Sometimes you learn life lessons in a petrol station queue…
Today, I witnessed the beginning of the end of a childhood. When I went about the mundane task of putting petrol in the car and paying for it, I didn’t expect to come away moist-eyed and with a lump in my throat. Human nature is, I suppose, everywhere – even in petrol stations. It’s just that it isn’t really the first place you’d think to go looking for it.
Two little girls. Pretty little things aged, I reckon, about 11 or 12. Certainly, no older than that as they were in primary school uniforms. They were ahead of me in the queue in the petrol station shop and they were chatting and laughing and counting out their coins into their little grubby hands. I was smiling to myself at the antics of them as they whispered conspiratorially and punctuated the whispering with uncontrolled giggles. They’re within a week of getting their long, luxurious summer holidays and, remembering that wonderful feeling from about a million years ago, I was happy for them and wistful for the bygone days.
Then I twigged what some of the giggling was about. The place was busy and there were two tills in action – both manned by young lads, probably in their late teens. Students, I expect, slaving for their gig tickets and beer. One was lanky, spotty and cheerful; the other was a moody, sulky-looking babe. Mr Moody looked as if he was straight out of a boy band. All messy hair, smouldering eyes and perfect skin. The girls had noticed – each hoping she’d be the one to pay homage at the shrine of his particular till.
They were both buying ice cream cones and had worked out in advance what they could afford. They hopped about and changed positions a million times trying to gauge whose till would free up first. Each wanted to be the chosen one. Mr Moody freed up seconds before Mr Spotty. The two girls nearly fell over each other to make a beeline for the babe’s till. One of them made it and directed a final giggle at her friend as she stood victorious in front of the boy band wannabe. Her mate had to content herself with the lanky, spotty one.
They both asked for identical ice creams – ‘a small cone with chocolate sauce and sprinkles’. Both young lads set about the task of assembling the cones. The lanky one smiled at the child he was serving and whistled happily as he filled up the most generous ‘small’ cone I’ve ever seen. When he had as much ice cream as it could take filled into it, he smothered it with sauce and added big fistfuls of sprinkles. So many sprinkles that they started falling off. His answer to that was to heap more on. By the time he was finished with it, it was a masterpiece of confectionery. The child’s eyes were wide with delight.
At the other till, it was a different story. The babe checked his reflection in the stainless steel side of the ice cream machine before he filled a ‘small’ cone deserving of the adjective. He waved the chocolate sauce over it briefly and gave it a miserable pinch of sprinkles. He disinterestedly handed it to the child whose giggling had stopped sometime in the middle of this operation. The girls re-united as they left the tills and started to make their way out.
And that’s when I saw it. The beginning of the end. The awful conflict that inhabits the body and soul of a child on the cusp of adolescence. The emerging adolescent with the growing awareness that maybe boys might be interesting had giggled and blushed and preened a little as she made her way to Mr Moody’s till; but the part of her little being still clinging to childhood was struggling. As they made their way out, her friend was licking vigorously in an effort to contain the chocolate sauce and ensure she held on to every single sprinkle. Mr Moody’s creation demanded no such effort. The child’s lower lip was quivering; close to tears.
I wanted to wade in and set it all to rights. I wanted to frog-march the child back to the till and rip Mr Moody a new one. At the very least, I wanted to buy the child a new ice cream. I wanted to point out to both these little women that they’d just learned a lesson that would stand to them all their life. I wanted to tell them that sometimes messy hair and good skin can hide a mean spirit and a vain soul and that lanky and spotty can have the heart of a Titan and the disposition of a prince. I wanted to do all that.
But of course I couldn’t. Not my business. I didn’t know the kids. I’m a stranger to them. Even to buy the child a new ice cream would cross modern-day societal boundaries. And besides, it’s a sort of rite of passage – these moments when reality bites. I had to leave it but it made me mad and sad in equal measure. I paid for my petrol and left.
And I mused, not for the first time, at how difficult and awkward that in-between stage is in a young life when child and adult within fight for supremacy. Today, the power struggle between the two was fierce in one little girl. The day is fast approaching when the adolescent will emerge and giggle and not care about sprinkles.
But today, she was simply a disillusioned child with a miserable ice cream holding back the tears.
I’d give it a year. Tops.