to get fed up with if it’s not working. That’s the measuring stick I hold any future employer to and if no club can match that then I’m happy to hang them up – but I do know one club that can.

In response the club put out the following statement:

“There is no value in our great football club involving ourselves in mudslinging with former players. Both our chairman and manager are available should any player wish to discuss any personal or professional issues. We will not be commenting on this issue further”

My name trended online for days, I received over 100 media requests, some of which I took up. I gravitated to the ones that gave me an opportunity to speak up about my medical treatment and how I was treated by the club, not those who just wanted dished dirt to get clicks and views.

I resigned with my old club and old gaffer in the August of that year, a few weeks after my wife had given birth to our second child. It should have been one of the most joyous periods of my life but I often felt regret. And anger. And resentment. What had I done to deserve to be sat with this little gift in my arms whilst I contemplated what life would be like for my family without me? Tears trickled down my face, dripping onto his little head. I felt ashamed of myself.

Ashamed of getting involved with the nonsense. Ashamed of retaliating. Ashamed of not just getting on and playing football. I know I’m not to blame. I know that. But I can’t shake this feeling of resentment towards those people and that football club. I want the world to know what they really are. I want their world to come crashing down around them, I want them to have to experience what I did. And that’s when I feel ashamed the most. Because they’re just human like me. They’ve got kids and families too and they don’t deserve to be treated like I was.

I’ve started banging in goals. I’m back playing up front again. I’m happy on the pitch. I’m back changing nappies. I’m back singing nursery rhymes and being up through the night for the right reasons. I’m happy at home.

But still something niggles at me.

Still I hold resentment.

I need closure but don’t know how to get it.

Maybe writing this down will help.

I hope so.

Love Buzz – Part 1

“Now come on everyone, repeat after me: We Are Someone’s Paradise.”

“WE ARE SOMEONE’S PARADISE” droned the reply from the crowd.

Wolliver Sting stood smiling before his small group of dedicated followers. Each and every one of them stood to attention, hanging on his every word. He prickled with delight as they repeated his mantra over and over: “WE ARE SOMEONE’S PARADISE.”

“We were born wasps…” he preached, marching up and down like an army sergeant in front of his dedicated followers”….we didn’t choose to be wasps, no more than an elephant chooses to have a trunk or a dog chooses to be a wild eyed idiot. That doesn’t mean we have to be the enemy does it?”

“NOOOOOO” returned the group in unison.

“We don’t need to use violence as a means to get attention do we?”

“NOOOOOO” they replied again.

“What do wasps who use violence get?” he asked

“SWATTED” they shouted back at him.

He chuckled and clapped his antennae together. “Very good!” he said, clearly proud of his recruits.

He pointed to a large jovial looking German Wasp with a protruding honeydew belly “Bernard! How long have you gone without stinging now?”

Bernard looked around with a proud smile across his face. “I’m coming up for my 12 week anniversary” he beamed. “WOOOOOW” replied the group in awe. “You must teach us your ways, zen master” said a young European Hornet named Garth. Bernard chuckled and pointed back at Wolliver. “Wolly here is the real zen master, I just followed his ways. Stick with us little guy, you’ll soon no longer feel the need to plunge your zinger deep into the succulent flesh of the enemy. To hit them once, twice, maybe even thrice. To watch them recoil and slowly realise that they’ve been paralysed by your hand.”

Bernard’s eyes had began to glaze over and his stinger had began to jerk and twitch uncontrollably as he recounted for the group the very intimate details of the encounter he had had with a small house spider 12 weeks ago. As he was reaching a particularly graphic section of his story he suddenly slumped to the ground and began to convulse. Wolliver stood over Bernard’s unconscious body clutching a small taser. “I’m sorry you all had to see that folks” he said with an uneasy smile. “Sometimes it’s best to get in front of our urges, Bernard will be fine, he just needs to sleep off his lust.”

“What do we say when we get the sting lust gang?” he raised his antennae out to the group for the answer – they responded expertly “THE KEY TO PEACE IS SELF-REFLECTION, USE OUR STING FOR SELF-PROTECTION”

“Wonderful” clapped Wolliver in delight.

The tree shook beneath their small antennae and from the small hole in the tree emerged a beautiful, elegant large Asian hornet, flanked by 4 smaller muscle bound hornets, each of them staring and laughing at the group. Wolliver dropped to a knee as the Asian hornet approached him. “Still trying to recruit these freaks to your peace army huh Wolliver?” she smirked. The group all dropped to a knee in her presence. “Good day your majesty” replied Wolliver, his eyes still facing the floor. “Good day your majesty” repeated the group after him. The 4 smaller hornets flanking the Queen sniggered and giggled at this. “What happened to this one?” snarled one of them gesturing his stinger towards a still unconscious Bernard “you all decide to have one last hit together and take out the big one? look at that belly!” The four minions all sniggered and giggled together at this.

“HUSH!” interjected the Queen. The laughing ceased immediately, the Queen’s minions all paused and looked to the floor, scorned. She looked down at Wolliver “I only came to invite you to the unveiling of the new nest tonight, thought you and your peace corps could do with integrating with the rest of us savages. Don’t worry, we won’t try to indoctrinate you, it’s just an evening of celebration.”

“Thank you, your majesty, for the gracious invite” replied Wolliver, still kneeling “we’ll definitely consider it”

We’ll definitely consider it” mocked one of the Queen’s minions in a childish voice. At this the Queen spun in a flash and zapped the minion with her large stinger. The minion hit the ground with a thud, his lifeless body jerking uncontrollably. The group watching on recoiled in horror, some hiding their eyes, others screaming at this assault. All that is, except little Garth. “Coooooooool” he said, stepping a little closer to get a look at the minion lay jerking in the middle of the room.

“Idiot” muttered the Queen. She kicked the body hard, it flew straight out the small hole in the tree and disappeared from view. Garth looked as if he might pass out with excitement. “You and I should talk privately, Wolliver Stings” the Queen said cryptically as she exited the tree with her three minions in tow. “See you tonight” She turned, winked at a stunned Wolliver then flew off.

“Uhhhhh” groaned Bernard from the floor. He climbed to his antennae and looked at the scared faces around the room. “Sting lust again?” he asked Wolliver. “Yup” he replied. The big Wasp began to sob as Wolliver took him in an embrace. “It’s OK Bernie” said Wolliver, “a nest is not built in day, just as inner self reflection is not realised in 12 weeks. We can do this together.” Bernard’s shoulders began to bounce up and down as he broke down into a wild howling cry. “There, there” said Wolliver as he smiled out to the rest of the group.

“Can we go to the party tonight master?” shrieked a clearly still excited Garth, his pre-pubescent voice splitting the tension in the tree. “Well, Garth” replied Wolliver as he helped a still sobbing Bernard into a seat. “I believe you’ve all worked so hard that we do deserve to let our wings down for one night. All I ask is you remain true to yourself and true to my teachings. There should only be wasps there so there shouldn’t be any temptation. We can reconvene tomorrow.” The group rejoiced in celebration and conga lined their way out the tree off to prepare themselves for an evening of celebration. Wolliver chuckled as he watched them go.

He lay down on his bed and let out a long sigh. What did Queen Gojin want with him? what could she possibly want to discuss? There was only one way to find out, he supposed.

40 Seconds

“What do you fink you could all do in 40 seconds Bruce?” asked Larry inquisitively.

“40 seconds?” crooned Bruce with a confused look on his face. “I dunno, mate, make a cup of coffee maybe? Oh no, I’ve got it, give Jennifer Aniston the greatest night of her life” he chuckled. “You’re ‘orrible mate” laughed Larry in response.

“Nah but seriously mate” said Larry “what do you reckon you could do in that short space of time?? End a life?”

“Steady on mate!” replied Bruce, taken aback.

“Take a look at this” said Larry. He pulled a large magic eight ball out of his backpack and whooshed it under Bruce’s nose dramatically. “What on earf is this?” exclaimed Bruce “what are you some sort of magician or somefink, fancy yourself as the next David Blaine do ya?” “Just ‘ave a look mate” Larry said.

Larry raised the magic 8 ball above his head and shook it like he was trying to revive it. Smoke appeared on the screen pooling in a circle, then as it began to clear a bedroom setting filled the face of the magic 8 ball. As the smoke finally cleared it became apparent that this was Bruce’s bedroom. His girlfriend lay on the bed, her head in her hands as Bruce was sat up in bed, deep in concentration on his Iphone.

“What the ‘ell? That’s me mate!” he exclaimed pointing at the 8 ball screen. “And there’s Tiff!”

Larry nodded and gestured for him to continue watching.

“Babe” asked Tiff as she lay in bed running her hands over her face and through her hair in anguish “have you got a sec? I need to ask you somefink.” “Jesus Tiff, gimme a minute yeah? I need to tell Jason where footy is tonight or he’ll not turn up again.” he replied, not taking his eyes off the screen. “It’s just…” she began. “A MINUTE TIFF YEAH?” he shouted back at her, turning to show his frustration. She pulled the duvet over her head and the smoke pooled back up over the scene.

Bruce looked up at Larry. “What’s going on ‘ere mate? You got camera’s in my house you dirty pervert?”

“Did you know Tiff is struggling in that new job of hers mate?” asked Larry. “You heard from her today since you had that little exchange?”

“Um….I dunno actually” mused Bruce looking down at his phone.

“Keep watching” said Larry and he gestured to the 8 ball. 

Next up on the screen the smoke cleared to show Bruce sat at his breakfast table munching down on some cereal whilst flicking through his phone. He pressed the new tweet icon with his thumb and composed the following:

@AceRush that new album of yours is pathetic mate, you should do us all a favour and quit life #disappointing #wasteofbreath

He read it out loud to himself, chuckled and pressed send. “Take that you talentless gimp” he said out loud to the empty kitchen.

“So?” Bruce said to Larry sheepishly. 

“Oxycotin, whisky, tequila, marijuana and cocaine” said Larry, counting them out on his fingers.

“What’s that then? the recipe to a good night out” laughed Bruce.

“No, that’s what Ace Rush all had in his system when they found him.”

Bruce frowned, confused. “Found him?” he whispered to himself.

“What’s next then?” he asked, his face now bright red, beads of sweat starting to form on his forehead. “Oh there’s lots more” said Larry “but I think I’ll just show you this last one. See if you can remember this little exchange at your work mate.”

They both looked down at the 8 ball as the smoke cleared once more. This time it revealed a workplace setting, 30 or so office workers sat in a conference room, their focus on a small stage with a projector on the wall.

“Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Susan Carrington. She’s just joined us and will be supporting me and managing my calendar. Susan would you mind saying a little about yourself?”

A young woman stepped forward onto the stage and began to introduce herself, her breath giving way every few moments. She nervously tugged at her fingers as she spoke.

Grunts and guffaws of laughter started to fill the air as the woman nervously tried to tell the room about her interests. Right in the middle of where the hilarity had began was Bruce, whispering to those around him, nudging elbows and kicking backs of chairs.

Larry looked up at him as he watched the scene play out. “What was so funny mate?” Larry asked. “Nuffink” replied Bruce shaking his head. Larry pressed the matter, looking him dead in the eye. “What was it mate?” “Alright, alright” said Bruce, hands up protesting innocence. “All I said to Tony next to me was ‘check out sweaty Susan’. Look!” He shouted, pointing at the screen “her pits are all stained!!” he was smirking at Larry, hoping he’d also find some humour in the joke.

“Well, mate, I’m going to tell you all about about sweaty Susan. Susan Carrington is 24 and this is her first real job. She went to Uni after leaving school but she had to drop out a year in cos of anxiety, mate. She literally didn’t leave the house for her first year after leaving Uni. After 3 years intense CBT, therapy and lots of medication changes which really do a number on ya, she was finally ready to try applying for a job. When did this little comedy act of yours happen Bruce?”

“Um….I can’t really remember…” Bruce began.

“It was four days ago mate” snapped Larry. “You seen sweaty Susan since then?”

“I dunno mate, you know what? I don’t fink I have.” said Bruce, looking up to try to rack his brains about when he might have last seen this new girl in the office.

“You ain’t” said Larry in reply.

Larry shook the magic 8 ball again. The smoke pooled, clearing to reveal a parked ambulance and two stationary police cars sat outside a house. Tiff’s mother came running out the house screaming as if she had been tortured. She collapsed in the arms of a paramedic who struggled to keep her upright. “What the…thats Pauline!” shouted Bruce. Larry began to shake the 8 ball again. “Hold on!!” protested Bruce.

The next scene showed groups of solemn looking teenagers stood in front of large black iron gates, behind which a long gravel path led up to a grand mansion. TV cameras and reporters jostled for position in front of the gates. Just in the distance you could make out two Ambulances parked at the front door on the mansion.

“Here, ain’t that Ace Rush’s gaff?” asked Bruce, recognising it from a music video.

Larry shook his head with dismay then finally shook the 8 ball one last time.

The screen revealed a train track during midday, in the distance a train approached. The screen panned upwards to show a young woman stood looking down at the track from the overpass above. Bruce strained his eyes to see who it was but couldn’t recognise her. The woman muttered to herself, wiping tears away from her face. The audio volume increased to reveal the words ‘sweaty fucking Susan’ being repeated over and over. The woman let go of the overpass and fell to the track below.

Today is World Mental Health Day, a day to improve the mental health of people around the world. The theme selected for this year’s Day is suicide prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds with someone taking their own life every 40 seconds around the world.

We never know what someone else is going through during our day to day interactions and we never truly know the impact our actions might have on others. One little smile, Hi or asking someone how they’re doing might be the highlight of their week.

The Group

“Wake up!” screamed Andrew directly into his ear. “Wh, wh, what time is it?” he muttered.

He rolled over and pawed at his phone sitting on his bedside table. The bright screen illuminated the room. He squinted his eyes to look at it. 2:37am. He let out a noise situated somewhere between frustration and anger. Rolling over, he flipped his pillow to lie on the cooler side and closed his eyes.

“Remember you need to be awake at 6” nagged Neil as he lay trying to get back to sleep. “He’s probably not even set an alarm” chimed in Alex.

He rolled back over, making the same frustrated noise and illuminated the room once again. Squinting at the brightness of the light he double and triple checked to make sure his alarm was set. “He’s only going to get about 3 hours sleep now” complained Ian. “You’ll be shattered tomorrow!” warned Emma. He folded his extra pillow and pulled it over his head, he began trying to count sheep.

“Jeeeez, you look like death” said Trevor, greeting him as he shuffled through to the bathroom mirror. “Maybe you should just call in sick – that way you won’t embarrass yourself at the interview” suggested Yves.

“Ugh, come on” he said to himself as he flicked on the shower. His eyes were diverted back to the mirror as he scanned his face. “Uh oh, never noticed that mole before” said Andrew “wonder what it could be”. Neil sucked in a long breath of air through his lips “oooh that looks cancerous” he replied. “Oh definitely” agreed Alex. He ran his finger over it again and again. No lump, he thought. “Doesn’t mean it’s not cancer” said Ian. “I’d be googling that if it was me” said Emma.

He picked up his phone with the intention of looking up photos of cancerous moles before he was interrupted by Trevor. “You’re gong to be late for this interview!” he shouted. “And if don’t eat before it, you’ll feel like crap” agreed Yves.

He put down his phone and jumped in the shower. He listened them argue about what he should say in the interview, how he should greet the interviewer, the time he’d need to leave, where he would park, the merits of drinking coffee before it and then if he was even good enough for the job. Andrew questioned if it was even worth going. He shook his head. The incessant arguing never stopped.

After grabbing a banana and a cup of tea to take with him in the car – Andrew had convinced him he would now be late if he didn’t leave right at that minute – he hopped in and turned on the engine. “Do you think that’s enough petrol?” asked Neil. “Oooh” answered Alex “that’s going to be tight”.

He plugged in his phone and selected a laid back playlist of film soundtracks he liked. It settled him. The group sat quietly in the back of the car as he drove contently to the office where the interview was due to take place. After trying to squeeze the car into two different spaces which Ian had convinced him he wouldn’t fit in, he gave up and parked much further away from the building. “You’re going to have to run now” snapped Emma “you’re going to be late!”

Arriving at the reception area looking sweaty and dishevelled he gave his name to the woman at the front desk. She advised him he still had 30 minutes until his interview slot so she invited him to have a seat or, pointedly, suggested he use the facilities to freshen up. He decided to take a walk to the canteen to purchase a bottle of water.

“£1.50 please mate” said the man operating the till. He reached into his pocket for his wallet. “Oh crap, you’ve forgotten it haven’t you?” shouted Yves. “Probably left it in the car” said Andrew. He felt through his pockets and rifled through his bag whilst apologising. He eventually found it in the front pouch of his bag. The group stood crowded around him tutting and shaking their head.

“You know you’re going to be bursting for the toilet if you drink all that” warned Neil. He ignored him and had a small drink. Alex and Ian were still arguing about the types of things he should talk about in the interview whilst Emma snorted and questioned if he even had the skills to get the job.

“OK, we’re ready for you now” interrupted a softly spoken voice. He looked up to see the interviewer with whom he’d met a few weeks previous. They had met for an informal chat to discuss the job he was interviewing for today. Seeing a familiar face helped him relax and the group followed behind him in silence as he engaged in small talk as they all entered the room and sat down.

After some brief formalities about the interview format, the interviewer asked the first question. The group jumped out their seats and all began shouting at once. “You don’t know the answer to that!” they all screamed. He leaned forward, took a small drink and began answering. Dejected, the group got up quietly and left the room.

After an hour the door creaked open and he emerged, smiling. He shook the interviewers hand and made his way out the building. He felt elated. It had went as well as he could have hoped for. He fired off a text to his girlfriend with the smiling face and praying hands emoji’s and made his way back towards the car. He only saw the group a couple times on the way back. Once, they wandered past arguing about the things he should have said during the interview. As he scanned the car park trying to remember where he’d left the car, he heard them again, discussing the possibility of it having been stolen or even towed away. Thankfully he spotted it and made his way over, jumping in the drivers seat.

The drive home was a blast. He sang along to music on the radio, drumming on the steering wheel as he went. There were no sign of the group, he assumed they had decided to make their own way home.

After what had been a stressful day, he decided that when he got home, he would go out a run to relieve some of the built up tension in his body. “You’ll be shattered again” warned Yves. Ah, there they were, he thought. He had expected them back but maybe not as soon as they had returned. “Remember, if you go too far you’ll probably end up hurting your back again” said Andrew. I’ll take it easy, he thought.

The group followed him downstairs and argued amongst themselves as he laced up his trainers. They seemed to debate everything simultaneously: When would he make dinner? When would he hear about the job? How far should he run? Would the house be on fire when he got back? What if he dropped his keys down a drain when out running? Then they were back onto the mole on his face again then onto the nuclear threat from North Korea.

He sighed and shook his head, opening the front door with the group huddled behind him. He began jogging gently at first as the group kept pace just behind him still rabbiting on at each other. As he began to get comfortable he upped the pace. Very soon after, he was gliding along the pavement breathing rhythmically with his stride. He gave a brief glimpse back and realised he’d outran the group, they must have given up, he thought. He smiled and pushed on.

That evening he showered in peace, ordered himself a takeaway pizza and watched his favourite movie. He felt great.

Then, at 1am the following morning:

“WAKE UP!!” screamed Andrew

“You heard about that job?” asked Neil

“Ha, doubt it” scoffed aleX

“Oooh that moles looking bigger” said Ian

“Yep, I’d google that now” agreed Emma

“Probably nothing guys” Trevor suggested

“Nah, looks like cancer to me” said Yves

Exhaling, he rolled over and illuminated the room with his phone. He tapped open the google search bar and listened intently as the group reacted to the images on the screen.

The Planets Series – Uranus

I had been climbing for just over an hour and stopped to catch a breath. Below me was a white mist of nothingness. I had no idea how far I’d come but had estimated before I started that the full climb would take me around 2 hours.

Surprisingly my feet felt fine. I wiggled my toes inside my stiff leather knee-high protective boots and felt some joy in being able to still move them. The sharp crampons pointing from my toes held my weight assuredly against the ice, fighting against the 250 mile per hour winds which were trying to tempt my large rucksack, and by association me, out into the cold white abyss below.

Both arms, wedged into the solid white ice in front of me, were fitted with sharp axes on the forearms to assist against the winds. My hands, protected from the biting cold with specially designed gloves which hugged my wrists in a tight, warm embrace, clenched tightly two steel ice tools to help me on my vertical trek. My grip felt great, no cold and thankfully no sweat either. The insulated gloves were doing their job perfectly so far.

With my feet, arms and hands wedged firmly into the ice, I let go with my right hand and pulled my protective face mask around my mouth open ever so slightly. I swung my upper body almost 180 degrees to face the drone which flew level with my face. “1 hour down!” I shouted against the wind, giving it a reassuring thumbs up. I quickly pulled my mask back over, swung back round to face the ice which held me in place and grasped my tool with my right hand. I was ready to start, what I hoped, would be the 2nd half of my record breaking climb. I had agreed to document this momentous, WI8 graded climb, using a state of the art drone which was live streaming my progress directly back to a PPV paying audience back home. The lucky folks sat in their warm living rooms on Earth would be getting a live stream which included a constant monitoring of my mapped progress, my current health vitals including blood pressure and heart rate with some beautiful panoramic shots of the surrounding landscape for good measure.

When I’d initially announced via my social media sites a year earlier that I intended to change the ice climbing game forever by scaling the great Titan Wall of Uranus, there had been much hilarity and guffawing in the dirtsheets about my ambitions to “climb on Uranus”. The laughing soon stopped when I sold the live streaming rights for $4 million. With an endorsement deal signed with Arc’teryx soon after and an agreement in place with SpaceX, my dream had quickly become a reality.

The eerie whistling of the wind filled my entire face mask as I continued the slow lumber upwards. My hands began to shoot with cramping pains and the fear of being caught by the increasingly powerful winds refused to release itself from the tightening in my muscles and the knotting in my stomach. The hardest thing to overcome with ice climbing was never the actual wall you intended to scale, it was the fear. Fear of falling. Fear of missing a foothold. Fear of the crampons slipping and taking you tumbling downwards. This fear radiated around the body, often leaving you feeling like you had competed in a much more physical, violent sport in the days after. Unfortunately for me, once I reached my summit I would still have a solo flight home to navigate, albeit with the assistance of SpaceX’s finest remote pilots guiding the way.

In the last few minutes I had began to feel a peculiar rumbling in the ice. A kind of vibration as I stabbed my tools, arms and feet into it. As it increased I felt as I was scaling some sort of giant speaker belching out a repetitive rhythmic bassline. Increasingly my body shook in time with the force of the pattern.

Just as quick as it had arrived, it stopped. My head snapped forward in a whiplash-like motion and I tightened my grip on my tools. Looking up I could still see nothing but white, however when I reached out to plunge my tool in there was no more ice to meet it. With a rush of adrenaline I pumped my legs upwards and threw my aching body onto a solid rocky ledge. I threw my rucksack off my back and jumped up and down, screaming out into the white sky. I pointed at the drone which buzzed along level with me and threw up the V for Victory sign.

I turned to take in the breathtaking panoramic view around me. As I did, I bumped hard into something solid. Looking up, I gasped and stumbled backwards as a large man, maybe 9 foot tall towered over me. His long red robes and large, thick majestic grey beard blew wildly in the winds.

“wh, wha, whaa” I blurted out incoherently.

“YOU STAND BEFORE I, OURANUS, THE PRIMAL GOD OF THE HEAVENS. YOU HAVE SCALED THE TITAN WALL OF MY PLANET” he bellowed out into the world.

“NOW THAT YOU HAVE CONQUERED MINE, IT IS ONLY RIGHT THAT I NOW CONQUER YOUR ANUS”

As he began to unbuckle his robes, the last thing I remember was his bellowing laughter shaking the entire mountain as I dived off the side into the depth of the white below.