The Best Days of Our Lives



The kids are back at school!

Who cares if it rained all summer: the kids are back at school!

Who cares if David and Jeffrey run for the Assembly and bring the Agreement down: the kids are back at school!

Who cares if the world economy collapses; the Amazon rainforests become jotters: the kids are back at school!

Who cares about the traffic jams on the Falls and the whole of Belfast in gridlock: the kids are back at school!

The elderly can walk the streets without being knocked down by skateboards; the fridges are miraculously full; our phone bills are suddenly reduced; summer schemes in the leisure centres are over; and parents can make unhindered love for the first time in two months.

The kids are back at school!

Before the era of nursery schools it was our four-year-olds whom we sent out into the world with a map of darkest Africa, a compass, some seeds in case they found a fertile country, bread and jam sandwiches, and granny’s telephone number.

“Of course mammy and daddy love you, but don’t come back until Friday.”

Who can forget their very first day at school?

Some of us still not weaned and smelling of Johnson’s talcum powder. Bay Rum or Brylcreme or Brut or Eau Savage or Calvin Klein, a choice of wardrobe, a car, a home of our own, a hundred years away.

“Would you change my nappy, Dan, I think I’ve done my Number Twos,” said Joe, who sat in the next seat to me, somewhat taller and steaming.

“Only if you give me a suck on your doh-dohhh or the doots of your Farley’s Rusk,” I replied.

“It’s a done deal,” he said, as he rolled over on the floor, his legs akimbo.

I asked him had he been sterilised, mixing him up with his bottle.

“Have you any gripe water, Dan,” he said, “The oul stomach’s killing me…Be careful with them safety pins,” he shouted. “They seem to be spring-loaded.”

“I think you’ve got worms,” I noted.

“What! From a toilet seat? I haven’t sat on one yet. I’m too small,” said Joe, a carpet salesman somewhere in Glasgow, who isn’t reading this right now (or, with his lawyer).

Yes, my first day at school in September 1957, four year of age. Kids crying and refusing to let go of their mammies’ hands. How they ever got into the ’RA beats me.

Masters smiling reassuringly, but potentially deceitfully, ready to pluck your precious hair out at soon as the classroom door closed behind the only woman in this world who would ever understand you and whom you trusted without question.

Middle-class Masters who would come to love Betty Williams, when she discovered real fur.

Bingnian Drive, Bearnagh Drive, North Green, North Link, Corby Way, Corby Way, Corby Way.

Corby Way.

Joe Magee, Gerry Madden, Eugene Black, Sean Magee, the Harpers, Pat Small, a Heaney, an O’Neill, a Toman, a Kelly, all gone intrepidly into the world of those who would wear long trousers and shave (at first prematurely), and drink (prematurely), and dance (awfully), and became responsible, and settle, and eventually marry, and have kids, and drive cars - and not make love for two months… until this week.

Past summers. Capturing bees in jam jars, bunking at marbles, collecting tin tops, building guiders, skipping to ropes. Going swimming with the Otter Club to the Ormeau Baths.

Past school days - the best years of our lives - cry out for you, the boys grown to old men, who turn down the television and moan and groan and take the same holidays every year and prefer the lounge bar - if you don’t mind - and whose wives, like their mammies, now dress them.

Our first day at school. Bigger than our first step.

We were told, absolutely, we would love it.

“Oh you’ll be able to crayon, find a friend, drink pasteurised milk, learn how to read and write, count, and eventually emigrate, my son.”

As Joe sprawled, his legs East and West, he said: “Wait till you see, Dan. Someday, a scientist will invent disposable nappies and there’ll be no need for me to cart this load home, disguised as my pencil case.”

“Never!” I replied, precociously, unaware of arsy Joe’s deadly contribution to global warming. “The government would never allow it!”

I was a naïve optimist, totally taken in by Harold McMillan who told me that I had never had it so good.

But unknown to Harold McMillan and fifteen-year-old David Trimble, we had a mighty time bomb: John Hume had just got his degree; Gerry Fitt was wrapped in a tricolour and supporting Celtic; Paddy Devlin was taking over the Northern Ireland Labour Party; and ten-year-old Gerry Adams had just got his first pair of Buddy Holly glasses, looked in the mirror and said, “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a barman.”

My wife’s mother cried when her daughter set out for school on that first day. One of my nieces hated school, from the first day to the last, and I think, how sad that is. At sixteen, and about to change to St Mary’s Grammar, I remember standing in the empty school yard of Glen Road CBS in June 1969 and thinking, where is everybody; where are they going to; what is going to happen; will I ever see you again.

I loved my first day at school. Or, to be precise, half-day.

Bonzo McGonagle was the headmaster, whose bark was bigger than his bite. I once came in late and my excuse was that the clock was fast.

“Run that past me again,” he said.

“I’m late, Sir, because the clock was fast.”

Later, my cogency improved to the extent that I now work for this paper.

The kids are back at school. The kids are back at school.

And our fortune changes and a little bit of our heart sinks.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison