My first punch to the face by a complete stranger wasn’t a very hard one, but I was fortunate enough to have been well prepared when it came. I don’t know the boy’s name but he had a reputation, was a good six inches taller and a fair few pounds heavier than I was, so being prepared turned out to be very important indeed.
Now when I say I was prepared, it was always going to be a shock, but I had been anticipating the liklihood of getting a smack at some point in my young life. Oddly while I remember the events clearly, I find it hard to put a year on it. I would say I was about ten years old. It was certainly not the first time I had been hit. Good Lord I’d been kicked slapped, thwacked, whalloped and pushed in a host of different ways prior to that punch. But it was the first prober, closed fist in the face with a definate intention to hurt, type of blow that I’d had.
Where I grew up, little boys needed to be tough or at a minimum demonstrate the outward appearance of toughness. I was a clever little sweet boy, top of the class, making me a swot and not the biggest or imposing boy around. I had manners, was polite, kind and spoke with a softer brogue than many of my classmates. All of this was courtesy of my mother, who while I adored her to bits, made it her life’s mission to ensure I was a good boy, well behaved and properly presented.
I always think of that poem by Stephen Spender ‘My parents kept me from children who were rough,’ and while I wasn’t bullied as the victim in this poem clearly was, it reminds me more of my mother’s intentions to keep me safe.
But I digress, that first punch and my preparedness were vital landmarks in my development. When I started school at the age of five, I was afraid for about six months. It was a constant in my life. The other boys were raucous, violent and rough as bejaysus. My older brother gave me clues as to what to watch out for and what to do and I listened and learned. By the time I got to the Christian Brothers school at the age of seven, I had pretty much worked out how to influence most situations through intelligence, wit and by standing my ground as though I owned the schoolyard when I had to do so It didn’t take away the fear, but it lessened its constant presence and helped me function.
However, that really only worked with the boys that I had daily contact with and strange boys from other schools, didn’t know how clever and sharp-witted I was. For them, I was a neat, tidy little soft looking boy, that they could pick on and trounce. Again, avoiding occassions where such meetings might take place was a vital part of my daily life, but it couldn’t be entirely avoided, such as on the occasion of my first proper punch to the face.
I made the mistake of agreeing to visit a friend of mine, who lived in a part of my big Dublin suburb that was unfamiliar to me. We were territorial creatures and crossing the main road was like crossing the Rio Grande in the movies I watched. Beyond was an unknown territory full of Comanche’s and Mexican bandits with big hats and dirty moustaches. I saw my bandit and his muchachos coming from fifty feet away, but there was no getting around him and they surrounded me, forcing me to stop. He was a strange looking boy with a shock of blonde hair and a cruel smile.
“Where are you going F**k Face?” That I remember and cursing always seemed to scare me more at that age, largely because I hadn’t the permission to return the fire. Importantly, everything kicked in at just the right time. My brother Brian had told me to always be prepared in such circumstances, not to get sucked into the trap of answering questions, as you invariably set yourself up to look weak. The key he told me, was to take a stand from the off and always strike first and hard if your attacker was bigger than you. One vital piece of information he shared was that in a group, there was generally only one lad the others looked to and he was the one you had to sort out first. If I did that he assured me, the rest would fold.
I had no reason to disbelieve him; Brian had seven years’ experience on me, and while I stood my ground, refused to get sucked into the question and answer session and had already decided to hit the boy blocking my path in the nose, I hesitated, largely out of the fear I was trying so desperately to conceal.
Looking back it is hard to see why he hit me. I think he sensed it in me or maybe he saw me clench my fist, or perhaps it was my determination not to back off, but out of the blue he leaned back a little and swung a punch at me, which hit me between the eyes.
Now there were three things about that punch. First, perhaps because the puncher hesitated himself, it didn’t make a great connection, helped by the fact that I saw it coming and leaned back taking a little of the force out of the blow. Second, while it was the most painful thing that had ever happened to me, I stayed standing. Finally and I’m not sure why, the boy didn’t follow it up immediately with a second one. Perhaps, he thought I would just fold or maybe he hurt his hand. Whatever the reason, I caught hold of the moment and reacted quickest. As though the punch meant nothing, I lashed out with my own little fist. I hit him in the Adam’s apple. I was aiming for his chin.
Fortunately for me the result was spectacular. He clutched his throat and went down like a house of cards being caught by a sharp draught. The poor boy couldn’t breathe. He was terrified. His friends were stunned. I thought I might have killed him. I didn’t let it show. Instead I walked into the middle of the remaining boys and they parted like the Red Sea. In that moment I was legend and horrified in equal measure.
Guilt consumed me and fought with my sense of relief at having survived the attack. It was an incredible cacophony of emotions. I was ashamed that I had hurt someone so badly, proud that I had stood up for myself, confident because of my resolve, fearful that I should have to go through it again. It was a lot for a small quite boy, but the depth of learning in that moment was significant.
I quickly understood and appreciated, how many things conspired to get me out of jail relatively unscathed, despite my sore face. Any number of small alterations in the sequence of events could have ended up with me on my back, beaten up, humiliated and feeling very different than I was actually feeling in the aftermath of my mini-trauma.
But knowing that there were alternative endings to my predicament meant I had really learned from the experience. There was no false bravado. The important lesson I had learned was what had worked, what hadn’t and the fine margins in between. Those lessons stood me in good stead ever since. My self-confidence secured the biggest victory that day. I learned to trust in and believe in myself. I knew that whatever might have happened, being afraid was the one thing that wouldn’t help and that regardless of the situation, I could depend on myself to decide on a course of action, but most significantly, I learned that indecision was the biggest danger. That I hesitated almost cost me dearly, that I acted decisively thereafter, saved me.
My life took a safer, happier path eventually, but growing up a soft boy on hard streets, maintaining my own set of values, knowing that I could trust myself made me into the man I am today and while I am infinitely capable of making mistakes and self-criticism, I at least know I make my own path by the decisions I make and I have to live and die by them, responsible to the core for my choices, getting stronger when I fail and not getting carried away with my successes when they come.
I know when I read reviews of my latest book Little Big Boy that many assume it to be autobiographical, which I still consider to be the greatest compliment. It is not of course and while there are some small moments, vignettes that I have stolen, twisted and contorted from my own childhood or from the stories around me growing up, Little Big Boy is a work of fiction like my other books. There is of course one nod and a wink in my direction, as the cover is created from a photo of me aged seven. (no copy write issues there then)
But that said, it was a traumatic book to write as I am so emotionally connected to my characters and it took a huge amount from me in the process. I took enormous risks in writing from the perspective and in the style that I did. But because of my ten year old self, learning to have the confidence to strike out, I was able to take risks that I might never have otherwise done, had that strange little boy with the shock of blonde hair and that cruel smile, never crossed my path.
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