So they say everyday you should do something that scares you. Well every day’s a bit much, I mean I’d be dead, my heart couldn’t take it. But I thought I’d start the year on a scary note and tell a story at 10×9. You can have a read below. It was a nerve wracking experience but I am ever so lucky to have a crowd of loyal supporters, who said encouraging things and bought me gin. They’re a lovely bunch. As my brother once said, I’m a Lucky wee Bastard.
6 weeks. It took my parents 6 weeks to settle on a name for me. Dad was keen on Eleanor, Mum preferred Stella. I think for a while I was actually called Anne-Marie before they settled on Helen, which apparently neither of them actually liked that much, but at least it was one on which they could agree. Aside from the idea that Anne-Marie coupled with my surname was a bit long, there was also the notion that it was ‘a bit too Catholic’. They wanted my brother Richard and me to have neutral names, neither obviously one or the other, so no one could immediately guess our religion. This was 1979 so it was a valid consideration, but you know, this is Northern Ireland, where to paraphrase Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit sectarian. In West Belfast, four years on, another set of parents were choosing a name for their son, and applying the same logistics to their decision. They eschewed Conor and Liam and Fergal before settling on Stephen, because they didn’t want him labelled either. The fact that he grew up on the Falls Road was perhaps indication enough what foot he kicked with, but enough about Stephen for now, he’ll crop up later.
It was ironic that mum and dad agonised over a name for so long, given how little Helen was ever used. My aunt had a little boy the same age as my brother, and she had another boy a month before I was born. So convinced was Richard that he would have a baby brother too that my mother didn’t want to disabuse him of the notion, so for the first few years of my life, I was known by everyone, as the Baby Boy. It really was a miracle that serious gender issues didn’t manifest themselves. I don’t think Richard ever really forgave me, a) for being born at all, and therefore for my intrusion, b) for not being male, ergo rubbish at football, or in fact any other sports at all.
Growing up in our house was like being trapped inside a Lewis Carroll poem: there was always fresh nonsense afoot. In addition to ‘The Baby Boy’ I was also, Helencianna, wee Lencabel and if was bold I was the Bad Baby Boy, which morphed into BBB, which became BBB from the BBC. I didn’t work for the BBC. I was in no way affiliated with the organisation. I was 3 years old. I could perhaps have been the subject of a Panoroma investigation into stupid names given to infants. Close friends invited to the fold were quickly nicknamed, you could see the disappointment register in my mum’s face if there was no immediate effective rhyme available. If a name didn’t appear soon they weren’t generally keepers.
Mum owes these idiosyncracies to a great Uncle of hers, William Martin, whose portrait hangs in the landing of the house in Bangor. A kindly soul, he too spoke in riddles, gave everyone odd names and on Christmas Day gave all of his animals an extra handful of hay. I’ve inherited this trait, and no doubt my own kids will call me out on it.
If one was sensitive to nicknames, perhaps teaching wasn’t the ideal career move; children can be mean. But I’d been teaching my dolls and bears since I was six years old, grimly annotating their work: Brandy, this is not good. Cuddles, more space please. Prince Crawford, this writing is a DISGRACE. So it was no great surprise when I decided to become an English teacher.
The initial weeks of the PGCE at Queens were like the phoney war. Lectures, theory, quite a lot of lunches on Botanic Avenue and pints in Dukes Hotel. It was peachy. Then teaching practice began, taking two buses out to East Belfast, this was before Ballyhackamore became trendy. As we trundled through the Beersbridge Road in the 8am gloom I couldn’t help but think of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. The lesson planning, and the trying to ingratiate yourself to the harried staff and supervisors all got very wearing indeed. The kids weren’t much into poetry. The truth is, in an all girls grammar, there didn’t seem to be much craic. I actually longed for a bit of life, a bit of animation, light impishness perhaps. There was a lesson in this for me: be very careful what you wish for.
Cue my next school, an inner city secondary. Oh, was there animation! On a daily basis I dodged missiles such as M&Ms, pencils, and on one memorable occasion, a chair. I quite literally took to the hills and a crowd of us used to hot-foot it down the Mournes of an evening and I would regale them with my tales of woe, until we got to about Dundrum, when someone else may have squeezed a word in. Then we walked up and down Binian and Bearnagh, Meelmore and Meelbeg, and it soothed my soul, at least until morning.
I created a Unit of Work based on a character called Spindletrim. It was an extract from a book given to us by our course tutor, some of you may even be familiar with the piece. So taken was I with Spindletrim and his plight at the hands of the evil bullies, that I designed several activities through which pupils could explore the intricacies of the English Language. Very little of this stuck. What did stick was Spindletrim, their nickname for me. In fairness, it was better than some others to which I’d been subjected, namely ‘camel toe’ after an ill thought out pair of trousers, and ‘arsehole’, yelled at me from a bus stop. That one caught on too, for a while.
There was one particular child called Daniel. One might say that he was a ‘spirited’ youngster, bustling with energy. I’ve never been one for political correctness, so I’m just going to call him a little shit. Daniel ought to have been with a teaching assistant at all times, but he was quite the escapee, and would often be found roaming the corridors, often at tremendous speed. One such day, I was heading to class when I felt the vibrations of heavy footsteps behind me, getting closer by the second. In hindsight, I should have stepped aside, as one does a charging bull, but instead I wheeled round, elbows bent and raised to protect myself. And so Daniel, who was also quite a portly chap, literally ran straight into my fists and sort of ‘bounced’ off. A mighty shout went up from a few onlookers: “SPINDLETRIM’S HIT DANIEL!” as indeed I suppose I had, although it wasn’t my intention. Oh fuck me, I thought, there’s my teaching career over, before it has even begun. Thankfully though, a nearby teacher witnessed the scene “Terrible love, I saw what happened, you’re grand, yon eejit needs locked up”. Thus it was clarified that I had not indeed hit Daniel, and if anything, this event lent Spindletrim a wee bit of street cred. I subbed in the same school for a month after my teaching practice had ended. At one stage my dad offered to pay me the daily rate, which was £70 to stay at home, because he couldn’t listen to the guerning. He’s nice like that, my dad. All my family are. Mad as a box of frogs, but nice.
And so to my final incarnation. To fund my course I worked on Botantic Avenue in the Mexican restaurant, Acapulco. Saturday nights were hectic. I got super fit, taking those stairs two at a time to deliver margaritas as though they were pints of blood in the ICU. We ran out of milk one night, and it fell to me to run down to the Spar by the train station. My feet were on fire, and as I waited, shivering in the queue, a chap tried to engage me in conversation. “Are you having a good night there love?” “Err no, like I’m working, hence the apron?” Detecting the hostility in my tone, he made a vaguely sarky comment, to which I replied rudely. Not expecting such invective he replied: “Well you’re a Sour Wee Bastard aren’t You?” and stomped off. I was taken back. In fact I rang my mum the next day, looking sympathy. Instead she went into peals of laughter, and called over my brother, who joined in heartily. They seemed to agree that never had a person so aptly summed up a complete stranger’s character, in so few words. And thus I am now known by the pair of them, as SWB. I’d actually quite like to thank the randomer from the Spar that night for giving me my nom de plume.
And so to the chap from the Falls Road. Well listeners, I married him. And no one can quell my sourness quicker. I didn’t become Helen …………, because I’ve been called enough things over the years. So I remain Helen ……………………, AKA Sour Wee Bastard. The irony being that at the moment, thank God, my life has never been sweeter.