Monday, March 4, 2013

Memoirs of a misspent childhood

Part 5: Neither man nor boy

It's the day that every mother dreads, the day she hoped would never come. That angelic ray of sunshine, her one and only, becomes something altogether different: no more sunshine, only storm clouds: and plenty of them. That little boy who answered “My mammy” when asked who he was going to marry when he got older is no more. Now he doesn't even want to be seen in public with you. He doesn't hate you, far from it, so don't feel bad. But that beautiful, innocent friendship you once had? It's over, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Ironically enough it's another mother who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs, Mother Nature. She has seen fit to whisk away that doe-eyed little cherub and plonk down an insolent ball of grease-ridden fury in his stead. She has injected him with an intoxicating amount of testosterone and the poor little mite hasn't a fuckin clue what's going on. He was happy enough to hang with his mammy all day believe me. But for reasons he doesn't understand he's heading off on a terrifying journey full of intrigue and wonder - and mammy just isn't invited.

I've always hated the word puberty. It's so clinical, so officious. “Yeah I've just begun puberty, started last week, not bad so far but obviously I've got a while to go yet”. How can you sum up the most distressingly magnificent time of your life in just one word. You can't really. Other terms like adolescence, juvenility and teenage years don't really do it justice either. I like to think of it as a life-defining era, your coming of age, you enter it a snot-nosed bundle of high-pitched hysteria and come out the other end all cool and world-weary. Well that's the idea anyway.

The physical changes are distressing enough; unexpected protuberances, excessive perspiration, a voice capable of going from baritone to falsetto in the same sentence - but that's small fare compared to the emotional trauma. I can look back on my own coming of age with a degree of fondness now but I wouldn't want to experience it again. I don't know what it's like for the kids of today but being a teenager in the 1990s was a bit shit. No internet, no mobile phones and a dearth of readily available alcohol meant that we had to work for our thrills. And when you factor in my location, a dismal backwater in South Kilkenny, is it any wonder that I'd rather forget my pubescent years?

But perhaps I was better off living in such secluded environs, because the defining characteristic of my boyhood was a crippling, almost debilitating, shyness. We all had our afflictions; that kid whose voice hadn't broken by fifth year, the luckless bastard who watched in horror as World War III broke out on his face, the fella even poorer than you who never had any school books, but for me it was the ole 'go bright red any time someone outside of your close circle of friends even glances in your direction'. Lovely. I could attempt to psycho-analyse my younger self and pinpoint the reason for this timidity but where's the entertainment in that? Far better to recount painful childhood memories for your delectation.

Now obviously one of the main components of a teenager's life is fraternising with the opposite sex. It should be all about speculative fumbling and phony braggadocio, but when you flush scarlet any time you get within five yards of the fairer sex it makes things far more complicated. At one point I considered explaining it away as part of my mating ritual, a baboon's arse goes red when it wishes to mate, well so do I. But that simply wouldn't do, and besides I was far too self-aware and bereft of confidence to believe that any of those fair maidens would allow me to tamper with their undergarments. Oh if I could have five minutes with that younger me, things might have been so, so different.

Don't get me wrong I wasn't a complete no-mark. Despite my shyness I did manage some ham-fisted attempts at unhooking and unzipping some elaborately fastened items, but a large part of my formative years seemed to be spent wistfully fantasising about various unattainable damsels, that girl from the year above, Jet from Gladiators, you get the idea. And when I wasn't cursing my inability to converse with the opposite sex I was to be found quietly questioning the meaning of life and wondering what was the point of it all. I may have had raging hormones just like the rest of you but a sense of embittered melancholy prevailed above all. I'd say I was great craic altogether.

But those were just my quiet moments, those times when I escaped to a better world and lived the life I believed was justly mine. Whether it was engaging in mindless, wanton destruction, acting the maggot with your mates or discovering the joys of alcohol there was plenty of lolz to be had and I like to think I had my fair share. Never cool enough to be considered part of the 'in-crowd' nor hapless enough to be grouped with those who smelled weird, looked weird or just were weird, me and my mates ploughed our own furrow with little or no interference from others – inbetweeners if you will.

Cast adrift from society as we were there wasn't a whole lot to do of an evening. So our nightly ritual involved what could politely be described as 'blackguarding'. Nowadays when I walk past a flowerbed liberated of its flowers I find myself quietly tutting and muttering something about 'lack of respect' under my breath. Oh what a short memory I have. I'm not sure what it is about teenage boys but they just love to decimate and destroy. This activity can take any form; from the harmless 'toilet-papering of trees' to the more sinister acts involving rocks, public amenities and satisfying noises. Maybe we wouldn't have had so much pent up frustration if there'd been more girls willing to let us have an oul fumble.

And when we weren't roaming the countryside looking for things to break we were concocting plans to plunder some golden nectar. These little bastards today have it so easy, there was hardly even any off-licenses back then never mind alco-pops! My poor mother in her infinite wisdom tried to delicately introduce me to the world of booze by buying me a couple of cans in her weekly shopping. And for a while that worked. Pissed out of my head I'd stagger through the village hugging strangers and shouting at cows but even at that age I began to build up a tolerance. Thanks for the efforts mother but those tins of Smithwicks just aren't doing the job anymore, I need something with a bit more kick.

But with no local off-license what the fuck were we to do? The answer was simple; save up our pennies and buy bottles of champagne-cider from the wine section at the local supermarket. Easy-peasy. The fact that I looked about six years old even when in my mid-teens didn't really help matters, but thanks to a lanky stature and a hitherto unseen bravery I regularly drowned my young liver in some of the finest piss to ever come out of Belgium. And in truth it could have been much worse, I don't think I sampled a drop of spirits until I was almost old enough to buy the stuff legally. No I was happy enough with my bottles of Vervier, even at that age I enjoyed the finer things in life and often combined my drinking with some deep and meaningful conversation, before disappearing behind the bushes to puke my ring up.

It's easy to understand why drink and the procurement of it plays such a big part in a teenager's life. It's a quick-fix, a one-way getaway from all of those hang-ups and issues which stalk your every waking minute. Too shy to speak to girls? Get hammered and stumble in their direction while they recoil in disgust. Problem solved. But for me it was a mere footnote, a means to an end. What kidulthood meant was a growing sense of freedom, the realisation that you were an individual in your own right and the your parents weren't the savants they made themselves out to be, and that you, yes you, could shape and mould your existence in any way you saw fit.

But given the choice would I do things differently? Probably yeah, but although those humiliating bouts of face-reddening trauma were torturous at the time they may have in some way shaped the person I am today. And when you read about children, because that's what they are, taking their own lives due to social-media bullying you realise that a little rosacea is a small price to pay for what is unquestionably the most difficult period of any person's life. I'm just glad I got through it in one piece, and managed a few innocent gropes along the way.

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