Friday, July 22

Task 10: Shame and Pride. (Part 2: the Shame bit.)

My sister's "passion tester" had been brought back from the States as a present. It consisted of two interlinked glass compartments, the bottom of which contained a red liquid. (Would this be mercury? Chemistry was never my strong point.) If you held the bottom compartment in the palm of your hand, your body heat would warm the liquid, causing it to bubble up into the upper chamber, where it would continue to splutter and gurgle in a most pleasing manner.

Both of us found this device novel, fascinating, a little bit exotic (after all, it had come all the way from America), and endlessly entertaining. We would play with it over and over again, in that sweetly obsessive way that children sometimes have. Of course, neither of us quite understood what "passion" meant, and how exactly the passion tester was supposed to be testing it. We asked our parents for a definition, but - necessarily - only got the vaguest of replies. Still, whatever it was, we seemed to have plenty of it.

(In retrospect, I can't help but think that this was a slightly inappropriate gift for a six year-old girl, to say nothing of the dodgy health and safety aspects. But those were very different times.)

One afternoon, sitting in the living room on my own, I picked up the passion tester for yet another go. Perhaps I had just come in from outside. Perhaps my hands were a little colder than usual. Perhaps I was particularly impatient to see the bubbles. On the other hand, I always was a clumsy, accident-prone little boy. But for whatever reason, I ended up squeezing the passion tester so hard that the delicate glass shattered in my hand.

Staring at the remnants of my sister's treasured gift, I panicked. I didn't want to bear the responsibility for this. I didn't want to make her cry. But most of all, I didn't want to get into trouble.

With nothing on my mind but self-preservation, and with a lack of foresight which I now find bewildering, I grabbed the pieces of the passion tester and stuffed them behind some boxes in the corner of the morning room. Out of sight, out of mind.

I can't quite remember how my mother found out. I do know that it was only a few hours later, while my sister was upstairs in the bath. Did she look behind the boxes and find it? No, I very much doubt that. Or did she ask me where the passion tester was, and see through my fearful, feeble little lie, and ask me again and again, until I cracked and told her where I had hidden it? My memory is firmly veering towards the latter. What I do remember are the tears, which were instant and copious.

But what I remember most of all, through the filmy haze of my sobbing, was my mother's genuinely appalled, genuinely outraged reaction. As someone with a very certain and clear-cut view of moral right and wrong, she was incensed that I should have tried to deceive her and lie to her. The actual breaking of the passion tester appeared to be quite immaterial.

As a younger child, I had occasionally been smacked before - but as an eight year-old, not for a couple of years at least. Now, with the dustpan and brush in her hands and a furious, cold-eyed expression on her face, my mother explained that she was about to punish me again. She went into some detail about why she was going to do this. And then she bent me over, and walloped me on the backside with the brush with the dark green wooden handle. Not so that it hurt, not even for a split second, but as a symbolic, ritualistic act, with a pre-defined intent: to teach me a lesson that I would never forget.

I had been reduced to a cringing, whimpering, snivelling wretch, utterly consumed by humiliation and shame. And yet, even in the midst of this, something of profound significance was registering itself.

Still, the ordeal was not yet quite over. My mother now demanded that I go straight upstairs to the bathroom, to confess what I had done to my sister, and to offer my apologies.

To my surprise, my sister didn't burst into tears, or get angry, or indeed show any signs of upset at all. Instead, she accepted my apology with a calm graciousness that I hadn't expected.

Previously, I had thought that breaking the passion tester was the great crime, crying out to heaven for vengeance. But it wasn't. It was the covering up, the denying of responsibility for my actions - and most of all, the lying.

I'd like to say that I have never told a single lie since. That's not strictly true, of course: some lies are inevitable - and even desirable, when the feelings of others are at stake. And I had to tell a couple of lies a few years later, concerning my sexual orientation, for the purposes of self-preservation. But essentially, I ceased to regard lying as a viable option from that day forth. My shame was cathartic, and transformative. It had a purpose. I learnt from it.


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