This is a true story.
Ever been scared of the weather? Yeah, sounds stupid doesn't it? And I'm not talking about crashing thunder that rumbles mountains, or hurricane winds that take you to Oz. No, I'm talking about the start of summer, blue sky dotted with delightful fluffy clouds and a gentle breeze on your face type weather. What some might even call perfect. Well between the ages of thirteen and fifteen it scared the daylights right out of me.
Probably best to start in the middle right?
There I was ready for a night out at the local bowling alley, hair slick with wet look gel, half can of lynx Africa clinging to me like some nasal tickling poltergeist and a skip in my step that said 'I'm going to meet a girl tonight.' Then again at thirteen that was pretty much always my thoughts, or hopes, or wishes. In reality, I was a better daydreamer than player.
Regardless, being of a moderate ranking of self appointed coolness I could never show up somewhere on my own, so began my trek to 'the friends' house. It happened to be twice the distance from my house to the bowling alley, but that's how we rolled. Or rather climbed, it was all uphill. The problem in undertaking such a journey was that my need for nicotine would rob me of my girl impressing smokes sooner than expected. Chain smoker you see, it was the nineties and along with the green neon shirt I was sporting, still cool.
My friend's street had a corner shop where the owner didn't care what age you were. That man would have sold his grandmother if it could have gotten him a profit. Or just to get rid of her. So as I rounded the corner on that crisp day full of possibilities and teenage hormones I paid little attention to the gang gathered outside the shop. Tribe or clan might be better cause when I came back out of the shop, satisfactorily pulling that little strip of plastic that frees the poison sticks, someone shouted at me in a high pitched nasal battle cry.
"What ye looking at, big lad?"
Now before I go any further, you need some extra info;
Firstly: At twelve years old I had a growth spurt that felt like demons had me on the rack and stretched my body from four foot five to a whopping six foot three, in a single summer. I spent it mostly in bed, in agony. But the shock of my classmates at the start of next year almost made it worth it. However, I was always skinny and now, well I looked like a sheet had gotten free from someone's clothes line and wrapped itself around a lamppost. So as you can imagine, not threatening.
Secondly: In Northern Ireland when someone calls you, "big lad" but makes it one quick word, that is a friendly greeting. However when someone spits it with the b making a hard "Buh", drags out the middle and lands a hard "D" so sharp it's almost a "T", well…you're in for a spot of bother. I'm sure you can guess how our antagonist delivered this.
And finally: What are you looking at, never has any relevance to the direction of ocular scrutiny you are applying to any particular object, place or person. But rather is an Irish way of saying, I have selected you as an appropriate opponent for a duel upon which the result shall elevate my status of macho-ness to incomprehensible levels as you are of significant millimeters taller than I.
"Nothing short arse, so why don't you do one." This was, without doubt, the wrong response, and something I realised shortly between the words passing my lips and his fist cracking my jaw.
I stumbled backwards, wobbled sideways and found myself crashing into a pebble dashed wall. The clan of tracksuited, gold chain wearing, coin ring welding, barbarians circled about. A human ring of sorts with extra whooping and hollering in a tolkienesque orcish quality. They had me penned in, a sheep amongst the wolves, and mutton was back on the menu. But I wasn't going anywhere. Nor was I fit to fight. My vision was already blurry, heaving breaths burnt my throat, everything spun into a stomach churning smear. The little chieftain wailed all his fury into my ribs and sides, and kidneys. Gravel filled my mouth as I bit the dirt and everything phased out of meaning.
When I came to it was like looking through a waterfall, nothing made sense. My eye felt swollen shut, my teeth had a squishy jelly quality, and something was stabbing out from below my nose. It was a metal wire. The thug had kicked me in the face when I was on the ground so hard he snapped my train track braces and the resulting spring of the wire ripped through my lip and out my nose. I lay there gently dabbing my face, acutely aware of the rabble around me. I tried to stretch my eyes open but all I could see was the searing white sun interrupted ever so often with elongated, almost alien-like, shadows. Something pulled me under the arms, suddenly upright the brick houses whizzed by and the shouts of strangers crowd my muffled mind.
It was explained to me later, that some of the “older boys” had come to my rescue on seeing the tiniest warrior leap into action. I also found out that that minute brawler was in fact a professional, albeit junior, boxer.
To this day it was the worst beating I'd ever gotten, my lungs were sore for weeks, I pissed blood, lost two teeth and needed professional medical attention to remove the snapped brace. And then the brace replacement itself.
But here's the thing. After all that, the thing that raised my hackles, the ice down my spine was when I would wake and see the day start the same. Blue skies, fluffy clouds, burning sun, mild breeze. Maybe it was primal, survival, or just down right dumb, but anytime the weather presented the same conditions I got paranoid as all hell that I was about to get jumped again. So on those days I would always find a reason to avoid public places, or never be anywhere on my own. It became a real hindrance, a real phobia.
So what happened when I turned fifteen? How did I overcome the idea that the celestial bodies were conspiring against me? Well….
Late July and daylight was little more than a rumour clinging to the horizon, a cool summer breeze whispered danger to any that dared to listen as I swept the petrol station forecourt. My uncle had arranged a few shifts for me to help me out of my isolatory funk. Being holiday season it was a quiet night, most off foreign or away to caravans and such. This provided plenty of time to wrap up all my standard cleaning tasks, restock shelves and I was just leaning on the counter for a break with a cup of tea when the door chimed.
I looked up and instantly laughed. Two men, one tall, really tall, and a short dumpy one were storming towards me. Only their black beady drug addled pupils stared at me through floral pillowcases. This was some sort of joke right? Had to be. Perhaps two locals lads pranking me? Then, from their bomber jackets steel flashed murder.
Tall slashed over the counter, I flinched back into the cigarette stand, cartons crashing to the worn linoleum. Small bolted behind the counter coming round to hem me in. The wolves were back, but this time they were dire. There was shouting, l don't remember registering the words but the meaning was clear. Trembling, I put the till drawer on the counter, coins spilling, notes fluttering, and put my arms up. Tall, not happy with my offering, leapt the counter, I dashed out of his way and right into Short's jaws.
His arm wrapped around my throat, I crumpled like a wet bag, the point of his blade digging into my temple he dragged me into the small stock room.
"Fucking move and your dead big lad, ye hear me!"
Three minutes and twenty two seconds. You hear things like smash and grab, and they were in and out in seconds. No, not for me. Rewatching the CCTV footage with the police it took three minutes and twenty two seconds. They took their time, gathered the cigarettes, and grabbed things from the fridge, wiped down surfaces, issued some more threats to me and then off into the night.
Fifteen years old and involved in an armed robbery. But how did this help me with my other issue? It was the detective.
Giving my statement I kept getting tongue tied and nervous, I would apologise and he would repeat.
"You don't apologise son, none of this was your fault. You did nothing wrong."
It took some weeks to get my head right, but his words stayed with me. I did nothing wrong. Either time. So why punish myself. Locking myself away from the world didn't make me any safer. We have one life, and unfortunately bad things are going to happen. Life is either a comedy or a tragedy, but it's up to us to decide which.
So, slowly I started letting myself be me again. However, every now and then when the sky is clear, and the winds just right I wonder…what danger is waiting round the corner.