The Council of Fathers

They raised their eyes as the great oaken door burst open, its clamour echoing throughout the hall; then, as the grizzled warrior strode into view, wolf-pelt cloak flowing behind him, they stood as one. They stood for their King.

“Who has answered my call?” he boomed, climbing the steps to the granite throne flanked on all sides by their own stone seats, throwing himself into its lap with the fierce aspect of the lupine he wore upon his back.

“Usterven, son of Agrevus, Lord of the North!” cried one voice.

“Sulter, White Duke of the Southern plains!” bellowed another. One by one, his lords added their own names and titles to the roll, until all the lands of his kingdom had been listed in the response.

The King allowed his gaze to trace over each of them, stout and steadfast to a man. He had need of all their steel now; their guile, too.

“It heartens me, friends, that you have met the need of your King so faithfully,” he told them, in solemn tones. “I must present to you a challenge so daunting, it has brought my own great house near to its knees. I pray your counsel can aid me, else it may cost me my very sanity.”

The assembled lords and barons absorbed his words with furrowed brows. Eventually, old Laenum Blackblade, the most wizened man of the council, spoke their thoughts aloud: “Put us to the test, My Lord. We stand ready.”

The King closed his eyes, breathed deep and long. When at last he opened them again, he spoke with a heavy heart.

“It’s my son. He’s three weeks old and had been sleeping fine, until last night… I tried to put him down after his 2am feed, but he went bananas. Like, BANANAS.”

Around the shadowy circle of chairs, heads nodded.

“I would pick him up and rock him until he was settled again. Things would be fine. But once I put him down, within a minute he’d be screaming and screaming. It went on like that all night.” He closed his eyes again, gauntleted fingers rising to massage his temples. “Seriously, all fucking night.”

The council considered their options. “Have you tried swaddling him, my liege?” asked Sandor the Red.

The King grimaced. “We have, but he was struggling quite a lot. We thought it might be annoying him, so we stopped doing it last week.”

Sandor shook his head. “It’s not too late to turn back, Sire. Swaddling is a strong option.” Several of his fellows nodded and grunted their assent.

“Have you checked if he is wet, my King? Or if he is hungry?” this voice was Sulter’s.

“Literally the first thing we checked,” the King snapped. Did they think him a fool?

After a tense silence, Usterven stood. “Sire, what I have to say may not please you. But say it, I must.”

The King nodded to him. “We have borne swords against overwhelming odds, Usterven; fought back to back and triumphed against the hordes of the Dark Pope himself. You have earned the right.”

“Very well,” Usterven assented. “Have you considered… giving him a dummy?”

“She’s REALLY not keen on it,” the King sighed, shaking his head. “When I suggest it, she’s like: he’ll be going to school before you know it, still wanting his dummy.”

“There is a stigma, to be sure,” Usterven agreed. “But it worked wonders for us, with both daughters. I counsel you not to rule it out.” He took his seat once more.

It was at this moment, that Cassinius of Amber chose to share his thoughts. The King had quarrelled often with Cassinius in their younger days, before ascending the throne – but although they would never be brotherly with one another, the slim-built man had wits as quick as a fox and a cool head. He had earned the king’s respect.

“Sometimes, My Lord, single actions will not prove enough,” Cassinius stated firmly. “What babes need is a routine, a tapestry of actions which begin to weave consistency throughout their young lives. If I may ask, have you kept similar practices and hours since your heir’s arrival?”

Stroking his beard, the King recalled the last three weeks. Eventually, he conceded: “No. For the first few nights, she was still in hospital… then when we got him home, I was keeping him downstairs and sleeping on the sofa so she could catch up on her rest… then we started moving him up to the bedroom when we were going to bed, but that actually unsettled him last night…”

Cassinius seized on the King’s words. “It is as I suspected, my lord: you have no routine, so you are adrift upon the sea rather than setting your own course. I recommend this, Sire – start to create a familiar pattern each night for your son. Perhaps bath him, then give him a feed, read him a story… and once these things are done, swaddle him as Sandor has suggested and lay him in his bed. Not downstairs with you, to be moved later, but in his true resting place from the very start; your baby-monitor will allow you to keep close tabs on him nonetheless. Make sure the room is only dimly lit, speak in soft voices; you must not rouse or excite him. And keep a dummy to hand, if he will not settle. Despite the stigma, a dummy is often your best friend!”

This speech met the council’s approval and as it progressed, men nodded and shouts of ‘Aye!’ became more frequent.

“In short, my King,” Cassinius concluded, “Create a relaxing, familiar pattern and you will treble your chances of success. More than this, you will strengthen yourself and our lady Queen, for the routine is more valuable for you than even for the child. It will give you structure and confidence; it will allow you to feel relaxed and in control, rather than as if you are at the beck and call of a child born less than a moon hence!”

As the chorus of assent grew amongst the council, old Blackblade leaned in close and whispered to the King: “Your old rival he may be, but Cassinius has given you today a greater gift than many a friend could provide. Heed his wise words – and you may yet reclaim your Kingdom from this troubled boy of yours!”

The King looked at his ancient counsellor and saw the merry glint in his eye. He began to smile, filling once more with the confidence of old.

“Men of this council, Lords of this land, I called upon you in my hour of need – and you have not failed me!” the King called out to them, raising his hand in salute. “I go now to the Queen, armed with your wisdom!” In a din of cheers, of fists thumping on breastplates and helms thrown, whooping, in the air he departed the chamber.

It seemed as if the torchlit halls and cold flagstones flew past him like the wind, so lost was he in triumph. All at once, the door was before him and he burst through it, startling his Queen as she sat upon a bench at her bedside, taking lunch from a fine rosewood table before her.

“What’s all this?” She asked incredulously.

“Silence, woman!” The King cried. “I bear the solution to all our problems – a veritable manifesto for pacifying that knave of a child we wrought together.” In quick sentences, he laid out the plan as it had been proposed to him, gesturing enthusiastically and growing increasingly red-faced. Eventually, breathing heavily, he was finished – and beheld a wry look upon her face.

“Is that really what you’ve spent all morning doing?” The Queen asked. “I just googled it after you stormed off earlier. Actually, I found a great video coaching thing on YouTube, where this guy from the US – ”

“YouTube be DAMNED!” roared the King, crashing his ironclad fist down upon the table with such force that it seemed all the room jumped an inch from the floor. “THE COUNCIL OF FATHERS HAS SPOKEN!”

The Beast of Temple Sowerby

On a day when two young Scotsmen chose to take the southern road
(To call upon their kinsman in his southerly abode)
Basking in the glare of noon, they drove the motorway
Unknowing that fate drew them on to Temple Sowerby

Upon that road trip, laughter flowed like cider in the sun
For young men all are optimists, concerned with cheer and fun
They know not of the horrors which stalk nights as black as coal
Whose macabre touch might blight the very goodness of one’s soul

Although the journey offered service-station stops galore
To their youthful sensibility, each delay was but a chore
Instead, they opted every time to skip them and press on
And so arrive earlier at the hearth of kinsman, Jon

It seems a fitting juncture, now our scene is clearly set
Before their positivity turns to mournful regret
To look upon the journeyers who from the north set sail
And introduce the ‘heroes’ of this cautionary tale

David was the given name of our intrepid pair
Though ‘twas the only quality that both of them did share
While one was shaggy, bearded and unquestionably round
The other was of slighter build and tower’d ‘bove the ground

To spare the reader such confusion as may well arise
Let us append an alias to the Davids of each size
The hairy rotund, gentlemen shall henceforth be called ‘Shed’
While his willowy companion will be known as ‘Des’ instead

These details, though, are not the meat of what I must regale
And time demands I progress to the substance of our tale
Eventually, to needs of flesh all travellers must attend:
Des and Shed grew hungry as the sun did fast descend

The options were discussed at length across the car’s front seat
And wholesome pub food, ‘twas agreed, should be the evening’s treat
Where then, they mused, would constitute an ideal place to pause?
Where lies an alehouse suitable to fill our rav’nous jaws?

If I could wave the mists of time aside with wrinkled hand
If I could give them but some sense of danger close at hand
I’d warn those young men harshly not to let their journey stray
Within a league of that blighted town, named Temple Sowerby

All at once, in red dusk light, the hamlet’s cursed name loomed
The lads were cheered; they knew not yet how many it had doomed
This name-plate heralded the chance that they might find an inn
To give their weary engine rest – and let the feast begin

Sure enough, the next sight was a squeaking oaken sign
Which, upon reflection, hinted at a fate malign
“The Devil’s head” it did proclaim in weathered, peeling paint
But the boys were undeterred, for hunger had them feeling faint

With creaking hinges, did the inn’s door swing back to reveal
Just the kind of rustic spot they’d hoped to have their meal
The barman cleaning glasses at a gentle, steady pace;
A host of country ‘characters’ were scattered ‘round the place

Big Des approached the bar and in his softly-spoken style
Announced that they intended for to stop and eat awhile
The barman offered options from the blackboard ‘hind the taps
While Shed took to a stool beside one of the local chaps

The gentleman sat ‘pon his right and seemed the worse for wear
Slumped forward on his elbows, fingers buried in his hair
While others supped on brownish ale, ’twas whisky fill’d his glass
And Shed could see no movement as the minutes trickled past

But while a wiser man might have left sleeping dogs to lie
This bearded, chubby Scotsman was a gregarious guy
While Des perused the menu with a total dedication
Young Shed engaged this fellow in impromptu conversation

“Alright there? How’s it gaun, mate?” his gambit did begin
Words loosed with chirpy tone and an insufferable grin
It seemed in that first moment, they’d had the desired effect
As the silent, stony gentleman did slowly crane his neck

Within the eyes which turned on him, Shed saw but hopeless tombs
Or tapestries of agony, woven on devil’s looms
A plethora of torments lay within that icy stare
And fear lanced through our hero to his stool, pinning him there

Something about the cold which poured out from this man’s bleak eyes
Reached Des and made him start, then turn around in his surprise
So that both young and foolish Scots were caught within the chill
Helpless to move as he did speak; both sapped of all their will

“Alright? I haven’t been alright one day in these ten years
My life is but a prison, fenced by bars of frozen tears
I’m stranded on these winter moors, the endless, freezing wild
I wander like a ghost e’er since the day I lost my child.”

Realising that this chat was more than he had bargained for
Shed moved to hop down from his stool, to stand upon the floor
“Sorry to disturb ye, mate,” the words spilled from his lip
But as he turned to walk away, he felt the cold man’s grip

“Oh, stranger, sure I am disturbed, but the fault was never thine
The cause is that foul thing that stole away what once was mine.”
As Shed tried to pull free from where the hand had grasped his sleeve
Des noticed several local men set down their drinks and leave

Now Des was not a man who could be so easily spooked
But equally, he was not known to leap before he looked
The sight of others going did not at once hit him hard
But proved enough to put this measured Scotsman on his guard

A glance would put the cold man in his 50s, maybe older
And so, with youthful confidence, Des spoke over Shed’s shoulder
“Old man, we’re only here for food, we don’t mean any harm
But there might be trouble now if you don’t let go of his arm.”

A tension rose within the bar, but the cold man’s lips peeled back
Revealed a yellow, toothy smile, as he let his grip go slack
“Youngster, nothing that you could do would scare me in the least
My nightmares came true long ago; my son claimed by the beast.”

All at once, within the pub, a pin might be heard to drop
The Barman muttered urgently, “Angus, please. Please stop.”
Transformed from the relaxed man he had appeared from the start
‘twas clear now that the claws of fear had tightly gripped his heart

Both Davids gave a sideways glance; the other’s gaze was met
The message: we should leave right now, though we haven’t eaten yet
All at once, the polished wooden walls seem’d to draw in
And all the room was tenter-hooked by that dreadful yellow grin

“I’ve kept my silence long enough,” Angus calmly replied
“I see no reason to go on – my only boy has died.
These youngsters here deserve to know their mortal jeopardy
The fate which they might meet tonight at the rav’nous jaws of the -”

A wave of fright and unease ran through the assembled crowd
The barman cried out: “ANGUS, DO NOT SPEAK ITS NAME ALOUD!”
Then all at once fell silent, as they heard that eldritch sound:
The ichor-curdling howling of some rage-demented hound

The barman snatched out at a switch and killed the alehouse light
The regulars all scurried ‘neath the benches in their fright
In one eye-blink, someone had placed a stout bar o’er the door
The Scotsmen knew that they would be escaping nevermore

“Curse you Angus,” growled the barman in his lowest voice
“You think that we ignore its vile existence out of choice?
All of us know of your pain – lord knows we sympathise!
But we still have babes to hide from the gaze of its wicked, burning eyes!”

Of all those who were gathered, only Angus was unfazed
He stayed upright upon his stool and met the barman’s gaze
“So, you would have me quiet, every night drowning my loss?
Lest I bring doom upon you all, I wear an albatross?”

“Well, I defy you all!” he cried, then stood, both tall and proud
And from his shoulders, ‘twas as if had dropped some freezing shroud
For all at once, a younger man he seemed to all assembled
With hot rage burning in his heart, his fists grew white and trembled

His heightened voice provoked response, for outside from the moor
There came another dreadful call, a note of terror, pure
To which Angus hotly cried out: “I care not what the lore be:
Bring forth your worst, you demon-dog, YOU BEAST OF TEMPLE SOWERBY!”

Still standing frozen, on the floor, the Scotsmen clearly heard
The retort of the beast to these angry, defiant words
It roared with rage and grew yet closer to the tiny tavern
The cries echoing round the room like some giant, stony cavern

Now Angus turned to the Davids, two – and calmly, then, he swore:
“You both are blameless in this crime; so when opens the door
I’ll bring the beast upon myself and past me you must flee.
Do not look back, for there are things you’re not prepared to see.”

Before either could then react, the room visibly shuddered
As if in direct response to the words Angus had uttered
Blows rained down on the door, the walls, the panelled wood did splinter
The beast roared out in hatred colder than the deepest winter

Both Scotsmen looked to Angus who was forced by then to shout
To be heard o’er those dreadful roars, as men cowered roundabout:
“Behind me boys, it comes and no mere door can slow its advance
Prepare yourselves to run: both your lives depend on this one chance!”

“These cowards here have earned their deaths,” he snarled and gestured wide
And from his eyes, each local man did try their own to hide
“To stand by, while each night it stalked our children in their beds?
I say to you, they’re due the doom which hovers o’er their heads!”

With that, a mighty crash did split the bar-and-door asunder
And all within did hear its bellow like a peal of thunder
In flew the beast, a dark black form, all but merged with the night
But glimpses caught they of its shape, in its eyes’ own glowing light

Angus surged forth all at once toward its gaping maw
And struggled to hold wide apart the massive, bladed jaw
On instinct did the boys alone begin their desperate flight
Breaking fast, then running past on out into the night

As they fled they heard a dreadful, agonising cry
And knew that gallant Angus had become the first to die
Then as they fumbled desperately to get into the car
The beast, like a tornado, tore through all else in the bar

Barely was the engine revved before another sound
Came rumbling from behind them, so it shook the very ground
While pressing hard down on the gas, Shed made his grave mistake
And in the rear-view mirror, but a single glance did take

What danced before his eyes was illuminated by flame
A creature cast from horror which must never bear a name
A devil which upon his retina was thenceforth burned
An image with which sanity was mercilessly spurned

Regaining then but scant control o’er his unrav’lling mind
Shed with a squeal of tyres left the monstrous sight behind
And while his tall companion wept ‘pon the other seat
He managed, somewhat tearfully, to desperately entreat:

“Shed, mate, I am begging you, until the day we die
No matter how we have to duck and dodge, mislead and lie
Let’s never speak a word of this, to ourselves or other men
Let’s never tell what happened to us here, tonight, again.”

Shed could not, in good conscience, his beloved friend deny
And so he swore to speak no word ‘til one of them did die
While, to himself, he pledged that he would never visualise
Again the monstrous form which had been flashed before his eyes

But now that I am old and grey (and David long since lost)
I feel that I may speak the tale and my conscience pay no cost
So count ye warned by my account about that fateful day
When two young Scotsmen thought to stop in Temple Sowerby

Sulfur and Sleighbells

As outside, the moon shone clear and pavements frosted over
I dozed warm and fitfully, alone, upon the sofa
My dreams a flick’ring cavalcade of festive imagery
A vision of how Christmas Day tomorrow was to be

Below me, scattered strips of paper, scissors, scraps of tape
Created such a scene as would have left my wife agape
Above me, with our tiny son wrapped tight and sound asleep
That very lady lay, just finished counting Christmas sheep

My own nap, although pleasant, had reached its appointed end
And not because I’d realised there were presents yet to tend
But rather that a nearby sound did make me start with fright
And as I lifted eyelids I beheld a wondrous sight

Although still sleep and dreamstuff did enfog my waking mind
I made out rich, red ermine covering a man’s behind
And running from above his boots to the collar round his throat
A trim of snowy fur adorned the length of that great coat

There was but one conclusion, though I’d only viewed his rear
I know my festive myth and saw the implication clear
And so I whispered throatily, after a baffled pause:
“Excuse me sir, but might it be that you are… Santa Claus?”

The figure, unexpectant of my salutation, froze
And slowly from his former hunched position, then, he rose
And gradually rotated until I beheld a face
That to my naive sentiment seemed greatly out of place

Rather than the white beard I’d expected on his head
The whiskers of a billygoat were there emplaced, instead
And rather than two kindly eyes and a cherubic grin
I beheld a wicked gaze and crushed, red-leather skin

The creature smirked as it observed the widening of my eyes
And addressed me in a tone intended only to derise:
“Such shock has grown so boring that it brings on nowt but yawns…”
As he drew full back his Santa cap, to reveal his hook-ed horns

“Come now, just how obvious must the connection be?
Between ‘Saint Nick’ and ‘Old Nick’ is a linkage clear to see
And if you take the time to read with an unbiased eye
It’s apparent that ‘Santa’ is ‘Satan’ spelled awry.”

From there, in simple sentences he made the striking claim
That Lucifer and Father Christmas were one and the same
So evident was his enjoyment of my shaken state
That he decreed I’d ride with him that night, as his first mate

Now reader, even when you find me in my finest fettle
I’m really not a man of stout and true heroic mettle
So when the Devil stated I would join him on his round
I meekly went along without the first defiant sound

He clicked his claw-like fingers: in a cloud of brimstone, *poof*
I found we’d been transported and stood now upon my roof
And there, sprawling, chaotic, all across the tiles it lay
A twisted, darkling mockery of a cheery Christmas sleigh

Striding forward, Satan clapped his beasts upon their flanks
And made his way toward his mounting through their sordid ranks
Reindeer, I assure you gentle reader, they were not
But twisted works of sculpted flesh, all but consumed by rot

Their faces looked like unto dogs, with muzzles pulled too long
Their limbs like knotted leather, decayed but wiry-strong
Upon the ends of each were shaggy, ape-like hands
Their sightless eyes had gazed too long on barren, burning lands

“Mount up!” the Devil shouted, as he beckoned with a wave
I took up my position with a countenance most grave
He lashed his reins, long ropes of skin: the vehicle took flight
And that bone-sleigh drawn by monsters dashed out into the night

“The two jobs are well-suited,” he yelled o’er the wind to me
“‘Tween presents and perdition, there’s a certain synergy!”
To point one out, with childish glee, he then could not resist:
The book of sinners overlapping with the ‘naughty list’

Then we began descending and our first visit was made
By a humble fireplace the children’s gifts were laid
That stop was quickly followed by another just the same
And I realised that mayhap, I’d misjudged the Devil’s game

For, zig-zagging the globe, the prince of sin flew far and near
And left behind a mountain of unopened Christmas cheer
Parcels large and parcels small he placed beneath the trees
And his monsters drew him onward with all-too-apparent ease

I helped him in through windows; lowered him down chimney-pipes
For rather than just teleport, the dark prince earned his stripes
Hefting high upon his shoulder the present-laden sack
He got into the spirit and kept Christmas Eve on track

Suffice to say, my admiration for Satan had grown
By the time we’d left the final present and the sleigh had flown
Back out into the night, for what he called ‘one final stop’
Although the parcels all were gone, he would make ‘a special drop’

At last we curled out of the sky to land in virgin snow
The moment was so portentous, the wind had ceased to blow
I looked upon the grand old face of a darkened country house
Whose master surely dressed in tweed and shot the local grouse

As I turned to question him, the King of Demons rose
Approached the front-most of his monsters; touched it on the nose
Whereupon, to my alarm, for the gesture had seemed warm
The thing unleashed an awful shriek – then started to transform

The skin-rope reins first fell away, as it writhed and it convulsed
Great shapes moved, wild, beneath its skin; its bones twisted and pulsed
With a sound like raw meat tearing, did a smaller form emerge
Spewed forth in the monster’s dying breath, onto the snowy verge

I started forth to see what lay there, steaming, on the ground
But I was halted in my tracks by a quite familiar sound
Weeping; it spilled forth from what I realised was a child
I turned to face the Devil – and in the dark, he smiled

“Go now,” he called past me, “Once more, boy, you are free
You’ve paid your penance now for having laid your eyes on me.
Your parents long have prayed that you’d return to them some day
That day is now: you’ve served for twelve long years before the sleigh.”

Panicked – and yet grateful – the boy did as he was told
And as I watched the child flee, my own blood ran ice-cold
For twelve numbered the beasts who gave the bony sled full flight
I realised I must pay for fixing Satan in my sight

Thus, without more words I let him fix me to the reins
And felt the tearing in my flesh, the burning in my veins
Accepting with an eerie sense of total resignation
That I must take the mantle of his slave-abomination

Now I must draw forth his sleigh to the barren, burning lands
But first I’ve scrawled this note with sightless eyes and ape-like hands
Convey it to my wife – tell her I never meant to leave
But the darkest lord has claimed me on this frosty Christmas Eve

I will love you all my life

And so it was that, much like your Father, you favoured the dramatic entrance: at 23:07 on 27 November 2011, you were born by emergency caesarean section.

In the moments before you arrived, I sat at the head of the operating table with the head of your Mother, the rest of her obscured behind a green screen which had been erected to block the doubtless gruesome sight beyond.

“You know,” I told her, jerking my head toward the unseen surgical playground, “our lives are changing behind that screen.” She smiled and continued rocking to the sound of the radio, evidently enjoying her anaesthetic.

But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This story doesn’t really start at 23:07. It starts at 05:55, in our bed, when your Mother jerks awake and exclaims, “Babe! My waters have broken.”

Now let’s be clear, sunshine – waters don’t break like they do in the movies. There’s no quick splash which alerts your parents, then allows them to carry on and smoothly execute their birth strategy. Instead, there is a moving of fluid like unto the breaking of a dam, litres of the stuff emerging with the confident pace of streaming tap-water. When your Mother asked me for a towel and I returned with a hand-cloth, she laughed at me; there would be two sodden bath sheets already in play before we were ready to progress with anything.

Once we could move freely, our next stop was the hospital. We weren’t really in labour yet, but they wanted – laughably – to ‘confirm’ that your Mother’s waters had actually broken. Still, procedure is procedure, and we arrived to be examined shortly after 08:00.

The tone of our visit was set from our first encounter with a midwife at St Johns. Good-humoured, unflustered and professional, she reassured us from the moment we entered her care until the moment we left it. She began examining your Mother, involving colleagues where appropriate and by about 10:00 it was clear that, although things seemed generally fine, your heartbeat was difficult to track consistently. This meant that, in order to keep a close eye on you, they would need to attach a ‘clip’ to your scalp while you were still in the womb – and to do that, they would need to break your Mother’s fore-waters (yes, a pregnant lady has more than one set of waters. Every day’s a school day), committing us to delivering you in short order rather than returning home to lazily await your arrival.

Once the clip was attached – an uncomfortable procedure which Mum handled with her customary stoicism – we were able to reassure ourselves of your rude health. In addition, your Mother’s contractions began to intensify and despite the fact that she was only one centimetre dilated (ten is the benchmark for an actual delivery), the sense emerged that you would be with us within a few hours. I was, needless to say, thrilled. A quick labour, supervised throughout by medical experts – the perfect scenario.

You, however, were not going to entertain such a banal debut.

So, over the next few hours the contractions slowed down, despite several walking tours of St John’s hospital. We were despatched upstairs to the ante-natal ward, the doctors deciding that we were no longer an urgent case and that labour could be left to progress for a time at a more leisurely pace.

Thus began what was arguably the most worrying part of the whole affair. You see, during the hours we spent in the ante-natal ward, your heartbeat was still being measured… and it had a troubling habit of dipping sharply around the time of Mum’s contractions. Mixed in with this worry, we faced a growing exhaustion on the part of your Mother, who by this time must have walked a marathon around the hospital corridors with me trying to nudge the process along.

Eventually, as we sat behind the curtain in her ward bed, another expectant mother screaming in agony opposite and a very ill young woman vomiting loudly and uncontrollably in the adjacent bed, Mum started to become very upset indeed. Your pulse was still soaring and dipping like a rollercoaster and I was concerned about both of you. A few conversations with the ante-natal team later, we were heading back downstairs to Labour ward for closer monitoring.

Once there, we were encamped in Room 9, which we expected to be our home for the duration. However, despite contractions of increasing frequency and discomfort for your Mother, an examination at around 22:00 revealed what I had thought impossible: 16 hours in, she was still only one centimetre dilated.

The Registrar (a Doctor to you and me, kid, but they have all kinds of crazy ranks) chose this moment to speak to us about the possibility of a section. It’s pretty tough to take a man with Commissioner Gordon’s glasses, a Bay City Rollers haircut and the voice of Frank Rijkaard seriously; still, when he explained that your heart rate was dropping because you didn’t like the early contractions and they were only going to get tougher as time went on, I found a way.

It took us very little time to agree to an emergency section, a remarkable fact when we consider how set against the procedure your Mum had been just a few days earlier. The fact that your life was in danger, no matter how slight, brought us perfect clarity. We were getting you out, before things got tense or panicked further down the road.

Your Mother was wheeled away to theatre, while I was taken to a room to change into scrubs (more jargon – think of them as ‘Doctor’s pajamas’) so I could join her. I caught my own eyes in the mirror as I changed and admonished myself: “This is it, Dave – your last few minutes as a kid.” I felt a very definite sense that all the growing up I had been doing for 31 years was in order to prepare me for you. That sense has not left me since.

So, now we’re getting back to where we started. I joined Mum in theatre, held her hand as her spinal anaesthetic was administered, then sat behind that green screen with her as the medical team set about their work.

A brief interlude before continuing: I’m not sure whether we’ll have an NHS to speak of by the time you read this, baby boy. But let me be absolutely clear: the care afforded to us by the team at St Johns was in every respect world class. Only as I sat behind that screen, with a squadron of top professionals flowing around us, making a major operation seem like a slick dance routine, did I truly appreciate the value of our greatest national achievement. If you don’t have an NHS by the time you’re my age, it sure as hell won’t be because your Dad didn’t fight for it.

Where were we? Oh yes, the moment was approaching.

We were listening to the radio that was situated near the back of the theatre, speculating as to which song would accompany your arrival. For a horrible moment, it seemed like the accolade might go to Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, but you hung on long enough to let the next tune fill the room: All Night Long, by Lionel Ritchie. Your Mother and I smiled at each other – this was a ditty worthy of heralding your birth.

Mum had asked that I be the one to tell her if you were a boy or a girl, so seconds after I had uttered the fateful line with which our story began, one of the surgeons invited me to stand up and break the news. As I rose, you started to cry, sparing me the long moments of worry friends have described to me as they waited for their children to draw breath. Thank you for that.

There you were, at once both realer than anything I had ever seen, yet stranger than any dream.

You were like a special effect, son, like a beautifully observed clay model with each tiny wrinkle of skin brought out in perfect relief. Your skin was a blushed purple, highlighted with rosy strokes where the light caught you. You were nothing like I had imagined you would be; you made my imaginings seem half-formed and silly. As I looked at you – and trust me, this is no joke, no exaggeration – I felt myself change.

I went with the midwives into a side room, where they had various procedures to perform. If you’re curious about those, I’m afraid you’ll have to remain so: I was oblivious to everything but you. As you lay in the little bed which had been waiting for you, crying, I hovered and fussed over you. Stroking your cheek with the lightest touch I have ever shown, placing my finger in your tiny hand, I huskily promised you that things were OK, that they would be OK because Daddy was here. I hope, by the time that you read this, that I have always kept my word.

Holding you swaddled in my arms, weeping and smiling, I took you back into the theatre to meet your mother, who was similarly delighted with you. She wasn’t able to hold you for a few minutes as her surgery was still being completed, but I feel humbled that I was able to cradle you throughout your earliest moments.

A few minutes later, I joined both of your in the recovery room. You were lying on your Mum’s chest, a tiny woollen hat pulled tight over your head. We called your grandparents to let them know (Mum’s folks first, because she won the flip) and, as you can probably guess from your dealings with them thereafter, they were very, very happy.

I’ll end this tale with our very first family portrait. It’s not your best picture, pal, but it’s the original: Mum, Dad and David Alexander Shedden. If you’re wondering how I’m feeling as I lean awkwardly over the metal side-bars and look down at you… well, read this letter again. You’ll work it out.

Mum, Dad and David Alexander

Obsession, and how to feed it

There is a feeling, a bottled-lightning kind of feeling, that one gets when a new and addictive gaming experience enters one’s life.

I’ve had it before, numerous times; but each one is special.

  • Sim City and Civilisation were first, driving my 13 year-old brain into a frenzy. Why sleep, when I could get up at 6am and play the Atari ST for 90 minutes before getting ready for school?
  • Warhammer 40k got me early in High School, too, with a wave of sheer awesomeness: I can play wargames with Space Marines and Uber-Future-Tanks? SIGN ME UP.
  • Just a year or so later, Magic: the Gathering swept all other games in its path and claimed me. A game as challenging as 40k, but more customisable, faster to play and capable of fitting in my pocket… I was in heaven.

These are just the best examples, but others abound: discovering AD&D, Risk, or a number of other systems all produced that electric excitement.

But as I grew older, the spikes of interest became less frequent; as I crested the wave of my 30s, I had all but accepted that my passions and interests were generally set.

Enter Cube Drafting.

Drafting is a concept which will be well known to a range of different gamers – it’s used in top-level US sports to allocate youth players to established teams, in various ‘Fantasy Baseball’ leagues for players to select their fictional squads and, most pertinently, in Magic to create an entirely different type of game experience. If you don’t know how a booster draft works, I recommend catching a synopsis before proceeding.

Cube Drafting is a Magic booster draft taken to the next level.

Rather than buying sealed packs of product to play the game, players will build a collection of unique cards which is balanced across the range of colours, types and mana costs the game offers: the eponymous cube . These cards will typically be amongst the best ever printed, with tournament staples from every era filling out the collection (although some players will create cubes with entirely different themes). The size of the cube will usually be set in multiples of ‘draft sets’ – a measurement representing the 45 cards which would be found in a three standard booster packs. A basic cube will support 8 drafters, therefore containing 360 unique cards.

Once the cube is assembled, it must be played!

To do this, a team of drafters – we’ll assume the standard 8, for this example – will randomise the cube thoroughly, then break the cards into piles of 15, which are placed face down to keep their contents secret. Each drafter will receive 3 of these piles, again at random, and take their place around a table (prepared earlier, in the fashion of all good Blue Peter constructs). Then, using these piles as packs, they begin drafting just as they would in booster draft.

If this doesn’t sound particularly special or exciting to you, don’t worry. That’s normal and linked to one of the following problems:

  • You’ve never Cubed before
    • This is the default state for players and can be easily remedied. Nothing to worry about
  • You’ve never drafted at all before
    • Again, many players could say the same thing. Over the years, I’ve known many players who were introduced successfully to drafting with no serious side affects. Fixable.
  • You don’t play Magic and frankly, have no interest in learning to play
    • Perhaps it’s my skewed perspective, but if you’re in this bracket I believe you have deep-rooted problems and should seek help AT ONCE.
    • OK, perhaps that’s a bit strong. At the very least, I reckon you should skip this and all the rest of my gaming columns, or you might well end up with deep-rooted problems and need to seek help AT ONCE.

You see, the problem with cube drafting is that even habitual Magic players are frequently oblivious to just how awesome a gaming experience it can be, until they dip their toes daintily into it. What usually then occurs is a swift and direct plunge into cube addiction, accompanied by frantic calls, texts and social media messages to gamer friends urging them to particpate. I’m certain that the spread of cubing would provide a fascinating subject of study for eminent epidemiologists the world over.

However, I’m unwilling to simply brand the appeal of cubing ‘indescribable’. In fact, I want not only to describe it, but to do so in terms which non-Magic-players can understand. So here goes:

The Cube, for people who aren’t geeks

Imagine your favourite game or pastime. Think of all the great moments you’ve had indulging in that pastime over the years, preserved in little bubbles of nostalgia scattered throughout the great, foamy bath of your memory.

Now, imagine that you could relive those moments; even better, that you could mix or recombine them to make new experiences better than the sum of their parts. Perhaps you’re a footballer… wouldn’t you love to play a match where you got to make all the best runs, best passes and score all the best goals of your life?

Let’s go one better: imagine you could do this in the company of some of the best friends you had ever made while forming those memories in the first place, or introduce the good times to other great friends from different parts of your life. How incredible would this experience be?

Ladies and gentlemen, this literally encapsulates the experience of cube drafting. I get to experience a Greatest Hits of all my days playing Magic, with all of my best mates who’ve ever picked up a card. We have all the same challenge, the same camaraderie and the same laughs that we ever did – without any of the repeat costs the hobby usually brings.

At a  time when I thought all the fun of gaming was familiar, I discovered this amazing blend of new and old – and I’m in geeky heaven. Add to this the fact that cubing is the most financially compatible form of the game for someone with a young child and I’m over the moon.

I cannot recommend Cube drafting highly enough. And if you actually want to play… well, suffice to say, you need only give the word!