The Big Bad Wolf
My mother was never exactly diagnosed as a sane person. She had a habit of talking to herself. Especially when I had friends over for tea. I tried to be a good host, but she’d embarrass me with her best impressions of Norman Bates.
She had a difficult relationship with my grandmother, stemming from her childhood. As a young girl, she had shared a bed with my two aunties. They’d savor the warmth if one of them pissed themselves, because nobody would pay for heating. My grandparents hated to part with money, whether they had it or not. My mother wore the same pair of Wellington boots all year round as a child, even if it were a blisteringly hot summer, because my grandmother refused to buy her shoes. When they were bored, my mother used to compete in the ‘Flea Olympic games’ with her sisters, picking the fleas from their hair and racing them. They never had any hot water in the house, so they rarely washed.
At her most depressed, she would call me my ‘father’s son,’ and as I’d never met my dad I couldn’t argue with her. He’d really broken her heart. She was often the kindest parent a child could ask for, but her mood swings were so erratic it was difficult to know where you stood with her. She’d lurch into depression for weeks on end, and then emerge as placid as a butterfly.
I have some great memories of living with her, though many of my childhood memories were fallacies. I believed in Santa Claus, and eagerly awaited the sound of sleigh bells every Christmas eve. Yep, I really fell for all that nonsense about a clinically obese Coca Cola advertisement climbing down chimneys, eating everyone’s cookies and drinking their milk. In school, wiser kids made fun of me. When I told my mother, she took me aside and informed me that parents liked to lie to their children about Santa. I cried for hours, my face caked in snot and tears. I couldn’t stop crying.
‘C’mon, Daniel!’ She laughed. ‘If there was a big fat man in a red costume flying around on a sleigh every Christmas eve, shouting ho, ho, ho, he’d be shot down by the military!’
I learned for myself that the tooth fairy didn’t exist. At first, I believed I’d been allocated the strictest fairy going. Fairy Pipkin would place a letter, along with some spare cash, under my pillow in exchange for a tooth. But the letters always told me she’d been watching me attentively and had noted my bad behavior. If I didn’t start behaving, she’d refuse to give me any more money and wouldn’t even take my tooth away, because teeth belonging to naughty children weren’t good enough to use as bricks for fairy houses.
Although I was fascinated by Saint Nicholas, I knew nothing about religion before I started school. My mother wanted me to have a Catholic upbringing, but she wasn’t devout. The only time she ever pushed me towards Catholicism, apart from sending me to a Catholic school, was when she took Lisa and me to the local church. Lisa and I had both been baptized at St Mary’s in Canton, a Romanesque style church that had undergone much renovation over the years, with ‘notable changes to its exterior, as well as a renewed roof and a number of new stained glass windows on its south side.’ The parish priest Father Dwyer had been kind enough to give us a tour and tell us about these changes.
‘This is God’s house,’ he told us.
Lisa and I wandered around the pews in search of God. As we investigated each marble corner of the building, we discussed where exactly God might sleep. Lisa told me she’d heard he spent most of his time inside the tabernacle.
‘He must be small!’
I’m glad my mother wanted me to be a Catholic. I have fond memories of my religious upbringing, even though, at my first confession, she told me to plead guilty for leaving my bedroom in a mess.
‘It’s no venial sin, Daniel.’ She wagged an assertive finger at me. ‘It’s a mortal sin no mother should have to endure!’
Fortunately, I had to say only a few Hail Mary’s.
I spent my childhood evenings watching movie documentaries. I loved the way actors transformed into the characters they were playing. I thought I’d have a go at acting on the stage during my fifth year in primary school. Auditions were held for Little Red Riding Hood. Five teachers presided over copies of the script, like a panel of X Factor judges. I stood on the raised dusty stage, throwing numerous shadows as they checked the lighting. But I didn’t feel nervous. Not one bit. I read my lines and skipped home.
A week later, Mr Evans announced the cast during assembly. I would play the Big Bad Wolf, a part I could really sink my teeth into (crap pun intended).
The Christmas plays turned actors into mini-celebrities. I’d had a huge crush on one girl a couple of years before because she’d played a donkey in a play I barely remember. Everyone suddenly knew me by my character and I found myself signing autographs for infants in the playground. The whole school thought it was a hoot when I had to dress up as Little Red’s grandma at the end of the play. Cross-dressing children are always considered funny, I guess.
It’s difficult for me to look back at Little Red Riding Hood as a crappy children’s play. I fell in love with the stage, performing in front of parents, teachers and fellow pupils. We take small steps as children, and those steps get bigger when we reach adulthood. The play felt like a giant leap to me back then.
Little Red Riding Hood ran for three nights. It’s all a blur to me now: the harsh lights, the shadowy audience members, the hall and its stained glass windows, the fake tail I had poking out of my arse. I forgot a couple of lines in one scene, during the second performance. But the dialogue ran on so well that I didn’t realize until afterwards. My mother told me how proud she felt - a sentiment she didn’t repeat for a long time.
I represented the school in athletics tournaments during my final year, taking part in the hundred meter races and the hurdles. I also played for the school’s rugby side, winning the Player of the Year Award. I’d had a very successful time there.
Warm light streamed through the casement windows on my final day as a primary school student; it tripped down polished staircases and bounced off the heads of chattering students lining up for assembly. As everyone filed into the hall, Mr Evans winked at me. A sea of vivid colors washed over us as we sat on the cool ground, gazing at the painted glass and the dusty stage we’d never see again. Mr Evans stood at the front of the hall, illuminated by the cascading sunshine. He spoke about a special student who’d contributed to school life. I’d been awarded the Pupil of the Year Award, which meant my name would be engraved on a giant plaque above the main entrance to the hall. It’s still there, my name among many other student names now.
I walked out of the school gates that afternoon feeling sentimental. Excited students flew past me, their congratulations echoing in my ears. I’d had a wicked time at St Mary’s, playing games and performing on the stage for the first time. I’d been a little caterpillar back then.
Soon, I would come to the cocoon phase.
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