“Put it down you little pansy!”
“Who do you think you are, a little girl, is it?”
So saying, my brothers took away my lipstick and threw it down a drain. Then they rubbed mud into my hair and face, then they punched and kicked me, leaving me in the gutter as they ran away laughing, calling me cissy, pansy, girlyboy and a voicing a dozen other horrible epithets to sum up my character.
It had been that way for as far back as I can remember.
My family are what’s called travellers, ignorant people call us gypsies, but we’re not we’re ‘travelling people’. We live in huge caravans towed by big trucks and large cars, and we don’t stay in any one place for very long. We’re part of a large community, but my family, the O’Neills, are Irish, at least Mammy and Daddy were born in the Emerald Isle, and my siblings and I spent our early lives there.
To say that we have a cavalier attitude to the law is putting it mildly. We work at casual labouring jobs, tarmacking drives or doing landscaping work, and we have various sidelines that wouldn’t necessarily be approved of by the authorities. I guess that’s why we tend to be unpopular wherever we settle, and why the local people usually succeed in getting the police to make us move on to another place, forcing us to adopt a peripatetic life.
We hate the coppers with a vengeance, and they hate us. That’s just the way it is. Sure, it’s in our DNA.
Growing up like that was hard for me. I enjoyed playing with the girls, but even as a little boy, the roughhouse tumbling fights, bare-knuckle boxing and no-holds-barred games of football the boys enjoyed were not for me. No one understood why I liked pretty clothes and was interested in make-up, and when I played with the little girls I never wanted to kiss them, and my hand-holding was devoid of sexual connotations. From an early age I was pretty much an outcast from my brothers and the other harum-scarum boys, because there was simply no one else like me, and no one ever understood me.
When I was sixteen, I left home. It was hard, very hard, to make it on my own, but I finally succeeded in getting onto a government scheme, did some courses and got a job. Now, ten years later, I was fully independent, earning a reasonable living. And I have found my true self.
Before I moved to London I knew nothing about homosexuality, even though I knew I was different from other boys of my age. However, once I went to a gay club, I never looked back. I was ‘out and proud’ as they say, behind closed doors, but I was never a one to go around displaying my sexuality to all and sundry. I just knew who I was and how I fitted into the world, and at last I had found happiness. Gay people are kind to each other, and I had a huge network of friends, both gay and straight, to offer me support if I needed it. I had joined another community, I suppose you could say, a community I could finally be a part of.
But after being away from my family for ten years, I decided to seek them out, and make my peace with them, and as luck would have it, I managed to trace them a few days before Christmas, so took some time off work and travelled down to see them on Christmas Eve. After all, Christmas is a time for families to come together, and I wanted them to accept me for who I really was, not for who they wanted me to be.
As I said, I’m not a particularly demonstrative gay man, so when I managed to locate them at a large farmer’s field near Leicester, they welcomed me back with open arms. I had brought a pal with me, Phil, and they were equally welcoming to him too, though of course I had not even hinted at my lifestyle to them.
So it was on Christmas Day that we were all gathered together in Daddy’s huge mobile home, sitting around the table, finishing off the huge Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. The women were tired, having born the brunt of all the food preparation, the men were good humoured in their semi-inebriated state, sprawling around, belching and roaring with laughter, while the children were making a lot of noise. Several dogs were barking loudly as they capered around, cadging pieces of meat from people’s plates.
There was a momentary lull in the conversation, and I girded myself up to make my announcement.
“Matthew, son, we’re all so delighted you could come to see us today,” Mammy said into the silence as she sensed I wanted to say something. “We always loved you and we always missed you. And it’s right that you’ve come back to the family. Welcome back, son. We love you. The family is finally complete.”
“I’m glad to be back, Mammy,” I replied. “And I love you all too.”
All eyes were upon me.
“But now I am back I have something very important to say to you all. Something that might be a bit of a shock for you to know.”
You could have heard half a pin drop. Uncle Eamon paused with his spoon in midair.
“The fact is when I went to London, I changed my life completely.”
They all stared at me, wondering what I was going to say.
“I joined the Metropolitan Police. Phil here is my Sergeant.”
To prove the point I pulled the helmet out of my rucksack and put it on my head.
The whole room erupted. Daddy got red in the face and started roaring incomprehensible words. Mammy burst into tears. My brothers stood up, clenching their fists. My Uncle Seamus gripped his glass so hard it broke in his fist. The beer and the glass shards scattered all over the table, while the children started shrieking in fear, not understanding what was happening.
“You little bastard!” yelled Daddy at last as he jumped up, ran across and ripped the helmet from my head and threw it across the room. “How could you join the enemy? After all we’ve taught you, after all your upbringing, and you do such a despicable thing! You have shamed this family! You have shamed this community! You have shamed this CARAVAN!”
“Get out of our sight you ungrateful little bastard,” said my brother Denny.
“You are dead to me as of now,” Daddy roared across at me. “You are no longer part of this family. I can’t even stay in the same room as you!”
But I sat tight, while everyone else apart from my pal Phil left the room to go outside in the fresh air. Comments of “You treacherous little arsewipe,” “You’ve joined the pigs, we’ll make you eat swill,” “Don’t dare come anywhere near us again if you want to stay alive,” were just some of the comments levied at me as each person left the room, one of them even doing the familiar ‘throat cutting’ gesture of his finger across his Adam’s apple.
I was literally shaking with fear.
When we were alone, Phil, who was sitting next to me, laid his hand on mine, and his face lit up with an unexpected smile.
“Well that went well, didn’t it?” he said as he began to laugh. “You know, you were right. I think we’d better let them calm down a bit before we tell them about our engagement.”