Childhood, for me, was not so much felt
. In the school I went to when I was small, pupils learned to conceal their emotions. It didn’t do to be too
enthusiastic or too
happy about something good, like a tower of bricks or a pretty painting, because there was always some bigger pupil nearby who’d see us enjoying ourselves creating, wander on over and trash it, just to watch our joy turn to misery and pain.
Lunch time was always a time for self-absorption. I could just about tolerate some of the food: so, in order to get as much time out of my lunch breaks as I could, I’d look for my favourite foods, pick them, find a quiet table in the corner and eat alone, listening to the chatter of the girls, the conversations of the boys, the breaking plates, the clash of cutlery bouncing off the tiled floor, the rush and clatter of the catering staff behind the scenes. Few friends and many bullies made life in the cafeteria … a little desperate.
What I remember most about lunch was the textures. As well as the tastes of mashed potatoes, bacon, sausages (they always had those thin little sausages: I never had thick bangers until the big school) and gravy, or the flavours of the chips, fish and peas, there was also the coarseness of the salt, the chunky bits of sausage meat, the crispiness of the thin slices of overdone bacon – they never could get the bacon right.
I always ate my food the same way: start with the spuds or chips. Then the peas, then the mixed vegetables – if any – and, as if it were the pièce de résistance, the meat or the fish.
I loved the fish. Either they were the kind that came with a breadcrumb coating, and I loved the way the gritty crumbs crunched between the teeth, or they had a good batter coating, with a flavour to them you just don’t have these days. Or they served the fish as little spheres coated in golden batter – I loved them most of all, especially the way they’d crunch open all moist when you cut them open. It’s only much later that I discovered that Birds Eye had withdrawn them from the market, presumably because of embarrassment caused by their inappropriate name – Cod Pieces.
Back then, I could eat chocolate freely. Before I discovered that I’d acquired a chocolate allergy in my young adulthood, that is. Back then, not only did chocolate look bigger to my developing body: it also didn’t contain enough preservative chemicals to poison a regiment.
I could eat Walnut Whip until they were coming out of my ears, enjoying the fondant centre’s texture as much as the flavour, and the strong, woody tastes and bitty texture of the walnut. I used to mystify Mum for years, because when trying to describe them, I had no idea what they were called. To me, they were simply and always “Chocolate Poo Smellies.” The only other chocolate I remember as fondly was Toblerone, because they reminded me always of Taid. Even now, they still do.
If it wasn’t chocolate, it’d be a dessert like jam sponge, or chocolate sponge cake – everybody’s favourite. The dark, rich tastes, the moist sponge, the aroma, the cool layer of chocolate in the centre were always a winner. Least favourite was semolina, which, sadly, they served four lunches out of five most weeks.
Once, for a treat, instead of the usual cake, they served something darker, richer, with a runny white sauce instead of the usual yellow. It’s odd, but that was the first taste, the first sense I ever had, of Christmas.
My school days – my childhood – I only remember as a time of pain, bullies, victimisation and the dull shrieks of fear. Perhaps it is a fitting testament to the educational value of bullying that I remember the feel of the lino on the kitchen floor of my home, the taste of school rice pudding, more than I can remember what they looked like, or even their names.