Happy New Year! Here's a tale of a long, long ago summer which might chime with some of your own recollections of family holidays when school/work was still unimaginable weeks away...
I was always a late developer, never more obviously so than in my early teens. At that crucial age my already diaphanous self-confidence was shredded by two things: The first of these was the fact that I went to a single-sex college and had little-to-no concept of how to interact with girls – if I could even find any. And secondly: an oddly-shaped bite saw my nervous smile scaffolded with glittering orthodontic braces for a very long, and socially critical, two years.
Kids seem so much more confident these days, some even see similar corrective treatment as a statement, but for me it was an unsightly muzzle and I felt as if I was trying to interact with an increasingly scary world with a paper bag over my head. Indeed, some days that would have felt like a blessing. It’s been said that one reason the Frankenstein monster is so popular in youth culture is that the clumping, out-sized, misunderstood creature chimes with how an adolescent male can feel: trapped in an uncoordinated, complexion-ravaged and oddly-proportioned body, struggling to be accepted before rebelling against an uncaring world. I certainly wasn’t late in developing my teenage angst.
Already shy, stuttering and gawky, what passed for a social life was spent with a few classmates who have remained loyal and cherished friends to this day. None of us were sporting legends or endowed with full social calendars, but our somewhat book-ish camaraderie enabled us to happily suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous early adolescence together. If the unimaginably remote subject of girlfriends ever arose, the awkward, foot-shuffling silence could always be covered up with the kind of braying, teenage bravado which even we weren’t immune to (while we secretly hoped that maybe the combined colleges formal dance, still years way, might be our deliverance).
Then one summer it all seemed to change in a matter of weeks - a long-overdue quantum leap.
I think I can say exactly how it began. My usual summer holiday routine of spending almost all my time with a visiting friend, whom I only saw once a year, was interrupted. The reason is lost in the mists of time, but I suspect the very thing lacking in my life, co-ed socialising, might have been a factor for him.
I faced an immediate future which lacked its usual structure, and like many social inepts, this vexed me. My regular friends were away on long family holidays, or working summer jobs. So I wandered down to the town swimming pool, the only place to be, (but not necessarily by yourself). And while convincing myself that I was having a great time all on my own, I received some abuse. The friendly, good-natured abuse which boys at this age (actually, any age) greet each other with. It was an acquaintance from school, he was calling me over to meet his friends, and some of them were girls.
At 15, I quickly discovered that I had a horrible tendency to go all ‘Rex Harrison’, in female company. Stilted vocabulary, exaggerated courtesy, I could hope at best to be called ‘polite’, but most likely, simply a dick. But fortunately, they were all nice people, we had fun, I relaxed, and gradually realised that the same things I could make my usual male friends laugh with made girls laugh too. I could be funny, and not just unintentionally. Somehow, I was quickly accepted into this new fold, and we went on excursions to rivers, beaches and even out at night. But mostly, long December afternoons were spent punctuated by the reverberating twang of diving boards and the myriad splashes and shouts which make up the ambient babble of an outdoor swimming complex. Water would pool on the rough concrete we lay on, while the sun warmed and dried our backs and, impossibly, I talked to girls. To them I was new and I was different, sometimes even in an interesting way (being bookish can have its advantages sometimes). I was happy… and suddenly I was also gone, due to the sudden arrival of my first summer holiday job.
I wasn’t looking, it was found for me, but in the spirit of happily accepting all the exciting new things suddenly coming my way, I threw myself into hard, vineyard labouring. It almost killed me, but there were girls there too, who also found me funny – mostly because of my total naivety forged from years of ignorance of the opposite sex. But at least I had new stories to tell my new friends when I saw them at the Town Pool in the weekends.
I hardly recognised my life anymore, I had new friends, a tan, I was even making money – and then I was transplanted for the second time.
My own family holiday had arrived, two weeks away from this recently-born, thrillingly ‘adult’ new existence to a place which might be politely described as infamously quiet and remote. In a tent. With my family.
Kaikoura has considerably more glamour and appeal these days, but back then my sister and I refused to believe we were actually staying here until Dad pulled off the highway into the dusty Motor Camp. But even here, the unstoppable spirit of change which this summer had unleashed sought me out and continued to re-order my life.
It would have made this summer a perfect cliché to talk about a holiday romance at this point. I did meet a girl (being a relative of our camping friends and staying in a tent right next to ours, even someone with my feeble hit rate couldn’t fail to) and we spent a lot of time together. We walked along the beach, and talked, and talked, and talked – way past my usual bedtime. Although my arrested emotional development couldn’t fail to turn this overwhelming new experience into something resembling infatuation, it was entirely one-sided and completely platonic. The closest it came to ever becoming in any way physical was her grabbing me in fright when a startled cow loomed out of the darkness as we crossed a field from the beach one night. But what these many hours sharing stories and experiences with a slightly ‘older woman’ did for me was give my tremulous self confidence the final boost it had so badly needed for so long.
Even through a mouthful of wire I could apparently be entertaining, and I glimpsed finally that there could be more to existence than the cycle of school, family life and homework which had somehow contented me for the past decade. I also passed School Certificate that holiday and Dad gave me my first ever driving lesson. On returning from Kaikoura I was barely ever found at home. I was growing up at last.
Meeting up with my usual friends at the end of that January, I think they could sense the change in me, we were all changing – it was inevitable even for us.
But for me, that one memorable summer seemed the catalyst which transformed years of swelling emotional and hormonal critical mass into something finally resembling an adult. As chain reactions go, it was hardly the Big Bang but the strangeness and joy of it all encouraged me to write. I kept a diary and I loved trying to describe all the new experiences and people I was suddenly encountering. I’m still writing to this day.
|Some thought always goes into an illustration - I'd been thinking about this one for thirty years!|