I am looking through family photos and here I am at 4 years old. I think it was taken by a street photographer. Do you remember them? They used to pop up on piers and beaches. I’m looking mighty suspicious. I’m on a little donkey. The kind that moves backwards and forwards when the coin goes in. My grandpa and grandma are in the photo too. I’m wide eyed and looking out cautiously from under my fringe. My jaw is set in a manner which matches my eyes, watchful, quizzical, timid. I do not look bold.
Ah, here I am again, taller, aged 6, wide eyes, watching and looking oh so timid again. But was I? Not at all. In this photo I am with my dad. He is trying to encourage me to open a Christmas present. But I know what I am watching! I remember so well. I am at the annual Weir Pumps’ Christmas party. The kids partied while the parents dined. I loved the buzz, hundreds of kids, whooping it up in the canteen as we ate, rushing down the corridor to the big hall to watch movies and playing games after. In the photo I am still watching the bigger kids racing about and I’m looking oh so timid.
But I wasn’t really! I was quiet and mostly shy but never withdrawn. I was bold when sure of myself and sure of the company I was in. I climbed trees, made rope swings. Was I a rebel? Probably. Though much of it went unobserved and I think when it was noticed it was encouraged. I can see now that was about being loved and gaining confidence.
Like everyone else, I pushed and shoved whatever boundaries were set. I came home late, but not too late. I cycled far and sometimes way too far – but never said. I played on unsafe things in forbidden places. I didn’t lie, but I was economical with the truth. And that wide eyed timid look, it must have been an asset. I was cautious though. That expression, those eyes, were a signal. I was checking out how sure I was. Can you be a rebel and still be cautious? I think so. I weighed things up, never pushing too far too fast.
I did feel like a rebel. I played on very high tree swings and had to climb very high up to get to them. I was skilled at pushing my feet off from the tree to swing way out again and skilled at holding on tight as it was a long way to fall! That cautious look was still with me. It kept me focussed and safe. The cuts, the bruises, even being taken home slightly concussed were all explained as mere tumbles. “No, it wasn’t a big tree” and “it was just at the edge of the woods”. Well there must have been bigger trees somewhere and if you don’t know how big the woods are then maybe, you were at the edge. Logic – to my 10 year old self anyway.
There’s a scar on my hand. The cut was very deep and for about three days I managed to just keep sticking another plaster on it. It’s just below my thumb, on my left hand so it was easy not to wave it about. “A wee cut”, I called it. Eventually I was forced to allow my father to take the plaster off. It was agony and kept seeping blood. “That should have had a stitch in it! It’ll scar.” My father said. In keeping it hidden, I had hoped not to mention that I had, with others, scaled a high fence into a construction site and whilst whooshing down through a machine, undoubtedly meant for gravel and sand, I had kept my hand above my head. I had to or I wouldn’t have got through the gap which opened when my friend pulled the lever. The gap had closed before my hand came out!
I recall cycling down the A77. (Not allowed when you are in primary school!) “Don’t look behind,” my friend yelled, “but your mum is upstairs at the front of that number 38 behind us.” Caught! Bold? Well, I was a competent cyclist.
I still like to think that being a rebel is about being bold but cautious. Though I maybe threw caution to the wind, when at 16 I spent my bus money and with friend hitch-hiked back to Glasgow from a hostelling holiday in the Lake District. We got a lift. Turned out it was an unmarked police car, so we got a warning too.
Have I changed? I’m still quiet, still cautious and only now I know that it’s ok to be quiet. We can’t all be extroverts and part of the ‘in crowd’. You can be extrovert in your own way and maybe even a rebel too.
Perhaps a rebel is being yourself. Keeping safe, enjoying life and always learning. It doesn’t matter what others think. At 65 I recently had friends tell me I was crazy. That I “couldn’t do that”, “that’s mad.”
I know that last year when I walked into that Dublin city centre hostel mixed dormitory, for a few seconds, my four year old’s face was there again. It’s never really left me. Mostly it’s hidden…but the “what ifs” can bring it out. Then I remind myself of who I am, and the bold look is back. Why spend £150 on a hotel when you’re arriving at 4pm and leaving at 8am the next day? The hostel dorm was fine. I shared it with seven young Dutch lads on a stag weekend. They were good fun and had impeccable manners. The other two guys that came in later were good company too.
A rebel, maybe, but I like to think it’s just me doing things my way.