Years ago, I made a mistake and spoke the wrong words to the wrong person. What happened next was memorable.
At the time, I was seven years old and had just moved to the small coastal town of Dalkey near Dublin, Ireland. This gorgeous and ancient town is really a loose group of seven separate kingdoms, and sits nestled on the eastern coast facing the sparkling waters of Dublin Bay. It was the perfect setting for a fairytale childhood, in a land so arrestingly beautiful, safe and filled with adventure that I turned off my TV and never really went back again.
Being American in the late sixties in Ireland was wonderful. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was Ireland’s favorite son and Americans were a glittering novelty known for eccentricity, generosity and directness, and it’s on this last trait that I’ll linger.
For some of you, you may have acquired the sense that I can be very direct, and at seven, I was much worse. Today, when truth doesn’t fit the situation, I hold my tongue, though in this story I’ll focus on how I discovered that often greater kindness.
It was fall and just before Halloween. My sisters and I were now the focus of a large gang of friendly Irish kids who’d gather at night to play after all the homework was done. Our garden, large and rather overgrown had shrubs suitable for cave forts and an excellent view down to Coliemore harbor a short walk away. We’d run to this Norman foothold, scramble the piers or jump from dingy to dingy until some fist-shaking, eloquent Irishman chased us away between his smoke and his pint of Guinness. It was above all, a childhood worthy of Roald Dahl at the time when he books first arrived on the scene, liberating children everywhere.
One boy in our neighborhood would never come and join us in our play though his sister Niamh was at the center of our group. A nice looking boy of about eleven, he walked around the neighborhood sullen and unhappy followed by a dark cloud of misery he’d settled on his thoughts. For some reason, his misery bugged me and at seven, I had few good ideas of how to help. I tried talking to him from time to time, generally when I was there with my beautiful older sister Boo, but he would rarely say anything and couldn’t even look at us. As a victim of much childhood bullying, I saw the signs that he was vulnerable and made him my mark.
I started to follow him, dogging him a little, just enough to increase his misery. I tried different topics all designed to provoke him. I couldn’t figure out what made him tick and like a kid with a stick faced with a stalwart pill bug, I just had to keep poking at him to push him along at my direction and chivvied him whenever I grew bored.
One day, rounding the corner, I saw him talking to Boo and in his face was such a light and a hope, that I knew his affliction immediately: LOVE. He was in love with my sister. Barely able to string together two words, this small town Romeo had found sufficient courage to confess to her his undying passion, sealing the deal with a Bartlett’s Sherbet, a tuppeny Cadbury bar and an offer to ride her down Vico Road on his bike. My arrival came just after his declaration and was just the break Boo needed to escape as she snatched the gifts and bolted through our garden gate, leaving me in the cobblestone streets with this rejected would be lover.
What I did next was foolish on every count. I moved in close. I looked him in the eye. I saw the pain as he held back his tears at the spoiled moment. I saw his vision of her on his Raleigh Chopper bike, chestnut hair flowing as they rode off into the sunset; I saw it dying there in his eyes, and, I did what only an eejit (Irish for idiot) would ever do. I opened my mouth because I was too young and dumb to care and said, “You love my sister,” in a taunting voice, an inopportune grin on my face.
What happened next was definitive and memorable. He slapped me across the mouth and knocked me down. He kicked me repeatedly in the ribs and hammered me with his fists. He broke on me a storm, dumping all his disappointed rage, as I lay there growing bloody in the street. The charwoman next door heard the noise and chased him away. She did not pick me up or offer comfort, caring only that our noise not disturb the missus at tea.
I dragged home with a black eye and a tear in my favorite plaid Toughskins jeans. The blood dribbled steadily from my nose. I told my parents I had fallen on the hill, and by morning, had the biggest shiner of a black eye my dad claimed he had ever seen. I wouldn’t trade that lesson for anything in the world, and learned at seven to let sleeping dogs like and never repeated that mistake, such was the impact of my own ill advised words. If I remembered that boy’s name today, I would hug him and thank him, for under the tutelage of his swift fists a wiser child was born in me.