It was the week before O-levels began. Arriving at school unusually early I was propelled into assembly by a teacher who evidently neither knew nor cared that I was excused assemblies on account of my parents being devout atheists.
A hymm was duly mumbled through as we stared at our scuffed shoes before the 'special guest' ascended the stage to deliver his address. Some ilk of protestant minister who evidently idolised the Reverend Ian Paisley down to the horse hair suit and hanger-left-in-his-jacket shambled on and commenced in hectoring Londonderry monotone.
'Good morning boys and girls'
The Headmaster motioned frantically behind the Ministers' back to elicit an obedient chorus of;
'Good morning Minister'
'Now your Headmaster tells me that you are all busily preparing for your O-level examinations'
We nodded unenthusiastically.
'But have any of you given any thought to the biggest examination of all, which could happen to any one of you at any time?'
We looked up at him expectantly.
'Yes DEATH. It can strike any one of us at any time. Are YOU ready for it? Are YOU ready for the greatest examination you'll ever face? Will YOU pass? Or will you be condemned to the eternal damnatory fires of HELL???' he thundered, with what sounded (in hindsight) suspiciously like relish.
We shifted about uncomfortably, our polyester uniforms suddenly even clammier than usual. For some reason I now forget, the Minister had a stuffed crocodile about his person to illustrate his point, which went on for some length.
Six sleepless months obsessing about death, morning, noon and night followed, where I trudged about with unsmiling frozen features (doubtless looking like the living dead myself) as I was plunged into my first near-breakdown at the age of sixteen. Every human being from the Breadman to my mother I recall busily calculating how long they might live, and wondering how they could be so calm about their impending doom. Each morning I awoke with a sense of surprise, but with no appetite for life, or indeed food, except we didn't obviously have such exoticism as 'anorexia' in Northern Ireland in the late 80s.
Sometimes I wonder how many other pupils' O-level results this Minister affected with his motivational addresses as badly as mine (well what was the point if we could all drop dead at any moment?), multiplied by the number of Northern Irish schools he was invited to. Though to be fair, an unwise Stephen King phase at around the same age probably made me more susceptible to suggestion than I should have been.
Notwithstanding, is it too late to sue my old school for never having become that nobel-winning scientist my parents bred me to be..?