There was an undeniable coarseness to my youth when put in context with the children of today. We swore far less for fear of hell or a clip on the ear as my father so delicately put it. You’d have your arse skelped for saying Jesus, so you had to be careful. That being said we were altogether rougher around the edges.
Sometimes it felt as though we were dug out of the soil. I was an urban kid so I don’t mean that in the Patrick Kavanagh “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –How wonderful that was, how wonderful! And when we put our ears to the paling-post -The music that came out was magical” sort of way, rather we belonged to the outside world.
Every one of us understood the medicinal value of a doc leaf and that the reflection of light from a buttercup under your chin, could determine if you actually liked butter or not. We got our hands dirty, cut our chins and elbows and had permanent pickable scabs on our bare knees.
We played in big groups and like a flock of starlings, we’d play kick the can and swirl around our chaser. Together we fired slingshots at each other, played bulldogs charge, lassoed our friends with anything resembling a rope, teased vicious guard dogs, climbed fences, walked along garden railings, crashed go-carts, nailed nails into wood just for the hell of it, caught, bees, butterflies, mice and spiders just to see what they looked like up close.
We gave each other crossbars or rode on the handlebars of bikes. We stole matches and set things alight out of sight of our parents, carved our names on trees with sharp knives and kept on playing through the bloody noses, cut knees and torn elbows. We picked our noses as well as our scabs, rubbed those doc leaves on nettle stings and blew on long blades of grass that we cupped between our thumbs.
For the most part, I was a cowboy. I rode imaginary horses, always the finest of chestnut beasts with a flowing blonde mane and I broke in wild ones too. I was shot many times but rarely killed. Taking a bullet and spinning away when you got winged, was a well-rehearsed move. I rescued girls and politically incorrectly nowadays, I killed more Injuns than there were buffalo on the plains.
I knew every tribe, how they looked, their Hollywood versions at least, Blackfoot, Crow, Apache, Arapahoe, Comanche, they all played a part in our games. There was nothing like it and it formed me. My imagination was set free every day and in the summer…oh the endless days of summer holidays… in the summer I was so wild and free and I discovered the world in the place we called the California Hills at the end of our Dublin street. Yes I was dug out of the earth.
Mothers called us in at tea time and we’d try to avoid that shout. It broke the spell. Eat and out again until the light faded and the motherly shouts diminished the group one by one, picking us off until there was no choice but to go in. Each of us hoped our mother might forget, but they never did.
I was truly free in the moments of my wilderness joy, my careless breeze through the wilds of the grasslands that were no more than a few hundred metres long. It never mattered for I was always somewhere else, someone else and I was setting my future clock without ever knowing it. That was my summer and it kept me warm through the winter to come.
There is a gap in my perception. Maybe I’m being too kind to myself, or perhaps I’m a little harsh. It’s something we all suffer from. I call it selective self-discombobulation. I confuse myself to suit myself or sometimes as an act of self-destruction. It can work both ways. When I was a kid, I was deadly. Not deadly as in a stone cold killer, but deadly in the Irish sense, as in great. Well sometimes.
When I was playing Cowboys and Indians, I had a picture in my head of who I was and it certainly wasn’t what other people saw. Anyone looking at me from a neutral perspective, would have seen a skinny-arsed, little blonde waif of a scutterling, flittering about like a leaf on the wind. From my eyes, I knew I was a mean hombre, not to be messed with, dark and brooding. Other cowboys would either be scared of me or want to be me. See what I mean?
As a teenager, I was of course far more self-conscious. Sometimes I thought I was the dogs, but only sometimes. I remember wearing a pair of tight Levi jeans, brown desert boots and a lemon cheesecloth shirt. My hair had lost its blonde and gone quite mousey, but it was longer and it flicked about my neck in the breeze, enticing girls to come closer and see who this Adonis was. They didn’t of course but I had my moment when it sort of felt that way. But then no one noticed or came flocking and my shoulders sagged just a little bit. My chin dropped and I dug my hands into my pockets, disengaged my little wiggle of a strut and shuffled home to hang my shirt back in the wardrobe. Other times I just felt awkward or self-conscious but when I did, I always managed to dig out my little cowboy self, to restore some sense of a smile.
Everybody has it I guess, that misguided self-criticism or over-confidence. Some have one or the other in abundance, others seem to walk the plank of it quite well and then there are the ones like me who unfalteringly, need to go looking for that little boy and put on the mask of carefree positivity to hide behind. It helps me convince the world that I’m unbreakable.
My problem is my gift. I have always been quick of mind, sharp tongued, capable and brazen in the face of often quite shocking odds. I have stood up when I should have backed down and gotten away with it. I am to some extent cheeky and well able to react to pretty much anything in the moment. The gift of my speed of thought is my problem as I say, or perhaps it is my curse.
It gives me stories this curse. Behind my eyes as I chat, work, play and survive each day that I strip apart, I am spinning out of control and the whirlwind of my thoughts splashes paint on canvas, my words on a page and so I write. But it is surely a curse. I get no rest and as I grow older, as the autumn approaches, I find my leaves scatter about me and I can’t quite remember which branch they once belonged to.
They mock me my thoughts, those amber leaves and autumn seems to last longer and longer bringing in its wake, the winter of my mind and with it the darkness, my curse. But my curse is my gift and the darkness tells tales that I must set free, so the curse begets my gift and my gift enhances my curse, until my soul cries out for the spring to relieve the confusion and my pain. But even in the spring, I know winter is just outside my window. I worry about the coming winter. Perhaps it is because I’ve carried the darkness with me so long that I fear it will someday take hold and I won’t be able to shake it off.
It is then that I remember my little cowboy self and I call him to the fore, to free me once again until the darkness is no more. And spring becomes summer and with it comes my smile. I kiss it on the lips of those that would care for me and I hold it for a while. But the gap in my perception reappears and I become paranoid and worry for the day when autumn will return. I care little for how the world sees me but I know I see myself in the shadow of a winter sky, no matter how bright my face shines. The truth is I try to always wear my summer face, but inside I look for my first turning leaf and then watch for it to fall.
So I call to the waif, the flitterling and I try to keep him handy. The longer I can hide behind his beautiful small boy hair that blows with even the wisp of a breeze, the more I can depend on his gallop and his whoop to disguise the truth, I can keep the gap in my perception from those that matter most and maybe… just maybe keep the winter from my door…
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I think it was the shadow in the water below that most disturbed me. It could have been anything but the only thing I could think of was “Shark!” The full moon offers quite a lot of illumination, but when you’re treading water off the Bass Strait in Australia, the light gets reflected off the waves and all you see at best, are the shadows.
It’s the stories you hear that make you worried. I came from Dublin and swam in the chilly waters of the Irish Sea or occasionally the Atlantic when I was a kid. Nothing more dangerous than a jelly fish or a piece of broken glass in the sand could get you there. Australia was a little different. There were poisonous spiders and snakes and in the water sharks.
I guess the fact that I was only there a few weeks when I decided to go camping in the bush didn’t help. The newness of it all meant I was not just unfamiliar with the local flora and fauna, but I was downright naïve.
Something moved beneath me and a wave slapped me in the face as I looked down. Further out, the others were swimming freely. They were laughing and messing about and were more used to the place than I was, so it was bound to be safe? I looked to the shore and all I could see in the night was the fire we had lit and one of our tents nearby on the beach. Flip! – and that’s the nice F-word for what I was thinking – It looked like a long way back and then something touched my foot. I swallowed a lung full of water.
“Bollox.” I said the word out loud and felt my heart thumping in my chest. I knew I shouldn’t have had those beers. Drinking and midnight swimming in shark-infested waters suddenly felt like a bad idea. The very thought of that combination, drink, night-swimming and sharks, suddenly brought me back to Galway in 1976. I was only a nipper and my older brother smuggled me into a cinema in Galway city to watch Jaws. It scared the actual shite out of me and in that moment I could literally hear the music in my head and something touched my foot again.
Now I had options. I could scream and flay my way back to shore but I figured it would be no good for my cred to lose my cool and look like a Wally, especially if this was a false alarm. There was the choice to carry on and ignore the large dark shadow circling beneath my feet and enjoy the respite that the cool water offered to the 80% humidity and ridiculously high night time temperatures. That was never really going to happen. Then there was the play it cool, I think I’ll just casually swim back and have another beer on dry land option. Option 3 it was.
Of course that turned out to be easier said than done. In the first place, even as I considered my options, I had drifted further out to sea. I am a decent enough swimmer and back then I was young , strong and fit so I could make it back easily enough. It was just a fair distance to have to swim with a shark stalking me, assuming it actually was a shark. Regardless I began to swim back. Slow and steady I thought, don’t splash too much. The shore seemed further away with every shark-attracting stroke. Half way there a thought struck me and I stopped to look back at the others. My feet touched a sandbank much to my relief.
I called out for the others to come back but they waved me off. I said that there could be sharks – trying not to give away my fear as it was as yet unfounded – but they mocked me for worrying and for being a blow-in. Fair enoughski, I thought, if you get your legs bitten off, don’t come running to me. On I swam and I felt the first pang of a stitch as the beer kicked in. My mother always told me not to go swimming for at least an hour after eating or drinking. Why hadn’t I listened to her. Something splashed to my left.
I picked up the pace and the stitch evaporated. I could smell the fire and my knee hit sand beneath the water. Hallelujah I was safe. To be brutally honest, at that point I sort of scrambled, half crawling, half swimming into the shallows and then ran-waded my way to complete safety on the sand. I plonked my nervous arse onto the beach, panting like I had run a marathon. The adrenalin was still pumping as I scanned the water for the others.
I heard them laughing and splashing and then picked out their silhouettes swimming back to shore. What to do? The answer was easy, another beer. They tumbled onto the beach, unaware of my no-good, two-bit, lily-livered, yeller-bellied, chicken-shit varmentism. We drank some more, stoked the fire and eventually crawled into our respective tents and crashed out until the sound of rosellas and cockatoos screeching woke me up early the next day.
The fire was dead and I had been savaged my mosquitos the size of bears but at least I was alive. I was first up and I strolled to the water’s edge and looked around. I had panicked the night before and felt better with the sun on my face. Behind me were the jungle encrusted cliffs that we had somehow negotiated half-cut in the dark the night before. There were exotic birds everywhere, the likes of which I had only seen in the zoo back home. The sky was pure blue, not a cloud and already, even early in the morning the heat and humidity had me perspiring like a sauna-loving sumo wrestler’s crotch in a fur lined jock-strap.
I looked out at the water and the blood drained from my face. The sea was calm with only a few crested waves near the shoreline, but it wasn’t the waves that caught my attention. Like some horrible aquatic nightmare, the sea’s surface was dotted with small triangular fins. There were dozens of them and they were everywhere. I felt sick.
That was it. No feckin’ way was I going back into the water again. I would sweat my hole off if I had to, but my worst imagined fear had just come true. Or had it? I turned my back on the water and returned to my tent. Just before I reached it, I thought I saw something slither in the sand near the door. I could have sworn it went inside. The word ‘Bollox’ was used once more. Apparently the sharks had made me bush-paranoid. All I could imagine now was a tent full of snakes. I was afraid to pull on a pair of Kecks without checking. Feckin’ snakes! My mother warned me about them as well. You should always listen to your Ma. I figured that this was going to be a very, long weekend…
You can find more details about Max Power’s books here : –
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