There is a phrase I recall from my childhood, regularly used by my mother when I – dippy and dreamy – was getting ready for school in the mornings.
“One of dese days,” she would say, in her Flemish accent, “You will go out widout your own head.”
Pish!, I thought, That is alarmist talk!
But then one winter’s morning my mother’s prediction came true. I set off for school in the wind and snow, having left my head snoozing on the pillow. I suspect the people I passed in the street must have been astonished at the sight of a boy without a head, but I cannot say for sure, because of course I was completely unaware of them. My ears and eyes, lodged as they were in my head, were warm and snug and still abed.
So familiar was I with the route to school, along the lane and past the duckpond and the fireworks factory and through the tunnel under the motorway and then along the canal towpath and past the aerodrome and the vinegar works, that I had no need of my head to get me there. It was only when I sat down at my desk in the classroom that things went awry.
In those days, you see, we were taught such piffle as reading and writing and arithmetic and Latin and history, so my not having a head sent the teachers into a kerfuffle. I’m told there was some kind of emergency meeting in the staffroom – a fug of pipe-smoke then, of course – and I was put in isolation in the sickroom while they worked out what to do. How much more enlightened would things be today! Head or no head, I am sure there would be no attempt to exclude me from the diversity and self-esteem lessons. Indeed, my headless presence would be seen as a benefit, both to myself and to my fellow pupils, and to the teachers themselves. In fact, I would probably get a prize, just for not having a head. On the rare occasions prizes were dished out in those far off days, they were invariably book tokens, and I would certainly not have got one for not having a head. Now, I could expect something useful like a new app for my iPap, or a voucher for Pizza Kabin.
But back then I was kept locked in the sickroom, excluded and with my self esteem crushed, all because I’d come to school without my head. I would like to say that I sat there reflecting ruefully that my mother had been right all along, but any reflection, rueful or otherwise, wasn’t possible without my head, resting happily on the pillow back home.
What happened was that the school called in a local doctor, who made a snap diagnosis after looking at me for about three seconds. He didn’t even use his stethoscope. Puffing on his pipe, he informed the headmaster in a grave doctorly voice that I showed all the symptoms of not having a head, and the best treatment was brisk exercise in the open air. So they sent me running round and round the athletics track all day, until the bell rang at home time. I got a ticking off from the gym teacher, to which I was thankfully oblivious, and then I was pointed in the direction of the canal towpath and told not to forget my head again or there would be ramifications. Yes, they used to use long words like “ramifications” even with headless tinies! What a different world it was.
I trudged home in the wind and snow, went up to my bedroom, plopped my head back on to my neck, and sat down to warm myself in front of the gas fire. How could it be, I wondered, that the school was even open in such inclement weather?
Soon it was time for tea. We had sausages and mash. It was only as I sat down at the table and tucked my serviette under my chin that I realised I’d put my head on back to front.