Danny has just learned the most frightening word.
The word “Yes” has yet to make an impact on his absorbent 18 month mind. I suppose that “No” is an easier sell. It is strong, simple, definite. So Danny, not knowing “Yes”, uses “No” as shorthand for both the affirmative and the negative.
“Would you like a banana?” “No”
I hand him a banana. He wolfs it happily.
But then, sometimes “No” does means No. “Would you like some toast?” “No” I carefully butter some toast, then lovingly cut it into soldiers and offer him one. He stares at me like Al Pacino stared at Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glen Ross. As if to say: “What particular far-flung planet of fucking alien morons did you just land on Earth from?”
I offer him the toast again, now with an ingratiating grin. He pouts and his eyes say: “Where are you coming from, that you might, for even a minute, think that I would like to eat some toast? You cretin…you clown Dadda.” He takes the soldier in his hand. “Do you not understand the simple, two letter, monosyllable… No?” He drops the toast on the ground. Miraculously, it lands butter side up. I’m filled with a strange happiness. Because sometimes, occasionally, life delivers the simple beautiful thing. Instead of the head-wrecking, maddening thing.
Then the cat leaps and licks at the butter furiously.
Danny stares at the toast on the floor. The cat worries it energetically as if it’s a tasty, crunchy blood-filled mouse. Danny looks hungry and points.“Towss” he says. “TOWWSSS”
Raising a child is not easy. If you don’t have a child, then you know this because your parents looked tired a lot. Or because a lot those friends who had babies have disappeared on you lately.
One of the great imponderables of parenthood is the mystery of how the hell you are going to produce a happy, industrious young man when you were a frowning, indolent terror yourself at that age.
I can handle the thought of a two year-old toddler falling and splitting his lip, a rambunctious eight-year old getting his fingers caught in a door, or a far more terrible prospect, an 18 year-old telling me he has joined Fianna Fáil during Fresher’s Week. I can help in these situations. But the dread I feel for Danny is for when he hits that age where the world turns upside down – those weird, demented years, 13 and 14. And instead of being able to offer wisdom and perspective from the dusty chapters of my own life, I’ll only be able to shrug my shoulders, wish him luck and, perhaps, tell him about how dreadful I was at that age.
It’s August, 1987, the fifteenth summer since the one when I was born. I’ve arrived at an Irish college in Waterford and I’m not best pleased about it. I’m a ball of confusion, hormones and sulky anger that has found a natural outlet in a love of heavy metal.
I am clad in the uniform of the suburban metaller: tight jeans, boot-runners, and a denim jacket festooned with the garish, but rather magnificent logos of metal bands. My hair is styled in that underrated blend of practicality and non-conformity: the mullet. The long-at-the-back atrocity first sported by David Bowie during the Ziggy Stardust years.
(It is quite perplexing now to think of the moral panic that metal bands induced with their supposed penchant for small animal decapitation and devil-worship. In truth, it was more about the album covers than the music. Heavy metal leads to typography, not Satanism).
I had been recently kicked out of my secondary school, and in September I was due to pitch up at a stricter, notoriously jockish South Dublin school. So spending two summer weeks in another institution seemed like a very bad idea.
“You’ll enjoy it, wait and see” said my mother as she dropped me off, but in the face of my glowering I could see her optimism wavering.
The reality didn’t help much – the Irish college was a hopelessly antiquated mess of nationalist codology and militarism straight from the 1950s. Iron beds were lined up barracks-style in dormitory rooms. Each day began with an assembly where the (many) rules were reiterated and the national anthem sung. The food was unspeakable.
I was not in a mood to go quietly along.
The teen film of that era was The Breakfast Club, a simple, if somewhat theatrical tale of five archetypal high schoolers who are serving Saturday detention under the supervision of an understandably irritable teacher. The whole thing is glued together with Simple Minds’ sublime Don’t You Forget About Me, which they had only unwillingly recorded for the film under duress from the record company.
The star of the piece was John Bender, a wise-cracking delinquent marvelously played by Judd Nelson, who, looking back now, was blatantly in his mid-20s at the time of filming. Bender pisses off the teacher royally, gets the other kids unrealistically high, and then scores Molly Ringwald, all while sporting the other iconic hairstyle of the late 80s – the curtains.
I think I might have been a bit more into the John Bender vibe than was good for me. But in my defence, back then, the “fuck you” attitude was very much in vogue, mostly thanks to another shaggy-haired rebel. It’s difficult to get across just how massive a figure Bob Geldof was in those days. His trajectory was odd, from disreputable rocker to secular saint and along the way he’d sworn, pouted, and thrown his toys out of the pram.
Band Aid was big, but Live Aid was pure hysteria. I remember getting into a car with my brothers to go camping with my dad as Live Aid was taking place. The rain was lashing against the windscreen. The radio DJ burbled ecstatically “This is the greatest day in the history of pop music.”
Look! History was reaching its absolute zenith! Everything that had gone before in the world had been leading up to this day! And I was stuck in a Renault 11 with my little brothers, heading to sleep in a leaking tent in the Comeraghs during the wettest summer on record.
Geldof’s memoir, Is That It? is a manual in how to piss off the establishment by refusing to play by their phony rules. And because of everything that he had achieved, the powers-that-be could do nothing except shower him with more awards and commendations. Geldof was untouchable, a bulletproof John Bender. And I was pretty sure Bob Geldof wouldn’t stand for this shitty Irish college. So it began.
I had a simple strategy: don’t dance at the céilis, refuse to eat, don’t cooperate with the authorities in any way. Three days of uneaten lunches (not hard as I distinctly remember one dish which appeared to consist of grey meat, broken biscuits and feathers) and three non-dancing nights of being chased around a céili hall by livid supervisors.
I was turfed out. The word spread fast. Before I knew it, I was a mini-celebrity. A girl called Deirdre kissed me that night. That had never happened before. Shit, my mother was right. I WAS starting to enjoy it, just as I was getting booted out. My luckless parents were on holidays nearby, probably enjoying a few welcome days without the dreary presence of a sulking adolescent.
The Renault 11 came to collect me. I stood waiting in the courtyard between the main house and the grey dormitory block. Up in the girls dorm, the window was packed with 12 and 13 year-olds staring down to get a look at the eviction of this dangerous dissident.
Notoriety at last.
One of them, a tiny eleven year-old called Elizabeth strained to catch a glimpse of the mulleted, boot-runnered figure getting into the car. She watched as the car drove off.
I’m married to Elizabeth now.
She is Danny’s mother.
She’s sleeping. She’s been exhausted lately. So I get Danny up out of bed.
“Would you like some breakfast?”
“No,” he says, pouting and shaking his head.
“Now…” I pause. “Might you actually mean yes?”
A smile spreads across his chubby little face.
He laughs and claps his hands. I pour the Rice Krispies.
He’ll be OK.