There was a young-one who lived near me when I was a chiddler, who was very fond of flashing her knickers. Now for the non-Irish reader the term young- one (pronounced youngwan) simply refers to a girl. Boys were youngflets (young fellows). Now as happens all over the world at some point the youngflets get interested in the youngwans and everything changes but I’m talking about a younger stage in life, where girls were primarily a nuisance to us boys and we were dirty and stupid to the girls.
Imelda (not her real name to protect her virtue) regularly flashed her kecks at us and to be honest it was annoying at the time. I’m no psychologist but had you asked me when I was eight to explain her behaviour, I would probably have told you she did it because she knew it annoyed us. In truth, despite her knicker flashing antics or perhaps because of it, I had little interest in Imelda. In common with my friends, I had little interest in girls back then, full stop.
I played boy games with boys until puberty came along and messed with my attentions. It was so much easier when girls were no more than an irritant. In my childhood the world had a very different gender focus than it has today of course. Mixed schools? You must be joking. The Priests, nuns and Christian brothers spent most of their time keeping us apart.
Even in Infants and junior infants, the first two years of schooling for us from the ages four to five, we didn’t mix. The only difference was that in our parish, the youngest boys were managed in a section of the girls’ schools by the nuns, until they handed us over to the Christian brothers for first class around the age of six – and good God that was a culture shock.
In the convent school, there was even a fence between the girls section of the school yard and the boys. In a time where large families were the norm, most of us had sisters so girls weren’t a surprise, but the nuns in their wisdom under the direction of the priests, made sure that even at four or five we didn’t mix under their watch. Who knows how corrupted we might have been by such an experience?
We walked everywhere from a very young age and didn’t need our parents to accompany us after junior infants year or what we called ‘high babies.’ No self-respecting seven year old needed his Mammy’s hand to escort him to school and this inevitably presented a problem for me.
You see that world of isolation among the pack animals that we were; left us open to all sorts or rumour and conjecture. It only took one little confident fecker to say that something was true, for everyone to believe it. One slightly older boy told us that girls got pregnant if you rubbed your little finger in your ear and then poked it in their belly button. I didn’t believe him, but I had to listen to the arguments for and against before I made up my mind.
Boy’s talk, meant that there were some dangers created in your mind that became larger than life. Reputations were created around myths of terrible brutality inflicted by certain individuals and they were easy to believe. Every day, we were ritually brutalised by teachers, sometimes by parents and school yard fights were common place. In a world where there was a lot to be afraid of, we became very suggestable.
I had a relatively safe route home from school, but on occasion I had to visit a friend’s house on a road where a family with such a fearsome reputation resided. There were five boys in the one family ranging from late teens. to about nine or ten and they were all as rough as could be. I was a kindly little boy but that being said, I could walk the walk and talk the talk so while I lived in fear of encountering such dangerous boys – I never let on. But by reputation alone, I knew they ruled the road and if you passed their door as a stranger-boy on the road, chances were they would beat you up. I didn’t want to meet them.
As it happened, I had two ways to get to my friend’s house. From where I lived, the distance to that particular road was the same whether I chose to enter the road from either end so I could in theory at least, avoid the danger zone. Of course there was always the risk that I might pass them on the way, but there was less of a chance if I entered from one end rather than the other.
That being said, life was never that simple especially in a world of rumour and conjecture, where false legends flourished with abandon. If I chose to avoid their end of the road, I had to pass a particularly vicious dog. In those days, leashes were unnecessary. Dogs walked themselves basically by roaming the streets. This particular dog, liked to hang around at the front of a house that I had to pass. If distracted, you could be ok, but if all was quiet and he was bored, chances were, he’d come after you like a crazed beast from hell.
Again, I had many of the tools required to handle such a threat. I grew up with dogs and wasn’t afraid of most of them. Unfortunately this one was an Alsatian or ‘Aller’ as we called them and he didn’t care about rules. The choice was simple, walk via a very real and likely threat with big teeth, albeit one I had handled before but still feared, or travel the uncertain path where only rumour existed about a family of violent boys who would pulverise a trespasser like me just for the fun of it.
It’s funny how a little boy’s brain works especially one conditioned to danger. Such was life. The very act of travelling to school was one that put your safety at risk. There was always someone bigger than you willing to pick on you if you looked crooked at them, but that bit I could handle. I once had a knife held to me and I responded by brushing it aside with a ‘pishaw.’ Well, it wasn’t exactly that term, as saying pishaw in itself, would have resulted in a beating. There may have been an expletive used. Either way, that was walking the walk. It didn’t mean you weren’t on edge. You had to be.
Inside the school yard the danger stepped up a notch. There were always gangs, fights, hot squares to avoid and lurking Christian brothers who could randomly cuff you for misbehaving. The classroom was worse still and fraught with danger. Make a noise, laugh at another boy farting, get caught with a note flicked onto your desk, spell a work wrong, a change in the wind it seemed could get you skelped.
In hindsight, I lived in a world where childhood stress was ever present. Even at home there were rules that if broken left you with the horrible words ‘wait for your father to get home.’ Lack of money was a stress, keeping warm, wearing hand-me-downs, and worrying constantly about what lay in the next day. It should not have been for us but it was. My parents did their best but times were indeed different and sometimes even in small things like the threat from a dog or the potential of running into the local Kray twins, made it feel like my very life was in danger on a regular basis.
But somehow I skated through it with a sense of humour and I gave the world the impression that I wasn’t scared. Most of the year belonged to school, winters and rain. So when summer came, once we were free from the shackles of authority to some degree, we made the most of it. Summer holidays were months of being street urchins, never wanting to come in, playing on the road, chasing each other through fields like land-locked kites. I would stay out until I was dragged in. Everything was an adventure, for in adventure lay escape from the stresses all around us. Little boys should never have to feel that way and yet it was our normal.
My hair grew past my ears and I wore short trousers, short socks and I was always someone else or somewhere else. In those days the seeds to my writing days were sewn. I learned to imagine and imagination was beautiful. I smile when I look back at my tinier self. I remember the worst of it but mostly I remember the best of it.
Even though I had yet to discover the joy of girls, and while they angered me with their insistence on playing far less interesting games than I wanted to play, I was always still somewhat fascinated by their bare-kneed skipping, the swish of their ponytails and the screams they screamed when one of the boys produced a spider. I put up with the occasional knicker-flash or sometimes succumbed to playing street-chalk games like beds (a secret favourite of mine), Queenie-eye-oh or listening to them play with a ball and sing ‘plainey-a package-o’rinso,’ because in those moments I was free….
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