When I moved from a small, mixed-sex national school in Shannon to a big all-girls school in Belfast for the first time, it marked a seismic shift in my inner world. Aged ten-and-a-bit, introverted, awkward and usually oblivious to social cues, the move to a new city and school had brought some previously uninteresting things to my attention. I started to notice how other girls looked, and compare them to myself. Most of the girls who seemed happy, confident and at home in this school had certain features in common. They had perms. They had little rock-solid bumps of hair at the front, bound tightly with gallons of hair spray and slides, and colourful scrunchies at the back. They also had what I now know are called white “slouch socks”, but at the time just confused me. I knew their socks were better than mine, that their socks had a volume and a presence that mine somehow lacked, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why or how this was so.
To my amazement I managed to make friends with some of these girls to the extent that I was allowed to “call for” them after school. In case you are under thirty years of age, I’ll explain that “calling for” someone after school was where you walked to a friend’s house unannounced and rapped their door. They answered, flung a coat on, and shouted over their shoulder “I’m going out!” to whoever was in charge inside. And “out” was where we went. There was no real plan, and usually very little to do. There was a lot of talking, visiting the shop en masse, and linking arms. We linked arms while walking anywhere, usually shouting or singing at the tops of our voices.
The method by which I gained access to this important nexus of girls was accidental. Despite my having the wrong food at break time (fruit instead of crisps), the wrong coat (warm and padded instead of a paper thin Naff jacket) and the wrong hair (no perm, no hairspray, no bump) I circumvented the system by wowing them with my doodles in class. It just so happens that RTE was not widely available in Belfast at this time, so most of my classmates did not recognise the Don Conroy masterpieces I was cranking out day after day. They had never seen his how-to videos on the Den explaining that anyone could draw these things.
Although I had moved at a pretty vulnerable time in a girl’s life, I had never felt more at home. Some thirty years later, I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere like I belonged to that little group. The streets where my classmates lived, up past my school at the edge of the city, were our playground. When I watch hard hitting independent films about the reality of life on council estates… the low, crumbling brick walls, the overflowing bins, the broken glass, the paint chipped railings… it makes me a little bit homesick and lonely still.
“council flats” by sgis is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I knew I was accepted by my new group of friends because they nick-named me Pee-Wee (based on my stature) and begged me to stay out when it was home time. They couldn’t understand that home time was not a remotely fungible or flexible concept in my house. My parents were different. We didn’t watch the soaps, or anything else my Mother deemed to have the potential to be a bad influence. We went to mass every Sunday, without exception. We had non-negotiable boundaries on behaviour. I hated that the fun went on without me long after my early bedtime. And I really hated that most extra-curricular adventures the gang decided to take; up to the nearby forest to jump streams, throwing stones into the local pond (known as “half moon lake” and drenched in scary urban legend), taking a bus into town, kissing boys; were off-limits to me. My Mother had a sixth-sense for mischief and could usually sense right away when I returned home having broken the small circle of geographical and behavioural freedom afforded to me. She just knew.
Despite being the poor sap saddled with the stick-in-the-mud parents and all their rules, my friendships with the gang developed until I was spending every free minute I could with them. One of the tokens of acceptance that I valued most from them was an invitation “in”. Being taken into someone’s bedroom rather than waiting at the door was a sign the friendship was going to the next level. No longer just a peripheral member, but really part of the gang. That’s why when Deirdre* brought me in one day, I was determined to do and say the right things, and most of all not to betray my general cluelessness about life. Deirdre had an unbelievably bouncy perm and was allowed to wear low-neck bodysuits. She held a lot of sway with the gang, not least because she had a knack for attracting the attention of boys. So I tried not to show my surprise when I saw her bed was a beaten-looking mattress on the floor. She mumbled something about the state of the room being a temporary one as it was due to be “done up” very soon. That sounded reasonable to me. When she went to the bathroom for a wee, she took me in with her. As she unbuttoned and sat down right in front of me without asking me to turn around or showing even a hint of embarrassment or hesitation, I tried hard once again to seem at ease, as though I were used to company in the bathroom too. She continued the conversation as she urinated and wiped and I struggled to contain my own unease as I wondered whether I should turn, look away, or just try to look at her eyes as she spoke. How I wished I could be as confident and at home in my own skin as she was! She had boobs already, at only eleven. How I wished I had even the mildest swelling, promising boobs to come at that age. But I had nothing. I felt trapped in the body of a child, with parents who treated me as a child, whilst she was somehow almost a woman already.
As Deirdre brought me back downstairs to head out again, her mother heard the stairs creak and called us into the living room to chat. Her hair was white and yellow towards the ends and black at the roots, and she had black lines drawn around her eyes. She talked about going to a nightclub called The Arena. It was somewhere outside of Belfast. A bus had to be arranged. She told me how she would have a carry-out on the bus then take just half of an E once inside, because she wasn’t going to go mad or anything. Unsure of what to say, or why she was telling me, I just nodded silently. I could always find out what an “E” was later. My God! A bus trip to a nightclub! I’d heard of some older sisters, or friends of friends who were 16 or 17 getting into The Arena, but the idea that someone’s Mother would go absolutely floored me. Again, I hoped I looked cool, like all this was very normal and expected for me. Like my Mother’s social life didn’t centre round knitting circles and prayer groups.
I never managed to make it inside Deirdre’s house again. My Mother put her foot down in regards to my roaming up “around there” with “those girls”. I was heartbroken. I sat at home night after night, with my parents’ tv news droning on and on in the background, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Why was she treating me like a child? How I envied Deirdre. Her looks, her friends, her freedoms. I turned inward. I turned to my books. When September came, my parents sent me off to a Grammar School outside the area, a bus ride away, where I knew no one. I made some friends there, but we never had the kind of freewheeling adventures and closeness I had before. We never really had a “gang”. And I never did figure out how to dress or do my hair to attract attention from boys or envy from other girls. I embraced grunge instead, and told myself I didn’t want to. In time I gained my freedom by signing up for University and moving out, far away from the old streets to new streets near the Botanical Gardens and the Museum.
One morning coming through town I bumped into one of the old gang. I asked about everyone I could remember. What became of so-and-so? Where are they now? What are they doing? I eventually asked about Deirdre. She seemed to think I knew part of the story already, because she said wasn’t it a real shame that Deirdre’s Mother took her Father back into the house after what he had done to Deirdre, her little girl. Of course Deirdre couldn’t just forgive him for what happened, she had no choice but to run away. The last she had heard was that a group of boys from the area had taken a car and gone to get her from the juvenile home. She jumped from a first floor window and left with them in a stolen car. No one had heard what became of her after that. I nodded silently, hoping I would seem worldly and unsurprised, like I had known what was going on in that house all along. I wished my friend well and said goodbye. I went off to catch a bus to a long day of statistics and research methods.
*pseudonyms have been used