I was always convinced that I would die young. There was no specific reasoning for this, I just didn’t see myself getting old. And yet, I now find myself at a surprisingly venerable forty-seven, geriatric by teenager standards, and now being buttered up with self-help “life begins at 50 books”, having crossed some invisible line of youth some decades past. Surprisingly, forty-seven feels bewilderingly similar to eighteen. The confusing part is feeling unchanged on the interior and yet having lived past your younger self’s “best before” exterior stamp. Hopefully, like a good yoghurt, I have grown in culture. Now the fact that my inner self seems to have frozen somewhere in my teenage years is for a therapist to unpick, but it clearly addled my sense of what being a grown-up means and, more importantly, makes one revise what “dying young” actually looks like. I can recall ageing as being something both magical and sought after when I was just a gnome sized mini-human. There was some secret show behind the curtain of adulthood, and I think I genuinely believed in a kind of coming-of-age party where adults would gather in a “big reveal” where you were handed the keys to escape the prison of childhood. I was a dramatic daydreamer. However, I still knew the reality of adulthood was being profoundly disguised by those over an unspecified age. Secrets were being kept. As a tyke, my first instincts were aroused by the flagrant lies my mother perpetuated about her age. I have the clearest picture of her sitting with her legs dangling in the swimming pool and when I asked her, with the squirming honesty of single digit youth, “how old are you?”, her reply was a wry, “twenty-three” followed by a laugh. The humour was lost on me because from my point of view, she might as well have told me she was born in the Cretaceous Period and had been schooled while Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the plains outside. Twenty-three was fucking ancient. But then I wasn’t overly gifted in the maths or common-sense department.
But back to the point of this story. I was a highly sensitive child and preoccupied with morbid thoughts. My silkworms and dear hamster, Smokey, all confirmed my belief in a short, nasty, and brutish end to life. Danger seemed to lurk in every corner of the world. The irony was, for all my fascination with death, when it did in fact come knocking, it was in the most unexpected way. It was on our family holiday with my Nana and Pa in Australia. I would have been six years old. At that stage I had a shock of hair that was not unlike the helmet worn by Margaret Thatcher, but in yellow. It was the bane of my life, the hair that is, and I will forever stare out of old photos with a look that screams “Jesus, help me” framed in a bird’s nest of blonde. My mother and other, mostly female friends, used to coo and fiddle with the chaotic mess as if it was Jason’s golden fleece. It was probably a seventies or early eighties thing? Anyway, it was hideous. So, there we are, me and my big wig Down Under with my extended family. I grew up in South Africa, so my Oz grandparents were strange, greying creatures that I understood in principle but were just rather grumpy and odd and far away. Nana was pretty deaf, and she slept with her teeth next to her in a glass. That stuff haunts you. Pa was a grump. I take after him. As it was our first Australian visit, and my introduction to my cousins and extended family, it was more like a reunion with strangers that had common surnames. A fairly forced intimacy if you will.
We were staying in Nana and Pa’s Melbourne house at the point where the main antagonist enters the story: a peppermint pearl with soft chewy centre. So, there I was, standing in the backroom that my older brother Sean and I were sharing on the Oz adventure. Each of us had been gifted with a box of these glorious chewy mints. Like all great riches they were supposed to be used sparingly and, like most children, I was not known for delaying gratification. I picked out a large white glob of deliciousness and rolled it in my hand, then flicked it back, leaning back to catch it in my mouth. It was a perfect dunk. And yet, weirdly, it seemed to have disappeared. I looked on the floor. I looked on the bed. And then, as I tried to breathe, there was a quiet realisation that all was definitely not well. The peppermint was not in my mouth, and yet, it definitely had gone in. Standing there on my own, some ancient lizard part of my brain raised the clarion call of, “oh fuck!” I tried to breathe and discovered that “inhale” had been entirely removed from the menu, so I soundlessly gawped like a goldfish as the rising warning announcement in my head pleaded for evacuation to a safer space. I must have had the presence of mind to go looking for adult supervision, but, even though I couldn’t speak, I don’t recall feeling panicked, just a sense of dumbfounded confusion. There was no frantic waving or trying to draw attention to myself. I just pottered through the house. I have this clear flash of my parents at the kitchen table and dear old Nana on the phone. As I walked past, not saying anything, Nana dropped the phone (which swung on its curly cord and squawked) and I tottered outside to the back lawn. A growing wake of adults and children had gathered, and they rushed past and enveloped me. Clearly, I must have had the look of a child in need of medical attention. I remember a growing pressure in my head and l can only surmise that a creeping puce colour had added to the insult of my blonde bouffant. The scene plays out fairly cinematically from here with extraordinary visuals but a dull and scrambled soundtrack. Language was garbled and confusing, like I was inside a microwave looking out at reality whilst being slowly cooked from the interior. How anyone had any idea of what the fuck was going on is beyond me. It was clear that Darwinian economics were attempting to terminate my stupidity, but in a battle against Nature, my relatives now rallied, and kicked the Family Circus into high gear.
The first attempt to remove the chewy sweet was by swinging me, at high speed, by my legs. All the blood rushed to my face and blood vessels around my eyes popped like corn on a hot oven. I was upside down through all this, the scene a literal blur as I was whirled like a Catherine wheel, although a much quieter sort of firework for obvious reasons. If I hadn’t been about to asphyxiate it was probably something I would have asked a willing adult to perform for fun. The peppermint however, was made of stern stuff, and mere G-force acceleration was not about to dislodge it. Thus the second part of the headline performance began, aptly titled, the Shake. Literally gripped by each ankle and shaken at speed like a salt dispenser, with various adults having a go to see if they could remove the blonde from my head with a vigorous shimmy up and down.
There are of course no photos of these events, thank God. Imagine in a modern-day setting, neighbours would have recorded this spectacle on their iPhones and posted graphic social media footage of a cult clearly attempting to rend a blonde rag doll in some bizarre Australian Sunday lunch ritual. Tik Tok videos of this would have been a viral sensation. As we approached the finale, I managed to hit a high note on our family theatre production with an Exorcist level geyser of vomit, or, as the Australians are fond of saying, a technicolour yawn. This did nothing to move the mint. And so, I flew across the lawn, painting it with my morning’s brekkie and lunch in a Pollock style artistic movement. Time slowed to a syrupy thick goo. There were little flashes at the edge of my vision and a sense of receding into myself that I guess were signals that I was about to, blessedly, lose consciousness.
I guess that was when the Grim Reaper truly arrived on the scene. All of the aerial acrobatics had failed to clear my airways, and I was somehow dumped in someone’s lap. I looked up at (I recall my dad?) and I watched with bulging eyes as his hand disappeared down my throat. We had reached the point where possible damage to my insides was clearly a better alternative than the looming certainty of my minty fresh death. The giant forearm of an adult man using me as a reverse hand puppet gave me a view of his arm (black hairs peppered from the wrist up) that I would never have considered possible. Even now I can’t help but picture a baby anaconda trying to swallow a hippopotamus and realising with distinct regret that this was probably the last of a set of bad decisions.
And then something moved.
I remember the intake of breath and being rolled onto my tummy. Gasping and more vomit and frantic voices. I looked around at the large expanse of fresh cut lawn, strewn with vomit and adults in various stages of shock and despair. The tsunami of panic and fear and stress couldn’t just recede, so people pooled on the stairs, the lawn and scattered around me like detritus after the flood. I stared down, and low and behold, there, nestled in the blades of grass, was the seemingly unscathed white peppermint. I do recall thinking that it should at least have looked more damaged based on the impact crater of humanity that was blasted out from its epicentre. Tragically, my second thought was: well, it’s still edible. (And that folks tells us more about the battle with weight loss that this cherubic vomit comet would struggle with until his later years. Even a sweetie nestled in vomit is still a sweetie).
Later, my father took me for a walk. Or a pull, as he walked, and I trundled along in a small wooden cart. I remember I asked where mom was and he said, “resting”. There was a lot in that word, that even I, in my blurry condition, could decode. With my next question I knew I needed to tread carefully. “Dad?” “Hmmm”, he said. “Do you think mom will let me have one those peppermints again?”. I think he tried to laugh. As we journeyed down the meandering lane of the local neighbourhood, I did not realise it at the time, but I had in fact stumbled onto one of the most well kept secrets of age and adulthood. The uncomfortable looming silence, broken only by the squeak of unoiled wheels, had lain bare a truth. My parents were as scared, as unprepared, and unknowing of the outcome of things as me. They too were hiding a kid inside.