I have been swearing a bit lately, particularly in my written work. I suppose I should stop.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have uttered anything like a swear word — in fact, when I emigrated to Australia at the age of 15, the Aussie schoolboys (who used the word ‘fark’ even when asking the teacher a question) teased me because the most I would say was ‘get stuffed’ or ‘stuff that’ or ‘stuff me, this day is stuffed’ — stuff like that. To which the Aussie boys would respond, ‘Fark me, you dumb Pommy baaastard’ or ‘Bugger me dead, you bloody Pommie baaastard’ (their responses always included ‘Pommie baaastard’). What made it worse was the pallid colour of my northern English skin. Sort of a porcelain off-white with a hint of freezer blue. The type of skin that is normally associated with Christmas stuffing. This teasing continued for months, until one day I was inadvertently standing idly around while the Aussie boys played cricket, and one of them belted the ball in my direction. My automatic response was to go for the catch, despite the fact, as everyone knows, Englishmen’s fingers are made from butter. I went anyway, and flew through the air like a frozen chicken … and caught the ball.
‘Faaark mate, who said Pommie baaastards can’t play cricket?’ they shouted in unison.
‘Stuffin’ right,’ I said.
What the boys didn’t know was that even ‘stuff’ was a big thing for me. I had been in the room the day my younger brother told a daddy long leg spider to ‘get stuffed’ multiple times, whereupon our Dad burst into the room and threatened to give him a good hiding (Andrew, not the spider). For the record, Dad never gave us a good hiding — ever. He just threatened it, by raising his big, hairy hand, as if he was about to knock our brains from our heads … but the hand never fell. It stayed suspended in the air, while we minimised ourselves on the floor to shield our heads and our faces and our balls from the oncoming blow — even though we knew it wasn’t coming. It was all just part of the pantomime.
‘Next time, you’ll get the back of my hand,’ he would say. Then wander off. Why the back of his hand he never said. And I’d seen Dad play tennis. He didn’t have a good backhand.
The upshot of all this was that I wasn’t a sweary kid. And when I became a father I was determined that my kids wouldn’t be sweary either. The closest I came to endorsing an actual bad word in the house was when I invented our family game Shit-scared, which consisted of me hiding in inconceivably small spaces around the house, like the airing cupboard, or the pantry, or the cupboard under the sink, then pouncing out and scaring the kids as they passed by. Hence the phrase ‘You’ve been Shit-scared’. The near-tearful, terrorised response of the children to me, a large angry man springing from an airing cupboard and shouting at the top of his voice, has rarely been surpassed in terms of the pleasure it caused me. And despite their tears and the subsequent years of anxiety and panic attacks (and the counselling), I am convinced the girls loved it too.
‘Shit-scared’ wasn’t a problem until the day the girls’ cousins came to visit. These were not typical kids — by which I mean their family was very Christian and very conservative. So cconservative, in fact, that they would change the channel on the TV if a risque advertisement came on. My girls asked if we could play Shit-scared with the cousins, and we didn’t see them again for months.
In fact, the next time we saw them was for a special service at their church. Mother’s Day, something like that. It came time for the communion to be passed around, and my daughter — the same one who had suggested we play Shit-scared with the cousins — took the communion wine (grape juice) on the mistaken belief that salvation was being offered freely to all, upon which one of her cousins, seated behind us, leaned forward and shouted: ‘You haven’t been BAPTISED!!’
This must have been the final straw, because we didn’t see them again for a very long time. One day in the middle of summer, to be precise, on a 40C+ scorcher. I remember it well. It was a disaster.
We spent the morning in the shade, as you do. We were headed to the cousins for lunch, and to prepare ourselves both emotionally and spiritually, we decided to relax at a park until it was time to go. You have to be on your best behaviour when you visit the cousins, so it was vital to get the girls in the proper (holy) headspace.
And it all went pretty welll. Walks around the lake; lazing beneath the trees; playing on the swings. When it came lunchtime, we packed ourselves in the car, secure in the belief we could enter the Holy of Holies behaving mildly adequately. It was then that out of the blue, one of the girls called another one a ‘bitch’.
This was catastrophic. It was the first time I’d heard any of them use the word and I had no idea where they would have picked it up. It also wasn’t the end of it. Another daughter said, ‘No, you’re the bitch!’ To which the first responded, ‘You’re the bitch!’ I have four daughters. Within seconds, the eldest three were calling each other ‘Bitch!’ Not just once, but over and over: ‘Bitch … bitch … bitch … bitch!’
This was the ultimate nightmare scenario. The one saving grace was that Olivia, who was three, and was strapped in the very back of the car, didn’t understand what they were saying.
‘STOP IT!’ I shouted. ‘What are you teaching Olivia?’
To which, thankfully, they ceased — understanding immediately the implications: a three-year-old armed with such a word is not what one takes to lunch at the fundamentalist Christians, when redemption is on the line.
We arrived just after noon, in the hottest part of the day. The temperature was 44C. It was one of those days when you can see the heat rising from the bitumen … and you can see the bitumen melting (like an Englishman’s buttery fingers). We pulled up in their driveway, and as we did so they came out from the house, big smiles, open arms … all was forgiven. They looked genuinely pleased to see us. No mention of either the baptism incident or the Shit-scared day. I began to think that maybe this was a new beginning, a fresh start. That we could put those misunderstandings behind us and begin with a clean slate.
They gathered around the car to embrace us. And we all jumped out to receive their embraces. All except three-year-old Olivia, who was clambering from her special seat in the very back of the car. That’s when I noticed she was barefoot, and was about to jump from the car onto a boiling hot concrete driveway.
‘Wait!’ I shouted. ‘The driveway is boiling hot and you’ll burn the soles of your feet!’
To which she stopped, sat down on the rear seat of the car with her little legs dangling down, looked me full in the eye, and said in her loudest voice, ‘Then pick me up, bitch!’
* This is a re-worked version of a column previously published in The Gardens Magazine