Thursday, August 17, 2017

On being small

Twice a year when I was a boy my mother would bounce me out of school for the morning and take me into Paris on the train to see an old man who would make me take all my clothes off and cup my dick and balls. My paediatrician (for this was the old man I humorously painted as a sex pervert in the previous sentence!), would run other tests besides: height, weight, and a series of X-rays designed to see if my bone age had increased at all since the last visit. My height and weight would then be tracked on a graph, where they ran comically under the average for a boy of my age, and the X-rays would be checked by the doctor just before the genital check-up. The cock and balls test - which took the form of a humiliating weighing-by-hand - was intended to see if my puberty was anywhere around the corner. (It never was.) The doctor would then ask me if I was eating enough, and my mother would ask him for a rough estimate as to what height I might reach as an adult; the doctor would then give a lugubrious assessment of my chances of attaining even a slightly normal height, and my mum would take me for a hot chocolate to cheer me up.

I was a preposterously, hilariously small child. When I started high school a couple of months short of my eleventh birthday, I weighed a little under 3 stone - or, to put it another way, twice what my son weighed when he was exactly two. I'm not sure I noticed that I was small until high school: until then, everyone had been small, as we were all children. In high school though, there were actual giants - kids of 14 or 15 who were wildly tall and gangly, who might come and steal your tennis ball at any minute and throw it onto the school roof - or who might, in the case of one not especially bright senior, come up to you roughly once a week and say, "Hey, uh [snigger], guess what - you've come to the wrong school... [guffaw] - the primary school's over the road!"

Being small is funny, because you forget you're small most of the time, and it's only other people who remind you. In this it's like being gay or having a spot on your nose. For you, it's completely routine to walk around at this height you know so well and have known since, let's face it, the age of five: your natural view of people is up their nostrils, and this is how things have always been. You know, factually speaking, that you are small - but it doesn't enter into your interactions with people to the extent that it enters theirs with you. That's why when people used to let slip how small I was, as if it were a terrible secret that everybody was keeping from me in a Henry James novella, it could be so bruising. My twin sister shot up one summer, and afterwards at term time a friend of the family said to her, in front of me, "Haven't you grown!" - and then, realising that I was right there and that something had to be said to me if only for the sake of conversational logic: "Not you obviously Caspar, you're still the same."

There was a weird sense behind people's comments that I had somehow, obscurely, disappointed them - or even, at times, that I was a little embarrassing. I think my smallness used to irk people when I was 14 or so, and fond of talking about books I had read, in my still very high-pitched voice. The fact that I was the opposite of shy probably contributed to that irritation: imagining a miniature, perky 14 year-old right now I shouldn't wonder if you too, dear reader, aren't somewhat annoyed.

Mostly I played the part, and the jokes and jabs I received about my height were meant and taken in good spirit. It was fine to acknowledge my smallness if you could get in a good uppercut. Once when I was 13 or so my pals and I were sitting around talking about mad stuff that we used to believe when we were much younger, the tooth fairy and all that. I said, "Yes, when I was little..." and a friend was so quick to interject, "Was?" and earn a well-deserved group laugh, that even as I went hot all over I couldn't deny him his moment. Nevertheless I did think that someone who had a more feeble constitution might have had a rougher time of it than me.

Some other humiliations, off the top of my head. For one term, in P.E., we did wrestling, and everyone had to pair up with a few people who were their own weight in order to fight. The boy who was put with me, who was a dear friend, was also small, but weighed close to a stone more than me. Once, when I was about 15 I think, a McDonalds employee gave me a balloon, while my brother and sister stifled howls of laughter. Had she thought I was actually 5? We returned to the same McDonalds a few months later, and I spotted the same woman doing her rounds, going about the restaurant and giving small children badges and toys. I hid in the bathroom until I was certain she had gone. On yet another occasion, I inadvertently made all my friends miss out on seeing the film Leon, because I couldn't get in: it was a 12 certificate and I was fifteen. Friends who had already paid for their ticket before I got denied kindly went back via the kiosk and got refunds, and we sat in the park for a couple of hours, pretending that our day hadn't been ruined.

That selflessness, the kindness I received on occasions like that, shows you that I got off lightly. Other children might have been tormented. Partly I was lucky to go to a school full of kind, thoughtful kids; partly, I think, I built up a character to fit the size, so that I was virtually unbulliable. No-one wants to hit someone radically smaller than them, to punch down quite literally. It was in my character that I got away with wise-cracks, and my acting-up was smiled upon. This is the aspect of my smallness that has stayed with me most - the clowning to be noticed; the way I made my weaknesses into sport. At parties I would slow-dance with the tallest girl in the class while standing on a chair.

Alongside all of this, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I was always a timorous boy, but I think my size made me especially frightened of danger, of coming to some sort of harm, of being physically unable to defend or save myself. I still have that; it lives in your bones, that feeling that the world could crush you, that you are a miniature guest living at everyone else's pleasure; that you don't own or command anything. I believe I still defer to people, still entrust myself to them, blindly almost - and still seek friendships with protecting people, who are stronger and better able to cope. Twinned with this fragility I felt was surely my sexuality - which, given that puberty eventually deigned to visit me at the age of sixteen, I hadn't had much opportunity to explore. People say that you're born gay and I wouldn't want to contradict that in any way; but before I really considered my attraction to men I knew my difference, my sensitivity, and I sought the company of girls, not merely because of my sexuality and the common subject of boys, but because girls were so much more gentle and considerate, and I was often physically daunted by the boys in school. I believe that my sexuality was there from the start, yes, but was exacerbated by my smallness, which set me apart and made me devise strategies.

I deluded myself about my height. I developed a strange conviction, which helped me cope at times, that even though I was so small, my age could be read on my face; no-one who interacted with me could doubt that I was twelve. Now, looking at photos of me at twelve, I see a seven-year-old, and wonder how exactly I imagined that I conveyed my true age to people. The truth in my eyes? I must have been a little mad at times.

Being small stays with you. Even after you've grown - I'm hardly a giant now, but my height mostly goes unremarked upon - the sense of yourself as a small person remains, is part of your identity. Once, earlier this year, a person online was surprised to discover that I'm below the average height: he had thought from my behaviour, I suppose, that I was tall. This astonished me, because I feel everything I do conveys my tininess; I still have the sense of being dust in the world, floating about and landing here and there; still, I make the case for myself every day, striving to be noticed and heard, to turn my failures and oddity into something funny and recognisable. It's a question of perspective.