Life. Now, there’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, if there ever was one. Born into this world, we know nothing. Zilch. Nada. We show up with our DNA (and maybe a soul, if you’re into that sort of thing) and not much else. It’s the double helix, wiggly stuff that shapes us.
We’re pre-programmed like tiny biological computers. Our looks, our aptitude for learning or not learning stuff, our weird and wonderful habits and preferences. But it’s not all genetic destiny. Along the way, we get influenced by our experiences, our encounters with a fascinating array of human beings, and a mishmash of places. Plus, let’s not forget the rearing we got from our parents, older siblings, and our educational institutions.
Born in the 60s, I came from a time far removed from that of my kids or their kids. And my parents? They were from a different universe entirely. If you ask me, we’re not supposed to understand what makes the other generations tick. It’s kind of like trying to explain TikTok to a caveman.
Take my Father. Shipped off to the West Country during the war for his own safety. For a young nipper, safety actually meant living with a gaggle of other children and an old bat who had an aversion to boys. Fast forward a few years, and he was off to the RAF at the ripe old age of fifteen. Talk about boot camp life. Structure and discipline were the order of the day.
My Mum lost her own mother at twelve. Suddenly, she had to grow up overnight. No time for childhood silliness. All these experiences are like clay, moulding you without you even realising it. Fighting or perhaps reinforcing the DNA helix.
Enter stage left, yours truly. Back when the world was still black and white, or at least until we scored an invite to watch the moon landing on the neighbour’s colour TV.
School was a carousel of new places, new faces, rinse and repeat every couple of years, courtesy of our Armed Forces lifestyle. I quickly learned to put on a brave face, you know, the one that couldn’t be bothered with the inevitable jabs thrown at the ‘new kid’. Someone who’d grown an emotional Teflon coating from constantly making and losing friends. Goodbyes? Nah, we skipped those. Here one day, gone the next. No harm, no foul. I was a pro. Everything negative was popped into a mental box, and the lid nailed down. I was buttoned up tighter than a cow’s arse in a cloud of flies.
1960’s school teachers could certainly give today’s kids a run for their money in the trauma department. As a six-year-old, I remember sitting on those gigantic wooden benches for school dinners, a rule of ‘No food left behind’ strictly enforced. Somewhere in Africa, kids would die for a plate of slimy fish and lumpy mashed potatoes drowning in brown gloop masquerading as gravy, we were told.
I despised slimy fish. As I began a whimper at the thought of having to try and swallow it, (sometimes the same bit twice), up comes the hawk-nosed, lanky teacher. “What’s the matter, boy?” he asks, in a tone of voice you’d use to comment on a dollop of dog shit stuck to your shoe.
My whimper evolved into a full-blown sob. I tried to mutter something about hating slimy fish, but my throat wasn’t cooperating.
“Don’t cry, boy!” he boomed, “The fish will swim away!” Hilarious, really. A masterclass in humiliating a kid in front of his friends.
Fast forward to yet another school at age seven. The teachers, perched on their dining hall thrones, scoured the children below for culprits who dared to use their forks like a shovel while eating peas. “It’s not a spade, boy!” they’d bellow from on high. “Use it properly!” I can feel a little bit of wee leaking out, just thinking about it.
Perhaps it’s PTSD that’s been nagging at me all these years?
You’re probably scratching your head, wondering what all this has to do with my sorry saga? Well, my life’s been largely about squashing any smidgen of emotion like a Coke can under a boot. Then came the sucker punch of the ‘something nasty,’ and boom! The nailed-on lids of my mental boxes blasted off and out surged a torrent of fierce, sinister, and soul-crushing emotions at the worst possible times.
Helen has always been an emotional dynamo. She’ll burst into tears faster than a vegan at a sausage factory. She can’t even make it through Top Gun without getting misty-eyed way before Goose’s fatal plunge, just because she knows it’s coming. Just one look at her face, and you know exactly what she’s thinking. If she reckons you’re a complete muppet, her eyes and eyebrows spell it out in high definition.
As we run a Bed & Breakfast together, we’ve divvied up the duties based on our skill sets. She whips up culinary wonders while I play nice with the guests. I can smile at some self-entitled millennial, and say, “Sure, smashed avocado on toast with mung beans on the side is fine,” all while my mind is growling, “You what, mate? Do you see that anywhere on the menu, you feckin’ bellend?”
Helen reckons I’ve been a ‘work in progress’ for the good part of our two-decade journey together. And I reckon I’ve made some strides. I’ll now happily sob at a soppy film (yeah, I know that’s an oxymoron), but only when it’s just the two of us. The thought of someone else seeing me in such a state? Bloody horrifying.
So how do I tackle this emotional whirlwind? People have even started to say lovely, kind things to me. To be honest, emotions are exhausting. But I’m chock-full of them. I’m livid. I’m sad. Sad? I’m bloody devastated! Yet, oddly enough, I also find pockets of joy. I’ve got this ticking clock over my head, and I want to milk every moment. Simple pleasures, like a warm breeze on my face, stroking the cats or the feel of Helen’s hand in mine, become profoundly meaningful. With each passing day, these precious moments are ticking down.
Every morning, I do a mental check-in. How am I feeling? Stressed is a common find. There’s way too much unpredictability in this for my nuts-and-bolts engineering brain. They say stress is a killer. Ho, ho, very bloody funny. If I’m feeling low, does that mean I’m just down, or am I spiralling into depression? I haven’t felt anger yet, but who knows? It might be just around the corner. I’ve always been a stickler for fair play. Karma, right? ‘You reap what you sow,’ I’d often quip. Perhaps I’ve been more of a prat over the last six decades than I thought. Maybe this is my just desserts?
Feelings. They’re a total bugger, but I reckon I might get a handle on them before the bell tolls.