About

An introduction

This is a collection of often witty, insightful and informative musings, ponderings and epic grumbles. Each piece comes in at a snappy 1500 words or less and will, I think you’ll find, make your overall experience of life a little warmer, a little fuzzier and a tad more interesting. Recent results, carried out by professional result finders, have proven that individuals subjected to this blog, over long periods of time, are more likely to cry in public.

Is your life just one meaningless thread of associations, skipping from one random link to another? Do you search the net for quick thrills, for that two second buzz or for that funny photo of a dog smoking a pipe that you can share with your ‘friend’?  So why not take a break from your non-lineal, sensationalist, perhaps even lurid internet experience, it’s not too late, find sanctuary here in the temple of the Cage Writer.

Well I think that went well, punchy, to the point and the kind of tongue in cheek condescension people love.

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No man’s land

 

I stood at the top of the stairs this morning, staring at the loft hatch.  All I had to do was to reach up, press it in the right place, the hatch would open and the stairs to the loft would magically descend.  I just couldn’t do it.  I used to be able to do it, in fact I actually quite enjoyed doing it, gave me a feeling of satisfaction. 

It wasn’t the action of opening the hatch that worried me but what it would lead to…a space outside of my comfort zone.

Since my comfort zone is quite small these days (it was once considerably bigger), I have been trying to fill my time with creative endeavours.  In the loft, hidden in dusty storage boxes rest the memories of my ancestors.  I come from a long line of survivors, well we all do don’t we?  I mean anyone who survived long enough to procreate is, in terns of natural selection, a survivor.  But also, most people don’t give up; most people struggle on through whatever life throws at them.  My ancestors, like many others, endured great, sometimes all consuming, hardships.  Some hardships they were born with: God given hardships, like Uncle Thomas’s blindness.  But most of the hardships I’m referring to were constructed by society: wars, famines, concentration camps, political ideologies which led to real fears of persecution, actual persecution, torture and imprisonment. 

I want to put things into perspective.  I mean, no one is doing THIS to me, I’m doing it to myself, I’m persecuting myself.  Why?  Don’t get me wrong, I have asked this very question not only to myself but to those most qualified to mine the very deepest parts of my psychology but it remains hidden.  Which leads one to the conclusion that there is no ‘why’.  It’s just like this for me.

I thought that maybe feeling the way I do is a luxury, something I can afford to do because I live in a world where real threats from the outside are rare.  No one is going to conscript me, send me off to war, or round me up, tar and feather me and parade me naked down Sutton Veny high street.  So, in the absence of any real danger, I have constructed my own prison camp complete with a guard …me!  It’s a bit like being a vegan, denying yourself a bacon butty when half the world is starving; it’s a luxury, in a round-about way.

I’m not saying that people who went through challenging times did not suffer from anxiety too, I’m sure they did, and I bet worry was the ‘modus operandi’ of the masses.  But did it stop them from leaving the house?  Did it prevent them from doing whatever it was that they had to do to survive?  No, it didn’t because these people, my ancestors and yours no doubt, did not have the luxury of giving in to their fears.  They just jolly well pulled up their socks and got on with it.  When my great grandfather was separated from his brigade and left alone in a dugout on the Somme I bet he dammed near shit himself. I bet he would exchange that long night, with mortars exploding overhead, with a trip to the attic any day!  Anxiety attack?  What about bomb attack?  When I think of it that way I just want to give myself a bloody good shake.  

And yet, with this notion firmly embedded in my frontal lobe I remained frozen at the thought of climbing up into the loft, the one place where the answers to my ‘condition’ may well reside.  Crazy as it sounds, not going up into the loft kind of makes sense if you are me, I’ll explain.

First it started with a panic attack in the cinema.  I used to love to go to the movies, that slice of escapism, watching someone else’s struggles unfold only to be resolved in a couple of hours.  I always tried my best to get an aisle seat when going to the cinema or theatre or on any form of public transport for reasons which are now obvious to me.  But, on this occasion at the cinema, I was asked by a rather charming old lady with incontinence issues if I could be persuaded to swap seats with her.  Her seat was slap in the middle of the row and was, in her words, ‘the sweet spot’.  I couldn’t say ‘No’, not really.  So, with a little trepidation I shimmied my way past a dozen laps of varying dimensions until I found the old lady’s sweet spot.

We were about twenty minutes into the film (something about the misadventures of a crook named Harvey), when I began to worry that I’d drunk too much lemonade and might need, at some point, to shimmy past all those laps again.  The worry slowly turned to dread: I began to feel hot behind the ears, cold and clammy, coupled with the fear that I would piss myself any minute.  I felt as if my heart were about to burst from my chest, catapult across the auditorium and splatter onto the IMAX screen before me.  Either that or my bladder would give way and flood the place!  Having worked myself up into a full blown panic attack, I hyperventilated and passed out.  The young woman sitting to my left, who until then had only presented herself to me as one of the more endearing laps in a long line of laps, noticed my condition.  She, without worrying about disturbing others, had me dragged out of the auditorium by two burly men and into the foyer where I slowly came to.  Gayle, (she of the lap), stayed with me and waited until the ambulance arrived.  I don’t think I could construct a more embarrassing scenario if I tried.  But now that’s what I do all day: worry about what might happen.  

After the cinema debacle, I tried to carry on with my life as normally as I could but I never went to the movies again; I went online instead.  And I could not sit anywhere in public: no busses, theatres, trains, waiting rooms, restaurants or cafes.  Or park benches.  In fact, I could not sit anywhere that, should something happen, I couldn’t escape easily. Crazy isn’t it?  Or is it, really?  Considering what I’d been through in the cinema?

Life went on like this for some time until I realised that driving my car to work was really dangerous, not just for me but other road users too.  What if I had another panic attack while in the car, driving along at fifty miles an hour?  I had to stop using the car immediately but the thought of cycling to work, which was the only option left to me, brought on another panic attack, this time at my desk, in the office, in front of everyone! I had basically tarred and feathered myself in public and paraded my nakedness before the crowd …  I couldn’t go back to work after that…obviously. 

My life gradually narrowed considerably, yet at first I couldn’t see it that way.  I replaced the things I’d lost with new things.  Cinema with downloads, a desk in the office with one at home, shopping in a supermarket with a home delivery service and friends and acquaintances with a cat named Rambo.   Then, one day, it dawned on me that I had not left my house in three months!  To begin with, It felt like an achievement, something to be applauded for not worrying about! 

After my melt down at the office some co-workers called to see how I was doing.  My mother also rang sporadically and Nesta, the Rastafarian milkman, popped in for a cup of herbal.  But after a while, concern for my well being calmed down and I let out a sigh of relief, a sigh of relief that people were no longer concerned for me.  Weird isn’t it?  What this meant was I could continue with my self-imposed isolation and do so under the radar, undetected … but for how long?  

Not long as it turned out.

Mother turned up on my doorstep one morning and offered to take me to lunch.

 ‘Lunch?’ I said, the word filling my mouth like a lump of coal.

‘Yes, Lunch. I thought we could try the new place in Theale.’

‘Theale?’ I said, my mouth now very dry from all the coal.

‘Yes dear, go get your coat.’

‘Coat?’ I said now feeling the panic bubbling up inside me.

‘Yes, coat. What’s with all the monosyllabic?’

‘Monosyl….’  I couldn’t get that one out.

‘The cat!’ I said suddenly inspired.

‘The Cat?  What about the cat?’

‘I can’t leave the cat; Rambo’s got abandonment issues.  Needs constant attention. He barely leaves my side.’

We both watched as, with perfect timing, Rambo walked through his flap and out onto the street without so much as a backward glance.

‘Seems alright to me,’ said mother.

So, with ever increasing palpitations I told her the real reason I couldn’t go to lunch with her.

Mother listened carefully, sympathetically even, which was surprising as she is definitely of the ‘socks up’ generation.

It felt good to get it all out in the open, tell someone what I was going through and share the burden.  We had lunch at home: toasted cheese sandwiches washed down with regular tea.  Then Mother took hold of the reins: her main motivation was to have me well enough to go back out there and meet a nice girl with childbearing hips.

‘You need to come to my Zumba class on Wednesday evenings.  That will do you the world of good!  Plenty of younger girls go, not just my age.’

‘Zumba?’

‘Yes, Zumba. Why not?’

I couldn’t think of anything more ghastly then being stuck in a room full of hot sweaty women dressed in Lycra writhing about the dance floor to upbeat, rhythmic music.  What was wrong with me? 

‘You are agoraphobic,’ said Mother.

‘No I’m not!  I’m just sensible,’ I retorted.

‘How so?’ 

‘Well I just feel that I’m better off not putting myself in harm’s way.  I can limit the amount of situations in which I might have a panic attack to nil, just by not leaving my house.’

‘The trouble with comfort zones dear, is that it is always sunny there but nothing ever grows.’

These were sage words from my mother and they formed part of the catalyst that brought me to where I am today: standing frozen to the spot on the landing staring up at the loft hatch.

These are my options:  Option one, I decide once and for all not to go into the loft and find other fruitful things to do with my time, like have a one way conversation with Rambo.

Option two, pull up my socks, go up into the loft, find all the diaries and cuttings related to my grandparents and possibly, through a combination of shame and self loathing, put myself on the road to recovery.  Option three, go up into the loft, have a panic attack and die there with my corpse laying undetected for months.

Option one seems to be winning.  I mean is it worth the risk?  Knowing, as I do, that any new situation could set me off.  Any time I put myself into a new environment, outside my comfort zone, I face the potential death scenario.  It could actually happen!  The more I worry about it, the more likely it is that should I take the plunge, I’ll just end up drowning in my own misery.  

One day, I will just wake up and go into the loft without thinking twice about it.  I’ll just do it.  But for now, the moment’s gone.

It’s the speculation, the worrying about what might happen that wins every time: I just need to stop worrying and go for it.  If I can get up to that loft and retrieve my ancestors thoughts and fears I think it would really help me.  Who knows I might even be able to face Zumba classes?

 

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I drew the shrew

First impressions are important and never more so than when a boy meets a girl.  There’s more going on below the surface than most of us are aware of. Tom was aware, at least in theory of what he referred to as the ‘chemistry department’ but chose to override the boffins down in the lab!  They worked relentlessly to get him laid but he was also aware that they got excited whenever he saw a pretty girl and that this was just an unfiltered blanket response to a possible sexual encounter – even if logically Tom knew he didn’t stand a chance.  So on the occasion when he met Martha, Tom decided to concentrate on how she made him feel in other ways.  

He likened this ‘experiment’ to contemplation of a work of art or listening to a piece of well-crafted music.  He explained later how he wanted to connect with someone and that to connect with anyone there must be a ‘between-ness’, an attraction.  But more than that, you must feel as if you have always known this person.  You must feel that at some point in history you were crafted as one person but somehow, at some point you broke in two.  Each half has something the other one needs and something they want to protect. 

Martha, who at twenty-four had had it with men, or at least that’s what she told herself and anyone who asked: she almost believed it too.  She trotted out all the same platitudes, the same generalisations that have been rehearsed by cynical, love-weary, disenchanted souls forever and a day.  Martha thought that she’d met the right man: he’d ticked all the boxes but, he had his own boxes and fidelity was not one of them.  He’d turned out to be a rogue and if HE was a rogue then they were ALL rogues.  But she knew good men: her father was one and her brother another.  It would be a sorry world if they were the only two good men left.  Even so, in an attempt to guard her heart from further pain Martha held the world, and men in particular, at arms length. 

Tom’s first impressions of Martha, the masterpiece he beheld that day, was that within great sadness there is great beauty, like a rose that has reached the pinnacle of any rose’s desire to look radiant and then began to wilt… just a little.  When she smiled, she held the fullness of her smile in reserve giving only a glimmer of its potential.  When she walked she walked only with purpose, one foot in-front of the other but Tom knew she could glide and dance if she wanted to.  Another of Tom’s first impressions was that this was a woman to whom trust was paramount, and that meant he had to be himself. No tomfoolery today, no sir!  No point in trying to deceive a woman like this with false claims and bravado.  She simply would not buy it.  She wanted honesty and in return she would give herself completely. 

In the basement where the chemicals were mixed with prudence but distributed with an arbitrary devil may care fashion, the furnace got a little over-heated.  Tom, just for a second, gave in to the chemical romance: slender legs (even if they were just being functional), pert breasts and an arse worthy of its own name.  Her lips were full and extremely kissable and her eyes were made of emeralds.  But her most striking feature, her sexiest attribute to him, was the nape of her neck.  Tom didn’t know then, on that day, at that picnic in the park organised by a mutual friend with a penchant for matchmaking (or at least the desire to forge a penchant  for matchmaking), that Martha wore her hair up not to attract but to repel! Every time she turned around Tom wanted to lay tender kisses at the threshold between her mind and her body. 

Martha’s chemical engineers had not signed for her self-proclaimed abstinence from love: they saw this young man as most likely to sire healthy intelligent and adorable children.  Martha grudgingly recognised that Tom was not like the others: he was charming in a very English way; a little awkward, a little self deprecating and very good looking.  He seemed to her like a man reluctant to let go of the boy inside.  Tom still had a very rosy view of the world: an optimist, a dreamer too but, rather slyly, with one foot in the real world… just in case.   There was something else – Tom was open about his views and feelings but seemed more interested in hers.  He had, she deduced, a high level of empathy. 

Second impressions are what people are scared of.  The first time around you are thinking on your feet: everything is new to you; judgments, opinions and chemicals are coming at you at a rate of knots.  It’s easy, one would assume, to make a bad call, to misread the signals being beamed from across the room. The second time you meet, you are seeking reassurance that your first impressions marry up with what you still have to discover. 

In Martha and Tom’s case it was as though the Universe had singled them out for special attention.  All other matter ceased to exist.  The rest of the world took time out.  Tom felt like his heart would burst: he wanted her more than anything, he wanted to give her everything and keep giving it forever. 

Martha began to melt at that second encounter, to let down her defenses and before long she gave Tom the full smile.  He was spellbound and Martha recanted her vow of chastity which, in reality, had been more of an injunction. 

After the second encounter nothing could stop them, the chemistry department let rip, all hands on deck while Martha and Tom bathed in the delirium of euphoria.

Then for a long while they were truly happy: they possessed something poets had waxed lyrically about for centuries but could never really explain; they had true love.  Tom and Martha spoke often about how they were perfectly matched, how their personalities were harmonious and how they benefited one another mutually.  Martha, caring, organised, creative and visionary.  Tom forever in the now but ambitious, disorganised and absent minded in a brilliantly technical way!  They supported one-another’s dreams, they laughed a lot and made love whenever they could.  Making love was as close as it gets to being the ‘one person’ they once were.  They came as close to unity as anyone is likely too. 

And so, inevitably, the conversation one day turned to children.  As is often the case the conversation normally starts with a speculation on what the child might look like or be like?  It leads to having something you can make together and then share.  Together you could experience the joy of bringing a new life into the world, holding it, moulding it, filling it with neurosis, and eventually watching it fly the nest.

Eventually they decided to start a family. They would make it work because together they could do anything.

Caspian was born three years and four days after that first meeting.  Looking at him in those first moments, those unforgettable moments, Tom and Martha saw or recognised a relative they knew.  Tom saw his father, Martha hers, Tom saw his brother, Martha hers, fleetingly everyone in both their families was represented in this new face. Like a shape shifter, Caspian’s features changed every second until they finally settled for a harmony he felt happy with. Then he was just Caspian, as he always would be. 

Martha and Tom found a natural aptitude for parenting and Caspian’s mastery of all things childlike was indeed phenomenal.  Everyone seemed so happy but, without wanting to appear ungrateful to the universe, one more addition to the family would really seal the deal. 

Enter me, George.  

Somewhere lost in antiquity there lived the Caspian people next to the Caspian sea.  It’s a name that summons up romanticism, adventure and sea faring. George just sounds safe and dutiful. But, here’s the thing: I was the adventurous one and Caspian the dutiful and studious one.  Mum and Dad got the names the wrong way round, that’s all I can assume. 

I also had a nickname: ‘Cone-head the Barbarian’ given to me by my father on account of my cone shaped head after a Ventouse delivery.  Vacuum extraction will do that to a baby’s head and although the effect was only temporary, the nickname stuck around longer than it should have done. 

Dad said that when Caspian was born he held him to his chest and said, ‘You don’t know me yet and I don’t know you, but we are going to have so much fun finding out about each other.’  When Dad held me for the first time he felt differently, the love was the same, unconditional and infinite but he thought he knew something about my character immediately,  ‘Cone-head you are going to be a hand-full I can see that already!  You are a scallywag.  I promise you that no harm will ever come to you and we will always protect you but you mustn’t make it harder than it needs to be.  Be kind to us.  We love you.’ 

I’m not sure I always held up my end of the deal.  I really truly never felt fear once in my life.  Everything was all so exciting and new and in need of further exploration, I didn’t have time for fear!  Also, I realise now, that Tom and Martha worked hard to keep their promise: there was no need to feel afraid, I was bubble wrapped with love. 

In short we were a happy, contented family.  Tom had his surgery in the village and Martha had her studio in a barn next to the house where she pottered.  I was blessed with everything a boy needed to expand the mind and soul.  A perfect nuclear family…just like on the television. 

For my tenth birthday Caspian promised me a tree house.  He had spent hours drawing up the plans and sourcing the materials needed to build it.  It would be a recycled tree house using scrap found about the main house, the garden and the surrounding countryside.  My tenth birthday came and went while the blue prints were still wet!  When the summer holidays started Caspian finally launched ‘project tree fort’ – a house was never going to be enough.

July rolled into August and Caspian’s progress was predictably slow, partly because he was no handyman but mainly because he was so utterly meticulous that everything took forever. He spent a week just trying to decide which tree in the garden was most suitable to withstand his mighty fort. 

On the day in question, the day I died, Caspian had spent the morning sawing pieces of timber to his own specifications.  I climbed the chosen tree and hung upside down from a branch, by my legs, until all the blood drained to my head.  Martha came out with lemonade and carrot cake and told me to, ‘Come down this instant.’  I told her that she looked weird upside down. Caspian had a moan to Martha about how he couldn’t concentrate on building ‘This damned fort’ and babysit me at the same time.  I told him that I was not a baby but an orang-utan.

‘He’s just so unpredictable mother!  One minute he’s up a tree and the next he’s decided to teach himself to walk the tightrope!  I can’t work under these conditions.’

‘That was before I was an orang-utan, when I was in the circus,’ I said exasperated. 

After an early lunch Martha decided to give Caspian some peace and take me for a walk down by the dried-up riverbed in search of fossils.  Tom, who had just suspended a hammock between two trees, was enjoying the fruits of his labour and hinted at his own desire to stay where he was for a while longer.  Martha and I walked out of the garden gate and down the lane.  

Only one of us came back, neither of us returned whole.

That was the last time I saw Caspian and Tom.  Tom lazing in his hammock with a straw hat shielding the sun from his eyes and humming ‘The flight of the bumble bee’ quietly to himself.  Caspian, partly hidden amidst what looked like the remnants of a shipwreck, all nails and timbers, was cursing audibly to himself.  

I can recall every moment of my life now, but the moments I cherish most and like to replay over and again are those perfect moments that were leading to my death.  

It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in early August, I was stripped to the waist, the heat of the sun caressing my young skin and I had my mother’s exclusive attention.  We were soon beyond earshot of Caspian’s sawing and swearing and other than our voices, the only sounds to be heard were the occasional cooing of wood pigeons and the crickets chirping in the long grass.  We ambled along the path that cut through the woodland en route to where the river had once flowed.  Martha pointed out various plants informing me of their magical properties, telling me how she used to press them into a book to capture happy memories of the day she’d picked them.  I meandered along beside her, happily listening to her stories of childhood and contributing the odd detail here and there to a story she was making up for me as we walked. 

Martha was a great storyteller and this tale was one about a shrew who fell in love with a weasel. All the while I looked upon her with awe and gratitude: my mother, my champion, my love.  If a memory were like a flower I’d pick this one to press and keep in my diary forever. 

Once we arrived on the bank of the river, Martha found shade under a weeping willow in full lament and opened her book on herbal healing.  I went to explore the dry riverbed, turning over stones and poking about generally with a good stick I’d found on the path.  After a while I turned my attention to doodling in the dust of the riverbed. With my stick I drew caricatures of everyone I knew and would call out to Martha once in a while, ‘Look it’s Caspian!’ or, ‘It’s Mr. Marks the head master,’ and she would look up from her book and smile from her willow tree. 

The last thing I said was, ‘Look! I drew the shrew!’ 

Not on a par with the best dying words in history but I was pleased with my effort and wanted only my mother’s approval.  That was the last perfect moment on Earth I care to remember; it stops there, like a Polaroid snapshot.  

I don’t care to recall the moments that followed: the look on my mother’s face was pure horror as she stood up, the book falling to the ground as she clutched at her head and let out a terrified scream.  Was it that bad? I have no memory of being swept away by the freak flood.  My last real living memory is the sight of my mother’s horrified face and of my mistaken belief that her expression was directed towards my clumsy, juvenile attempt to draw a shrew in the dust with a stick.  I was mortified because I believed that she disliked my drawing. 

I don’t remember drowning.  I learned of it later.

Martha did not give up easily and after the initial shock of seeing her son snatched away from her by a hydrous bulldozer, she ran along the bank searching amidst the churned up watery turmoil of broken branches and leaves for any sign of me.  She found none.  Exhausted, she stood by the bank where she’d last seen me.  Staring at first at the muddy brown water still rushing past then, in a daze, she looked to the sky; it was blue and bar the odd wisp of cloud there was no sign of rain.  This conflict of reason led her to the conclusion that it had not happened, there must be another explanation – perhaps she was dreaming or in a coma?  The fact that my body was never found added, in due course, to the fantasy that she was only dreaming.  Throughout her life Martha held onto that thought, as unrealistic as it became: she just wanted to wake up and find me sitting next to her.

Here’s another snapshot:  my mother, clothes drenched, hair matted, grieving and clearly distraught walking in through the garden gate on a sunny afternoon in August.  My Father, returning from the house with a glass of water stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of his wife, soaking wet and obviously without me.  Caspian looking up from his labours, from the construction he was ultimately making for me, seeing his parents regarding one another, each reading the other’s mind. That’s where the betweenness that bound them together, broke.  Both fell to their knees, crumpling up under the weight of their loss.  The ‘one’ separated right there and it would take many lifetimes before the two halves found each other again.  Take that picture, three people physically separated and look at it a year later, two years later, any time later, and you will see how that is how they remained – separated.  All of my loved ones, my family, they all three of them dealt with my death alone, without one another and they all dealt with it differently.

Tom retreated from life like a frightened tortoise, not able to forgive himself for breaking his promise to me; angry at me for breaking my end of the deal and angry at Martha for not paying enough attention.  He contemplated taking his own life, he had plenty of options, but ultimately some repressed Catholicism and a little too much cowardice prevented him from activating a quick fix.  He chose instead to employ a compromise, he started smoking heavily; a slow suicide.

Martha had no choice, she had to carry on, she had Caspian to live for but she couldn’t look at Caspian without being reminded of me.  So she avoided him if she could.  She knew what she was doing, what she was denying her first born, but Martha had no other strategy for coping.  Every evening before the Valium knocked her unconscious, Martha relived that moment on the riverbank.  She tortured herself with alternative endings, ‘If she’d only done this or that then I might still be with her’.  Each morning at dawn she woke and for an instant there was noting but calm.  She would wonder at the calm, wonder for a moment who she was to possess such peace of mind and then like a sledge hammer, it all came flooding back.  She lived the rest of her life for that single fleeting moment at dawn when she would wake to ignorance and be at peace. 

Two pained parents going through the motions, never really talking about how they felt and one ignored son.  A far cry from the boundless happiness and harmony they once guarded and cherished tenaciously.  And it was all because of me.  Because I was no longer with them, I no longer existed but in memory.  Cone-head the Barbarian, that bundle of joy, that scallywag always causing trouble, always up to something most often fraught with danger, had gone. 

…But I was with them.  My parents just couldn’t see me, or they did and didn’t want to be reminded.  Caspian became both of us.  He lived both our lives. After my funeral, a sad and teary affair, he finished the tree fort and before locking it forever, he put all of my favourite things in there and it became a shrine.  Then for a while he resented me: he’d not only lost his brother but because of that he lost his parents too.  Ultimately resentment became difficult to hold on to, he just didn’t have the dogged commitment required, or the heart for it.  So Caspian changed his approach to life; it happened slowly over time but it happened nevertheless.  Whenever faced with a choice within which the old Caspian would have taken the safe option he now asked himself, ‘What would George do?’

This led to broader horizons, some positive, others less so.  Caspian grew into both our shoes and became, after a shaky start, a well balanced, slightly eccentric young man.

Caspian’s fist impression of Anna was that she was fearless… but safe.  Anna, the girl that taught Caspian to walk a tightrope, thought that he was patient, clever and thoughtful. 

They named their daughter George… a name that she grew to like more than I had.

Martha’s story of the shrew

‘There was an old mill, long abandoned that sat crumbling by a brook in the forest.  It was here, by the brook that the animals could gather to drink at sunset without fear of attack.  There was a pact between them, made long ago, before the mill was ever built, that no animal would be hunted or eaten at the brook at sunset. 

Most animals of the forest took full advantage of this pact, especially the smaller ones.  The shrew had no name that could be spoken by man, rather a scent he was known for, and loved to go to the brook whenever he had the time. Other than the water he liked to see his fellow forest dwellers up close, without fear of being gobbled up.’ 

‘You know how you like to go to the zoo and marvel at all the other animals?’ asked Martha.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Well it was like that for the shrew.  At the zoo you can look at lions and not worry about being eaten alive.  Same for the shrew.’

‘What was his favourite animal?’ I asked.

‘The shrew liked the wolf the best, because he was so elusive and mysterious and everyone paid him the highest respect.  But he also liked to watch the badgers and the foxes too.’ 

‘What about the weasel, did the shrew like the weasel too?’

‘Well yes, now you mention it there is a weasel in this story.’

‘One day the shrew made it to the brook for sunset and took his share of the water, he climbed up onto a rock to dry his fur in the setting sun and looked at all the other animals there.  First he spotted the wolf who lay on the bank alone, no one bothered the wolf.  Then he spotted some foxes and a family of field mice playing next to one another and thought that that was just the loveliest sight he’d ever seen. But then, all of a sudden….’

‘Oh look some foxgloves, right there, aren’t they lovely?’

‘Mum!’

‘Yes?’

‘Carry on with the story,’

‘Oh yes, of course, where was I?’

‘But then all of a sudden….’

‘But then all of a sudden into the clearing by the mill came a weasel.  Shrew was normally terrified of weasels and never stayed around long enough to appreciate their finer points.  But by the brook at sunset, from his rock the shrew could really study the weasel in safety.  And this weasel was, to him, more magnificent than any other creature he’d ever seen there.  She walked with such grace and confidence, like she had a really funky tune playing in her head all the time.’

‘Like what?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Err Ma baker by Boney M,’

‘Yes like that tune I suspect’,

‘Cool, I like that one too!’

‘Shrew watched the weasel make the rounds, greeting everyone she passed, stopping to sniff the odd bottom…’

‘Mum, do they really do that?’

‘I’m not sure, I put it in for comedy effect.’

‘Oh ok…arsenic license…’

‘Artistic License.’

‘Hmmm. Carry on.’

‘Shrew by nature was a nervous creature whose heart rate whilst resting was going at eight hundred beats per minute.  He had terrible paranoia; thought that everyone wanted to eat him, which to be fair, they did.  Anyway, Weasel seemed to be the complete opposite to him, she was laid back, she was cool, she was so beautiful and so elegant and so full of confidence that poor old shrew fell madly in love with her.  And this made his already beating heart beat a little faster…which made him hungry.  Shrews are always hungry, they have to eat their own body weight twice every day to survive.  So, the shrew absent-mindedly ate a grasshopper that had landed on his rock.’ 

‘Oh dear,’

‘Why, oh dear?’

‘Because of the pact; you can’t eat others while by the brook at sunset.’

‘Exactly true!’

‘What happened next?’

‘Everyone stopped when the grasshopper’s friend screamed out in horror.  The shrew had broken the pact, not intentionally; he’d just forgotten for a moment.’

‘Did he leave his manners at the door?’

‘Yes I suppose he did, metaphorically speaking.’

‘Well anyway, the little shrew’s already drumming heart drummed harder.  In fact by now it sounded more like a trill than a beat.  All eyes turned to him.  He tried really hard to look nonchalant by whistling to himself but really this just made him look more culpable than ever.  Feeling guilty made him hungry so he ate another grasshopper out of habit.

‘Oh no not again!’

‘Yes, and everyone saw him do it with their own eyes too this time.’

‘Seize him!’ cried the Wolf. 

‘Everyone edged a little closer to the shrew.  The shrew jumped down off of his rock, and feeling trapped and anxious he ate a butterfly by accident.’ 

‘He makes a lot of mistakes this shrew,’

‘Well it’s all about perception isn’t it?  The shrew is in fact so nervous that he’s eating to stay alive.  If he doesn’t eat he’ll die of fright right there on the spot.  He doesn’t mean to eat his fellow forest dwellers but instinct has kicked in.  On the other hand the other animals are regarding him more nervously, they don’t see a frightened little shrew out of his comfort zone, no, they see a psycho-killer!’ 

‘A what?’

‘A psycho-killer.  An animal so sure of its ability to survive it breaks the most sacred rule of the forest.  Either he’s plain crazy or he’s a calculating killer both of which are a little frightening.  The other animals, with each step they took, became less sure they wanted anything to do with the shrew. 

‘He needs to pay for his crime!’ roared the wolf indignantly.

‘Here, here!’ piped up the foxes.

‘Grab him’ said the wolf

‘Here, here,’ said the foxes with a little less conviction than before.

The shrew looked around desperately for a way out of this nightmare and was actually thinking of making a run for it when the weasel came and stood beside him.

She whispered, ‘Don’t eat me.’

Then to the gathering crowd of onlookers she said in her silky smooth voice. 

‘My client agrees to not eat anyone else here tonight on the condition that he’s kept well fed throughout the day.  That means if you want his full compliance you must bring him offerings every day.  My client must never feel hungry again.’

‘Here here!’ cried the foxes in unison.

‘Seems reasonable,’ said the badger.

‘Oh that’s clever,’ said the otter.

‘Nonsense,’ said the wolf, leaving the brook in disgust. 

‘I’m hungry,’ said the shrew in a shrill and frightening voice.

And all the grasshoppers shrieked so hard they literally jumped out of their skins!’

‘Is that the end Mother?’

‘Yes that’s the end my darling boy.’

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Packing for Patagonia

 

Our parents drove off leaving a thick cloud of dust swirling in the hot air.  We watched as the dust began to settle and then, like a magic trick, our parents were gone.  The invisible cord between us had not broken or been severed but given a lot more slack.  We looked at one another and then, without words, my brother Bugsy and I surveyed the camp-site for the best pitch. 

The ground was sunbaked hard: what little grass remained was soon claimed by the ponies that roamed freely around the campsite.  Some would argue that the ponies’ presence was a symbiotic one, not just with the forest as a whole but also with the people who used it.  They kept the grass short and fertilised in equal measure; they also cleaned up after, and often during, mealtimes.  I always felt that even though we shared a common space they were not remotely aware of us. There seemed to be a complete blindness on their part, so much so that I wondered whether we existed at all? Perhaps we only thought we were there?  This insecurity would only ever be relieved if, and it seemed unlikely, someone could bridge the void between us. 

After some serious head scratching, and a little stomping on hard ground we decided on a spot to pitch our tent: flat but not entirely level, close to a large thorny bush for shade and near a picnic table which we intended to colonise for the week.

Before pitching our tent we sat on the picnic table and rolled ourselves a freedom cigarette, one we could smoke without the usual fear of detection or of the consequences that detection would bring.  As we inhaled the unique and slightly acrid taste of our emancipation, the campsite warden and his son walked by.  The warden, whom we recognised as the man who, once a day (normally early in the morning) came to check we were not overstaying our welcome, walked with shoulders hunched and hands buried deep in his pockets.  He looked as if the business of warding was a heavy burden to carry. His son Nigel shuffled along as if to the beat of a drum no one else could hear.  Nigel, we thought, was probably the same age as we were, fourteen or fifteen but, well, he was different – to us he seemed ‘absent’ somehow.  Nowadays, our assessment may seem to be a little harsh or thoughtless but back then, the best way available to us to describe Nigel was, ‘Not all there’.

Nigel saw us and called out, ‘Hiya!’ giving us one of his legendary salutes.  We responded by waving back and returning his, ‘Hiya!’  We watched as father and son moved on, one determinedly miserable, the other obviously happy.  As they disappeared around the corner, we heard Nigel call out again to some unseen camper, ‘Hiya!’ and his father shouting, ‘Keep up Nigel!’

‘It must be great to be Nigel,’ said Bugsy.

‘Why?’

‘Well he doesn’t know he’s ‘different’.  When other people chat to him all he sees is niceness.  He’s really happy isn’t he?  Isn’t that what everyone wants?’ 

‘Well I suppose so.  But I wouldn’t want to swap my life for his.  I want it all – the rough and the smooth.’

‘But,’ said Bugsy getting up off the table and grabbing the tent pegs, ‘he doesn’t know what he’s missing: ignorance is bliss, like the religiously devout.’ 

The phrase ‘religiously devout’ was new to us and so therefore applied overtly and frequently whenever possible. The execution of which was coupled with a derision normally reserved for maths teachers.

As teenagers, we often presumed to know more abut the world than we actually did but this didn’t stop us speculating, often erroneously, about those around us.  

Nigel and his father were, as it would turn out, a strong case in point. 

Throughout the afternoon and early evening we met other young people staying on the campsite, all but two were with their parents. So, quite naturally, our little patch, complete with picnic table soon became the social hub.  We had tried, in vain, to keep the decks well stacked in our favour, allowing more girls than boys into our realm but, naturally, where there are girls, boys will follow.  Two boys in particular were received with grudging hospitality. They were the aforementioned two without their parents. We begrudged them because they were male and also bestowed with the awe and mystery that freedom brings.  But soon the begrudging turned to resentment and irritation. 

These two street savvy boys from Winchester had burst through the night into our cosy gathering like a couple of explorers stumbling on a primitive society. Bugsy was holding court, throwing all his charm into the ring and gaining considerable ground when his reign was brought to a premature end. The Winchesters were a curious blend of secretive mystique and romanticism, giving away the outcome of their alleged activities but never the execution. They were a novel distraction for some, full of their own mythology and audacious exploits. They began to dazzle everyone, but not us, with their stories of bravado. They had apparently stalked a deer in the forest and killed it, ‘with these bare hands.’  Walked into Brockenhurst and drank cider with a tramp.  And, most outrageously, watched through the window of a hockey team’s changing room as the girls got undressed. Our gathering, once a rapt audience complete with the temptation of a budding sexual encounter had, in a moment, abandoned us for the lure of newer, shinier things. 

The following morning we awoke to the sound of Nigel’s father outside our tent demanding to see our camping card.  He took it and crossed off the first of seven pre-paid stamps before sternly telling us to tidy up our pitch. 

After a quick consultation Bugsy and I agreed that if those two Winchester boys could walk to Brockenhurst then so could we.  We would strike out in search of adventure and, what’s more, we would bring back the spoils of our crusade and share them with the girls that evening. 

Carrying a bottle of water and, for no particular reason, a sheath knife, we set off on our journey.  As we passed the Warden’s office we saw Nigel sitting outside on the steps.  He was engrossed in something so we went over to say, ‘Hiya!’ to find that he was arranging equally sized sticks in a line, spaced exactly the same distance apart, on the step below. He didn’t respond: he seemed not to hear us at all.   We watched him absently for a moment wondering whether to try another ill-fated ‘Hiya,’ or not when his father came out of the office and onto the steps.

‘You boys stop taunting my son!’ he shouted angrily.

‘We’re not,’ I said aggrieved. 

‘I saw you!’ he shouted again pointing at us.

Nigel clapped his hands over his ears and began rocking back and forth on the step, moaning monotonously, ‘Noooooo … noooooo….’

‘Now look what you’ve done!’ shouted the warden. ‘Get out of my sight before you do any more damage.’

‘But…’ I hastened.

Nigel became more frantic.

‘Go!’ he screamed.

So we left, leaving the warden to calm his son.

‘I hate that,’ said Bugsy striding for the open road.

‘Hate what?’ I inquired.

‘Being accused of something we didn’t do.  What did we do?  We were just being nice.’

‘That Warden is an idiot,’ I replied sagely, ‘It’s probably because everyone else is on holiday apart from him.’

‘Yeah I guess, but even so, why take it out on us?’

‘I don’t know.  One thing is clear though – Nigel is not happy all the time,’ I said.

‘No I guess not.  He doesn’t like it when people shout.  He likes everything quiet and calm.’

‘Did you see how he was arranging those sticks?’

‘Yeah, very tidy.  He likes everything ‘just so’, like Goldilocks – not too hot and not too cold.’

It wasn’t long before the day’s warmth swathed us and enticed us with possibilities.  We stopped for a moment to take in our freedom.  It smelt of damp bark, pine and asphalt.  It sounded like the unseen movement of harrow-hawks hunting overhead, the rummaging of wild pigs in the thick forest undergrowth and the thoughtful meditation of the elusive red dear.  The sun was rising, already warm on our faces and thoughts of injustice evaporated with the morning dew.  Either side of the road the forest loomed, the majesty of nature, full of mystery and folklore reigned.  We decided to leave the road to tourists and take our chances in the forest.  We knew roughly which direction to go so, with the spirit of the boy scouts we were, Bugsy and I stepped off the road and onto the track.  Not once during that long eventful day did our thoughts turn to Nigel or his misguided father.  Not once did they loiter on the obvious disparity between our youthful exhilaration and Nigel’s limited experience of life.  Nor did we compare our freedom to choose, to imagine, to create or play with that of Nigel or, indeed, his father. Their lives were full of unthinkable difficulties which affected them both.  Nigel ‘wasn’t all there’, we got that, but in reality we had no idea what that was like.  Furthermore we had not even begun to consider what that might mean for a parent.  For us, life was a film set – we were the lead players, the world around us was nothing more than a backdrop full of props to pick and choose at will.  We never lingered long on someone else’s story because our story was the one that mattered.  Others were welcome to join the ensemble as long as they helped with the overall narrative.

The day seemed to be written for us.  We stepped blindly into it without trepidation – just a sense of claiming what was rightfully ours.  We stayed firmly in the ‘now’ never veering towards the past or the future; we lived that day completely and in the moment.  And our moments were bountiful.  The rapture of startling a herd of fallow deer into flight, their initial confusion and regrouping was like watching a flock of alarmed sparrows; they sped past us, eyes bulging with fright, antlers cutting through the gorse, hearts pounding in our ears. Then there was the boyish joy of finding a rope strung up over the river attached to the bough of an oak tree.  We stripped off and took turns for a while, launching ourselves off the bank and onto the rope, swinging out over the water before letting go and plunging into the deep cold pool below.  A group of girl guides came hiking through the woods into the clearing only to be treated to the full view of Bugsy’s pale but perfectly formed bottom; suspended in mid air and glistening in the midday sun.  They stopped as one, pointing and giggling before moving on.  

Stepping out of the forest back onto the road, we found an entourage of classic cars speeding past, engines roaring, horns honking and chrome glittering in the sun.  I saw goggles and leather gloves, picnic hampers, headscarves and unruly hair.  The drivers bore down on their accelerators as their passengers waved or called out to us.  One woman lifted her top and flashed her ample bosom, laughing at our startled expressions. Another passenger threw an empty bottle of champagne at a passing tree; it ricocheted and smashed onto the tarmac.  

We had gone from the timeless, peaceful surety of the forest to the noise and chaos of the road in an instant. 

Finally, we entered the village of Brockenhurst with its four thousand year history and its utter Englishness.  In the ford that cuts the road in two, ponies and horses met to exchange banter, while cows regarded them with poorly veiled contempt from the wrong side of the cattle-grid.  Into this Constablesque scene we walked, still wet from the river dousing, half dressed and covered in the foliage the forest had graciously bestowed upon us.  We, as my mother would say, made the place look untidy.  Perhaps it was our very bedraggled appearance that helped us to navigate the treacherous waters of our illicit acquisitions.  It was as though Brockenhurst were fighting an infection and was prepared to do anything to rid itself of the virus.  We bought alcohol and tobacco without difficulty and, mission accomplished, we left and I imagined an audible sigh of relief from everyone. 

On the walk home we reflected that within that myriad of humanity we hadn’t noticed a single tramp.  In fact, we suspected, the closest thing to vagrants that Brockenhurst had seen in a while was us!  Despite our appearance we were offered a lift to the campsite by an elderly couple in a camper-van.  Curiously, before allowing us to board, they made us swear allegiance to The Queen.  Our oaths were rewarded with cold drinks, homemade sausage rolls and a half hour monologue on the merits of the royal family.  We stepped out of the camper van feeling like Knights of the Round Table.

Our quest had not only succeeded but we were also armed with a bounty of anecdotes with which to regale our new friends.  We had successfully procured nourishment for both the belly and the soul without having to spill one ounce of blood! 

By seven o’clock our table had a full compliment of eager, impressionable teenagers chomping at the bit for our, only slightly, embroidered stories.  Placed firmly in the centre of our own legend we engendered envy and admiration in equal measure from our audience.  Our beguiling account of the day’s adventures overshadowed their own which, we were certain, were bound to be lack-lustre by comparison.  While we were free to pursue our own destiny they, in turn, were tied to their respective families and all the relentless compromises that came with it. 

To our delight, the girls seemed to be particularly impressed with our exploits so we took our time over the telling and retelling of our story all the while feeding off the subtle signals of attraction fluttering like winged hearts across the table.  And so, as the night drew darker and the cider burned in our bellies we revelled in our own glory and bathed in apparent admiration: our hubris was complete. 

Toward the end of the evening the Winchester Boys turned up.  I steeled myself for one more account of our day, the most important one, the one to dampen the interlopers’ fire. But, it seemed, the Winchester Boys had plenty of fire; they’d moved on from overblown trumpeting, from fanfaronade to fanfare.  Each produced, from behind his back, a firework.  Everyone soon clustered around the Winchesters as they explained that they couldn’t possibly say where they got them, but it should be known that it wasn’t easy and that it took courage and planning.  Plus they had more stashed away somewhere, ‘location top secret obviously.’

The fireworks were rockets the size of which I’d never seen.

‘Tossers,’ Bugsy whispered.

‘Oh well, we had a good run.’

‘It’s like they are just waiting in the wings; as soon as I think I’m going to get a chance with Sara out they bloody pop!’

‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ I said philosophically. 

The Winchester Boys, having caught everyone’s attention, including mine albeit reluctantly, planted their rockets in the hard ground, told everyone to stand well back and lit the fuses.  Two rockets sped skywards into the dark night giving two different displays.  One was an exploding chrysanthemum, its petals blown outwards in an infinite radius from the core.  The other resembled a weeping willow raining streams of golden tears.   Once the gasps of delight subsided, the Winchester Boys disappeared back into the night.  Our guests soon followed suit returning to their caravans and exhausted we crawled into our sleeping bags. 

We were startled awake by an angry voice outside the tent. 

‘You two bastards, come out here now!’ I grabbed a torch and unzipped the tent.  Standing like a Colossus in the moonlight was the camp warden.

‘Who is it?’ whispered Bugsy next to me loading his air pistol.

‘The site warden; he wants us to go outside.  Put the gun away, I don’t think its going to help.’

‘What does he want?’

“I don’t know, he seems really angry.’

‘I can’t go out.’

‘Why?’

‘I’ve got an erection.’

‘Good for you,’ I said.

‘If you two little shits don’t come out now, I’m coming in after you,’ shouted the Warden.

‘We don’t want him in here Bugsy,’ I said in alarm. ‘Just hop out in your sleeping bag.’

We emerged from the tent with our modesty under wraps.  The Warden stared at us, unblinking, with wild, bloodshot eyes.  He seemed lost for words, as if he hadn’t actually thought about whatever it was he wanted to say beforehand.  Time froze.  Within that timeless moment, I saw in his eyes not just contempt for us but for life itself.  But I also recognised that behind the contempt lay fear, a fear of every second to come, of an eternity of being.  I saw sadness and I saw a man resolved to carry his burden alone.   

It was as if all these feelings had suddenly awakened at the same time, they’d bubbled up from some pit inside him and were now bottlenecked.  He didn’t know which emotion to let out first, they were all stuck in his throat… but eventually he went predominantly with rage.

The Warden blasted us with a tirade of abuse and castigation; it was like watching the birth of a supernova.  He belched out spit and bad language peppered only occasionally with coherent speech.  We were totally non-plussed by his outburst at first but after a while, we began to understand the gist.  

The warden was so very angry because he thought we had set off the fireworks.  Nigel had had one of his meltdowns; it had taken the warden all night to settle him down and it was, according to him, all our fault.  We were already known to him as taunters of mentally handicapped children.  

We tried to interject, to proclaim our innocence but he wasn’t listening.  The Warden wanted us out of his campsite immediately and, to prove his sincerity, he began pulling at our tent.  We looked at one another in mute horror!  We were fourteen and fifteen years old, had no way of contacting our parents, (they were camping on another site), and would have to walk miles in the middle of the night in a vain attempt to locate them.  Even if we did find them, what the hell were we supposed to say? 

Suddenly, our panic was overtaken by immense relief; never was I so happy in the knowledge that the Winchester Boys were out there causing havoc.  Two rockets shot up into the night sky and exploded over our heads.  The warden looked from the fireworks to us, and back again in disbelief.  We, as one, gave him a knowing shrug and with that he ran off to confront the perpetrators. 

When morning came, it came in grey and overcast.  We got up early, fetched a bowl of water to make tea and lit the gas burner.  We huddled, dressed in sweaters, around our little stove, not saying much, just staring at the blue flame, watching the pan, lost in our own thoughts.   Once the water had boiled we made tea in tin cups and rolled, with practiced dexterity, a cigarette each.  I picked up a packet of tent pegs, thinking I might replace the ones the Warden had shaken loose the night before.  

We moved over to the picnic table and watched the campsite wake up.  Men striding towards their ablutions with a towel draped around their necks, wash kit in one hand and toilet paper in the other.  Fathers coming back from the newspaper van with their rag of choice, stopping to greet fellow campers, exchanging pleasantries, a chuckle here, a handshake there.  That morning walk, from caravan to newspaper van and back is where, within that tiny ritual, I learned that Elvis had died.

Mothers, still in their nighties, a cigarette loitering on the edge of a benevolent smile, arranged children around breakfast tables and poured cereals into bowls and coffee into cups. 

The ponies carried on regardless increasing my paranoia by refusing to recognise our existence.  It was while watching a group of ponies gathering by the road that I noticed Nigel shuffling along. 

‘Hiya!’ he called out as he approached us and saluted.

‘Hiya!’ we called back in unison.

‘What’s he got in his hand?’ asked Bugsy.

I hadn’t noticed until he’d pointed it out.

‘Oh… God, no!  Looks like a firework,’ I said dismounting the table.

‘One of the exploded ones from last night?’

‘Erm, not sure.  We need to try and get a closer look.’

We approached Nigel cautiously as if he were a wild animal.  We tried not to make eye contact and walked, in what we hoped, was a non-threatening manner.

‘What you found there Nigel?’ I asked pointing to the firework.

Nigel stopped and lowered his head, then raised the firework for us to see.

It still had a fuse.  Either the Winchester boys had dropped it or forgotten to light it but the fact remained that Nigel had found it and it didn’t look as if he wanted to give it up in a hurry.

‘I’ll go get the Warden,’ said Bugsy quietly.

‘You sure you want to?  He doesn’t really like us.’ I murmured back.

‘Yeah I know, but I think if he had to choose he’d like me more than you.’

‘Really?’

‘You keep Nigel here. I’ll be back soon.’

Bugsy turned and walked, seemingly casually at first, towards the office.  Now I was left with a boy and a live firework, both of which could go off at any moment.  I thought briefly to myself, ‘Well-played little brother.’

‘Hiya Nigel!’ I said again and then holding out the packet of tent pegs said, ‘You want to help arrange these pegs?’

Nigel didn’t respond, but he didn’t leave either.  I sat down on the damp ground, legs crossed like Master Po and begun to lay out the tent pegs as I’d seen Nigel do with the sticks.  Tentatively, he sat down next to me, took a peg from the bag and laid it down in the line.  We continued like this until all the pegs were out, but Nigel held on fast his firework.  I looked towards the campsite office hoping to see Nigel’s father on his way over but there was only a small boy lost in some imaginary game walking with his sister who carefully carried a bowl of water.

‘Lets see if your rocket can float?’ I said with the confidence of a military commander.

I got up slowly, not wishing to cause Nigel any alarm, and fetched a bowl of water.  I placed it down in front of him and Nigel, now smiling, dropped his rocket into the water.  It floated and Nigel watched with the avid fascination of a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse.  We stayed like that for some time, neither one of us moving until eventually I recognised the steady, downtrodden footsteps of the warden approaching.  Bugsy trailed sleepily behind.

‘Where’s the firework?’ asked the warden abruptly.

‘We put it in the water to see if it would float,’ I said calmly.

‘Good thinking.’ 

There was an uncomfortable silence, the four of us staring at the floating incendiary as it bobbed about in the water. 

The warden walked over to our picnic table and sat down.  Bugsy and I followed, taking it as some sort of invitation.

‘Look boys…’ began the Warden,  ‘Sorry I got the wrong end of the stick.  It’s hard you know, having a kid like Nigel.  It’s like you packed to go to the Seychelles but ended up in Patagonia.  I never really got used to the climate; it’s not what I thought it would be like.’  The Warden looked from Bugsy to me and back again to Bugsy. 

‘I see you boys, young, healthy, a little mischievous maybe but full of potential.  The world for you is beginning to open up, you can do anything, be anything, but for Nigel… and for me… well, we are not going anywhere.  I’ve got to look after him, protect him, that’s my job but…well…there isn’t a mother anymore.  It’s just him and me.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life… dwelling on what might have been is just one of them.  Misjudging people is another.  Nigel’s not one of my mistakes, I love him, it’s just that I’ve had to adjust my expectations.  I needed to let go.’

The three of us looked over towards the Warden’s son who was still fixated on his floating rocket.

A pony wandered over and started to drink the water from the bowl. Nigel recoiled rapidly but then, with obvious uncertainty reached out and touched the pony’s head.  The pony, to my amazement began to nuzzle Nigel, effectively asking for more affection.  

A connection happened; it was almost visible, like a bright blue aura around them.  An awareness passed between them, a coded, private communication.  Nigel had singlehandedly bridged that gap, he had been recognised.  In doing so he had alleviated my anxiety. 

‘I’ve never seen him do that before,’ said the Warden with pride.

That evening, there was no sign of the Winchester Boys and speculation was rife as to the possible cause of their sudden departure.  We offered many theories, each one more colourful than its predecessor but we kept the real reason under wraps.  Soon the legend of the Winchester Boys faded as young love was left to blossom. 

Nigel passed by at about eight o’clock with the pony trailing him like an obedient puppy.

‘Rocket!’ he called out giving his usual salute.

‘Rocket!’ we replied with a wave.

‘Who’s that?’ asked Sara.

‘That’s Nigel,’ I said.

‘He’s not all there is he?’ she said sympathetically.

‘He might not be all here but he’s definitely all there’ I said.

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A Rat Catcher’s Tale

 

My Grandfather, like countless grandfathers before him, told many stories.  What makes a good story well-told is perhaps the unseen legwork behind the delivery.  After all, grandfathers have had plenty of time to hone their skills.  They have told that same story countless times to various people receiving equally varied responses.  They know when to pause, when to reach out and grab you suddenly in a brief but terrifying grip, and when to add warmth with dewy-eyed reminiscence.  

Their stories are as much a part of their legacy as the Toby jugs and tortoiseshell combs.  And so it comes as no surprise that my Grandfather had spent his entire lifetime refining his story legacy.  Often he would just look up from whatever it was he was doing, fix you with a twinkling eye and say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time…?’  and then he, with little encouragement, would take you on a short journey situated somewhere between the truth and wistful recollection.  What one got was the polished, well-rehearsed delivery of a tale that may have started life as a loosely held together concept.

He was in many ways a very self-deprecating man; he never boasted about his accomplishments during the war and his modesty and humility lent weight to his stories.  Often he portrayed himself as the butt on which the joke hinged.  Even in old age he had the ability to mock his own fragility and, at times, his foolhardy courage or ‘pluck’.  There was never any doubt about how brave he was but, to him, he was only ever treading the boards, doing what anyone else would do in those times, in that situation.  On occasion, if he played his part well enough, he got through it and other times, despite his best efforts there were consequences.  Of course, that is life but for him and so many others during the war the stakes were far greater.

Toward the end of his life he was living alone in a small cottage, in a small village in North Cornwall. He had mobility problems due, in no small measure, to the shrapnel lodged in his back. To picture what I’m about to tell you, you must first see the terraced cottage, painted white with its grey slate roof leaning sharply into a garden which was small in size but big on colour.  With your back to the garden you see the stoic old church with its graveyard and further along the road, the clock tower engraved around the base with the names of fallen sons.  

Through the low cottage front door, under the blackened oak lintel that, even as a teenager I would have to duck under, you are greeted by a steep stairway leading up to the only bedroom. Running along the staircase wall is a grab rail to aid my grandfather on the staircase. At the bottom of the stairs stands his Zimmer frame. 

To the left of the front door is his stuffy little front room (heated like a furnace) big enough to fit one comfortable chair and a tiny two-seater sofa that sags so much in the middle that getting out is not an option.  There is a chunky old television set in one corner and a curious cookie jar shaped like a new York cop sitting on a side table.  To the right of the staircase is his rudimentary kitchen with the old cast iron Rayburn in the fireplace, like an antiquated steam engine, kettle always atop, quivering and simmering away.  The kitchen table is piled with a multitude of detritus: unopened letters, bills and newspapers in amongst photographs, calendars and keys.  Smell the too-hot-to-eat pasty’s cooling by the sash window and taste the bitter tannin of tea left to brew for too long.

The place was, for want of a better word, comfortable but had its difficulties too, not least of all the laborious task of having to drag himself up and down the narrow stairs.

So when, according to Granddad, one night the police woke him from his sleep by banging nosily on the front door, it was a bit of an effort to get dressed and go downstairs.

He starts the story with information he gleaned after the event. 

‘You hear about that madman that escaped from Bodmin Hospital?’

Hooked from the start I say, ’Erm… no Granddad, what about him?’

‘Well it was last week, he took off during the night, he apparently scaled the wall like a cat and disappeared into the night.  The authorities reckoned he would show up here, in this village sooner or later. They said he was dangerous but that he had family here, so he might stop off to seek refuge and sustenance.’

I pictured an Abel Magwitch type convict, slipping into the village at night and then sitting opposite his grandmother sipping tea and eating bread and jam.

 ‘Of course I didn’t know anything about that: I go to bed early these days.  Anyhow first I know is that someone is banging on my door, shouting for me to open it!  I don’t know how long they were banging on the door, I didn’t have my hearing aid in, see?  Anyway never mind that, I heard it in the end.  Thought at first it was gunfire!  First I have to struggle to get out of bed and then getting down the stairs isn’t easy either. I get down eventually but all the while they are shouting and hollering and banging on the door. 

“Who is it?” I say through the door, standing there in my dressing gown leaning on my Zimmer frame. 

“Police open up!” they shout back.

“How do I know you are the police?” I said, because they could be anyone.  I’d seen it on ‘Crime Watch’, these rouges going around impersonating people of authority and taking advantage of elderly folks.  It’s not right is it?  Some of these people can be very persuasive.’

He pauses for a moment and then says.

‘I get six bottle of wine from the Times wine club every month, you know?  I don’t even drink wine. Karen phoned me up and we started chatting about one thing and another and before you know it I’ve agreed to what is, if you like that sort of thing, a very good deal.’

“Sir this is the police and if you don’t open the door we will be forced to knock it down!” hollered the policeman, getting all uppity at me.

Well that got my goose up to be honest with you. They are supposed to give you some form of identity. 

So I said, “Sir, if you knock down this door I will fight you.”

Of course that fellow, who, as it turns out was a policeman looking for the runaway madman, didn’t know I was leaning on a Zimmer frame.  But, he just mumbled something incoherent and left me in peace.’

I can picture what’s happening on both sides of the door and I know full well that despite his invalidity he would have, if he thought it necessary, put up a fight.  The police officer may have decided that one madman was enough for one night.

As a young boy, from the age of six, during the summer holidays I would join my Grandfather on his rounds.  My Granddad, at that point, was in the pest control business and travelled around North Cornwall in his beaten up old van visiting local farmers.  His army days were long gone, discharged due to injury he’d wound up working with the local council exterminating rats, moles and other pests.  For him, I believe, this new career was a far cry from his previous occupation and, with hindsight, I can see that he resented his change in fortune.  But, as far as I was concerned, we had the best job in the world.  Travelling the narrow winding roads, trundling past miles of hedgerow with occasional glimpses of the sea and listening to his stories, we answered to no one, but met a lot of colourful and often strange people, all of whom harboured a fondness for my grandfather and therefore, by association, me. 

The interior of that old van had a particular smell, not repugnant or offensive in any way, not like one might imagine the inside of a rat-catchers van to smell but comfortingly musty like clothes made damp by the rain but with undertones of ambrosial sweetness.  Granddad always had a bag of boiled sweets on the cluttered dashboard in amongst the invoices and appointment slips. He’d ‘kicked the habit of smoking’ after nearly forty years and these boiled sweets were all that stood between him and starting up again. 

He warned me about the hazards of smoking by way of one of his typical self-deprecating yarns.

‘I was on leave, just before the war started.  Of course everyone knew something big was about to happen that’s why we were given leave, to go home and spend time with our loved ones. Before war broke out I’d been working in Buckingham Palace you know?  Everyone was a Nazi spy so the army were brought in to do a lot of the work.  I was responsible for delivering the King his mail in the morning.  I had a problem saying ‘Majesty’, it never came out right, but the King, who had a stutter, felt sorry for me and said after a couple of days, “Just call me George.”  Well after that we got on famously.

Anyway, one night I was in the Arscott Arms, I’m not much of a drinker, not like some of the other lads, but I liked to dance, so if there was music I’d go and look for a pretty girl to dance with. Now, as I said I didn’t drink but you should know that I did like a smoke.  In fact I’d started on the Woodbines by the time I was your age!  Anyway, on this particular evening I’d met a maid, this is before I knew your grandmother of course.  I can’t remember her name but I remember that she was handsome and that she could dance really well.  We were having a good time, dancing and joking around when all of a sudden this big fellow comes into the pub and squares up to me.

“That’s my girl!” he said.

I looked at the girl and she shock her head and rolled her eyes in a fashion that said to me, “This fellow’s got delusions.”  Now I’ve come across deluded men before as it happens, the army is full of them.  I might have been deluded myself at times too.  It’s like a contagious decease that sweeps through the ranks.  There is no reckoning with a delusional man, there is nothing you can say to help them see sense. The only thing you can do is to fight them, if its worth the effort, and I thought this young girl was worth the effort.

So me and this big fellow go outside to fight, that’s just protocol you see.  No one in those days would dream of fighting inside the pub: everyone embarking on a fight took it outside, as did we. The rest of the revellers came out too; no-one wanted to miss out on seeing a good scrap.  It all started well, Queensbury rules and all that.  I landed the first punch right on his jaw and followed with a left hook.  ‘This,’ I thought, ‘was going to be easy.’  Not so son, not at all.  You see despite the fact that I started off well, this fellow had something I lacked, he had stamina!  He had what the sergeant major called, ‘staying power’.  Where I started to tire, to run out of puff due to all those Woodbines, this fellow just kept getting up and coming at me like a tank!  In the end he beat me black and blue.  I watched him leave with his arm around the girl and that was that.’

While listening to this story I had made the fatal mistake of predicting the outcome: Granddad would win the fight along with the girl and everyone would celebrate his victory.  So, to realise that he had actually lost came as a bit of a blow.  I glanced at him to see whether his expression betrayed any self-pity but all I could see in his face was a sort of wry joy in his own misfortune. 

One morning we set off for a farm near Bodmin.  Here, on this farm Granddad explained, was where he met the Beast of Bodmin, although it was not known as the Beast of Bodmin then, that came later, thanks to him.  He had, the previous year, dropped in on the farmer and his wife to see if they needed anything. 

‘A courtesy call was all it was.  I thought, as I was passing I’d pop in and see how the rat population was doing over at the Stevens’ place.  I pulled up outside the farmhouse and Mr Stevens came out immediately, flapping his hands and looking very concerned, “Charlie thank God you are here, I was just about to call you,” he said. 

‘What’s the problem?’ I said getting out of the van, thinking it might be moles again.  Of all the rodents, moles is the worst.  I have tried all sorts of ways to exterminate them, including small charges of dynamite and yet the buggers just keep on keeping body and soul together.  You got to hand it to them really.  If there is such a thing as reincarnation then coming back as a mole would be a pretty safe option I reckon.  Well if not a mole then a cockroach, cockroaches are pretty tough too you know…not least of all when they are all you have to eat.

Mr. Stevens said, all flustered, “In the end barn Charlie, go and have a look, I don’t know what to do about it really.  It’s left us in a bit of a jam to be honest.  Mrs. Stevens won’t come out of the house for hell or high water, she’s afraid it will eat her.”

Well I didn’t know what to expect to be honest with you boy, but of all the things a bloody great Puma was not one of them. 

I walked over to the end barn, pulled back the door and peered straight into the eyes of a killer. Well I damn near died on the spot.  Luckily we were trained in the army to deal with any situation but I think I must have missed the class on dangerous, feral cats.  Anyway instinct kicked in pretty quick and I closed that barn door very carefully; it was like trying to put a pin back in a hand grenade, and then I marched over to Mr. Stevens.

‘There’s a bloody Puma in your barn!’ I said.

“I know that but what are you going to do about it Charlie?” he said.

‘Me?’

“Well you are pest control and that, by anyone’s standards, is a pest Charlie,” said Mr. Stevens with his hands on his hips, all determined like.

‘Well how did it get in there anyway?’ I asked.

“It just wondered in I guess.  Must have been released from a zoo or something.  Luckily no one was in there at the time.  Mrs. Stevens was shelling peas under the elm and I was repairing the tractor.  I got up and walked over to the barn to fetch a number twelve spanner and there it was.  I closed the door and bolted it.  I was just looking for your phone number when you turned up. Which is a good thing, because you are just the man for the job Charlie.”

‘Well’ I said seeing that Mr. Stevens was adamant, ‘Do you have a shotgun in the house?’

“That’s the spirit Charlie, I’ll go get it for you.”

Mr. Stevens fetched his shotgun and I grabbed a length of rope from the back of the van.  I tied the rope to the handle of the barn door and walked backwards for as far as the rope would allow. Stevens handed me the gun. ‘It’s loaded Charlie. I’ll wait inside if that’s alright, Mrs. Stevens is all tied up in knots: you know what women are like.’ 

Yes I did, I thought, and they are a damned sight more courageous than you.

So old Stevens makes his valiant retreat and I’m left with the job of tackling a Puma.  I gathered my nerve, dug my heels into the ground and yanked on the rope.  The door flew open and I raised the gun and…nothing, no Puma in sight.  I walked tentatively toward the barn with my finger poised over the trigger and…nothing.  It was then that I noticed that the doors to the back of the barn were wide open!  It was also then that I heard a low growling noise coming from behind me.  I turned slowly, shaking now, like a puppy having a poo, and there it was glaring at me.  I pulled the trigger, and gave him both barrels, the force of which threw me onto my back.  I struggled to my feet holding the gun like a club because old Stevens had not given me any more ammunition.  I looked around and the Puma was gone. I don’t know how he got out or where he went from there.

After that there were reports of a wild cat roaming the moor killing farm stock and scaring hikers. Me and old Mr. Stevens just kept mum about it all, in fact we never mention it, and nor should you.’

One of the other stories I wasn’t to mention was the one about the lost watch.

‘You never know who you are telling,’ was Granddad’s reasoning. 

Once again, during leave from the army Granddad went home to Cornwall.  It was summertime and the weather was warm.  He borrowed his father’s motorbike and rode to the beach for a swim. 

‘In those days,’ he explained, ‘no one bothered about thieves; we just used to roll up our valuables in our socks and stuff them into our boots.  So that’s what I did, got undressed, put my valuables in my boots and went for a swim in the sea.  I came back and lay down on the sand for a while to dry off.  I fell asleep and when I woke up I had no idea what time it was!  I sat up and rummaged around in my socks and boots looking for my watch but couldn’t find it.  I never thought for one moment that someone had pinched it.  I thought I must have dropped it in the sand.  So, I start looking for it but still can’t find it.  In a while the lifeguard comes over and asks me if everything is all right. 

I explained rather sheepishly to the lifeguard that I’d lost my watch, it was a gift from my parents and I’d be mortified if I couldn’t find it.

The lifeguard, who was an elderly gentleman, all the young fellows were at war by now, began to organise a search party.  Before too long just about everyone on the beach was involved in the hunt for your Granddad’s watch.  All the children had given up on their various pursuits and joined in the hunt, walking up and down the beach in a line, paying careful attention to the sand beneath their feet.  By this time I’d got dressed and of course joined in with the hunt.  Feeling overwhelmed at the kindness of strangers I put my hands in my trouser pockets, a sort of gesture of contentment, when my fingers closed around the cold metallic contours of my watch.  My goodness, the shame I felt at that moment was immeasurable; it burnt hotter than the mid afternoon sun.  I would rather the sands beneath my feet open up and swallow me whole than have to face that crowd of well-meaning holiday-makers and fess up!  And so for another hour I allowed the search party to continue looking for a watch that didn’t need to be found.  Eventually I thanked everyone, but said it was pointless going on with the search, I feared that the watch was lost forever.  There followed a collection, and an amount of money was raised to go towards a new watch.  I had no choice but to except the money, I was in too deep by then.  I could hardly tell them the truth, not at that point.  What I should have done was to drop the watch in the sand during the search and let someone else find it.  But, truth is I’d lost it once and didn’t want to lose it again.  So, you see, you can never tell that story because you may be telling one of the searchers, and by now they have grown fat off of their own version of events.  They would be very vexed if they ever found out the truth.  

On arriving at the Stevens’ farm, Mr. Stevens and his wife came out to meet us. 

‘Charlie how are you today?’ inquired Stevens in a jovial tone.

‘Very well Mr. Stevens.  Hello Mrs. Stevens how’s the hip?’ 

‘Oh fair to middling,’ said Mrs. Stevens and they all laughed together.

‘Oh and this must be the grandson you told us about, Paul is it?’ said Mrs. Stevens crouching to get a better look at me.

‘That’s him,’ said granddad winking at me.

‘Well if he likes he can have a piece of my homemade apple pie later?’ she said smiling.

‘Well I’m sure we’d all like a piece of pie as soon as we’ve finished.  But the boy’s got work to do first,’ said Granddad.

I didn’t take much notice of what was being said.  I had one ear on the conversation and both eyes on the end barn where Granddad had confronted that Puma.

‘It’s Hercules again Charlie,’ I heard Mr. Stevens say.

‘He’s back is he?’ Said Granddad gravely.

‘Afraid so Charlie, he’s in the hayloft, bigger than ever.’

‘Well this time I’ll get ‘im, I’ve got the boy for bait.’

‘The boy Charlie?’ cried Mrs. Stevens looking very concerned.

I started to pay a little more attention now.  Was Hercules the Puma? I wondered.  If so I had mixed feelings about being bait.  On the one hand I’d get to see it up close but on the other hand I didn’t want to be ‘that’ close.

‘Who’s Hercules?’ I asked as casually as I could.

‘A bloody great rat,’ said Mr. Stevens.

‘The biggest rat you are ever likely to see my boy.  As big as a cat would you say Mr. Stevens?’

‘Bigger.’

‘Oh he’s grown.  Hercules is so big and so fierce he swallows whole chickens.  Any normal amount of poison won’t kill him.  And besides, he’s not tempted by the poisoned bait, he pretty much eats whatever he likes and he likes chickens.

‘And me?’

Granddad laughed, ‘He won’t eat you but he will come out of his hiding place when he catches a whiff of you.  As soon as that happens I’ll brain him with a spade.’

‘My God Charlie; really?’ asked Mrs. Stevens wringing her hands in her apron.

‘Now, now Mrs. Stevens, no need to worry, Charlie knows what he’s doing, don’t you Charlie?  I mean you won’t let him run off this time will you Charlie?’

‘Yes it’s all under control, you both go indoors and we will be with you in no time,’ said Granddad.

‘With a dead rat I hope? said Mr. Stevens.

The plan was simple enough although I did approach it with a degree of trepidation.  Granddad chose a hefty spade from the barn and after a few practice swings thought that it would do the job nicely.  We climbed the ladder to the hayloft as quietly as we could and stood in the middle. ‘Right,’ whispered Granddad, ‘Take off your sandals and roll up your trousers.  Hercules will smell your feet and think that you are a cheese,’ he explained. This, at the age I was, seemed perfectly reasonable.  

‘I’ll hide behind this pile of hay and as soon as he’s close enough I’ll jump out and hit him with the spade.’

I did as I was told and stood on the dusty wooden floorboards with ever mounting terror.  A long period of quiet within which I thought about that apple pie, my parents, my warm comfortable bed and my brother who was probably having a much better time of it than me right now.  Then, as if in a dream the biggest rat I had ever seen, and I’d seen a few, came out of his hiding place. Hercules was a monster; his thick black fur was covered in straw and chicken feathers.  His wiry whiskers bristled.  His large snout sniffed the air as his beady eyes fixed on me, hungrily.  To me he was a savage, almost mythical beast with a black heart and sharp, poisoner’s teeth.  To him I was a bloody great chunk of farmhouse cheddar!  After a moment in which I couldn’t move but only stare, a moment in which I heard three hearts beating at once, Granddad’s from behind the hay, Hercules’ from across the loft and my own thumping out its warning.  Finally my legs found flight and I ran.  I scrabbled back down the ladder and fled towards the van.  Behind me I heard the spade come down with a mighty thwack followed by a horrendous cry.  The scream of the Devil himself pierced the air.  I ran all the way to the van and jumped into the driver’s seat and, not knowing how to drive did the one thing I knew how to do, let the handbrake off!  The van began to move slowly at first but soon picked up speed as I held onto the steering wheel trying, without success, to direct its course.  The old white van rolled down an embankment and came to an abrupt halt when it hit a dry stone wall. 

Later, once Mr. Stevens had pulled the van out of the ditch with his tractor, we all gathered around the kitchen table for a slice of that apple pie.

‘You got him Charlie.’

‘We got him, didn’t we?’ Granddad said to me.

‘I’m sorry I ran, he was pretty scary.’

‘No need to apologise, son; you did your bit, but…’ he hesitated, ‘we must not tell your Grandmother about this; she’ll have my guts for garters.’

Everyone it seems has his Achilles heel, and for Granddad it was his wife.

It has been claimed that animal trainer Mary Chipperfield released three pumas into the wild following the closure of her Plymouth zoo in 1978, and that subsequent sightings of the animals gave rise to rumours of the Beast.

Wikipedia

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Within The World, Without. Or, The Runaways.

Within The World, Without.

As children, we’d spend most of our time gazing out into imagined landscapes, but little time gazing in at the confines of the restrictive world around us, the boundaries of which were defined and limited by adult fears of unimaginable horrors lurking around every corner of suburbia.  

My brother and I would stealthily cross the border, flying high, beyond the grasp of guards who, weighed down with their fearful baggage, couldn’t hope to follow.  Imagination – unconstrained, unfettered, limitless – was our passport to freedom within our world, without.

 So enticing were these worlds to me as a child that, once there, I never wanted to leave, and, to a large extent, these worlds became more real to me than the physical world to which I was tethered.  

Whether I sat in my bedroom, a classroom or at the dining table, I gazed longingly and defiantly outward.  What I saw but couldn’t touch were stories, stories full of excitement within which I was fearless, honourable and, quite often, a dab hand at sword play.

Often, but not always, I’d bring my younger brother, Bugsy, along for company.  We would enact exploits, full of daring deeds, in the garden, before mother called us in to wash our hands or, in the playground before the clanging of the bell tore us rudely from the battle field.  On rainy days the bedroom that we shared became a theatre: our beds were jet planes or ships or cars; the wardrobe a ravine-riddled mountain covered in snow, a time machine or rocket ship about to launch or a craggy cliff face sinking into the sea.  The floor of our bedroom was a turbulent, shark infested sea; the mouth of a volcano about to explode, spewing out red-hot lava; a carnivorous squelching mass of sinking sand.

The outside came to us in the form of books.  To begin with the books were mainly biblical tales: David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Samson and Delilah.  But over time, other books began to jostle for space on the crooked shelves in our bedroom.  Dickens, who was deemed suitable and respectable by mother, arrived first in the form of ‘A Christmas Carol’.  Then, for whatever reason, came ‘The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes’.  Sherlock Holmes and his powers of deduction gave serious fuel to the fires of the imagination as did, Robin Hood, Dick Turpin and my personal favourite, Tom Sawyer.

All these stories were seeds; seeds that blossomed into new and varied strains until, eventually, they grew to become unrecognisable progeny.  The stories were inspiring, they were pathways to new possibilities, they were building blocks from which new characters were formed and new worlds were built. 

I was so involved in these fantasies, in these other worlds, that I no longer felt that I belonged anywhere else.  The real world, the world of my parents, of my school, of all the other people around me felt harsh and brutal by comparison.  In the ‘real’ world I was painfully shy, crippled by self-doubt and as a consequence terribly withdrawn.  I had, in fact, pretty much mastered the art of invisibility or so it seemed.  No one noticed me because I didn’t want to be noticed. 

In the worlds I made for myself I was brave, I was clever, I was charismatic.  I fought courageously and died countless noble deaths fighting noble causes, sacrificing my own life to save that of a dear friend or fair maiden.  

I don’t remember how or when it happened but at some point, in an effort to combine the worlds (both mine and everyone else’s), I invented a character for myself that could easily step between my two realities.  My alter ego was christened ‘David’ after my favourite uncle, whom I deemed to be both a courageous and a handsome solider.  Having an alter ego worked out really well for me, so much so that I encouraged Bugsy to invest in his own.  My brother decided on Steven, after Steve Austin I believe.

David and Steven could achieve just about anything.  If, for example, a fight broke out in the playground that seemed to be unevenly matched or if we spotted a case of unjustified bullying I, as me, could do nothing but watch on in horror.  But, if I summoned up David he could, without fear, wade in and help.  David became the embodiment of bravado.  He transcended play-acting and a new kind of confidence was born so that when faced with difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges I could, quite literally it seemed, step into another skin.  David and Steven could travel with ease over the bridge that separated our two worlds – linking fantasy to reality.  

It was, as I recall, David’s idea to run away from home. 

 

Bugsy had grown weary of family life, had felt the cruelty of ignorance more acutely than I and wanted to escape the shackles of domesticity.  He believed that he was invisible to everyone, unless, that is, he misbehaved and then he miraculously became very visible. Even his misbehaviour was, to him, misunderstood.  One person’s opinion, frankly argued, was another’s delinquency.  He had become wary of trying to express his thoughts, for, it seemed, this was not something parents encouraged in nine year olds.  What he needed was a new beginning.  It was foolhardy to wish for a new set of parents, or to be snapped up by the secret service and trained in the art of espionage.  No, something all together do-able was called for.

I handed the problem over to David and as always he had the answer…run away from home and start a new life in the forest.  Immediately I presented this idea to my brother it became the obvious thing to do!  Why hadn’t we thought of this sooner?  Neither of us felt that we belonged here, with these people, with this family.  We had tried to fit in but it had become more and more obvious to us both that we were not wanted.  We were and always would be, misunderstood.  We were in no doubt that life would go on without us, that without us the rest of the family would probably prosper.  They would be sad for a day or two, but within a very short while our names, like our faces, would be forgotten. 

As for surviving in the forest – easy!  No need for second thoughts.  The forest in question was The New Forest, a place we had on various occasions explored during family camping trips.  The forest was miles from anywhere and anyone.  We could employ our self-taught skills in deception, travel to civilisation, procure food, comics and other staples and elude recognition or capture.  In the forest we would build detection devices to warn us of approaching danger or intrusion and plant traps to catch both food and busybodies! 

Over the following weeks the gist of the plan was meticulously fleshed out.  In hindsight, I recall now that most of the effort was devoted to the actual escape and not so much to the finer points of actually surviving thereafter, but it was taken for granted by us that these solutions would present themselves as and when needed. 

David and Steven thought, with good reason, that Sunday afternoon was the best opportunity to take to one’s heels.  The reason for this was simple: Sundays had few variables.  On Sunday mornings we would be expected to dress for church, then once washed, combed and polished we would walk the short distance to the Methodist Church on Sedgwick Road.  Outside the church, where the congregation gathered prior to their weekly dose of indoctrination, we would leave David and Steven, for they were not church goers, and we’d enter through the doors without them.  While David and Steven lingered outside, keeping watch, we would attend Sunday school.  For an hour we would receive our lessons in morality, piety, humility, and in the ‘thou shall nots’ along with the ‘thou shalts’ before being released, cleansed and purified, only to be sullied all over again the following week. 

After church it was customary to spend our collection money on sweets at the newsagents nearby, but we had, rather craftily, been saving this pittance for the big escape.  And so, on the day of the running away we passed by the newsagents, tummies rumbling but with unspent coins jingling in our pockets. 

Then came Sunday lunch, whereupon all the family would gather, say grace, and eat to bursting point.  Of course, nobody but us knew it was our last supper.  Once the dishes had been cleared away, Sunday afternoon entertainment choices were limited.  As it was a Holy day we children were not allowed to play, neither indoors nor outside.  We were, however, permitted to watch Sunday afternoon matinees along with everyone else, or read in our room as long as we remained quiet, lest God strike us down with fury.  On the day of our great escape, we opted for reading quietly in our room and, with great personal sacrifice, passed up the chance of watching ‘Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines’, a choice that baffled our parents I’m sure.

Once we were secure in our bedroom, away from prying eyes, we could, as long as we remained quiet, activate ‘operation runaway’.

One masterstroke among many that day was that we had put our ‘church clothes’ on over our regular clothing.  This clever tactic was a ruse.  Once we were a safe distance from the house we would strip off our outer clothing and ditch them.  When we were found to be missing and the alarm went up, the police – because obviously there would be a search party – would be looking for two boys wearing their Sunday Best and not jeans and T-shirts! 

Before descending from our bedroom window by aid of a convenient drainpipe, we left a note, something we felt added a certain drama to the proceedings.  The note had to have emotional punch and yet be devoid of details.  We opted not to write it in lemon juice or our own blood, but to stick to conventional ink. It said…

‘We have run away. 

Because we want to be free, and because everything is always our fault.

Don’t come looking for us you will never find us. 

When we are grown-ups we will visit you…Maybe.

Signed The Boys.

PS. We have stolen Dad’s car keys just incase he tries to come after us. 

PPS. God is probably a bit annoyed with us right now so maybe you should do some prayers.’

Once the note, a subject of much contention, was finally drawn up we grabbed a few essentials. Penknives, catapult, magnifying glass and my best, as yet unbeaten conker from the autumn before.  Bugsy wanted to bring his complete spy kit, but had to agree after much wrangling that it would be too cumbersome to carry, and so, with a heavy heart, he made do with a fake moustache and his deerstalker.

Our bikes were waiting for us at the back of the house.  Over the past few days we had managed to make them escape-ready, and they were now gleaming, well pumped examples of how a boy’s bike should look. Extra reflectors had been attached to the spokes, horns and tassels to the handlebars, dynamo lights and shorter ‘racing’ mudguards over the wheels. 

Now that we were finally on our way David and Steven took control, they steered us along the back streets of our neighbourhood, past all the familiar sights, until we were out of the town and heading strait for the duel carriageway.  In this initial stage of the plan we were in a race against time. A mad scientist by the name of Dr. Mourn had set the clock ticking on a bomb ready to go off at any moment, only we could stop him and save the town from complete annihilation. Saving the town and everyone in it was a parting gift, but also a means to put distance between us and home.

After a while we felt sufficiently far enough away to slow down and take in the first stages of our victorious escape.  We looked at one another and laughed with delight.  Freedom – and on a Sunday too!

That first taste of liberty was incomparable, it was purely sublime, it tasted like nothing had done before.  For the first time we were actually living the dream and no longer play-acting; this was actually happening and we – with the help of our alter egos – had made it happen.  We had stepped out of a life that was ordered and controlled and into one where we made the rules; we were in charge of our own destinies.  What a feeling it is when you realise that the world doesn’t have to be flat and one dimensional that it can be stretched and pulled and moulded in a multitude of ways.   That the shackles are not real – they are an illusion – your spirit is made to feel as though there are shackles by constant reminders of how ‘things should be’ according to those that think they know best.  And those that think they know best, it seems to me, rarely, if ever, really do.  

We boys had always known that excitement and adventure were out there somewhere but until the moment when we tasted our liberty, we had thought it unattainable, thought that it could only be savoured in dreams. 

Until now we had relied on play-acting to evoke a sense of ‘living’, of uncertainty and of danger. Until now we had employed factitious characters such as David and Steven through whom we would live our lives, compensating for our own lack of confidence.  Confidence, I have learned, is hard earned and can only be obtained by putting oneself in the firing line.  Back then I was more than happy to hide behind my stronger more courageous alter ego.

 

The curious thing is, that when we were confronted that evening with real danger it wasn’t David that rescued us – it was I!

After cycling blindly in a random direction, and for quite a while along a duel carriageway, we found ourselves in an unknown back street of an unknown town that was definitely not a forest. Evening seemed to fall like a curtain around us, ‘Show’s over’ it said.  

For the first time that day I began to question the rationality of our plan.  The promise of darkness brought new, as yet unconsidered fears.  Uneasiness settled in my stomach in the form of a pang and the pang grew as the light faded.  The dream, that crazy notion of autonomy, slipped away.  I felt as if I’d fallen through a trap door.  Once out in the real world, it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back.  Reality with all its certitude sunk its teeth into me and held on with grim determination like a mangy, rabid dog.

‘It’s tea time at home,’ Bugsy remarked. 

We both thought about what that meant.  As it was a Sunday, there would be a lavish spread – Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, trifle, cake and junket laid out with the best china on white table linen.  All home-made of course: ‘shop bought’ food was for posh folk, or for our friend Roger whose mum worked at the Mr. Kipling factory and got freebies.  Our mum had a full-time job bringing us up, cooking cleaning, washing, scrubbing.  Well, there would be less for her to do now we weren’t there. 

Here we were, lost and homesick eating chocolate bars acquired, not too honestly, from a Co-op we had passed earlier.  It was then, while idling on a street corner, feeling downcast and hungry that the bearded man approached us.

Immediately, I didn’t like him or trust him.  His dress was disheveled: nondescript grey trousers, a long trench coat which was, I thought, unnecessary in summer and a cap pulled down over his eyes.   His eyes were dark and furtive, switching this way and that without ever resting in one place for more than a second.  He looked dishonest, deceitful and a bit like Uncle Freddy, who was, I had overheard my mother say, a ‘pervert’.  I wasn’t sure what a pervert was exactly but apparently it had something to do with answering the door to the paperboy wearing nothing but a see through mac!  

‘What you boys doing out this time of night?’ he asked, bearing down on us.

‘On our way home from a bike ride,’ I said as Bugsy watched on cautiously.

‘You steal that chocolate?’ he said with a growl.

‘No, we bought it,’ I lied.

‘Got the receipt?’ he asked.

‘Nope, she never gave us a receipt did she?’ I asked my brother.

‘I’m…erm…maybe…I don’t know.’

The man looked at us both fleetingly before saying, ‘You’d better come home with me, so we can sort this out.  Might have to call the police on you.’

Imagination can run wild when unchecked.  It can be both a force for good and for bad; you have to learn how to apply it in just the right way.  Up until that moment, I’d used my imagination like a Gatling gun, firing at will in any direction.  It both soothed me and tormented me in equal measure; it was both the cause of my delight and of my terror.  In this arena of heightened reality, a place I felt was unaccustomed to flights of fancy, I realised that I was alone without my alter ego.  David was nowhere to be seen.  Despite feeling exposed and vulnerable, I found that I was both focused and clear headed.  I also realised that with a little Imagination and a small amount of nerve I could get us out of this.

 ‘We never stole anything,’ I said defiantly.

‘You better come home with me and do everything I say or you might end up getting hurt,’ sneered the man behind his shabby beard.

I glanced at Bugsy who stood off to one side with his hands clasped before him and his eyes firmly closed: he was praying for intervention.  Sunday School had really got to him today.  Most of the time we didn’t bother with God, or he with us but occasionally, in times of mortal danger, one or both of us had been known to drop him a line.  Sometimes it actually seemed to work but other times, not so much.  But God, I knew, was not going to save us this time.  We had committed this act on a Sunday, a day of rest: a day when we were expected to be good children and avoid sin.  So far, I counted that we had broken at least four commandments.  Maybe five if we had inadvertently coveted a neighbour’s ox but I didn’t think we had.  It was up to me to get us out of this situation and, with a heavy heart, I realised, back home.

‘Look sir,’ I said, ‘we are not thieves; my father is a policeman,’ I lied twice, breaking another commandment.  I went on, ‘He’d kill us if we did anything like that.’ 

As I was saying this, I reached into my pocket and clasped my hands around a whistle, one of my essential belongings; it was in fact a seaman’s whistle but I doubted the stranger knew the difference.  I produced it.

‘My dad said, if you are ever in danger, just blow the whistle and a policeman will come.’

The stranger cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive Labrador.  I put the whistle to my lips and blew with all my might.  By the time I’d completed my first blow the man had disappeared.   Bugsy, startled by the noise, opened his eyes and on seeing that the spooky man had gone declared that God had come to our rescue…hallelujah. 

Somehow we returned home, although I don’t remember how.  It was late when we finally arrived at the front door.  We were tired, forlorn and in need of a hero’s welcome.  Mother was furious, the police had, as predicted, been out looking for us, and, as predicted, we had fooled them with our ruse.  The hunt was called off, we were hauled over hot coals and privileges I didn’t even know we had, were denied. 

Despite the bruised egos and the oodles of disappointment poured all over us, we were nevertheless, pleased to be back home…at least for a while.

Once the dust had settled we began drawing up a new plan. One in which we would become master thieves, lead a gang of bandits and never be caught.  But, as they say, that’s another story. 

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Watchfield

My brother and I were used to sharing a bedroom; there was the established territory, the personal and shared spaces and the rules of cohabitation which were drawn up and modified almost daily.  

Sharing a bed, on the other hand, presented a whole new conundrum.  For instance, who sleeps on which side?  Is no touching, farting or fighting an unspoken given?  Or do we need to write up a whole new directive?  

The bed in question was in the back room of our great aunt’s house in North Cornwall.  We liked the house: an old cottage with plenty of outside space to roam around which included grazing fields for sheep and an orchard with a brook ambling though it.

We had arrived at lunchtime and immediately descended upon the heaps of homemade food weighing down the old farmhouse table in ‘the parlour’.  Auntie, it was established early on, knew how to put on a spread!  Pasties, quiches, apple pie, something called a ‘blancmange’ and lashings of clotted cream.  Once appetites were sated we boys were encouraged to go out and explore the farm.  Little encouragement was needed and we were practically out of the door before the suggestion had time to settle in the room.

We found a big crumbling barn filled with retired farm machinery in various states of decay. Old tractor carcasses with their guts hanging out, like the remains of a kill, skulked miserably in shafts of filtered sunlight.  There was even evidence of pre-mechanisation: ploughs designed to be pulled by horses along with all the bridles and brasses (covered in dust and pigeon shit) hanging like forlorn, forgotten exhibits in a museum.  Amongst the bales of hay and pitchforks a black cat with one eye watched us with barely-suppressed disdain.  ‘This,’ the cat seemed to say, ‘is my barn’ and we were evidently not welcome there.  Despite the cat’s obvious displeasure we poked around in the barn amusing ourselves for some time until we heard the bleating of sheep.  The barn and its many treasures could wait.

The cat thought to himself that the old one-eyed stare had worked its magic and watched with smug satisfaction as we left and headed for the field behind the house.  

So, a happy hour was spent trying to herd sheep into two distinct armies.  Bugsy and I commanded one army each.  Choosing our generals carefully, we tried pitifully to wage war on one-another.  Of all the animals on earth, sheep are, it seems, the worst of warriors and we were soon forced to concede defeat in the face of such effective, passive resistance.  After berating the flock with much heartfelt criticism, levelled at both armies, we, with great reverence, banished them from either kingdom.  Cursed to roam the land without allegiance to a lord and therefore without protection they were, I’m afraid, at the mercy of bandits and cutthroats.  We left the battlefield without so much as a cursory glance in their direction. 

The rest of our afternoon was spent in the orchards, a place of tranquil serenity which lent itself to meditative thoughts about life, the universe and the existence of aliens.  Finally, we lay by the brook looking for crayfish, without finding any, until hunger overtook us.  Back at Auntie’s we had more food and chatter followed by a few rounds of hangman before being bundled off to bed.  

And there it was: the bed.  The only bed in the room.  And there we stood: pyjamas on, slippers off, regarding this new enforced concept.  

Bugsy’s main concern was his fear of needing to go to the toilet at night.  We had been provided with a chamber pot in case of emergencies but neither of us relished the idea of pissing into it.  So, it was agreed after much deliberation, that I would take the inside position next to the wall leaving my brother to the outside position which offered easier passage to the toilet down the hall. Then, to create some semblance of personal space, we put the big, long, goose feather bolster pillow straight down the middle of the bed, lest our bottoms should touch!

We awoke not to the smell of urine, but to the pungent aroma of apples, which was a relief, if something of a mystery.  Bugsy, following his nose, leaned out over the bed and put his head underneath, ‘Crates and crates of apples under here,’ he said with his head still under the bed and sounding rather nasal.  ‘They’re all covered in newspaper, and look kind of old and wrinkly like Great Granny Hilda.’

“A crate full of Granny’s eh?’ I said.

‘Yep, all just shoved under our bed for some reason, I feel sorry for ’em. We should free ’em.’

‘How?’

‘Chuck ’em at the sheep: sheep make great targets, you know?’

‘That they do,’ I agreed laconically.

‘Rubbish soldiers though,’ he added.

I wasn’t sure I was completely happy with chucking grannies at sheep and wondered if the ammunition couldn’t be something more deserving of the full penalty of complete annihilation?

‘What if they were teachers?’ I hastened.

‘Yeah ok, lets say that they are old teachers, old teachers that hated kids and probably hit them …a lot.’

After breakfast we loaded our pockets with old, villainous teachers and spent a gratifying hour throwing them at sheep, all the while being watched by the one eyed cat.  The sheep didn’t seem to mind and happily ate the teachers that lay in pieces about the field. 

During the lunchtime conversation, Auntie happened to mention to my parents that, under the boys’ bed she had stored several crates of Grannies ready for the press.  We looked at one another in horror.  Bloody hell, they were Grannies after all and, what’s more, they were destined for a fate far worse than the one we had inflicted on a select few! 

After lunch our parents had errands to run and we were given directions to the beach.  We could walk there on our own if we promised to remain vigilant on the road and not talk to strangers.  If we got into any trouble mid-point, we should call into the village post office store and ask for help.  Or, if we were on the beach, go to the cafe. 

This was an unexpected gift of freedom and we took it immediately.  It was a warm early summer’s afternoon, the sun hung high in the clear blue sky and just the slightest breeze coming in off the Atlantic.  We quickly changed into swimmers under shorts fastened with our ever-present snake belts, grabbed a diluted bottle of orange juice and hit the road.  The lanes were narrow and banked with hedges on either side.  Occasionally the hedges would break for a farm gate and we would be offered a vista of green fields stitched together with hedgerows studded with the occasional farmhouse or copse.  Whenever a view of the surrounding countryside presented itself, we’d stop for a while and gaze out at all that lovely open space.  This was not the kind of view we were used to at home and even at that young age one felt a degree of reverence for it, ‘Wow, just look at that!’ one of us would say to the other. 

And so we went, walking along, avoiding oncoming traffic brimming with holidaymakers.  Kids our age passed by, bundled into the back of cars, hot and bothered, probably wondering why these two boys were free to roam unsupervised whilst they were not.  Bugsy and I agreed that we should give off an air of belonging, ‘We are local kids,’ the air around us should say, ‘We live here permanently,’ it should suggest. 

Halfway to the beach, we found the village post office looking less like the familiar corner shop at home and more like someone’s front room.  Outside some real local kids loitered, smoking and spitting and eyeing us with obvious contempt.  We cautiously quickened our pace, trying to give the impression that we were in a hurry to get to the beach, rather than because we felt intimidated.   We thought it was essential to appear nonchalant so that anyone watching would realise we hadn’t given this bunch of country ruffians a second thought.  It worked.

Once past the shop, the road began its descent towards the sea, still hidden from view behind high hedgerows.  What was in view, and becoming more of a concern than the villainy we’d only just left behind was a church and its graveyard. 

Churches were the houses of God and God, I had been led to believe, had the ability to live in all of his houses at the same time.  What’s more, he knew everything one thought even before one thought it, and knew everything you were going to do before you even did it.  

Now, on a normal working day God would probably not bother with the thoughts and actions of a ten year-old boy.  But, should that boy walk right past His front door as bold as brass, well God might just have to interrupt his other important business and pay that boy some attention.  

And if God was distracted from his heavy workload for a second, he might decide to have a poke around and turn over a stone he’d never have normally considered turning over.  Bearing all of this in mind, we boys thought it safest to avoid scrutiny and/or discovery and so we ran as fast as we could until we reached a safe distance beyond the church… and the graveyard.   

For graveyards posed yet another problem: they were a familiar presence in our lives; there was one attached to most churches, but they remained, nevertheless, a place of spookery, of trapped and tortured souls of ghosts and ghouls.  Therefore, as usual, we held our breath while running past which we imagined would prevent the dead from detecting the living…all perfectly rational to young boys with overactive imaginations.

Bent over double, panting and gulping for breath a hundred yards from the church we glanced at one another with concern.

‘You think anything bad when we ran past the church?’ asked Bugsy.  To be totally safe, we knew it was extremely important that we not only held in our breath but our thoughts too.  One bad thought could, during that crucial time, incur God’s wrath and bestow upon us His great vengeance.  We did, of course, have a contingency plan in the making to hoodwink our Maker, should such an occurrence ever happen, but we’d rather not activate it just yet.  For the moment, there were too many wrinkles to be ironed out; in fact our plan had more wrinkles than a crate load of Grannies.  The plan hinged on being able to 1) catch God on a good day and 2) once caught, to convince him that our thoughts were not our own but that we were being controlled by aliens.  As far as plans to deceive a divine being go, it had, we thought, some merit.

‘No, you?’ I said regaining my composure.

‘Well, maybe a little one’ said Bugsy sitting at the side of the road and unscrewing our bottle of orange juice.

He took a big swig and passed the bottle to me.

‘I thought about that time we stole cigarettes from Uncle Wilf and smoked them behind his pigeon shed, and the shed caught fire and we just ran off.  He was really upset about that. We never said nothing about how it was our fault, even when we sat there with him the next day.  Mum said that losing his pigeons like that put him in an early grave.  So basically, we killed him.’

‘You thought all that?’

‘Yep. It just slipped out.’

‘Jesus Christ!’ I said standing up and scanning the view.  ‘Hey, Bugsy, I can see the sea!’ 

‘Really?’ said Bugsy, immediately forgetting our woes and jumping to his feet.

‘Lets go!’ I said, and off we went.

The road snaked down to a pebbly bay, contained by a shallow wall.  The beach was festooned with colour.  Little children pottered about in rock pools with their nets and buckets, while older kids ran in and out of the sea in a rainbow array of swimwear, clutching infinite varieties of inflatables and screaming with delight at the water’s edge.  Others clutched surfboards, dinghies or one another.  Parents, less athletic, slouched in deckchairs behind windbreaks supping tea and munching sandwiches.  Sunbathers looked like hamburgers as they flopped and turned while grilling themselves in the heat. 

Some beach-goers were getting ready to leave and we watched as they clumsily wriggled out of soggy swimwear and into dry clothes behind ill-secured towels.  Parents struggled to collapse wilful beach tents while shouting instructions to reluctant kids to gather their things.  The beach was a circus of noise and colour with its clowns and ringmasters, its bawdy giants and rowdy midgets running amok. 

Behind, and slightly further along the cove piles of boulders lay in the shingle.  After briefly considering the dangerous possibility that these could have fallen from the cliff above, we nevertheless decided that this was the place to explore.  Punctuated only by a couple of quick dips in the sea to cool off and a half hour mulling around the various rock pools, we spent the rest of the afternoon clambering among the boulders, seeking out the nooks and crannies.  The boulders captivated us so much so that we didn’t noticed the passage of time.  We hadn’t seen that the beach was emptying and that most people had packed up and gone home. So engrossed were we in our games that neither of us had looked up to see the leaden sky, heavy with thunderclouds or the sea, steadily rising as the tide came in.  

By the time we felt the first drops of rain we were, it seemed, stranded. 

We looked around us.  The sea was hungrily licking at the rocks below, eyeing us with malicious intent.   Above, the sky looked as if it was about to unleash a downpour of biblical magnitude.  The beach had disappeared under the rushing sea. Climbing down was pointless.   Climbing up would be treacherous – the sheer slate cliff face would be impossible to climb without falling.  Our only option was to go sideways creeping over the boulders for as far as they would take us and then call for help.

‘Bugsy we need to move: we can’t stay here, we have to climb around and see if we can get help,’ I said trying to sound calm.

‘Oh Jesus forgive me!’ cried Bugsy, tears brimming in his eyes.

‘What?’

‘This is my fault. I thought those things about uncle Wilf and his pigeons when we ran past the church!  He heard me! God heard me and now he’s going to kill us both.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!’

‘No, it’s not that, Bugsy.  Don’t be silly!  Children are innocent…I think.’  I said as I struggled to find appeasement – I also had my suspicions that my brother’s loose thoughts had been picked up by God’s big flappy ears. 

‘All we gotta do is promise God that we will be good from now on, that we will not steal anything ever again and that we will go to church every Sunday,’ said I, matter-of-factly.

 ‘Do you think that will work?’ asked Bugsy beginning to quiver.

‘Well, we gotta mean it!  He knows when you are lying.  Obviously.’

‘Ok, let’s do it right now!’ begged Bugsy desperately.  But, ever the pragmatist I hesitated,

‘No, no.  Not yet, in case we don’t NEED to.  If we don’t need to make promises like that we won’t.  Let’s just see how we get on … If we really, really get into trouble then that’s when we call on God…  Ok?’ 

‘OK,’ agreed Bugsy reluctantly, ‘but we better not leave it to long.’ 

The rain came down suddenly, it went from occasional drops – mere scouts – to the whole infantry in a moment. The rain was intensified by an equally sudden wind and it lashed our naked torsos like pellets from a shotgun. The boulders which had offered a good grip until now became slimy underfoot and more treacherous with every step we made. Slowly through the howling of the wind, the near blinding rain, we edged ourselves along the boulders towards the part of the cove we had arrived at. It proved to be a challenging feet made only more nerve-racking when the first thunderclap exploded overhead.

‘Now!’ screamed my brother from behind me. ‘Do it now!’

‘No!’ I yelled back.  ‘It’s just thunder.  Keep going …  And don’t make any deals with God without me…OK?’

‘Well what about Jesus?’  Bugsy was desperate.

‘No, not Jesus either!’ I shouted back over my shoulder.

Lightning flashed overhead and we both gave out a yelp of surprise and quickly crouched down for shelter behind a rock.

‘Mary? Joseph? Noah? Mosses?’ suggested Bugsy.

‘No, they don’t have the authority.  Otherwise I’d risk it,’ I earnestly replied.

‘Muhammad, Buda, Shiva?’

‘We’re not under their jurisdiction Bugsy. I mean you can try but my bet is that those lot won’t want to step into a domestic dispute.’  I stood up, leaning into the lashing rain and peered towards the footpath.

‘What can you see ahead?’ called Bugsy.

‘Lights!  Maybe car lights.  Could be a rescue team!’

‘That means we must be near the car park by the cafe,’ said Bugsy as he stood up beside me.

‘Nearly home then!’ I said optimistically as much for my sake as for Bugsy’s.

Bugsy suddenly gave out a sudden cry and slipped out of sight.  I doubled back frantically shouting out his name and glancing down at the frothing hungry sea.   Had the sea eaten my brother?  Frantically, I yelled his name to the wind and tide.

Floating up through the raging storm, he answered, seemingly from directly beneath me.

‘Bugsy! Where are you?  Bugsy!’ I shouted, scanning the boulders for a sign of him.

‘Down here, in a cave!’ he answered.

‘Where? You hurt’?

‘No, but I’m up to my waist in sea water already.’

I dropped to my knees, looking for an opening in the boulders.

‘Keep talking Bugsy, so I can find you.’

‘Can I sing?’

‘Yes.’

‘What about a prayer? I think this is a good time to make that promise.’

‘No!  Don’t do that!’  I shouted, ‘Wait until it’s really bad.’  So Bugsy began singing,

“There were fleas, fleas, fleas with hairy knees in the store, in the store…”

I followed the sound of Bugsy’s campfire song until, at last I found him.  There he was, wedged below me in a space between two boulders. 

‘Bugsy up here!’ I shouted.

‘“There were rats, rats, rats the size of cats… Yeah! I can see you too!’ he shouted, relieved.  ‘Can you reach in and grab hold of my hand?’

I tried but he was just out of my reach. 

‘Christ!’ I said in frustration.

‘You want to talk to him now?’ asked Bugsy optimistically.

‘No, not yet, save it for when things are really, really bad; when we have no other options left.  If we rush into making a whole bunch of promises prematurely we will regret it for the rest of our lives,’ I said, searching for an idea.

‘Well the rest of our lives might not be that long.’ 

‘Take off your belt and throw it up,’ I said.

‘Good idea, Tonto.’

I took off my snake belt and hooked it to Sean’s then lowered it back down the crevice.  He grabbed hold of his end and I pulled with all my might until, flopping like a landed fish, Bugsy slumped onto the rock before me.

‘OK?” I asked.

‘OK,’ he confirmed breathlessly.

We both stood up shakily, ready to face the last stretch of the treacherous climb over the boulders, edging closer to the lights and the car park. 

‘Hey there! Is that you boys?’  My father’s familiar voice reached us above the noise of the storm.

‘YES!’  we hollered in unison.

In the back of the car going back up the hill we passed the churchyard.

We looked at each other and held our breath – and our thoughts.

‘That was a close one,’ said Bugsy quietly as we drove on.

‘Yeah, too close,’ I whispered.  ‘We nearly ended up having to go to church every Sunday for the rest of our lives.’

‘Yeah. I think God was feeling lenient today,’ said Bugsy staring out at the lashing rain, ‘This is where he spends his holidays after all.’ 

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Bicycle Race

 

A bird flying overhead, should it take the time to consider the lay of the land below, would see a grid made up of streets and back alleys. Between each street and its respective alleyway are red brick houses lined up in perfect rows. The higher the bird flies the more the pattern is replicated until, that is, the houses meet the railway line in the north for which they had been built and the allotments to the south.

In the centre of that grid, in one of the back alleys, a gathering of young boys would be seen, each astride his bicycle.

The bird, had it given the scene a second thought, may have wondered what they were up to. He may have, given the time of day, been curious as to why these notoriously late risers were up so early. Had the bird been lacking in any other gainful pursuit he may have flown down to make a closer inspection. I can’t tell you whether or not there was such a bird, though we can’t rule it out, but I can tell you what he would have witnessed.

The summer of ’76 was long and hot. None of the boys, with the exception of Darren, had slept well at all. Darren, were he allowed to, would sleep all the time; he slept in class, he slept on the playing fields while the other kids ran enthusiastically after a ball.

For Darren, to even be there at that time on a holiday was a miracle. The fact that he had entered himself into the race as a competitor was nothing short of a cosmic shift in the space-time continuum. Darren was the kid the others had to wait for – to either turn up or to catch up: a lethargic, sloth-like dawdler of the first order. Despite his tardiness and his lack of enthusiasm when it came to anything physical, including actually being awake, he was, at least, knowledgeable on many matters. How and when he gained this knowledge was a topic of constant debate among the others. After all, as Clifford was wont to point out, Darren slept though most classes and when he wasn’t in class he rested. Some speculated that his knowledge was gained though osmosis and he didn’t actually need to be ‘there’ for the process to work. Others, like me, thought that Darren only played the part of harmless, sleepy, devil-may-care genius, and in fact (although I hadn’t thought it through completely), he was a spy of some sort.

My younger brother and I were training to be spies ourselves when we weren’t living the life of heroic, misunderstood, transient kung-foo experts. So we knew a thing or two about espionage, cloak and dagger politics: the dark arts. The first thing you need to know about the spy game is, quiet simply, ‘Tell no one you are a spy’. Once you can tether the burning desire to inform everyone of your new career, you must furnish yourself with the basic equipment. This includes such staples as a set of binoculars, a magnifying glass, notebook with invisible ink, a selection of disguises and a briefcase in which to keep it all safely. Most importantly, to be a spy one needed to have defence strategies in case of detection from other spies or the spied upon. Our arsenal, to date, included ball bearings, itching powder, lemon juice (it had more than one use), a catapult and our aforementioned kung-foo skills. Once fully equipped it only remained to find somebody or somebodies on which to practice our craft but despite several abortive attempts on neighbours, we had not, as yet, found a really worthy candidate.

The heat of the night and the anticipation of the following day’s big race had combined to make sleep elusive. The boys amused themselves during their sleepless hours by playing tricks, mostly on younger siblings. Mike had admitted to telling his younger sister, Julia, ghost stories in a brutal attempt to make Julia pee herself but only succeeded in sending her to sleep, and scaring the b’Jesus out of himself. We, I think, had all been in his situation but would never admit to it and his honesty only brought him unsympathetic mocking.

There had been one camping trip organised by Peter’s parents earlier that summer where we boys and some of the girls had gathered with torches in the woods at night with the sole intention of scaring each other half to death. The operation came close to achieving its objective. Once safely entombed in our sleeping bags thoughts of vampires, werewolves and murderous, soul eating zombies scattered the night air, so much so that every sniff and snivel of one frightened child gave fuel to the fears of others.

As we boys, Peter, Clifford, Darren, Mike, his younger brother Stevie, my brother Bugsy and I chewed over our morning topics the girls came out of their various hiding places and surrounded us, intrigued.

The girls were made up of sisters and neighbours, ranging in age from five to twelve.

‘What’s you doing?’ asked Lisa, Clifford’s older sister and ringleader of this motley crew.

‘Bike race,’ we said in unison with disdain and wariness in equal measure.

The bike race had been discussed and planned for weeks, the girls had been present during these discussions but only by the strength of their combined will rather than by invitation. We had wrongly assumed that they would show an interest in competing and had, rather cleverly, devised a counter plan. They would insist on taking part, we would agree and then on the day of the big event, to foil their involvement, we’d switch location. But we’d misjudged them: from the beginning they’d demonstrated a singular lack of interest in participating whilst irritatingly managing to constantly interfere in our planning. Now the day had arrived and here they were, acting as though they had no idea what was afoot!

‘You gonna use the alley?’ asked Lisa.

‘Yes, we are; it was planned weeks ago. You were there, weren’t you?’

‘No, first we heard of it,’ said Lisa belligerently looking at her crew.

This was a typical scenario, one we had all lived through many times before and yet, each time, we responded like novices.

‘You can’t play in the alley today, less you want to get run over,’ said Clifford, his hackles on the rise.

‘Yes we can! And you will have to take your silly race some place else, won’t you?’ retorted Lisa taking a step closer to her brother.

Clifford flinched. I suspected he wasn’t yet confident enough to win a fight with his older sister. Luckily, Peter took up the debate. Peter was the peacemaker in the group, the son of a Methodist preacher, and from an early age his father had groomed him in diplomacy. Peter was also the one boy from whom Lisa would take council, probably due to his good looks and killer smile.

‘Lisa, here’s our route,’ said Peter producing the map he had painstakingly drawn. ‘We intend to leave here in…’ he looked at his watch. ‘…about ten minutes time. We’ll snake in and out of these alleyways and side roads until we reach the allotments, then we turn around and make our way back here via the rec. With all best intentions even the fastest amongst us won’t be back here for, let’s say forty minutes. Once here, we refuel, drink water to rehydrate and take off again. So, basically, use the alley by all means but just make sure that when you see one of us returning you keep the younger ones out of the way. We were also thinking that, if you want, you can give the prize to the winner?’

‘What prize?’ asked Lisa melting under the influence of Peter’s dazzling smile.

‘Well that’s the problem, you see. We neglected to make one; couldn’t decide on anything.’

Lisa hesitated, ‘Well I could make you something,’ she volunteered.

‘What a great idea! Yes please,’ enthused Peter. ‘I think you would make something any of us would love to win.’
The Minister’s son had done it again. He’d only been with us for a year but had proved himself to be a great asset. He possessed wisdom beyond his years and a sly cunning that mesmerised us all: almost as if he were the Devil himself!

At that age, in those times, religion was an unquestioned truth. Nobody doubted the existence of God, the surety of Heaven, the existence of hell. All the muddled mythology, its characters, its monsters, its threats and promises swam alongside ghosts and vampires in one confusing, terrifying soup. Whether to go to church or not on a Sunday was not the question. Rather the question was, which church did you go to? Most of us, with the exception of Darren, went to the Methodist church where Peter’s father preached. Darren, apparently, was a ‘Catholic’ whatever that was; to us it made Darren ‘different’, unfathomable, an exotic amongst the mainstream faithful.

On Sundays, we Methodist kids would be gathered together in a little flock at the back of the church to listen to the obligatory twenty minute sermon; time enough to feel the full weight of boredom settle upon our young shoulders. After Peter’s father (whose title was simply ‘Mr.’ in and out of church), had droned on about the ‘good book’ and ‘’Ethiopia’ we were herded out in single file by the Sunday school teachers and led to a room put aside for our continued indoctrination.

Sunday school was marginally less boring than church. Even so, it took me years to realise that the incredible sense of elation I felt on getting out of the building was not the result of having God’s love descend upon me, so much as the utter relief of knowing that it was all over for another week.

Outside, we would make our way to the newsagent (the only shop allowed to open on a Sunday morning because of archaic Christian trading laws), and, without so much as a second thought for the poor starving kids in Ethiopia, spent our collection money on half penny sweets.

Once Peter had ironed out the Lisa shaped crease in our day, we boys went about inspecting our bikes. This was all for show of course. With the possible exception of Darren the narcoleptic spy boy, most of us had been tinkering well into the night; oiling, pumping, cleaning and tightening various nuts and bolts. Darren’s bike was a sight to behold: he out of all of us (and beyond) was the only kid to have a new bike.

The rest of us had secondhand or hand-me-down bikes that had been cannibalised, adapted and modified out of recognition. Darren’s bike was new in the sense that it had never been used, rather than recently bought: it looked like a king amongst peasants. Its gleaming paintwork, its alloy wheels sparkling in the early morning sun, the padded (no doubt comfortable) seat, gave it the air of a superior being from another planet…. or, I speculated, payment from the spy agency for some dastardly deed he’d committed.

The farce of inspection finally over, we took our places at the starting point, a line drawn in the dust, and waited for the signal to go. The plan was simple: the winner was the first one to complete three laps of the circuit.

‘Good luck!’ said Lisa, more to Peter than anyone else as she raised a red tea towel borrowed from her mother’s kitchen and dropped it with all the coquetry available to her at that time.

I gave one quick glance over my shoulder to see the girls disappearing behind a cloud of dust and emerging from within that dust cloud, like a knight on his shimmering steed, came Sir Darren the Sleepy. He had, in fact been dozing during the lengthy preamble and only woke as we took off from the starting line.

Now, should that observant bird hovering overhead get weary of children’s games and decide to fly off somewhere else, he might not miss a great deal… unless, that is, he had a wager on one of the riders to win, in which case he’d be a fool not to follow their progress. But, let’s assume that the bird took off (had he been there at all), and settled on the sill of Mr. Bodmin’s bedroom window and glared in.

 

If you can imagine the antithesis of childhood, the direct opposite of what it is to be a child with all it’s magic, it’s wonder, it’s delight in being alive, then you can picture Mr. Bodmin. Mr. Bodmin had had all his wonder and delight drained from him by life itself.

Through the bedroom window, beyond the gap in the tattered old curtain, the keen eyes of the bird would see the old man sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed as if going to church (although he never did), with his head buried in his hands.

Mr. Bodmin was a man that prized his vegetable plot over everything, including people, and especially the troublesome neighbourhood boys. Our only interaction with Mr. Bodmin up until then had been the not so rare occasions when a ball went over his garden fence. If he was in his vegetable plot, which was often the case, his head would appear over the fence, a brutal snarl spread across his face as he raised his pitch fork with the lost ball sagging limp and lifeless over one of its teeth.

‘Lost something?’ he’d sneer.

Now, on this, his last day, he had nothing left to live for. His garden had wilted and collapsed in the heat. ‘A drought’ they called it on the TV. There had been water bans followed by standpipes from which the council eked out water sparingly into our buckets. We had enough to drink and take a bath once a week but not to waste on lawns and prize marrows.

For Mr. Bodmin, the very purpose of his life had been eroded as the drought slowly took hold. From ambitious beginnings in the spring, through the promise of early summer he’d been optimistic of a bumper harvest. But by July his optimism had been drained as surely as the hosepipe until now, not a drop of hope remained. He, like his garden, had nothing left to give. From the sill the bird peers in and watches Mr. Bodmin carefully and painstakingly making a noose from the rope he’d bought to tie back his tomato plants; plants that had all preceded him to the grave.

 

Oblivious to Mr. Bodmin and his plight, the cycle race wore on. One by one, boys’ resolve faded and ambition waned. Predictably, the younger competitors dropped out first, fell off or simply found something better to do.

Mr. Bodmin made his preparations.

By the time of the final lap only Peter and I remained in the race and it was turning out to be a battle of wills.

Sheer determination drove me on now. Close to victory, I could only hope that Peter flagged. We were neck and neck, my throat was dry, sweat poured off my brow blurring my vision and my calves protested with every downward push on the pedals. Suddenly, as we grew ever closer to the finish line I felt a rush of joy surging through my youthful veins and I wanted to laugh, I wanted to cry out – to shout like a warrior going into battle. Never had I pushed so hard, never had I been so hell-bent on winning, so focused on the goal and yet so in the moment. This, I decided, was where true happiness lay – here, in the right now!

As Peter and I turned into the alleyway for the last time, heading side by side for the finishing line, Mr. Bodmin reached up for the noose. Perhaps he felt, as I did, that right now was all that mattered and right now was all he had? His moment, like mine, would bring an end to suffering, and perhaps like me, he was elated by that prospect?

I beat Peter by a nose, much to Lisa’s obvious disappointment. As Lisa graciously hung her homemade medal over my neck, Mr. Bodmin kicked away the stool.

When I look back on that day, I see it differently now. Although I had no idea at that time, the concluding moments of our race coincided with the concluding moments of Mr. Bodmin’s life. As I gave one last push down on the pedal to cross the finish line, Mr. Bodmin twitched and kicked in his death throes.

What I see now is my sweaty young self, full of life, elated with the taste of victory in my mouth and, by contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, I picture a defeated Mr. Bodmin, his life wrung out, his body limply swaying from a homemade noose, his trousers darkening as his bladder empties onto the threadbare carpet below. The release of his soul coincided with the release of my spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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