by Marie Gallagher
It’s funny the things you remember. Like the purple anorak lined inside with a bold yellow and pink tropical print and toggles at the waist. Tiny teeth marks of the small girl who had bitten me hard enough that my arms were imprinted with blue and violet tracks despite my coat sleeves. The nearby cornfields which edged our street soaking up evening sun in thick, tall, golden rows.
I was seven and she was five. Four older girls from our street with perms and shell suits and Nike Air Max – everything I wanted to be – marched me to the nearby park. My beating had been pre-arranged like an illegal boxing match. They told me it was time to stand up for myself, that it had been going on for too long. They were trying to impress each other, alleviating the boredom of school holidays with a bit of sport. Their faces fell when they saw the extent of her viciousness and they immediately pulled her off of me like flustered owners of a crazed dog. Guilty, they attempted to patch me back together, retrieving clumps of my hair from the ground and re-attaching them with hair grips across my head like little fuzzy nests.
I was first taken to the door of the girl’s mother who told me that I mustn’t let a five-year-old bully me. She spoke of five-year-olds in general, rather than her own daughter. In the absence of justice, which they sought despite setting the whole thing up, they sheepishly took me to my own house which, despite being metres away, seemed to take an eternity. The tinny song of the ice-cream van meant that it was 8 pm and was probably time to be going home anyway. My father whisked me inside and slammed the door closed, barely acknowledging my dubious chaperones. He took me in his arms, alarmed but not surprised at the state of me. I stood limp in his arms, ashamed but safe with my father behind the door. His words, though, were not the usual ones of comfort – that he would sort it out, that I should put on my pyjamas and have tea and toast.
She is at the ice-cream van. Go out there, pull back her ponytail and punch her face. If you don’t do it, I won’t speak to you for the rest of the night.
Shaking but desperate for my father’s approval I walked down the street, looking back repeatedly to the window. Every time I looked I longed for him to wave me back in but he just impatiently gestured me to hurry. Sure enough she was there waiting in line. I said ‘excuse me’, tapped her on the shoulder and, when she instinctively turned round, did what I had been told. She began sobbing instantly, warm snot dripping from her nose and other parents from the street coming to her aid, waiting on my mother, who was being served, to discipline me. Instead, within a matter of seconds she bought me a 99, took my hand and walked me back to the house. When we got there my father lifted me in the air with pride, singing a football-style chant, celebrating my bravery. The little girl’s mother never came to the door. No child lifted a finger to me again for the ten years we lived on the estate.
“In the space of half an hour I had become many things to many people. The classic easy target, a cruel bully picking on a younger kid and and the underdog snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”
In the space of half an hour I had become many things to many people. The classic easy target, a cruel bully picking on a younger kid and and the underdog snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Yet, inside, I didn’t feel like any of these things. I am sure this is still seen by my parents as a defining moment in my childhood, where I became able to look after myself. Some adults on that street might remember me as the shy, sensitive kid who took everything too seriously and was bound to be bullied. But the situation was about more than me being hurt and inflicting hurt. Who hasn’t endured pain in their life because they were trapped and fearful, preoccupied only with how they can survive a little longer? Who hasn’t sought approval of others to validate themselves, the utter fear of being rejected outweighing their own sense of self? Society gives us the message that how we respond to adversity says everything about who we are, ignoring our individual complexities and circumstances.
The version of us stored by others is often a type of shorthand which makes their own struggles easier to manage. Sometimes you need to confront these ideas for the sake of your integrity and sanity. Sometimes you just need to go home and eat ice-cream.
Marie Gallagher | @FuzzyPeachGirl
Marie lives in Edinburgh where she is a college teacher, supporting young people with additional support needs. She is relatively new to creative writing and gained the confidence to finally give it a try through For Book’s Sake’s Write Like a Grrrl course. Here she became part of a bold tribe of women writers at all stages of their writing journeys. She is currently working on a YA science fiction novel.