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Chapter no 1 – High Hopes Shannon

Binding 13

It was January 10th 2005.

A whole new year, and the first day back to school after Christmas break.

And I was nervous – so nervous, in fact, that I had thrown up no less than three times this morning.

My pulse was beating at a concerning rate; my anxiety the culprit for my erratic heartbeat, not to mention the cause of my upchuck reflex abandoning me.

Smoothing down my new school uniform, I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and hardly recognized myself.

Navy jumper with the Tommen College crest on the breast with a white shirt and red tie. Grey skirt that stopped at the knee, revealing two scrawny, underdeveloped legs, and finishing with tan tights, navy socks, and two- inch, black court shoes.

I looked like an implant. I felt like one, too.

My only consolation was the shoes that Mam bought me brought me up to the five feet two mark. I was ridiculously small for my age in every way.

I was thin on the extreme, under developed with fried eggs for breasts, clearly untouched by the puberty boom that had hit every other girl my age.

My long, brown hair was loose and flowing down the middle of my back, pushed back from my face with a plain red hairband. My face was free of makeup, making me look every bit as young and small as I felt. My eyes were too big for my face and a shocking shade of blue to boot.

I tried squinting, seeing if that made my eyes look any more human, and made a conscious effort to thin my swollen lips by pulling them into my mouth.

Nope.

The squinting only made me look disabled – and a little constipated.

Exhaling a frustrated sigh, I touched my cheeks with my fingertips and exhaled a ragged breath.

What I lacked in the height and breast departments, I liked to think I made up for in maturity. I was level-headed and an old soul.

Nanny Murphy always said that I was born with an old head on my shoulders.

It was true to an extent.

I had never been one to be fazed by boys or fads. It just wasn’t in me.

I once read somewhere that we mature with damage, not with age. If that’s the case, I was an old age pensioner in the emotional stakes.

A lot of the time I worried that I didn’t work like other girls. I didn’t have the same urges or interest in the opposite sex. I didn’t have an interest in anyone; boys, girls, famous actors, hot models, clowns, puppies… Well, okay so I had an interest in cute puppies and big, fluffy dogs, but the rest of it, I could give or take.

I had no interest in kissing, touching, or fondling of any sort. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I suppose watching the shitstorm that was my parents’ relationship unravel had put me off the prospect of teaming up with another human for life. If my parents’ relationship was a representation of love, then I wanted no part of it.

I would rather be alone.

Shaking my head to clear my thunderous thoughts before they darkened to the point of no return, I stared at my reflection in the mirror and forced myself to practice something I rarely did these days: smile.

Deep breaths, I told myself. This is your fresh start.

Turning on the tap, I washed my hands and splashed some water on my face, desperate to cool the heated anxiety burning inside of my body, the

prospect of my first day at a new school a daunting notion.

Any school had to be better than the one I was leaving behind. The thought entered my mind and I flinched in shame. Schools, I thought dejectedly, plural.

I’d suffered relentless bullying in both primary and secondary school.

For some unknown, cruel reason, I had been the target of every child’s frustrations from the tender age of four.

Most of the girls in my class decided on day one in junior infants that they didn’t like me and I wasn’t to be associated with. And the boys, while not as sadistic in their attacks, weren’t much better.

It didn’t make sense because I got along just fine with the other children on our street and never had any altercations with anyone on the estate we lived in.

But School?

School was like the seventh circle of hell for me, all nine – instead of the regular eight –years of primary had been torture.

Junior Infants was so distressing for me that both my mother and teacher decided it would be best to hold me back so I could repeat Juniors with a new class. Even though I was just as miserable in my new class, I made a couple of close friends, Claire and Lizzie, whose friendship had made school bearable for me.

When it came time to choose a secondary school in our final year of primary, I had realized I was very different from my friends.

Claire and Lizzie were to attend Tommen College the following September; a lavish, elite private school, with massive funding and top of the range facilities – coming from the brown envelopes of wealthy parents who were hellbent on making sure their children received the best education money could buy.

Meanwhile, I had been enrolled at the local, overcrowded, public school in the center of town.

I still remembered the horrifying feeling of being separated from my friends.

I’d been so desperate to get away from the bullies that I’d even begged Mam to send me to Beara to live with her sister, Aunty Alice, and her family so I could finish my studies.

There were no words to describe the devastated feeling that had overtaken me when my father put his foot down on moving in with Aunty

Alice.

Mam loved me, but she was weak and weary and didn’t put up a fight when Dad insisted I attend Ballylaggin Community School.

After that, it got worse. More vicious.

More violent.

More physical.

For the first month of first year, I was hounded by several groups of boys all demanding things from me that I was unwilling to give them.

After that, I was labelled a frigit because I wouldn’t get off with the very boys that had made my life a living hell for years.

The meaner ones labelled me a tranny, suggesting that the reason I was such a frigit was because I had boy parts under my skirt.

No matter how cruel the boys were, the girls were far more inventive.

And so much worse.

They spread vicious rumors about me, suggesting that I was anorexic and threw my lunch up in the toilets after lunch every day.

wasn’t anorexic – or bulimic, for that matter.

I was petrified when I was at school and couldn’t bear to eat a thing because when I did vomit, and it was a frequent event, it was a direct response to the unbearable weight of the stress I was under. I was also small for my age; short, undeveloped, and skinny, which didn’t help my cause to ward off the rumors.

When I turned fifteen and still hadn’t gotten my first period, my mother made an appointment with our local GP. Several blood tests and exams later, and our family doctor had assured both my mother and me that I was healthy, and that it was common for some girls to develop later than others.

Almost a year had passed since then and, aside from one irregular cycle in the summer that had lasted less than half a day, I was yet to have a proper period.

To be honest, I had given up on my body working like a normal girl when I clearly wasn’t.

My doctor had also encouraged my mother to assess my schooling arrangement, suggesting that the stress I was under at school could be a contributing factor to my obvious physical stunt in development.

After a heated discussion between my parents where Mam had pled my case, I was sent back to school, where I was subjected to unrelenting

torment.

Their cruelty varied from name-calling and rumor spreading, to sticking sanitary pads on my back, then to full on physically assaulting me.

Once, in Home Economics class, a few of the girls in the seat behind me had hacked off a chunk of my ponytail with kitchen scissors and then waved it around like a trophy.

Everyone had laughed and I think in that moment, I had hated the ones laughing at my pain more than the ones causing it.

Another time, during P.E, the same girls had taken a picture of me in my underwear with one of their camera phones and forwarded it on to everyone in our year. The principal had cracked down on it quickly, and suspended who owned the phone, but not before half the school had a good laugh at my expense.

I remembered crying so hard that day, not in front of them of course, but in the toilets. I had bolted myself into a cubicle and contemplated on ending it all. On just taking a bunch of tablets and being done with the whole damn thing.

Life, for me, was a bitter disappointment, and at the time, I had wanted no further part in it.

I didn’t do it because I was too much of a coward.

I was too afraid of it not working and waking up and having to face the consequences.

I was a fucking mess.

My brother, Joey, said they targeted me because I was good-looking and called my tormenters jealous bitches. He told me that I was gorgeous and instructed me to rise above it.

It was easier said than done – and I wasn’t so confident about that gorgeous statement, either.

Many of the girls targeting me were the same ones that had been bullying me since preschool.

I doubted looks had anything to do with it back then. I was just unlikable.

Besides, as much as he tried to be there for me and defend my honor, Joey didn’t understand how school life was for me.

My older brother was the polar opposite of me in every shape of the word.

Where I was short, he was tall. I had blue eyes, he had green ones. I was dark haired, he was fair. His skin was sun-kissed golden. I was pale. He was outspoken and loud, whereas I was quiet and kept to myself.

The biggest contrast between us was that my brother was adored by everyone at Ballylaggin Community School, aka BCS, the local, public secondary school we both attended.

Of course, landing a spot on the Cork minor hurling team helped Joey’s popularity status along the way, but even without sports, he was a great guy. And being the great guy that he was, Joey tried to protect me from it all,

but it was an impossible task for one guy.

Joey and I had an older brother, Darren, and three younger brothers: Tadhg, Ollie, and Sean, but neither of us had spoken to Darren since he walked out of the house five years previous, following yet another infamous blow out with our father. Tadhg and Ollie, who were eleven and nine, were only in primary school, and Sean, who was three, was barely out of nappies so I wasn’t exactly flush with protectors to call on.

It was days like this that I missed my eldest brother.

At twenty-three, Darren was seven years older than me. Big and fearless, he was the ultimate big brother for every little girl growing up.

From a small child, I had adored the ground he walked on; trailing after him and his friends, tagging along with him wherever he went. He always protected me, taking the blame at home when I did something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for him, and being so much younger than him, I hadn’t understood the full extent of his struggle. Mam and Dad had only been seeing each other a couple of months when she fell pregnant with Darren at fifteen.

Labeled a bastard baby because he was born out of wedlock in 1980’s catholic Ireland, life had always been a challenge for my brother. After he turned eleven, everything got so much worse for him.

Like Joey, Darren was a phenomenal hurler, and like me, our father despised him. He was always finding something wrong with Darren, be it his hair or his handwriting, his performance on the field or his choice of partner.

Darren was gay and our father couldn’t cope with it.

He blamed my brother’s sexual orientation on an incident in the past, and nothing anyone said could get it through to our father that being gay wasn’t a choice.

Darren was born gay, the same way Joey was born straight and I was born empty.

He was who he was and it broke my heart that he wasn’t accepted in his own home.

Living with a homophobic father was torture for my brother.

I hated Dad for that, more than I hated him for all the other terrible things he had done through the years.

My father’s intolerance and blatant discriminating behavior towards his own son was by far the vilest of his traits.

When Darren took a year out from hurling to concentrate on his leaving cert, our father had hit the roof. Months of heated arguments and physical altercations had resulted in a huge blow out where Darren packed his bags, walked out the door, and never came back.

Five years had passed since that night, and aside from the annual Christmas card in the post, none of us had seen or heard from him.

We didn’t even have a phone number or address for him. He as good as vanished.

After that, all of the pressure our father had put on Darren was switched onto the youngers boys – who were, in our father’s eyes, his normal sons.

When he wasn’t down at the pub or the bookies, our father was dragging the boys off to training and matches.

He focused all of his attention on them.

I was of no use to him, what with being a girl and all that.

I wasn’t good at sports and I didn’t excel at school or any club activity. In my father’s eyes, I was just a mouth to feed until eighteen.

That wasn’t something I had come up with either. Dad told me this on countless occasions.

After the fifth or sixth time, I grew immune to the words.

He had no interest in me, and I had no interest in trying to live up to some irrational expectation of his. I would never be a boy, and there was no point in trying to please a man whose mind was back in the fifties.

I’d long since grown tired of begging for love from a man who, in his own words, never wanted me.

The pressure he put on Joey concerned me though, and it was the reason I felt so much guilt every time he had to come to my aid.

He was in sixth year, his final year of secondary school, and had his own stuff going on: with GAA, his part-time job at the petrol station, the

leaving cert, and his girlfriend, Aoife.

I knew that when I hurt, Joey hurt too. I didn’t want to be a burden around his neck, someone he was constantly having to look out for, but it had been that way since as far back as I could remember.

To be honest, I couldn’t stand to look at the disappointment in my brother’s eyes another minute in that school. Passing him in the hallways, knowing that when he looked at me, his expression caved.

To be fair, the teachers at BCS had tried to protect me from the lynch mob, and the guidance teacher at BCS, Mrs. Falvy, even organized fortnightly counselling sessions with a school psychologist throughout second year until funding was cut.

Mam had managed to scrape together the money for me to see a private counsellor, but at €80 per session, and having to censor my thoughts at my mother’s request, I’d only seen her five times before lying to my mother and telling her that I felt better.

I didn’t feel better. I never felt better.

I just couldn’t bear to watch my mother struggle.

I despised being a financial burden on her, so I sucked it up, slapped on a smile, and continued to walk into hell every day.

But the bullying never stopped. Nothing stopped.

Until one day, it did.

The week before Christmas break last month – just three weeks after a similar incident with the same group of girls – I had come home in floods of tears, with my school jumper ripped down the front and my nose stuffed with tissue paper to stem the bleeding from the hiding I’d taken at the hands of a group of fifth year girls, who’d vehemently suggested that I had tried to get with one of their boyfriends.

It was a boldface lie, considering I never laid eyes on the boy they accused me of trying to seduce, and another in a long line of pathetic excuses to beat me up.

That was the day stopped. I stopped lying.

I stopped pretending. I just stopped.

That day wasn’t just my breaking point, it was Joey’s, too. He’d followed me into the house with a week’s suspension under his belt for beating the living daylights out of Ciara Maloney, my main tormentor’s, brother.

Our mother had taken one look at me and pulled me out of the school. Going against my father’s wishes, who thought I needed to toughen up,

Mam went to the local credit union and took out a loan to pay the admission fees for Tommen College, the private, fee-paying secondary school based fifteen miles north of Ballylaggin.

While I worried for my mother, I knew that if I had to walk through the doors of that school one more time, I would not be walking back out.

I had hit my limit.

The prospect of a better life, a happier life, was dangled in front of my face and I had grabbed it with both hands.

And even though I feared the backlash from the kids on my council estate for attending a private school, I knew it couldn’t be worse than the shit I had endured in the school I was leaving behind.

Besides, Claire Biggs and Lizzie Young, the two the girls I’d been friends with at primary school, would be in my class at Tommen College – the principal, Mr. Twomey, had assured me of that when my mother and I had met with him during the Christmas holidays to enroll.

Both Mam and Joey encouraged me with relentless support, with Mam taking extra cleaning shifts at the hospital to pay for my books and new uniform which included a blazer.

Before Tommen College, the only blazers I’d ever seen were the ones men wore at mass on a Sunday, never on teenagers, and now it would be part of my daily wardrobe.

Leaving the local secondary school in the middle of my junior cert year – an important exam year – had caused a huge rift in our family, with my father furious to be spending thousands of euros on an education that was free in the public school just down the road.

When I tried to explain to my father that school wasn’t as easy for me as it was for his precious GAA-star son, he shut me down, refusing to hear me out, and letting me know in no uncertain terms that he would not support me attending a glorified rugby prep-school with a bunch of stuck up, privileged clowns.

I could still recall the words “Get off your high horse, girl,” and “Tis far from rugby and prep schools you were reared,” not to mention my favorite, “You’ll never fit in with those cunts,” coming out of my father’s mouth.

I wanted to scream at him “you won’t be paying for it!” since Dad hadn’t worked a day since I was seven, fending for the family was left to my mother, but I valued my ability to walk too much.

My father didn’t get it, but then again, I had a feeling the man had never been subjected to bullying a day in his whole life. If there was bullying to be done, Teddy Lynch was the one doing it.

God knows he bullied Mam around enough.

Because of my father’s outrage at my schooling, I had spent most of my winter break holed up in my bedroom and trying to stay out of his way.

Being the only girl in a family with five brothers, I had my own room. Joey had his own room, too, though his was much bigger than mine, having shared it with Darren until he moved out. Tadhg and Ollie shared another larger bedroom, with Sean and my parents residing in the largest of the bedrooms.

Even though it was only the box room at the front of the house, with barely any room to swing a cat, I appreciated the privacy that my own bedroom door – with a lock – gave me.

Contrary to the four bedrooms upstairs, our house was tiny, with a sitting room, kitchen, and one bathroom for the entire family. It was a semi- d, and situated at the edge of Elk’s Terrace, the largest council estate in Ballylaggin.

The area was rough and riddled with crime and I avoided it all by hiding in my room.

My tiny bedroom was my sanctuary in a house – and street –full of bustle and madness, but I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

My privacy was on borrowed time because Mam was pregnant again. If she had a girl, I would lose my sanctuary.

“Shan!” Banging erupted on the other side of the bathroom door, dragging me from my impervious thoughts. “Hurry up, will ya! I’m bursting for a piss.”

“Two minutes, Joey,” I called back, then continued my assessment of my appearance. “You can do this,” I whispered to myself. “You can absolutely do this, Shannon.”

The banging resumed so I hastily dried my hands on the towel hanging on the rack and unlocked the door, eyes landing on my brother who was standing in nothing but a pair of black boxers, scratching his chest.

His eyes widened when he took in my appearance, the sleepy expression on his face turning alert and surprised. He was sporting a roaster of a black eye from the hurling match he’d played in at the weekend, but it didn’t seem to worry a hair of his handsome head.

“You look….” My brother’s voice trailed off as he gave me that brotherly appraisal. I braced myself for the jokes he would inevitably make at my expense, but they never came. “Lovely,” he said instead, pale green eyes warm and full of unspoken worry. “The uniform suits you, Shan.”

“Do you think it’ll be okay?” I kept my voice low so I didn’t wake the rest of our family.

Mam had worked a double shift yesterday and she and Dad were both sleeping. I could hear my father’s loud snoring coming from behind their closed bedroom door, and the younger boys would have to be dragged from their mattresses later for school.

As per usual, it was just Joey and me. The two amigos.

“Do you think I’ll fit in, Joey?” I asked, voicing my concerns aloud. I could do that with Joey. He was the only one in our family I felt I could talk to and confide in. I looked down at my uniform and shrugged helplessly.

His eyes burned with unspoken emotion as he stared down at me, and I knew he was up this early not because he was desperate to use the bathroom, but because he wanted to see me off on my first day.

It was 6:15 in the morning.

Like Tommen College, BCS didn’t start until 9:05am, but I had a bus to catch and the only one passing through the area was at 6:45am.

It was the first bus run of the day leaving Ballylaggin, but it was the only one that passed the school in time. Mam worked most mornings and Dad was still refusing to take me.

When I asked Dad about taking me to school last night, he had told me that if I’d get off my high horse and go back to Ballylaggin Community School like Joey and every other kid on our street, I wouldn’t need a lift to school.

“I’m so fucking proud of you, Shan,” Joey said in a voice that was thick with emotion. “You don’t even realize how brave you are.” Clearing his

throat a couple of times, he added, “Hang on – I’ve got something for you.” With that, he padded across the narrow landing and into his bedroom, returning less than a minute later. “Here,” he muttered, fisting a couple of

€5 notes into my hand.

“Joey, no!” I immediately rebuffed the notion of taking his hard-earned money. He didn’t make much at the petrol station to begin with, and money was hard to come by in our family, so taking ten euro from my brother was unimaginable. “I can’t–”

“Take the money, Shannon. It’s only a tenner,” he instructed, giving me a no-nonsense expression. “I know Nanny gave you the bus money, but just have something in your pocket. I don’t know how shit works in that place, but I don’t want you going in there without a few quid.”

I swallowed the lump of emotion fighting its way up my throat and squeezed out, “Are you sure?”

Joey nodded, then pulled me in for a hug. “You are going to be grand,” he whispered in my ear, hugging me so tight I wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince or console. “If someone gives you even the hint of shit, then you text me and I will come over there and burn that fucking school to the ground and every posh, little rugbyhead fucker in it.”

That was a sobering thought.

“It’s going to be fine,” I said, this time putting some force into my voice, needing to believe the words. “But I’ll be late if I don’t get going and that’s so not what I need on my first day.”

Giving my brother one last hug, I shrugged on my coat and grabbed my school bag, shouldering it onto my back, before heading for the staircase.

“You text me,” Joey called out when I was halfway down the steps. “I’m serious, one sniff of crap from anyone and I’ll come sort it out for you.”

“I can do this, Joey,” I whispered, casting a quick glance to where he was leaning against the bannister, watching me with concerned eyes. “I can.”

“I know you can.” His voice was low and pained. “I just…I’m here for you, okay?” he finished with a heavy exhale. “Always here for you.”

This was hard for my brother, I realized, as I watched him wave me off to school like an anxious parent would their firstborn. He was always fighting my battles, always jumping in to defend me and pull me to safety.

I wanted him to be proud of me, to see me as more than a little girl that needed his constant protection.

I needed that for myself.

With renewed determination, I gave him a bright smile and then hurried out of the house to catch my bus.

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