When you are a child, you do not think about childhood. Or, not with that word. That’s a word used by adults – for thinking and talking about what we see when we notice children. Small, playing with toys, noisy, full of energy. “Too young to understand” almost everything. In a family, a child becomes a ‘responsibility’: another adult word. When adults talk about children, we use a lot of words which have little or nothing to do with being a child.
My eyes are tightly shut. The sun is warm on my eyes and my bed is soft and I don’t want to get up. Bear’s fur tickles my nose. I think I’ll sneeze, but I don’t. I hug Bear even closer, and the tickling stops, but I can’t breathe. I put Bear beside me and I breathe in and there’s a garden smell and it makes me smile. There’s a happy wind on my skin. A car a long way away mumbles and sort of roars. I want to hear everything, so I’m breathing quietly. Birds out in the garden are singing. I’m thinking I’m glad Bear isn’t a real bear. If he was a real bear, he would eat the birds. Wouldn’t he? The garden is waiting for me, I know it. I’m not opening my eyes yet, but I see the garden and the grass is that sort of green you want to eat but you’d better not. You’d be sick, like Tabby the cat next door. I like that cat. It’s brown and black and climbs up trees as fast as anything. I’m going to kick a ball about today, but I don’t want to get up yet. I just want to be here.
Nergal is nudging my nose with her colder nose. I open my eyes as slowly as I can. It’s dark. Isobel snores lightly beside me. I remember bits of my dream with bits of memory in it, like the bear’s fur going up my nose. I remember that from when I was a child. Now, I am 59 years old. How did that happen? Nergal meows loudly, as if to say: “Who cares? I want to go out!” I sigh, and get up, and take her downstairs to the garden. I mutter: “You are so demanding, Nergal. You’re like a little kid.”
Someone once told me that all adults remain partly childlike inside. Some more obviously than others. Not just in our dreams, but in ways we react to people or situations. Or feathers! My Gran had a lifelong terror of feathers from a time when she was a baby and a pigeon landed in her pram and flapped its wings in her face.
It is hard to imagine some adults ever being children. I think of one thug I know by sight. He is about the same age as me. He has about as much emotion in his eyes as a truck’s headlights. He was passing by me in the town one day and we were having a staring contest – because I hate thugs and he hates everyone. It’s hard to picture anything childlike behind his eyes.
When I went to Sweden to visit my son Michael and his family, I got to spend time with my grandson, Marcus. He is autistic and doesn’t speak, and he is endlessly fascinating. On a car journey, I watched him run his finger around and around a plastic letter and sometimes he would look up and see a reflection in the car window and he would smile and laugh at it, as if summer had suddenly arrived and some electric message had sped through his mind to tell him that the world is good and astonishing.
I watched my son walk with Marcus in a forest near their home, in Skelleftea. The pine trees were huge, and the place was magical with long shadows and flickering sunlight. Marcus was so happy it was difficult to watch anything else, but I also looked at Michael and remembered when he was little. A stocky little boy in a blue jumper. I would take him into a community centre where I worked. People were always coming across to speak to him. Michael looked happy, and I think he made other people feel happy, just by being there.
I cannot leave my daughter Rachel out of these thoughts. If I did, she would beat me to death with a giant teddy bear. She also had a hugely positive effect on adults when she was little. When we went to car boot sales, she sometimes wandered around nearby stalls and came back laden with treasures. People just gave her stuff. I could have made a business out of it all.
I could go on about other positive effects Michael and Rachel had on other people as children, or when they were growing up, but I don’t want their heads to expand so much they explode. I do not want to be responsible for destroying any forests – either in Scotland or in Sweden.
Children know a lot before they know words. Later, when we are adults, it’s difficult to remember what the world was like before we had any words to say what we saw or heard or felt. I remember as a small child walking through Balgay Park, with vast trees growing down from a faraway sky. A man on a bike passed by too closely and too fast. He nearly crashed into me and made me shiver. Or maybe it was the cold wind that made me shiver, and I remember the wind as part of the smell of pinecones and the huge spaces between city size trees. But I did not have the words to say any of that at the time.
The great Irish American writer Frank McCourt was 66 years old when he brought out his memoir of growing up in terrible poverty in Ireland. The memoir: Angela’s Ashes was his first book, and it is unusually powerful, partly because it is written from the viewpoint of a child. It is full of passages like this:
‘There’s a new baby soon, a little girl, and they call her Margaret. We all love Margaret. She has black curly hair and blue eyes like mam and she waves her little hands and chirps like any little bird in the trees along Classon Avenue. Minnie says there was a holiday in heaven the day this child was made.’
Clearly, the young Frank McCourt was guiding the pen of the author in his 60s. He writes of happiness, love and terror with the same power. The power of a child’s knowledge in an adult mind.
A big fear in a child can feel so enormous, it never entirely goes away. I was over 50 years old before a counsellor helped me trace back a fear that I always had but could not picture. I had to stay in a hospital for a few weeks, when I was just a few years old, and every night I would scream in the darkness of the ward. I buried that fear so deeply I had no images of something that terrified me, like there was a monster in my head.
I once knew a man who also had a deep fear, but he knew where it came from. He was a tough guy, not a thug, but there was no hint of fear in his manner or in his eyes. When I first met him, I couldn’t imagine he would be afraid of anything. I got to know him well, and he told me he was always afraid. The source was something adults call ‘childhood trauma’. I know the details but there’s no need to tell the full story. It’s enough to say: his fear was also like a giant monster, even bigger than my own, hiding inside him, waiting to pounce in his mind at any moment. He fought it thousands of times: a sad struggle, but incredibly heroic.
Luckily, the good things in our lives as children also live on in the ways we see the world, and react to other people and situations. I notice children every day who are looked after and loved, who laugh easily and who watch the world with the same bright gaze of amazement that Marcus had, that day in the car in Sweden. It makes me think of the many times, when I was a child – playing in parks, wandering along beaches, or walking through forests, when I felt it was right that the world is so huge because happiness is huge too. And it’s always there, bigger than the biggest monsters. Monsters and ghosts sometimes hide deep in our minds, but so do good dreams of being a child. And dreams sometimes remind us: the point of becoming an adult is to make the world a better place for our children, and their children. And for the child inside us all.