Red Rope Liquorice

The year 2000 arrived. I attended the local bonfire celebration and danced in a big circle of 300 neighbours holding hands, who were all red in the face and acting very strangely and stumbling. And a few weeks later, the holidays were over and I went back to school.

I was 11 years old this year. In New Zealand, the school curriculum for 11 year old kids begins to include technology subjects like woodwork and metalwork, cooking, and sewing; all those hands-on life skills that young adults need to become aware of as they enter adolescence and self-sufficiency. The time had come for me to graduate from child to young adult.

I was a country kid, and so I would now have to catch a bus for the first time in my life in order to go to these classes in a city school that was big enough to have its own kitchens and wood-workshops.

The morning arrived and I followed behind the 12-year-old kids who knew what they were doing. They were all so cool, and confident, and having fun. A bus trip to the city one day a week was virtually like a holiday to them, and they had had a whole year of experience at these adult things. I on the other hand was anxious as all hell, and felt like vomiting the whole way. I did not know how to climb up the steps to a bus. I did not know what the driver was expecting of me or if I had to pay, or if I could speak to him if he spoke to me. I did not know how to walk down an aisle of people without being scared of dozens of stares. I did not know how to sit next to a stranger if there wasn’t an empty seat for me. These horrors of adulthood left me wanting to die before the bus had even started it’s engine.

The older kids, sensing blood in the water, all teased me mercilessly. They told me stories about how they sometimes ran out of room and had to make somebody get off halfway, that I had to pay the driver extra money, and other hilarious kid things like that. All that day I wanted to die.

I was a bright little teacher’s pet and the class itself went okay. But then came lunch. I was a country kid who would play soccer or hang on the monkey bars during lunch – y’know, fun, kid stuff! But tragically these 11 year old city kids had no monkey bars at their school. Their free lunch hour was spent…. talking. Talking, gossiping, and socialising. Not knowing how to do any of this, I wandered the grounds, substituting the fun activities of monkey bars and sports with any physical movement.

The bus took us back to our country school, and an even worse thing was revealed. In the countryside there are no shops at all, and no such thing as biking down to the corner store to pick up treats and snacks. But suddenly, returned that afternoon to our green surroundings, the older kids all produced miracles from their bags. Red rope liquorice. The younger kids all wanted some, and traded favours and he-saids-she-saids-you-love-such-and-suches to earn a piece pulled off from the end; it was a hot social currency. The older kids all knew how to buy stuff from the city school canteen. They all knew how money, transactions, standing in a crowded line, talking to strangers, and the whole concept of self-gratification worked. They knew some secret about the adult, city world I did not. I was just a little kid who was not self-sufficient and never would be. As every kid knows, time stays still and nothing ever changes from year to year, so I was certain I would be forever on the outside. In my lonely and liquorice-less state and for the inth time that day, I wanted to die.

The weeks went by. The teasing on the bus trips became more torturous. While walking my lonely laps of the city school grounds, I eventually discovered the location of the canteen, and saw all my fellow country kids in there talking and socialising and buying things to take back with them. I don’t know why red rope liquorice was the favourite item, but who can guess why kids have fads and phases about anything? Was it the red colour? The taste? The packaging and marketing? The fact that it wasn’t chocolate or gum? All I knew was that red rope liquorice, when produced from a backpack by an older kid in a country school, was the most valuable thing that existed – and that it was not for me. I had the requisite one dollar and twenty-five cents to afford it, certainly, but that was not the issue. The issue was going into that crowded space, where every all-knowing 12-year-old would tease me. They would all know I’d never done it before and didn’t belong in there. I didn’t go in.

But after a year of wanting to die weekly, things couldn’t help but change. In 2001, I was now a 12-year-old myself. By virtue of the passage of time, it was my turn to be the big kid. I guess I was as ready as anyone else ever was.

So after the bus ride and the classes, I made myself go to the canteen in spite of potent panic. I had never really spoken to a stranger before. I had never bought something with money on my own before. I had never queued for something before, because in the country there are no queues and nothing to queue for. I let everybody push in front of me, and then the afternoon bell rang while I was still at the back of the line. The canteen was closed and I was devastated. I wanted to die. I was never going to be allowed to be on the inside. I was never going to obtain anything that would make me valuable.

But the bus rides were becoming easier this year. The classes were interesting, the bullies became bored of picking on someone their own size, and the red rope liquorice dollar standard held its value. The next week I raced to the canteen the moment class was over. I was an asshole. I pushed a smaller kid out of the way and I was near the front of the line. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to the adult behind the counter, so I merely pointed to red rope liquorice and went bright red myself when handing over my money. And just like that, with a little bravado, a little cruelty, I was in the club. I had it in my hand. Red rope liquorice. Self-sufficiency. Adolescence. Ego. All the value that’s fit to obtain.

I didn’t know how to open the packet. I didn’t know how to eat it. I didn’t know how to keep it once opened so that some would last all the way back to our country school. I didn’t know how to hold on to something for later without simply eating it right away because it tasted good. It didn’t matter much. I had it. No matter what, I had it, and I was HOT SHIT. And the kids back in the country indeed treated me with reverence for ten minutes. And I spent more and more of my money on it each week, and felt less and less happy about it each week. And I grew bigger than the younger kids. And I teased some of them. And I gradually became a poor student, and a completely vacuous, bandwagoning, brainwashed, and bullying piece of shit into my teens. By virtue of time alone, these gifts all came to me one by one, and I needn’t have hurried.

It’s 2019, I am about to turn 30, and I live on a tropical island resort. There is endless temptation to join in the social fun and gossip and drama of all the thousands of young hospitality workers here, but I don’t. I sit at home with hummus and a rather handsome shiraz, and I read books and study things. I am a good student. I have an honours degree in political philosophy, a heavy machinery licence, and half a music diploma. I’m about to start a management course to learn more about how to lift people up. I ride the loop shuttle bus approximately fourteen million times a week, and I eschew the lights of the nightclub preferring an intimate strum of my ukulele. I do not now know a single person I went to school with. But I have more recent close friends who brought me through my suicidal periods in my teens and twenties, who tease me mercilessly in very good humour and get just as good back, along with my obscene outpourings of love and gratitude.

There’s one supermarket on this island, and I work there, and I have hundreds of transactions with strangers every day. We just began stocking a brand of red rope liquorice I had not seen since the year 2001. It caught my eye as I walked by it, and I stopped to reacquaint myself with my younger vexations, cruelties, and self-hatred, hanging now so innocuously on a hook in aisle 1. I bought a bag in a cashless exchange, and carried it home, where I am now nibbling and thinking about philosophy, and wondering why on earth I ever wanted to eat this disgusting crap.

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