I passed through my old village, Clondalkin in Dublin, at the weekend, and drove by my old primary school, St. Joseph’s, and then my old secondary school, Moyle Park. Nothing seemed to have changed.
Memory is a funny thing. You remember snatches of your childhood but can never be totally sure that you remember it the way it was, or whether you’ve just interjected false memories on top. Every day blends into one long day in your mind, one memory adding to another. Your mind forms illusions, where one-off incidents loom over the mundane, and everyday activities merge into one.
Once thing is certain: I have never been a morning person. When I was a schoolkid, my mornings began with my father pulling at the bed clothes to wake me up at some ungodly hour of the morning, or so it seemed. I’d scramble into my school uniform: grey shirt, grey pullover, grey trousers, blue ties with gold stripes. There was a certain skill attached to never actually tying or retying your tie, just loosening it enough to lift it off your head in the evening, and then doing the opposite in the morning.
My mother used to prepare us for school with porridge for breakfast. She had it down to a fine art. She soaked the porridge the previous night in milk, to soften the porridge. Unfortunately, the milk invariably went sour overnight. For years and years I never realised this and just thought that porridge was this sour-tasting and awful concoction. Now I realise it is just an awful concoction. When I eventually cottoned on to this fact, I remember plaintively trying to persuade my mother do it differently, to no avail.
The walk to our school was past the local Clondalkin paper mills. It smelled disgusting, wafting a putrid mix of pulped wood and chemicals into the air. But this mill, with its huge and imposing concrete façade, gigantic towers, and mean exterior, always represented some kind of secret adult world that we were being prepared for. Not that we were going to be “sent down to th’ mill” like in Dickens. More like, to my childish imagination, that it was just the kind of place I would end up. It is now a shopping centre. I guess that’s what they call progress.
They had rows of rusty wire barriers along the route. Some school kid had his Moyle Park tie knotted to the railing and there it stayed for year after year. It got blackened and crusty, eventually fading away to a mere knot, but it was somehow comforting to know it was there through the years. I daresay it is still there to this day.
As a child I developed very eclectic eating habits. As an adult, I invariably eat just about anything I am presented with. I was the exact opposite of a fussy eater. I am sure it must have been an adaptation to the school sandwiches my mother gave us. They were sealed tight in flat Tupperware boxes – the newest and latest fad to hit Ireland – and smelled of cheap plastic. Apart from being squashed so tight that they tasted like rubber, the Easy Single cheese sandwich was a delightful concoction. The chewy cheese stuck between your teeth, like coagulated goo, along with the lumps of butter which slid whole down your throat. They were made of Brennan’s bread, all white and pure and innocent, and like eating air. Soft and fluffy, it sat in your stomach like the gloopy crap that it was.
But once a week my mother used to make the crème-de-la-crème of sandwiches: egg mayonaise. The mayonaise was added to make it all stick, so the egg wouldn’t spill out so easily. That was particularly handy when you were playing football at lunchtime and trying to hold your sandwiches while heading a ball. But it made the whole school stink. I remember challenging some kid to stick his head into the tupperware and try and hold his nose in there for as long as possible. Poor kid. I think he won five pence off me, for lasting over a minute, but it damaged him permanently. He’s never had to work so hard for anything since then.
On other occasions, one of me or my brothers got the ‘square’ tupperware box. This fitted two sandwiches, but could also fit an apple on top. Unfortunately, when you lifted out the apple, it took huge chunks of the pappy bread with it. You ended up either lifting the bread off and dumping it to one side, or, if you were particularly hungry, eating the whole lot in one go.
Other kids preferred the tuck shop in the school. It sold exotica like ham burgers and chips and coke. I think it should have been closed down for health reasons, but it was the 1970s after all. It should be in a museum by now.