To be a man is to be a suspect. Years ago, on a J1 in America, my girlfriend and I were swimming in a backyard pool. We were only kids. I was showing off, doing backflips and somersaults. She attempted a backflip, but contrived somehow to knee herself in the face. She was okay, maybe a little shaken. But as she resurfaced, an enormous ugly bruise was already becoming visible.
At the time, we were sharing rented accommodation with some other J1 students. Ours was tempestuous relationship and we were living in quite close quarters with relative strangers. The bust-ups weren’t that bad and we each gave as good as we got. But I’d already noticed some of our housemates seem a little taken aback at how frequently, and heartily, we went at it. It was fortunate for me, then, that one of our housemates was at the swimming pool with us that day.
Because it isn’t often you see a teenage girl with an enormous black eye. And there are no prizes for guessing in whose direction the finger of suspicion would have turned.
If I was in the clear on the home front, the same could not be said for elsewhere. While my girlfriend still had the bruise, I dreaded walking down the street with her. She was quite innocent really, and never seemed to pick up the vibe. But I did.
She worked as a hotel receptionist this summer. It was redneck country and hardly a day went by that someone called Beau or Bubba didn’t swing by in a pickup truck and offer to raise a posse. She insisted her workmates believed her version of events. But I knew better.
When I’d stopped by to meet her on her lunchbreak, no one ever seemed to look me in the eye. As we walked away, I could feel them staring at me, judging me. She insisted I was paranoid, but pretty soon I started making excuses not to visit anymore.
I was reminded of all of this today, as I collected my niece from her crèche. My sister had tipped me off in advance about the accident, which happened at home over breakfast that morning. The child was drinking milk from a Tommy Tippee cup when she lost her footing and the beaker’s moulded spout connected with her eye. Nonetheless, I was still taken aback.
If you don’t often see a teenage girl sporting a black eye, it’s rarer still to see an infant with a proper shiner. For the first time since Maryland in the summer of 1998, I began to experience the old paranoid. I could hear them all sniping as we passed by the bus stop. “There he goes, ladies and gentlemen. Old Man Butler, baby puncher extraordinaire.” “What’s the matter Eoin, those teenage girls too touch for you now?”
I hurry on down the street.