Sitting in Abrakebabra last week – waiting my turn on an internet terminal in the loudest library in Ireland – I witnessed the most extraordinary event that heaves human life back to the Neanderthals. A young mother insisting her [3-yr-old?] son hit himself repeatedly in the face, for the amusement of her friend, who’d joined them for some high-fat food and low-content conversation. “Go on, show Mary!” she roared, while scoffing a burger. The kid started whacking himself on his left cheek, but kept his eyes peeled on the adults, who were shaking with laughter, slapping their hands on the formica and ‘whooping’ American baskteball-style. The more they shook, the more he battered himself on the chops. Soon his left side was sore, so he moved to the right. Whack, whack, whack. This was just the funniest thing, a tiny person beating himself up. As gut-busting as seeing puppies jumping up in the air for biccies or kittens swinging on sitting-room curtains Tarzan on the vine, except better, because as the mummy mid-way declared: “It saves me from having to bash him!” A lone man shoving onion rings in his gob looked on from the next table, two taxi men smoking outside looked around for a moment to clock what was happening, but seemed uninterested…the Chinese guy behind the counter saw what the boy was doing, but soon got back to grilling slabs of red pepper and stabbing the rotating kebab cow to see if it was cooked. No-one it seemed, cared, and who was I to run on over and start mouthing? Me, years older and with no sprogs of my own, onlooker, not a social worker, cop, counsellor, vile Jeremy Kyle or even just a concerned citizen. Instead, a hapless neurotic with chin on the table not quite fathoming what was going on. By this time the child’s face was red raw and he was clearly in pain, but this is how he’d learnt to get attention, to get his mother’s approval, her grotesque excuse for love, so was bound and determined to carry on smashing himself, to an orchestra of cackle.
Ten years later, when he’s kicking the brown out of other kids & robbing branded goods to order, 15 years later: sticking needles in his arm and drinking himself into oblivion or 18 years on (acting out his own scenario, just to get rid of it as Alice Miller says), knocking his bird around or breaking bones elsewhere – because it is that achingly clichéd – his mother will holler that she did her very best and can’t understand why her son chose the route in life he did. She’ll likely declare herself a victim and attest to anyone who’ll listen that he’s a good lad, with a huge heart, but got in with the wrong crowd. Anyway she didn’t have a good childhood herself. School of hard knocks, blah blah. I couldn’t say or do a thing, just stared in utter disbelief. Maybe ten or twenty years ago, when people roared out castigations on buses and squalled at this kind of thing in the street, the odds were relatively low for getting stabbed in the face for interfering. Or maybe it’s just easy for me to think that. Shame on the likes of comfortable commentating modern-day me for doing nothing. What must this kid go through behind closed doors and what will he continue to go through for the remainder of his kiddiehood, however short that’s destined to last? Two days later, a similar scene in the local social welfare office, a young boy around eight years old or so, trying to wriggle free from his mother’s lap to go and stand with his father, was slapped so boxing-ring hard in the face, words simply stopped flowing. Stunned, silenced and overpowered, exactly like you see in Barnardo’s ads. “You just wouldn’t shut the fuck up!” his mother roared, by way of explanation for what she’d just done, comfortably, in front of everyone. This time I managed a: “For fuck’s sake!” out loud, looking straight at her. A tad braver in the queue, with a gaggle of people around me. I hoped others might show signs of the same. Most ignored it. Few cared. Desk jockeys kept jockeying. One or two looked around at me and tutted, as if to say: “That’s not what you do here, you don’t butt in on other people’s business here.” I walked right out of there and kept going. In Ireland, people batter their kids in the street, and it’ll always be done with passion.