Mark Jones knows the queue is getting shorter. Soon it will be his turn to ask. He knows he can do it. He practised all morning.
“A quarter of sherbet bonbons please!” he had told the bedroom mirror again and again and again. How easy it is!
The shop is crowded with schoolkids. He is just like them. Now it is his turn. The wait is over. “What do you want?” the shopkeeper asks impatiently. How easy it is! Everyone waits. And waits.
“I’ll…I’ll.” Nothing. Everyone waits. Deep breath. “I’ll have a q…” Nothing else happens. Except the sniggers and the chuckles. The face betrayed by its mouth burns bright red.
He is not just like them. He is different. And so he runs out of the shop, all the way home. The body that won’t obey him is full of rage.
He sits in his room, softly sobbing. And it only then he remembers that he doesn’t even have a sherbet bonbon to console the misery.
This was what it was like to be a child with a stammer in 1970s Wales.
When he grew up, there were different versions of Mark Jones, a dual code international who played 15 Union internationals between 1987-1998 for Wales, twice against Ireland.
“At home Mark, on the field Mark and after the game Mark,” the 57-year-old recalls now from his home in Qatar, reflecting on committing to print a story defined by the speech impediment that created often insurmountable obstacles during his life.
Anger and rage were the chief building blocks.
“I don’t profess to be more persecuted than any other kid, it’s not that extreme. But as a kid, you just want to be normal and want to run around your friends.
“You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. But all I had was the anxiety of having a stammer, people pointing at me, men and teachers shouting at me to ‘spit it out’.
“There were no names on bullying. I didn’t know what was happening to me. It was the age that we lived in, the culture that we lived in.
“I had a loving family. My father, Ben, worked his heart out, my mother, Elizabeth, was ill. They were ignorant of what to do in a nurturing sense, they gave me what they could.
But that anxiety about my stammer was a cancer that was making me worse the older I got. That poured the petrol on the fire.”
He beseeched his father, in desperation. “Hit first, ask questions later.”
This was the culture of the time; however well-intentioned, the response to ignorance was ignorance.
And the answer to being bullied was to kick back. He remembers the first time he did so. And it felt good.
“For a long time, I just ran away and avoided things until I was 12 or 13. One day when I got a bit of a kicking, I thought what would happen if I hold my own, I might get a couple of kicks in.
“It wasn’t as if I turned into Charles Bronson. But I didn’t hide. If I wanted to have a go, they knew that. That release came for me, and I started to realise that the worm had turned. No longer was I was downtrodden.
“My confidence started to grow but that didn’t affect my speech. Then I started to pick up rugby and now you’re out with the boys. You’re older and there’s drinking and there’s fighting. That’s where my personality started to split.”
He played for the Welsh youth sides but the more his rugby improved, the more the demons raged within.
Saturday afternoon he would purge them on the field, Saturday night he would exhume them in the pubs. Violence was the common denominator. Self-flagellation, to the point of oblivion, the ultimate aim.
But the anger he thought he was purging was merely being submerged.
“I deliberately went on the field to hurt people. I was a loose cannon. I did my best never to get caught and I was never sent off until my final year.
“If you used your head, you could get away with murder. I was lucky to avoid punishment.”
His luck ran out on a Saturday night that ended with him in a Cardiff jail cell. The police laughed at him as he drunkenly stuttered his defence of an indefensible assault.
When he was released, he met his father at the crossroads.
“I promise you Dad, one day I’ll play for Wales, I’ll make you proud of me.”
“I am proud of you son. But it’s going to be harder for you with your…your…”
It was the ultimate irony, his father momentarily gripped with the same affliction none of them knew how to address.
And so he vowed to become the best rugby player he could be, emerging in the famed Neath of the 80s as a powerful number eight.
Once he could channel the energy, he was unstoppable. He could be trusted to give 100%. Trouble was, not everyone trusted him. For every try or tackle, there was a head butt or punch-up.
In all, he would be sent off six times and banned for over 33 weeks for violent conduct during his career.
He was left out of the inaugural 1987 World Cup squad despite scoring a try against Scotland on debut during that year’s Five Nations.
In 1990 he switched to Rugby League and there he would fulfil his sporting ambitions, featuring in two World Cups.
His demons were manageable, but only suppressed. Towards the end of the 1990s, he returned to Union in Wales and unleashed a shocking assault on Ian Gough.
“I’d reached a dead end,” he admits.
He sought support for his speech impediment and was sufficiently encouraged to embark upon a coaching course. His stutter didn’t disappear but the ability to control it ensured the anger did.
Once, he had to impart instructions at the final training session of the course when his familiar friend and foe foiled him.
“It…it..it’s…easier to…to…f***king do than f***king say!” The imprisoning tongue had now set him free.
Jones spends his time coaching the forwards on the Qatari national side and watching over his daughter’s nascent swimming career.
Oh, and with delicious irony, he is taking a refereeing course too. He should make quite the game-keeper.
Despite the strife of life, he freights no regrets. “My stammer made me. It was the gravel in my guts.”
But his memories often lack warmth.
Noel Mannion turned 60 last month and will often say that Jones had a much better game than the Ballinasloe man who trampled the length of Mary St to score his famous 1989 try at the Arms Park.
“I didn’t know I’d scored,” Jones says. “He’s a humble man is Noel, if he has said that. Then again, it is his name up in lights!”
After so much darkness, Mark Jones deserves some of the limelight.
Fighting to Speak – Rugby Rage & Redemption is published by St. David’s Press in paperback, priced at £13.99.