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Saturday, 21 November 2020

Knockout.


This damp, narrow alleyway has not changed one tiny iota since I was a child. It lies on the opposite side of Banbridge, from the streets I grew up in, safe, happy and surrounded by love. 

It lies opposite my friend's childhood house.

This alleyway has gone a long way in defining me as an adult and informing me as a teacher. 

I think I was around 15. School for me at that time had become more bearable. I had worked out after a few years, how to avoid people who were, when I look back, troubled, unpredictable. Their hangouts were predictable … Where they sat in the morning before school started, where they went at lunchtime, where they played /hung out during down time. 

I'd worked out routes between classes that took me away from them… Sometimes longer routes that meant I arrived out of breath, late, to the safe anger of a teacher. And my friends and I had drummed up the courage to go to teachers and the school management team to ask for help from the constant fear. I don't recall what was done by them in reaction, though. 

I compartmentalised my life. School was where bad things happened, randomly. Home and my after school, weekend and holiday time was a different life, where I had predictable, fun, friends and a really wonderful, loving family. Sometimes when I suffered abuse in school, when I was reduced to tears, the tears were about this division. If only these people could see how great my family were, and how cool my friends were, they wouldn't want to do these things to me. Eventually this was to become me finding ways to be, safely, as random as them. A rebellion that took me to the same dives and gable end cans of beer, boozing where they were. And I developed a stinging, judgemental wit, that although funny, ironic, mocking when in a crowd, made me feel bad. I still sometimes get memory flashes of this past behaviour and cringe. 

I also took my frustrations out on someone, beating him up, when I was about 12 years old. It led to me being thrown down concrete stairs in school,as he was a friend of one of the most unpredictable of the people who, for what ever reason, hated me. I met the victim at a festival once, while watching a band. We stood for ages talking about what we were doing- I  was working in a factory office, he was an accountant in Dublin. He introduced his girlfriend, I introduced mine, and then I shouted an apology over the noise of the band, because I had hated myself for seven years for the eruption of fury I had directed at him. He told me not to worry, and at nineteen, I had to hold back tears. To this day I don't know why I went for him. It really was no fault of his. But I think the rage of being absolutely stressed was channelled at him that rainy day. My powerlessness was vented in power over this boy. 

And that has been a huge factor in my life ever since. If I am consistently attacked, verbally (adults don't tend to push people they don't like through windows, or pick a fight after school for the fun of it), my feelings sit bubbling behind a smile, and then eventually erupt. I try hard nowadays to let people know how I feel, and unions over the years have been this amazing thing that either can step in, or the use of which can be waved in front of the power abuse. Anyway, I haven't seen him since that mid eighties late night summer, less than sober meeting, and I wish I could. I'm not wanting forgiveness. I'm wanting to apologise for something that was not his fault at all. Have a real discussion about it and how my random shittiness impacted on his life at that time. 

Having to pull your trousers down in front of a teacher is deeply disturbing. I was pushed through a window as I tried to dodge one of the unpredictable group's game outside the Art room. He wasn't a huge tormentor, his brother however, was. At the beginning of this year, after my dad died, during the week leading up to his funeral, my mum and I were in a shop, when the brother walked in. As an adult, I've always confronted this guy, not with the torture he put me through, but with a kind of change of heart on my side. For a few years after we left school I dreamed of kicking him senseless. On two occasions, I came close to going for him. But I have sat and had a pint with him (in my late twenties) and exchanged pleasantries. He's obviously damaged. I know some of his childhood story, and it wasn't pleasant. But his lashing out from pressures he felt as a child led him to do horrendous things on people, including beating up a guy because his family were well off; and riding over his head with his motorbike. The guy survived, and his family pressed charges. I am not sure what happened in court. This behavior among a large group of young people, was justified, and he was heroised. Abuse and violence really was seen as heroic, and funny, in my school. That was my impression as people cheered on beatings and abuse. It's no wonder really that some members of these groups went on to take part in horrendous sectarian torture and kilings; their miserable, disgusting actions heroised on gable walls. 

He stood in the queue in front of me. I've met him a lot, especially when I lived in Ireland (I lived in the same town for the first 27 years of my life). I never confront him when he's drunk. Well, I did once and tied him in knots with sarcasm, irony etc, as we stood in a park drinking as teenagers before going to clubs or pubs. The last time I'd seen him was in a chippy, late at night circa, 2011,and he was pissed out of his skull and was abusing young guys in the queue for being, well, happier and healthier and more balanced than he was. None of them crumpled like I had in school. He didn't physically lash out. He just drunkenly abused them, laughing at his own insults. Sounding every bit like the right wing, violent shit I'd known at school, but now in a middle aged body. This guy who proudly wore nazi badges and UVF badges as a young teenager, flashing them at us with pride. And the young guys, tall, athletic, laughed at him and dismissed him as the old, drunken loud mouth he was. He didn't recognise me that night, in the queue, and I remember hoping he wouldn't, because I may not have been as understanding as the young guys who treated him as the idiot he was. And I didnt have to say anything in the shop earlier this year. But I really never want to back down from confronting him. Smiling at him. Showing him, I'm OK. So I said hello, and he looked surprised as he stood there in the queue. Seemingly genuinely happy to see me. My mother said, loudly, "what are you speaking to him for?" knowing some of the hell this guy put me through. We went back to the car, and my wife was sitting in the passenger seat, and I pointed him out to her… and he waved , smiling at me again. And I felt sorry for him, and at the same time, I loathed him for what he had done to me. And I knew, looking at him, he was still the same mentally tortured, unpredictable person he was. Yet, he had welcomed the fact I said hello. 

The game in the corridor, as I remember it, seemed to be chasing each other, but pushing as many people to the ground or to the floor as they could as they went. I pushed myself against the wall, and seeing that that would not be enough as I was me, the guy with the big target on my clothing, on my face, hovering above me. I sat up on the windowsill, which was about waist high for me. And as I shuffled up, out of the way, he ran towards me and gave me an almighty shove and I went arse first through the window. I pushed myself forwards so I didn't fall right through, and I lay face down on the corridor. I don't remember the sequence of events, but I was questioned, driven to hospital, where I was examined (I had cut the top of my leg) and a nurse invited my teacher to inspect the cut as i stood bare arsed behind the curtain. The next time I was shoved at a window, in a door in the school, I made sure noone told on the person who did it, and I wasn't taken to hospital. The breakage was put down to someone accidentally hitting it with a school bag on the way past.

I could go on about different incidents. Like someone I counted as a friend telling me he had to beat me up after school because the shits in the class were goading him that he wouldn't beat me in a fight; he gave an apology before he basically nearly strangled me  and buried my face in dirt; or the amount of times I had to fend off another of their targets for the same thing, or the time when I was placed at a table in French with a group of them and girls they hung around with and became a target for an hour, regarding their perception of my sexuality, looks, my family etc, basically verbally tortured for an hour solid at eleven or twelve years old, to the point of tears. Or the many times I was left in the street outside the school knackered after trying to fend off a beating. Or the time one of them nearly broke my leg on a sponsored walk. I limped in pain for days. As I sit here, lots of awful memories come back to me. Worse ones. Lesser ones. 

I dredge up suppressed memories of incidents a lot now. I suppressed a lot of this over the years, knowing only I hated school. I hated certain people. And coming to the realisation a lot of who I became after the relief of that last day in Banbridge High School in 1982, was because of the fact I had to spend my days surviving. I left with virtually no qualifications… I had went from being top in the class in the early years, to failure, because I excelled at survival by the time I reached fourth year. 

What did the adults do? This was in the seventies and early eighties… Attitudes were different. I don't remember teachers doing a lot. Though perhaps inviting me and my friend to do things like the lights for the school plays, building scenery etc, might have been attempts to take me out of these classes and give me a more positive feeling about school. I have good memories… I forced myself to remember, because when I left that last day, it became a closed box of negativity for years. I loved art, writing stories, the school plays and learning how to develop photos. And, I loved the trip to London, and the trip to Wales. And some teachers felt like allies. Most didn't though. And when my parents found out things (I didn't tell them) they acted. Dad took me in the car to find someone who tormented me. Actually he wasn't the worst, but he was the one from that day. And dad knew his dad, shouted at him, and told his dad. The guy met me years later and told me that that had changed his life. He became a teacher and, I hope, recognises bullying and deals, with it. I used the same tactic on a guy who had bullied my son over a period of years. We had tried everything, from talking to the parents, to going to the schools. But it didn't seem to make any difference. I rolled the car window down and told him if he touched my son again I'd rip his f***ing head off. His family phoned the police who came to our door and told me to phone them if it ever  happened again. I would not advise that approach at all. But my response really was one driven by the awful feelings anyone being bullied dredge up. 

I had set out to write about the alleyway in the photo above. 

I was, as I say, fifteen. And it was a Saturday. A beautiful, bright summer, teeshirt weather day. I remember cycling the mile through the town, down the hill through the worlds oldest underpass, freewheeling to my friend's house. I met him at the bottom of the steep hill to where he lived. I'm not sure what our plan was, but I was just glad to be out and about. As we spoke, three guys came over to us. Two were brothers I recognised from school, the other guy, i didn't. But I recognised his manner, his tone, his threat. He grabbed the handlebars of my bike. 

"Give us a go on your bike" 

That's what I remember. I think there may have been the pretence at conversation before that. I wasn't from this part of town, and I recognised my friends tone. One of conciliation. One of, "joke, but not too far," with these guys. 

He wouldn't let the handlebars go. I remember thinking, 'this isn't fair. I go through this torture in that place. This is my time away from this. I don't even know you.' 

The guy kept going on at me for a go on the bike. 

I was shaking. Fear, anger, built up frustration at the target floating above my head. 

"F*** off," I said. It felt good telling someone I didn't know, to get back. To reclaim my space. My mate looked at me in horror. He whispered , "you've picked the wrong guy to say that to, you better go." 

So I sprinted as fast as I could up the hill, and they sprinted after me. I remember cycling through some of the grammar school grounds and then eventually to this alleyway which is opposite my friends house. A blind alleyway. And just as I was about to go around the corner, they appeared. I remember one of them saying, "Aha! Look who it is!" I had no way out. And the guy I didn't know, grabbed my handlebars. 

All I remember was a feeling of the inevitable. Surrender. Powerlessness. Of my safe space- after school, the weekend, crumbling. Its safety a lie. The compartment, the shield crashing to the floor. I don't remember the beating I took, and, I have no idea how long I lay in the alleyway. I have a vague recollection of an old bloke helping me to my feet. And me wheeling my bike over to my mates house, me having no recollection as to why I was there. My friends mum standing in her garden looking concerned as fifteen year old me burst in to tears, not because of the beating, because I couldn't remember it, but because I had no idea how I got there. 

Eventually after about an hour, things started coming back to me. And for about a year, I had three more people to avoid. 

This alley. One I have often thought of. One that appears in nightmares. And one I visited this time last year, and one that after nearly forty years looked exactly the same. One alleyway I confronted when I went over to Ireland to look after my ill dad for a weekend. 



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