Róisín Ingle on ... the nuclear accident years


I spent a lot of my teenage years trying to get out of going to school. I had a repertoire of “tummy aches” and “splitting headaches” worthy of an Oscar winner. I wasn’t a morning person. A lot of things “weren’t fair”. School wasn’t fair, for example. I always felt it should have started at a reasonable hour like noon. This ludicrous 8.45am kick off suggested we were all heading out to put in a day’s work in an accountancy firm. But nobody agreed with me and so I faked illness as often as possible. Sometimes it worked but most of the time my mother could not be fooled.

So when I think of the teenage years I remember countless duvets being reefed off me in the cruel, cold morning light. I taste neat vodka and hear the Wham Rap which I still know off by heart. But as I grow older the specifics, the details, get further out of reach.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. All I know is, like a lot of teenagers, I was a contrary Mary. One day bunking off school to get Gay Byrne to sign my copy of his autobiography, the next stalking silver-voiced buskers on Grafton Street. One minute wishing I could be as cool as the people who hung around with a Dublin band called The Garden Hasn’t Changed Much and the next cuddling up with my mother on the sofa to watch Barry Manilow television specials.

“What was I like as a teenager?” I asked my mother so my memory would be jogged.

“I don’t keep those things in my head,” she said. She’s blanked them out more likely. I wouldn’t leave it though. “What was I like, what are your memories of teenage me?”

She thought for a minute and then recalled “the time you ran away from home to that boy’s house and I didn’t know you were gone until the boy’s mother rang to say you were there”. Ah, good times. I met him years later. It was deliciously excruciating.

At the time, I genuinely thought I could live in his shed forever and I’d never have to do maths homework again. And then my mother turned up to bring me home. It was miles away. In the countryside. There were hedgerows and a black night sky, darker than the one in the city. When she dragged me home I was raging.

She was on a roll now: “Even when I made nice dinners you very often wouldn’t eat the vegetables and filled up from Borza’s instead,” she continued. I suppose they were nice dinners. But I always craved something else. I spent years wondering what that was. I’m still figuring it out.

“You did wear some strange clothes which upset your sister when we visited her in Glasgow.” Oh, excuse me. That was the brilliant paisley pyjama top which I wore as a shirt every day that summer. Morrissey wore stuff like that. I was too cool for my entire family. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get me. I slammed a lot of doors. Things really were not fair.

“You know I can’t think of anything too terrible but there must have been some bad things because why did I ring whatever organisation it was mothers who can’t cope turn to?” I do remember a family counselling session where all my family sat around in a circle and I seemed to be the problem. But it’s all water under the teenage bridge now.

“You did bring some strange people into the house but then I was used to that,” my mother said. She brought a few strange people into the house herself if she didn’t mind me saying.

There was silence then. Each of us trying to remember. I do have a memory of one night when I spray-painted my wardrobe with black flowers. In the morning my mother tried to get me up for school as usual. I couldn’t talk, couldn’t move my legs or arms. Overnight, the fumes from the spray had rendered me incapacitated. Of course, my mother thought it was another one of my classic put ons. Later, when I could move again, I celebrated my bona fide day off school in front of the telly with a waffle and vinegar sandwich.

In her new novel How To Build a Girl, released next month, Caitlin Moran refers to the teenage years as a time “when you veer wildly between thinking you are a nuclear accident and thinking you might actually be here to save the world”.

Sometimes I still feel like that. The teenager hasn’t changed much. Some of us don’t. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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