An e-mail this morning informed me that my nephew had posted a photo of me on Facebook. Fuck, I thought. I dislike posing for photos and it shows. I either look like Judge Jeffreys presiding at the Bloody Assizes, or worse, I wear a patently unfelt smile, like someone unaccustomed to the effort involved. There is also these days the repeated shock caused by the fact that the self-image I carry in my mind has not been updated since I was 35, while the external image has obviously moved on. ‘I luke int mirror,’ my maternal grandma once said, ‘and lukin back, thiz an owd woman!’ She said this with a kind of fascinated horror, as if it were the last thing she had expected to see. She had been a beauty in her time. I could have pointed out that the shock might be cushioned somewhat if she put her dentures in before consulting the mirror, but forbore.
Anyway, the photo James has dug out was taken long before I developed my present self-consciousness. It's the Christmas of perhaps 1965, and shows the approximately six-year old me on the left, my three-year old sister Tonie in the middle and my second cousin Jonathan on the right. I am holding a ventriloquist’s dummy, my top favourite among the year’s haul of prezzies, and visible on the right is a three-storey toy garage. I wonder about the garage. I know for sure it wouldn’t have figured on my wish list, whereas the ventriloquist’s dummy most certainly did. Were my parents hoping to balance the dummy with something a tad more butch? Quite possibly.
There’s a photo from an earlier Christmas Day in which I sit miserably on a new tricycle, the picture of resentfulness and disappointment. There might be poignancy in such ungrateful repudiation of a loving gift long saved for, had I not been at pains to point out repeatedly in the run-up to Christmas that I really, really didn’t want a bloody bike. I didn’t know then that the damn thing had already been bought and my parents were trying hard to bring me round to liking the idea. As a small boy I had a tendency to live in my head, invent stories which I told myself out loud, and was forever pretending that my toys and other objects around me were something other than what they actually were. This tendency to want to be alone and my active dislike and avoidance of other boys probably inspired the decision to get me ‘mucking in with the other lads’ on a fucking bike. Some hope. My favourite bit of the mockumentary ‘The Big Tease’ has the mother of the gay hairdresser protagonist proudly showing off the chess set her son had received as a boy. He had dressed all the pawns in grass skirts to represent the chorus of ‘South Pacific’. I actually think the desire for the ventriloquist’s doll was a symptom of emerging control-freakery ('I'm making him call me 'sire' ') rather than any – what do they call it these days? – ‘gender atypical’ behaviour. Still, something must have been nagging at my parents’ minds, minds shaped up to that point largely by the rigid gender roles of the fifties.
Eventually both trike and garage came into their own. The garage had a battery operated elevator, which fascinated me even if the cars never did. My sister and I collected frogspawn, and when the tadpoles emerged and grew to early froghood, she would divert them with rides in the garage lift. The battery compartment on top of the lift shaft had a removable lid and inside, an intriguing mechanism of cogs and wires and whatnots. Some of the day-tripping frogs got caught up in this and were tragically minced even as their fellows were riding happily up and down. I think this gumming up of the works with frog parts probably wrecked the elevator once and for all, and Tonie had to resort instead to feeding up the goldfish. She’d give them entire packets of digestive biscuits at a sitting ('din-dins!') and once tipped a large bag of rabbit oats into their bowl. This might have choked a small shark, but the goldfish lived.
The good, clean, healthy fun my parents had envisioned with their present of a bike materialised eventually. Sort of. A friend, Christine, and I invented the game ‘Death Hospital’. We would hurtle up and down the street on our trikes, transporting imaginary patients to a make-believe hospital at the far end, staffed by doctors and nurses trained in the most implacable sadism. Here patients were extravagantly maltreated before we dropped by to deliver a new batch of victims and cart off the cadavres for interment. I'm pretty sure that other boys would merely have ridden their bikes, no doubt competing to see who could reach the far end of the street first. That would have struck us as brain-curdlingly boring and pointless.
These days, parents would probably take kids who devised such pastimes as 'Death Hospital' to be gently talked to by deeply concerned health care professionals, and get them playing violent computer games instead. Our parents never even knew. We grew tired of ‘Death Hospital’ soon enough, and grew up as normal as the rest of you.