Hard to recall when it first began. He has an early memory of lying on his bed at the house on Elworth Street. He would have been almost four years old. His mother is leaning over him, saying his name with some sharpness in her voice. He has never seen her so angry, driven to tears in exasperation. He knows he has done something wrong, that he has been doing something wrong every day since he was born, but he is unable to stop himself. He doesn’t know why he does it, there was no reason to do it, nor any excuse for it. It was just something he did, like picking his nose or drawing a picture.
She is changing his underpants, which are soiled with excrement. It is not the first time she has done this, and it won’t be the last. From infancy to late childhood he will soil his underpants almost on a daily basis.
Another early memory: using the toilet at his reception class, trying to wipe himself with the shiny, non-porous paper that resembled baking parchment. He used too much and blocked the toilet. The teacher, an elderly lady with a head tremor, found him in the class and marched him back to the toilet to show him what he had done. He could remember the pinch of her hold against his wrist, the heat of her annoyance. The sting of her rebuke. The shame.
As an infant he had taken some time to potty train, to transition from trainer pants to the real thing. At the house in Elworth Street, if he needed the toilet he would disappear to the end of the garden, behind the rose bushes, out of sight of the kitchen window where his mother might see him, and defecate in his underwear. That was when he was an infant, when he knew no better; before it became a de facto daily occurrence. He would resist defecating until he could physically resist it no further, until his constipated bowels caused him to acute pain. After resisting the urge for days by this point the relief of feeling the compacted excrement leave his rectum counterbalanced the inconvenience of the fetid bulk now nestling against his backside.
Even now he wonders why he continued to do it, when the excrement dried and caked around his anus, partially hardened in his underpants. Why suffer the discomfort, the inconvenience, the embarrassment?
That afternoon in his bedroom at Elworth Street was the first time he had seen his mother cry. He recognized the flaw in himself then. The beautiful boy with the blonde hair, who had something wrong with him, something so wrong that it made her weep. And yet still he did it, and continued to do it for the remainder of his childhood.
He wondered what his friends thought of him, this small boy who sometimes walked strangely and smelt of shit. Carrying his dirty secret. A later memory of being running around the garden of the house at Middlewich Road, where his family moved when he was five, with one of his friends laughing at him, trying to prod his pudenda with a stick. Yet he never mentioned it again. Or told anyone. The secret was safe.
Aged eight he went on a weekend trip to Burwardsley with his primary school, staying at a catholic learning centre. The boys and girls were split into austere dormitories with iron-framed bunk beds and a carbolic odour. He felt uncomfortable in the press of the other boys, shouting and shoving in the bathrooms as they pissed in the urinals or brushed their teeth.
All day tramping up the Sandstone Trail and visiting working farms in their wellies, he managed to avoid using the toilet, but in the evening he was woken by stomach cramps. He did the deed and then crept to the toilet to remove his filthy underpants, which he stashed underneath his bunk, leaving them there when they departed the following day.
He was a troubled child. Strange to himself then, stranger now. One afternoon at school, too timid to raise his hand to ask to go to the bathroom, he instead wet himself and, now too fearful to move, sat in a puddle of his own urine for the rest of the afternoon as he completed the art task they had been set. Then when it came time to leave for home, he unfolded himself with great care from his chair, gently pushed it back under the table without disturbing the pool of piss, and slipped out of the room to his mother waiting in the car.
He was afraid of his body, and would accompany his mother to the women’s changing rooms when they went to the local swimming baths. On one occasion as his mother toweled him down after a swimming lesson she recoiled at the liquid shit seeping out of his trunks and dragged him into the nearest cubicle. He hadn’t even noticed.
His mother tried everything to get him to stop. Gentle coaxing, shouting, bribery, reverse psychology, a visit to the GP, a friend of his parents. The excruciating discussion of his toilet habits. The soothing tones of the doctor, who knew him and now knew his dirty secret.
Ritual humiliation. Rituals and humiliation.
Eventually a cure was found. One week his mother placed all his soiled underwear in a bucket of cold water and made him scrub them clean. He knelt on the driveway of their home to do it. He remembers the sun on his back and the flecks of fecal matter on his hands. He must have been ten years old. In a matter of months he would begin secondary school. He knew then he had to stop. And he did.
A few months later, he was changing for a rugby lesson in games changing rooms. The cold, hard tiles and sharp benches, the same press of young male bodies, the collective terror of the communal shower, the reptilian gaze of the games master.
After changing into his PE kit, two boys he didn’t know took his underpants from his pile of clothes and threw them to the other side of the changing room. The games master, a Territorial army sergeant with a brush mustache, found them and held them aloft, demanding to know who they belonged to. Whose are these underpants? Pale blue? Yellow stains? Slight skid mark? He meekly went to collect them, grateful that he got off lightly. It could have been worse. Much worse.