Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Chasing the Girls

1969-1990 - For a boy to be able to say he had a girlfriend was hugely important. It meant you were cool. Having a girlfriend was a badge of honour. It saved you from those awkward moments when you are asked amongst a crowd, “are you going with anybody at the moment?” To be able to say “yes” and give the name of one of the more attractive girls from our area gave great kudos and nods of approval from everyone.

As a boy I spent 50% of my time playing football, 25% chasing the wee girls and the remaining 25% in quiet nooks snogging, fumbling and giggling with them. These were the days when a kiss would last forever. It wasn’t so much kissing rather it was two people sucking each other’s face amidst a torrent of slobber.

There are laws a boy has when finding the girl of his dreams. These laws exist like memes from ancient carnal man. They involve an intricate assessment or vetting procedure of the potential girl, by the boy. There are five criteria or rules;

#1: She must kiss using her tongue.
#2: She must allow you to put your hand up her jumper.
#3: She must allow you to put your hand down her jeans.
#4: She must put her hand up your jumper.
#5: She must put her hand down your jeans.

If the girl does not immediately apply rule #1, the relationship will end after two dates (give the girl a second chance). Rules # 2.3.and 4 had to be applied else the affair was off.
Crucially, the whole relationship hinged on rule #5 being applied - this was paramount. Only when this rule was brought into action could the boy consider himself to be ‘in love’. In the 1970s these were the Laws of Love to a Belfast boy. I would hazard a guess it hasn’t changed much since.

Finding a girlfriend was never a problem for me. I never understood why the girls liked a skinny little runt like me but they did, and I wasn’t complaining. There were young innocent loves in Diane, Julie, Helen and Debbie, and later in my late teens and early twenties, there were the girls who shared wild drunken nights with me.

One of those hedonistic evenings involved a drunken snog with Aggie Trimble. Being drunk is not much of an excuse for this action. I mean, this girl smelt of chip-fat. Just say the name to yourself - "Aggie Trimble" and think of the smell of lard. I think you get the gist of how much of a brave public confession this is. I lower my head in shame at the thought of cavorting with Aggie Trimble. I sincerely hope I never match THAT feat.

There were many strange, scary and hilarious moments in my love life. Even being threatened with death did not halt my experiences with the opposite sex. Like the night I was with a girl known as ‘Big Yvonne’. She was only about 5'5'', and her title of ‘Big Yvonne’ was not a reference to her height. Yvonne liked sex - a LOT. She would sit in a crowded bar and scan the male revellers. Once she had decided on her prey for the night, she would stare continuously at them. The victim would either become so unnerved they fled the bar, or they would be trapped by her hypnotic, mind-controlling glare and fall victim to Big Yvonne and her lust. I was one of those poor victims on three occasions. I was so terrified of her that I behaved like a captured hostage who didn't want to be killed. I simply obeyed her orders. It wasn’t worth not doing so.

Big Yvonne took me back to her house one night. While she was feeding off me in one of her lustful frenzies, a British Army soldier knocked on the front door and shouted through the letter box "Everybody out! There's a bomb-scare two doors away!" Yvonne once again demanded that our cavorting continued. "Just keep going!" she ordered me like I was her sex-slave. Against the background noise of army bomb-disposal trucks and voices from walkie-talkies, we got on with business. Not even the threat of death from a bomb could stop Big Yvonne's lust - and as for me, well I thought "if I'm going to die, this isn't a bad way to go..."

Long before I went on my wild lust-driven rampage in my late teens I did actually meet the girl of my dreams. This happened when I was fourteen years old. She was called Jane and was twelve years old. Her friend Kim was going with my mate Marty and when a fourteen year old boy went on a date his mates came along also. That’s the way it was for girls – you dated a boy usually in the company of his friends. My mates and I went everywhere together. Rules are rules.

One summer's evening Marty went to his girlfriend's house with me tagging along. Her friend Jane was also there. Once I set eyes on Jane’s blonde hair, jeans, cowboy boots and rather ample chest I decided “she’s the girl for me”. I said hello to the new girl of my dreams while wishing I was wearing something other than dirty jeans, tee-shirt and a Manchester United scarf. If I had known this tasty bit of stuff was going to be present I would have worn something a touch more classy, like my Glentoran jersey. Perhaps I would have washed my jeans or maybe even taken a bath.

Jane and I seemed to hit it off. Soon we were going out with each other to the point where I had written her name on my schoolbag and on my arm in a ballpoint pen tattoo. When a girl’s name makes it onto a boy’s school bag and the covers of his schoolbooks it must be love.

Each night Jane would come to my street to be with me, while my mates and I played football. When we stopped to take a rest, I would disappear up the street with Jane to a quiet nook for a kiss and fumble. Occasionally I left her standing waiting for me out in the street with my mates while I sat in my house watching television. These were the ways of an apprentice romantic without a clue of how to treat a lady. Jane stuck me for a year or two then wisely got rid of me and my ever-present mates.

This was the start of our on-off-on-off-on relationship which ended in us getting married thirteen years later after being apart for eight years. I can safely say that mates are no longer present in our relationship. In the ways of how to treat a lady, I at least learnt that much!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I Once Played Trumpet for Duke Ellington

1986 - Old Tommy drank in a pub in an East Belfast back-street. He only lived a couple of streets away so he could get drunk and still manage to find his way home. It was a daily routine he carried out as if he was occupying his time while waiting for God to bring him home. He was a wee man who 'never bothered anybody'. Tommy did his own thing, drifting through life on the soft cushion of repetition. Tommy’s life had a gentle uncomplicated rhythm. He was in his retirement years and wanted no fuss or bother.

Tommy was a friendly man who struck up conversations with many folk in the bar. He would tell tales from his past and each time he eventually he would get around to reciting a story of how he once played trumpet for music-legend Duke Ellington. ‘The Duke’ came to perform in Belfast one night during the 1940's and Tommy was recruited to play trumpet for him at the concert. This was Tommy's conversation centrepiece. "There are not many who can say they’ve played for The Duke!" he would tell anyone who was listening.

That musical night was his little slice of fame on which he rested as he slowly gave up playing a musical instrument. Working in the Shipyard and raising a family was not at all conducive with being involved in the Arts. I once asked Tommy why he quit playing trumpet. He told me that he got married at the age of twenty-one when " she found out she was pregnant.” You got a girl pregnant and you married her. That was the proper thing to do in the 1940's. Tommy became a young husband and father and "one thing led to another and I just stopped playing." His dream of being a musician was replaced by the cold reality that this was not to be.

After the struggles of young adulthood followed by the middle-age years, Tommy had finally found his own routine in life. He seemed happy with his wife, son, daughter ("the gentleman's family") and grandchildren. He had a small crowd of good mates waiting for him every day in the bar. What Tommy had didn’t amount to fame or fortune but it was enough.

After that night when he played music with Duke Ellington, Tommy spent the following forty years slowly sinking into alcohol-oblivion. This hazy world softened the inner secrets and the 'what could have been' thoughts that swirled around his head. With alcohol they disappeared. Tommy had reached the stage when the war was over; there was no more fighting; no more dreaming of a possible past. Heaven was now waiting for Tommy to be with the wee wife he lost a few years back - "God rest her soul..." he would say each time she spoke her name.

Tommy may not have fulfilled his dream of being a musician but he did actually play trumpet for ‘The Duke’. There really aren’t many who can say that.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Euston Street versus Holy Cross Boys

1975 - Our football team at Euston Street Primary School won the district league and cup, an amazing achievement for a bunch of scruffy east Belfast kids from a backstreet school. I was the proud left-winger of this magnificent team who trounced most other school teams each week. We may not have been intellectual but we were genius with a football.

My biggest disappointment during our double-winning season was being pipped by one measly goal from being the team’s leading scorer. It was John McMillan and his sweet left foot which denied me that accolade. Still, I had a league and a cup winners’ medal to cherish.

Our team was drawn to play Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in a cup competition. The match was to take place at their school. They were Catholics and we would be going into their territory. This scared us. We were Protestant kids from a Protestant area in a Protestant school with Protestant friends. Most of us had never met a Catholic before. This was the way it was – you lived in your own area with your own friends, family, school and work.

On the day of the big match, we had visions of our team winning the match and all of us being beaten up or shot. We held an emergency meeting in the school playground to discuss strategy. We decided that our only option was to let Holy Cross Boys’ win. We didn’t want to die.

Walking out onto the pitch we got a first glimpse of the enemy. They looked just like us, another bunch of eleven year old kids from Belfast in all shapes and sizes – from the short and chubby, to the tall and lanky, to the small and delicate. Twenty two bony kneed youngsters in baggy shorts and wrong-sized football shirts stood shivering in the cold Belfast winter air waiting for the referee’s whistle to blow.

When the match kicked off we were polite and offered little resistance to them and by half-time they were four nil in the lead. We were still alive. Our strategy of keeping them happy so that we could get back home to the safety of East Belfast in one piece was working.

The second half started and soon it was five nil, then six, then seven. In a momentary lapse of concentration, our centre-forward Frankie scored a goal for us. It was a fluke goal, the ball rebounding off him into the net. An 'I didn't mean to score' goal. Frankie went into hiding for the rest of the game, convinced they would 'get him'. After pleading with the coach to take him off, he was substituted.

It was seven goals to one at the final whistle and we each shook hands with the Holy Cross boys in a moment that was more profound than we realised. This was the first time any of us had shaken hands with a Catholic. Probably those boys had never shaken hands with a Protestant either.

We travelled back home in our rickety mini-bus and they went home to their area. It would a long time before any of us would shake hands with the enemy again. This was Belfast in 1975 after all.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Signing up for Bolton Wanderers

1974 - I was a great wee footballer who was once described by two men as "the best boy footballer they had ever seen" - although you can't completely trust the views of two men full of rum, sitting in a Belfast pub...

At ten years old, football was my life. Kicking a ball was what I did constantly. On glorious summer days during the school holidays I would joyously play football with my mates in the Ormeau Park. This was Heaven. No school, scoring goals and lying on the soft grass watching ladybirds do their thing. I would capture the odd unlucky ladybird and keep it in an empty matchbox with little holes pierced in the lid for the poor thing to breathe. The poor creature would be very much dead after it had been thrown about the inside of a matchbox which had been in my pocket for the duration of an hour and a half long football match.

During one particular match, I noticed an old man watching us play. I carried on playing and during the match I dazzled and shone as usual. It was a position of immense power being streets ahead of my mates in football skills. I loved torturing and teasing my friends as they attempted to get the ball from me. They employed all sorts of tactics to put me off the game - shirt-pulling, clipping the back of my heels to trip me and throwing the odd punch. As the old boy watched us I scored goal after goal.

After our match which always finished with a ridiculous score, something along the lines of 36-29, the old man approached me. He told me he was "a scout for Bolton Wanderers". No Manchester United or Liverpool, just third division level Bolton Wanderers but hey, it's better than nothing. He was a tiny man of about 5'1" in height and wore traditional Ulster-man dress - brown suit, white shirt, brown tie, brown shoes and a brown tweed cap to hide his baldness. The old boy told me I was a great footballer and that he wanted to sign me up for Bolton Wanderers. “Wait, a ten year old signing for a professional football club? Was I THAT good?” I thought to myself.

The old boy took out a small creased notebook and pen from his pocket and asked for my name, age and address. He also told me that he would need to take a photograph of me. Alarm bells were starting to sound. As he opened his notebook he asked if I would meet him the next night in the Ormeau Park to take my photo. The alarm bells were getting louder. As he was speaking I caught a glance into his crumpled notebook and noticed other kids’ names which I recognised, one of them being a girl. I asked him "why have you got Mavis' name there? She doesn't even play football!". I noticed the old man panic. Why did he have the name, address and photo of an eight year old girl? Was he also going to sign her up for Bolton bloody Wanderers? My mates and I began to catch on to what was happening here. We were talking to a ‘dirty old man’.

My crowd of mates gathered around the old boy. "What's up?" one of them asked.
"He wants to sign me up for Bolton Wanderers" I told them.
"Bolton Wanderers?! But they're shite!" declared one of them.
"Are you REALLY a scout for Bolton Wanderers?" asked another.
"Yes! I really am!" the old man replied.
"He's not, no fawkin' way!" shouted another.
"He wants to meet me tomorrow night to take my picture" I told the gang.

By this stage the old boy was surrounded by about fifteen street-wise Belfast kids who had obviously rumbled him and knew fine well that he was an old pervert. He looked terrified as he was surrounded and bombarded with numerous questions simultaneously;
"Why do you take pictures of kids, mate?" asked the cautious one.
"Are you a pervert?" asked the direct one.
"Show us yer dick!" shouted the comedian.

The old boy was backing away as the pack paced after him and around him, playing with their prey with great amusement.

"I'm gonna get my Da - he's just over there..." said one, knowing this would finish the old boy off. At that point he turned and ran for his life with fifteen kids running after him shouting obscenities and threatening to report him "to the peelers". I remember the old boy tripping and falling on his face to which we all fell about laughing. I never saw him ever again.