As a child I had an overactive imagination. Curtains at night would turn into medieval battle scenes, and the wardrobe could not be left open for fear of creeping monsters.
To be raised Catholic is to be raised in fear. You remain institutionally terrified of a vengeful God and all the hellfire that comes with it. Even though I stopped practising in my late teens, it wasn’t until the age of twenty-five that I began to realise there definitely was not someone observing my actions and dishing out rewards and punishments accordingly. The freedom was almost paralysing.
Back to fear though, and what gripped me in the shadows. Witches, Satan worshippers and demonic possession were all completely real to me. Yet ironically enough, it was in the light that I remained truly scared.
“You’re a bit fat aren’t you.”
It was Aztec day at school and we were all wearing tribal costumes. I was ten years old and the lit flame of puberty had struck at the petrol bomb that was my body. A good three to five years before anyone else. For a socially awkward, bookish fem boy imagining gremlins in the dark, there was no greater panic than unwanted attention.
There it was though, sat at lunch of all places, and the boy beside me points out that I am tubby. It’s like all of a sudden someone points out there’s a nipple on your forearm. You just never noticed it before, and now it’s all you see.
I had always been a skinny child. There are photos of me aged four years old where my legs practically disappear when they get to my ankles. For someone who eventually filled out and then some, there was a moment in childhood when I was all limbs.
Hormones and Mediterranean women are a deadly combination. You eat everything on your plate and asking for second helpings is never seen as greedy. When I was about twelve my parents decided to move house, and it was a little harder to get home for lunch every day so they’d send me to my grandparents, who delighted in making three course meals and then giving me money for sweets. Every single day. Looking back at photos, with my pale skin, freckles and chubby cheeks, I was the human equivalent of a chipmunk.
Nobody’s supposed to look good as a teenager though right? Wrong. God had a twisted sense of humour, and in my small town he apparently decreed that through the ages of twelve to eighteen boys and girls should be sent to separate schools. Which is how I found myself in Testosterone High, AKA Bayside Comprehensive School For Boys.
I know what comes now, that it must have been some sort of porno sweaty wet dream heaven of wanking each other off in the locker rooms and getting deflowered by the science teacher. Well, maybe that’s someone else’s experience of that school, someone a little prettier. The human chipmunk took his first step into a hell full of boys who you didn’t know whether to kiss or run away from.
Like some bizarre male-only version of The Hunger Games, there was nothing worse than Wednesdays after breaktime and Friday afternoons, when we would be rounded up into the school playground and after a roll call, split into groups and herded out to the sports stadium for football, football and more football. If I was particularly lucky we would play cricket and I could just stand somewhere on the field, praying the ball would come nowhere near me.
I used to hope for rain, and then one stormy afternoon I discovered the intense pain of indoor crab football, clearly devised by masochistic Spartans after beating each other with paddles. The worst part was that everyone expected that as a Mediterranean male you were not only very clear on the rules surrounding football, but that you had an intense passion for it.
Well, while everyone else was outside beating a piece of circular leather senseless, I was indoors reading and eating, not at all encouraged to cultivate my body in any way. Hence being surrounded by thirteen year olds with six-packs to make Channing Tatum weep, while I more closely resembled the football. I will never forget the howls of laughter when I first attempted to kick the ball, and what’s more the teacher joined in too. I was done, I was out, sport was not for me.
I tried everything. Forged sick notes, “forgetting” my uniform, panic attacks in the toilets pre-sports hour. Then came the worst moment of all, a sunny summer day sitting on the grass in my team like a sacrifical lamb, already suffering the humiliation of being picked last and the anxious anticipation of whatever barbed-wire and shotguns version of football we were going to play next.
“Right” the teacher pointed, “this team with no t-shirts on”. He was pointing at my team. This was not happening.
I had already mastered the art of hiding under the beach umbrella all summer, with a t-shirt and a baseball cap looking completely sour, much to my parents’ frustration and everyone else who thought I was the weirdest palest creature that ever lived. Therapy didn’t exist in my world, that was for crazy people. Here, a shout could fix everything, and if that didn’t work you just resigned yourself to this strange child living in the shadows and hoping one day he’d grow out of it. I sat on my beach chair, reading my X-Men comics, dreaming of the possibility of a better life some day, crying in the showers every evening and wanting to die.
I thought quickly, and looked at one of my frenemies (I had no friends) in the group next to me.
“Hey Alastair”, I smiled. “Swap with me? It’s a hot day”.
He rolled his eyes. “Alright fag”, and by some miracle without the teacher noticing we swapped places. Sometimes it paid to be invisible. The game was awful, humiliating and the worst two hours of my week every week for years, but at least I had gained a small victory in keeping my shameful, podgy body under wraps.
The greatest battle fought and won later that year was realising that after roll call, from the playground to the sports stadium, nobody really cared whether three or four nerds disappeared. Every teacher just assumed they were in some other group, although to this day I think they just didn’t care about the hassle, and preferred to concentrate on their gaggle of savage adonises.
The first time we did it, it was thrilling. If we were caught we were screwed. I don’t know if it was more thrilling or actually depressing to realise nobody cared. After a while it didn’t matter, we’d sneak to one boy’s house whose parents would work all day, and play on that shiny new invention called the internet. We’d watch horror movies and worship Beyoncé, the lead singer of that cool new band Destiny’s Child. I never played sports again in school, which ironically contributed to my size.
There was still the problem of summer though. My body, this alien mass I existed in of curves and bumps and lumps and hair wasn’t going anywhere. I was stuck inside, looking for a way out.
Continued next week….