Death of a Royalist
One day I’m sitting in the bath. It’s 1981 and I’m eleven years old. I can’t remember what I was thinking about at the time. It could have been the upcoming nuptials of Lady Diana Spencer — the groom was irrelevant to me. I already had my Royal Engagement Memorial Booklet, (still do). Diana in royal blue suit and trademark blouse with bow. Her flat shoes disguising her husband’s shortcomings. They were putting her down already. When did she start wearing heels? That must have been the moment their marriage changed. The day she found out about Camilla.
I may not have been thinking about Diana at all. I may have been considering my long-term boyfriend, Richard H. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And we were. Very innocent. With his sweet, rosy cheeks and white blonde hair. What is and where is he now? An engineer in Stoke-on-Trent? An accountant in Bury-St.-Edmonds? Or maybe, like me, he doesn’t live in England any more. Because that was the day my mother told me we were moving back home to Ireland.
What do you mean back? I was already home. Thus far, my childhood had consisted of street parties for the Queen’s silver jubilee and school trips to Windsor Zoo and Hampton Court. I was as English as English could be. As English as toad in the hole and spotted dick. Apart from the freckles. Apart from the name. Apart from the father who played Wolf Tone records at full blast to annoy the neighbours, and whose nationalistic tendencies evaporated as soon as we landed back on the Oul’ Sod.
I had been brought to ceilis, sure. Where redheaded women with squeaky voices sang plaintive tunes about girls called Seana and their lost loves. I knew all about the predicament of the men behind the wire and the dilemma of your mother being orange and your father being green. But to me, this sounded more like an episode of “Star Trek” than an episode of Irish history.
But when you’re eleven years old. And in the bath. You don’t have much choice in the matter. You can sit there and cry. You can even protest a little. But ultimately, if your parents decide to up sticks and move to a different country, you have very little choice but to go with them. Can hardly stay on your own. I didn’t really have the means to support myself. I wasn’t qualified for very much and as yet, my writing career was less than embryonic. So off to Ireland I went. Off home with me.
Even now, a silent, sunshiny morning in late June can transport me back to that very first morning.
Morning had broken.
Driving from Dun Laoghaire, dazed after the overnight ferry trip from Liverpool Port. Was I even a little bit excited? Pleased at least to see my grandparents. They were waiting at the doorstep to meet us. Garden teeming with roses, snapdragons and ox-eye daisies. Granddad: Tall, thin, bald and tanned. Shirtsleeves rolled up to his sinewy elbows. Ever present pipe at the corner of his grin. Nanny: Small, round, blonde curly hair and bright red lipstick. An indelible mark on my cheek for the rest of the morning. Marking me out as one of her own. Nearly having the head pulled off my body with the sheer force of their love.
And the smell of sausages, drifting down the path. Irish sausages: A breed like no other. Irish sausages: Slit down the middle for ultimate release of flavour. Irish sausages: Never again tasting like they did from my grandmother’s grill that morning. Like the chips from her chip pan, seasoned to perfection down through the years. Or the potato cakes. Or the brack.
There was pudding there that morning. Not of the spotted dick or jam roly poly variety. A bizarre substance, fashioned from pig’s blood. I don’t think I believed it at the time. And soda bread. Bread that was heavy and dense and round. Not square and evenly sliced like bread should be.
Diana’s wedding came and went. I sat on the couch in Raheny and cried. My friends back home at their street parties. Had Richard H. found himself a new girlfriend yet? I started to play with the kids in the neighbourhood. Dance routines to “Night Fever” in the park across the road. The sun turned colder. The thistle released it’s down. Fairies floating all over St. Anne’s Park. I wished on one a thousand times a day. That we’d move back to England. That I wouldn’t have to start school.
But start I did. Sixth class. My first experience of an all girls’ school. Standing at the top of the classroom, waiting for the teacher to finish her gossiping with the teacher next door. My bottle green jumper — courtesy of my grandmother’s knitting machine. My red kilt, courtesy of Arnotts Department Store. My white knee socks. My brown, T-bar shoes. My body like a shapeless tube.
I listened to the surround sound of thirty, Irish, eleven year old girls — like so many leprechauns. They made fun of my accent later that day. Although not in a mean way. You talk funny. No. Can’t you tell? Can’t you hear yourselves? It’s you that talk funny. You’re the odd one’s out. All thirty of you.
A little girl in my class with the same name as me. How could this be? I was unique. What was she doing in possession of my name? I was soon to find out that there were others like her. Maybe not in such close proximity — but they were out there.
They weren’t all that bad. The leprechauns. I was a strange and exotic curiosity. And what did we do in England? And what did we eat? And wear? And watch? And listen to? And play? And English boys?
The boy’s school was next door. They played on one side of the field and we played on the other. The playground of romance. I was soon to discover that, to the girls in my class, these boys were creatures even more exotic than I.
But summer rolled around again and secondary school loomed like a festering boil that no one could lance for me. I was too start afresh again. All the girls from sixth class graduating to a different school. The cold, stark reality of another new start. Did I really have it in me to face another one?
Turned out I didn’t.
The first day was a shock that kept on shocking for the next five years. Boys and girls mixed up together. Although we never really mixed. Why the hell would we? Farting, belching, noisy boys. Not a bit like Richard H. Although, for all I knew, he may too be a farty, belchy noisy boy by now. Adolescence may well have split us up. The one advantage to such exposure: my knowledge of these cretins was vastly superior to that of my convent school friends. They thought teenage boys were clean, clean-cut and clean-thinking. I saw them for the mutant apes they really were.
In the last English school I’d attended — St. Gregory’s Middle School, Biddenham, Bedfordshire — knowledge was a prized commodity. As it was in the relatively genteel environs of sixth class. Not something to be ashamed of. This too was about to change. I was soon to discover that one did not put up one’s hand when one knew an answer to a question. One did not reveal that one had studied for a test. One did not complete one’s homework — now known as “eccer”, spelling unknown and possibly non-existent — in anything less than a half-arsed fashion. And one did not — I repeat did not — cover one’s copy books (formerly exercise books) in Laura Ashley wallpaper from one’s bedroom wall. Especially when instructed to do so by one’s teacher and the entire school board. Because nobody else will have done it. Except for the odd, embarrassed attempt with crinkled brown paper and pritt stick. Because — and this was the single, most shocking shock of all — one did not — I repeat, did not — do what one’s teacher told you to do.
It took me many years to appreciate this very Irish, profoundly healthy disrespect for authority in all its forms. For that errant wildness in Irish children that they never completely loose. That wildness that can lead to, amongst other things, great music, great art and rampant alcoholism. But which at the time, drove me into my shell, knocked all the stuffing out of me and all but broke my spirit for good. Did I ever recover all my stuffing? Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, picked apart by the crows. I’m off to see the wizard. Any day now. Back then; I didn’t have a pair of ruby slippers. A means of clicking my heels together and conveying myself back to good old Blighty.
Then one day it was all over. Schools out forever. The Leaving Cert the only blot on an otherwise clear yet hazy horizon. And then that was over too.
Ireland of the eighties — a dismal place. Of open fires and large families. Ugly corporation estates teeming with unemployment and misshapen dogs. And what about this guy Gay Byrne? Who did he think he was? And Charles Haughey. The Taoishuck — Toiasheach — Tioseach. (I was exempt from Irish). Women apparently found him attractive. And charismatic. Hardly surprising when the country’s most eligible bachelor was a current affairs presenter with spectacles and already greying temples. Yes, this indeed was the epitome of Irish, male, sex appeal. Those god-forsaken pre-Brosnan, pre-Farrell days. Prospects for the Irish male have improved. It could be better nutrition. More meusli and less black pudding.
By dint of a long and circuitous route, I found myself in Trinity College. Yes. The contrast was quite striking. Now I was with the poshest of the posh. And equally out of place. This was a time when Ireland was beginning its slow and laboured ascent out of the pit of recession. The release of the Birmingham Six. The secret royalist in me was shaken to the core for the first time. My accent changed imperceptibly. New people I met were less likely to ask me if I was English. Was I? I didn’t know anymore. Maybe half and half. Top half or bottom half?
Emerging from university, parchment in hand, facing an abyss of uncertainty. I jumped straight from that abyss into the abyss of the law, where I spent the best part of a decade, trying in vain to find for myself a niche that did not, could not exist. Because all the niches were round and I was square.
Would I have made the same choices had we stayed in England? I may not have gone to college at all. Or I may have gone to Cambridge and received a First in some humanity or other. Would I have chosen the legal profession? Would I have gone on ultimately to become a writer? The answer is yes; I think that I probably would. I may have made exactly the same choices and ended up in — if not exactly the same — then in a similar place. The truth — the beautiful truth — is that I’ll never know.
I’d be with a different man — maybe Richard H. Maybe no man at all. Would I still be a mother? Different father, different children. I’d still have the stretch marks.
I could spend the rest of my life considering the what ifs. It really doesn’t matter any more. I know where I’ve ended up and I’m happy with my lot. I may not have been as happy with my English lot. There have been obstacles to get over. More than a few. There’ll always be that slight dint in my confidence. The sensation of being an outsider in almost every situation. But I’m content to be on the edge. It’s become part of who I am. If I went now to speak to a classroom-full of English schoolgirls, they’d think I sounded like a leprechaun. And I’d find their little accents extraordinary and wonder at how close I came to speaking the same way myself. If it wasn’t for a bath time conversation that altered the course of my existence.
When Diana died, I cried and cried. For her. And for the eleven-year-old girl who had continued to exist beneath my adult skin. For the ultimate death of the little royalist within.