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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