I see the bottle.
I see the bottle. It flies, in slow motion past my nose. Heinz tomato sauce. 57 varieties. It smashes into the caravan window, denting and cracking the glass, leaving it scarred but unbroken.
You wail. A keening scream of fear about what happened or what might have happened. You collapse onto the seat, shouting through snot and tears. I had no idea what you were saying. Perhaps I’ve forgotten or perhaps I didn’t even know what the words were.
I certainly don’t remember what infantile transgression caused this eruption. I would have been three I suppose. Memories of the time are like stills from a movie. Images without context. No overarching narrative that would allow me at this remove, to look back and make sense of anything. It doesn’t even matter because it could have been any number of things. Any number of times and any number of places. The real cause was little to do with the child I was except that I existed and the fact of my existence made every situation more difficult.
Fast forward. Now the memory is sharper, more focused. A four-year-old out shopping with his mammy. A four-year-old who wants the sweeties he can see in the big jars in the window of the chipshop across the street. Dragging the screaming, wriggling child is a mother with little money and less patience. At the pinnacle of my tantrum I dash over the road away from you and I’m instantly hit by a car and knocked to the ground. Confused but unhurt I start bawling again. The lady driver gets out looking shocked. You grab me, slap my legs hard and start apologising to her. You drag the still sobbing me, and a small cotton shopping bag home, scolding every step of the way. My dad hits both the roof and me later when he hears the story, and I am put to bed with more tears.
At seven we moved house. Closer to work. A better, brand new council house. One without a swamp for a back garden and no damp around the inside walls. New school, new friends. Twelve miles and a world away from my previous, comfortless zone. After a few weeks of hating everything I set out to walk back to my old house. Hours and hours tramping the salty tarmac of a winter road. When it began to get dark, worry set in. Worries about the traffic and the cold that was seeping through my thin, damp jacket. Not a single concern however about what I was going to do when my trek succeeded and I arrived in a village that was no longer my home.
The trek didn’t succeed though. A car passed me and stopped. A man got out and shouted. He ordered me into the car, an Austin Allegro. As we drove off he asked what I thought I was doing. With the fearful, naïve confidence of the child, I babbled lies. One gibberish statement after another. As we hit the middle of my new town, I tried to get him to let me out, saying I could walk the last few hundred yards to my estate, but my final bluff was called. Despite not knowing or recognising him, he obviously knew me and he delivered me back to my doorstep. Getting ready for bed I heard the adult voices and then the door closing behind him and both your footsteps on the stairs. Oddly there was no battering this time. No belt, no slaps. Just a couple of people who wanted me to tell them when I wasn’t happy. Wanted me to talk to them about things that were a problem. This was both inexplicable and unnerving. I had expected the worst, and the worst, for reasons that were years beyond my juvenile understanding just wasn’t forthcoming.
Eight years old. Primary five. The class where I spent almost the whole year absent without missing a day. Mrs. Jones was a big, sturdy woman with random hair that seemed to have just been dropped on her head. It was in her class that I learned one important lesson which was, that you couldn’t win with teachers if you weren’t one of the favourites. If you didn’t qualify instantly as a favourite then it wasn’t worth wasting time trying to become one. The next best thing though was to cause no hassle. Shut your mouth, keep the head down and avoid being conspicuous. Don’t come to her attention and you could just disappear into the background.
In primary five I worked hard at keeping the head down and I eventually achieved invisibility. For that whole year I sat at the back and read endless quantities of books. Some were better than others but all were better than listening to Mrs. Jones and this became the template for school life thereafter. The work I couldn’t avoid was done grudgingly. Exams were passed with no great interest on the part of tester or tested and my annually repeated, report card said that although my progress was acceptable, I could do better if I would only put in more effort.
In high school the level of authoritarian violence and favouritism was raised to a much greater level of sadistic neglect. Just being invisible wasn’t enough. Fights with bigger kids were a regular trial of developing manhood and the simplistic response of the staff was always the same. If the combatants were among the chosen few; academically able, “good” family and suitably middle class then it was a chat and an enforced handshake.
The peasants got the belt.
“Giving the belt” was the lazy teacher’s alternative to earning respect. It was faster than becoming good at the job. Easier than digging into a situation to find the truth and probably sent some of the male teachers home at the end of the day with a pleasing tightness in their trousers.
Nervous pupil having difficulty understanding a new concept? Give him the belt. Guy turns up wearing the wrong shirt? Give him the belt. Boy didn’t do his homework? Give him the belt. Spend years at university only to find that you’re no good at the job. Don’t worry give some kid the belt.
The universal answer for shitty, incapable teachers all over Scotland. A two-foot long leather strap with slots cut in it so that the pain was greater and the marks on the skin were longer lasting. Manufactured and wielded by dumb sadists it achieved nothing positive in all the time it existed.
Getting the belt was a source of pride for the psychos who roamed the playground torturing the weaker kids. It held no fear for them. It was a validation of their “might is right” outlook. Those with the most power in this tiny, supposedly educational community inflicted violence on those who lacked the means to fight back. The teenage trolls were happy to take that lesson on board. Possibly the only lesson that got through in all the time they spent there.
In place of invisibility I needed a new strategy and, after a period of trial and error I found that the solution was completely unhinged, bloody mayhem.
I broke one guy’s nose with a hockey stick. It really was a genuine accident but the rumour was that I had deliberately smacked him in the face to show him who was boss so inevitably he came after me for revenge later. This time the stick in the face wasn’t an accident. Breaking his mate’s fingers in the same incident was just a lucky bonus. Bizarrely this on-field assault with a piece of sports equipment wasn’t punished by the authorities.
I was sanctioned however, after I responded to being repeatedly targeted by an older boy during a football game by jumping back onto my feet, sticking the boot in and cracking three of his ribs. My resulting ban from all school sports was probably less concerned with the actual physical brutality though, and more to do with my angry, sweary tirade at the PE teacher immediately afterwards. Apart from an awkward interview with the deputy head though, no action beyond the ban was taken.
As a physically small child I didn’t win all or even many, of my fights but I did get a reputation as a bit of a mental case that it wasn’t worth getting involved with. The upshot was that after a couple of vicious years I was left to sink back into scholastic obscurity.
So here I stand. Decades later. The boy become man. Drizzle on my face and the cold causing me to shiver slightly. Decades spent trying to find another way for myself. Working out that not every question could be answered with a fist or a boot. Years spent on a personal journey that started out as a literal journey. One that took me a long, long way from home. A journey, initially measured in miles that became ultimately, one that was measured in changes. Changes in how I reacted, or indeed whether I reacted at all. I had to learn how to value people differently. Value them better. And this, without doubt, has been the hardest of all the things I’ve ever done. I’ve had to learn to reason with myself and with others. To think before speaking. Before hitting out. Instead of hitting out.
I’ve learned to listen to criticism and consider the words carefully. It isn’t and wasn’t, always the personal attack I thought it was, and, after the fight I slowly, painstakingly learned to control the flight. No more storming out the door or leaving town in a fit of pique just because someone disagreed with me. In retrospect this is possibly the most embarrassing thing. The friends I needlessly lost had I only known when or how to listen. The lovers I left over nothing more than angry insecurity. I won’t see or hear from most of them ever again but I can only hope that they knew me better than I knew myself and wrote my behaviour off as just that of a wounded animal lashing out blindly.
I’ve learned not to be who I once was.
And as I reflect, this wet, sad day, on the highly improved version of me that has been painstakingly developed, I know that the process is endlessly provisional. I couldn’t have made it here without help. Without the love and guidance of those closest to me. The one-time strangers who have become family, become friends. Even with their help and support I understand that there won’t ever come a day when I can stop the clock and say
“That’s it. I’m all sorted now. Thank you for watching”.
There’s always a way back if I’m not careful but so far, I’m ahead of the past. Demons under control. It took a lifetime to work it all out but there is always one tiny hope. Always a chance for redemption. The scars we carry remain but the pain slips away it seems. We can always try to move forward. Strive to be that other, better version of ourselves. A different you that might be buried but can eventually be excavated given the right tools and workers.
So goodbye Mum. I’m glad we had the time at the end, sad though it was to see you such a diminished soul. Missing that fire that somehow, drove you onward no matter what life threw. And it threw plenty.
Forgiveness was easy, it happened a long time ago and, truth be told you deserve only credit for the way you tried to cope.
Understanding was what I was missing all this time and it turns out that I couldn’t understand you until I had been there and learned to understand myself. No short cuts. I had to go through it all, the same way you did before me. Not so I could compare scores or claim to be better but just so I could at the last, understand.
I bend down to kiss the top of my daughter’s head and weeping, we step away from the grave.
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