Maeve Higgins: I fought the clock and the clock won

In an extract from her new book, the comedian reflects on her personal battle with time, which began with a public shaming in Junior Infants in Cobh

The thing is, I hate being late. When you’re late, everybody can see that you are a disorganised mess, unable to deal with adult life. And that’s exactly the kind of thing I need to keep secret! Being late is my nightmare, my scariest nightmare. Scarier even than getting into bed and touching my bare foot on to a living carp or pike and that carp or pike stirring sleepily. I can’t even bear being late for things I don’t want to do. Dental appointments, hen nights, funerals – I’m there with 10 minutes to spare. It’s not easy. Not as easy as sending a series of “There in 5 . . . sowwy” text messages and definitely not as easy as arriving whenever you feel like it.

It wasn’t always this way. If you were an investigative journalist with an “in” to Walterstown National School, you could find evidence in writing of my consistent tardiness. In Walterstown National School [in Cobh, Co Cork] you start off as a four-year-old in Junior Infants, then move on to Senior Infants.

I love the idea of being a Senior Infant, imbued with all the wisdom and business acumen an infant could carry. I beg your pardon, Madame, I am a senior infant and as such I do not need you to explain subprime mortgages, so please can you just finish peeling my mandarin orange for me in silence?

In some schools, Junior Infants are called Baby Infants, in case there is any doubt about just how young they are. They can get away with anything. You must understand that I’m simply a baby infant. How was I to know this was your parking spot?

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In my friend’s school in Kildare, the youngest children were in Low Babies and moved to High Babies in their second year. I suppose that, over the summer, they just chilled, smoking trees everyday.

Walterstown National School is a big old redbrick rectangle with wooden windows and a little porch at the front. It’s a 10-minute walk from my family home. My father and his brothers and sisters and my grandfather and his brothers and sisters had gone to school there too, though not at the same time as us. When I attended, it was a two-room school holding around 70 children and two teachers.

As well as somehow learning to read and write, we did all the usual activities associated with a 1980s childhood in Ireland, like spinning three times in the teacher’s chair when it was our birthday and whispering our sins to male virgins clad in black so they could tell us which prayer to use in begging the Lord’s forgiveness.

Unusually for the time, the school had a “meeting book”, a hardcover notebook left under the chalkboard for us children to write our concerns in. These concerns were discussed at the weekly meeting, held on a Friday before the spelling test. They always began with, “I would like to bring up about”, and included worries about people being mean to each other or the mystery of the sticky tape that had gone missing from the art cupboard.

It was during one of these meetings that I realised with a sharp flash of devastation that:

1. My family were flawed

2. That flaw was noted by others, and

3. That flaw affected others.

The meeting book entry read: “I would like to bring up about one particular set of Higginses who are always late for school and I can’t concentrate when they come in and rustle around in their coats and whisper.”

That’s what it said. Now, the collective noun for Higgins is not “a set”, it’s a “huddle” but the meaning was clear. There were three Higgins Huddles in the school. There were my siblings and I, then there were our cousins, whose father, my uncle, is almost identical to my father except he is taller and has a higher voice, which may be something to do with his height. These days, my father and my uncle’s grandchildren sometimes mix the two of them up. All they see are smiling white moustaches and tired eyes. I love nothing more than attending a first birthday party where the confused baby gets passed from one to the other, saying balefully, “Gandad? Nooooo. Gandad?” and we all laugh, my uncle’s girlish giggle giving him away. There was also a third, unrelated Higgins Huddle in our school made up of two sisters with fair hair who for some reason played the bagpipes.

My sisters and brother and I were the original Higginses – dark-eyed, pink-cheeked, good at spelling and late for school. That was our signature move – we were always late for school. I was aware of it, but didn’t realise anyone else was. School started at the somewhat arbitrary time of 9.10am, and we would wander up the road and get there for about 9.20am, maybe 9.30am if the baby was acting up or someone dropped a glove or saw a dead badger.

It turned out that, despite our whispering and tiptoes, everyone had spotted us five Higginses coming in late every day. There followed a long discussion about how it feels to be on time for class every morning only to be disrupted by the same people, namely us, day after day. We were treating their time and therefore their lives as less important than our own. The conclusion, drawn by the group, was that we needed to make an effort to be on time. I glowered around the room as my friends and enemies alike said how unfair our consistent lateness was. I felt the helpless anger of the one in the wrong. From that day, I vowed, I would not only be on time for school, I would be early.

As any cuckold with a wanderer on their hands or any dieter with Nutella on theirs will tell you, vows don’t always hold. It’s not that I didn’t make an effort to be on time, I did. In the weeks after our public shaming I would yank the hairbrush out of my sister’s hair before she’d completed her second plait and yell at my brother to forget about his long-division sum copy, he had to leave it behind – there was no time! We had to rush! Absolutely no blackberry picking on the way, we had to get to school for 9.05am. It worked. We found out for the first time that it was possible to be at our desks in time for roll call. Gradually though, we dawdled our way back into old habits and became the Late Higginses once more, much to my mortification.

Fool the clock

This stuck with me, as mortification often does. It hardened, too, into a solid truth I can’t help believing to this day, which is as follows: to be on time is to be grown up and responsible and to be late is to waste other people’s lives. Aren’t I a carefree gal, a whole lot of fun?

The intensity with which I regard time strengthened as I got older and became aware of its finite nature. One autumn evening after school, I watched from our gate as my uncle slowly herded his cattle down the road from the field into their shed for the night. As they plodded past, a parade of eyelashes and swinging black and white, it hit me, and I felt a small sadness plant itself in my heart.

Time is it. It’s all we have. We do not know the number of days left, but we know there is a number. The ache I felt that evening returns now as I sit on a bench in Union Square [in New York] and watch waitresses put chairs on tables and wash the coffee shop floor. Lights flicker on around the city, people nod off on the trains. The day is done. We’ve raced for buses, left blackberries to rot, ignored our alarms, forgotten to write emails and remembered to send apologies.

Junior Infants become Senior Infants before our eyes and we still don’t believe it. We dip and weave and convince ourselves that we have saved time here or spent too much time there, always feeling there is never enough time, and for what? It doesn’t matter. The light has faded and you’ve taken your chances or you haven’t. Either way, the dark seals the ending.

One of the things I love about New York City is the daily battle against this inevitable finality. This place is at its most charming when it refuses to obey the laws of nature. At any time of night you can dance, eat, wash your car, go to the gym or drink coffee. “Don’t worry, we’ll light it up!” says Manhattan. Look, honestly – it’s not over – we’re the city that never sleeps! I want the same thing, my darling city, truly I do, but it’s not possible. For all your money and cleverness, you cannot fool the clock. All the electricity in the world, all the 24-hour joints and glittery fun to be had are valiant attempts at immortality, but they reveal a glint of desperation.

I gladly join in this fiction, this hope that we can make time last longer. Of course I do, but that ache remains. Time passes as it must and we can’t slow it down, but we can always pretend. That’s the least we can do, distract ourselves from its passing a little while longer. So we do, or we try to, until we can’t any more, and then we sleep.

  • Off You Go by Maeve Higgins is published by Hachette Ireland